There is a slow-simmering debate about the "English folk dance" known as Morris dancing. While some claim at is truly English, others say it is "Moorish". The View from Fez (lovers of all things Morris!), sent Ibn Warraq and his trusty team of researchers in search of answers. As you will discover, the Morris dancing men and women owe a lot, not only Moroccan culture, but more specifically, to Sufi ritual.
A Morris dance is a form of English folk dance usually accompanied by music. It is based on rhythmic stepping and the execution of choreographed figures by a group of dancers.
Harke, harke, I hear the dancing
And a nimble morris prancing;
The bagpipe and the morris bells
That they are not farre hence us tells;
Come let us goe thither,
And dance like friends together.
Implements such as sticks, swords, handkerchiefs and bells may also be wielded by the dancers. In a small number of dances for one or two men, steps are performed near and across a pair of clay tobacco pipes laid across each other on the floor.
Claims like the one above and that English records, dating back to 1448, mention the Morris dance are open to dispute. There is no mention of "Morris" dancing earlier than the late 15th century, although early records such as Bishops' "Visitation Articles" mention sword dancing, guising and other dancing activities as well as mumming plays. Furthermore, the earliest records invariably mention "Morys" in a court setting, and both men and women are mentioned as dancing, and a little later in the Lord Mayors' Processions in London. It is only later that it begins to be mentioned as something performed in the parishes. There is certainly no evidence that it is a pre-Christian ritual, as is often claimed. As we shall see below, the true home of Morris dancing, is Morocco.
"Morris Dancing first came to England in 1367 when the dance was brought back by troops in John of Gaunt's army after the battle of Najera, which is in Northern Spain." - The Dartington Morris Men
The quote above is from The Morris Book by Cecil J Sharp, published in 1907 and we feel he is correct that ,while there is still some dispute as to the origin of the term "Morris," the most widely accepted theory is that the term was moorish dance, morisques in France, Moriskentanz in Germany, moreška in Croatia, and moresco, moresca or morisca in Italy and Spain, which eventually became Morris dance. Dances with similar names and some similar features are mentioned in Renaissance documents in France, Italy, Germany, Croatia, and Spain; throughout, in fact, Catholic Europe.
However, where Cecil Sharp was wrong was claiming that it has altered "until it bears, in spirit, little resemblance to the parent stock". The dances performed by Moroccan Sufis would be instantly recognisable to a well-informed Morris dancer. Not only the steps, but also the use of sticks/swords and handkerchiefs/flags. As one gob-smacked Welsh Morris man exclaimed - "It's what I dance!"
There are still Morris teams who wear "black-face", but are not always aware of the roots of the dance. Others now use colour on their faces other than black but this is as a more "politically correct" substitute.
Wikipedia has this to say: "By 1492 Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille succeeded in driving the Moors out of Spain and unifying the country. In celebration of this a pageant known as a Moresca was devised and performed." While we think this is partially correct, we do take issue with the word "devised". If the extraordinary similarities between Morris and some Sufi dances is anything to go by, the word should have been "imitated" or "copied".
Sticks and Swords
There seems little disagreement over the claim that the original ´Moresca´ was a sword dance and that the sticks in Morris dance are a residual of the swords in the 'Moresca'. In Morocco the sticks are still in use and for an English Morris dancer to see a Sufi dance for the first time, is to see something they recognise.
There are, in the Sufi ceremony, all the familiar moves, the cross-overs and the stick clashing and tapping. A more experienced eye will also notice the steps are very similar. For a true lover of Morris dancing, it is a revelation.
An Invitation !
Having set the record straight about the origins, The View from Fez would like to issue an invitation to a Morris team to visit Morocco and dance along with one of the Sufi groups. It would be a night to remember!