If your image of morris dancers is of overweight, bearded, beer-swilling men lumbering around the pub car park, it’s time to have your realities adjusted. Elizabeth Kinder finds that in the 21st Century, the women are making the running. Oh, and it’s not a fertility rite either…

The Morris. What do these two words together immediately bring to mind? A thoroughly scientific straw poll amongst random friends and teenagers – strangers to folk one and all, unless you count Bob Dylan – revealed (adults): “It’s all a bit Green Man pagan isn’t it?” “It’s rural. Dying out.” “Really an odd thing for English people to do, given that we’re supposed to be reserved.” “It shows our English eccentricity.” “It’s like the Masons. Hasn’t it died out?” “Beer drinking teams for blokes unfit for rugby”. (Teenagers): “Lame.” “Weird dance shit for the socially awkward.” “It’s not a real English tradition. There aren’t any! We’re a mash-up of different cultures.” “It’s irrelevant.” (My friend Wend): “It brings to mind men with beards and bellies and bells and sticks and hankies, pubs on village greens, fêtes and costumes in white with sashes of primary colours. And sunshine. The sun always shines on Morris men… It is always men isn’t it?”

So Morris dancing is not cool, it’s men only and not relevant to anything. No surprise then that it’s dying out. Except that it isn’t. And it’s young women who are firmly at the forefront of those breathing brilliant new life into this age-old tradition.

Boss Morris with Alex Merry front right. Photo by Judith Burrows

At the time of writing, the results from the 2017 Morris Census aren’t available but last year’s showed that 57  percent of the 2,000 people new to Morris dancing since 2014 are women and that 61 percent of new Morris groups formed in the last fifteen years have a majority of women among their members. Melanie Barber, President of the Morris Federation, told Cornwall Live in May 2016 that “We’ve certainly seen more sides start up over the last fifteen years or so than fold, and The Morris Federation membership has risen from 377 sides in 2000 to 445 sides in 2015.”

That the fortunes of Morris are looking up after years in the doldrums is music to the ears of ‘Shirl, the-Pearl-of-English-folk’, as I affectionately think of her, or Shirley Collins MBE, Honorary Doctor of Music as she’s more formally known. For Ms Collins loves Morris dancing. Particularly when performed by Brighton Morris, for reasons that will become clear. “But,” she says, “the first women’s team I fell in love with was The Belles Of London City.” When I tell her that for this piece I’m talking to Belles co-founder Alex Merry (who went on to create Boss Morris and performed with Collins on her recent Lodestar tour) and Laurel Swift (once of Morris Offspring), she says that “They are both such beautiful dancers. They both really love Morris, understand it – and are in it for the right reasons.”

“Well, find out what those reasons are,” our Editor instructed me. “Why would two intelligent, talented and attractive young women get involved with something that’s often associated with blokey beer-swilling and casual, rugby-club misogyny – with bells on?”

So now Swift and Merry are in my kitchen, I ask them.

Merry: “It’s exhilarating!”

Swift: “That feeling of flying when you jump your highest,”

Merry: “Yeah! You feel like Superman!”

Swift: “You don’t think about how you do it, you just jump!”

Merry: “That feeling is the root of my addiction to Morris dancing. I really look forward to the nights I practise – it’s like a workout. You get a fix of exhilaration!”

Swift: “But because it’s a team sport, you do it together, there’s always someone you’re trying to keep up with, to jump as high as, but then there’s always someone you’re trying to help, to egg on, saying ‘come on, you can do it’!”

Merry: “It’s a team sport but not one where anyone loses. It works best with everyone all working together. You make amazing shapes and patterns and once you master them it just feels so good.”

They say it’s a heady combination – like being in a sports team, a band and a dance all at the same time. The formations the dancers make, “in a pair, or finding your corner, or suddenly you’re in a line of six – or with three people you weren’t aware of a moment ago. And this can all happen within eight bars! The dancers create patterns like continually flowing swirling currents. Yet like a tide, there’s a surge of movement and then you hold it. If you’re jumping you’re pushing hard and you have to steady yourself. It’s give and take. Surge and rest.”

They communicate the sheer joy of dancing the Morris – simply radiating a visceral excitement that seems indistinguishable from a force of nature, so I feel that if I too could do Morris dancing, I’d feel vital and alive.

This ability to transmit the joy, energy and exhilaration of Morris dancing, even whilst sitting still, must play no small part in their inspiring a new generation of dancers to get involved. Merry, with Boss Morris which she formally set up in Stroud in September 2015, is finding women with no previous connection to folk or taught dancing are enthusiastically taking up sticks, bells and hankies and learning the steps with alacrity. Whereas Swift, on setting up the mixed Morris Offspring team in 2003, gave a new young generation the chance to dance in a mixed side made entirely of others their own age for the first time. “All of us were in teams but we were all the youngest dancers in them so it was really exciting to dance with each other.”

Pecsaetan Morris. Photo by Judith Burrows

Morris Offspring were originally put together to perform in a special Morris event conceived by Swift and her mum Sue to celebrate Sidmouth Folk Festival’s 50th. Their first gig “when it was just us, no-one else” was at the Purcell Room at the Southbank. It sold out.

What were they doing at the Purcell Room? Isn’t Morris supposed to be danced in the local pub car park, or more annoyingly if you’re trying to get to the bar, in the pub itself? Swift and Merry are very good guests. They don’t pull me up on lazy assumptions but smile thank you for their tea and explain that dancing in pubs is likely to be rapper (sword dancing), which doesn’t need that much space, and that discernible facts emerging silhouetted from the mists of time suggest Morris dancing began as a performance for entertainment at court.

Mike Salter, whose book All About The Morris was published in 2014 (Folly Publications), says that one of those gradually solidifying facts is that a Spanish dance that celebrated Spain’s victory over the Moors was introduced to the English Court via John of Gaunt’s marriage to the Spanish princess Constance of Castile. Furthermore, he says that due to the demands of a sophisticated audience the dances constantly evolved, as performers couldn’t turn in the same old routine the next time an entertainment was called for and expect to get another booking.

Merry says that Steve Rowley (who writes about folk beasts from page 36 this very issue) has been teaching some of those mediæval dances to Boss Morris. “Steve’s from Stroud and he’s researching 15th Century Morris. It’s really fascinating. Morris was the highest form of entertainment in palaces, not just in England but across Europe. There are accounts of Morris dancers being paid handsomely (which is not the case now!) They’d wear the ‘finest silks covered in golden spangles’. So in keeping with tradition, we want to bling it up a bit!”

Salter points out that whilst those in the palaces expected a standard of excellence that involved something new, the hoi-polloi were not so picky. They might emulate the rumours of fabulous court finery by painting their clothes, but when it came to dance they preferred the familiar. For example, performers would dance athletically around a young woman – a Maid Marian figure – who at the end would satisfy expectation by always bestowing her favour on ‘The Fool.’

Probably originating from church processionals that ended up as celebrations in churchyards – before the Reformation put a stop to all that guilt-free papist revelry on God’s own property – dances continued to mark feast days and holy days, but somewhere not sanctified, like the village green. Whether danced by the people for the people or by professionals in the gilded European palaces, the folk dances that became collectively ‘The Morris’ shared that performance element. Unlike traditional country dances that anyone could (and still can) skip on up to and join in, Morris dances are and always have been purely spectacles for entertainment.

Elizabeth & Annie Stears & friend, Bonchurch I.O.W. circa 1898. Photo courtesy Ian Anderson

They are deeply rooted in time and place. Dances of four broad types, Cotswold, Border, North West and Molly (thought to originate from the area where Cambridgeshire meets Norfolk) were (and are) specific to particular villages. It’s not the remit of this piece explore the traditions, save to say that dances – though they may have the same name – may be differentiated by say particular arm or leg movements or different inflections in the structure or musical accompaniment. Nicki Pickering (Chair of Open Morris) tells me her side will “always call a dance noting the village that it’s from”.

The Cotswold Morris – with its high hops, emphasis on grace “with it’s upward energy”, as Swift says, and generally featuring one or two musicians focused on supporting the dancers – is the stuff of public imagination: those white-costumed and garlanded dancers who generally perform from Whitsun to summer.

Whereas winter is the time for black-face dances. It’s argued that this is a nod to Moorish roots of the Morris. It’s also a fact that agricultural workers unemployed in the winter used to cover their faces with soot and grime in cheap disguise. For, forbidden to beg, they basically went out Morris busking, dancing the minimum they could get away with to earn a few bob in the lean months. For this, Salter tells me, like the Border Morris, the dances are lower to the ground and there are generally more musicians ramping up the beat.

Though they may have been described in historical accounts, the dances were not notated. And so even in places where repetition was prized, they would evolve and change like Chinese whispers passed through the ages. So when Cecil Sharp and Mary Neal started to comprehensively record Morris dances and tunes in the early 20th Century, they were creating a snapshot of a moment in time. One that, as Swift says, “is so detailed that in Morris Offspring all I did was pick up on things that are already there in the tradition and make a bit more of them. Or pushed them a bit further or turned them a different way… I never made anything up!” Her outstanding choreography for Morris Offspring is well documented (see particularly fR341/342). And so too is her use of masks in dances to tell stories like fairytales that extend the tradition in time-honoured fashion.

Fabulous masks, heads of beasts that inspire a fantastical experience of Morris dance also spring from the wonderful imagination of Alex Merry – just take a look at this issue’s cover photo. Boss Morris are, says Merry, “a talented bunch of strong artistic women who are involved through their work with sewing, painting, illustration, patchwork, stained glass, picture framing and sculpting etc.” And they too are working within the tradition even in their very act of re-imagination.

Re-invigorating Morris dancing in this century, Swift and Merry and many other women are following in the footsteps of female pioneers in the last, beginning with Mary Neal, who famously saved it from a slow death in the early years of the 20th. Herself captivated by folk dance, Neal ensured that the members of her Esperance club for working class girls were taught Morris to a high standard by men from Cotswold Morris sides, before the outbreak of World War 1 (see fR357).

The war destroyed entire village Morris sides. The Adderbury Morris side all signed up and all but one were killed in the Battle of the Somme, as Tim Plester’s moving film The Way Of The Morris relates. The Somme also did for some of Cecil Sharp’s Morris dancing display team (see fR372). It was Neal’s team of female Morris dancers who carried the tradition. The Esperance girls taught dances to men returning (or left behind) from the war. Neal, proactive and empathetic, saw the value in encouraging the men to band together and connect with a comforting sense of age-old tradition. As well as publishing The Esperance Morris Book, she communicated not just that sense of interconnection but, her great niece Lucy Neal says, the joy in Morris dancing.

Cecil Sharp, claiming tradition lay in the way that he had transcribed it rather than the “hoydenish” exuberance of Neal’s Esperance side, fell out with Neal whose suffragette activities he disliked. Instead he fell in with the more biddable Maud Karpeles, who was also a keen Morris dancer, and Rolf Gardiner. Gardiner, a particular admirer of Hitler Youth programmes and with a yen to establish an agrarian paradise, persuaded Neal that she had interfered with “a cosmic law” of masculine ritual. If not the source of the idea, Gardiner certainly cemented the belief that Morris dancing was an expression of male fertility rites/pagan ritual (possibly inspired by James Frazer’s work The Golden Bough and Victorian folk tales). Mike Salter tells me there is no historical evidence that it’s connected with either.

It seems the nearest Morris comes to any fertility rite is when certain of its male exponents are attempting to pull whilst, if not completely pissed, then certainly a few pints down. But Gardiner and Sharp’s views chimed with the times and when the Morris Ring, the creation of which Neal had encouraged in 1922 because of the awful impact of the war, was formalised in 1934 as an umbrella organisation for Morris dancing, it was a male-only set up.

As the women’s movement took off in the late 1960s and into the ’70s it coincided with a resurgence of folk music and dance and was swept up in a wave of interest in the exploration of identity politics across the Western world.

Laurel Swift. Photo by Ian Anderson

Suffragette Mary Neal and the pivotal role of the Esperance female Morris team in saving and passing on the tradition provided sound historical precedent for women’s involvement, as did the presence of women in dances prior to the 20th Century. Salter tells me that, historically, women were likely to have performed Morris dances before they were married, particularly in the North and the Welsh Borders, and that the actor and dancer William Kemp on his nine-day Morris dance from London to Norwich in 1600 was famously accompanied by women dancing along the way.

Sue Swift was involved in women’s Morris dancing in the ’70s. She tells me that although the newly created women’s sides were careful to pick dances that didn’t impinge on popular men’s repertoire, the Morris Ring refused to admit them to the association. So the women simply set up their own federation, initially the Women’s Morris Federation, now simply the Morris Federation as it now, like the later Open Morris (formed in 1979), welcomes both male and mixed sides.

Apart from arguing from an ingrained chauvinism rooted in outdated and anyway erroneous beliefs, the Morris Ring also believed that women weren’t fit for Morris dancing because they weren’t strong or agile enough. It’s fitting then for Sue Swift, an early mover and shaker in the Morris Federation, that her daughter Laurel has won both the athletically challenging, physically and mentally demanding solo jig and duo jig competitions at Sidmouth.

After facing legal challenges in 2011 under the Equality Act, the Morris Ring accepted women musicians and organisers and Open Morris’s Nicki Pickering tells me that although some male sides gave her the cold shoulder at the last Morris Ring AGM, she danced with male sides and “was allowed to stay for the feast”. A first in the annals of Morris Ring history.

The Morris Ring are now having to open up to what John Knox called the “monstrous regiment of women” because once more older male Morris sides are disappearing. Contrast an article about Chelmsford Morris this January in the Telegraph

“Morris dancing faces extinction unless it can inspire a new generation of mildly eccentric young men who are anxious to keep fit, a troupe has warned… Chelmsford Morris boasts a membership roster of 30, but in reality it can only rely on the regular dancing services of seven men, some of whom are in their sixties and will soon be hanging up their handkerchiefs for good… Dances usually involve six or eight men, but to put on a  good show they require at least ten.”

…with an announcement made in the same month by Sheffield female side Pecsaetan Morris (featured in fR326/327):

“The New Year sees us with the biggest team we’ve ever had, 26 in total! We are looking forward to dancing in 2017… the spring and summer are filling up…” They also mention a previously marvellous date with Brighton Morris…

Brighton Morris are a male side who are favourites of Shirley Collins. She says: “There’s nothing like the thrill of Brighton Morris as the dancers surge towards you. They are vigorous, at the top of their game. This is proper Morris,” she says “and it’s sexy.” She adds that she also fully appreciates the grace and beauty that women bring to Morris dancing. Her beautiful song Dancing At Whitsun, in which she set her first husband, Austin John Marshall’s words to the tune of the Copper Family song The Week Before Easter, points to the devastation of war resulting in women dancing together:

“Down from the green farmlands and from their loved ones / marched husbands and brothers and fathers and sons / there’s a fine roll of honour where the maypole once was / and the ladies go dancing at Whitsun.”

When she performed the song with her sister Dolly on their 1968 Anthems In Eden tour, the male Chingford Morris side danced to it. Touring with a male side is not something that she’d like to repeat. They were a “farty lot” she recalls. “They’d find it funny!” She says that she thinks women’s Morris is not that “beery thing”. Which may come as some surprise to Pecsaetan who apparently decided to form their side after a few in the pub. But perhaps they were downing prosecco.

Performers young and old come from all walks of life, from company directors dancing with the Headington Quarry team to metal turners in a Bampton side. Nicki Pickering, who worked as a GP, says there are generally two types of dancers, those who have Morris as a hobby they fit in amongst other pastimes and people who live to Morris dance. But as the Chelmsford spokesman pointed out to the Telegraph, “It’s pointless trying to present Morris dancing as ‘cool’.”

One way of drawing in a new generation of dancers is to incorporate elements of popular culture, whether in terms of music or haircuts or clothes. Salter tells me that historically Morris tunes incorporated melodies from the music hall, much to Cecil Sharp’s dismay and that punk, goth and new-wave have all impacted on the way it can be presented. He believes this can help keep it meaningful to a modern audience. Though Collins firmly believes that all the relevance it needs is already there.

Swift, who has worked with young folk musicians and Morris dancers both in the UK and abroad, will explore the use of current popular music, not to deliberately seek out ‘cool’ but simply because she’s a musician connected to and aware of the music around her. She tells me of the time she choreographed a Beyoncé track that segued seamlessly into a Morris performance.

It was because of Swift’s work with the sadly fictional Millsham Morris in Lucy Akhurst and Charles Thomas Oldham’s sweetly funny film Morris: A Life With Bells On (fR310) that the side secured a place on the Wimborne Folk Festival bill (the organiser claiming, when questioned by the Morris Ring, that they were indeed a ‘proper’ Morris side on the grounds that Swift had choreographed them). Clearly unaware of her former Beyoncé/Morris triumph, the film’s producers were wary of asking Swift to choreograph the scene with the brilliantly camp Californian Morris side with its rock production values and electronic music, thinking she’d be offended!

Film is a good way to raise public awareness of the thrill to be found in Morris dancing and I’m not the only one who’d be happy to learn the Threeple Hammer Damson from the compellingly attractive and dedicated Morris man Derecq Twist.

Both that film and Plester’s documentary convey the strong bonds and sense of community among Morris dancers and everyone I spoke to for this feature confirms this. It’s like having a worldwide private Air B’n’B service. Friends made in sides 40 years ago are still friends and fellow dancers today, wherever they may have moved to. In this internet age of ersatz connection, Morris dancing could perform a valuable function in promoting real connection whilst keeping fit and promoting brain health – what with all those endorphins released through the physical exertion and the focused concentration needed to learn the dances. Perhaps it’s why it appeals to women, who tend to be good at grasping diverting ways to exercise.

But back to the question of how to get more people involved – and why! Both Swift and Merry had parents and family who were involved in folk music and Morris dancing so it wasn’t a big leap for them to take it up. Nicki Pickering got into it through friends who took it up during their university Fresher’s Week. But she, like the spokesman for the aforementioned Chelmsford Morris, is under no illusions that it’s cool. “No young person would join if they saw Morris dancing in their town centre. There’s a stigma.” The stigma, says Collins, comes from half-arsed demonstrations by unfit and under-rehearsed sides. “Brighton Morris are so good that younger people want to join when they see them. Glen Redman dancing solo jigs, though he must be in his 50s, is so brilliant that young men want to be able to do it. It’s a sign that something good’s going on.”

Pickering believes that proper funding would make a difference, enabling advertising and professional teaching programmes. Swift says of the Arts Council, who helped fund the Must Come Down show she put on at Cecil Sharp House with North American and Canadian dancers performing with Morris Offspring, that “No one from the Arts Council who came to the gig had seen a project so massive that was all dancers at the top of their game. These were the best Morris dancers in the world and there is no professional equivalent, no better professional team. And yet it is not funded, like the ballet is. They couldn’t believe it.”

Merry says: “It was amazing! Another level of Morris and everyone was competing a bit, to be the best!” After paying a return visit to the US, and touring with Faustus in 2013, Swift realised that Morris Offspring had gone as far as they could without becoming a professional full-time side, which – given the funding issues – wasn’t on the cards.

Pickering says that the three Morris associations are now working together under the JMO (Joint Morris Organisation) to encourage new members. In keeping with this spirit of co-operation, Lucy Neal says, “What is exciting is that the current work of the EFDSS celebrates equally the pioneering work of both Mary Neal and Cecil Sharp. Theirs is a shared legacy: a passion for English folk song and dance, and a recognition that people of each generation create their culture, first and foremost, by taking part in it.”

There are initiatives from organisations like Morris Minors to introduce Morris into primary schools and Merry is looking to set up a toddlers group in Stroud. Collins mentions the Day Of Morris for primary schools that happens in May at Plumpton racecourse. “Kids join in, in a variety of costumes and tatters. They take the dancing seriously, have an innate sense of rhythm, are not embarrassed and enjoy doing it. They all had hobby-horses at Plumpton race course! That should be encouraged. It’s teamwork that’s fun. It brings kids together and it’s more important now than ever when we’re so disunited.”

It’s why it should be taught in schools, part of the curriculum, taught by good dancers and to a good standard. Learning Morris is something that’s good physically and psychologically, not just from the inclusion it brings but for rooting that inclusion in a sense of place. As Collins says: “It’s a valuable part of our culture. I resent it when people scoff or laugh without knowing anything about it. It’s a great tradition. It belongs to people. It’s imbued with England. When I watch a Morris dance I know it’s an English dance.”

It bolsters a sense of identity as Collins points out, but this isn’t in an obnoxious misappropriated Brexit/BNP way which denies English history. It’s a way that acknowledges how unlikely it was that the Roman armies – springing from a nation of self-proclaimed champion shaggers and boosting their ranks from wherever they marched, (ie across North Africa, Europe and the Middle East) – did not intermingle with the natives once they pitched up on these shores. Then of course there were the German and Northern European tribes, plus the Vikings and the Normans, and naturalised immigrants and refugees from all over down the centuries (read Robert Winder’s essential Bloody Foreigners: The Story Of Immigration To Britain).

Morris sprang from all this mongrel heritage. Merry tells of her amazement when she went to the Basque country to find how similar the dances are, as are the French and Italian Morisca. Pickering told me of Mexican Morris-style blackface dances and our Ed reminds me that in West Africa they have Mandinka ritual figures called the kankurang who closely resemble our Jack In The Green.

If Morris isn’t relevant now, then it never has been. Wherever we’re from, humans will dance, whether it’s in celebration or in some other expression of music in a moment that ties us to a place in time. We should embrace Morris and the open human interconnection that is implicit in it. We should celebrate this tradition springing from our history and its clear connection with cultures across the world. We should be grateful that it’s women who are taking the tradition forward, creating it anew as an inclusive dance tradition that embraces input from both men and women, celebrating equally the particular attributes they each bring.

As Alex Merry says: “We’re really keen to keep true to this amazing tradition of Morris. Most of Boss are completely new to this dance form so it’s been really important to connect to the tradition and begin to learn the wealth of dances and steps that encompass it. We’re also keen to adopt our own style and tweak things here and there to suit us. We look at lots of different references within the tradition – from early accounts of Morris in 15th Century courts and palaces to European folk dance and ritual, to modern Carnival (Fluffy) Morris and the vast array of Morris that’s out there on the streets today. Of course, we also draw inspiration from outside of the tradition too, fashion, makeup, music. It’s important to us to have a deep understanding of how Morris dancing has evolved through the centuries and we’re excited to see where it’ll take us!”

As Shirley Collins says, she’s in it for the right reasons.

With big thanks to Laurel Swift, Alex Merry, Sue Swift, Nicki Pickering, Mike Salter and special thanks to Shirley Collins.

All About The Morris – Folly Publications, 2014. www.follypublications.co.uk

Originally printed in fRoots 407, May 2017. Header image: Esperance Dancers. Photo courtesy EFDSS