Morris Dancing

Set Dances & Sword Locks

Set Dances

Morris dancing is done in 'sets' usually consisting of 6 men in two columns of three, and, of course, a musician. A dance for less than a full set, usually one or two men, is termed a 'jig'.

During a dance, the dancers form geometric patterns on the ground, called 'figures'. Of these, the two most ancient are the 'Foot Up' (or 'Foot Up and Down'), in which the dancers advance and retire (or advance, retire and turn to repeat in the oposite direction) in two columns to define the dancing space--originally probably a sacred space or temenos, and the 'Rounds'--in origin a sun symbol--as seen here.

['Rounds' in the 'Upton Stick Dance']
The Bouwerie Boys of New York City doing the figure 'Rounds'  in the Upton-Upon-Severn Stick Dance
[play Quick Time movie button]
View a 'Foot Up and Down' in a stick dance.

(2.5MB Quick Time file
20 secs. 240x180 pix)
[play Quick Time movie button]
View a 'Foot Up and Down' in a handkie dance.

(2MB Quick Time file
18 secs. 240x180 pix)

While the Foot Up (& Down) and the Rounds are found in almost all the village traditions, the dances from the different villages differ somewhat in the steps and the other figures. However despite these variations, there are considerable structural similarities among all the morris traditions.

All dances consist of a set of figures interspersed with variable choruses which define the dance. In some cases, the chorus is divided into a 'challenge' where pairs of dancers advance towards each other and retire, and crossings where pairs of dancers dance across the set (usually from corner to comer) ending in each other's places (corner dances).

Several other figures, though differing slightly from tradition to tradition, are common: a figure in which the dancers dance accross the set in lines or dance into a singe line in the middle, and retire, variably called 'Cross Over', or 'Half Gyp'; one in which the dancers dance across the set in lines, the dancers in each line passing back to back as they return to place, called 'Back to Back'; one in which the dancers dance across the set and around each other (facing each other), usually called a 'Whole Gyp'--several variations of this figure under different names such as 'Face to Face' occur; and a figure done at the end of dances called 'All In' in which the dancers dance in to the center in a small circle, arriving with a shout.

[The Kingsessing Men do an 'All-In']

The Kingsessing Morris Men of Philadelphia dancing an 'All In'

[Marlboro Men dance Castlering]

The Marlboro Morris Men with "Mother" acheive this remarkable position in the chorus of the Lichfield dance Castlering, danced in Newfane, VT. The Lichfield tradition is characterized by 8-man sets.

Sword Locks

The handkies and sticks found in the Cottswold Morris are replace further North by swords, in the related sword dances of Northumbria and Yorkshire. The two-handled 'rapper sword' of Northumbria, which links the dancers together, though named after the flexible 'rapier', is really derived from the horse-curries used by the region's coal miners who did the dances, to care for the mine horses.

[Royal Earsdon Rapper]
The Royal Earsdon Rapper Sword Team of Eccles near Newcastle in Northumbria, England, holding up a 'nut' or 'swordlock' at the end of a dance

[play Quick Time movie button]
View part of a Rapper Sword dance with a 'nut'.

(918K Quick Time file
8 secs. 240x180 pix)

Rapper Sword dancing was in origin a regional outgrowth of the older Longsword dances. Longswords are true swords, about a yard long, stiff and inflexible, with one handle and a pointed end. As in Rapper Sword dancing, the dancers are linked by holding the ends (hilt and point) of the swords, but the distance between dancers is increased by their length and inflexibility which also makes for slower, more deliberate movements and figures. Unlike Rapper Sword dances in which the 'nut' or swordlock occurs frequently between other figures, in Longsword dances, the swordlock is usually the final figure and is done only once. It represents a ritual beheading and in some dances, a dancer stands in the middle of the ring of dancers and the sword lock is formed around his neck. At the very end of the dance as the music abruptly stops, the swords are drawn sharply and dramatically out of the lock along the central dancer's neck and he drops as if dead. Longsword dances are traditionally done in winter during Advent and the Christmas season, and are often an accompaniment to the Mummers plays done at that time, with their theme of death and rebirth.

[A Longsword swordlock around the neck--Grenoside Sword]

The Grenoside Sword of Sheffield, England,
forming a swordlock around the neck of a dancer with longswords.

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