Morris to Carnival

(Geoff Bibby was interviewed on Resonance FM Radio on this topic)

Whenever traditions are under threat there are always those who try to set up situations to help their continuance. This has always been true of Morris Dancing.

There have been many peaks and troughs in the popularity of Morris dancing and interested parties will endeavour to revive flagging teams, re-awaken traditions that are dormant or collect and preserve dances from 'dead' sides - so that these dances are able to undergo a renaissance. Whatever form the input takes, this input itself inevitably has an effect on the tradition.

After WW1 many sides found themselves unable to raise a team - the men simply weren't available. The responses to this situation were variable:

Most of the 'old' dancers tried to maintain the 'maleness' of the dances.

Teams continued to struggle and the cancellation of many 'traditional' events such as Whit and May festivals during WW2 caused further breaks in continuity. It became rare for boys to dance and girls took it up in large numbers.

In the north of England and particularly in the north - west, competitions were organised in an attempt to encourage troupes once more to be a part of the village festivals. To this end the idea was very successful, but much was changed, and some would say lost, in the process.

Prizes were awarded to the winning troupes in various age categories and there was a massive revival. However the structure which needed to be created for the competitions to succeed, changed both the form and style of Morris dancing very rapidly over a very short time span and in any traditional context, revolutionary change, rather than evolutionary change, is unusual, not to say rare.

Points were lost if lines weren't straight, so movement in dances became much more regimented and shape changes in figures became slower to give more precise control. Regular stepping was rewarded, and the judges agreed on specific rules that regularised exactly what was 'correct'. The rules stipulated what was to be assessed and how it was assessed. Thighs had to come up to the horizontal, pumps had to be clean, innovation in costume and dance gained points.

There was thus a very active encouragement for the dances and costumes to be changed annually to meet the demands and standards set by the competitions. Regional differences in dance and in style of performance could not be maintained if a troupe wanted to win and their dance and style did not match the criteria!

So regional differences were soon sacrificed for the sake of winning prizes and prestige. However the rapid growth of these 'carnival' morris troupes soon swamped the village fetes and festivals and the competitions became unwelcome to organisers. Competitions now take place as internal events in carnival morris circles.

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Text © 2002 Geoff Bibby
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