Clashing wooden sticks, billowing handkerchiefs, jangling bell pads and the occasional ‘woop’: you might think you know what morris dancing looks like. An odd, dusty ritual that’s performed once a year at the village fête? Not anymore: this 500-year-old artform is getting a surprising revamp.
Morris dancers are posting videos of themselves on TikTok sharing routines to Beyoncé’s ‘Break My Soul’. Earlier this year, the all-female dancing side Boss Morris accompanied indie outfit Wet Leg’s performance at the 2023 Brit Awards. And, despite the scene’s historically white, male demographic – in 2020, less than one percent of morris dancers were non-white and there was even a reported attempt by white nationalists to appropriate the tradition – morris dancing is becoming trendier, younger and more diverse.
At its most basic, morris dancing is a form of English folk dance, based on rhythmic stepping and choreographed figures, often soundtracked by instruments like the pipe, fiddle, melodeon and drums. Practised by different teams, known as ‘sides’, for centuries, this age-old dance has come a long way since the Morris Ring formed in 1934, exclusively for men. Now, the three Morris organisations in the UK – the Morris Ring, Morris Dancers UK and the Morris Federation – cater to all genders, and the dance is experiencing a resurgence in popularity.
Could it be true? Sometimes (whisper it), in certain circles, people are cautiously saying that morris dancing... might actually be cool?
A generational affair
Based in Wantage, Oxfordshire, the Icknield Way Morris Dancing side is reviving the historic folk dance by getting a new generation involved. Graham Hubbard joined the Icknield side in 2001, after being taught by his father growing up. ‘I taught five youngsters during lockdown,’ Hubbard says. ‘We now have young people joining the club, including my son, aged 10. They really enjoy learning this new skill and the friendship it brings.’
The Icknield Way Morris side has danced for more than 60 years and boasts a wide circle of members – from teenagers to people in their seventies – who come together to entertain crowds at pubs and clubs around Wantage and further afield. ‘Travelling to places I wouldn’t normally go to and performing provides a real buzz,’ says Hubbard.
He’s also involved with the Morris 18-30 group: a network for young morris men from different teams around the country to perform at an annual weekend hosted by a different Morris Ring side. ‘Since Covid, more people are keen to do stuff [like this] and there are more younger members getting involved,’ he says.
Here come the girls
It was only in 2018 that the Morris Ring allowed women to join, but females now make up more than half of all Britain’s morris dancers. New Esperance Morris is a female-inclusive group with recruits as young as 18, who have been continuing the tradition of women’s morris dancing since the 1970s. With a large proportion of queer members, it was the only morris side to dance in the London Pride procession this year and also won the Parade Team Award at Pride in London 2017, as voted for by members of the stewarding team.
Diane Moody, the foreman and teacher of New Esperance, has danced for more than 40 years – and she’s seen a fair amount of changes in that time. ‘Morris dancing is going through a cool period,’ Moody says. ‘We are experiencing a revival. Public attitudes have changed and the outlook of dancers has moved on. Our side wears a shirt, trousers and favours which is more appealing than the previous frocks and ribbons.’
Fusing new moves with traditional routines, the dances themselves are also adapting for the times. Moody says: ‘We have adapted styles using the same figures, steps and shapes and have introduced new lines to make them more interesting and look better on stage and the market square – which makes it more appealing in a club and festival context.’
New Esperance practice at a community centre near London Bridge, where they’ll break a sweat, memorise new moves and get to know fresh faces. ‘It’s nice to meet up once a week with a group of like-minded people. We go out for a pint after practice and set the world to rights,’ says Moody.
From bird spotting to mudlarking, salsa dancing to crochet, young people are increasingly seeking out new, alternative hobbies in an effort to socialise away from screens. It seems like morris dancing is becoming an increasingly popular wholesome pastime – perhaps bolstered by the fact that British culture is in the midst of a folk revival.
Rose Johnstone – who also happens to be Time Out’s commercial editor – moved to the UK from Australia about five years ago and joined New Esperance after seeing how much fun it looked from a friend’s social media posts of the group dancing. ‘I found the style of dancing really beautiful and the idea of delving deeper into English folk traditions really appealing,’ says Johnstone.
‘A year on from my first practice, I was in Hastings dancing for a hundred people, surrounded by all these other amazing groups from around the country, with their own dances and uniforms.’
These days, morris dancing communities are widespread in the UK, where many clubs and regions are associated with their own unique style of the dance: from Cotswold Morris to Border Morris, Rapper, Long Sword, Clog Morris and even Appalachian (step clog, mixed with tap dancing).
Now, morris dancing is bursting out of village halls and local folk events and into the mainstream. And as for new recruits? ‘The future is looking healthy,’ says Moody.