A Strange Ancient Dance with Unknown Origins – How Far Back Does the Morris Dance Really Go?
Morris dancing is a type of folk dance from England. It is unclear as to when Morris Dancing began to be performed, though there is evidence that this dance has existed for several centuries, the earliest reference being from the year 1448. It has also been claimed that the dance is so ancient that its origins have been lost in the mists of time.
The name of this traditional English dance is said to have been derived from the word ‘Moorish’ or ‘Morisco’ (a derogatory term meaning ‘little Moors’), however it is uncertain if this was the original name for the dance. Nonetheless, during the Late Middle Ages Morris dancers were occasionally referred to as ‘morisco dancers’. During the 17th century, Morris dancing did have some connection with the Moors, as dancers blackened their faces, and tied bells to their legs. The latter was believed to have had something to do with North Africa. Whilst this theory was accepted for some time, doubts have been cast as there is a lack of strong, irrefutable evidence that this dance had anything to do with the Moors or the way they danced.
Morris dancers with black-painted faces. This is traditional in Morris dances along the border of Wales. (Public Domain)
A Pagan Past?
Another popular notion attached to Morris Dancing is that it has its roots in the pagan past of England, hence the claim that its origins have been lost over time due to it being so ancient. Proponents of this view point to the fact that in various societies around the world, the celebration of a festival would typically involve one form of dance or another. Therefore, it has been argued that Morris Dancing was performed during ancient Celtic festivals and at ritual ceremonies conducted at megalithic sites such as Stonehenge. It has also been suggested that Morris Dancing was once a type of fertility dance. However, there is a lack of evidence supporting this claim for the dance’s origins as well.
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An oil painting of Morris dancers by Joseph Appleyard. Source: josephappleyard.co.uk
Dancing in the Court
Alternatively, some have suggested that Morris Dancing has its origins in 16th century European courts. During this time, there was a form of dance commonly performed in the Continental courts in which the dancers would dress in elaborate costumes with pendant sleeves and bells attached to them. In England, the earliest known records of Morris Dancing are said to be from the time of Henry VII (who reigned from 1485 to 1509), though some sources claim that the earliest reference made of this dance actually comes from 1448.
Morris dancers and a hobby horse. (Public Domain)
Details on the Dance
The tradition of Morris Dancing is still alive today, and there are several different styles of this dance. For example, one of the better-known versions of this dance is known as the Cotswold Morris, which is from the Cotswolds. Each Morris side / team consists of six dancers, musicians, and a Fool. Other forms of Morris Dancing include the Derbyshire Morris, in which up to 16 dancers are required, and the Lancashire and Cheshire Morris, which require a minimum of 9 dancers.
Apart from the number of Morris dancers involved, there are other features that distinguish one form of the dance from another. For instance, dancers of the Lancashire and Cheshire Morris have the most elaborate costumes, whilst the Derbyshire Morris is well known for its processional dances.
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Cotswold-style Morris dancing in the grounds of Wells Cathedral, Wells, England — Exeter Morris Men. (Public Domain)
Whilst Morris Dancing has survived for centuries, it has been noted that this folk dance may not be as popular as it once was, and it is threatened with extinction if it is not picked up by a new generation of dancers. One of the reasons for this dance’s decline is that men are not as keen to dress up and dance in public these days. Other sources, however, are more optimistic, and have suggested that this dance is “more popular today than ever before”, and that the number of clubs are “continually increasing”.
St George's day celebrations in Luton: Morris dancing. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Top image: Morris Dance at sunrise. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
By Wu Mingren
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