An Introduction to Dancing Morris

What's it all about?

Here is an outline of what it's all about; a bit of history and how the dances work.

The Cotswold Morris style
Cotswold Morris dancing was widespread in the villages and towns of the English Midlands in the middle of the 19th century, but due partly to changes in fashion and other social factors had died out in most places by 1900, and scarcely survived the Great War. Except, that is, that a handful of collectors of folk music and custom - among them Cecil Sharp and George Butterworth - happened upon the last vestiges of the tradition. And so began the revival. Nowadays, with a handful of notable exceptions, Morris teams are not rooted in the original villages and towns, but are Morris clubs to be found the length and breadth of the land. No longer do they sally forth only on May Day and Whitsun, not to be seen for another year, but dance the summer through, and beyond!
There was a fair bit of (mostly friendly) rivalry between the 19th century teams and most village or town teams developed their own distinctive style. These local styles are known as Morris 'traditions'.

A 'tradition' is a selection of dances, originally performed by a single Morris team ('side') from a single village. Often kept alive by a few families within the village and not performed outside that village. A few common Cotswold traditions are 'Bampton' from Bampton-in-the-bush, 'Adderbury' from Adderbury and 'Sherborne' from Sherborne, and so on. The dances have been recorded and preserved, and are now performed by many different Morris sides from all over the country, indeed, the World. Most of the dances in a single tradition have a number of stylistic similarities, such as where you stand, which direction you go in, what your hands do, and what your feet do. Once you know one dance from a tradition it is fairly easy to pick the others up.

The Dances
Almost all dances that Rag Morris do are of the verse-chorus-verse-chorus style. A verse is called a figure. Most figures are very simple and turn up in many dances. All the dances in the same tradition tend to have the same figures. The chorus is usually the distinctive part of the dance that makes it special. Most dances are done with two large white hankies or a stick [some are done with two sticks and some with nothing but bare hands!]. When performing [dancing out] or practising someone will usually 'call' the dance. They will shout out the next move just before it happens so that you don't need to remember the order of dances (though it's good if you do!). When dancing out you may once in a while find assorted bonking sticks, rubber chickens, horses, even green men, inflatable aliens, etc. turn up to add a serious sense of fun to the performance.

The Technical

The Dancing
The most important things to remember about a Morris dance are: where you are; where you're going; what you're hands are doing; and what your feet are doing - pretty much in that order. Remember your hands will either be holding sticks or hankies most of the time.

Sets and Positions
Most dances are done with 6 dancers in a 'set' as shown:

Men and women can stand in any position (though all men on one side, all women on the other looks odd!).

Everyone has a partner:

1 and 2 - these are the 'tops'
3 and 4 - these are the 'middles'
5 and 6 - these are the 'bottoms'

1, 3 and 5 are 'odds'.
2, 4 and 6 are 'evens'.

Some dances involve 'corners':

1 and 6 are 'first corners'
2 and 5 are'second corners'
3 and 4 are 'third corners '

We dance three dances that require 8 man sets. These are similar to 6 man dances and differences will be fully explained in practice!

As well as your position within the set it is useful to know your position relative to the set location, as shown:

Up – We start the dance facing 'up'. This is usually towards the musicians but can sometimes be towards the crowd, with musicians elsewhere.

Down – The opposite of 'up'!

Inside – The inside of the set, between the two rows of dancers.

Outside – The outside of the set.

Sounds fun? Come along to practice and try it out. It's even more fun than you can imagine!