Morris Dancing is basically a brisk, lively and often boisterous form of English folk dancing. The exact origins of the dance are lost in the depths of time but it is clear that Morris dances have been performed as annual rituals by costumed dancers in England for many centuries.
The term 'morris' today covers a whole range of styles of dancing, as well as having connections with other art forms such as mumming (a form of theatre). Its survival into the twentieth century and beyond is largely the result of the collecting of folklorist Cecil Sharp, who recorded morris and sword dances still being danced in the early 1900s and possibly saved them from extinction in the process.
The best-known form of morris dancing derives from the villages of the Cotswolds in England, and is danced mainly by groups of six men in formation, in costumes consisting of white clothing with crossed baldricks (strips of cloths over the shoulders and joined at the hips) in the colours of the 'side' and sporting their emblem on the chest, hats covered in flowers, bell pads attached to the calves and brandishing either handkerchiefs or sticks. Women's groups commonly follow the North West tradition, with colourful costumes usually including wooden clogs and bearing shortened sticks and/or garlands (open-ended hoops covered in cloth or flowers). A third type of morris is border morris, featuring costumes made of tatters (strips of cloth sewn onto an undershirt) and blackened faces and dances using mostly sticks.
Given the origins of Australia's first white populations there must have been dancers of morris amongst early immigrants and convicts in Australia, and at least one legend of a convict being flogged for dancing on a Sunday is still in circulation today. Rowan Webb recalls evidence provided by Shirley Andrews of a morris side (mixed gender) operating in Beaumaris, Melbourne, around 1938. However it was not until the folk revival of the 1970s that a vibrant morris tradition in Australia began to emerge, including all three styles and the related arts (mummers plays and sword and rapper dance).
Warren Fahey has compiled anecdotal evidence of these early beginnings. Some dances were performed by individuals as part of a mummers play on the streets of Melbourne in 1973. Contenders for the first complete and performing side are Perth Morris Men and Plenty Morris in Melbourne in early 1974. Two women's sides appeared in 1978: Fair Maids of Perth (North West) and Maids of the Mill (Cotswold) in Sydney. In Australia the traditional gender division of Cotswold dances being performed only by men has been challenged by many sides, with Plenty Morris the first mixed group. At least one North West side, Brandragon, has included men.
In the 1970s Australian morris sides for the most part adopted the structure and types of activities of their UK counterparts, with officeholders consisting of a squire, bagman (treasurer) and annual meetings called 'ales' were held, at which official business along with eating, drinking, dancing and entertainment were on the agenda. A culture of fun, profanity and drinking predominated, which in some situations extended into competition, particularly at large gatherings of different sides, for example at festivals.
The 1990s and early 2000s have seen the waning of many longstanding sides, with older members leaving and few being replaced by younger dancers. New groups spring up occasionally however and the National Folk Festival features a healthy number each year to showcase the various styles of morris that are still danced throughout Australia.
Keith Chandler, Ribbons, Bells and Squeaking Fiddles: Social History of Morris Dancing in the English South Midlands (Enfield Lock: Hisarlik Press, 1993). Available on CD-ROM from Country Dance and Song Society Sales Catalog, English Dance Catalog.
This article was originally uploaded onto the Australia Dancing 'Take Part' website by Dr Michelle Potter on June 20, 2006 with page editors: Alexander Johannesen, Donna Vaughan, Dr Bill Parker, Michele Huston, Michelle Potter and Paul Livingston.
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