Morris dancing takes place all over England and has done since antiquity. It is particularly associated with the Cotswold area, where the most evolved form of Morris dancing is still found. The Morris dance is a type of peculiarly English folk dance accompanied by music. It consists of rhythmic steps and the execution of choreographed figures by a group of dancers, usually wearing bell pads on their shins. Implements such as sticks, swords, and handkerchiefs are used in the dance. In a small number of dances for one or two men, steps are performed near and across a pair of clay pipes laid across each other on the floor.
Six men perform the Morris dance accompanied by a musician. Two extra characters in the form of a fool and a beast (often a goat) are present. Many sides have one or more fools. A fool will usually be extravagantly dressed, and communicate directly with the audience in speech or mime. The fool dances around without appearing to be involved while actually adding to and not distracting from the main dance set. Many sides also have a beast: a dancer in a costume made to look like a real or mythical animal. Beasts mainly interact with the audience, particularly children.
The dancers wear a costume of white, an ancient sacred colour. It has always been a dance for men with strong associations with Whitsun (May time), when the dance was performed for fertility and a good harvest of crops.
In the past, most Cotswold villages had their own individual dances and tunes, but by the end of Industrial Revolution, the tradition had almost died out, as the Victorians had introduced many other pastimes and sports. Fortunately, there was a great revival of interest in Morris Dancing in the early years of this century, led by Cecil Sharp who was the person mainly responsible for collecting and noting the dances that are performed now.
The Gloucestershire Morris Men perform throughout the spring and summer months, dancing each Tuesday night at some of the lovely countryside pubs in the county. One local pub in particular where we have been entertained by Morris Dancers is The Coalhouse Inn.
The performances continue an old tradition, keep the music, and dance steps alive. The Morris dancing year for the Gloucestershire Morris Men has certain traditional events, which are participated in each year. The year starts on Boxing Day with dancing in Cheltenham before joining the Gloucester Mummers for a performance outside Gloucester Cathedral. They perform the first evening of Morris dancing on St. George’s Day – April 23rd. On May Day, they dance as the sun rises on Painswick Beacon in a ritualistic homage to days gone by. The main dancing venues around Gloucestershire are Winchcombe, Broadway, Chipping Campden, Moreton in Marsh and Stow on the Wold plus a few other venues, which vary from year to year. On St John’s Eve in June, the Gloucestershire Morris Men are always to be found in Burford, usually being chased by a dragon!