By Dr Lucy Wright
In many ways, girls’ morris superficially bears little resemblance to the better-known ‘traditional’ morris performance of the English folk revival. Many first-time witnesses liken it to modern Irish stepdance, or mistake it for the American import, cheerleading, although girls’ morris dancing is (at least) several decades older. However, despite surface dissimilarities, preliminary research indicates that girls’ morris dancing shares key aspects of its history with other forms of North West morris, with roots in the popular town carnival movement, of the mid-19th to late 20th century, at which troupes of dancers, male and female, single and coed, were a prominent feature. More research is required to precisely determine the nature of the separation of girls’ morris from other forms of morris dancing in the region, but my time in the girls’ morris dancing community makes it plain that the performance played an important role in the lives of many girls and women. Frequently passed along matriarchal lines, many of today’s dancers have grandparents, and even great-grandparents who were involved. Others are the first in their families to dance.
Early folk dance scholars were often dismissive of girls’ carnival morris. Morris was historically gendered male (Sharp, 1912: 42) and women’s participation—where it was acknowledged at all—was typically portrayed as a substitution, or borrowing from the men’s dance. Also contributing to the neglect, the traditions of urban dwellers typically received less attention than those of their rural counterparts (Boyes, 1993; Buckland, 1991), as folklore was believed to reside more ‘authentically’ in unindustrialised places (cf. Kennedy, 1966). At the same time, girls’ morris dancing had—and continues to—visibly evolve, Maud Karpeles suggesting that, ‘instead of adhering to the traditional mode of dancing, [girls’ morris troupes] have been tempted to introduce new features and develop the dance on lines that are calculated to win the approbation of the judge and the audience’ (Karpeles, 1930: 5) while Daniel Howison and Bernard Bentley asserted that it had ‘almost entirely lost touch with its traditional roots’ (1960: 44). However, Mike Heaney described it as coherent with any ‘defensible definition’ of folk dancing (Heaney, 2006: 39), while Roy Dommett considered girls’ morris ‘heir to the richest of the English dance traditions’ (1986: 5).
Today, girls’ morris functions at a fundamental remove from the morris dancing of the English folk revival. Despite performing with an all-female Cotswold morris side, Waters Green from Macclesfield—in the heart of girls’ morris country—I was previously unaware of this parallel strand of morris dancing taking place on my doorstep. It is rarely showcased at folk events or festivals. Similarly, or perhaps for this reason, few of the girls’ morris dancers I have worked with straightforwardly relate to the broader English morris dancing canon.
Lower Withington Morris Dancers at Lower Withington Rose Day, 1958.