Morris dancing can be found in many parts of England but it is in the Cotswold that
it is particularly associated and where it can be seen at its most developed. This
form of English folk dance can be traced back to the 13th century, but many think
it goes back to an even earlier pre-Christian time. It is a part of ritual dancing
found throughout most of Europe and particularly with Moorish dancing from Spain.
From Moorish, we get Morris.
It is an outdoor dance performed by men wearing costumes consisting of white shirt
and trousers, and a hat adorned with flowers and ribbon. Garters are worn around
the legs and these have bells attached. Handkerchiefs or sticks are used in the dance,
and fiddle or concertina provides the music. The dance often illustrates a legend
or a rural activity such as sowing and harvesting and the bells and handkerchiefs
are to ward of evil spirits and to ensure fertility of the crops for the coming year.
In the Cotswolds the dance is usually performed by six men known as a side and includes
a fool or sometimes a beast. In the north of England the style is different,
a side could include eight or more with the men wearing clogs and swinging coloured
slings. Most Cotswold villages had their own individual dances and tunes but by the
1880s, the tradition began to die out.
In late Victorian England a ‘back to the land’ movement began in an
attempt to emphasise traditional values and the benefits of rural living. It was
a reaction against industrialism and the expanding urban society. This stimulated
a great interest in rural crafts and traditions and included for example lacemaking,
quilting and folk music. This in turn created other movements such as ramblers groups
and conservation societies that were to grow into the National Trust. Among these
groups was one dedicated to the preservation of Morris dancing.
Cecil Sharp was a music teacher who in 1902 published a book of British songs. Recognising
the importance of traditional English music and song, he continued to carry out further
research, and in 1904, he published Folk Songs from Somerset, which aroused great
interest. Because of this, he was invited to join the committee of the Folk Song
Society. He led the movement to trace and record threatened folk songs for posterity
and in 1907, published two volumes of English Folk Songs. Subsequent searches took
him to the United States and particularly the Appalachian Mountains were he collected
songs of English origin.
Cecil Sharp’s other main interest was in dance and in this, he was a pioneer.
He researched country-dance, sword and Morris and in 1911, he founded the English
Folk Dance Society. By bringing together traditional song and dance, he awakened
a modern interest in Morris. This summer we will be able to see Gloucestershire Morris
dancers perform with much enthusiasm and vibrancy in our Cotswold town squares and
on our village greens, ensuring this fine old English tradition lives forever.