Who was “Morris”? When was “Morris”? Why was “Morris”?
Questions one often hears, especially from lads called Morris, but truth to tell no one knows anything about this ‘terpsichorean enigma’.
The earliest historical records of Morris dancers (the chaps who danced with “Morris”?) come from the English royal court of the sixteenth century. There are lots of dotty theories about it’s origins and some not so dotty. You pays your money and takes your choice. Explanations for all this leaping about include forgotten pagan fertility rights; ancient ‘druid’ type rituals; alternatively an ‘import’ which breached EEC regulations from the Moors in Spain or a quick way to earn a few ‘bob’ and buy a pint or two when there was little work about. Basically and honestly -no one has the faintest idea when and where it all started and as for why???.
Most people when asked to describe Morris dancers think of beer bellied, bearded chaps dressed in white, wearing flowery straw hats and waving hankies about. This ‘traditional’ Cotswold image of Southern English Morris has largely dominated public perceptions and has largely side lined other regional types of Morris dance.But there’s more to Morris than Cotswold – although some chaps would have you believe differently.
The folk revival of the 1970s led to a reaction to this stereotype, especially from the ladies who wanted to shave off their beards! Musicians and dancers explored alternative records and were behind the creation of many new sides hat were formed to recreate regional variations. The North West Morris sides, which were originally representative of the Lancashire towns, produced a ‘processional’ dance form that hailed from the cobbled streets. These sides, who often dance in clogs, produce a repertoire of precise patterns and they are often accompanied by a strong band with a large drum keeping the beat. North West Morris is now so popular that it is performed by sides who have never even seen the inside of a mill, let alone had a ferret down their trousers.
Border Morris was also largely a product of the 1970s folk revival. The dances, which theoretically originated from the Herefordshire/Worcestershire/Shropshire Welsh border regions, have undergone a total transformation. The variation in the styles of Border Morris is remarkable. It has been known for two or three Border sides to dance together and to all look totally different, or all dance the same dance with the conviction that only they dance the ‘proper’ version! Some ‘Cotswold’ sides dance a variation in the winter, using sticks and based on what is believed to be the authentic older notations. Other sides give a passing nod to the ‘traditional’ dances and have taken Border Morris further with an almost religious zeal. So if you see a Border side you will get something different every time, exciting isn’t it? Border sides can appear almost ‘courtly’, sedate with precise patterns, a leisurely step and so laid back as to be horizontal. Other Border sides
appear to be manic, racing about in a whirl of rags, flash of sticks and desperate to get to the end of the dance. There is an immense range of Border Morris dance styles, it is as diverse as the kits, but one thing it never should be is boring.
Meanwhile, back in deepest Otley, Wayzgoose has evolved it’s own peculiar style of Border Morris which has its origins in many different traditions and inspirations. The side is constantly evolving in a “living tradition” of dance. Hence we are part of the forward thinking and sometimes vertically challenged ‘Open Morris’ – you know it makes no sense at all!