Border Morris

Border Morris

The term Border Morris refers to a collection of individual local dances from villages along the English side of the Wales-England border in the counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire. They are part of the Morris dance tradition.


This was usually a village dance done in winter for fun and a bit of money. Dances exist for from three to twelve dancers. The dance depends on the numbers available, as at Brimfield. The dances collected from a particular place sometimes differ quite markedly between informants, as at White Ladies Aston, reflecting the flexibility from year to year. Sometimes a gang would only have one dance, sometimes two, or as at Malvern and Pershore Not for Joes an indeterminate set of figures. The common features are the rather short sticks and sometimes a stick and handkerchief version of the same dance, also usually a high single step akin to the local country dance step. Such detail as starting foot rules and phrase endings are notable for their apparent absence. Some of these village sides blackened their faces - thought to be for reasons of disguise. There is no record of any sides dancing together. A few – both Upton-upon-Severn dances for example – matched the complexity of Cotswolds Morris, but many – e.g. Bromsberrow Heath – had a stark simplicity of one figure and one chorus repeated forever. Details of the collected dances can be found in Roy Dommett's collected notes, referenced below.

Border Morris revival

In the 1960s, E. C. Cawte, the folklorist, proposed that these dances from the English side of the Welsh borders - Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire - constituted a Welsh Border Tradition (see notes under external resources below). Some would disagree that a "tradition" existed in the same sense as a Longborough Tradition, say. But the idea struck a chord.

So since the 1960s and with further collecting in the 1970s by people like Dave Jones (late of [ Silurian Morris] (founded 1969) and later the Not For Joes) and Keith Francis (of Silurian Morris) a distinctive "Border Morris" style has grown. The tradition is characterised by black faces, tattered shirts or coats, lots of stick-clashing and a big band traditionally comprising melodeons, fiddle, concertina, triangle and tambourines, although now often also feature a tuba or sousaphone, flute or oboe. Samples of the border sound can be found [ here] .

Under the guidance of Dave Jones and Keith Francis, Silurian Border Morris sought to interpret the collected dance material, preserving as much of the traditional styles and features as can be deduced. By contrast, in 1975, John Kirkpatrick created a new border tradition with the [ Shropshire Bedlams] , which seeks to capture the spirit of the border sides, but not recreate any specific tradition or dance. Their dances feature much "whooping" and this has become characteristic amongst many other border sides. Perhaps in keeping with the original tradition, the [ Original Welsh Border Morris] (founded 1973) meet only once a year, at Christmas, drink too much and dance the traditional dances of Herefordshire and Worcestershire. With many of the newer sides, the dances have often become complex, involving many invented and evolved steps, figures and choruses.

About the black face

In recent years, the black face has created some controversy, particularly in North America. The usual explanation for the black face is that it is for "disguise", and that during the hard winters of the 17-18th Century out of work labourers and builders sought to anonymously supplement their income by a bit of dancing and begging. The use of the black face as a form of disguise is certainly well established in early 18th century England - so much so, that in 1723 it became a capital offence under the Waltham "Black Act" to appear "in disguise, either by mask or by blackened face".

Another theory is that the black face tradition derives from earlier forms of the dance involving a Moroccan king and his followers (which links into the theory that the word "morris" is derived from moorish or moresco). There is recorded evidence from 1688 of payments in Shrewsbury of 10 shillings to Ye Bedlam Morris and 2 shillings for Ye King of Morroco [] .

There are even earlier recordings of a black-face morris tradition in Europe. [ Carved figures] from 1480 in Munich, Germany show "moriscan dancers" with black faces and bells and evidence from France includes the quote from Arbeau circa 1580 which stated "In fashionable society when I was young, a small boy, his face daubed with black and his forehead swathed in a white or yellow handkerchief, would make an appearance after supper. He wore leggings covered with little bells and performed a morris". However, there is too little recorded evidence to prove or disprove any linkage to the dances on the English Welsh borders.

More recently, some people have postulated that the black face tradition was linked to the much later introduction of the American minstrel shows into Victorian England in the late 1830s. However, there is no direct evidence of this nor any explanation for why rural border morris dancers would choose to adapt their traditional folk dances to partially dress like the minstrel performers, but not adopt the whole costume or any other element of the show. By the early 20th century, border morris dancing was known colloquially in some villages as "nigger dancing" or "going niggering". Some view this as direct evidence of the link with minstrel shows: others regard this as nothing more than an obvious description of an older black-face tradition using the terminology and culture of the times.

Whatever the theory, there is certainly no evidence that modern border sides attach any racial significance to the blacking of their faces and most choose to accept the explanation of "disguise" for the tradition. Despite that, a few recent sides have chosen to paint their faces in colours other than black to avoid controversy.

Other black-face traditions

Unrelated black-face English dance traditions can be found within the UK.
* [ Britannia Coco-nut Dancers] of Bacup
*Molly dance of the East Midlands and East Anglia. *
* "Darkie day" at Padstow on Boxing day

ee also


External links

* [ Source Material for the Border Morris Tradition, Roy Dommett]
* [ Border Morris: Roots & Revival, Gordon Ashman]
* [ Visit to Herefordshire and Worcestershire, May 1957. E.C. Cawte]
* [ History of Border Morris]
* [ Breinton Morris's take on Border Morris]
* [ The Pershore Morris (pdf)]
* [ German carvings from 1480 showing "moriscan dancers" including black faces]
* [ Home page of the Silurian Border Morrismen]
* [ Mike Miller's Border Morris Notes]

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