Review of the talk presented by Mike Heaney on 2nd April 2023 via Zoom.
“Mike’s talk was absolutely fascinating and covered, mainly, aspects of morris from the mid 19th Century until more present times. This is just a small aspect of what is contained in his excellent book but certainly left me wanting to know more. The talk was extremely well illustrated with contemporary and modern photographs along with newspaper and other accounts demonstrating the depth of his research.
“He began with the late 19th Century reports from Cecil Sharp of a dying tradition and his collection of the dances at the time. These were largely Cotswold or South Midlands Cotswold and presented to go along with the ‘Merrie England’ view of the time. In the mid 19th Century it was speculated that there was much more similarity in dances and styles but with the decline in numbers of sides differences became more exaggerated, possibly due to groups not meeting up at ales etc. The decline in sides may had something to do with social changes at that time and what came over was that Cotswold dancing was associated with rural villages and possibly the growth of cities and loss of the link to Whitsun festivals may have contributed to the fall in numbers. The story however was more varied and diverse than that and certainly was not a dying tradition everywhere as depicted by Sharp.
“Using reports and images he demonstrated that morris did in fact cover a wide variety of dance styles and was performed at many different events. With the term morris encompassing many types of social and performance dancing. For example, morris was danced at society balls, on stage in shows, well dressing festivals and particularly at festivals and carnivals associated with Whitsun Ales and May Days. One amazing image showed a maypole dance being performed on horseback! Mike also detailed events where Roger de Coverley was danced by performers dressed as birds. It certainly appears that hankie dance, often using linked hankies or ribbons were often used.
“Whilst Sharp was certainly aware of styles other than Cotswold these were largely ignored by him possibly because it did not fit with ‘Merrie England’ and Mike was able to demonstrate the wide variety of these. Along the Welsh border morris towards of the 19th century was largely in decline and used mainly to beg for money when times were hard due to either strike or bad weather on the canals.
“Further north there was a thriving tradition of NW dancing associated with carnivals, rushcart festivals and Wakes weeks. During this time dances were passed from one side to another such as in 1890 Leyland learned a dance from Godley Hill and following the success of this many other teams followed. Many of the costumes worn by the dancers also began to be more elaborate and certainly the boleros worn by Preston Royal are still familiar today. Mike had also found a report of Deepdale Morris but never found them doing any morris! And speculating that, for them, “Morris Dancers” may just have been an epithet like “Wigan Athletic”. Also due to the popularity of cycling many sides had a cycling club or vice versa. I particularly enjoyed the report of mock morris being performed with comic jazz bands in the 1920s and the bizarre costumes worn. Another aspect mentioned was that the wide variety of dance styles included female dancers again demonstrating that morris was not and exclusively male activity.
“This was an absolutely fascinating talk and Mike managed to cover in 45 minutes a huge amount of material and certainly only touched on some of his wide ranging knowledge. He also made mention of all styles of morris that we know today, including sweeps and sword dances but also left us realising that there was much more and the story is much more complicated and varied.
The video recording is now publicly available on the MF YouTube channel (1hr 4 mins):
About Michael Heaney
Mike Heaney has been researching morris dancing for over forty years. He worked with John Forrest to produce Annals of Early Morris in 1991, a listing and analysis of all the then known references to morris dancing in the UK to 1750.
More recently he has edited and contributed to a book on the early Oxford collector of morris information, the Oxford antiquary Percy Manning, and also to the book of the 2017 conference organised by EFDSS and the Historical Dance Society, The Histories of the Morris in Britain.
His new book The Ancient English Morris Dance brings together the fruits of his research to provide a comprehensive narrative history of morris dancing from its introduction to England in the fifteenth century to today.
Buy the book
If the talk has whetted your appetite, you can purchase a copy of his book The Ancient English Morris Dance from:
UK – from Archaeopress: https://tinyurl.com/9781803273860-AP
US – from ISD: https://tinyurl.com/9781803273860-ISD
£29.99/$40 NB: Voucher code for 20% discount by 31st May 2023: 2285-22
Also now available on Amazon.