Initial analysis of my idea of developing a range of cards specifically for morris dancers, suggested that there was a lot of scope in this area. I also know some morris dancers, which meant I had a good opportunity to ask them directly about their morris dancing experiences and would be able to test out my card designs on them.
I personally have very little knowledge or experience of morris dancing or the morris dancing community, so I also thought this area would be an interesting challenge to see if I could find out enough to develop greetings cards that would be relevant and meaningful to this group.
Summary of Research
What is Morris Dancing
Morris dancing is a traditional form of English folk dancing. The origins of morris dancing are unknown but one of the first references dates from 1458. Originally it was used as a form of entertainment in court masques and from there it is believed to have spread to popular entertainment performed at village celebrations and seasonal festivities.
A morris dance is performed by a ‘side’, a group of usually six but sometimes eight dancers (traditionally male) who dance in formation, executing a series of choreographed steps. Dances can also include ‘jigs’ performed by one or two people.
Music is provided by musicians playing the ‘pipe and tabor’ (whistle and drum), fiddle, melodian, concertina and / or drums.
Each side has its own set of dances that they perform. Some more traditional dances, such as ‘Constant Billy’, are performed by many sides although tunes and steps may vary between sides.
There are four genuinely old morris sides in existence – Bampton, Headington Quarry, Abingdon and Chipping Campden with many more newer sides around England and Wales.
A morris side will typically have a series of six or eight dancers. Historically dancers were male and some sides still hold with that tradition although many more now welcome women as well. A side will also have a squire who leads the side and often leads or calls the dances, a foreman who teaches and trains the dancers, and is responsible for the style and standard of the side’s dancing. A bagman who looks after the side’s funds and equipment and often acts as secretary, and occasionally a ragman who manages and co-ordinates the side’s kit or costume.
Sides also traditionally have a fool – a dancer who is more extravagantly dressed than the other dancers and who fools around during the dance and interacts with the audience. They may also have a beast – someone dressed as a mythical animal, known as a Hobby (e.g. a hobby horse)
Typical Morris Dancing Kit
Different sides wear different costumes with typical items of dress being shirts and trousers, bell straps (ribbons with bells on that are tied around the shins), braces or baldricks (a form of sash), neckerchiefs, waistcoats, tatter jackets (jackets covered in coloured strips of fabric).
Most sides wear hats, often extravagantly decorated with flowers, ribbons and or rosettes.
Costume will typically feature the side’s own colours.
Some Northern sides also wear clogs.
Sides also perform dances with handkerchiefs, sticks or swords.
Styles of Morris Dancing
As defined by Wikipedia:
- Cotswold Morris: dances from an area mostly in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, typically danced with handkerchiefs or sticks
- North West Morris: more military in style and often processional, that developed out of the mills in the North-West of England in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
- Border Morris from the English-Welsh border: a simpler, looser, more vigorous style, traditionally danced with blackened faces.
- Longsword dancing from Yorkshire and south Durham, danced with long, rigid metal or wooden swords for, usually, 6 or 8 dancers.
- Rapper from Northumberland and Co. Durham, danced with short flexible sprung steel swords, usually for five dancers.
- Molly Dancing from Cambridgeshire. Traditionally danced on Plough Monday, they were Feast dances that were danced to collect money during harsh winters. One of the dancers would be dressed as a woman, hence the name.
- Ploughstots from the East and North ridings of Yorkshire, also danced on Plough Monday. The dancers often held “flags”, used similarly to handkerchiefs in Cotswold and Border dances to emphasise hand movements, or rattling bones, rather than wearing bells but for the same purpose.
Typical Morris Tunes and Dances
Well known morris tunes and dances that most morris dancers will be familiar with, include:
- Shave the Donkey
- Shepherd’s Hey
- The Nutting Girl
- Speed the Plough
- Brighton Camp
- Constant Billy
- The Old Woman Tossed Up
- Lumps of Plum Pudding
- Princess Royal
- Balance the Straw
- The Morris On (short dance performed to enter the ‘stage’)
- The Morris Off (short dance performed to leave the ‘stage’)
- Hunt the Squirrel
Morris Dancing Steps
Typical morris dancing steps include:
- Back swagger
- Upright caper
- Half caper
- Squashbeetle caper
- Skirmish (dance with sticks)
Traditional vs Evolving Morris
Some morris sides are passionate about upholding tradition and will keep with traditional tunes and dances. Some sides also prefer to maintain the tradition of being exclusively male. The Morris Ring – a well known association of Morris Dancing, uphold the tradition of Morris dancing being only for men.
Many other sides follow tradition more ‘loosely’ and will adapt tunes and dances. Many sides now also include women.
Morris dancing has a general reputation for being quite old-fashioned and a bit ridiculous. Morris dancers tend to be older people and there is a chronic shortage of new and younger recruits. Morris sides find it very difficult to attract new recruits.
Newer variants of morris dancing are emerging which aim to make morris dancing more modern and relevant to today’s audiences. Morris sides such as Wolfshead and Vixen Morris and Hunters Moon Morris are associated with Neopaganism and are much more ‘gothic’ in style.
‘Dark Morris’ is a fictional form of morris dancing that appears in books by Terry Pratchett and which is being copied in reality by some sides such as Witchmen Morris who say they have taken the traditional style of morris dancing and “have mutated that style to create dances which are exciting, entertaining and relevant to 21st century audiences”. They describe their style as “pagan ritual dance meets street entertainment”.
There now also exist exclusively female morris sides who dance with poms poms, a style known as ‘fluffy morris’.
Profile of a Morris Dancer
Not all morris dancers are the same! Some are more traditional than others, with some passionate about maintaining traditions where others are open to, or actively pushing, modernisation.
Newer sides such as those associated with neopaganism and dark morris, are quite gothic in style, often also associated with the tattoo sub-culture.
The more traditional morris sides are made up of older men and women (generally aged 40 and older) who are typically also into the folk scene. They like folk music and folk festivals. They take an interest in local traditions and customs and are interested in local crafts and supporting local businesses. The morris dancers I have met are intellectual, altruistic, generous, kind and quite community-spirited. They are also often quite spiritual people. They are not materialistic, nor ostentatious. Morris dancing and beer also seem to go hand-in-hand, with many morris dancers also being passionate about craft beers and supporting local breweries.
My greetings cards will be targeted at this more traditional group of morris dancers.
Events or Sentiments that Morris Dancers May Send Cards For
I asked the morris dancers that I had access to, if there were specific events that they might consider sending each other cards for. Their suggestions were:
Thank you for the Ale
An ‘Ale’ is a private gathering organised by a morris side to which other sides are invited to dance, eat drink and socialise. It was suggested that it would be nice to send a thank you card after the event to the hosting side.
Welcome to the side
Morris sides often struggle to recruit new members and are always grateful to receive, and very welcoming to, any new members. It was suggested that a card could be given to welcome the new side member.
Get well soon
Morris dancing can be quite vigourous and as members are often a little older, injuries are common. A ‘Morris’ get well soon card was suggested that would let people know they were missed from the side.
Mallinson, Dave (1988) Mally’s Cotswold Morris Book Volume 1. West Yorkshire: Dave Mallinson Music.
Mallinson, Dave (1988) Mally’s Cotswold Morris Book Volume 2. West Yorkshire: Dave Mallinson Music.
Bacon, Lionel (1974) A Handbook of Morris Dances (second edition). Lionel Bacon.
Shuel, Brian (1985) The National Trust Guide to Traditional Customs of Britian. Exeter: Webb & Bower.