Morris dancers, black face paint, and why traditions evolve

This week David Cameron has found controversy and also divided opinion by appearing in a photograph posing with a Border Morris side (wearing traditional black face paint) in Banbury near his Oxfordshire constituency. Many in the folk world will have greeted this latest gaffe with a frustrated sigh as once again commentators are polarised to the left and right. On the one hand we have left wing writers pointing out the obvious racial connotations of blacking the face, and, on the other, the right declaring that this is an example of political correctness gone mad and an assault on English tradition. For members of the folk community what seems to be consistently absent is a more balanced argument that neither consigns all English folk dance to the dustbin, nor provides convenient cover for nationalists and racists.

Most Morris dancers will be able to tell you that the origin of blacking the face goes back to farm labourers who wanted a disguise from their bosses while begging and busking during the winter. However, it is also very possible that it was an attempt to mimic the North African dances that were probably Morris’s inspiration. Either way the vast majority of present-day Morris performers who do black their face do not do so as a racial comment, but because it is seen as part of the tradition. On the whole the Morris community is not welcoming to extreme displays of nationalism. On the contrary, a facial disguise is more often linked to acts of rebellion against the rural rich and is mostly heralded as part of the appeal and menace of performing these dances.

My own family have been heavily involved in Morris and English folk music for the last three generations. I grew up in a Morris village in Cameron’s Witney constituency and went to school with children who Morris danced. Contrary to popular perception, however, Cameron has not always been supportive of Morris. While it would be an exaggeration to say all Morris is working class, it certainly is not a pastime patronised by the rich such as the case of fox hunting or field sports.

While local youth clubs were closed down, Morris has also suffered. The gentrification of traditional pub venues into wine bars and restaurants has made them often actively aggressive towards Morris, while at at the same time some Tories have actively sought to exclude Morris performers from council events, a position well illustrated by Lord Coe’s declaration that he wanted no Morris dancers at the 2012 Olympics. It’s not hard to see why when Morris dancers feature heavily in local left wing events such as the annual Levellers Day.

The origins of Morris dancing

The earliest evidence of Morris dancing in England dates to somewhere around the 1500s. It was certainly known of during Shakespeare’s time, as is documented by the exploits of Globe Theatre actor Will Kemp who Morris danced from London to Norwich. Most modern speculations on the origins of Morris suggest that it may have come from a form of Moorish dancing, and this certainly seems to fit with similar forms of dance from around Europe that date back to the heght of the Muslim presence in Spain. One thing that is fairly certain, however, is that Morris is not pagan nor anything like that old.

Modern Morris dancing, while retaining some of the early trademarks such as bells, hankies and sticks, has changed hugely in the few hundred years it has existed. By the late 19th century most Morris in the South of England had died out completely with only a handful of dancers continuing it. Since the 20th century Morris has undergone several revivals and now represents a broad church of both style and opinion. Amongst this are Cotswold (perhaps the most famous who wear white and often coloured sashes), Lancashire Clog, Long Sword, Rapper (from the mining communities of the North East), East Anglian Molly and Border, from the Welsh border region. Of these only Molly and Border have groups that regularly blacken their faces.

How Morris can continue to be a welcoming community

From my experience Morris is not a re-enactment of an ancient ritual but both looks to the past, and embraces new ideas and provides an outlet for artistic expression. The divide is often between generations, something that is demonstrated by the stark contrast between the more formal men only ‘ring sides’ and younger mixed groups often based around universities.

Given the innocent intentions of many of those who do black their face, it would be easy to perceive any attack on the practice as political correctness and an attack on tradition. But I think it is important that we stop and think about the repercussions of wearing black face paint. We do not at present live within a world that is free from racist oppression. Be it racially motivated violence or the institutionalised discrimination that still exists against black people in virtually all aspects of British society, race is like it or not still on the agenda.

When looking at a picture such as this the first connection most people outside the folk community will make is that of race. Only a few years ago Nick Griffin and the BNP tried to hijack folk music and use it as means of pushing their racist agenda, and it is to the credit of the folk community that his ambitions were thwarted. This was thanks to the creation and widespread support for the group ‘Folk Against Fascism’ which in only a few months had inspired the support of overwhelming majority of the folk scene. So the question really is whether it is more important to continue a tradition unchanged or avoid continuing a practice that could be mistakenly perceived as racial statement? For me it’s certainly the latter.

Morris dancing is a living tradition, and like any tradition it survives by adapting and making itself relevant. Dancers are no longer begging farm labourers or miners, so they now perform for fun instead of money. The music has changed as well with lots of influence from other genres. Even the accordion that can often seem like one of the most characteristic instruments associated with Morris has only been part of the tradition since its invention roughly 100 years ago. So given that Morris changes all the time, what is stopping us from making this particular modification?

Many Border and Molly sides either do not paint their face or opt for alternative colours to black. For example, the border Morris side Boggarts Breakfast paint their faces blue, and the Molly group Gog Magog all use different bright colours, which in my opinion contributes their wacky style. Others opt for patterns, such as Pig Dyke Morris, though their take could be seen as a comment on the band KISS.

There are wide variety of different options for Morris sides who don’t want to be subject of this debate, or wish to make a gesture towards the sensitivities of racism. Our tradition is only in danger of dying out if we treat it like a fossil that is too brittle to evolve. It’s a strong, vibrant form of dance, and it will not be hurt or destroyed by wearing blue, green or purple on the face in place of black. However, that small change may be part of ensuring that Morris continues to be a welcoming place to people of all ethnicities, and goes on growing for generations to come. In illustration of this one of the dancers pictured has since commented on her use of a black stripe instead of full black face paint. She says of her daughter-in-law, ‘She’s very sensitive because she’s a black American and is a bit confused by it because it’s not an American tradition.’

Further Reading

Some of the Morris dancers pictured responding in the Independent >>

Folk Against Fascism >>