- Almost half of morris sides regularly dance on 1st May and the same proportion dance on St George's Day.
- The most popular place for morris dance performance is in pubs.
An important feature of morris dancing throughout its history has been the emphasis on it being a public performance rather than a private activity. Roy Dommett describes morris as “an event”, which involved “dressing up together with a performance of dance in public”. The way morris is performed has changed over the years along with the society it has existed within.
This chapter describes the way morris is performed in the 21st century, including what times of year are most important for performances and where morris is performed.
The first of May is a date synonymous with morris dancing in the public attention. The association is largely down to the historical importance of this time in rural life, but as a slack time in the agricultural year before haymaking rather than any explicit link to pagan ritual. Performance of 21st century morris dancing is mostly at weekends, and bank holidays are particularly popular times: although we live in a largely service economy without seasonal fluctuations, morris is generally performed when people have leisure time.
However, exceptions are made for very particular days associated with certain traditions. For example, 47% of sides perform regularly on May 1st, which does not have its own public holiday. Likewise, despite also not having a public holiday of its own, St George’s Day is as popular a day for morris sides to perform as May 1st. This demonstrates morris dancing’s unique Englishness, which many other symbols of national culture lack because of their broader Britishness. Morris dancing made the top 100 icons of Englishness in the 2008 “Icons of England” project perhaps because of the special link to Englishness, as opposed to Britishness.
Some dates are particularly associated with the history of certain styles of morris. Two thirds of molly sides perform on Plough Monday, a date associated with East Anglian traditions such as Whittlesea Straw Bear. On the other hand, May 1st is particularly associated with Cotswold and Border sides, and summer solstice particularly associated with Border sides.
The most popular place for Morris dancers to perform is a pub: around 37% of morris sides’ engagements are at a pub, either alone or with other teams present. In contrast, only around 20% of engagements are in public places other than pubs. Pubs are good venues for morris dancing performances because they have public space to perform in, have audiences, but perhaps most importantly have refreshments.
Pubs have declined in number in recent years, from 68,000 in 1982 to around 48,000 now, with the steepest decline happening in the last 10 years. As a result of tax increases on alcohol and the ban on smoking in public places, many existing pubs in the UK have also changed character from the establishments they were in previous decades. The proportion of young people drinking in pubs has fallen from 38% in 2005 to just 16% in 2012. In order to attract new audiences and new members, morris sides may have to consider widening the range of venues they choose to perform at.
Folk festivals and local events, such as shows and fetes, are also popular places for morris sides to perform. Indeed, localness is important to most sides: three-quarters of all events performed by morris sides are local to where the side is based (i.e. within the same county).
Large gatherings of other morris sides have always been a feature of morris sides’ events, but some forms are more popular than others. The great morris gatherings of the 1960s were meetings of the Morris Ring (spring/ summer) and Ales or Feasts (typically autumn/winter) hosted by individual sides. These continue today, but are largely confined to sides in the Morris Ring and are less well attended. For example, Morris Ring sides attend, on average, one Ale and less than one Ring meeting each year.
What places and times of year are important to your side? Please leave a comment below