THE ORIGINS OF MORRIS DANCING
A short word on the origins of Morris Dancing by David Dunham
There are, of course, a number of different forms of Morris Dancing across the country, most of which adhere closely to a collected tradition of dance recorded in the early part of the 20th Century. Then there are many others that have used this recorded definition of Morris Dance as a starting point for creating something new, whilst staying within a recognisably traditional template (dance figures, set numbers, industrial clothing, etc.). Then you have Morris Dance such as 'Fluffy Morris' which has evolved constantly and without fear of change, adapting to changes in popular music and attire. But is it also possible that there are far more forms of dance around today that would have been recognised as the Morris if looked upon by our dancing forebears?
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There are, of course, a number of different forms of Morris Dancing across the country, most of which adhere closely to a collected tradition of dance recorded in the early part of the 20th Century. Then there are many others that have used this recorded definition of Morris Dance as a starting point for creating something new, whilst staying within a recognisably traditional template (dance figures, set numbers, industrial clothing, etc.). Then you have Morris Dance such as 'Fluffy Morris' which has evolved constantly and without fear of change, adapting to changes in popular music and attire. But is it also possible that there are far more forms of dance around today that would have been recognised as the Morris if looked upon by our dancing forebears?
William Kemp from a wood cuttingAccording to most literature, Morris dancing harks back to the 15C, with a smattering of references to Morris Dancers (though under a number of different spellings) and actual performances starting to enter public record. Though academia may demand greater evidence to provide absolute proof, it would seem to be at least a little naive to think that the Morris hadn't gone through much development, and many a change of label, before it got to the point where someone first wrote down a word to describe it. Many suggest that the major influence was from the Moors of Northern Africa, who colonised Spain and parts of Southern Europe, and perhaps it was a major influence, but to suggest that there was no form of celebratory performance dance among the rural communities of England until word arrived from Africa seems a little lacking in generosity.
So, speculating that the origins go back further than the 15th Century on our own soil seems to be a fair occupation, and poses no threat to the possibility of many alien influences that could have affected the style of a living tradition. So, could it be that Morris Dancing is a natural progression of celebrating around a fire after a stag has been killed to feed the tribe for a week or two? Over years, perhaps, as tribes become organised into workforces and communities, were these spontaneous celebrations formalised into a custom or tradition which grew and changed with every year and cultural intrusion.
The fact that traditional dance developed across the world in practically every culture would strongly suggest this to be close to the case. Though, when trying to find a root to Morris Dancing, we can often seem to demand too strict a pathway to the past. We seem to have a need for there to be an absolute single source, but the fact that there are many different forms of Morris existing still today suggests that a search driven by such a requirement is like to be futile. Celebratory dance is so deeply a part of us, all over the world, and the Morris Dancing we perform today represents a historical snap shot of something that is still alive and evolving today, constantly growing into something new. In understanding the history of Morris Dancing, it seems entirely feasible to surmise that much of the real spirit of Morris Dancing in English history can now be found in the night clubs festivals and street dance of today. As much Diversity as Woodside, if not more so. I can't help thinking that in the future, all these forms of dance will be seen in a very similar way to how we now see Morris and Folk dancing in the 19th Century. There will probably be a number of quaint little groups trying to keep those old traditions alive as well I imagine.
As for the name, and please don't ask which one of us is Morris, there are a couple of ideas on that too: first of all, that it is a direct descendent from the term Moorish, meaning of the Moors (Moorish Dancers. See what they've done there?); and then there is the idea that it is a variation of the word mores (pronounced morays), which is an English word meaning 'the customs and manners of a local group'. Personally, I believe the latter, which also seems to fit in with the idea of an evolving tradition that is part of a developing community. In history, as well as today, it is part of the mores of almost every community to celebrate just about anything with dance.
Not that the topic of Morris origins is a moot point, but I should make it clear that my personal opinions do not reflect that of Woodside Morris Men as a whole, or hardly even in part! Just about everyone has their own idea...
David Dunham
NOTE: Although many of my these thoughts have been arrived at through a number of written sources, discussion and speculation, I would like to recommend Keith Chandler's books, Ribbons Bells and Squeaking Fiddles (Hisarlik Press, 1993), and Morris Dancing in the English South Midlands, 1660-1900 (Hisarlik Press, 1993), which I have found excellent references.
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WOODSIDE MORRIS MEN
Squire: Dave Pearse
Foreman: Dave Lang
Bagman: Nick Wilson
Lead Musician: Pete Flanagan
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During Winter, we meet at 8.00pm on Wednesday nights in the Pump House's Colne River Rooms, Watford. You would be most welcome to come along.
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