Boarder Morris—An explanation.
by Steve Fuller
Grimsby Morris Men have taken to calling their winter dances "Boarder Morris". This is little more than a feeble pun based on:
- Our mascot is a Boar (based on the Boars that appear on the Grimsby arms);
- Our dances are in a style that originated in the area of England that borders onto Wales (counties such as Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire) and are generally described as "Border" Morris.
About 100 years ago when Folklorists began to collect, describe and classify Morris dances, their first action was to decide on the geographical origins of the dance and place it in that group (Cotswold, Border, North West etc.). The Border Morris dances were found mainly in the English countes that bordered onto Wales. These "Border" Morris dances were generally looked down upon by the Folk Dance Collectors of the early twentieth century as, in comparison to some of the Cotswold style dances, the Border dances were less sophisticated with fewer dances performed by each team of dancers, a smaller range of steps and figures and less regimented costume. It was all a bit rough and ready and was regarded as a degenerate or decayed cousin of the Cotswold Morris that had fallen into disrepair.
Subsequent investigations by the likes of E.M. Leather, E.C.Cawte and Maude Karpeles found that, whilst the Border Morris style had probably never been as sophisticated as the Cotswold Morris, it had been extremely popular with many active dance teams in the border counties. Unlike the Cotswold Morris, which is primarily a summer dance, the Border Morris dancers tended to perform at Christmas. In addition the Border Morris dancers persisted with the practice of disguising themselves by colouring their face with soot (or whatever else they could lay their hands on). The origins of this disguising possibly goes back to the days of the seventeenth century when many rich and powerful landowners were of a puritanical disposition and would happily dismiss and evict any worker who was a Morris dancer; the Puritans regarded Morris dancing as un-Godly and an affront to the Almighty. Even worse, it could be the work of the Pope (Morris dancing was closely associated with Church festivals before the reformation.) In those days not being recognised as a dancer could enable you to keep your house and your job. In addition, some dancers were not above a bit of petty thieving (there are many newspaper and court records of beer being consumed but not paid for and people's chickens going missing!) and being disguised helped.
The general feeling about Border Morris was that it was somewhat wild and unsophisticated with a bit of dark mystery about it. This was amplified during the 1970's when the album "Rattlebone and Ploughjack " came out as a sort of Wintertime answer to the album "Morris On". The album was well received and built on the "dark and mysterious" aspect of Border Morris.
At around that time there were only really two Morris teams specialising in Border Morris dances and they focussed on different ways of approaching the performance.
Silurian Morris spent a lot of time researching the dance literature, talking to surviving old dancers and trying to recreate a dance style based on that information. Surviving dancers came and watched ther performances and advised on style and costume etc. This led to the publication of a booklet "The Roots of Welsh Border Morris" by Dave Jones.
The other early exponents of Border Morris were two associated teams, Martha Rhoden's Tuppenny Dish (a women's team) and Shropshire Bedlam (a men's team) who, generally, perform together and share musicians. The Bedlam approach to Border Morris was to try to re-invent something which embodied the spirit of the old dances but which would elicit an audience response similar to that of the original dance performances. The Bedlam dances are much more loosely based on the older forms of collected dances and much of their style (including the characteristic one hop, two hop, one two three hop stepping, widely copied by others) came about pragmatically because it worked in the dance and dancers and audience liked it.
Grimsby Morris Men began to dance Border dances in the late 1970s and became well known as expert practitioners who started with the established collected dances and added a few locally evolved dances based on old dance forms and practice. So much so that when "Dancing England" held an 'uprooted traditions' event in 1986, Grimsby Morris were invited along and we performed several dances we had devised (at the time dubbed Lincolnshire Border Morris), based around known dances but with additional elements from Molly dances, Sword dances (and the Red Arrows!) and using tunes we liked (some local to Lincolnshire). We were among the first teams to use multi-coloured face paints as well as multi-coloured Mohican hairstyles (we had hair in those days!) and shoes colour-matched to odd socks.
If you search the websites of all the Morris organisations you will find much more information about the many styles of Border Morris and will find instructional information as well as up to date historical information.
As a start to seeing how to do Boarder Morris we suggest our own website, https://www.grimsbymorrismen.org.uk/.
Here you will find lots of pictures and a link to our Facebook page that has many more photographs and videos.
As a start to seeing how you can do Border Morris we suggest searching YouTube (other video sharing sites are available) for-
Silurian Morris (nothing to do with Dr Who monsters by the way);
Martha Rhoden's Tuppeny dish;
You will probably also be prompted to view videos of hundreds of other teams many of them weird and wonderful, some just weird!
Most of these dance teams also have websites that you will find using any search engine.