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History, Ancient & Modern ~ 1


Definition of Morris: A customary performance, before an audience, of dancing (usually to music), or acting, or both; with or without singing; in costume of some kind, depending on the kind of Morris; outdoors (except when inside); for seasonal occasions (but sometimes out of season); for payment (or else for the fun of it, or out of goodwill). Also, some practitioners don't call their particular activity "Morris", but something else.

Having clarified all that, let us turn to the origin of the name. How was it acquired? Probably from Moorish; in other tongues Mouresque, Morisco. Not, however, in the literal usage, Moor, to indicate nationality; but as a figure of speech, Moor-ish, or Moor-like, meaning something reminiscent of the supposed appearance of someone outlandish, of a faraway, alien region. In any event, after a while the name took on its own significance, standing for the activity, as names typically do in ordinary usage.

Some performers blackened their faces. Cecil Sharp, in The Morris Book, Part 1, quoted E K Chambers: "the faces were not blackened because the dancers represented Moors, but rather the dancers were thought to represent Moors because their faces were blackened." In the 19th Century, Minstrel shows with blackened-face performers flourished in America and spread to other countries including Britain, making a contemporary influence stronger than the supposed historical connection. This may be how the Britannia Coconut Dancers of Bacup came to blacken their faces when they created their tradition, about 1860-ish, borrowing a contemporary dance in the "Lancers" style.


When I got involved in Morris, I looked at various costume designs, and the patch vest in assorted colours specially appealed to me as eye-catching, like a tropical bird's plumage. White shirt and trousers are bright, and stand out in contrast to that patch vest. Headgear, if worn, included bowlers, top hats, caps - nothing pre-19th-Century, I noticed. A straw hat is light and robust, and suitable for attaching ribbons and badges and ornaments. Large handkerchiefs add movement, and also extend the dancer's apparent height, and length of arms. Ribbons on hats, arms, and bellpads add movement and colour. Sticks add a rhythmic sound. So do the bells, in a higher pitch. And the whole lot were practical, and affordable.

Under the showy parts, the traditional Morris dancers' basic clothing seemed to be good standard style and quality for their time.

The whole kit often has a magical effect -- on me, the wearer, at least, because I feel more confident.

Special Characters

Various theatrical traditions have special characters.
Mummers include a Champion (eg Saint George) and an Adversary (eg Turkish Knight); a Man-Woman (Beelzebub); a quack Doctor.
British Pantomime has its male Dame and female Principal Boy (both cross-dressers); Principal Girl; and Wicked Uncle.
Commedia dell'arte includes old wealthy deluded Pantaloon; beautiful Columbine; crafty Clown; magical Harlequin.
Magic is the key word, the magic of pretence.

Morris may have a Fool (who by reversal is also the wise, parental figure); a Horse (a symbol of strength, and also a pet to play with the children in the audience); a Betsy or Betsy-Bub (like Beelzebub, a man-woman). Their main role is to connect with the audience from time to time during the performance. They can announce (another way of connecting).


Although we talk about Cotswold "traditions," naming them by their locations, there needed to be someone (or more than one) in the role of creator, recruiter, and instructor. A leader might move away, and take his dances with him, but also find inspiration in a new location with different dancers. And for a tradition to last, there had to some continuity in leadership.

I do not think dances just evolve (although they may degenerate). Like other artistic expression, dance compositions are the result of conscious design by individuals, involving some balance between continuity and innovation. When composing new dances, I have been influenced by the tradition's character, and also by opportunities to use new ideas and different music. Some teams competed for chances to earn money, and were impelled to make their dances more interesting and showy, and consequently more challenging for the performers.

People expect more of a spectacle from a dance they are paying to watch, than from a social dance they are participating in. Conversely, social dancers usually do not appreciate being expected to work hard to master difficult dances (although some do acquire an appetite for challenging dances to master). Performance dancing requires a balance: enough of a spectacle; enough dances to provide variety; enough rehearsal; not so many dances, and not so much complexity, that the performers are continually struggling with them.

... continued