Sunday 21 July 2013

The Politics of Morris

Argarmeles Clog at the Southport beer festival.
An 'acceptable' dance form for women.
A couple of days ago, I deliberately stepped into a controversy that, by rights, I had no real part in. My
place in the folk scene is as a folk club resident singer and guitarist who performs written, as opposed to traditional, material (when I play 50s and 60s music, that is usually outside a folk setting). The debate was about Morris dance. I am not a dancer myself, although I have played among the musicians for at least three separate sides over the years. I have learnt that there is a huge variety of folk dances in this country, but when you are talking specifically about Morris, there is a long-standing dispute as to whether women should dance it. In one corner, there is the Morris Ring which sides can join only if all the dancers are men. In the other corner, the Morris Federation admits sides that accept women. The basis of the dispute is that Morris is meant to be a fertility dance in which the young men attract the interest of the young maidens, and so it is against tradition for women to dance it, although it is often pointed out that women kept the traditions going when men were called away to the two world wars, and there is anecdotal evidence that women were dancing Morris before the First World War anyway.

I wrote on the Whitby Folk Week Facebook page where the discussion was taking place: "I have come across pedants who maintain that you cannot arrive in Birmingham because "arrive" is derived from the Latin "ripa", meaning a shore, or that men cannot be hysterical because they don't have wombs ("hysterical" is derived from the Greek for womb). Things change, including Morris. No one dances Morris nowadays to attract the young maidens, when the fertility aspect might have been relevant; they will dance for a combination of maintaining tradition, putting on a show and having fun. Women are just as capable of dancing for such reasons as men; the function of Morris has fundamentally changed with the times - traditions do, after all, evolve - and quoting the outdated fertility reason for Morris is like saying you can't arrive in Birmingham."

Quite assertive stuff from a non-dancer, although I doubt they'd have known I don't dance. I got 3 "likes" but my points were in the subsequent thread pretty well ignored. What I chose not to say was that the Morris tradition involved it being danced not only by men, but by young men, and with the best will in the world many dancers would nowadays struggle to fit that description. 

Neither my intervention on the Facebook page nor this post is going to resolve this deep schism in the world of Morris. I posted this mainly to show how you can get controversy and, on occasion, some heat where you'd least expect it: in the tranquil world (as most outsiders would view it) of traditional dance. Wherever you go, there's no escape from internal politics.


  1. We've got a "Goth" Morris side down our way. Hardly traditional, but still very accomplished and entertaining to watch.

  2. A very timely post, I saw two lots of morris dancers outside a pub today, one all male, one all female. I thought women morris dancers looked a bit unusual but didn't know about the history or the politics. Both groups got on fine with each other though!

  3. Paul: what you saw may well be a Goth-tinged Border Morris side, which involves blacking the face and clashing staves. Border lends itself well to that kind of approach.

    Ed: some resolutely all-male teams are a bit snooty, in that they would refuse to dance at an event where women are also dancing Morris, although they have no objection to them dancing other traditional dances deemed acceptable for women. Mostly, though, sides aren't quite so precious as that: for instance, the Southport Swords, our local Longsword and Morris side, are members of the Ring, but it wouldn't bother them if a mixed or all-woman Morris side were dancing at the same event.


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