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Lucy Wright's bare legs in a woodland clearing. She is wearing morris dancing bell pads. Her feet are also bare.

Have you heard of ‘hedge morris’ dancing?

Artist and folklorist, Lucy Wright is back, and she wants you to join her in hedge morris dancing this autumn…

It started on the eve of May 1st this year. I was travelling for work and far from home, temporarily holed up in a Holiday Inn in Stevenage. Actually, perhaps it had really started a day or so earlier, when I was packing for the trip: at the last minute I’d grabbed an old rag jacket that I’d made a few years earlier during my PhD and stuffed it into my bag. I’d made up my mind to dance the sun up.

I had previously been a member of a morris side. When I lived in Manchester, I would commute to Macclesfield in Cheshire to dance with Waters Green Morris, where I learned Fieldtown and Adderbury traditions, and was embraced by a wonderful, generous community who helped me to feel at home in a new city when I was desperately lonely and unmoored. I’d been sorry to leave them behind when we had to move to Yorkshire for my partner’s work.

Since then – about four years ago – I’d not really done any morris dancing. First there’d been the pandemic and then a bereavement, followed by a period of intense busyness. And there aren’t all that many morris sides – especially not women’s Cotswold sides – within easy reach of our home. I contented myself with reading, writing and making art about morris dancing – and folk more generally – and following my morris dancing friends, with envy, on social media. 

In particular, I looked forward to May Day. A modern tradition that has really exploded in recent years, the morris dancing community comes out in force on May 1st, as sides all over the country – and all over the world – rise before dawn and gather to ‘dance the sun up’, welcoming in the summer. My socials are full of exhilarated ‘what time do you call this?!’ posts and stunning, evocative images of morris dancers silhouetted against a tangerine sky. Tradfolk does a brilliant roundup of some of the loveliest.

My side had never gone out on May morning, but during the first lockdown in 2020, I’d found myself called to the woods to dance a few steps – like many others did – in hopes of a swift end to the pandemic. This year, though, I wanted to go all in. I set my alarm for an unreasonable hour, and hung my rag jacket on the back of the door so that I wouldn’t forget.

Sitting in the hotel bar, the evening before, I found myself reflecting on what I was about to do. It’s one thing, perhaps, to go out in the safety of a group to take part in a seasonal custom – and in recent times many groups have begun to invite an audience too. It’s another thing to do it alone, especially in the centre of town. I’d located a spot that I thought would work, a municipal square adjacent to the Pay and Display carpark I’d parked in on arrival. I’ve always liked the visual disjunction between (apparently ancient) folk traditions and unmistakably modern settings of flat blocks, convenience stores and street furniture, but actually doing it was going to take guts.

My mind wandered to a book I’d first read as a teenager, and which has retained a spot on my bookcase ever since. Hedge Witch by Rae Beth. A guide to witchcraft for the solitary practitioner, the word ‘hedge’ in this context holds a similar meaning to its usage in the ‘hedge schools’ of 18th/19th century Ireland, speaking to something unofficial, unsanctioned, self-initiated. Rae Beth also makes reference to an old German word ‘hagazissa’ meaning ‘hedge sitter’.and ‘haegtessa’ from Northern European traditions, meaning ‘hedge rider’. She writes of a ‘symbolic hedgerow…which could be seen to divide the everyday world of the human community from what was perceived as being beyond it – the Otherworld of wild nature spirits and ancestral spirits’. This seemed pleasantly appropriate to me. I was taking it upon myself as an unaffiliated morris dancer, wearing a totally non-canonical kit, to do a dance – uninvited – in an offbeat sort of place. Just because. Perhaps I was a hedge morris dancer.

I took out my phone and wrote a short note to myself:

Hedge morris dancing is for those of us who don’t have, or can’t be with a group of morris siblings, on May morning, but who still feel the call to dance up the sun! They can dance anywhere they happen to be: it doesn’t have to be an idyllic rural clearing, it can be the steps to a block of flats, or in their backyard.

Hedge morris dancers dress in whatever costume they have lying around, or make something gloriously non-canonical themselves. They dance alone – or with others – just for the joy of it and to welcome the sunrise and the promise of summer ahead.

The following morning, I made good on my decision to see the summer in. It was a bright, clear start to the day, and if I’d thought there’d be few people about at 5am on a Monday in Stevenage then I was to be sorely mistaken. I bumped into street cleaners, elderly folks, early commuters and gave one poor woman the shock of her life when she left her front door to find me, in trailing white rags and a painted face, standing, ominous, in the alleyway. Everyone was friendly enough though, and I danced until the sun was vibrant in the sky. A few of my fellow hotel-goers even waved to me from their high-rise windows. You can watch the shonky phone camera footage here, if you like.

When I posted my obligatory May morning snaps, I also shared my preliminary musings about ‘hedge morris dancing’. I was surprised at the response. Lots of people – including folk singer, Angeline Morrison, got in touch to say that they danced alone, or wished they could, many asking for information about where they could learn more. What surprised me most was how many of those who responded did not have a background in morris or the folk arts, or were only just beginning their journey with folklore.

It’s fair to say that folk, and perhaps morris dancing in particular, is enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment, thanks in no small part to the incredible popularity of Boss Morris, and their high-profile appearances at the Brit Awards and on Channel 4, to mention just a couple. There’s a whole raft of exciting new groups springing up, from The Wad and Blackthorn Ritualistic Folk to Blackstone Edge Rapper and Black Gate Morris (purely coincidental that they all have ‘black’ in the title, at least I think so!), as well as beloved established sides challenging some of the old stereotypes about how morris dancing looks and who does it.

But not everyone wants to, or can, make a commitment to a group. At the same time, there are lots of people, who – whether on the grounds of gender, race, class or disability – feel marginalised or excluded from folk, from morris dancing, from rural places and public spaces, and a sense of shared national heritage. Those who have come across my work before will know that I’ve spent the best part of ten years working towards a more accessible and inclusive definition of ‘folk’, since my PhD research about girls’ carnival morris dancing showed me that women and other minoritized people remain underrepresented in the English folk arts, particularly seasonal customs. I’ve written articles and book chapters about it, staged exhibitions about it, and even wrote a manifesto about it.

Over the past few months I’ve been developing ‘hedge morris dancing’ as the next step in this lifelong project. I’m creating resources and inspiration, shared online, to empower those who are interested in beginning a practice of morris dancing but don’t know where to start, with a focus on inclusion and self-expression. We’ve talked about morris dancing and gender – how women have always danced morris – as well as the experiences of LGBTQ+ performers, and we’ve also explored some of the brilliant ways that disabled morris dancers have adapted the performance to make it more accessible.

It’s been a highly personal journey, too. This year, on the anniversary of my Dad’s passing – a morris dancer himself, before I was born – I took his bells to his favourite tree and performed an honorary hedge morris dance in his memory. I’m feeling more connected than ever to my morris dancing practice, and am loving the opportunity to create all of the wild morris dancing outfits I’d always imagined wearing.

I don’t for a second want to discourage anyone from joining an established morris side – or even setting one up themselves. It’s certainly the quickest way to learn, and being part of a team was an enormous joy for me! But equally, I am so very happy to be holding another space for the misfits and marginalised folks, those who are too busy or too shy to join a side, or who just want to explore the tradition on their own terms, inventing new ways to celebrate this wonderful dance, and the turning of the year.

We’re planning our first big event later in the year. Keep your eyes peeled for announcements about ‘Dusking’, a brand new invented tradition that will be the counterpart to ‘Maying’, taking place on October 31st, to mark the beginning of winter and the parallel gifts of rest, replenishment and reflection that the darker months can bring. If you’re a member of a side, get kitted up and join us – and if you’re not, check out the resources on my page. You’ll find everything you need to get started, and you’ll be so very welcome.

For more info on Lucy’s work, head to: lucywright.art.