History, Ancient & Modern ~ 1
Definition of Morris: A customary performance, before an
dancing (usually to music), or acting, or both; with or without
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,
indicate nationality; but as a figure of speech, Moor-ish, or Moor-like,
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."
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,
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
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.
Various theatrical traditions have special characters.
Mummers include a Champion (eg Saint George) and an Adversary (eg
Knight); a Man-Woman (Beelzebub); a quack Doctor.
British Pantomime has its male Dame and female Principal Boy (both
cross-dressers); Principal Girl; and
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
man-woman). Their main role is to connect with the audience from time
to time during the performance. They can announce (another way of
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
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
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
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