‘It was change or die’: why morris men are now welcoming morris women

‘It was change or die’: why morris men are now welcoming morris women

Women were once excluded from the official folk dance groups – but now the barriers are down. Will this mean the end of traditional morris performances?

A female morris dancer in Rivington, Lancashire.

Name: Morris women.

Age: Both ancient and modern.

Appearance: Like morris men, but women.

Don’t be silly. I’m all for equality, but morris dancers are exclusively men. That has not always been the case.

I’m not going to argue with you – but yes it has. There are records of women morris dancing in Oxfordshire in the 19th century, but it’s true that early 20th-century revivalists made it a men-only thing.

That’s what I meant, then. When the Morris Ring – the oldest morris society in the country – was founded in 1934, it was restricted to men. But the rules were finally changed in 2018.

And now? After 70 years in existence, the Exeter morris men have finally dropped the word “men” from their name. Last week, they rehearsed with women for the first time at Ide memorial hall in Devon.

What are they called instead? Exeter Morris.

I guess you can’t be picky when you’re trying to recruit new members to something so uncool. You’ve hit the nail on the head. There simply aren’t enough men who want to go morris dancing these days.

I can believe that. “There was a reluctance to change,” John Armstrong, squire of the Exeter Morris, told the Times. “But it was effectively change or die, really.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for gender equality, but it’s a start, I suppose. Actually, Exeter Morris is only the latest “side” (as they are sometimes known) to embrace change. A third of the Morris Ring’s member sides are now mixed male/female teams, and more than half of Britain’s morris dancers are women.

Wow. That was fast. As I said, women have always done morris dancing, with or without some official seal of approval. When they were excluded by the Ring, women simply set up their own teams, seeking recognition where they could find it.

I did not know that. There is also a phenomenon in north-western England called Carnival Morris, which originated in the mid-19th century and is now largely women-only.

Again, I’m learning more about morris dancing than perhaps I’d care to. In its modern incarnation, Carnival Morris – AKA Fluffy Morris – is a competitive sport performed in spangly team costumes: an almost unholy mix of morris dancing and cheerleading.

That doesn’t sound like true morris dancing. There are fewer silly hats.

Aren’t we worried that mixed morris sides will become hotbeds of sexual intrigue? No, we are not.

Do say: “We’re gonna need some smaller clogs.”

Don’t say: “Women morris dancing? Pull the other one – it’s got bells on.”