Bridging conveniently between our Tradition and Dance issues, you’d almost think they planned the annual Westminster Day of Dance around us. The Westminster Morris Men have, however, been running this event on the second saturday in May since 1953. They now fill the city with dancers from fifteen different groups to herald in the beginning of the morrising season. We spoke to Jason Standing about what it means to be a morris dancer in the 21st century and asked why the Welsh ones black up when they do it.
How did you get started morris dancing?
I was roped into it by my housemate at the time, who was Squire of the Adelaide Morris Men and who suggested a list of reasons I should do it - chief among them being that he needed a lift to practice, and I had a car. I enjoyed it immensely however, and so shortly after moving to London I sought out my local team – the Westminster Morris Men.
Royal Liberty Morris Fool
Can you explain the different roles in the morris?
Other than the six dancers and the musician, many sides have a Fool and a Horse. The Fool is usually the one who has an inflated pig's bladder on a stick which he goes around bopping people on the head with and he often interacts with the audience, as well as getting involved in the dancing.
We at Westminster have our Unicorn, who seems to fulfil both roles - there's certainly no one in the side more foolish than he! He was found in the late 1950s roaming the Epping Forest, and subsists purely on a diet of English coins.
Other than that we've got a Squire, who is in charge of the team, a Bagman, who organises all the team's goings on, a Treasurer, who looks after the treasure, and a Foreman, who is in charge of teaching the dances and ensuring everything's up to scratch.
I heard that morris dancers from the Welsh border paint their faces black. What's up with that?
They do, although some paint themselves blue with woad, and others like Pig Dyke Molly Dancers or Gog Magog Molly Dancers paint their faces somewhat more artistically. The origins of this come from when the morris was danced by factory workers and farmhands back in the 18th century, which they did to raise a bit of extra cash for themselves. They blacked up to disguise themselves so their employers wouldn't recognise them and tweak their pay packets after the event.
Silurian Morris Men
Morris dancing and ale are pretty much inseperable - true or false?
That's not entirely true... you have to put your pint down to dance, or you'll spill it. I suspect it comes from morris sides dancing in front of pubs (where you have a captive audience). I think most of the guys just enjoy the taste of it to be honest.
Having said that, the name given to a gathering of morris sides just having a dance for their own fun is an "Ale"...
Westminster Morris Men and Archbishop
What's the best/most memorable morris dance you've witnessed or participated in?
My highlight so far was dancing at Lambeth Palace at a garden party for the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The most amazing morris dancers in the country, I think, are Dogrose Morris - I think they're from up north. All incredibly young and energetic dancers. There's a great YouTube video of Will & Dave from Dogrose doing a jig where they beat each other over the head with beer trays.
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