“I didn’t know women danced Morris?” – Women and the Morris dance

By Janet Dowling

Imagine a bright summers afternoon. A public house in the middle of the country, or even your local town or city centre. A glass of whatever you wish, to sate your thirst. Music starts up and you hear the jingling of bells. Someone calls out –“it’s the Morris dancers.” You turn to find yourself watching six women, each with a heavy stick in her hand, dancing the Morris.

Now that’s when you hear- “I didn’t know women danced Morris!”

Sadly, as we enter the 21st century, the old chestnuts of women not dancing Morris still come back to haunt us. But women and Morris dancing have been entwined for 500 years from providing the earliest known evidence for the morris in old records, to accounts of women dancing Morris in Shakespeare’s time, to the revival of the Morris at the early part of the 20th century, the research to establish its most likely origin, and then the explosion of women dancing in the 1970’s onwards.

Women and the early evidence of Morris dancing

The earliest records of Morris dancing is from 1458 from the will of Alice Wetenhale, a widow from Bury St Edmunds where she says “I leave to my daughter Catherine… 3 silver cups, sculpted with a moreys dauns (sic) , with one lid for them” ( Forrest 1999 p47). With no other description, it is obvious that she expected that the executor of her will would be sufficiently knowledgeable of a Morris dance to be able to recognise the cups, as well as evidence that “the dance image was worthy of precious and lasting objects.” (Forrest 1999 p48)

Other records of the period show that in 1477 the Drapers guild paid for a Morris dance as part of its contribution to the midsummer watch in London, and in 1494 the account books of Henry VII showed that money was paid for “pleying (sic) of the mourice (sic) dance”.

Women dancing Morris in Shakespeare’s time

Will Kemp, actor and stage clown with Shakespeare’s company, was famous for his Nine Daies Wonder. He danced the Morris from London to Norwich in 1600, and wrote a book about it to raise money. During his journey he met not one but two women who joined with him in a Morris dance.

In Chelmsford he met “ a Mayde not passing 14 yeares of age… made request … that she might dance the Morrice with me in a large great roome. …I was soone wonne to fit her with bels… and to our jumps we fell. A whole houre she held out…” (Forrest 1999 p239)

And then he met in Sudbury

“a lusty country lass …saying “If I had begun to dance, I would haue held out one myle though it had cost me my life. … if the Dauncer will lend me a leash of his belles, ile venter to tread one mile with him my selfe. (sic)” Kemp said of her “she had a good ear, (and) daunst truely” (Forrest 1999 p239)

Forrest states that this is evidence both for women dancing the Morris, as well as that Morris dancing was well known along the route he took. Forrest also cites several examples in the 17th and 18th centuries where men and women were described in Morris dances.

Revival of Morris dance in early twentieth century

The Morris dance revival is generally dated to 1899, when Cecil Sharp first met Headington Quarry Morris dancers. He recorded the meeting in his notebooks, and took it no further as his interest was in folk song collecting. He had an article published on some songs he had collected in Somerset.

Mary Neal was a philanthropist who worked in East London where she set up a club for working girls, and developed a tailoring establishment called Maison Esperance, offering good working conditions. She heard of the folk songs, and in 1905 approached Sharp asking if they would be appropriate for the girls in her club. Sharp was delighted with this, saying that “by a spiritual sixth sense, these working girls would reclaim their lost inheritance”.

Mary Neal reported, “It was as if the club had gone mad, they were perfectly intoxicated with the music.” Pleased with the effect, Mary Neal then asked Sharp if he knew of any dances to go with the songs. Referring to his notebooks, he was able to give her the address of the dancers he had seen six years previously. She took a train and a Hansom cab, met some of the dancers, and invited them to London to teach the dances to her girls. The girls performed them at the club Christmas party, and encouraged by their reception, presented a public performance of singing and dancing, with Sharp giving a lecture.

As a consequence, the Esperance girls were asked to put on demonstrations around the country and to teach the dances in schools and other places. The school boards took an interest, and Sharp collaborated with Herbert MacIlwaine (musical director of the Esperance club), to produce the first of the Morris Books, dedicated to the Esperance Morris. Sharp noted the music, while MacIlwaine notated the steps from one of the Esperance girls, Florrie Warren.

Having started on a common path, however, Mary Neal and Sharp’s views diverged. Influenced by his experience in the folk song collecting, Sharp was keen to preserve the dances untainted, to keep them in the form that “was an expression of their enthusiasms, based on the incidents of a common life and common work.” In 1907, the magazine Punch published a cartoon of three male morris dancers and three female morris dancers, led by Mr Punch. Mary Neal saw this as a positive step, advertising their plans to set up a national movement for folk dances. However Sharp saw this as a threat, of the morris dance being sucked in to the ethos of “Merrie England” which presented a saccharine view of the past, and being changed beyond recognition.

In addition, Mary Neal was also developing a political interest. She was at the first meeting of the Women’s Social and Political Union, taking the minutes of meeting. Although she was not active herself, the Esperance club danced at many of the Suffragette events. Sharp was unhappy with the suffrage movement (his sister Evelyn was also active and had been arrested on one occasion) and felt that it was not appropriate.

Attempts to set up a national movement failed, mainly because Sharp tried to put too many constraints on how it would operate. During this time Sharp began collecting the Morris dances on his own, and published the second volume without reference to the Esperance club. There began an acrimonious relationship between them, with Mary Neal having a more relaxed approach to the dance, to learn from the traditional dancers and pass on both the steps and the spirit of the dance, whereas Sharp felt it needed to be more disciplined, with people trained to teach the dance uniformly. At one point he declined to let the traditional dancers participate in the training of teachers because they were doing it “differently” from the way he had collected it.

Mary Neal did a lecture tour in the US, and when she returned to England she collected the material for the first of two Esperance Morris Books, published in 1911.

There followed a period where the argument and counter argument between Mary Neal and Sharp were carried out in the letter columns of National Newspapers and magazines, both trying to put their point of view, and becoming frustrated with the other. In time Sharp, with his social influence, academic standing and publications, established the foundation of the English Folk Dance Society (which later became the English Dance and Song Society aka EFDSS).

With the coming of the war in 1914, Mary Neal turned her attention to other areas, and to all intents and purposes left the arena. Sharp died in 1924.

In 1937 Mary Neal was awarded the CBE for services in connection with the revival of folk songs and dances.

In her later years she fell under the influence of Rolf Gardiner, and in trying to understand why she had failed in the revival of the morris, she took on his beliefs that morris dancing was a masculine ceremonial rite, and that “by putting women on to this masculine rhythm I had quite innocently and ignorantly broken a law of cosmic ritual, and stirred up disharmony which became active as time went on… I believe now that this misuse of the morris dance was the reason for the bitter estrangement between my colleagues and myself, the cause of which was as unknown to them as it was to me.” Gardiner was to influence many people in this belief and which perpetuates today. (Boyes 1993 160-7)

Mary Neal died in 1944.

The contribution she made to the revival of the morris dance outside the existing traditional teams, was very significant. Without her input, organisational skill, enthusiasm and vigour, Sharp may never have been inspired or enabled to take an interest in the morris dance. Although they had a common aim to begin with, they diverged over they wanted to develop the dance. It is unfortunate that Mary Neal felt that she had fallen foul of some cosmic force by introducing women into the dances, rather than recognising some of the social pressures she was working against.

The saddest part is that the issue was not so much which one of them was right, but why one of them had to be wrong. In this day and age both points of view are needed and greatly valued.

Theories of the origins of the morris dance.

Even today some people refer to Morris dancing as a pagan ritual- a view popularised by some of the dancers themselves- claiming links to ancient fertility rites. Various theories have been put forward such as a formalised dance of two lines of men representing Christians and Moors to mark the crusades, or even a dancing form derived from the Moors allegedly brought to England by John of Gaunt in the mid 14th century. Both were referred to as Moorish dancing. One suggestion is that it might be a use of the term “Mores dance” (meaning traditional dance). Other theories include a more classical interpretation of Pliny the Younger, that it was initiated by Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, as a form of military war dance/exercise.

Sharp’s view of the Morris, as a primitive folk ritual that needed to be preserved, prevailed for much of the early part of the 20th century; so much so that when Barbara Lowe, an historian, published her studies in 1957 of the earliest origins of Morris dancing, not much attention was paid to her work ( Hutton 1996). Her researches showed that Morris dances first appeared about 1450 as a new craze in the courts of the nobility and royalty throughout western Europe. These had 6 men dancing-“competing” for the hand of a lady- who subsequently “chose” a fool character for her favours. Approval in the English courts, with Henry VIII being an enthusiast participant, helped to promote the dance and it became a regular part of pageants in churches- with regular entries in church accounts for fees or equipment for the “morrice dauncers.” It wasn’t until the 1970’s when different views stated to prevail about more rigorous research and the social climate when women were starting dance Morris, that there was better appreciation of Lowe’s work. Today her research is the basis of our understanding of the origins of the Morris.

Women and morris dance in the 1970’s to present day.

Following the conflict between Sharp and Neal, and the advent of the First World War, the Esperance Morris ceased. During the war members of the Women’s Auxillary Army Corp included morris dancing as part of their fitness programme, and it is alleged that some village dance traditions were kept going by the women while the men were at the front. However after the war there was little Morris dancing by women. In contrast, influenced by Sharp (but originally taught by the Esperance girls) many revival Morris teams of men were set up, and the Morris Ring was established in 1934 as an umbrella body for the new teams. Morris dancing by women was frowned upon as the members adopted the view that Morris dancing was a traditional male rite.

This view prevailed until the folk revival in the late sixties and early 70’s where most of the folk festivals in the 1970’s were running workshops to teach Morris to men. In 1971, in the face of rising female interest in taking part in Morris, the Morris workshop leader at Sidmouth festival banned women from even watching the workshop. In 1972 in the face of much protest at the ban, a “Ladies Ritual Dance Workshop” was run, and continued for the next few years. The first women’s team to be set up was Bath City Morris in 1971, and then England’s Glory in 1972.

There was much opposition to women dancing from existing men’s team and the Morris Ring. Some men agreed to teach women dancers, but only after promises of anonymity. One man arrived at a women’s Morris practice wearing a hood so that he would not be recognized. (Wearing 2006) If a men’s team were invited to the same festival as a women’s team, sometimes the men would try to persuade the organizers to stop the women dancing on the grounds that it was not traditional, and when they were not successful they would refuse to dance themselves.

In 1975 13 women’s teams from across the country formed themselves into the Women’s Morris Federation- a group to support and develop women dancing Morris which ran their own workshops. One of the teams was New Esperance – named for the original women’s team and practicing in the same area (of which I was proud to be a member for 25 years).

In the mean time a new phenomena developed which appalled men’s teams and even some women’s teams. Mixed teams -where men and women danced in the same set, or Joint -where there was a separate men’s team and women’s team, but which operated under the same name. They were denied admittance to the Women’s Morris Federation, so they formed a third Morris umbrella group in 1979 called Open Morris. By 1978 The English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) issued a statement that argued “that women’s Morris could not be dismissed as irrelevant as it might become a future tradition in its own right.” (Wearing 2006)

In 1983 The Women’s Morris Federation changed its name to Morris Federation and opened its doors to mixed, joint, and men only teams. I was pleased and proud to be President of the Morris Federation between 1996 and 2000, and worked with the two other Morris organization to develop a collaborative approach to promoting and developing Morris. The emphasis is no longer on the gender of the dancer, but on maintaining a high standard

Women and the Morris dance

Women have always had a role in the Morris dance. There are now over 16,000 people dancing Morris, and 50% of them are women. Long may it be so!

Dance on!


Boyes G 1993 “The imagined village” Manchester

Dowling J 1999 “So who was Mary Neal anyway ?” Morris Federation Newsletter- Winter

Forrest J 1999 “The History of Morris Dancing 1458-1750” James Clarke & Co Cambridge

Hutton R 1996 “Stations of the Sun” OUP

Judge R. 1989: Mary Neal and the Esperance Morris – Folk Music Journal vol 5 no 5.
Neal M. 1911: Esperance Morris Book (Curwen).
Swift S. 1998: The Forgotten Mary Neal – the true spirit of morris dancing – dramatised narration performed at Sidmouth Folk Festival 1998

Wearing, S 2006 “Morris women not women’s morris” English Dance and Song pp24-25 Winter


Different kinds of morris

There are 5 regional variation of morris dancing

  • Cotswold ( from South Midlands using hand kerchief and bells, in groups of 6 ),
  • North West Morris ( mainly from Lancashire and Cheshire using clogs, twirlies or batons, in a group of 8 or other multiples of 4),
  • Molly ( from East Anglia- clothes are bright and extravagant, faces coloured in multiples of 4),
  • Border ( from Welsh border- rag jackets and mainly blacked up faces in multiples of 4), and
  • Flag and Bone (North of England uses flags and bones, disguised faces in multiples of 4).

There are also two sword dances which are generally grouped with Morris dance as a ritual dance,

  • Longsword ( from Northern England using rigid long swords in patterns minimum of 6) and
  • Rapper (from the mining villages of Northumberland and Durham using flexible short swords in fast moving patterns, minimum of 5 max 7)

We are a member of The Morris Federation. Checkout their website for more resources on Morris dancing.

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