Ask the unfamiliar what they know about Sheffield and most will probably say something about the City of Steel, The Full Monty, Hillsborough and the Blades. Some will mention the Snooker World Championships. A few might mention Sheffield’s reputation (locally, at least) as an outdoor city; where the Peak District melds seamlessly into the city’s western suburbs and parks, and where can be found the highest number of trees per head of population in Europe.
None, I would wager, will tell you about Sheffield’s thriving Morris dance scene.
Sheffield: City of Morris
Sheffield has around twenty active morris dance sides – more than anywhere else in the country – with every style of ‘Morris’ (with apologies to Rapper and the longsword dancers) represented in the city, except for Molly. The Burton Street Foundation, in Hillsborough, is home to no fewer than seven teams, giving it the eminent title of Most-Used Morris Practice Venue In The World (we’re waiting to hear back from Guinness World Records…)
There are even enough dancers to go about making spoof teams.
In total, Sheffield’s teams have seen 46 new members join their ranks ahead of the new dancing season. My joke that you’re never further than 10 feet from a Morris dancer in Sheffield might actually be coming true…
Who’s joining who?
The 2020 Morris Census (yes, it exists), found that around 800 new dancers had joined teams since 2014. It found that there was a surge in people, particularly younger people, dancing the ‘cooler’ (it’s all relative) styles of Morris, such as Rapper and Border.
You might expect this to be reflected in Sheffield’s recent rise in dancer numbers, but this isn’t the case. In fact, teams both traditional and revival, with long histories and short, are seeing a rise in numbers.
The old hands: Handsworth Traditional Sword Dancers
At one end of the spectrum, you find the Handsworth Traditional Sword Dancers and Grenoside Sword Dancers. Both teams are some of the few in the country that can trace an unbroken tradition of dance back hundreds of years. Handsworth (who I dance with) have been going for at least 150 years, and were spared the ravages many dance teams experienced during the world wars due to their dancers’ reserved occupations in the local mines and steelworks. The Handsworth Sword Dance was collected by Cecil Sharp in 1912 (“…a most stupendous affair, the best long-sword I have seen…”), and the team has been performing the dance largely unchanged ever since.
A most stupendous affair, the best long-sword I have seenCecil Sharp
You may expect such a team to struggle to attract new members. And, for a long time the team did. However, this year six new dancers have joined the team. Becoming a mixed team has certainly helped, but there is more to it than that. Simon Brock, Captain of the Handsworth Sword Dancers (and maker of beautiful clogs), told me:
“We’ve been amazed at the interest we’ve had from people wanting to try our traditional Yorkshire dances. What’s been particularly striking is the diversity of our recruits and their motivations for joining. One local chap joined because his grandad and great-grandad danced with the side, while we have also recruited international members from Iran, Peru and Croatia who want to have a go at an English tradition. What’s been key is talking to different audiences and performing in different places.”
You can find out more about the Handsworth Sword Dancers in their recently published history, Sword Dancing in Handsworth and Woodhouse.
The new kids on the block: Cutlers Gate Morris
Formed in September 2021, Cutlers Gate is a new mixed Border style Morris team. They are yet to dance-out (though their kit concepts look nothing less than spectacular), and are aiming to be out and about by September 2022. They tell me they will be performing a mixture of self-penned and traditional Border dances, danced to minor tunes you might not necessarily associate with Morris dancing. As well as a core of seasoned border dancers, they have attracted seven new dancers to their fold through their recent taster sessions.
Everyone in between
As previously mentioned, Sheffield has over 20 active teams, so between Grenoside, Handsworth and Cutlers Gate, that leaves a lot of space for teams formed in the interim. Many of these have also seen healthy influxes: Pecsaetan Morris, formed in 2001, have welcomed five new members, and Five Rivers Morris, formed in 2010, have seven new dancers. The most southerly Morris team in Yorkshire, Harthill Morris, who formed in the 1970s, have attracted six new members, while Silkstone Greens North West Morris from Dodworth (which is technically Barnsley, but Sheffield-ish) have three new dancers and a new musician.
The past few years have also seen several brand new teams form in the city. Sheffield University Morris, based at the University of Sheffield Students’ Union, has been introducing students to Morris dancing. Sheffield City Women, formed as a companion team to Sheffield City Morris (dancing in the ‘Medup’ tradition as the original ‘urban morris team‘) started up just before the pandemic, but unfortunately had to make do with “dancing in cold Sheffield carparks” during Covid restrictions before undertaking their first proper dance-out.
What Rapper teams do: crawling local pubs and making regular people wonder what the hell is going on…
Kelham Island Rapper are another relatively new addition to the Sheffield folk dance scene. Formed in 2017 as the city’s second Rapper team alongside Sheffield Steel Rapper, the team somehow managed to go viral in Argentina and Italy with a slightly ropey video of their first ever dance-out, and have since been doing what Rapper teams do: crawling local pubs and making regular people wonder what the hell is going on.
A wider Morris revival
What does the dance success in Sheffield say about the wider health of Morris dancing in the UK?
If the Sheffield experience was duplicated across the UK’s 900 or so Morris sides, we might be looking at almost 2,000 new dancers. Given the 2020 Morris Census found around 800 new dancers between 2014 and 2020, 2,000 in a year feels like an extrapolation too far. Sheffield is an urban centre of several hundred thousand people, so perhaps it’s not surprising there will always be a few people willing to take up obscure hobbies. What can a team struggling in a small town or village learn from it?
Many people reading this might be in this position. I think that the appeal of Morris dancing is that it is a complete hobby: it combines the fitness and stamina of a sports team, the sense of satisfaction and pride of performing arts, and the socialising and camaraderie of a social club. There’s also the opportunity to attend festivals and events around the country and be part of a friendly, diverse and thriving community.
I wanted to write this article to put something positive about Morris out in the news. It’s sad that the only time lots of sides seem to make the media is when they’re on the verge of folding and are desperately trying to attract members. I would urge all sides to think of positive reasons to reach out to their local press, who are usually always open to human interest stories. This might be announcing your dance-out dates, a significant anniversary, or even your attendance at a particular event – anything can be news if you dress it up enough. People are far more likely to be interested in having a go at something new if they think it is in a place of strength and vibrancy, rather than begging for members.
It seems clear that the pandemic has made a lot of people reassess how they spend their social time and what’s important to them. Many people might finally have decided to try a new hobby after the enforced inactivity of lockdowns. The trend in Sheffield in the last year, coupled with the findings of the Morris Census in 2020, shows that Morris dancing is alive and healthy.
Like elsewhere in the country, Sheffield’s morris teams are gearing up for their summer dance-out season. Find events on this Facebook page. Looking for your local Morris team? Check out the Global Morris Map.
Three Shires Clog has now folded; we had a lovely, nostalgic farewell party towards the end of last year(2021). Some of their dancers have joined Harthill Morris, which has now become a mixed team.
Sorry to hear of the closure of TSC. Good they are still dancing with Harthill.