Cultural History

Traditional English Morris Dancing

The first dances are thought to have arrived in England around the time of the Tudors – an adaptation of the Spanish pageant known as the Moresca, which celebrated the defeat of Islam in the Iberian Peninsula. Shakespearean actor William Kempe morris danced all the way from London to Norwich chronicling his achievement in the book Nine Days Wonder, published in 1600 while John Milton introduced the dancers to a wider audience in his celebrated masque Comus.

But the Puritans had little love for the morris men or their traditions – as attested to by the observations of Stubbs – and the “ungodly” sound of jingling bells in the village greens and market squares of Cromwell’s Commonwealth was systematically repressed along with most other forms of public enjoyment. Morris dancing then was subversive, dangerous, and threatened the status quo.

The Restoration signalled not only the return of the king but the resumption of popular events such as the Whitsun Ales and in the years that followed so there was a flowering of the art of morris: Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire became the hanky-waving stronghold of the Cotswolders; clog dancing ruled the mill towns of the 19th century North West. On the Borders, dancers donned blackface and turned their clothes inside out to go “raggy” while Yorkshire resounded to the dances of longsworders and out-of-work ploughboys entertained East Anglian crowds (sometimes with more than a hint of menace) with their molly dances. Yet by the early years of the 20th century this rich tapestry of local tradition was unravelling. Sharp was enthralled by his encounter with Headington team and the musician set out on an odyssey that was to see him scour the country excavating the memories of those that could still recall the old dances and painstakingly recording the steps and noting down the tunes for posterity. His establishment of the English Folk Dance Society helped ensure that the centuries-old ways were not lost in the slaughter of the Western Front just three years later.

Interest grew during the inter-war years but it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that yet another revival was to occur. The explosion in interest of traditional dance was fuelled by the resurgent appeal of folk music.

Acknowledgements: The above text is an extract from the Independent newspaper. “Hell’s Bells! The joy of Morris Dancing.

History of Clog Dancing

The Clog Dance is said to be the fore-runner of the Folk Dance. The Lancashire Clog  is a more complicated dance form than that of the levee clog dancers. The clog dance made some contributions to Tap dance as well. In the 1520s the Italians referred to it as “des sabots “. The word “clog” is Gaelic and means “time”.

The most difficult of the Irish (British Isles) clogs are the Irish Jigs , Hornpipes and Reels . In some of these the feet can tap the floor more than seventy times in fifteen seconds. In clog dancing, no thought is given to facial, line expressions and the arms are kept motionless. Clog contests in the nineteenth century would have the judges sit behind a screen or under the dance floor, judging the sounds rather than the body movements of the dancers. Originally this dance was performed in wooden shoes called clogs, but later would be performed in wooden soled shoes. During the 1760s’ clog dancing would find it’s way to the Appalachian Mountains.

Clog Dancing is a form of Morris Dancing and originated in the mill towns of the North West of England, especially Lancashire and Cheshire where clogs were worn in the cotton mills. Girls standing to do their work at the looms would sing choruses and do stepping to lighten the monotony. On summer evenings they would dress in colourful skirts and process through their villages, dancing. The sticks they carried are symbolic of the cotton bobbins and shuttles used in the mills. The dances are often ‘processional’ rather than being danced in static sets, and are mainly a tradition of the north of England where clogs were mostly worn.

Acknowledgements: History of Clog Dancing is reproduced here with the kind permission of St. Clement’s Clogs.