England: A guide to Morris Dancing

By the title above I mean a guide to watching Morris Dancing rather than actually dancing! Have you heard of this strange English practice?

The first time I saw Morris Dancing my first thought was that if I had stayed safely in London I would have been safe from such as this! But London isn’t England and just as I love walking in the English countryside, I have come to appreciate the absolute charm of this traditional English folk dance.

When I arrived at the country pub all looked normal except for one patron with his trousers tucked into his socks. Then they began to arrive, dragging trolleys loaded with kit, flowered hats held high. There was time for a lubricating pint of bitter as the crowd of spectators began to build.

There was a very large man dressed in hot pink tights and a long skirt with plastic boobs stuffed down his blouse. He also had brown braids. It was quite a sight when he kissed his girlfriend.

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Morris Dancing involves handkerchief twirling, stick hitting and throwing by a series of often aged or corpulent dancers. The dancers usually have bells strapped to their shins. I have seen accordion, concertina and fiddle musical accompaniment, as well as a drum.

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The earliest written record of Morris dancing is in the 15th century and the name may have arisen from the exotic or ‘Moorish’ spectacle. It was very popular in English villages in the 17th century until the Puritans took charge.

A revival in the 20th century by folklorists has seen Morris Dancing reinforce its position. You will often hear Morris Dancing ridiculed by English people, but I think it has value in that it makes an art form of deliberate eccentricity.

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One dance was called The Old Man Wilmington, which is a reference to the chalk drawing at Cern Abbas in Dorset, and the music master noted first, that it was possibly in the key of E Minor, and second that it is a dangerous dance with dangerousness in it. After watching all the stick thumping and throwing I had to agree.

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The dancers’ hats are often decorated to high heaven with fake flowers and their waistcoats are thick with badges. There is often a sinister-eyed hobby horse getting into people’s drinks and nuzzling necks before chasing joggers down the canal path, which I think comes under the medieval category of “mumming”.

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All I can say is that it’s as English as cricket on the green, country pub gardens with warm beer, and ploughman’s lunches. So “All hail to the Lords of Misrule !”

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By Natasha von Geldern

Have you witnessed Morris Dancing in England? What did you think?

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