BRIEF HISTORY OF MORRIS DANCING

Des Herring

Dances for 6 men were described in the Macro morality plays performed by monks of Bury and other Abbeys, and this might well be the origin of the 6 man dance we know today. The use of the "morris dance" can be traced back to 1458.
In the 1500's references to morris dancers can be found in church and state records, sometimes associated with the hobby horse. These were ceremonial dances and were used to collect money for the church.
By 1660 the dance style we now know was crystalised; both in published dance collections by John Playford and in the so called 'Olympic Games" dance competitions held at Dovers Hill in the Cotswolds. The competitions continued until 1850; and by oral tradition until 1900 and then to the present day.
Our present repertoire comes mainly from this oral tradion of 6 men dances and from research into other documentary sources which include 4 men, and 8 men set dances, and jigs for solo dancers. Bright colours and bells are a feature of the costumes and white handkerchiefs and big sticks scare the devils away.
Music from a pipe and tabor, fiddle, concertina or melodeon accompanies the dances, some tunes date back to 1500's while other good tunes have been picked up during the five centuries of dancing.
As a rural tradition; the true character of the dance can best be found outside an English pub; however through the centuries stage performances, even at the royal court, have been recorded.
The dance style is unique to England and possibly the Welsh Border; but bears some similarities to the Basque tradition in Spain, and there are other European references in the 1500s such as the description given in the Arbeau collection in 1589 in France.