Oxfordshire Morris

Extracts from display text composed for a temporary exhibition at the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments, spring 2009:

What is morris dance?
There are many different varieties of morris dance, from Cotswold to border, with related fields of rapper and molly, north-west and long-sword. Morris dancing is perceived to be an English countryside tradition stretching back to the sixteenth century. Dancers today can be men or women, primarily dancing for fun rather than profit. You can see morris dancers at a range of festivals from May Day to Boxing Day, as well as at events such as the Oxford Folk Festival (March 20-22nd 2009).

A local tradition
At the turn of the twentieth century local antiquarians were becoming aware of morris dancing in Oxfordshire. Dancing had stopped in many villages in the mid-nineteenth century due to social changes, and often because of a lack of musicians.

In March 1899 Percy Manning organised a concert of old songs and dances which he had collected from local people who remembered them. The concert was intended to be a one-off historic reconstruction, but in December of that year Cecil Sharp saw the morris dancers wrote down the dances and tunes.

In London Mary Neal used Sharp’s notes to teach the dances to local women, and thus the first revival began.

An invented tradition?
Morris dane is assumed to have been a countryside pastime prior to its demise in the mid-nineteenth century. 1899 saw the reconstruction of this practice for middle-class drawing room entertainment.

After a lull in the mid-twentieth century, there was a resurgence of morris dancing and the performance of folk music and song from the 1960s. Many morris sides were re-established and new ones founded, mostly for the purpose of reconstructing historical dances.

Some people perceive this as twee and anachronistic, as by this point it was over a hundred years since these dances had left their natural setting in the early-Victorian countryside.

A living tradition
Today new morris sides are still being founded. Some are still only interested in reconstructing historical dances but others blend different local traditions or write entirely new dances, leading to a great deal of variety and diversity in morris dance.

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