What is Border Morris?

Beorma

Originally the term Border Morris referred to the dances of the English counties on the Welsh border - Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire. Today the term normally describes dances of a particular style, rather than just those which originated in the area. The dances are boisterous and energetic, primarily stick dances, relying to a great extent on the impact of the performance. The dancers cover their faces with coloured make-up, and the costumes are often decorated with many ribbons or strips of material, known as rags or tatters.

The sides who were dancing at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries performed mainly to raise money to supplement their income, although they probably spent a fair proportion of the collection in the local pub. Early records show morris dancers appearing before magistrates on charges of violent behaviour, drunkenness, unpaid bills or any combination of the three!

Although the impression is that the dancers were an undisciplined, rowdy group, anything that impaired the performance also reduced the money in the collection and such misdemeanours as turning up late or forgetting part of the costume were often subject to large fines.

Many sides blackened their faces, though some sides did not. "Blacking up" may have been as some form of disguise because the performers were begging. If so, this must have been a custom that saved face on the part of dancers and audience alike.

Beorma

A number of sides wore costumes with numerous rags or ribbons attached to either the shirt or a jacket, although not all sides did this. There are also descriptions of sides wearing smocks, plain shirts or even carnival costumes. The rule seems to have been that the side wore whatever was readily available and made a show for the audience. Most sides wore bells, either attached to the legs or the costumes.

In the Welsh border area, morris dancing traditionally happened around Christmas and the dancers could raise a substantial amount of extra money. In many cases this made the difference between a good Christmas and a poor one.

There are a few early descriptions of women dancing border morris. However, well before the start of the twentieth century, all of the descriptions are of groups solely of men. It is not clear when this change occurred. It may have been at least partly due to the nineteenth-century view of women's place in society.

Morris dancing of all styles had started to die out as its popularity waned. There was a much later revival of border morris by which time the original sides had stopped dancing and there was no living example to follow. Dances were put together based on written description and from what people who had watched the dances said.

Today, Border Morris can be considered a living tradition. Current sides watch each other perform and add new ideas. They draw on experience of many forms of dance. The best new ideas are copied, adapted and used in new settings until it becomes impossible to say with any certainty where they originated.

Above all, they dance to enjoy it. Since Border Morris relies so much on the energy of the performance, the sides which appeal most to audiences are those dancing what they like in a way which they enjoy. This enjoyment and exuberance is infectious and a great part of the appeal.

With thanks to Andy Anderson of the Morris Federation.

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