A bit about Morris and Border Morris

It is a surprise to many that, while Morrris dancing is perceived to be a wholly English tradition, its earliest origins can be found in Spain, France and the low countries.  There remains a Morris dancing tradition in Northern Spain (very different from ours). And it's international too, with Morris sides active in diverse countries from the USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand to China, Sweden, Cyprus and Germany.

Morris is an English translation of the Spanish word Moorish.  While it is tempting to see a direct link from the Alhambra to Barnstaple none can be established.

In England Morris dancing developed regionally and now encompasses a number of traditions.  Cotswold Morris (from the Costwolds, funnily enough), Molly (East Anglia) Northwest Clog and non regional disciplines of long sword and rapper.  But the true, and most interesting, tradition is Welsh Border Morris.

In his book The Roots of Welsh Border Morris (The Welsh Border Morris Dances of Herefordshire Worcestershire and Shropshire), Dave Jones describes Border Morris thus:

Border Morris originates from the counties of Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire along the Welsh Border, and at one time many of the hamlets and villages had their own side.  Records have been found dating back to 1609, when 12 dancers performed at the Hereford Races (accompanied by four whifflers and two musicians), but many people believe that the origins are far earlier than that.  Records from the 1600s indicate that Morris dancing was quite widespread in the region, and popular at Christmas and in the Summer.

In Victorian times, Welsh Border Morris was performed by seasonal workers - agricultural labourers and fishermen from the Severn - during the Winter months when work was scarce. Most of the dances recorded were stick dances, but others included the handkerchief dances of Upton, Pershore and Evesham, and the stepping dance from Bromsberrow Heath.  Pipe and tabor were the earliest accompaniment, and later, fiddle, accordion, melodeon, concertina, tambourines, triangles, drums, bones, tin whistles and flutes became part of the tradition.

Records from the late 19th and early 20th century describe the dancers wearing a white shirt or old clothes covered with brightly coloured rags, the style varying slightly with each side.  Sometimes sashes were added; sometimes the tatters were made from paper, as well as cloth.  Soft hats decorated with rags, bowler hats or top hats were worn, or sometimes, none at all.  The costumes became gradually more fancy, with some dancers dressing as women.  Many of the sides wore bells, and most sides blackened their faces. The tradition may date back much further than this, but what is known is that Border Dancers in Victorian times did so to avoid being recognised and arrested for begging when the police came.