If you do a bit of research into traditional border morris dances, you’ll quickly discover two things: (1) most of the collected descriptions are dismayingly sketchy and (2) most of the dances are simple to the point of outright stoopidity. “If I take this stuff to my morris team,” you will tell yourself, “they’ll laugh me into the next county! Now what do I do?”
One solution is fairly evident: Don’t do any collected border dances. There are lots of “border morris” dances around that were written in the past decade or so, and which have choreographies more interesting and flashy than the “clash sticks, hey, and repeat” (hmm, reminds me of the instructions on a shampoo bottle… well, never mind) of typical collected dances.
A second solution, and a more challenging one, is to try to make lemonade out of the lemons you’ve got. The simple stoopidity of most of the collected dances can be seen as an opportunity. After all, there is more to a dance than its choreography. Doing simple choreographies frees you to concentrate on other aspects of the dance. But that’s a diatribe for another time. The practical difficulty is that the collected descriptions need to be augmented with details to make a performable dance.
I have taught border dances of both varieties. Here are some notes. If they’re not enough (and once you get into border morris, there’s never enough), there are more border dances elsewhere on the web. And believe it or not, border morris antedates the web; for those of you who remember paper, I can recommend some sources in that medium too.
Table of contents
- Brimfield (“Maiden’s Delight”)
- Morning Star (for four)
- Requiem for Mister Ed
- Upton Snodsbury
Brimfield (“Maiden’s Delight”)
A venerable collected dance, one of the more commonly-done border dances. My version pretty much follows the description in Jones and goes like this:
The set consists of four dancers in a single line, with #1 facing #2 and #3 facing #4 — so #2 and #3 are back to back. Leave a couple meters of space between #2 and #3; you’ll need it.
Music: “The Big Ship”. Format: A AB AB2 AB2 AB A.
Dance structure: Once to yourself; sticking; figure eight; sticking; star; sticking; swing; sticking; figure eight; sticking.
Stepping: Single stepping, left foot lead.
Sticking (A music): Short (about 65 cm) sticks, one per dancer. #2 and #3 hold sticks, using both hands, pointing upward and outward with one end braced against the midriff. This should have an obvious symbolism in terms of Jungian archetypes. Or something like that. #1 and #3 do all the work: 2-handed clashes, right to left and then left to right, one clash per beat (16 clashes total per A music). No stepping. For last sticking, slow down the music and ham it up with some extremely, one might say gratuitously, violent sticking which gradually speeds up. Omit last stick clash; instead raise stick and shout “Hoy!”
Figure eight (B music): #2 and #3 step in place. #1 passes #2 by the right shoulder, goes between #2 and #3, around #3, back between #2 and #3, and around #2 back to place. #4 follows a similar track, starting by passing left shoulders with #3. #1 goes through the center before #3 on both passes.
(Note that otherwise sane scholars, if that’s not an oxymoron, have come to near blows over this figure: Does #4 follow the figure 8 track in the same direction as #1 (starting by passing left shoulders) or the opposite direction (starting by passing right shoulders)? My attitude is: Mu. I teach it in the same direction. You can do it opposite if you like. It’s a big planet. You don’t even have to agree with the guy at the other end, as long as you don’t run into each other.)
Star (B music twice): Hold sticks in left hands. #2 and #3 take a step or two backward and to the left while #1 and #4 come forward and to the left; grab right hands in a hands-across star. Dance the star around for a full B music, then turn around, put sticks in right hands, and dance a left-hands-across star back. End up back in line.
(You could come out of this figure with #2 and #3 at the ends of the set, and #1 and #4 in the middle, for a little role reversal. I figure getting back to place is enough for my tiny mind to handle without having to keep track of where “back to place” keeps changing to.)
Swing (B music twice): #1 and #2 take sticks in left hands, approach as if to pass right shoulders, but put right arms across each other’s bellies and swing around. #3 and #4 do likewise. At the end of a full B music switch sticks to right hands and partners to left hands, and unswing. End up back in line.
- I’ve done this dance with a set of four, when we didn’t have enough dancers for a set of eight. I’ve also sometimes done it in a set of two! The star then becomes essentially an allemande; otherwise, the dance is the same. And then there’s the version mentioned in item 3, below.
- Use one A music (the “My friend Billy” part if you were singing it, which you aren’t, until later) and one B (“Too ra loo ra…”) for the once to yourself, then it’s: C2 (“Bum titty…”) (sticking) B2 (crossover) C2 (sticking) B2 (star) A (sung) B (sung) C (sung while sticking) C (played while sticking some more) B2 (crossover) C2 (sticking).
- When I did this with Flying Bark Morris, the melodeon player had a tendency to join in on the last crossovers, face to face with #1. The border fore (me) didn’t object because (1) the melodeon player generally managed to keep the tune going in the meantime and (2) the melodeon player was the border fore. On occasions when we had only four warm bodies available, the melodeon player would sometimes dance in the set while playing! In this variant #1 and #4 each have a stick, and do the stick clashing with each other on the diagonal; #2 is the melodeon player; and #3 plays percussion — tambourine, spoons, or simply two morris sticks. For obvious reasons only #1 and #4 join hands in the star. Other than that, and the diagonal sticking, this version of the dance is the same. Damn effective, too.
- On the last C part (sticking), the musician and the dancers go very very fast. The dancers usually get there first.
Morning Star (for four)
This dance, too, is already on the web courtesy of my old team, the Bassett Street Hounds, who took an eight-man dance by the Shropshire Bedlams and observed that it could be just as well done by four dancers if each one used twice as many sticks. I teach it Exactly the Way I Learned It, and I Haven’t Changed A Thing.
Er, except the music. I use the Shropshire version from John Kirkpatrick’s tune book, not the Bledington version everybody else uses.
Requiem for Mister Ed
Credit where due: Inspired by, and very loosely based on, a dance Orange Peel Morris calls “Poston”, because they don’t know the actual name of the dance, which they learned from a videotape (supplied by the Vancouver Morris Men ) of an unknown team. “Requiem for Mister Ed” was devised in late 1998 and premiered in June 1999.
Tune: The Lollipop Man (without the “Ducklington Pause”); A(AB2)4A
Set: Four dancers, square set. Initial configuration (music is on the left):
#2 #4 #1 #3
Structure: Once to yourself, Rounds, Chorus, Sides, Chorus, Corners, Chorus, Centers, Chorus, Rounds
Stepping: In figures, single stepping by only the person(s) in motion; others stand in place. Figures other than Rounds end with all jumping toward partner across set. In chorus, all single step throughout.
Sticks: Long (about 80 cm).
Chorus: Face across, holding stick in right hand, and clash on each beat:
F B D F / D F D F / F B D F / D D D F
(where F = forehand, B = backhand, D = down (strike ground)). Take 8 beats to cross set by right shoulders and turn up or down, then clash up and down set:
F B D F / D D D F.
The set needs to be small to do the chorus, and should be large for the figures — so expand the width of the set by going beyond partner’s place when crossing over, and expand its length by everyone except #1 taking a step backward after last clash.
Note that the persons across the set from one another will vary from one chorus to another.
Once to yourself: All face center. No stepping until start of first figure (Rounds); no stick clashing.
Rounds: Whole rounds, clockwise, to place. Take up the rest of the music by stepping in place, facing partner across set. Do a D clash on last beat.
Sides: Initial configuration:
#1 #3 #2 #4
#1 approaches #3; they clash F on 4th beat. #3 approaches #4; they clash F on 4th beat (leaving #1 in #3’s place). #4 approaches #2; they clash F on 4th beat (leaving #3 in #4’s place). #2 approaches #1’s empty place; everyone clashes D on 4th beat. Face across for chorus! Final configuration:
#2 #1 #4 #3
Corners: Initial configuration:
#4 #3 #2 #1
#1 approaches #4; they clash F on 4th beat. #4 passes #1 by left shoulder and approaches 1’s empty place (leaving #1 in #4’s place); #4 clashes D on 4th beat. #2 approaches #3; they clash F on 4th beat. #3 passes #2 by left shoulder and approaches #2’s empty place (leaving #2 in #3’s place), everyone clashes D on 4th beat. Final configuration:
#1 #2 #3 #4
Centers: Initial configuration:
#3 #4 #1 #2
#1 steps into center, clashes F with #2, #4, #3 on beats 2, 3, 4. #3 passes #1 by left shoulder and steps into center (while #1 steps into #3’s place), clashes D at #1’s place, F with #2, F with #4 on beats 2, 3, 4. #4 passes #3 by left shoulder and steps into center (while #3 steps into #4’s place), clashes F with #1, D at #1’s place, F with #2 on beats 2, 3, 4. #2 passes #4 by left shoulder and steps into center (while #4 steps into #2’s place), clashes F with #3, F with #1 on beats 2 and 3; everyone clashes D on beat 4. (#2 gets quickly into #1’s place.) Final configuration:
#1 #3 #2 #4
Believe it or not, at the end of the last chorus, everyone is back home:
#2 #4 #1 #3
Rounds, 2nd time: end with everyone jumping into center, landing on both feet, and doing 2-handed clash D into center.
A particularly challenging collected dance to reconstruct, in that the original description consists of about one sentence. It would be only slightly more difficult to make a performable dance out of Cecil Sharp’s mother’s maiden name.
(Interestingly, I first learned the Bedlams’ version of Morning Star under the erroneous name of “Upton Snodsbury”. In reality the two dances have approximately nothing in common.)
The version I have devised is obviously influenced by that of Black Annis Morris (a men’s border team from Bedfordshire, perhaps not still extant, not to be confused with a women’s Cotswold team of the same name), and by Five In a Bed by James Allwright of Red Stags Morris, and in all likelihood is almost but not quite entirely unlike the original Upton Snodsbury dance. It goes like this:
The set consists of three dancers in a single line. Parallel to them, on the dancers’ right as they face up, in approximately the positions that would be occupied by three more dancers if this were a Cotwold dance, are three inanimate objects. Hats, for instance. Or longsword dancers.
Music: “Buttered Peas”. Format: A AB2 AB2 AB2.
Dance structure: Once to yourself; sticking; sheepskin hey; sticking; sheepskin hey; sticking; sheepskin hey. (Your basic shampoo bottle dance.)
Stepping: Single stepping, left foot lead.
Sticking (A music): Short (about 65 cm) sticks, one per dancer. The first time, #1 and #2 clash sticks: 2-handed clashes, right to left and then left to right, one clash per beat (16 clashes total per A music). No stepping. #3 ad libs something — dancing over own stick (a la Bampton Fool’s Jig), molesting the other two dancers, falling asleep, whatever. The other two stickings are similar; see below.
Sheepskin hey (B music twice): The first time, #1 leads the other two up and around the first hat by the right shoulder (the dancer’s shoulder, not the hat’s), past the second hat by the left shoulder, and around the third hat by the right shoulder. #2 follows #1 but after passing the first two hats #3 takes a short cut, going around the second hat. Now #1 and #2 are following #3, who goes around the first hat by the right shoulder. Again, #1 follows #3 but #2 goes around the second hat to take the lead.
Oh, stop whining. Get a few coins and try it out.
They keep going this way for a while. At any given moment one dancer is in the lead, another is following, and a third is bringing up the rear; the third dancer always takes a short cut around the middle hat and takes the lead from there.
This has to end at some point, of course. The second time #3 takes the short cut is that point. #3 then heads back to place; simultaneously #1 and #2, who are coming around the first hat, can smoothly cross the set into each other’s places.
Now it’s time for sticking again, and this time the old #1 and #3 (now in positions #2 and #3, respectively) do the clashing at the bottom of the set while the old #2 (now in the #1 position) fools. At the end of the sticking #3 leads the others into the second sheepskin hey, starting from the hat at the bottom of the set. This ends with the old #2 returning to the #1 position and the old #1 and #3 trading places, ending in the #3 and #2 positions respectively.
You’re way ahead of me, right? On the third sticking the original #2 and #3 (now in the #1 and #2 positions) do the clashing at the top of the set while the original #1 (now in the #3 position) fools. Then the original #2 leads the sheepskin hey from the top of the set, ending with #1 returning to the #3 position and #2 and #3 trading places, ending in positions #2 and #1 respectively. That’s the end of the dance — stop, raise sticks, and yell “Hoy!” on the last beat. The set should be inverted from what it was at the beginning.
All this sounds more complicated than it is, mainly because it is more complicated than it is. But the rules are simply: (1) The hey ends when the most recent fool takes the shortcut for the second time; (2) The most recent fool returns to the same place in the set at the end of the hey and will clash sticks with the middle person next time; and (3) The other two will trade places in the set at the end of the hey; the one who ends up on the end will be the new fool and the other will clash sticks with the previous fool. And this business of returning to place if you’re the ex-fool or trading places if you’re not should happen completely naturally if everyone remembers to break out of the hey at the appropriate point, when the ex-fool loops around the middle hat the second time. Admittedly, this is easier said than done.
Alternate ending: Instead of returning to place after the third hey, the fool can lead everyone offstage and into the nearest handy pub. It helps to agree ahead of time on which ending you will use, of course.
More border on the web
Other border morris dance writeups (as well as general information and opinions on border morris) can be found on these web sites:
- Andy Anderson’s Morris Stuff
- Border Morris Notes (Mike Miller)
- Flag Crackers of Craven
- Hook Eagle Dance Notes
- New St George Morris (in particular, Alexandra Park Road Stick Dance, N.22)
- Roy Dommett’s Morris Notes (Border Morris section)
- Welsh Border Morris Dances (Paul Millenas)
Some other sites about border morris include:
I’ve drawn upon a number of sources, in addition to the above web sites, for my ideas. They include:
- “The Morris Dance in Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire” by E. C. Cawte, Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Vol. 9 No. 4. A seminal work, in which Cawte coins the term “Border Morris” and warns prospective revivalists what they’re getting into: “… a border morris performance… at the Consett meeting of the Morris Ring (1953) was taken to be a joke by some of the audience.”
- A Handbook of Morris Dances by Lionel Bacon. Yes, it’s got border morris dances in it.
- Roy Dommett’s Morris Notes, Vol. V, “Other Morris”, edited by Anthony G. Barrand. Available wherever banned books are sold.
- The Roots of Welsh Border Morris by Dave Jones, published by the Morris Ring. This would be the Bacon of border morris if Bacon weren’t already the Bacon of border morris.
Plus the dancing (live, on video, or hallucinated) of the Bassett Street Hounds, Black Annis of Bedfordshire, Flying Bark Morris, Hook Eagle Morris, the Ironmen, Merrie Mac Morris (RIP), the Not For Joes of Mystic, Connecticut, Orange Peel Morris, Plum Jerkum, Red Stags Morris, the Shropshire Bedlams, Silurian, and others…