Updated post: 18/11/18 | November 2018
“That’s my daughter, the witch!” proclaimed the woman standing next to me. The object of maternal pride was a member of Horsham’s Morris dancing side (or team), readying themselves for their slot at Rochester’s Sweeps Festival. Compared with some of the other sides I had seen that day, they looked particularly fierce.
“Why the blackened faces?” I asked. She explained that the Horsham side was part of the Border Morris tradition. Originating from England – Wales border, this is one of the variations of Morris dancing that involves “blackface”.
Although the origins of blackface are not entirely clear, a popular theory is that it was used as a disguise by itinerant 16th-century farm workers. Unable to earn money during the harsh winters, they were forced to go out begging to survive, and this disguise allowed them to be not be recognised.
“You should see them when they are rehearsing though,” she continued. “They look totally different. Then it is just jeans and t-shirts and tea and cakes.”
Rochester, a historic city in Kent’s Medway region, attracts visitors because of its association with Charles Dickens, its Norman castle and its medieval cathedral. But for on the May Day weekend each year, the Sweeps Festival transforms its streets into an open-air arena for street performers, including over 50 Morris dancing sides.
Although the origins of Morris dancing have been lost in the mists of time, we know that it is pre-Elizabethan (I not II). It was rediscovered by Cecil Sharp in 1899, who started collecting dances and tunes, mainly from villages in the Cotswolds. Cotswold Morris, which is danced with handkerchiefs and scarves, is what most people recognise as Morris dancing.
With many local variations, it is difficult to pin down a single, definitive Morris dance. They range from the afore-mentioned Border to the clog-bashing of the northern industrial towns via the cross-dressing Molly Dances of East Anglia.
A member of Greenwich’s Morris Men told me that he had been Morris dancing since the 1960s when the movement flourished as part of the folk revival. Theirs is an all-male group, but other groups are all-female or mixed.
Morris dancing suffers from a bit of an image problem. For most people it conjures up images of bearded middle-aged men, wearing white stockings and bells on their shins, prancing around, bashing each other’s sticks. After such exertion, they then break to swig their first yard of real-ale of the day. It has been said that Morris dancing sides are drinkers with a dance problem!
But I found myself coming over all English and pastoral. Watching these dances, I started thinking about village greens, maypoles and dandelions. Bathed in the warm May sunlight, the Morris dancers represented a vanishing England, with all its eccentricities and ancient customs. Events like Rochester’s Sweep Festival helps to keep this ancient cultural tradition alive. And so I went off to get myself a beer, with a spring in my step and a hey nonny nonny.