What is Morris Dancing?
The Morris Dance is extremely old. Although the earliest written reference is in parish records of the mid-16th century, it is certainly much older than that, as elements of the tradition appear to be of pagan origin, though later adapted for Christian society.
The dance seems to have been performed originally at the yearly sun festivals of Autumn, Winter and Spring. These were all fire festivals, where the men would burn the bones of a sacrifice (usually a horse) and dance round the "bone-fire" (or bonfire) wearing elaborate costumes and with faces blacked to hide their identities. These dance rituals were for the men only, as tending fires was for women only. One man would attend the bone fire disguised as a woman; this character is known today as the "Molly".
Although both Church and State have often disapproved of these traditions, and sometimes even outlawed them, the common people have kept them alive. Like all living things they have changed with the passage of time. Different styles have arisen in different parts of the country at different times. At one time all the dancers blacked their faces - perhaps one reason why they came to be called "Moorish" (Morris), as they were thought to be black-faced Moors.
Comparatively few Morris teams still use black-face today, mainly because it was illegal during the time of Cromwell. The form of Morris usually known as Cotswold and typified by bells, baldricks and handkerchiefs dates from just after this time, when Morris was revived along with the Monarchy.
The Morris Dance is still the traditional dance of England, with more than a thousand sides performing all across the country.