Tuesday 30 June 2009

School bans English traditional dancers

A school in Kent, which had booked Motley Border Morris Men to appear at a day celebrating diversity, cancelled the booking because the dancers black their faces. The school was anxious not to cause offence to anyone. The irony, particularly for a diversity day, is that this blacking up is not an imitation of black people (as in the case of the Black & White Minstrels), but was originally a disguise. It's an English tradition from the borders with Wales and is hundreds of years old.

Often Morris sides (or 'troupes' as the school called them) went dancing to raise a bit of cash to supplement meagre farm wages, or during the winter when there was no work. As it could be interpreted as a form of begging, they concealed their identity. In 1723, because poachers sometimes blacked their faces as a disguise, it was even made a hanging offence to be found with weapons and a blacked face. Blacking up by Morris sides today is a relic of part of our social history, and has absolutely nothing to do with race. As a committed anti-racist, I wouldn't defend it otherwise.

It's a pity that the school didn't bother to find out why the dancers black up, and explain the reasons in terms of social history and rural poverty. Another reason why it's a pity is that whenever I have watched Border Morris, I've noticed that kids usually love it as it's energetic, noisy, involves clashing sticks, and has a large band of varied musicians creating a great wall of sound. It's difficult to ignore Border Morris.

What's it got to do with this blog? How about the fact that Morris sides dance to live traditional music and tend to drink real ale? The picture shows the Men O' Th' Mere Morris outside the Zetland pub in 1981; they were active in Southport throughout the 1980s. I am at the back wearing a cap and clutching a guitar ~ and a pint, of course. As a musician I didn't black up. (click on picture to enlarge it)


  1. You despair sometimes don't you. It would have been a great chance, as you remark, to demonstrate social history and tradition.

    It would also have been an opportunity to teach children not to jump to (seemingly)obvious conclusions.

  2. Looks like Clive P with a white face (tambourine)? Any more names please... So they can be reported to the relevant authorities. No statute of limitations on this one, oh no...


  3. Banged to rights there, Kev. So the 'cool' police are after us all?

  4. I meant to say, TM: excellent point about not jumping to seemingly obvious conclusions.

  5. I have to confess that, yes it's me behind the tabor. A Sunday lunchtime as I recall, and my parents came along to watch.
    I loved those flared denims I'm sporting made from 30 odd pieces of other old denim, and from time to time, in the privacy of my own garden, I still wear 'em!
    Wasn't the 'Zet' a grand pub too, in those days? Burtonwood cask dark AND light milds plus the bitter and occasional Top Hat strong.
    There was a piano in the front room which Linda Bailey, now Green, used to play as part of the informal music and song sessions we had; - functions which the Guest House and Masons now host so well.
    Thannk RedNev for posting this - happy memories of some good days.

  6. Hey Nev, I think the blacking was also used in the 17th century to protect the dancers identity because (I believe) there was a ban on dancing of all types under Cromwell. In addition, the Mummer's (plays as opposed to dancing) also used to black-up because of the political and satirical nature of some of their material.

    Yes, what a shame it is if a school has stopped this and missed out on an opportunity for the children to learn something about history that they are unlikely to get in the classroom.



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