April 29, 2024

The Morris Dancers

Arrive at various summer events at Highclere and you might espy a group of performers wearing brightly coloured costumes. Morris dancers were part of my childhood: the sound of the knock of wood on wood, the large handkerchiefs flying up and down, the rhythmic choregraphed dancing accompanied by an accordion and fiddle. Sometimes they appeared at the church fete, hats decorated with flowers and from afar  you could hear the tiny bells attached to pads on their lower legs. There is therefore nothing silent about their progress as they walk along to choose a good place to begin their dancing set.

Morris dancers are also associated with May Day. This traditionally marks the beginning of summer, halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice. May Day traditions often include gathering wildflowers and green branches, weaving floral garlands and dancing around a Maypole whilst being entertained by the Morris Dancers. It is a day celebrated along the same lines in much of Europe.

By the early 16th century May Day had become a fixture of Church festivals, suggesting it was part of a much older tradition that was absorbed like so many other dates into the Christian calendar. Of May Day revels, Shakespeare says “as fit as a Morris for May Day” and “a Whitsun Morris dance” whilst  in 1600 one famous actor- William Kemp – danced a solo Morris dance all the way from London to Norwich.

Morris dancing is a collection of very traditional old English folk dances. A foreman teaches and trains the dancers, the steps are less complicated than the patterns, its movements based upon circles and processions and there is usually one or more “fool”. There are “capers” and “hops” and some of the dance names reflect older pastimes, for example “Hunting the Hare”. “The Druid” is another example, danced with eight sticks in pattern that is the same as 3 other dances – Hunting the Hare, The Snow Mare and The Crown. It is the action of the sticks that marks the differences.

Morris dancing continued to be popular until Tudor times but fell out of favour during Oliver Cromwell’s more sober Protectorate when all dancing was actively discouraged. It slowly recovered during later centuries and became valued once more in the early 20th century due to several English folklorists who were responsible for recording and reviving the dances.

It is something quintessentially English and thus brings something unique to a summer event. Traditions are all about safekeeping and perpetuating our ancestors’ customs and indeed the name “Morris” may be derived from “mores”, a Latin word for custom or customary.

Of course, dancing has been around throughout the world since man’s earliest civilizations. It has been used for both religious and ceremonial purposes and to tell stories as well as for entertainment. For example, Egyptian tomb paintings depict dances from 5000 years ago whilst the ancient Greeks incorporated dancing into their celebrations of the wine god Dionysus as well as the ritual dances that were part of the ancient Olympic Games.

These days thanks to programmes like Strictly Come Dancing and Dancing on Ice as well as international stars such as Rudolf Nureyev, ballroom dancing and ballet are much better known but this coming May Day perhaps we should all raise a glass to the Morris Dancers!