A Little History
The name ‘Morris’ may be derived from ‘Moorish’ (a similar dance, the ‘Morisco’, was known in medieval Spain). Payments to ‘Moryshe dauncers’ were first recorded in London in 1448, and there were performances at royal and civic festivities before 1500. By 1600 Morris dancing had become a popular pastime in many villages, and the name gradually became used to describe a wider range of English traditional dances.
The Morris is England’s oldest surviving tradition. For at least five and a half centuries (perhaps much longer), it has been performed to welcome the spring and to mark the turning of the year at midsummer and midwinter. One version was danced in Hexham until the 19th century, when – like many other rural customs – it fell into decline.
The revival of Morris dancing in Hexham began in November 1977 and in the towns folk club Hexham Morris was born. The group started slowly, but grew to incorporate the Hexham Morrismen and Hexhamshire Lasses. The teams are the strongest they have ever been with around 45 members between them.
Originally danced only in their own localities, the different styles travelled more widely with the onset of industrialisation, as many people moved into the cities. Since then the English Diaspora has carried the dances around the world.
The different syles
Cotswold Morris: The earliest recorded Morris dance form, featuring large handkerchiefs, sticks and bells – it should be danced with athleticism and style, or as folklorist Cecil Sharp put it, ‘graceful but manly withal’.
Border (or Bedlam): Wild and aggressive Morris from the Welsh Borders - a key feature is the use of disguise, which prevented the dancers (usually out-of-work farm labourers) being recognised while demanding money (rather menacingly) to supplement their meagre winter earnings.
Clog Dancing: energetic and complex step dancing - prevalent across Northern England (with distinctive Northumbrian, Lancashire and Westmorland forms) and in Ireland - transported across the Atlantic at least as early as the 18th Century, it evolved into tap dancing in the mid 19th century (influenced by African-American dances)
Rapper dancing: Developed by coal miners in the North East of England, probably before 1800 – it utilised clog dance steps and two handled spring steel flexible ‘swords’ in a fast, furious and spectacular dance, traditionally performed around Northern pubs (sometimes to hair-raising effect) to collect money - also often danced in competitions.
Garland Dancing: Lively and decorative - it was often danced by young girls at Well- Dressing ceremonies in the English Midlands.
North West’ Clog Morris: Vigorous, almost with a military air - originally danced by male and female cotton mill workers in parades during “Wakes Week” holidays (the clogs, and some artefacts used in the dances, are reminiscent of the mills) - figures were developed later to provide ‘set’ dances.
Mummers plays: Performed at festive seasons by local ‘mummers’ or ‘guysers’ at private houses or in pubs – most village plays shared common themes (usually St George fights various opponents, with the loser being resurrected by a ‘quack’ doctor) - they often featured improvised variations lampooning historical characters or local dignitaries. Some of the plays accompanied sword dances.