I’m working on a series of drawings of Morris dancers in English seaside resorts. I’ve been fascinated by this tradition for years, particularly Border Morris because of the way its dress updates a tradition with punk elements and random collections of ornamentation. (The dancer below had sausages in her hat.) And I connect the dancers with the seaside because that’s where I’ve come across them, like modern end-of- the-pier shows.
Border Morris goes in for weird dress and violent dancing, which involve shouting and striking sticks together, and some dancers introduce modern instruments like saxophones and electric guitars. Like all traditions, this one is curated, continually re-invented, altered and embellished.
But Border Morris (unlike the bells-and-hankies type of Morris dancing from the Cotswolds) has become embroiled in controversy because its traditional dance requires black face, which, with the dancers’ penchant for sunglasses, makes their performance look even more malevolent. A Border Morris side in black face was recently stopped from performing in Birmingham, the first time they have been challenged. The bemused response of the dancers is to say that black face has nothing to do with racism and originated in the need of dancers to disguise themselves. But others have said that this story is repeated from an assertion by Cecil Sharpe without evidence, and that there is evidence to the contrary of the co-incidence of black face Morris with black face minstrel shows, and of 19th century dancers talking of “going niggering”. Compared with Cotswold Morris, Border Morris has a sinister back story which its supporters are unaware of. I expect that in a rapidly changing climate it will have to re-invent itself again.
The English seaside resort also has an uncomfortable history. It has been in decline for fifty years and seaside towns are among the most socially deprived in the country, but there is also a steep social gradient on the coast – between, say, chic Deal and squalid Margate.