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In Full . . .

Leave my culture alone

Posted on September 29 2014 at 1:06:07

I would like to respond to the letter in the September edition of The Village that called for an end to the Morris tradition.

As usual with criticism of this nature, the author of the letter is ill-informed and is making assumptions that are simply wrong.  

The Border Morris style of dancing involves blacking the face, but it has nothing to do with “impersonating a black person” or ethnicity in general.  

Rather the tradition arose because Border Morris was a method for peasants and poorly paid farm workers to obtain money to supplement their meagre incomes – especially in winter when many people were laid off from agricultural work.  

Over the past few hundred years Morris dancing was classed as begging and, as such, was illegal, so the dancers and musicians had to keep their identity hidden.

Most of the peasant people lived in tied cottages, and so as well as risking being put in the stocks or in gaol, there was also the danger that they and their families would be thrown out of their homes if they were recognised by the farmer/landowner who employed them.

Therefore, it was imperative that they disguised themselves.

They used substances available to them, usually burnt cork or soot from the chimney mixed with goose grease to cover their face.  The “tatter coat” or rag jacket is also part of the costume as it harks back to the fact that most poor people could not afford to buy winter coats and would sew rags onto the inside of their coats to try to keep warm.

When dancing, the dancers would turn their coats inside out to help prevent people recognising them, and also because the rags hide a person’s shape. Again, the top hat helps to disguise a person’s height. So, we do have a costume and camouflage as the author suggested.  

As a dancer with the women’s side in Alvechurch – Aelfgythe Border Morris – I am very dismayed at the tone of the letter. The author is accusing us of behaving in a racist manner without bothering to find out the history of the tradition, and I bitterly resent such an accusation.

I also feel quite sad that this person did not come and speak to us about the kit that we wear. When we dance out we are frequently asked about the kit, black faces and the tradition in general, and we enjoy discussing our dancing with the general public.

We have even produced explanatory leaflets to hand out to people if we don’t have the time to explain verbally.    

Finally, on the subject of being offensive, I find it extremely offensive when someone attempts to ignore my culture, my history and wants to write off hundreds of years of my tradition.

If I was a New Zealand Maori using white ash on my face, or an African dancer using red clay on my head and face as part of a traditional dance, would the author be so quick to condemn?

Perhaps not, and so is the author themselves being very narrow-minded and taking a “superior” position?

We should embrace all forms of cultural dance and folk traditions, but don’t attack Morris when you have no knowledge of the tradition of which you write.

Pam Morley
Alvechurch


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