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Morris Dancing – an English Tradition (a Morris documentary)

Morris Dancing - an English Tradition is a charming snapshot of the Morris scene as it danced its way out of the pandemic. Watch the film in full in the video player above.

A 2021 film produced by Arte TV (Germany) follows the day-to-day lives of a selection of Morris dancers that include the Boss Morris side, dancers at Saddleworth Rushcart, the Melville and Garland families of the Morris Ring, and a charming chap called Cheesy who seems to dance with just about anybody.

The Morris dancing documentary, narrated in German with English subtitles, was filmed in Stroud, Saddleworth, Warwick, Stratford and Leamington Spa between lockdowns. The soundtrack is largely by the wonderful Leveret, making it a joy to listen to throughout. While its subject matter is ostensibly the progression and opening up of the Morris tradition, there’s an element of historical documentation; the weight of the pandemic hangs heavy in the background. As the film closes on a Boss Morris ritual, one member tearfully hopes for less painful times. “We burnt old broken morris sticks and threw written words (things we wanted to cast out of our lives) into the flames,” explains the side’s founder, Alex Merry, in a Whatsapp chat with Tradfolk. “We were all a bit broken when they filmed that, but I thought they caught quite a gentle side.”

Morris Dancing – An English Tradition clocks in at just over 43 minutes, but manages to squeeze together an interesting snapshot of the scene. On the one hand, you have the art-driven lives of the Stroud-based Boss side, each of them incredibly creative and determined to step beyond stereotypes and contribute something new and lasting to the tradition. On the other, you have an older generation that is keen to open things up, while at the same time maintaining the recognised dances and styles.

Family is at the centre of everything, as is the pleasing sense that this tradition continues to be handed down from parent to child. Alex Merry chats with her parents about her memories of her father’s dancing being so vigorous that he could open cupboards without even touching them. In return, the Reverend Merry straps on a set of bell pads and begins leaping about until his wife stops him for fear of a heart attack. Her dancing partner, Rhia Davenport, passes on folk art traditions to her children and their friends, while 250 miles North in Saddleworth a father and son speak touchingly of what dancing together means to them.

Strolling through the middle of it all is the aforementioned Cheesy, a man who loves Morris dancing so much that it appears to have taken over his existence. He leaps from scene to scene extolling the warmth that the Morris has brought to his soul, while at the same time longing for someone to share his life and passion with. As the film comes to an end, you find yourself hoping that the Arte TV people might come back and record a follow-up: something that lets us know how this young man faired, or at the very least a closing caption saying that it’s all OK, Cheesy really did find true romance after all.

Morris Dancing – An English Tradition was produced by Arte TV and directed by Susanne Bohlmann and Christopher Hawkins of Conkertree Film.