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Morris Dance

Updated on September 20, 2014
Banbury Cross at Midwinter Morris celebration, Newton, Massachusetts
Banbury Cross at Midwinter Morris celebration, Newton, Massachusetts | Source

Morris Dance — What Is It?

Morris Dancing is a form of folk dance from England. It is traditionally done as a spring festival dance, welcoming in the warm weather. Morris dancers are easy to spot, or more accurately hear as they wear bell pads on their legs. Most dances also feature either sticks or handkerchiefs.

In this article, I'll talk about Morris Dance: its history, different styles of Morris Dancing, some of the fun traditions, and Morris Dancing in America and Canada. There will be dance music and videos, and photos of some very colorful dancers. I'll list a few places you can see Morris Dancing live, and invite you to add other places you know about.

So sit back and enjoy the dance!

uncredited photos are my own

What Do You Know About Morris Dancing?

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Enough ... Show Me Some Morris Dancing!

... you asked for it ...

This dance is called Steamfitters, danced to the tune "Orange in Bloom." It was danced by Banbury Cross Morris and Sword, the oldest youth Morris side in North America. And the best, though I'm quite biased. My kids dance with Banbury, and I'm proud to be this year's Squire.

The kids on this team range from age 9 to 17.

I took this video, using AJ's camera, at NEFFA in 2010.

Photo: Red Herring, dancing at Lilac Sunday, Boston, 2011
Photo: Red Herring, dancing at Lilac Sunday, Boston, 2011 | Source

You Said "Side"? And What's a Squire?

Morris Dance Terms

As with any activity, Morris has it's own terminology. While I won't go into detail about dance moves (well, mybe a little), I'll cover a few basics.

  • Team and Side are terms for the group of dancers, musicians, Fools, and assorted hangers-on.
  • An Ale is a gathering of Morris Sides, who preform and then head off for the nearest pub to drink ... yup, ale. [But not the kids. Every year in Boston, there's a Ginger Ale for youth teams.]
  • The Fool is a team member (or several) who entertain the audience while the dancing is going on, usually by being silly, occasionally playing harmless pranks on the dancers.
  • The Squire is the head of the team, the bag-man (or bag-lady) is the treasurer, the foreman is in charge of the actual dancing. On adult sides, these jobs are help by dancers, on a youth team, by parents.

The Origins of Morris Dancing

The origins of Morris are shrouded in mystery ... I can't give a better explanation than the one on this web page:

Origins of Morris

Note: for best effect, refresh the web page and read again.

People and Roles

Some of the people on a Morris side have special roles.

  • The Squire is the group's president. S/he conducts meetings and delegates work to others.
  • The Bag Man is the treasurer. The name comes from the traditional English money bag. Women holding this role are called, all in fun, bag ladies.
  • The Foreman is the dancer who can teach others. S/he is often in charge of the order of dances at a gig (performance)
  • The Junior Foreman, on youth teams only, is that bossy kid who gets to tell everyone else what to do <grin>
  • The Caller is the dancer who tells the other dancers what to do next. If you watch a dance, you may hear terms like "back to back", "motorcycle hay" or "all up". These are calls.
  • The Fool, the Hobby Horse, The Green Man, and others are non-dancing members of the team whose job is to engage the audience and have some fun.

Time for Another Video

Red Herring Morris performs "Captain Bike", a dance they created, at NEFFA, 2008. Thanks for the video, AJ!

Can you hear the caller in this dance?

Instruments Used in Morris Music

Though I have heard instruments from Highland pipes to electric guitar playing for Morris dancers, some instruments are traditional. Here's a lising.

By the way, the bagpipe was playing with the guitar, by teen, and they sounded surprisingly good together. Not traditional, but good.

  • The Fiddle is the primary instrument used in Morris dancing. Almost every side has a fiddler, sometimes several.
  • Squeeze Box: The accordion, melodion, or concertina is a common instrument.
  • Drum: the traditional British Tabor is most common, but any small drum can be used.
  • Tin whistles, recorders and flutes are commonly played as well.

What Morris Dancers Do When They Aren't Dancing

This is one of the coolest videos I know ... Jim and Jeff do a Morris men face off.

Jeff is a science teacher and concert violist. He teaches Morris dance as a hobby. I wish I knew more about Jim. They're both awesome!

Where Can I See Morris Dancing Live?

If you're in England, just go out to any country fair in the spring. Morris dance is traditional (and has a bit of a "country bumpkin" air.)

In the United States, most Morris dancing is done in the New England states, with another active community in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. In Canada, there's quite a bit of dancing in the Toronto area.

Other than that, look online. Sometimes, dancers will perform at May Day celebrations, or renaissance fairs.

Perhaps the largest gathering of Morris dancers anywhere is at the New England Folklife Festival, NEFFA. Over 30 groups dance at this 2 day festival, which also includes other exhibition and participtory dancing, music making, and general merriment. NEFFA is usually the 3rd weekend in April, in Mansfield, Massachusetts. [The videos in this article were taken at NEFFA.]

One Final Dance

This video is of Jack in the Green at NEFFA, 2011. You can see the Green Man and the Fool having a bit of fun ... and some members of Red Herring join in!

About the Author

I've been involved with the Boston area Morris dance community since 2008, when my oldest child joined Banbury Cross. My son followed a couple years later, and I became involved with organizing the group and performances.

Just this year, my son and I have joined Red Herring. I'm enjoying the dancing, but it's harder than you think!


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