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The image shows two women in the forefront of a Morris dancing performance, captured mid-dance on a sunny day in a town square. They are dressed in vibrant green dresses with white aprons, adorned with colorful badges and black vests, their hair flowing with the movement. Onlookers, including families and individuals of various ages, surround the area, enjoying the traditional dance and the festive atmosphere.
Young dancers with Offcumduns Morris at Faversham Hop Festival. Photo credit: Malcolm Fairman / Alamy Stock Photo

Counting Morris Dancers: Results of the Morris Census 2023

With the latest Morris Census results now published, we chat with census organiser Jack Worth about Morris trends and future challenges.

We often talk on Tradfolk about an increased interest in all things folk, and a resurgence in Morris dancing specifically. Just last week, we spoke to a selection of young Morris dancers from around the country who are at the forefront of keeping alive and reviving our traditional dances. But how representative are they of the scene generally?

It has been 10 years since Jack Worth decided to start counting the country’s Morris dancers to test this thesis. Every three years, since 2014, he has meticulously set out to get a true picture of the state of Morris dancing in the UK. The latest census, now published, has just been released. So we thought we’d get his thoughts on the results and what Morris sides should be doing in the future.

Chinewrde Morris, the first female dancers at Saddleworth Rushcart

The most significant finding is that there are now more women dancers than men

Jack Worth

This is now the fourth Morris Census you’ve carried out. What first inspired you to start counting Morris dancers?

The idea first came from a newspaper article I read in the Telegraph, which confidently stated that, “After decades of decline, the numbers of dancers and sides… has started to creep up once more… [with] a rise of around 1,000 in the numbers taking part, to almost 16,000”.

My statistical nerd brain was intrigued as to where these impressively precise-sounding numbers had come from. It turns out they were based on there being roughly 800 Morris sides in the UK and each side having roughly 20 members. But is that right? Aren‘t we double-counting people who are in more than one side? So I set out to work out a better answer.

While I was there I thought I would collect other data on Morris sides, as I became interested in capturing what 21st century Morris dancing looks like. People’s perceptions of Morris are informed by sides they know or sides they have seen locally or at festivals, which means no-one has a complete picture. The Morris Census is just data, but is a truly representative of all the sides in the country. And once I had done one Census, it made sense to do another, and now I have done four.

Clearly, not just anyone could set out to undertake a census, or if they did it probably wouldn’t be the most statistically accurate. You must have a background in this stuff…

I am an economist and have always been interested in using data analysis as a way to understand the world. I work on education research, where I get to work with massive government and survey datasets. I am currently crunching lots of big datasets about the lives and careers of teachers in England, and get to talk to the Government and the media about what that research tells us about how to recruit and retain more teachers. Last year was a big year for me, as loads of people suddenly wanted to know about teacher retention as teachers went on strike. At work we run big representative surveys of teachers, which is where I first developed the skills to run a Morris Census.

Can you elaborate on the methodology used for the Morris Census? How do you ensure a good response rate across different regions and styles of Morris dancing?

It’s an online survey, which is designed so that it can be completed by a single member of a side. I have been fortunate to have the support of the three Morris organisations in getting it out by email, and Facebook is also really effective. The 2023 Census had the best response yet, with 76% of UK sides responding.

Behind the survey sits a database of all the sides in the country, which is how I know how many have and haven’t responded. I collect each side’s style and which organisation they are a member of, and look for patterns in the responses. For example, rapper and longsword sides are less likely to fill it in than other sides, probably put off by the name ‘Morris Census’ as they are sword dancers and not Morris dancers! (I haven’t been able to think of a better name – they are all members of a ‘Morris organisation’ – suggestions on a postcard!) I then use that data to do some statistical magic to make sure the analysis is representative of all sides in the UK.

The survey also gets completed by loads of sides across the world: in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden, Japan… Unfortunately, there are no good up-to-date lists available of existing sides, so I can’t weight that data to be representative.

OK, so onto the 2023 census itself. What are some of the key findings? Anything surprising in there?

I think the most significant finding is that there are now more women dancers than men. It was basically 50/50 in the 2020 survey and the trend has been heading this way in the data for a while, but it’s significant to finally reach the milestone. Fifty years ago there was no support network for sides that weren’t all male but there has been continual change over the decades, including quite recently with the Morris Ring’s 2018 constitutional change.

Given how many sides had a lot of members in their 60s and 70s and there weren’t many young recruits, I was quite surprised that the number of Morris dancers in the UK grew between 2014 and 2020, from 12,800 to 13,600. That has fallen back again in 2023 because quite a few sides folded during and after the pandemic. It goes to show that it can be difficult to predict what is going to happen. It also makes it interesting to keep collecting the data to see how things change.

Why do you think these trends exist?

The shift towards female dancers being in a majority has been the obvious direction of travel in the data for a while. That’s because a substantial majority of new recruits coming into Morris sides are female. Dancing is more popular among women and, in modern times, is culturally seen as less of a ‘male’ thing. I was certainly aware of dancing being a very uncool thing for boys to be seen doing during my secondary school days, and only started Morris dancing when I was 17.

So I think there is a big risk that we think ‘job done’ on the very important progress we have made on gender disparity that has existed in Morris for a long time, but then don’t look to the future place of men in Morris. I think we need to be thinking hard now about how we attract more men into Morris dancing, otherwise it could go the other way very quickly. I am a big fan and advocate of women’s dancing, having set up both a mixed side and a women’s side. But I have also really enjoyed being in the male-only sides that I have been a member of and would like to see more men and boys get the same pleasure out of dancing as I have.

There are more than twice as many over 70s as there are under 30s. This simply isn’t sustainable.

Jack Worth

So that’s one pretty big challenge we face; are there others?

I remain concerned about the challenge presented by the age demographics of Morris sides. More than two-thirds are over 50 and more than half are over 60. There are more than twice as many over 70s as there are under 30s. This simply isn’t sustainable, so there will reach a point where a lot of sides have to fold and Morris goes into rapid decline.

It’s easy for us all to stay optimistic because we saw a young, vibrant team perform at a festival recently, but it’s not representative of the reality of the long-term threat. Maybe it needs to almost die out first, in order to be so niche that it then gets revived again. But I would much prefer it if we could find a way to inspire new generations to take up dancing. The data is clear that we are not doing that at the moment.

I don’t think anyone could argue with age being the major issue faced by Morris! Do you have any insights into how the Morris dance community can attract younger participants?

I don’t have a silver bullet, but through the data and my own experiences I have developed some ideas. People are much more likely to join a side if they can see themselves fitting into it, so any young person that doesn’t see anyone close to them in age in a side is going to take a lot of convincing to join. Sides that have a lot of older members try lots of things to recruit, but are likely to find it very difficult for the basic reason that there needs to be a critical mass of young people to make it attractive to them.

One way to think about how to attract young members is how to create a critical mass of young people and how to give them a sense of agency.

Jack Worth

Relatedly, being part of a group can be really exciting when it feels like that group is forming its identity and setting out on a fun collective journey. I have experienced the excitement of setting up sides from scratch. But joining a side that has been around for ages can sometimes feel like the identity is set and the journey has already happened. Where sides do have some young members, older members can sometimes be reluctant to hand over the reins, encourage new ideas and let it go in a different direction.

So one way to think about how to attract young members is how to create a critical mass of young people and how to give them a sense of agency. I think one way would be to start new sides. But existing sides really like the identities they have created, so they don’t like the idea of forming a totally new side, as they completely understandably want their side to continue.

I dance with Headington Quarry Morris Dancers, known for its long history since before William Kimber. But the real story behind it is that the core of the current side was started from scratch by Kimber in the 1950s. The side was a group of schoolboys that was separate to the men’s team at the time. They were all of the same young age and the new side created became ‘theirs’, and it attracted new members along the way. I think we need more of that kind of thing.

William Kimber with boys of Headington Secondary School, c1950

We should be aiming for Morris to be fully representative of the population, even if it will take a long time to achieve.

Jack Worth

That is a really interesting insight, particularly around agency and identity. On the flip side, what are you seeing that gives you hope for the future of Morris dancing?

One real positive I have seen in the data since I started collecting data on it in 2017 is the growing number of non-white people that are members of Morris sides. The vast majority of the Morris community is from a white ethnic background and it is not representative of the wider population. We should be aiming for Morris to be fully representative of the population, even if it will take a long time to achieve. But there has been some fairly rapid positive progress, with the number of Morris dancers from non-white ethnic backgrounds rising from 0.7% in 2017 to 1.2% in 2023. Still very small numbers overall, of course, but that is nearly doubling in six years, which gives me hope that we are making Morris more inclusive, and will be able to grow those numbers further over time.

Clearly a long way to go, but that is great news. Beyond raw numbers, the Census also gathers data on dance styles, music, and social aspects. Can you share some interesting findings on how Morris dancing is evolving?

The Morris Census gathers lots of data on styles, recruitment, engagements and, in the past, has also gathered data on music, kit and all sorts. The survey has charted the rise of Border Morris sides over time. In 2014, 34% of sides danced Border regularly or occasionally, and that is now 39%. Border sides are also amazing at recruiting new members: five per side in the last two years compared to the average of three.

The importance of ‘tradition’ has fallen over time, meaning attitudes and perceptions are changing and evolving.

Jack Worth

One question that has been in the survey since the beginning is whether the side would agree or disagree that ‘preserving tradition as it was originally collected is an important goal of the side’. It is interesting to see that the importance of ‘tradition’ has fallen over time, meaning attitudes and perceptions are changing and evolving.

Looking ahead, are there any new areas you plan to explore in future Morris Censuses? Are you even going to keep doing it? I imagine it’s a lot of work…

First, I would like to keep doing it. I have done it every three years, so the next one will be in 2026. There are so many interesting trends to keep track of and new themes to capture.

Second, there are a lot of questions that can’t be asked in the census because it is based on one individual filling in the survey on behalf of their team. So anything related to personal views or experiences isn’t appropriate or relevant to ask as it may not reflect the side’s collective views. So I would love to one day run a survey of individual dancers and musicians. But I don’t have time to develop that alongside a busy work and family life.

Finally, I don’t get enough time to analyse the data. These days I do a basic analysis of the overall trends in the UK, but don’t have much time to do more detailed analysis or write it up. There are so many interesting questions to potentially answer, and unexplored areas of the data, like teams based outside of the UK. If anyone out there has the analysis skills and is interested in accessing the data to do further analysis on it, then I would love to make it available to them to do more analysis.

So we can’t interview anyone on Tradfolk about Morris dancing without asking the all-important question: who do you dance with?

I dance with Headington Quarry Morris Dancers. It’s great dancing with a traditional side and they have such a unique, brisk style and a wonderful connection with Morris history and the Quarry village community. In the past, I have danced with Bristol, Ditchling, Morris Offspring, and founded Nonesuch and Summertown.

Jack Worth dancing in the John Gasson jig competition with his wife Jackie Oates on fiddle. (Credit: Dorset Morri’arty)

What’s your best or proudest Morris moment?

I love competing in the John Gasson jig competition at Sidmouth. My friend, John Bacon, introduced me to it, and I got hooked for years on the buzz and the opportunity to dance for such an enthusiastic and expert audience. I still love going to watch the brilliant dancing in the competition every year. Dancing a double jig in the competition with my wife, Jackie, singing and playing and my friend, Fiona, dancing was very special. 

Jack Worth and Fiona Bradshaw With Jackie Oates, winners of the 2012 John Gasson Double Jig Competition

We got to dance it again on the main stage at Shrewsbury festival, just as a massive thunderstorm started outside and drove everyone inside the tent. Dancing just the three of us to an enormous (captive) audience was pretty special.

Does running the census change the way you interact with your side or the wider Morris community?

Not really. I love dancing. Collecting and analysing data is interesting, but absolutely no substitute for actually doing it!

Great to chat to you, Jack and thank you for everything you do for the Morris community.