Morris Dancing – its spreading everywhere!

By: shortfinals

Oct 22 2013

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Category: British Isles, Terry Pratchett

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They do say that the Morris dance – sometimes just referred to as ‘The Morris’ – that odd, peculiarly British folkway, is too strange to be comprehended by the inhabitants of other nations. However, that is not strictly true any longer, as you may now find Morris ‘sides’ in many other countries. Although, I must admit that most of those countries tend to either be British colonies or former colonies (ahem).

There is a great debate as to the origin of the Morris dance, and it would appear that there is no earlier written reference to this rather gentle, multi-faceted, and strangely appealing terpsichorean art than the middle of the 15th century. It is thought that it might have been named for the Moors (hence the term “Moriskentänzer” that came, it seems, from Spain via the Flemish language in the 15th century). The Moors were a Muslim people from North Africa, who held territory in Portugal and Southern Spain until the 15th century; the Moorish Kingdom of Grenada, ruled by the Emir Muhammad XII, was finally conquered by the forces of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castille in 1492 – a truly momentous year for the Spanish royal couple. Cervantes’ masterpiece, ‘Don Quixote’, is full of dancing – which may bolster the case for the ‘Moorish dancing’ theory. In Chapter XIX, Cervantes writes, “He has also got up some sword-dances and some morris dances, for there are many in the village who can jingle and shake the bells to perfection”. As you would expect, the Bard’s plays mention the Morris, often; here is a sample –

Henry V, Act II, scene iv

DAUPHIN: ‘And let us do it with no show of fear;
No, with no more than if we heard that England
Were busied with a Whitsun morris-dance’

A contemporary and friend of Shakespeare, the actor William Kempe, in February and March of 1600, morris danced from London to Norwich – a distance of 116 miles over a period of nine days on the road – see the young adult novel, ‘Nine Days Wonder’, Ann Young (2002).

I, personally, think that there is a strong link between the English ‘Church ales’ and the Morris. Church ales, whose origins lie in the earliest parts of the Middle Ages, were originally designed to raise funds to keep the local church under repair. The ale was brewed on church property, sometimes, and singing, games and, yes, Morris dancing, took place. You can find figures of drunken peasants and even nuns carved as ‘grotesques’ on the exteriors of some 15th century churches (e.g. on the north wall of All Saint’s Church, Gresford, North Wales), and it was this excess of drinking – and other joys of the flesh – that caused the ecclesiastical authorities to finally stop the merriment.

‘….and after the feasters had eaten and drunk to contentment, if not to excess, they took part in sport on the turf of the churchyard, or on the sward of the village green. The athletes of the parish distinguished themselves in wrestling, boxing, quoit throwing; the children cheered the mummers and the morris dancers….’ Manchester Times, (1870)

Morris dancing may also have grown out of the mummers plays, performed from the Middle Ages onwards, by groups of local villagers at Christmastide or at other festivals, all around the English countryside. These short plays often had a doggerel style, with a simple ‘good vs evil’ plot, and dancers were an integral part of the entertainment. Indeed, a play from Revesby, Lincolnshire (see my earlier diary on the ‘Red Bull Inn’, there), dating from 1779, is simply called “Morrice Dancers”.

As you would anticipate, there are hundreds of different styles, costumes, dances and melodies to accompany this activity, many of them with their roots in a particular British region; there are the Lichfield, Nantgawr (Welsh), Northwest and Borders style of Morris. One of the most prevalent forms is the ‘Cotswold’ style, with a side of six dancers, all of whom use handkerchiefs. There are sword dances, stick dances, sides of eight, – and to the horror of the purist, women’s sides – and an almost infinite number of variations. Modern Morris is usually performed on a weekend outside a convenient local pub, or in a village hall, but sometimes at a larger event such as a festival of folk music (British folk, that is!).

One of the problems I have with many of the existing Borders style sides, on the Welsh/English Border – and the main reason why I refuse to attend their events – is that they still dance in ‘blackface’. I suppose that their claim to only be reflecting their heritage is bolstered – as they see it – by the existence of such establishments as the ‘Black Boy Inn’, in Caernarfon, North Wales.

Cecil James Sharp (1859 – 1924) an Anglo/Australian music teacher who founded the English Folk Dance Society and collected English folk songs both in Great Britain and in Southern Appalachia, could be said to have saved the Morris dance. ‘English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians’, Cecil J Sharp – Author, Maud Karpeles -Editor, (1932) is a magnificent collection of over 270 rare English songs which had survived only amongst the peoples who had settled in the mountain areas of Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina. He also wrote ‘The Morris Book’ (1907) which laid out traditional dance steps and some of the history attached to them. However, the definitive study on Morris history could well be ‘The History of Morris Dancing 1458-1750’ by John Forest (2001), a truly monumental work. Many of the surviving dances have rural/agricultural names – ‘Bean-Setting’, ‘Laudnum Bunches’, and ‘Shepherd’s Hey’, with the tunes played on an accordion, sometimes accompanied by a drummer, fiddler or a tin-whistle player. A brightly dressed ‘fool’, or in rare cases a ‘hobby horse’, in an elaborate costume, interacts with the audience and with members of the side, too.

All this might be just nothing more than an arcane, minor footnote in social history, a topic for anthropology professors to use as a way of motivating some of their students (rural pubs, dancing, beer – what’s not to love?). Except, that is, for another British author, one so popular that he has sold more than 85 million books, worldwide, translated into 37 languages, and has received a knighthood. Yes, we’re talking about Sir Terry Pratchett, that giant of the fantasy novel. I must freely confess that I enjoy Terry’s works immensely (and no, its not just because I used to live less than 15 miles away from him, and worked in the same building for a while). There is just not another modern author who could more genuinely be identified as being ‘seriously involved with the Morris’.

Here, for example, are the very first words of his book, ‘Reaper Man’, Terry Pratchett (1991)

The Morris dance is common to all inhabited worlds in the multiverse. It is danced under blue skies to celebrate the quickening of the soil and under bare stars because it’s springtime and with any luck the carbon dioxide will unfreeze again. The imperative is felt by deep-sea beings who have never seen the sun and urban humans whose only connection with the cycles of nature is that their Volvo once ran over a sheep.

It is danced innocently by raggedy-bearded young mathematicians to an inexpert accordion rendering of “Mrs Widgery’s Lodger” and ruthlessly by such as the Ninja Morris Men of New Ankh, who can do strange and terrible things with a simple handkerchief and a bell. And it is never danced properly. Except on the Discworld, which is flat and supported on the backs of four elephants which travel through space on the shell of Great A’Tuin, the world turtle.

And even there, only in one place have they got it right. It’s a small village high in the Ramtop Mountains, where the big and simple secret is handed down across the generations. There, the men dance on the first day of spring, backwards and forwards, bells tied under their knees, white shirts flapping. People come and watch. There’s an ox roast afterwards, and it’s generally considered a nice day out for all the family. But that isn’t the secret. The secret is the other dance. And that won’t happen for a while yet.

There is, of course, the infamous ‘Stick and Bucket Dance’. This dance is no longer performed by the Lancre Morris Men, as old Mr Thrupp still walks with a limp. Dancing the ‘Stick and Bucket Dance’ is illegal with women present as, “it falls under the heading of sexual morrisment”. The Lancre Morris Men DO manage to come to the rescue, however, when their world is invaded by malignant Elves in ‘Lords & Ladies’ (1991), by performing the dreaded ‘Stick and Bucket’!

Morris dancing crops up in many of the ‘Discworld’ cycle, as typified by this exchange between the Captain of the Night Watch, Samuel Vimes and Sergeant Colon, from ‘Guards, Guards’ (1989):-

“As for the folk-dance people-well, no problem there. You know you always wondered what Corporal Nobbs does on his evenings off?”
Colon’s face split into a watermelon grin.
“No!” said Vimes incredulously. “Not Nobby?”
“Yep!” said Colon, delighted at the result.
“What, jumping about with bells on and waving his hanky in the air?”
“He says it is important to preserve old folkways,” said Colon.
“Nobby? Mr Steel-toecaps-in-the-groin, I-was-just-checking-the-doorhandle-and-it-opened-all-by-itself ?”
“Yeah! Funny old world, ain’t it? He was very bashful about it.”
“Good grief,” said Vimes

Pratchett even invented the ‘Dark Morris’ which is featured in his novel ‘Wintersmith’ (2006); a dance performed in total darkness, in complete silence, with the ‘side’ dressed in black, to bring the winter on.

Yes, Terry Pratchett is to Morris dancing what Dashiell Hammett is to the snap-brim fedora. What of the Cotswold-style side shown above, having a simply splendid time? Well, they are not capering around somewhere in the English sunshine – they are performing a ‘set’ in the grounds of the historic Federal Period house, Gore Place, in Waltham, Massachusetts. Morris – the universal language of folk dance, and with an honourable place in literature, too!

Sad Post Scriptum

It was a sad, sad day, recently, when Sir Terry Pratchett finally succumbed to a rare variant of early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. At 66, there were perhaps another 15/20 Discworld novels to come. I never met him (although we DID work in the same building for a short while), but the world is enormously poorer for his passing.

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