This is a lively reel or jiglike dance of Britain that might possibly be a relic of an old pagan May Eve ceremony, still performed in some countries at Beltane (see Sabbats) and midsummer festivals. The Morris dance is thought to have been named after moeisca, a Moorish dance or play which is solely performed by men, and is believed to bring good luck.
Morris dancing dates back to the 15th century, and some theories place its origin in Britain in the 14th century. The dance is descended from an old Moorish dance, the fandango of Spain. Also, is might be associated with a secret Moroccan cult, the Dhulqarneni, or “The Two-Horned Ones,” who danced in a circle to raise magic power and worshipped the moon. It is believed to have been introduced into Britain from Spain by John of Gaunt, son of Edward III (1312-1377), who spent considerable time in that country.
According to anthropologist Margaret A. Murray, an old Morris dance tune, “Green Garters,” was the traditional music for the processional dance to the Maypole on May morning. The May games and dances, which were the pagan festivals and fertility rites, were important to villages, especially in the 16th century, and were tolerated by the Church during the 17th century, but the Puritans abolished them. Morris dancing was restored during the Restoration.
There are different versions of the Morris dance which is usually performed by five men and a boy dressed as a “May Maiden,” and accompanied by two musicians. In Lancashire, the Britannia Coconut Dancers, whp perform at Easter, blacken their faces and wear black breeches, white barrel shirts and wooden disks fastened to their knees, hands and belts, which are clapped together. The men are ler by a Whiffler, who whips away winter and bad luck. Also found in Lancashire is the North-west style, a revival of the dance that led the Rushcart Processions during Wakes Weeks, a former annual British holiday commemorating the dedication of the local church. The dancers wear black breeches, white shirts, bells and wooden clogs. The Cotswold Morris dance is performed with bells, handkerchiefs, sticks and hand clapping. In other versions, the Morris dancers are circled by masked dancers representing bulls, stages, hobby horses and dragons. A.G.H.