Morris dancing, like any specific form of folk dance, isn’t very well-known. Folk dances, by definition, begin in small groups and secularize over time, often centuries if they survive at all. To ensure in a culture, the dance must have two intrinsic components. First, the dance must have significant meaning to attract followers and believers who pass it down through the generations. Second, there need to be people actually willing to do the dance.
Morris dancing has both components, allowing it to survive today after more than 500 years of documented existence. The activity was first recorded in 1448 in a document marking the payment of seven shillings to Morris dancers by the Goldsmiths’ Company in London, England. It can be inferred that the tradition survived long before dancers were paid for its performance in the mid-15th century. It is a celebration of spring renewal and a prayer for virility in field, flock, and man that civilizations have yearned for since time immemorial. And it is regularly performed today by a group in Rhode Island known as the Westerly Morris Men.
It is often impossible not to smile when seeing the dancers perform. Imagine eight men festooned in flowing trousers and blouses, bells strapped to the legs below the knees, armbands on biceps, bedecked hats and snappy vests or suspenders, spryly dancing with handkerchiefs, sticks, and sometimes swords. The dancers form what looks like a typical square-dance formation, with four pairs of dancers facing each other across a common point of intersection. A ninth Morris Man stands to the side and plays accompanying music on a button accordion. Invariably, each dancer has an unstrained smile as they come to and fro while meaningfully and rhythmically waving handkerchiefs, shuffling feet, and otherwise beckoning spring to arrive with good fortune in store.
The Westerly Morris Men is one of the longest continually active Morris groups in the country, having been formed by Peter Liebert in 1974. The dancers primarily perform in the Cotswold tradition of the Morris Dance and are best known for their annual sunrise celebration on the vernal equinox atop Lantern Hill in North Stonington, Connecticut.
When asked to describe the dance, Liebert calls it a “dance for effect” – a dance that is performed with the hope of something happening in return. “We dance in order to have virility for the crops of the field and man in the coming year,” he says.
I affectionately liken it to a prayer spryly performed in dance with accordion accompaniment and hollers of joy, all while bells gayfully jangle.
The Westerly Morris Men are one of approximately 150 teams, known as “sides,” in the United States. Morris dancing is relatively available, especially in the internet age. You can easily find videos of Morris dancing and get a sense of how to perform. While the production values vary, each video has an amateurish and wholesome quality. It is clearly a family affair of celebration best enjoyed in person while participating in the dance and festivities.
It is evident when searching Morris groups from around the country that each team has a similar quality which may endanger the future of Morris dancing and other forms of folk dance: plenty of participants with a middle-aged badge of white hair and beards. Tim Groom of Norwich, who joins the Westerly Morris Men in the annual Lantern Hill dance and participates with other groups throughout the year, says they “are always interested in getting new people involved, especially younger people.” Leibert echoed that sentiment, declaring “Morris dancing is a great family atmosphere and we are always looking for folks to join us.”
It is not surprising that interest in folk dances like Morris dancing has waned over the years. Science and cynicism have replaced wonder and awe. Still, there is something about ritualistic dancing and participation in such rites that ground us to tradition and remind us that we are all a part of the same world and environment, no matter how many decades or centuries sperate us. Watching the Morris Men will bring a smile to the face, there is no doubt about that, but it simultaneously links us to the past and to those people who, just like today, hoped for good blessings in the coming year.
So here we are on the cusp of another spring. At 5:30 a.m. on March 19, the Morris Men will ascend Lantern Hill and they will dance the Morris yet again.
The Westerly Morris Men maintain a website at WesterlyMorrisMen.org. There, one can find information about upcoming events and performances as well as information about when the group practices and how to become involved. If you are interested in joining the Morris Westerly men or have questions, please reach out directly through their website.