Sociology of Morris dancing

I saw a post on an Effective Altruism board recently about group dynamics and how groups form and continue. Shortly afterward I was talking with a friend about how Morris dancing works, and thinking that Morris is actually a really interesting sort of social group.

In many ways, it functions like a sports team (members gather for practice on local teams to do an organized physical activity, then gather with other teams at larger events). Except most people only do sports in school, leading to constant turnover on sports teams. Whereas many Morris teams have the same team members for decades.

So I wrote up some things about how Morris teams work, because it may be interesting to people thinking about how groups “gel” in the first place and how they survive long-term.

This is about Morris in the US; I don’t know much about how it works in England or other countries.

common

Age of teams:

Morris was taught to American schoolchildren in the early 20th century, disappeared for a while, and then was re-introduced in the 1960s. The first men’s teams started in the 60s and the first mixed and women’s teams in the 70s. So most teams are between 40-0 years old. All the teams I’ve danced on have at least one member who was there at or near the beginning of the team.

Number of members:

I’ve seen teams ranging from 2 people (who danced jigs together after splitting from a larger team) to my current team which has maybe 35 people that sometimes come to practice and 15-20 people at any given practice.

Demographics:

There are single-gender and mixed-gender adult teams, with a few teens’ and children’s teams. Some adult teams have one or two children on them. American teams tend to attract college-educated white people with hippie-ish tendencies. The quip about contra dancers applies fairly well: “The women are all social workers, and the men are all computer programmers named Dave.” At an event when my mother was pregnant with me, she did a skit speculating which of the Bluemont Morris men might be the father: “I know he was about this tall and had dark hair and a beard . . . ” (describing my father and virtually all the other men on the team).

Teams tend to be bi-generational, with some baby boomers who have been dancing since the 70s or 80s and other members in their teens or twenties, often the children of folk dancers. I have always liked having a multi-generational group of friends; as a teenager it was refreshing to know adults who treated me as a peer.

I think most adults of my demographic don’t have a same-sex social group, and a single-sex team seems to be something that a lot of people enjoy. I heard one man describe his team as his fraternity (which, as a gay pagan hippie, he was unlikely to have had in college).

Gatherings:

Most teams meet weekly for at least part of the year (often taking summers off). Practice usually lasts about 2 hours, with time for stretching and kvetching. Team members often gather for beer or ice cream after practice. A few teams are geographically scattered and only practice occasionally but mostly just perform a few times a year.

Teams may perform several times a year with just their team, often at festivals or events that will pay them. They likely also dance at larger gatherings of Morris dancers, called ales, several times a year. (This won’t interest non-Morris people, but I found Tony Barrand’s piece on the invention of the ale to be fascinating reading.)

Ales are celebratory weekends of performing, eating, drinking, and often camping outdoors. They aren’t officially competitive in nature, and there are no winners or prizes, but teams do make an effort to show off for each other. People who don’t come to practice all year will show up in the spring season in order to get ready for ales and other events where they’ll dance with other teams. More on why ales are fun.

Socializing outside dance events:

Teams may gather for social events (potlucks, “drinking practice” at a bar) aside from usual practices. They may host parties, baby showers, etc. for members. If a person wants Morris dancing at their wedding or funeral, their team or other dance friends will usually do so.

I’ll just say that when I was pregnant, I did not let my relatives throw a baby shower because that seemed like it would be awkward and weird. I did let my Morris team do a potluck dinner/shower because it sounded like fun. And it was.

How people join

People join either because they have friends who dance, they saw the team performing, or they grew up around Morris. Of the young women on my team, at least half of us have parents who were active in folk dancing.

Smaller teams that are desperate for able bodies will probably take just about anyone. Larger teams may have some sort of admission process, but I’ve never seen this actually followed.

Why people leave

Reasons I know people have left teams:

  • They broke up with their partner who was on the team
  • They were told their dancing wasn’t good enough and asked to leave
  • They didn’t want to be on a team where other people were kicked off for not dancing well enough
  • Strict attendance policies (being told off for visiting one’s mother in the hospital rather than coming to practice. Supposedly this is why the person left to found a new team altogether.)
  • Favorite team member left, feeling the team won’t be fun without them
  • Difficult to take young children with them to events (including one reportedly quit because no one would hold her baby while she went to the bathroom.)
  • Children don’t want to go to events (this is why my parents quit from when I was about 5 to about 13, at which point I wanted to dance)
  • Knee and ankle problems

And reasons for conflict within teams, even if not leading to people quitting:

  • Artistic differences (e.g. if one dancer is not dressed like the others at a performance, should we all not dance, or just go ahead? Should less-apt dancers dance at performances or be sidelined?)
  • Conflict about teaching/managing style, feeling that the leader is too controlling
  • Taking sides in conflicts between couples
  • Generally getting on each other’s nerves

Morris is physically demanding, and teams often dwindle more due to decline of physical ability to jump around than from lack of interest. But members may continue as a social unit even if they’re not dancing together. One team had enough people for seperate men’s and women’s sides in the 1980s, combined into a mixed side in the 90s, and is currently a supper club because they don’t have enough people who are well enough to dance. Another team has a rule that you never actually leave the team, and even members who no longer dance at all still join the others for beer after practice.

Schisms within a team can be very painful. People have known each other for years, and feelings get very strong. My home team splintered when I was 14, and I remember it feeling like a miniature divorce, with people not speaking to each other and long tense meetings about what to do.

Starting new teams

Reasons for founding new teams:

  • There was no team in the area
  • Existing team wouldn’t let you on it (because they had too many people, or you were of a gender/gender identity they didn’t accept)
  • Starting a mixed team because you did not like the idea of single-sex teams
  • Left your old team for some reason and still wanted to dance

Who founds new teams?

  • People who have danced on other established teams before
  • People who have gone to workshops at summer camps, etc.

Leadership

A team’s leadership consists of a foreman (who teaches dances and is the arbiter of style points), a squire (who organizes events), and a bagman (treasurer). Women’s or mixed teams may call these roles “fore,” “squire”, and “bag,” rather than gendered terms. Some teams have more than one fore, each teaching different kinds of dances (e.g. Catherine teaches Adderbury dances and Cora teaches Fieldtown).

Money

Team members usually pay dues to cover the cost of practice space.  Events such as ales charge for food and lodging. Musicians are not normally paid unless a team’s usual musician is unavailable and they need the services of another musician – in which case the musician’s travel, food, and drink costs would be covered by the team.

Relationships outside the team

Most Morris dancers do not have partners who are also Morris dancers. More often partners either aren’t interested at all, or come along for social events such as ales. In the early days of American Morris, it was still very much a men’s event and women and children were sometimes made to feel unwelcome. I no longer find this to be the case; particularly as they’ve now seen a second generation of dancers join, I find people are excited about me bringing my daughter to events (often with stories about their child’s first night camping at an ale, or the cute Morris imitations their three-year-old used to do).

early morris

My parents preparing to dance, early 90s

 

 

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