The Black Jokers

English Morris Dances

We are The Black Jokers, dancing for our enjoyment and your pleasure. In this way we are continuing a long tradition of English Men's folk dance. Our style of dancing follows that of our predecessors, although in certain ways we have inevitably developed our own style. Watching the dancing, and perhaps sharing in the morris cake is enough to enable you to partake of the luck and magic of the Morris. However, you might like to know a little of the background of the Morris ritual.

Morris dancing derives from the ancient ceremonies in celebration of the seasons, especially the solstices, that were continued in small communities through the centuries until medieval times. A variety of characters such as the fool, the hobby horse and the man/woman were magical figures associated with the dancing, and they now serve as further entertainment for the audience. By the Nineteenth Century, the term Morris described a variety of dance types done by English rustics. Unfortunately, scholars of that period either ignored or were unaware of these native traditions and hence failed to record anything of their substance.

The Industrial Revolution radically altered the life-ways of the English countryside with the result of near total abandonment of most Morris traditions. By the time interest was rekindled at the turn of the century (primarily through the efforts of the folk musicologist Cecil Sharp) only a few Morris teams survived to perform dances. The situation necessitated the reconstruction of many dances from the memories of the few surviving Morris men.

Morris dancers typically performed in their own town with occasional forays to neighboring villages to enliven seasonal events with music, color and ritual. Such activities were customary in the villages of the English Midlands. Changed social circumstances prevent duplication of that setting, or the awe felt by the peasant onlookers, but there are now several hundred Morris teams in England and dozens more in America, each carrying on the tradition in its own way.

As mentioned earlier, Morris was a term suggesting several types of dancing. However, today it most usually refers to handkerchief and stick dances originating in the Cotswold Hills. Sword dancing, both Rapper and Longsword, form other traditions. In these dances the performers are linked to one another by sword-like implements, some of which are adaptations of coal mining and fishing tools. Dancing outdoors is preferred for Cotswold Morris, but a good wooden floor or platform is essential for rapper performances.

Originally, Morris teams had both the name and a style identified with their own village, Headington Quarry, for example. Revival teams, such as the Black Jokers, often do dances in the tradition of several Cotswold villages and choose their own names. Black Joker is the name of a dance in the style of the Bledington tradition. We have also done North Country Rapper Dances, as illustrated on the next page, as well as Longsword Dances. Our regalia is typical of general Morris attire, but includes elements which are unique, such as the Joker medallion on the baldric. We dance primarily to the music of the pipe and tabor, the original Morris instrument, but we frequently make use of the more recent fiddle and concertina as well.

Morris and other folk dance traditions, including social dance forms, continue to thrive. Perhaps you would like to join these activities or let the Black Jokers share the Morris luck. We enjoy dancing for people, though we must meet expenses in the traditional way of collecting bag from the onlookers or through an honorarium. Information is available from our Scribe, Ishmael Stefanov-Wagner, or any other member of the team. Just ask, we love to talk. We would like all to feel that dancing lifts the heart and wields a magic.

For further information:

The Black Jokers
c/o I. J. Stefanov-Wagner
Post Office Box 410476
Cambridge MA 02141-0005

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Original April 1975
Last Modified: Aug 8 07:37 EDT 2003 / ijs@mit.edu