Dance everywhere!

There are 13,000 people dancing the Morris in Great Britain. Andrew Adams, Oxford entrepreneur, talks about this phenomenon in an interview.

When and why did you fall in love with the Morris? What attracted you to it ?

I lived in Suffolk, one of the counties of East Anglia as a boy. The 1970s saw the height of the English folk music and dance revival and, although Cotswold Morris is not a “native” tradition of East Anglia, there were several local “sides” (groups) of Cotswold Morris who performed outside pubs and in market squares on market day. At that time pubs had restricted opening hours but on market days pubs in a town could stay open all afternoon, hence the attraction of market days for the Morris!  I liked dancing. I liked the dance music of the Morris but it seemed that every time I heard it and went to where the Morris men were dancing, they had just finished, so I decided the only way not to miss a Morris performance was to become a Morris dancer myself.

Also, and I think this was just a sign of those times, I was very keen on English folk traditions, which are very often overshadowed in the general consciousness in Britain by Irish and Scottish.

I started dancing with the Oxford University side in 1978 and discovered that Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire are the heartland of Cotswold Morris, with more than twenty different village dance traditions still surviving. I found also the same camaraderie as exists in a sports team; the same cast of diverse characters and the sense of a shared group history with its own quirks and customs. The difference perhaps from a sports team is that people continue dancing in the same side no matter what age they are and that gives a Morris side a very distinctive character.

How widespread is this hobby in England?  People of what ages, occupations are engaged in dancing?

The Cotswold Morris tradition is probably the most widespread and is danced by sides in regions of England where it is not the local tradition of dance. There are also Cotswold Morris in Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand and even Sweden and Holland.

Then you have other regional dance traditions, some of them also called Morris: Border Morris from the Welsh-English borderlands, sometimes referred to as the oldest form of folk dancing in England, which has much simpler patterns of dance than Cotswold and is danced  only with sticks; North-West Morris, developed in the 19th century in the industrial towns of the North-West as processional dances with the dancers wearing heavy wooden clogs; Molly dancing in parts of East Anglia, which is step dancing in heavy boots accompanied by a “Molly”, a man dressed up comically as a woman; Rapper dancing in the North Midlands and North-East, which uses long, flexible double-handled strips of steel and Longsword dancing in Yorkshire which uses rigid ‘swords’ held at each end. There are then various step dances performed by a single person, some from the traditions of the people who used to work the narrow boats on the canals, some from coastal regions.

It has been estimated that there are 13,000 people dancing the Morris in about 780 sides. This number does not count those dancing non-Morris traditions such as Longsword so in all there are probably close to 20,000 people involved in these forms of folk dancing.

Non-local Morris traditions are now widely danced, so for example even Oxfordshire with its own strong local tradition has several Border Morris sides and North-West sides.

The average age of a Cotswold Morris side is now very high, probably over 50 and recruitment of younger people is a big problem.  Many of today’s dancers started in the 1970s folk music revival and are still going. The difficulty of attracting young people to the Morris is a constant topic of discussion. There are positive exceptions to this; there are modern and experimental forms of Morris danced by young sides in the big cities such as London and Bristol and there are a few villages where the local tradition has remained so strong that young people still dance. The most famous of these is probably Bampton in Oxfordshire.

In general dancers today are in “white-collar” occupations in line with the social changes of the last seventy years. There are very few farm labourers and rural artisans; occupations which made up the majority of Morris sides in the 19th century.

Do you participate in concerts, festivals? How many spectators come to these events?

Morris sides are frequently to be seen at folk music and dance festivals, regional Agricultural Shows and County Fairs. In the Cotswolds they are also in demand for village festivals (“fetes”) which always happen in the summer.

One of the local sides I dance with is asked to dance at two or three weddings every summer.

The BBC has a TV programme ostensibly about life in the country called “Countryfile”. It is aimed at city-dwellers. Every year the BBC puts on a big fair in Blenheim park (Blenheim Palace is the seat of the Duke of Marlborough) near Oxford and local Morris sides are invited as part of the “country” entertainment. Morris sides are also invited to some of the outdoor music festivals where mainly popular music is played, not only folk.

Britain now has hundreds of music, literature and arts festivals every summer. Thousands of people come to the biggest of these. Traditional village fetes are attended by at most a couple of hundred people but these are often the most enjoyable to dance at.

A very important characteristic of the Morris is its simplicity of presentation and informality. We can dance almost anywhere; usually in the street in front of the village pub.

Do dancers buy their own costumes with their own money or do they have sponsors?

In general Morris dancers make their own costumes. The basic costume for Cotswold Morris is simple; white shirt and trousers, white socks and black shoes and then ribbons and cross-belts (“baldrics”) and leg-pads with bells (“Bellpads”) in the colours of the side or the village.  In the late 17th and in the 18th century some of the big Cotswold landowners would sponsor the local Morris side. In my own village of Kirtlington the Lord of the Manor’s accounts books show that he paid for the Morris costumes in the 1680s but sponsors today are very rare. Sides do not receive money from town or parish councils. This is in keeping with the ‘popular’/folk basis of Morris dancing. It is not a semi-professional activity. When I first started taking Morris dancers to Eastern Europe during the Communist era I was surprised to find how “professionalised” the so-called folk dance groups were, with professionally made costumes and even choreographers.  They were more like stage performers and a long way removed from their folk roots. Our tradition is quite different, rooted in the amateur and street performance.

I don’t know of any side which has a sponsor. We earn some money from weddings and some of the festivals we dance at; but not much. Morris sides occasionally do TV and film work. This is actually quite boring. There is a lot of sitting around and only very little dancing.

When I first took Morris to Central East Europe in the 1980s I found that the local folk dance groups were astonished to hear that we made our own costumes, learnt our traditional dances from each other and paid for our own expenses. We had no sponsor, no choreographer and no money!

Don’t the English find it strange that men dance? How do people in other countries react?

Yes, outside of our local regions where the Morris is well-known, the English do find it very strange that men dance in funny clothes, jingling bells and hitting sticks. In the media Morris is made fun of or at best seen as something very eccentric, quaint and silly.

In English society men generally are not encouraged to dance, don’t know how to and mostly find it embarrassing when they do. Other forms of dance are encouraged for the young like disco dancing, break dancing etc but certainly not folk dancing. Ballroom dancing has seen a bit of a renaissance thanks to the popular TV celebrity dance competition Strictly Come Dancing.

When we dance in other countries the first reaction is almost always to think that we are any nationality but English. In Russia people thought we were Hungarians, in Central Europe, Italian. Nobody associates folk dancing with the English at all. If they think of folk dance from the British Isles they think of Scottish or Irish.

Do only men dance?

Women dance the Morris too. There are women-only sides, mixed-gender sides and men-only sides. In the nineteenth century in the Cotswolds, as far as we know, it became the custom just for men to dance but North-West Morris has always had women-only and mixed sides. There is some written evidence for men and women dancing “Morris”, though we don’t know what dances they danced, in the 16th century.  One of the sides I dance with is mixed and one side is men-only. There was a lot of publicity in the folk world (a small world it must be said) about how discriminatory it is for some male sides not to admit women dancers. As there are women-only sides which do not admit men and they are not criticised for it I see this objection as unfounded and irrelevant. There is room for every composition of Morris side.

Are you going to perform in Perm?

We hope so and we hope to teach our dances to anyone who is interested in Perm so that we can have joint English-Russian Morris dances!