Morris Dancers ‘blacking up’

Since it’s just past May Day, I thought I’d share some of the discussion I’d had at Tate Liverpool concerning Morris Dancers ‘blacking up’. I have to admit I’d seen the practice for years and had always thought that this was a tradition that alludes to the working class, Miners, dockers, dirty occupations … etc. However, I had never realised that some folks were taking offence. I guess it is a similar argument with pub names like the Black’s Head in Ashbourne. I took these photographs outside the Bell Inn in Nottingham, May 2016. Now, you can see from the text below, that The Morris Federation decided in 2020 that they weren’t going to allow it anymore. Some folks however think that an ancient tradition is being eradicated. However, this aspect crept in in the 19th century … However, the Morris tradition date back to the 15th Century. So, it seems, traditions can change. My attitude has also.>>Extract from Radical Landscapes : P/132> Tate LiverpoolDARREN In the early 1970s, Homer Sykes began documenting traditional British folk traditions and annual events. Do Boss Morris relate to these images of these traditional customs, as a contemporary all-female Morris side? Can you talk about the diversity of traditions across rural Britain?LILY These images totally inform how we do things because we’re always looking back on other folk traditions, all the things that make them really English and silly and fun. We incorporate the spirit of them into our own performances and practices but also like to make things uniquely ours too. Most Morris dances relate to a particular town or a county. So for example, we can recognise a dance from Sherborne in Gloucestershire by the way the hankies move or from the stepping patterns and figures.ALEX A specific story or meaning seems to be at the heart of a lot of these folk customs, which is what makes the tradition as a whole so diverse and often eccentric. Each is a very specific activity that’s deeply embedded in the place that they sparked up from.LILY It really evokes that feeling of a spectacle and you can imagine how exciting this would have been for the towns and villages at the time. There’s a real sense of community in these images which we can relate to with Boss Morris as so much of our practice is to connect with people, especially with wider audiences.JEREMY I first came across Homer Sykes’ book Once a Year at my local library. These images are what got me interested in this kind of behaviour and imagery. They are my origin story if you like. It was the strangeness that drew me in as a child, every image is full of mystery. I was into Dr Who, and The Burry Man for example is not a million miles away from what you’re watching on television. It’s a form of science fiction from the past. Also I’m from London and these places and rituals seemed incredibly foreign, if not exotic to me. I met Homer Sykes a few years ago and I was telling him how that book had changed my life and I don’t doubt I was the first person to say this to him.Some of the images in Sykes’ book, which are not in the exhibition, document folk traditions with performers in ‘blackface” which we’ll come to later. How do Boss Morris take folk customs into their own hands, and modify them for modern audiences?LILY We never intended to take a folk tradition and use it as a platform to talk about these things, but over the years we’ve been dancing it has become that. We’ve found ourselves immersed in this incredible tradition and absorb what we can, reacting to it in a way that is relevant to us. We like to have fun with the customs we create and they’re not historical re-enactments.ALEX We’re growing our own set of traditions. We’ve never really had an agenda; the group just took on a life of its own. We’ve essentially clicked into a pagan yearly calendar but we’re not sticking to things too strictly. For example, we dance on the solstices and get up at dawn on May Day every year, but then there’s also our more surreal rituals like eating pickled onion Monster Munch on Halloween. It’s reactive to life at the time. We’re instinctual and organic in the way we grow as a collective and are as happy adapting older traditions as we are inventing new ones. Our yearly calendar is slowly filling up with an array of different traditions that have meaning to us as a group.JEREMY There are problematic issues within the Morris tradition. There was opposition to the ban, think that some blackface was an attempt to disguise or referred to mining and some was an imitation of Black people from seeing or hearing about minstrel shows, so it’s about disentangling this. But if it’s offensive and upsetting people then it has to be addressed. Just because something is a ‘tradition doesn’t make it OK or mean that it can’t be changed or adapted.The point with some of these events is that yes, it is the same every year, its something you can rely on. But often there is huge change within the rituals as participants get old and die and so these events inevitably become about the passing of time in the most fundamental way within an apparently unchanging event.LILY We are in total agreement with you there, we decided early on we stood against it. It’s a small part of the Morris tradition that have worn blackface in the past and when The Morris Federation decided in 2020 that they weren’t going to allow it, we fully supported and welcomed that change.ALEX We feel strongly that the use of full black face paint should be taken off the streets and feel it’s long overdue. There were some who were upset saying that it was killing tradition whereas we think of it as the other way around.JEREMY It would kill the whole movement effectively couldn’t it?ALEX Exactly and when you research it, the link between Morris dancing and blackface is tenuous. There’s this panic that an ancient tradition is being eradicated when in reality it’s a fairly new thing when you consider Morris started in the fifteenth century and blackface only became common in the mid nineteenth century. We feel strongly that it’s an aspect that should change and people should be proud of why they changed it rather than have this death grip on a tiny aspect of the tradition.JEREMY As traditions go, 170 years isn’t that long in terms of folk culture. That’s a recent tradition, so you can argue you could change it again. It’s good that there is an appetite forchange and we’re bringing up contemporary discussions around identity and race to broaden its appeal. Where does the inspiration for the Boss Morris outfits come from?ALEX It’s got to excite us and we take inspiration from all over, whether it’s the early iconography depicting Morris dancers costume or drag makeup. Our aesthetic has been born out of the fact that we’re all creatives and it’s been really interesting to work collaboratively on the kit.LILY It’s collaborative and organic. We bring ideas from our own personal interests and folk crafts play an important role. There are basket weavers, jewellers, knitters and crocheters among us. We take inspiration from anything really, we’re not prescribed in what we look at but there’s certainly an aesthetic that represents us. We like to weave in things that represent Stroud, the town where we live. Stroud was well known for its manufacture of cloth, like the famous ‘Stroudwater Scarlet’ used for soldier’s uniforms and they’d weave and dye the fabric red, leaving it to dry on the surrounding hills. We had a design with a river running down and red cloth representing the uniforms. We overlaid drawings of our dance moves on top. There are small details drawing connections from Stroud and its landscapes. We made ponchos that were cut out of luminous yellow tennis ball fabric donated from a Stroud textile company that has made snooker baize and tennis ball fabric for years.JEREMY When you first turned up at these events, what was the response from more traditional sides or people that have been doing it for a long time?ALEX When a new Morris side springs up; there is concern that it’s just a gimmick. We were so far out, people did think ‘oh this is a bit over the top’ and ‘they’re just doing it for the costumes’. There was a prickly reaction from some people but I can totally understand that. There are loads of Morris sides in Stroud and most were absolutely lovely and really excited and encouraging. You’ve got to prove yourself and show people that you’re genuinely interested in the dancing because it would upset people if you’re not doing your double steps right or waggling your hankies out of time.

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