Recruitment of new morris dancers

Key findings
  • Morris sides have encouraged 2,000 new people to take up morris dancing in the UK in the last two years, which is encouraging for the future health of morris dancing.
  • The majority of new recruits are women and if that trend continues then morris will be majority female within a few years. Thirty per cent of new recruits are under age 30.
  • Border morris sides and sides with young members are relatively successful at recruiting. However, there is little evidence from Morris Census data that any one recruitment method is particularly effective compared to any other.

Because the number of young dancers is relatively low, recruitment is one of the major issues that morris sides and morris organisations are currently dealing with. The Morris Census gathered data relevant for understanding recruitment: the number of recruits, their age and gender, what recruitment methods sides use and what we can tell about which are the most effective.

The Morris Census asked morris sides how many new recruits that were new to dancing (i.e., excluding existing dancers changing team) had joined in the last two years. The data shows that morris sides, on average, have had 2.5 members join in the last two years, which is equivalent to around 2,000 new dancers across the UK. Recruits therefore comprise 15% of members of morris sides  compared to the
total number of morris dancers in the UK of around 13,000.

That such a large number of new dancers have recently been encouraged to try morris dancing should be heartening to those that fear for the future of morris, given its ageing demographics. However, a few things are unclear from these figures and affect how we ought to interpret them. Firstly, how many of the new recruits were retained and how many will continue to dance for the next few years? If most recruits try dancing but do not keep participating in the long-term, then more recruitment will be needed to translate recruits into members.

Secondly, how does the number of recruits each year compare to the number of dancers retiring each year? The Morris Census did not collect any information on the number of dancers that stopped dancing in the last two years, so it is difficult to judge whether the large amount of recruitment has led to a net increase in the number of dancers.

Demographics of recruits

An encouraging characteristic of morris dancing recruits is that they tend to be younger than existing dancers. The data shows that the average age of recruits is 42, whereas the average age of current dancers is 52. The age distribution of recruits is quite different to the age spread of existing dancers: recruits tend to be from younger age groups. More than 600 dancers under age 30 have been recruited in the last two years.

Morris Census data also shows how recruitment is changing the gender balance of morris. Whereas 46% of current dancers are female, recruits are 57% female. If this trend continues then gender in morris will be balanced within a few years. It even suggests that the long-term future of morris is with a majority of female members, representing a transformation since the 1960s when morris dancing was largely a men-only activity.

Recruitment has been particularly strong for Border morris sides, which recruited 3.5 members per side on average compared to 2.5 for the average side. Border morris is particularly popular for people that are new to dancing, perhaps due to its relatively straightforward movements and figures.

Compounding the stark age distribution of morris dancers in the Morris Ring, recruitment of new dancers has been low in the Morris Ring in the last two years compared to sides in other organisations. Morris Ring sides recruited 1.8 new dancers per side, less than average for all sides. However, 29% of those Morris Ring recruits were under age 30, the same proportion as in the Morris Federation.

Recruitment Methods

What methods do sides use to recruit new members? The Morris Census asked sides to report what methods they used for spreading the word about their side and encouraging new members to join. It shows us what methods are most and least commonly used by sides. 

The most commonly used recruitment methods are word of mouth (79%), giving leaflets to the audience when performing (55%) and recruiting friends (49%). These are the most direct forms of recruitment, which target people that are most likely to have an underlying interest in morris to encourage them. More indirect forms of communication that tend to be focussed at a larger and broader audience, such as local media, tend to be less favoured by sides but are used by some. A fifth of sides (22%) use some form of family recruitment, whether it is siblings or children, but much less than friends.

The data describes what recruitment methods are popular, but not necessarily which are successful. One would hope that sides continue to use recruitment methods that they find work for them, and reject the ones with limited impact. But we don’t know that for sure. By relating the recruitment methods each side uses to the number of recruits that have recently joined, we can explore which are the most effective methods.

The chart below displays the findings from a statistical analysis that explores the relative importance of different factors in explaining the number of recruits. Large sides have managed to recruit more new members, as have Border morris sides. Sides with a high proportion of members that are over 60, and with a high proportion of men, have been particularly unsuccessful at recruiting new members. The biggest factor in recruitment is what kind of side it is and who the existing members are: people tend to join younger, mixed sex sides, and Border sides in particular.

The analysis also shows that no particular recruitment method is associated with successful recruitment. Only ‘word of mouth’ and ‘advertising in the local press’ are significantly associated with more recruitment. Most of the variation between teams in the number of new recruits cannot be explained by data in the Morris Census. In other words, it doesn’t matter so much what sides do for recruitment, but the way that they do it. We can gain a better understanding of what is associated with successful recruitment by understanding what it is that successful sides do.

How is your side faring with recruitment? What are the factors that lead to successful recruitment?

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