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Brighton Morris dance skirmish sets at their Day of the Dance, Pavilion Gardens, Brighton.
Brighton Morris annual Day of Dance, Pavilion Gardens Brighton. Photo: Ben Potton

What’s in a name change? Brighton Morris vs the tabloids

The East Sussex morris side found themselves in the glare of tabloid outrage last week after dropping the word "men" from their name. We caught up with them to get their side of the story.

In an era where misinformation often overshadows the truth, it’s crucial to shed light on incidents of misrepresentation in the media. Brighton Morris, longstanding purveyors of tradition, recently found themselves at the centre of a controversy sparked by sensationalist reporting from certain right-wing publications. As we discover below, these outlets cherry-picked from the side’s Facebook posts, crafting a narrative that portrayed Brighton Morris as incurable diciples of woke, uninterested in what the reasons behind the name change might be. Here at Tradfolk, we suspected there might be more to the story, so we got in touch with the East Sussex dancers to see what was afoot.

A brief history of Brighton Morris

Brighton Morris (patron, the redoubtable Shirley Collins), formerly known as the University of Sussex Morris Men, has a rich history dating back to its formation in 1967. Put together by the Chanctonbury Ring Morris Men (themselves formed in 1953) under the name Brighton Morris Men, the side is dedicated to preserving morris dancing traditions, recognising that to do so is not to preserve the dances in aspic but to adapt them to the modern landscape, just as morris dancers have done for centuries before them. With this in mind, and given that the LGBTQ+ community has such a rich and vibrant heritage in Brighton, the members began debating a name change at their 2022 AGM. They were keen to emphasise their commitment to inclusivity, allowing individuals identifying as male – whether cis male, trans men, non-binary, or gender non-conforming – to join their ranks. An inclusivity statement was drawn up and the name change was ratified shortly after the meeting: Brighton Morris Men would drop the word ‘men’, becoming, simply, Brighton Morris.

Morris inclusivity

The furore broke last week when the tabloid press began picking through the side’s Facebook posts, pulling together articles that attempted to invoke outrage at the fact that they are a non-female collective, and that their decision to allow any members who identified as male was a step too far. The publications claimed that their decision had caused huge division in the community. “It was entirely made up, as far as we’re concerned,” the side’s spokesperson, Pat, explained this morning. “It’s clickbait, pure and simple.”

The articles claimed we’d made the name change to avoid offending the LGBTQ+ community, rather than because we were opening the side up to everyone who identified as male.

Pat, Brighton Morris

“I think the articles claimed we’d only made the name change and released the inclusivity statement to avoid offending the LGBTQ+ community, rather than because we were actively seeking to open the side up to everyone who identified as male.”

“I read the first one and realised that the journalist had taken the quotes from locals from a Facebook thread that I’d started in September,” Pat continues, “presumably without their permission or approaching them directly. The information in my post was to invite local people to come to our practice sessions to try Morris dancing. I’d posted on the Hanover Community Facebook Group, which is a particularly lively and active community Facebook group for the area of Brighton where the side has its rehearsal hall (our HQ, The Sir Charles Napier pub). We’re well-known in the area. As usual, a few people poked fun at the idea of Morris dancing in itself, and a few had some pointed comments on the fact that it wasn’t open to women.”

Pat went on to post the Brighton Morris inclusivity statement, and to indicate that, like many sides, those who identify as female are able to join their sister side, Cuckoo’s Nest Morris. The two frequently dance together. “As soon as I did this,” he notes, “the pointed comments abated.”

A support network

Fiver Rivers Morris dance in Sheffield on a bright sunny day. They are mid-leap, their sticks raised, with top hats on their heads.
Fiver Rivers Morris, Sheffield, went through a similar process several years ago.

Men are notoriously bad at asking for help and talking about the issues they might be facing. It provides a support network.

James Merryclough, Five Rivers Morris

Morris teams tend to come in three shapes: mixed sides, all-male sides, and all-female sides. While there is a tendency to believe that it is traditionally a male-only activity, the evidence suggests otherwise. As Dr Lucy Wright told us last year, “[While I was doing my PhD in 2013] I started finding lots of photographs from as early as the 1880s/90s of teams of girls and young women doing something called Morris dancing. They’d have these shields or banners that said they were called Morris dancers and yet they were all female. And I was totally amazed because I understood that women had only been doing Morris dancing since the 1970s.”

There are no hard-and-fast rules on what configuration a side should take; ultimately, it’s down to the discretion of its members. And, just as all-female sides often view their regular practices and meet-ups as a safe space, all-male sides are known to feel the same way. Brighton Morris are not alone in changing their membership criteria to be more inclusive while maintaining a male-orientated space. Sheffield’s Five Rivers Morris went through a similar process several years ago, as our resident morris writer and Five Rivers dancer, James Merryclough, explains.

“When Five Rivers was established in 2008, there was no opportunity for men to dance Cotswold Morris in a traditional style in Sheffield. Pecsaetan Morris existed for women, so our founding members wanted to provide something similar for men, both for social and artistic reasons.”

He continues, “Men are notoriously bad at asking for help and talking about the issues they might be facing. As the team has developed and aged from relatively carefree youths, this male-orientated space has become more and more important to us. It provides a support network, helping each other through major life events or times of crisis. We changed our constitution in order to accommodate members who identify as male or non-binary and who are comfortable dancing in a male environment, but we see no contradiction in protecting and defining the team as primarily male.

“What’s important is the type of masculinity being promoted. Many male spaces, for example sports teams, are competitive or aggressive and this can lead to a toxic or misogynistic environment, which is hopefully something Morris has now left behind. We want to promote and be part of a positive, supportive male environment.”

Nuanced and sensitive debate

Did any of the publications reach out for further comment once the rabble-rousing was over? Pat explains: “[One publication] approached us for comment after the fact, but I ignored them. I wasn’t going to feed into their business model and provide them with more clickbait, especially when they took what required nuanced and sensitive debate and made it borderline homophobic.”

“After the articles came out, I posted links on the Facebook thread but the only comment was someone clearly enjoying the phrase, ‘hanky-twirling tinklers’ that The Sun had come up with. Personally, I love the headline, ‘Do The Wokey Cokey’. It tickled me for a few days after. I’ve sent the paper article to the framers so I can have it on my wall.”