OK, What’s Morris Dancing?
Morris dancing is a vigorous ritual dance performed on May Day and throughout the spring and summer. It is a very old tradition we have inherited from the villages of the Cotswold hill country of western England. Something like it may date from the pre-Christian customs of farmers and peasants, but the first written mention of ‘morris’ dancing is in the poetry of Chaucer. By Shakespeare’s time the Morris dances were already considered an old English custom. Morris is clearly English, but resembles folk dance styles of France and Spain.
Some scholars believe the name “Morris” suggests a beginning with the Moors of Spain who came to England with the travelling fairs of medieval Europe. In the same vein, others attribute the name to the custom of “blacking up”: some of the dancers smudged their faces with soot as a disguise, making them look like the exotic Moors to audiences of the time. Yet another explanation is that the Latin word for “custom,” “mores,” (pronounced more-ace) made its way into English (spelled “morris”) to identify certain village customs.
Traditionally, villages had a ‘side’ of dancers who, year after year in the spring, performed the rituals to ensure the well-being of the people. The dances were thought to bring good luck and crop fertility as they celebrated the renewal of life which comes each year with the arrival of spring and summer. Today the Morris is danced for the same reasons, by men and women concerned with maintaining these ancient rituals and marking the change of season with festivity and fun.
Today there are more than 400 teams in England, and since the early 1970’s over 90 Morris sides have been formed on this side of the Atlantic, both in the US and Canada. In the old days each village developed its particular style, called a village ‘tradition.’ Today’s teams study and perform dances from one or more traditions.