With their long socks, hats, white handkerchiefs and bells tied to their shins, Morris dancers have long been figures of fun in England — but a new generation is fighting back.
England’s traditional folk dancing is thought to date back to at least the 14th century, although nobody quite knows where it originated, other than that it has been danced for hundreds of years by working men trying to earn a bit of extra cash.
The future of Morris was cast into doubt earlier this year when one of its senior officials warned it risks becoming “extinct” within 20 years because young people are too embarrassed to take part.
“There is no doubt some sides will die, and have died, because the youngsters haven’t been encouraged to come in,” Charlie Corcoran, the bagman (secretary) of the Morris Ring dance association, said.
But at a Morris festival in Nottingham, central England, last month, most dancers rejected this, arguing that while young people may not be dancing the traditional styles, they are reinterpreting Morris for the 21st century.
The Boggart’s Breakfast troupe, from Sheffield in northern England, are far from the stereotype of the bearded, middle-age men in white socks, both in appearance and the way they add modern twists and turns to the usual set-piece dances with sticks.
Although they wear the rag jackets of the Border dance style, which hails from the counties bordering Wales, these are black with blue and silver sequins, topped off with black trousers and top hats and bright blue painted faces.
“We formed with the intention of pushing the boundaries a little — we do a lot of fusion stuff, we use a lot of non-traditional tunes,” says Grace Jackson, 34, who is originally from the US state of Vermont.
She said there was “not a chance” Morris was dying out, but admitted that dances with handkerchiefs were “a bit girly” and said it was vital to have groups who were “making it new and making it something for this generation.”
Morris, usually danced by sets of four or six people, has long been a part of rural life across England, taking on regional variations.
Mill workers in the northwest danced in their work clogs, while coal miners in the northeast took the swords they used to scrape the mud off pit ponies to create intricate woven patterns in “Rapper” or “long sword” dances.
Many of the dances were written down for the first time in the early 20th century by music teacher Cecil Sharp, sparking a revival.
Nowadays, most of England’s estimated 14,000 Morris dancers perform more than one style, to the music of either a single melodeon, a fiddle or a band.
It is no longer a male-only culture, and mixed sides are a common sight.
The Lord Conyers Morris Men have been dancing for 35 years, but member John Ledbury admits the all-male side once looked as if they were dying out.
“We went through a stage where our average age went up by one each year,” said the 62-year-old, whose troupe wear all white with brown and green baldricks (chest straps) and straw hats.
“Then there were various new generation people joining us and it brought it down with a bump, and it seems to have revitalized the dancing quite a bit.”
Many Morris officials say there are young people dancing but many are embarrassed to perform anywhere that their friends may see them.
This is less of a problem with Rapper dancing, a highly-energetic sword dance performed by five people. It involves weaving flexible swords held at each end into intricate patterns, while deploying some deft footwork.