Meet the new generation of Morris dancers

Meet the new generation of Morris dancers

Record numbers of people celebrated May Day this year as Morris culture diversifies and attracts younger crowds. But can the stigmatised tradition ever become a contemporary staple?

Women in pastoral outfits dance across the brow of a hill, flowers braided in their hair. The sun rises behind the clouds as a crowd gathers in a natural circle. Birds sing, bells jingle. Fiddlers play a jig in close harmony. The air is cold but the atmosphere is warm at this quietly giddy celebration of something new.

It’s dawn on May 1st and I’m watching Morris dancers in Gloucestershire welcome in the summer. Although Morris and May Day celebrations go way back – to at least the 1500s – it’s a relatively new event for these performers, and one that up until now has been mainly private.

But this year hundreds of people made their way across Rodborough Common in the blueish half-light, carefully avoiding the nesting skylarks and yellow cowslips, to watch two sides – Boss Morris and Miserden Morris – dance at dawn. The healthy crowd is a sign of growing interest in seasonal celebrations, and with it a fresh curiosity about the potential of folk culture to offer something non-commercial, something authentic and, who knows, maybe even something spiritual.

These qualities are what drew me to the unusual world of Morris dancing in 2016. I was intrigued by the ageing dancers who gathered at country pubs and free folk festivals throughout the summer, performing their ego-less gyps and half heys, capers and hook-legs, in embroidered waistcoats, hand-sewn skirts, top hats, white jeans, with bells, sticks, and hankies, playing melodeons, hurdy-gurdies and tin whistles.

And I was puzzled by how this wholesome pastime was both quintessentially English and a stigmatised subculture, provoking either mockery or a surprising amount of ire. The more people told me they ‘hated’ Morris dancing, the more I wanted to photograph it.

Historical records show that Morris arrived from Europe in the 1400s. An exotic, spectacular dance performed for the royal courts, it was adopted by the parish church as entertainment and as part of May Day celebrations. Within little more than half a century, it had spread throughout England.

But as the Elizabethan era came to an end and Puritanical attitudes towards general merriment took hold, the Morris was in danger of disappearing altogether by the mid-17th century. The Edwardian folk enthusiast Cecil Sharp began his personal mission of ‘saving’ traditional customs from the mists of time, publishing thousands of country songs and dances collected from England’s rural populations.

Sharp’s notion that Morris was related to ancient male fertility rites helped spread the false link with paganism, which also cemented the idea that women should not get involved. It wasn't until the 1970s that feminism and the liberal folk movement revival helped diversify the culture. Now there are 800 Morris sides – single, mixed gender and LGBTQ – each with their own identity, taking inspiration from Morris tradition, regional heritage, folklore, paganism, the occult, radical politics, seasonal customs and local craft.

Boss Morris have been stepping up a new sub-genre of ‘prog’ Morris since 2015. Their stylish, contemporary outfits and light-hearted cross-cultural referencing have brought new audiences to the form. What’s not to love about a dance troupe that adopts a pickled onion Monster Munch as their spirit animal?

Kate Merry, who co-founded Boss Morris and set up her own side in Cornwall last year and says she is “overwhelmed” with the possibilities for creative expression. “I wanted it to be progressive and based around local Cornish history,” she tells me. “Joan the Wad is an inspirational Cornish woman. There’s something quite powerful about her. I can remember seeing Morris in London and thinking, ‘Am I too r&b for this?’, but then you go to all the nights and it’s the best thing ever. You get a real sense of community. There’s no competition, everyone wants to support each other.”

Other sides are also bringing Morris out of the past. Johnny B, Squire of Brixton Tatterjacks, set up the side because he wanted "to explore the nature of being English, and find the positives and good things despite the historical baggage of Britain’s imperial past.”

When I first meet Huginn and Muninn, a three-piece Morris side from London, they are about to go on stage as part of a battle of the bands at Camden’s legendary metal pub, The Dev – but they’ve also played in metal fetish clubs and see Morris as a natural progression from rock.

A fusion of Nordic folk, street theatre and Welsh folklore, their act combines a hefty border style Morris, the Mari Lwyd tradition of taunting people (in this case, the audience) with a horse’s skull, and a lot of sweat. Musician Richard Ball, who also plays in space rock band Litmus, says of their busker’s approach: “You’ve got to give people a reason to stop and watch because they’re not paying. Punk and Morris have a similar ethos. There’s something a bit outsider to it.”

On a day out dancing around London, Ollie King of the Hammersmith Morris Men admits that Morris can be insular, and that contemporary Morris will need to adapt again. “Seeing where we fit and what we do in 21st century London is something we have to be conscious of,” he explains. “I feel like this is going to be the next thing in the Morris world. Are we relevant? How do we make ourselves relevant? There’s a deeper consciousness to be part of.”

It’s becoming a truism that, after Brexit and the pandemic, the English are looking for ways of dispelling isolation. Is folk, with its links to nature’s cycle, English identity, and the land where people will go to find a sense of belonging? 

For Tom Merry, the Foreman of Miserden Morris who has been dancing since the 1960s, the beauty of folk is that “it was born and bred here.”

“It’s very easy to pick up and make your own because it’s homemade,” he explains. “It fits like a glove. It’s made for us so it’s got lots of echoes of all kinds of other things – the poetry and the seasons and the Christian festivals. So if people are feeling rootless, it’s there for us to use.”

Jon Wilks, musician and editor of folk culture site Trad Folk, has heard “multiple reports” around the country of large crowds gathering at 5am to take part in May Day rituals. “It genuinely seems to be a thing at the moment," he tells me.

But Michael Heaney, author of new book The Ancient English Morris Dance, is wary of pinning too much on recent politics and “hesitates” to mention Brexit, saying “it's the same kind of culture war as consumed England in the lead up to the Civil War, when supporting Morris publicly nailed your colours to the mast.

“But whatever side of the Brexit debate you're on, it gives occasion to be asking yourself what it means to be British/English, and ways of expressing it,” he continues. “All this new age is another way of reaching out to connections with the (imagined) past.”

At the May Day dawn dance-out in Gloucestershire, Boss dancer Katie Watton says of the surprisingly large crowd: “It’s mind-blowing but so special. It puts the pressure on because it’s becoming less of a private celebration, but we’re not an exclusive group. That’s the wonderful thing about Morris – it’s very accessible. You feel just like a kid dancing. It’s liberating.”

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