Morris and ‘cultural appropriation’

So far on this blog I’ve talked about pretty inconsequential things in a fairly light-hearted tone. But I also want to look at some more serious issues surrounding morris. So; can morris be culturally appropriated?

I was in a pub recently and got chatting to a guy about the poster I had put up a few weeks before advertising our open morris practices. He was very keen to come, he said, but he wasn’t sure if it was for him.

The reason he was unsure wasn’t the usual stuff about looking silly in front of his mates dressed in bells. It was because he’s a black Zimbabwean. “It always seems like a white pastime; I wouldn’t want anyone else appropriating parts of my culture so I didn’t want to do that to others’ culture”, was roughly what he said (several beers had been consumed).

I assured him that this was not the case at all; our side, and I suspect the vast majority of teams around the country, are open to anyone who wants to dance morris, whatever their skin colour or nationality.

The conversation did get me thinking, though. Cultural appropriation isn’t something I’ve ever really considered properly. My immediate reaction is to dismiss it as a rather ridiculous concept; cultures, I believe, are constantly evolving and have always borrowed aspects from each other. Indeed, this is probably where morris comes from; a mash up of existing ancient Anglo-Saxon pagan rituals, and imported Italian and Moorish dances (and you could go further and argue that morris has been appropriated again; it is now largely a middle-class hobby which has moved away from its working-class, labouring, country roots.) In the 21st Century, when the internet and cheap travel makes it easier than ever before to share and experience other cultures, the cross-pollination of culture is only likely to increase.

But then maybe I think this because I’m white and Western culture isn’t at risk of being lost; we’ve always tended, for better or worse, to absorb other peoples’ culture into our own. And if fear of appropriating part of ‘white’, English culture is stopping people who might otherwise take up morris from doing so, then my opinion on whether it’s a bit of an iffy concept doesn’t matter; we should look at morris through its lens and explain why morris is open to all.

It is surely undeniable that if morris ‘belongs’ to any culture today, it is England’s (with an honourable mention to parts of Wales). But morris is different to many other traditional dances or cultural symbols around the world. It is not symbolic of war or courtship or meant as a challenge. It is not danced only on special occasions or for a particular purpose (any more, even if it was in the past). Morris is now about getting together to dance for dancing’s sake. It is a pastime as much as a cultural icon; more like going fishing than the Haka. If it represents any culture, it is that of having a good time; a universal concept free of historical baggage. I personally love that it is a living and breathing custom; something that happens weekly in beer gardens and pub car parks, rather than being wheeled out by historical re-enactors a few times a year.

And because of this I think the idea of it being ‘appropriated’ is a non-starter. It’s like saying football or cricket has been or can be appropriated. Some of the best morris I’ve seen is in The Demon Barber‘s shows – a great fusion of British traditional dance and hip-hop. Both of these styles of dance are essential to the overall spectacle of the show; neither have appropriated the other, but rather complement and learn from each other.

I’m not saying we all need to go out and get ourselves a beatboxer (although it could be an interesting concept) or include backflips in our hays (I doubt there any many teams with anyone who could manage it). We don’t need to, and shouldn’t, abandon our customs or the traditional aspect of our dances. But we should be ensuring that morris is seen to be open and welcoming to all. There are already enough reasons people don’t want to morris dance. Fear of ‘cultural appropriation’ shouldn’t be one of them.

 

(NB – this has been a really tricky blog to write. I really hope I haven’t offended anyone too much. I don’t aim to be contrary, but to offer some thoughts for the morris world to mull over. Let me know in the comments what you think.)

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3 thoughts on “Morris and ‘cultural appropriation’

  1. The issues around cultural misappropriation often tend to centre around money: people making money out of a culture which they don’t fully understand and let’s face it, no-one makes anything out of Morris. I think that it’s one of these topics that people tend to overthink, albeit for well-meaning reasons, and there is a danger that if taken to an extreme, it does turn into a door that is shut in people’s faces, saying ‘we don’t care if you like it: you don’t belong because you don’t tick the correct cultural/ethnic box.’

    My husband is Jewish by ethnicity, and he’s also a morris dancer, like me. Should he give it up and only do Israeli folk dancing, rather than one reflecting the majority culture he grew up with? Like Morris it’s damned good fun with catchy tunes, although there tends to be less beer involved, but putting aside the fact that it’s not available in our local area, I would then be the partner who would tick the wrong ethnocultural box, whether I was welcomed or not. So yes, I’m all in favour of people getting involved in whatever they enjoy, wherever their ancestors came from.

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  2. Thanks for writing this. Very thoughtful, though I’m not entirely sure that I agree with you, it will certainly make me think about cultural appropriation. I think cultures have always ‘borrowed’ from each other and, perhaps, dominant cultures have squeezed out other less dominant traditions. I agree that we should examine our traditions and weigh them up against our current values. I suspect many of us unwittingly do that already. Guy Fawkes/bonfire night has very little to do with burning Catholics or its possible early pagan origins, likewise Christmas for the vast majority of people in Britain has only the most tenuous of connections to a mass for Christ.
    I am a white working class teetotal man and considered for many years that, although i loved the music, morris dancing was not really for me. ‘They’ all seemed like very nice middle class people -and the ‘beer’ culture that often comes with it I still find a little uncomfortable.
    I guess my point is that people will come to morris (or anything else, for that matter) when their own preconceptions/prejudices allow. If what you see is a group of people having fun wearing silly clothes, playing music and dancing in the street, then you may well want to take part – but you may well already be taking part in carnival already:-)
    However, if what you see is a group of people in silly clothes, playing music but trying to march through an area for the purposes of asserting their difference from the local community as in some political marches…. well the opportunities for participation are a bit more limited 🙂

    So to sum up. I think it’s a healthy thing that we examine our hobby and look to see if we can make it more inclusive but probably unrealistic of us to expect it to be totally representative of our society

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