It feels like Morris dancing goes in and out of fashion. But actually, although its precise origins now seem to be shrouded in the mystery of time, it’s a tradition that has survived for hundreds of years. As a child, local Morris dancing formed a slightly unusual backdrop to long afternoons spent in pub gardens, and I confess to having paid it poor attention. But a little close inspection reveals that Morris dancing involves a level of skill, craft, subtlety and detail that demands some respect.
The history of Morris
I can’t and won’t pretend to do full justice to the history of Morris dancing and there are numerous books and websites dedicated to the subject if you want to know more. Suffice it to say that the first records of Morris dancing appear in the mid 15th century. Speculation abounds about why it was so named, including a suggestion that it was because of the exotic appearance of the clothing worn and the dance moves (reminiscent of the Moors). But it also seems clear that this sort of traditional and flamboyant folk dance was in vogue across Europe by the mid 15th century and what seems to have started as a court dance gradually progressed to become a dance of the masses.
From these origins, Morris dancing has enjoyed mixed fortunes over the centuries. By the 16th century, it had become very much part of church festivals and gradually also became part of village fetes. By the mid 18th century Morris dancing had a strong association with Whitsun and dancers began to decorate ordinary clothing with what was to hand – ribbons, rags and flowers if needs be. After a decline in popularity in the 19th century, a Morris revival took the movement into the 20th century. Heydays since then have included the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1970s and 80s of my youthful memories.
Within Morris dancing there are both different styles and different dances and within that, different villages have their own styles. The Cotwolds style seems to be the most widely known and is associated with handkerchiefs, sticks and of course bells, whereas the Northwest style includes clogs! You can inter-change styles and tunes, and tunes and dances. Confused? Yes, me too. And although there is a “black book” of dances, the original pre 17th century dances have been lost as were many following the loss of life during World War I. As a result, many dances have had to be reconstructed from memories. But perhaps that doesn’t matter. Because perhaps it’s the sentiment more than the moves that really count.
Sussex seems blessed with a bountiful supply of Morris sides across the county and our fair share of Morris heritage. There’s a mention of Morris dancing by the church warden of West Tarring church in 1562 which is a reminder that Morris dancing was not seen as a pagan art, but was a means of encouraging people to attend church. The Martlet Morris Men of Chichester formed as long ago as 1953 and claim to be able to trace their roots to an account of Morris dancing in North Street in 1618. The Broadwood Morris Men of Horsham are named after Lucy Broadwood a key player in folk music who lived at Rusper. And I rather like the fact that the Mad Jack’s Morris (named after the one and only) in East Sussex have chosen the colours of the Cinque Ports, while the Turners Hill Spirimawgus have named themselves after a Sussex folklore figure similar to the Bogey Man.
In fact, a quick search of the internet brings up dozens of Sussex Morris sides, many with their own unique history and stories, and all well-endowed with simply oodles of personality. Although I guess big personality is probably a prerequisite if you’re going to dress up in extravagant clothing and dance around in a circle outside a pub.
Sompting Village Morris
Which brings me squarely to Chris Thomas and the Sompting Village Morris. I came across Sompting Village Morris when they danced at the Sussex Prairie Gardens and I was immediately struck by how welcoming and approachable they were. It’s clear that they love what they do. Chris has been a member of Sompting Morris for 26 years and is also a member of two other sides in Cornwall (my mind is wilting at the thought of the sheer volume of moves he must know). He tells me Sompting were formed in the late 1970s as a spin off from the Broadwood Morris Men of Horsham, and they have both men and women sides. Their colours are very distinctive black, red and yellow and they have brightly coloured tatter coats. As a side, they’ve danced around the county, the country and Europe and they have a number of specific traditions which include the First Day of May Dancing in Shoreham, the Summer Solstice celebrations on Highdown Hill, the Battle of the Conkers Festival in October, the Mummers’ Play at Christmas and Wassail on the 5th January.
In addition to this, the Sompting Morris dance every Wednesday from May to September at pubs throughout Sussex and then practice every Wednesday during the winter. Their dances are a mixture of those they’ve learnt from other sides, and those they have written and choreographed themselves. They have a central core of 30 dances but amongst their members, I’m told they probably know a lot more. Their ethos? Having fun. Being social. And exercising. Which all seem pretty worthy pursuits to me.
So why is the art of Morris dancing so important?
As Chris and I talked about the many different dances, he started to mention dance names. The Rusper Pump. The Market Square. Old Dan Roberts. We talked about the emblem of the Sompting Morris badge which includes a picture of Sompting church (and represents that long held connection) as well as the image of the postman’s horn to commemorate Sompting’s founding members who were postmen.
And then the penny dropped. This is folk dance and as such, a unique and colourful way to let off steam and enjoy life. But this is also commemoration and visual storytelling, a way of describing life through a combination of dance, music and costume. The minute detail of our daily lives, as well as our legends and folklore, and our history are stitched and stepped into every swirl, every ribbon, every gesture, every dance move. And this is also creativity, joyous activity and a celebration. It’s an assault on the senses, full of both flamboyance and also great subtly. It’s cerebral, it’s sensual, it’s physical and it’s emotive. And that is why, for me, it is an absolutely essential part of our Sussex heritage. It’s also why on the 16th October, you’ll find me at the Henty Arms in Ferring watching the Sompting Village Morris and their Conker Festival. The Conker Festival is what it says on the tin – a good old fashioned conker match where you will not be constrained by recent “health and safety” restrictions that have afflicted our school conker players. It’s a conker and Morris combo and what’s not to love.