Bringing morris to the masses

Deputy Editor Dr Annie Brookman-Byrne watches 'For Folk's Sake: Morris Dancing and Me', on BBC Four.

When you think of traditional English folk dancing you probably imagine that it’s not the most inclusive pastime, and you’d be right. In ‘For folk’s sake: Morris dancing and me’, Richard Macer enters the world of morris dancing to document the lead up to the Morris Ring’s vote to include women. Macer learns how to dance with his local side, and meets teams across the country to get their views on women dancing.

Although the programme provides insight into some (mostly male) perspectives on morris dancing in the modern world, it could have gone further in highlighting inequality within folk, and celebrating the many excellent women’s and mixed teams. Perhaps the giveaway that this was not going to be the case should have been the programme description which describes morris as a 'masculine tradition' and asks if morris is better when danced just by men.

Amazingly, Macer meets just one women’s team, Windsor Morris, asking them if they think they are 'as good as any male side'. It was clear from the small snapshot of them dancing that they were in fact better than many of the men’s teams shown, and having a lot more fun too. Even in Macer’s later reflection, he describes Windsor Morris as 'on a par' with the men, apparently leaving no room for women to exceed the ability of men.

The programme fails to adequately explain that the Morris Ring is one of three organisations, with the other two (Morris Federation and Open Morris) welcoming women from their conception. To frame the vote to include women as a way of saving morris dancing from extinction is disingenuous given the hundreds of teams listed on the Morris Federation and Open Morris websites.

Having spent time with his local team, Macer posits that morris dancing protects men from toxic masculinity. Traditionally, men get together for sport or competition, but morris allows men to be together for joy, presenting a positive image of all-male groups. Macer says, “there isn’t anything wrong with men just being men together”. Of course this is true, and allowing women to join the Morris Ring won’t stop men being together: each team decides whether or not to admit women. But even in mixed sides, are those men not equally protected from toxic masculinity by virtue of having joined a dance team?

More pressing than the presence of women in morris is the elephant in the room throughout the programme – the lack of discussion about race, despite morris clearly being a predominantly white pursuit. The hugely controversial practice of some morris teams wearing black face paint was not touched upon; while there is debate about the origins of this practice, it is clear that it needs to end. A consideration of the range of problematic aspects of English folk dance was not presented in the programme, despite great concern over how to recruit new members.

Morris dancing, and folk dancing more widely, has a long way to go to change its image and truly represent England today. While morris dancing may not yet be close to extinction, morris organisations, and individual teams, need to ask themselves what they can do to appeal to a wider audience. Unfortunately, this programme did little to help.

- On BBC iPlayer until 1 May.

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