Enjoying Tradfolk? Click here to find out how you can support us
General Hardware in our Ren Kit — photo credit John Solberg
General Hardware in their Ren Kit. Photo credit: John Solberg

My potentially racist, sexist, and very white dance hobby – and why I keep doing it

Andrew Gaertner is a Morris dancer from Chippawa Falls, Wisconsin. In this opinion piece, originally published on Medium, he discusses issues of inclusivity and how his dancing community has worked to overcome them.

Morris dancer, Andrew Gaertner, wearing his tatters and a baseball cap at a Morris dancing session in the midwest
Andrew Gaertner, via Medium
We came across this opinion piece on inclusivity in the Morris world on Andrew Gaertner's Medium page. As we found his observations and experiences as a Morris dancer in the Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, interesting, we asked him to publish the piece again on Tradfolk. If you would like to read it on it's original Medium home, click below.

I am a Morris dancer and I love it even though it can easily be problematic.

Morris dancing has the potential to be racist and sexist, and it runs the danger of being co-opted by white nationalists, especially in Britain. These all might seem like good reasons to run the other way. Instead, I think that liberal white people like me need to stay in these white-male-dominated “traditional” spaces and ensure that they stay or become more inclusive and anti-racist. We need to stay and fight.

Morris background

If you live in the USA and don’t know what Morris dancing is, you are not alone. I might describe it as sort of like square dancing, but with the addition of sticks, hankies, or swords. The dancers form sets of four, six, or eight dancers and we perform figures to music, occasionally striking the sticks (which is called “knapping”), waving the hankies, or doing figures with swords.

Here is my team (“side”) dancing at the recent Midwest Morris Ale:

In Britain, the traditions of Morris dancing go deep. It is mentioned in Shakespeare, and towns in certain parts of Britain might even have multiple sides. The dance is associated with fertility rites and pagan holidays, and traditionally it was done by men. The costume (which we call the “kit”) varies from side to side and varies with the style of dance, but it always includes bells and distinct colors and symbols to distinguish the sides.

Morris Dancing was central to the British Folk Revival (1890–1920), where Cecil Sharp is credited with rescuing and preserving Morris traditions. At that time, Morris dancing was part of the nationalist trends sweeping Europe prior to World War I. Then, as now, nationalism co-opted folk traditions for its own purposes and walked together with racism and sexism. Cecil Sharp was a man of his time and has been criticized for not collecting dances from people of color and downplaying the contributions of women, but his contributions to the Morris world are undeniable.

Morris dancing may have first come to the USA with the early colonists, but it came a second time during the Second Folk Revival of the 1960s and 1970s. Compared to the First Folk Revival, the Second Folk Revival had a completely different set of politics, dominated by left-leaning singers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seegar.

Since that time, Morris sides have been formed across the USA and we gather together to share dances and enjoy each others’ company. A gathering of Morris dancers is called an “Ale,” and my side participates in the Midwest Morris Ale every year.

This year, my side co-hosted the Ale, and it included a workshop on diversity, equity, and inclusion in Morris dancing. I am glad I attended, and I am proud of the people in our region for leading the way in D.E.I. in the Morris community. Both the Ale and the workshop within the Ale affirmed my belief that sticking with (pardon my pun) Morris dancing is the right decision.

Here is a panel discussion of Midwest Morris dancers talking about D.E.I.:

I am on a side of Border Morris dancers in Wisconsin, USA, called General Hardware [see the image at the top of this page].

The Border style originates in the border region between England and Wales. I have ancestors from Wales and I’m happy to be part of a tradition that might have been done by my five times great-grandfather.

The Border kit traditionally involves a vest or coat covered in multi-colored tatters (strips of cloth) worn over working people’s typical clothes. The kit colors vary by the side, but black is a favorite. Kit also can include bowler or top hat-style hats adorned with feathers and, of course, bells on the lower legs. Our side’s kit has been modified to be representative of Wisconsin (rattling hardware in beer cans instead of bells, baseball caps, blue jeans, work boots, and flannel shirts), but we have a traditional kit that we wear for Rennaisance Fairs.

Border Morris has the reputation of being disruptive, boisterous, and almost violent. Border dancers will sometimes arrive unannounced, dance, and then disperse. I suppose Border dancing could be compared to a flash mob.

I love Border Morris. It feels wild and untamed. When we clash or throw our sticks, we hit hard. If someone doesn’t have their stick in the right place at the right time, they can get injured and it does happen occasionally. But we practice, so the mayhem and energy of a performance only looks out of control. It is also both aerobic and social, so it fills two of my own personal needs.

Here is a “molly” dance that our foreman composed for an American folk tune, Katy Cruel:

If Morris dancing is so fun, why is it also problematic? What does dancing have to do with racism or sexism or white nationalism?

I’m only beginning to understand what I got myself into and how to counteract some issues inherent in the system.

Dealing with blackface

One of the issues is blackface.

It is traditional for Border Morris dancers to hide their identity. The Border style is part of a long tradition of working people and peasants performing or singing for townspeople in return for food, drink, or money. It is something of a low-key extortion program. The side performs an unrequested dance, and then “requests” payment, all in good fun. It is sort of like “trick-or-treating,” I guess. And identities are hidden for the same reasons.

For many Border sides, the traditional way to hide one’s identity was to blacken the whole face with soot from charred cork. This seems authentic to the place because many of the towns in that part of England and Wales are connected to coal mining. My team was formed in rural Wisconsin, by a man who had moved out here away from the nearby city, where his team practiced and performed. We don’t have a coal mining tradition and, more importantly, in the United States, blackface has a long tradition of being associated with racism due to minstrel shows and other appropriation.

We knew that we did not want to go full blackface. So we decided to try to make masks. We tried forming felted wool on our faces and cutting holes for the eyes. Dancing in masks with violent stick clashing is a bad combination. We would get sweaty under the masks and they would slide around on our faces. So we ended up using burnt cork to make designs on our faces, sort of like the warriors in medieval-themed movies. There would be slashes, spirals, dots, and crosses, but no full black.

We were fooling ourselves. A problem was that if we were dancing for anything more than a single set, for example, if we were at a Rennaisance Faire or something, the precise designs would smudge and smear over time, and this could make our faces look dirty and not designed. Any observer would have a hard time saying we were not using full blackface. Here is a video from those days (can you tell that we were not trying to do full blackface? I can’t.):

Our team is composed of almost all white people and every one of us would vigorously deny any racist intent. We are “good white people” who would never do something intentionally racist. If asked about it, we might have said that corking our faces is from a tradition in Britain, where the blackface has a different origin than it did in the USA. But that is all moot.

In determining whether an act is racist or not, our intentions do not matter. What matters is the impact and interpretation of those actions.

We knew that our “designs” often smudged out to look like blackface. We also knew that any blackface in the USA will automatically be assumed to be racist. So we decided to stop decorating our faces. This was five years ago, although many on the team had stopped before then or only decorated their faces with very minimal black, like an eyeliner effect.

It took us fifteen years to stop doing something we knew from the beginning could be seen as racist. Tradition is that strong. No one confronted us about it. We just finally knew better enough to stop.

No blackface. No problem. Photo Credit: John Solberg, Newbourne VIllage

It was hard to let go of decorating our faces. We still try out other forms of hiding our faces. We have tried the orange spray dye that people use on hair for Halloween. We have tried sleeve-type masks that make us look a little like Mexican “Luchadores.” During the worst of COVID, we made cloth masks to match our tatters and that sort of worked, but none of us liked breathing through them while dancing.

I think stopping any blackface in all of Morris dancing should have been done long ago.

During the global uprisings that happened after the killing of George Floyd, blackface was officially repudiated in the British Morris community. Why did it take that long?

Statement by The Joint Morris Organisations

Our traditions do not operate in a vacuum. While no morris dancer wants to cause offence, we must recognise that full face black or other skin tone makeup is a practice that has the potential to cause deep hurt.

Morris is a living tradition and it is right that it has always adapted and evolved to reflect society. Over the past few years, many morris teams have already proactively taken the decision to stop using full face black makeup to avoid causing offence or hurt. We now believe we must take further steps to ensure the continued relevance and inclusivity of the tradition.

The Joint Morris Organisations (The Morris Federation, The Morris Ring, and Open Morris) have therefore agreed that each of them will take action to eliminate this practice from their membership. Teams that continue to use full face black or other skin tone make up will find they are no longer part of the mainstream morris community, be covered by JMO public liability insurance, or invited to take part in events organised or sponsored by the JMO.

Morris is a unique cultural tradition of which we should be rightly proud. We want people from all races and backgrounds to share in this pride and not be made to feel unwelcome or uncomfortable by any element of a performance.

At this point, we know that for our side, anti-racism is far more important than tradition.

Ending blackface doesn’t end systemic racism in Morris dancing, but it is a good start. At our D.E.I. workshop at the recent Ale, blackface was not mentioned at all, probably because it is no longer an issue in our region, and hasn’t been for many years. That allowed us to go after other D.E.I. issues.

This brings us to another sticky (another pun intended) point of Morris dancing — men-only teams.

Beyond men-only teams

Many Morris teams in Britain have been “men-only” teams going back to the formation of the teams. British people often refer to the dancers as “Morris men.” Men-only teams were the norm in the United States too during the 1970s folk revival, although there were a few teams that were all women and also a few mixed sides.

Any time you get a group restricted to only men, I suppose you run the risk of hyper-masculinity, misogyny, and sexism running within the group. I have never seen this in my experience of Morris dancing in the midwest of the USA. We have men’s teams, women’s teams, and mixed sides, and we all dance together at the Ale and there is plenty of mutual respect and admiration.

I can understand the pull to have men-only teams.

Our team started out as a men-only side. I really liked it. There was some sense of relief when it was all adult men dancing. It was like our masculine energy did not have to be hidden or suppressed. Our style of dance included grunting and shouting, and we frequently broke sticks because we were hitting them so hard. We did not need to hold back or protect anybody from the force of our strikes. Our dancing was as much stomping as dancing, and our energy was often a little bit dangerous. There was nothing dainty about our dances.

An outside observer might conclude from the way my all-male side danced that Morris dancing was a sort of mock combat. I suppose in a sense it might have roots in combat. Perhaps in medieval England or Wales, the nobles saw the peasants as potentially dangerous. A gathering of peasants working with weapons and learning to work in concert with each other might be looked upon as seditious. I can imagine the Morris men of old England or Wales might have used stick training to build combat skills while holding onto the plausible deniability of a dance side. Who knows?

I know that Border Morris is a potentially macho space. Our side and others like it have been referred to as “dicks with sticks.” For a while, it was a sort of badge of honor to me. I am not an overly masculine man in my daily life. So to be surrounded by men and unashamed of my own impulse to embrace aggressive semi-violent dancing felt good. I liked the camaraderie and I appreciated being included in a masculine space. I assume that women-only sides have similar experiences of camaraderie and relief.

Something changed in our side about dozen years ago. All of these men on the team had children, and they would bring them to practice. The children would sort of run wild as a pack, while the men practiced. At one point, four of the men had teenage daughters and sons who all wanted to dance. This coincided with a low point in the recruitment for the side when we sometimes did not have enough dancers for a full set at practice.

Should we let the sons of our dancers dance, and not the daughters and the non-binary folks? We decided if we were going to invite the boys to dance, we wanted to also invite the girls and non-binary people. We opened the side up to everybody over twelve who wanted to dance.

Watch mixed side Beltane Border Morris here (not dainty!):

In the course of a couple of years, our side’s identity changed dramatically. We were a mixed side now, and we also included young people. I have never looked back.

I think our side would have disappeared if we hadn’t become more inclusive. Also, you might think I would miss the male-centered energy, but I haven’t at all. Yes, when dancing with women and children, I can’t strike with all of my force, but neither should I with anybody. In truth, I like it better. I used to have pain in my wrists after performances and practices. Macho culture can hurt men too, and when that happens we also have a hard time complaining, because of embarrassment.

A culture of accommodations has entered our side, which we all benefit from. Not only do we accommodate different levels of strength or height, but we also have figured out how to welcome people of different skill levels. This makes it easy and fun to welcome new members.

Men-only sides might choose to stay to single-gender for some of the same reasons we decorated our faces with burnt cork designs for so long: This is the way it has always been done. Why should we change if no one is asking us to change? Where is the harm? Our intentions are not to exclude or hurt people, we just want a space that is men-only. I think having a men-only side doesn’t necessarily mean that sexism is involved. This is especially true in places where there are multiple sides and people of all genders can easily find a Morris home. I think the potential for harm comes when there is no place for women and non-binary folks to Morris dance.

I think I could not see the potential harm of a men-only side until I had let go of any attachment to my own side being men-only. Once we had embraced inclusiveness, I could see it from the perspective of the teens joining the side. If the men in their lives could model inclusiveness and equality, then that was a world where they could be their full selves.

Something that I see is that some of the characteristics of Border Morris that I had assumed were masculine characteristics, like loud, boisterous, and aggressive dancing, were equally displayed by our young women and non-binary dancers.

The boxes of gender are social constructs. When we open traditionally male-only spaces to all genders, we undermine the boxes. We open young women and non-binary young people up to a broader range of expression and, hopefully, we can also open young men up to a similarly broad range.

We still dance with full-on gusto and high energy. It has not lost a bit of luster for me.

A culture of inclusion and accommodation is going to be key to confronting the specter of white nationalism that threatens to overwhelm Morris dancing.

Confronting white supremacy

When I joined my Morris side, I never would have thought to connect traditional British dancing with white supremacy. In the midwest of the United States, most of the dancers I know seem to have a liberal or at least non-political slant. We have LGBTQ teams and sides that have named themselves after workers’ unions.

I think this might be the case for many of the inheritors of the United States’ Folk Revival from the 1960s and 1970s. It was a movement of people like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez that fueled the music of the Civil Rights movement and the Anti-war movement. At the Ales, we have singing as well as dancing, and many of our songs are rooted in workers’ movements in Britain and America. My side learned (and since forgot!) a dance choreographed to the classic American workers’ song, ‘Sixteen Tons.’

But folk dancing in America has not always been a liberal terrain. There has also always been a parallel strain. When I was a kid, my conservative grandparents participated in the square-dance craze. They had special outfits and would go out to dance halls to square dance. In my Elementary school, I learned how to square dance in physical education class. This all seemed normal to me.

Later, I learned that the square-dance revival of the mid-20th century was orchestrated by white supremacists. We owe a lot of it to Henry Ford. Ford was an anti-Semite and he believed Jewish people were using Jazz to corrupt good Christian white people. In an effort to counteract the evils of Jazz, he heavily funded square dancing and country music. This “folk revival” was rooted in whiteness, just like Hitler’s emphasis on traditional German culture was rooted in a false glorification of so-called Aryan supremacy.

As the 1970s generation ages out, Morris sides in the United States and Britain have encountered a crisis of membership. Many young people today are not attracted to organizations that are run by and for old white men. Traditions that reinforce patriarchy or racism are not attractive to the vast majority of young people. Sides might either shrink or fold altogether.

There is one group of people in Britain who see Morris dancing as an example of British culture to be defended and grown, and that group is white nationalists. These people see the influx of immigrants as a dilution of English culture. In Britain, these white nationalists echo what we hear when American racists speak about “Replacement Theory.” The response is to kick out the immigrants and shame any white people who interact with immigrants. The idea is to hold onto British culture and tradition against the perceived existential threat of outsiders coming in.

White nationalists have recently counseled their people to join the local Morris men. This prospect horrifies me. It also makes me want to stay in the Morris community if only to be part of the Midwest Morris Ale and the inclusiveness, anti-patriarchy, and anti-racism work that is happening here.

I think is it important for liberal white people to not abandon “traditional” spaces. In the USA, we see people sorting themselves out by politics. Liberals will move to “Blue” states, and to liberal cities within those states. Conservatives will stay in the rural areas, small towns, and “Red” states. The result is a sort of self-segregation, and it is dangerous to the nation.

Along the way, liberals in the United States have abdicated the flag and signs of overt unconditional love of country. In my region, if a person is proudly flying a flag, they can be assumed to likely be a Trump-loving Republican. Patriotism is claimed by the Right in the USA and liberals are accused of “hating their country.” I saw a sign today: “America. If you don’t love it, I’ll help you pack.”

I have a liberal co-worker in my middle school who shows up every day deciding to proudly claim a love of his country. He wears red, white, and blue wrist bands and has an American flag bandana. I asked him about it one day and he said something like: “they don’t get to have the symbols of our country without a fight.” I was down for that explanation.

I love my country. I love the ideals of freedom and equal access. I love the way we have protected areas of the country for nature, and I love how we have collectively moved forward on civil rights, ecological protection, and expanding democracy. All this gives me hope.

I also love uncountable numbers of people of European descent who happen to also be white. I don’t hate my country and I don’t hate white people. In fact, my love for both means that I sincerely want both to be better.

This is the paradox of white supremacy: many white supremacists who claim to love their country are doing their level best to destroy it. They are enacting anti-democratic laws wherever they have power. They are working against the success of any government action that might be for the collective good. They claim to be protecting the USA for “true Americans,” but they are dismantling what makes it great and replacing it with corporate/Christian fascism.

In my opinion, white supremacists have nothing tangible to offer their base (except the ability to be slightly better off than other people), so they focus on symbols of national pride. Every t-shirt proclaims patriotism loudly and the “F**K Biden” flags come in red, white, and blue with stars on them. Their slogan is “If you don’t like America, then leave.”

My slogan is, “I love America enough to stay and fight for it to be better.”

I feel the same way about Morris dancing. They can’t have it.

Read the original version of this article on Andrew Gaertner’s Medium page.