by Margaret Willis. A centuries-old folk tradition that nearly disappeared in the late 1800's, Morris dancing is now performed by amateur dance clubs around the world.

It's Boxing Day, the twenty-sixth of December, in the village of Claygate, a thirty minute train ride south-west of London. Outside the timbered Hare and Hounds pub, a crowd has braved the gloomy dampness of this winter's day to watch an annual village tradition. A group of strapping men of various ages an occupations, having fortified themselves with pints of bitter, are creating a scene that British tourist posters are made of. They are dressed in white shirts and trousers, blue-and-gold baldrics (crossed sashes), and straw hats decorated with flowers and ribbons, and they carry wooden sticks and have clusters of bells strapped onto their legs.

Edward, a domestic-appliance engineer, is prancing around in a hobbyhorse outfit, jiggling levels that open its mouth, stick out its tongue, and roll its eyes. Mick, a lawyer; Siward, a mathematics lecturer; John, who works for British Gas; Mike, a foreign-aid official; Francis, a banker who is the squire, or leader, of the group; and a long haired science student called Godwin line up opposite each other. The music strikes up: handed-down folk tunes such as "Trunkles" or "Getting Upstairs", played on concertina, accordion, and fiddle. The men begin to kick up their heels in nonstop, crisscross dancing patterns that bear some resembleance to square dancing. In the opening dance they wave white handkerchiefs over their heads; in another they bang on each other's wooden sticks. The Fool (a museum curator at the Wallace collection in London) darts in and out of the group, wearing a white smock embroidered with traditional patterns. He brandishes a stick with a pig's bladder on one end, a foxes brush on the other - both the Fool and the fox reporesent tricksters.

Regrettably absent is Phil, the national "Keeper of the Beast Archive" (that is the authority and collator of data on all animals - horses, bears, goats, deer, and so on - referred to in Morris dancing), who has flown off to Romania with other Morris men to perform in a festival there, dancing on snow and ice rather than damp asphalt. Sitting in a motorized wheelchair is Cyril, a justice of the peace and one of the founding members of the group forty years agol Jim, also a pensioner and a former carpenter, threads his way among the onlookers with a collection box, handing out slivers of a fertility fruitcake that is pierced through with a sword symbolically decorated with a posy of greenery and flowers. If promise holds true, Claygate will see a sharp rise in population in the following year!

Like many others, Jim discovered the world of Morris at an English country dance club. "I started in 1928," he says. "I was a Boy Scout then, and I originally went along to meet Girl Guides. Now here I am, more than sixty years later, still enjoying it all." Onlookers include families and holiday houseguests. Children are everywhere. "It's so much part of village life." says a neighbour. "We like to support it. Look at all that enegy and tradition on our doorstep."

The dancers are the Thames Valley Morris Men, popularly known by the initials TV. Each year they perform around Claygate, demonstrating an English custom that dates back five hundred years. The Boxing day scene is duplicated in many villages and towns on various festival and feast days throughout the year. Morris dancing is enjoying a resurgence here - and it's not just limited to Britain. Groups, or "sides", can be found from Hong Kong to Canada, and there's a strong contingent in the United States.

But what exactly is Morris dancing? Where did it originate and how has it been handed down?

Mystery surrounds its beginnings. Though much research has been done, there is still plenty of speculation. Are the strange custons associated with Morris dancing an offshoot of some pre-Christian fertility rite? Is it truely a native English dance or a collection of patterns imported from Europe and Africa?

Over the centuries many authorities have held that Morris was derived from the word Moorish and that the traditions came to England from North America via Spain in the fifteenth century. Lending weight to this idea has been the custom maintained by some sides of blackening their faces. But in The Medieval Stage, published in 1903, Sir Edward Chambers suggests that this was not done in an attempt to represent the black-skinned Moors but was rather the leftover ritualistic tradition of humbling oneself by smearing the face with ashes as a penance. It was also done to disguise the dancers, who were thought to be no more than beggars in some places. Today the dancers from the counties bordering Wales still traditionally "black up." but this is thought to be due to the area's association with coal mining.

Cecil Sharp, a music historian and the founder of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, who tirelessly collected and collated dance traditions, at first accepted the Moorish theory but later rejected it. He wrote in 1912 that he believed "the Morris dance is a development of a pan-European, or even more widely extended, custom." He saw in the use of animal figures traces of age-old ritual, including animal sacrifice.

By the early fifteenth century, pagan rituals in England were losing fashion - and the earliest evidence of Morris dancing dates from 1458: A widow, Alice de Wetenhalle of Bury Saint Edmunds and London, left her son a silver cup "scuplt. de moreys dauns"

In 1494 records show that Henry VII ordered that two pounds be paid "for playing of the Morrice Dance"; in 1501, "To them that daunced the mer daunce," one pound six shillings and eightpence; in 1502, one pound thirteen shillings and fourpence; and in 1506, six pounds thirteen shillings and fourpence - a veritable fortune in those distant days! In TV's own area, Morris dancing is first reported in the parish records of neighbouring Kingston-on-Thames in 1507. Today TV celebrates that town's ancient festival of Hocktime (two weeks after Easter) with a display of dancing outside the old church.

The court of Henry VIII saw many exotic entertainments in which Morris men played a part, and the Scottish court at that time also boasted its own Morris dancers. In Elisabeth I's reign, Morris dancing left the confines of the court to become a regular item in processions at the Revels of Misrule - that is, at carnevals and on feast days. The queen herself, in 1559, included Morris dancers in an entertainment for her master bakers; she started the proceedings with a gun salute that broke nearby windows, following it with bear baiting and then the dancing. The renowned Shakespearean actor Will Kempe, wearing bells, danced a Morris jig to music from a pipe and tabor from London to Norwich, a distance of 112 miles, in 1600. The spectacle was known as the "Nine Daies' Wonder."

In the late Elisabethan period Morris dancing began to collide with the somber disapproval of the clergy, and by 1625 the popularity of the art was already fading. Following the civil war in the seventeenth century, many populist customs, including the maypole and Morris dancing, were outlawed by the Puritans, and, consequently, the dancers lost the financial support of the upper classes. Ecclesiastical commisions forbade dancing on church grounds, claiming that crowds would gather and the plague might spread. Cases were brought to court in which dancers were accused of drunkenness, the use of profanity, and "dancing promiscuously". Although some dancing continued into the nineteenth century, few records were kept and there was no notation of steps.

Sharp saw Morris dancing for the first time in 1899 and decided to research and revive it. He traveled extensively throughout the Costwolds and northeastern England collecting dances, music, and information from eighty- and ninety-year-old men who had watched or participated in the Morris traditions as boys. In 19911 Sharps founded the English Folk Dance and Song Society, whose object was, and still is, "to preserve and promote the practice of English folk dances in their true traditional forms."

For a while Sharp worked with Mary Neal, the founder of the Esperance Club for working girls in London, and the dances were taught there. But Sharp wanted professionalism, while Neal felt that this would rob the dances of spontaneity and joy. They parted company.

Though Morris dancing is generally thought of as a male activity, women are said to have participated both in the English and Scottish courts between 1500 and 1525 - one in each performance, as the central figure, standing in the middle of the male dancers, who vied for her attention (though "she" often turned out to be a man). She held a favour such as an apple or a ring, which eventually went to the Fool. A woman danced part of the way with Kempe on his "Nine Daies' Wonder". In Herefordshire in 1602, however, women found dancing Morris were arrested.

Today there are several women's Morris sides, such as Jack Straws, whom I caught up with on the streets of the Surrey country town of Farnham entertaining Saturday shoppers just before Christmas. They danced outside a sports shop in white smocks and trousers; soft floppy hats were decorated with badges and flowers. They were accompanied not only by musicians but also by offspring in strollers, so there were noses to wipe and snacks to dispense when their places in the dance were taken by a mixed - men and women - Morris side from the neighbouring town of Alton.

The early Morris dancers were gaudy creatures, wearing, as one eyewitness wrote, "red and yellow satin coats and block and yellow hose" or "coats of red and blue taffeta." These costumes were expensive; records dating back to 1593 indicated that a rich nobleman was needed to foot the bill. Sometimes the cost was too great and costumes had to be rented from another Parish.

Costumes today provide a means of identifying the different sides. The waistcoats of the Thames Valley Morris Men have a dancing "tree of life" embroidered on their backs, but each one is personalised by the wearer with added symbols depicting hobbies or events.

Like the majority of Morris sides, TV is a "revival" group - the steps and dances are learnt from the research and notation that Sharp initiated. The differing styles come from Cotswold villages such as Headington, Bampton, Adderbury, and Sherbourne. TV's trademark is the jaunty "Oddington" tradition, which they revived in 1959 from authentic notation collected from an old Oddington Musician. The TV are members of the Morris Ring, and organisation formed in 1934 to further the Morris traditions of male sides. Women can join the Morris Federation which has both male and female sides but no mixed sides, or the Open Morris Association, which includes mixed sides.

In 1930, the Cecil Sharp House was opened in Regents Park Road in London. It is the home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, a storehouse of dance archives. And it seems that the Morris has a future as well as a past. The society's educational officer, Caroline Robson, says she is pleased with the interest being shown in folk traditions, especially in Morris dancing. She visits schoold (dance is now part of Britain's national school curriculum) and gives workshops for teachers, who can then offer their students a real link with British social history. Robson, herself a Morris dancer, says, "We try to give this ancient art form a fresh image to ensure that a valuable English tradition continues.

Margaret Willis is a Dance Magazine contributing editor based in Europe

Article published in Dance magazine, December 1992.