Enjoying Tradfolk? Click here to find out how you can support us
The folk artist Lucy Wright is dressed in rags, dangling two sacks from her outstretched arms, preparing to morris dance in the Dusking way.

What is Dusking?

“We’ve come to dance the Dusking and we’ll dance the old sun down” - artist, Lucy Wright wants to invite you to join her in a new tradition this October! But what is ‘Dusking’?

You might not have heard of it, but ‘Dusking’ is the next big morris dancing craze to hit your side-streets, woodlands and waste-grounds. Look to your left, now look to your right: at least one of those people will be going out Dusking this year. Or at least I’d love that to be the case! Let me explain…

It was the evening of May 1st this year, and the morris dancing community online were reflecting on another year’s ‘Maying’. It’s a popular modern custom to ‘dance the sun up’ at dawn on May morning and this year a record 1500 people had reportedly set their alarms for stupid o’clock to go out and greet the summer. I, myself had braved the centre of Stevenage – where I was staying for work – alone, and wearing a hastily thrown together kit, in the first act of what I would go on to call ‘hedge morris dancing’ – or morris for people don’t have, or can’t be with a team of morris siblings, but still feel the call to dance. Solitary, self-initiated morris, endlessly adaptable and open to all, the term ‘hedge’ is borrowed from the unsanctioned hedge schools of 18th/19th century Ireland and Rae Beth’s famous book, Hedge Witch. The subsequent interest I received on social media, predominantly from people who had never morris danced before but were excited to give it a go, set me on a course which I’m still following (and loving), creating art and resources to help people get started with the tradition, while hopefully smashing a few barriers and misconceptions along the way. You can read a full article about ‘hedge morris dancing’ here on Tradfolk.

So, back to this May Day evening. It had been another successful year: the sun had risen, as hoped, and the summer was now assured. A post on the Facebook group, ‘How Many Morris Dancers are on Facebook?’ caught my eye. Peter Austin asked, ‘Does any team invoke the practice of what I’ll refer to as ‘Dusking’… i.e dancing at sunset at the start of winter to balance the yearly cycle’. Several people had replied to note that some morris sides in the southern hemisphere habitually dance the sun down on or around May 1st and a few people referenced novels by Terry Pratchett, but overall, it seemed apparent that marking the start of winter was less commonplace or celebrated than its summertide opposite. 

This is perhaps not totally surprising. The promise of a northern hemisphere summer, with its blue skies, long warm days (at least in theory) and lush, verdant nature, seems a lot more attractive than the dark nights and cold, dreich weather that characterises the winter months. I always sort of dread the second half of the year, hit with a mild seasonal gloom around the same time that my big coat comes out of the wardrobe, which only lifts when I begin to see the rowan buds bursting outside my window again. But I’d like to learn to see the winter differently, to find more things to appreciate about the shorter, darker days – like the gifts of rest, replenishment and reflection that Katherine May speaks about in her book, Wintering. Perhaps a folk tradition could help me to feel more positive – even excited – about the season ahead.

Lucy Wright, Dusking at York Grand Opera

Here’s the thing. I’m an artist (I used to be an academic, but I drifted). And as everyone knows, good artists copy but great artists steal. So I pinched the name ‘Dusking’ (thanks, Peter!) and ran with it, my mind racing. What would it be like to get a whole crowd of dancers out at sunset on October 31st (the date agreed upon to be the appropriate counterpart to May Day)? And what if that crowd included a small army of new and misfit ‘hedge’ morris dancers, like me? What could I do to help make the prospect of taking part as appealing and accessible to as many people as possible? I set about gathering resources – and making new costumes (very important). The Dusking project was born.

But what’s it all about? I’ve been calling it a ‘100% invented tradition’ but that’s not entirely right. There is precedence for dancing the sun down, although I wasn’t that well-acquainted with this when I first got excited about the idea. ‘Dusking’ itself seems to be a new coinage, but the custom has other names: the Dark Morris, the Anti-Morris, ‘Dancing the Sun Down’, and a range of references, from art and popular culture to the ‘annals’ of morris dancing history.

A brief history of Dusking

Perhaps the best-known representation of ‘dancing the sun down’ can be found in the writings of Terry Pratchett. In his 1991 Discworld novel, Reaper Man, we are first introduced to the ‘other morris’, later renamed the ‘Dark Morris’, who are described as a team of six men dressed in black who go out to dance at the cusp of winter – performing in silence, with no bells or music and no spectactors – their ritual the spur for completing the yearly cycle of death and rebirth. 

And in his 2006 Young Adult book, Wintersmith, a trainee witch named Tiffany Aching unwittingly joins the secret dance while out one evening with her mentor, Miss Treason. In doing so, she draws the attention of the eponymous Wintersmith – the spirit of the winter – who takes her to be the Summer Lady and falls in love, thus interrupting the Dance of the Seasons.

“And the dance is to welcome winter?” said Tiffany. “That doesn’t make sense! The Morris dance is to welcome the coming of the summer, yes, that’s—”

“Are you an infant?” said Miss Treason. “The year is round! The wheel of the world must spin! That is why up here they dance the Dark Morris, to balance it. They welcome the winter because of the new summer deep inside it!”

Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith

There’s a strong emphasis on ‘the balance of things’ in Pratchett’s conception of the morris, a dance he claims to be, “common to all inhabited worlds in the multiverse”. It is performed (as here in Roundworld) on the first day of spring by men, “with bells tied under their knees, white shirts flapping”, but unlike here, it must also be performed again, in winter, to keep the wheel of the seasons keep turning. It’s not just customary, it’s crucial. 

Wintersmith spurred a successful collaboration with 70s folk supergroup, Steeleye Span, whose concept album of the same name featured the song, ‘The Dark Morris’, performed in Salisbury to an audience including Sir Terry himself. But Steeleye weren’t the only ones to be inspired by Pratchett’s witty and insightful take on the tradition.  

Ravenswood Morris, from Chicago, first began to dance what they termed the ‘AntiMorris’ in 1999, drawing on the description of the fictional Lancre dancers mentioned in Reaper Man. They were soon followed by the White Rats in San Francisco and Snowbelt from Rochester, New York amongst others. Ravenswood describe their motivation as ‘a silly thing to do, “because we’re Terry Pratchett fans… because we think balance in the world might be good thing”. They go out at around 5pm on October 31st and sing a few ‘pumpkin carols’ to set the mood. Then they dance, in black trousers and shirts, with black hankies, white shoes and bells made from octiron, an apparently magic material, said to absorb sound. When they have finished, the audience claps silently (bringing their hands together repeatedly, but not quite enough to produce a sound). Then the dancers quietly disperse into the night. 

Ravenswood’s claim to fame is that they once performed their ‘other dance’ at a book signing in Chicago, witnessed by Terry Pratchett who later wrote of the experience, “they danced it in silence and perfect time, without the music and bells of the ‘summer’ dance. It was beautifully done. But it was also a bit creepy. So it might not be a good idea to try it at home.”

‘A bit creepy’ is probably also a good description for the gothic vibes of the Dark Border Morris phenomenon described by Chloe Middleton-Metcalfe (a Tradfolk regular) in her 2021 piece on the subject for the Morris Federation. While noting that Dark Morris – defined as morris with a ‘sartorial dark aesthetic’ – largely evolved separately from the Terry Pratchett fandom, she suggests that both Pratchett and the dancers were ‘responding to a wider cultural zeitgeist, which supported, “culturally darker tropes and a greater anti-establishment mythology”. When I put out my first ‘Dusking’ feelers online, several people mentioned a winter equinox performance by The Witchmen Morris and assorted guests held annually in December, while Bare Bones Border from Loughborough and Beltane Morris from Devon, amongst others, already go out on October 31st to dance the sun down, though not in direct reference to Pratchett. And it’s not just Borders dancers. New Moon Morris from Buckinghamshire have also been observing the practice for around 10 years, dancing on top of a hill on the Ridgeway. They don’t invite an audience, but say that they get some funny looks from dog-walkers. 

Lucy Wright: Witch

And let’s not forget the morris community in the southern hemisphere, many of whom have long danced the sun down ‘in solidarity’ with their northern counterparts on May 1st, before dancing it back up again in October. Jack Frost Morris and Phoenix Morris from New Zealand and Hot For Joe Border from Australia, amongst others, have been Dusking in one form or another for many years, and there are several more teams in the US. It seems that ‘balance’ is an important value to many established morris sides, too.

Finally, I’m not the only visual artist to have become fascinated by ‘sundown’ as a symbol and a metaphor. Saskatchewan-based folk artist, Jess Richter (also known as HausHexenStudio online) produced a beautiful film work in 2022, titled A forest is a company of wildness: a ritual to bring winter, in which four female dancers, dressed in red, yellow and black, with ram’s horns atop their heads, coax a black sun from the sky in a performance that looks suspiciously like a morris dance. Set in a harvested field at the edge of a wood, the ritual appears to speak to an older, more primal impulse, in which the changing seasons are a kind of magic, to be nurtured and celebrated, or ignored and mistreated at our peril. You can watch it below.

a forest is a company of wildness: a ritual to bring winter (full) from Jess Richter on Vimeo.

Winter is a-cumen in! 

And so ‘Dusking Eve’ is nearly upon us. I’m really hopeful that I’ll be in good (virtual) company, dancing alongside my fellow ‘Duskers’, wherever they happen to be in the world this year.

Anyone can go out Dusking. In fact, you don’t even have to go out to take part, if you don’t want to. You can Dusk in your living room, or back garden, or wherever suits. If you’re already a dancer, fab! Grab your bells and give us a jig (or a clog dance, or a tune!). If you’ve never danced before – WELCOME! This is going to be fun! If you head over to my Instagram page, you’ll find all kinds of resources and inspiration, including basic stepping and armwork techniques, and different ways that morris can be adapted for folk with disabilities or chronic illnesses. Your costume (‘kit’) can be full-on gothic, or light and breezy, or just whatever you have on at the moment. You can dance alone or in a team, by the book, or however the mood takes you on the night… it’s all down to you. The main thing is just to do it: honouring the dark as well as the light.

As for me, there will be a short Dusking film – my first – created in collaboration with Piss & Vinegar Art, which I’ll be launching on 31st October. And I’m super-excited to see the different responses to the new Dusking tradition that people are already sharing online. From costumes to artworks, to unique takes on the dance itself, the movement’s gaining momentum. We even have a song, written by the very talented Talis Kimberley:

Bring your sticks and bring your bells 
This Season of the Dead
We’ve come to dance the Dusking 
And we’ll put the year to bed 

Bring your sticks and bring your bells 
Foot up and hands around!
We’ve come to dance the Dusking 
And we’ll dance the old sun down

I do hope you’ll consider joining us. There’s more information on my website, lucywright.art, and you can share your videos and photos on social media using the hashtag, #Dusking. We’d love to have you with us. Happy Dusking!