Morris dancing, black face paint and racism: why it’s time to stop and think

Folk traditions should not be treated as fossils that are too brittle to evolve, argues Emma Rock.

David Cameron found controversy and divided opinion this week by posing in a photograph with a Border Morris side wearing traditional black face paint in Banbury, near his Oxfordshire constituency.

Many in the folk world will have greeted this latest gaffe with a frustrated sigh as once again commentators are polarised to the left and right. On the one hand we have left wing writers pointing out the obvious racial connotations of blacking the face, and, on the other, the right declaring that this is an example of political correctness gone mad and an assault on English tradition.

For members of the folk community what seems consistently absent is a more balanced argument that neither consigns all English folk dance to the dustbin, nor provides convenient cover for nationalists and racists.

Most Morris dancers will be able to tell you that the origin of blacking the face goes back to farm labourers who wanted a disguise from their bosses while begging and busking during the winter. However, it is also very possible that it was an attempt to mimic the North African dances that were probably Morris’s inspiration.

Either way, the vast majority of present day Morris performers who do black their face do not do so as a racial comment but because it is seen as part of the tradition. On the whole the Morris community is not welcoming to extreme displays of nationalism. On the contrary, facial disguise is more often linked to acts of rebellion against the rural rich and mostly heralded as part of the appeal and menace of performing these dances.

My own family have been heavily involved in Morris and English folk music for the last three generations. I grew up in a Morris village in Cameron’s Witney constituency and went to school with children who Morris danced. Contrary to popular perception, however, Cameron has not always been supportive of Morris. It would be an exaggeration to say all Morris is working class, but it certainly is not a pastime patronised by the rich, such as fox hunting or other field sports.

While local youth clubs were closed down, Morris has also suffered. The gentrification of traditional pub venues into wine bars and restaurants has made them often actively aggressive towards Morris. At the same time some Tories have actively sought to exclude Morris performers from public events, such as Lord Coe’s decision to keep Morris out of the 2012 Olympics. It’s not hard to see why when Morris dancers feature heavily in local left wing events such as the annual Levellers Day.

Origins and development

The earliest evidence of Morris dancing in England dates to somewhere around the 1500s. It was certainly known of during Shakespeare’s time, as is documented by the exploits of Globe Theatre actor Will Kemp who Morris danced from London to Norwich.

Most modern speculations on the origins of Morris suggest it may have come from a form of Moorish dancing. This certainly seems to fit with similar forms of dance from around Europe that date back to the height of the Muslim presence in Spain. One thing that is fairly certain, however, is that Morris is not pagan nor anything like that old.

Modern Morris dancing, while retaining some of the early trademarks such as bells, hankies and sticks, has changed hugely in the few hundred years it has existed. By the late 19th century most Morris in the South of England had died out completely with only a handful of dancers continuing it.

Since the 20th century Morris has undergone several revivals and now represents a broad church of both style and opinion. Among this are Cotswold (perhaps the most famous, who wear white and coloured sashes), Lancashire Clog, Long Sword, Rapper (from the mining communities of the North East), East Anglian Molly and Border, from the Welsh border region. Of these only Molly and Border have groups that regularly blacken their faces.

From my experience Morris is not a re-enactment of ancient ritual but a dance form that looks to the past, embraces new ideas and provides an outlet for artistic expression. There is often a divide between generations, as demonstrated by the stark contrast between the more formal men-only “ring sides” and younger mixed groups often based around universities.

Given the innocent intentions of many of those who do black their face, it would be easy to dismiss any criticism of the practice as “political correctness” and an attack on tradition. But I think it is important that we stop and think about the repercussions of wearing black face paint.

We do not live within a world that is free from racist oppression. Race is still on the agenda, be it racially motivated violence or institutionalised discrimination against black people in virtually all aspects of British society. When looking at a picture such as this, the first connection most people outside the folk community will make is that of race.

Only a few years ago Nick Griffin and the BNP tried to hijack folk music and use it as means of pushing their racist agenda. It is to the credit of the folk community that his ambitions were thwarted, thanks to widespread support for Folk Against Fascism which inspired the support of overwhelming majority of the folk scene.

A living tradition

So the question is really whether it is more important to continue a tradition unchanged, or to avoid a practice that could be mistakenly perceived as racist statement. For me it’s certainly the latter.

Morris dancing is a living tradition, and like any tradition it survives by adapting and making itself relevant. Dancers are no longer begging farm labourers or miners – they now perform for fun instead of money. The music has changed too, bringing in influences from other genres. Even the accordion, a characteristic instrument associated with Morris, has only been part of the tradition since its invention roughly 100 years ago.

So given that Morris changes all the time, what is stopping us from making this particular modification? Many Border and Molly sides either do not paint their face or opt for alternative colours to black. The Border Morris side Boggarts Breakfast paint their faces blue. The Molly group Gog Magog use different bright colours, which for me contributes their wacky style. Others opt for patterns, such as Pig Dyke Molly, though their take could be seen as a reference to the rock band KISS.

There are wide variety of different options for Morris sides who don’t want to be subject of this debate, or wish to make a gesture towards the sensitivities of racism. Our tradition is only in danger of dying out if we treat it like a fossil that is too brittle to evolve. It’s a strong, vibrant form of dance, and it will not be hurt or destroyed by wearing blue, green or purple on the face in place of black.

And that small change may be  part of ensuring that Morris is a welcoming place for people of all ethnicities – and grows for generations to come. One of the dancers pictured with Cameron spoke to the Independent about her make-up. When asked why she used a black stripe rather than full black face paint, she replied: “In deference to my daughter-in-law. She’s very sensitive because she’s a black American and is a bit confused by it because it’s not an American tradition.”

• Emma Rock is a folk artist and socialist in the IS Network. A version of this article was first published on the IS Network website.

 

There are 19 comments

  1. stewart

    I think Emma almost answers her own question here – morris IS evolving and the existence of many border sides who use face colours other than black is evidence of this. However, there are also others who keep to what they regard as the traditional pattern and I do not believe that we should blame them for so doing. The folk world has a long and proud tradition of anti fascism and anti racism. We are also dedicated to exploring and explaining our traditions. It’s therefore incumbent on both sides in this debate to both engage and understand each other. So doing will lead to a better understanding of both the roots of racism and the roots of border morris, and therefore a more tolerant dialogue.

    It is important, however, that we all do more to diversify the folk world. It is striking how under-represented minorities are at folk events. It might be that they share the general perception that it’s just old rubbish, but it might also be that we are being exclusionary. I’d like to see folk organisers inviting dancers from other traditions to folk festivals. Some bhangra amongst the morris would be a welcome change!

  2. Vaughan

    ” When looking at a picture such as this, the first connection most people outside the folk community will make is that of race” . Based on that, I presume the author is not a member of the IS network anymore as the first thing that people may think is that the network is linked to ISIS? The point is we shouldnt pander to ignorance, but help change it.

  3. Michael

    i largely agree with your points… I’d point out, though, that morris was represented at the Olympics – Blackheath and Rag Morris performed at the closing ceremony!

  4. Sparky

    Traditions can be challenged though. We do have to be vigilant. I know very little about Morris dancing, but if I was involved in it in any way, I would not want to be in a picture with the bigoted Cameron.

  5. Dave Randall

    An excellent article. I attended the fire parade through Hastings last night. While there are undoubtedly some very reactionary types involved (possibly at a high level, as evidenced by some previous choices of effigies burned), there were also quite a few black and asian spectators and participants. The procession included a small black samba group, some of whose members wore white or different coloured face paint. My feeling is that the majority of those with blacked-up faces were not racists at all, and that the event as a whole acted primarily as a celebration of the agency (and potential militancy) of the masses. But I agree with Emma’s assertion that these traditions need to take account of contemporary connotations and evolve accordingly. I suspect that is exactly what is happening.

  6. Ruth B

    Great piece, Emma. The only thing I didn’t like was the description of North West Morris as “Lancashire Clog”. Firstly, not all of the dancing in that tradition comes from Lancashire; secondly, not all North West Morris sides actually wear clogs (and although most do nowadays, I don’t think that this was always the case); thirdly, “Lancashire Clog” is a term used to describe step dancing. Because I am a Lancashire Clog Dancer (and a North West Morris dancer as well, as of this year), it’s always annoyed me when people call North West Morris “Clog Morris” or “Clog Dancing” or “Clogging”. Really good article, anyway, that sums up how I feel about the whole thing. I get so frustrated sometimes arguing with Morris dancers about this!

  7. roddy johnston

    Comrades OK we seem to have so far failed to ignite the revolution south of the border with our mass mobilization of the Scottish working class and left! oh well you have probably got time to worry about Morris dancing and blacked up faces,Lets face it its probably been one of the more contentious issues facing ethnic minorities in England and the continuation of popular cultural identity, and its not as if the discontent with main stream politics is driving the English masses into the fold of right wing anti migrant groups,or you have a government pushing for the destruction of the bill of human rights, or privatization of the health service ect ect ect! BTW I mean this as a light poke ,of course you need to question the validity and legitimacy when I would love to see this sort of thing http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6m-EV6krR6o (Maculelê from Brazil )danced along side Morris as I am sure it is related along with Călușari from Romania,Ball de bastons,Moresca from Italy and Moreška from Croatia. I guess what I am saying is the message from folk culture is not national or ethnic or racial but transcends and crosses borders.In the ideal world we can have both black and white Morris dancers!

  8. Raven Pen-Orthyn

    Please learn the history first. This has nothing to do with racism, unless you choose to make it a racist issue.
    A tradition is something that had been done the same way for many years. If something keeps changing every time there is a change in society, it is not a tradition.

  9. Chris Davison

    In reply to Anni, I know one Sikh member of a side who does “white-up” for the dancing and puts the flowers in his turban instead of a flowery hat.

  10. Starchild

    a tradition isnt a tradition if you change it. Its what it is. Its our past its our present its our future. Live with it as it is or walk away and stop moaning..

  11. David

    I do find this difficult, there have been Morris dancers since before Henry the 7th, he had a silver ‘salt’ with Morris Dancers on it recorded in his inventory. They were mainstream entertainment then, Will Kempe’s 9 days wonder morris dance from London to Norwich again highlights it as mainstream. The issue of black or painted faces is clearly shown as, at one time in the 16th century, imitating the moorish (or morisco) dancers and is rather more of a compliment than a slur. Imitation being the finest form of flattery. The later evidence from the 17th century onward is that mixing chimney soot with grease as a disguise when going out dancing for money, then seen as begging, was just a way of doing it for free, colour immaterial.
    The side I dance with blacks up, it’s part of the costume and rather essential to the image and name of the side.
    As to complaints from people of an ethnic background that could be offended, the only one I know of was when a couple of people were mildly upset that we didn’t have enough sticks for all their multicultural group to join in and dance with us at the same time and they had to wait for their go.
    Frankly I am highly offended at being accused of racism and think that there is a strong case developing for action for slander and or libel.

  12. Kathy

    Without the blackface still used by Morris dancers today the very origins of the dance may have gone missing. It is thought that the dances originated with the Moors (hence, Moorish). Folk dancing at the time was not common in northern Europe, and the fact that the north embraced the dances and copied them right down to the blackface is the antithesis of racism, even to this day. One can look at the glass half empty, or half full. Your choice.

  13. Doug Scrivens

    Recent rumpus in Birmingham highlights the ignorance of a minority. I dance with Alvechurch Morris. Unfortunately not there on the day. Blacking up will remain part of border morris until it is illegal. Unfortunately this issue may now attract elements we can do without, from either end of the political correctness spectrum.

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