The Morris dance (Tripudium Mauritanicum) was the most frequently mentioned of all the dances of the fifteenth century. In Renaissance writings it is almost always mentioned that a Mouresca, Morisque or Moresque (Arab Lambra,) or Morisco was danced and was said to be brought to England from Spain by John of Gaunt (1340-1389) brother of Edward, 'the Black Prince' during the reign of his father, Edward III (1312-1377) around 1360 AD. In the beginning, the Morris dance was a pantomime of war, depicting the struggle of the Moors and Christianity and is one of the oldest English dances to date. However, it's origin is not considered strictly English, but the modern version is.
Originally, it was done as a celebration type dance whose participants acted out the original battle (initially, hundreds of people would perform.) It was generally performed on May Day, and introduced several characters, varying in numbers, designation, and dress, according to taste or local customs, many diverse features being added over time. The Dance originally only used a solitary musician which would play a flute, bagpipe, violin, or accordion and a Tabor. The dance eventually quieted down and became enormously popular around 1500 A.D.
When the legendary Robin Hood (1160-1247) was the foremost figure of the dance in Elizabethan times (1533-1603,) the birth of spring on May Day would send the folk of England into the woods to collect flowers, boughs and blossoms and wait for the sun to rise, a symbol of the full opened year. They would return home in the sunlight, flower-laden, dancing and capering around an ox drawn cart which bore the May Pole thus the Masque of Morris dance which Robin Hood danced with Marian.
In the early forms of the English Morris, five men, one being known as the "foreman of the Morris" and another as the "Fool," and a boy who was dressed up to characterize "maid Marian," were the only performers. Accompanying these were a piper and/or a tabourer; with the sound of this melody, the clashing of staves and the jingle of small bells fastened to their costumes (garters,) they danced to the lively measures being played. Soon after, the characters of the "Merry Men of Sherwood" were introduced, Tom the Piper with his pipe and tabor, the Dragon (no mention before 1585) and of course Robin Hood, Friar Tuck and Little John became conspicuous figures of the dance.
Historically (pre 1890's): There appeared to be three basic types of Morris
1) As a solo dance performed at Moorish courts, (usually with blackened face to represent the moors) and a stamping of the feet along with heel stamps.
2) As a couple or group dance which usually portrayed (see sword) combat.
3) Large scale that utilized upwards of 100-200 people in two groups, dancing/acting out a dance battle pantomime. This as a rule, would last 4-5 hours using a single musician.
England was a principal originator of this folk dance by helping it to grow, making it more of a dance than a celebration, by adding distinction to the dance, with bells, waving handkerchiefs, real and fake horses (hobby horse) and black amoors were a part of the dance, the dance steps were very complex and all the while keeping up a Jog-Trot pace.
In the Morisco, the dancers held swords in their hands, with the points upwards; this custom connects the dance with the ancient Pyrrhic or sword dance, which that of the Goths did the same in their military dance. In many English vicinities the dance is performed as a sword type dance utilizing fancy costumes, swords, sabers, sticks, military marching, leaping and opposing sides. Many Choral rounds of the time were very similar to the Mourisca with the British reviving the dance back in the 1890s. The dance does not have any turns or patterns per say, and did not glide or sway and was not danced on toe but was very intricate in its movements, (which are many.) The Mourisca was a big element of the first ballets, often called "Spectacles" of that time.
The Mourisca or Morris dancers do the dance differently in different parts of the world, and can be done as a solo or group; however the basic idea of the dance is as follows:
1) Characteristic Form: Two rows, originally six, known as the "Los seises" ("the sixes,") but later became ten, along with a "fool" (arap) and a boy dressed as a women (Dama) who is called "Mayde Marya" (as in Robin Hood,) and another man carrying a cardboard figure of a horse (hobby horse) on his hips. All of them wear fantastic costumes hung with many bells. Blacking of the face was very common.
2) Classic Form: Is done with two rows and three dancers each. These rows move to and fro, zigging and zagging, perform in a chain or can perform opposite each other with a vast amount of variations. The classical form used dibber's (sticks) rhythmically when opposing sides would meet (a type of ring dance called bean sitting.)
The dance formerly consisted and described as a type of "Prussian Goose-step" or later a military march with the leg kicking forward and a little skip with the other. The arms are described as swinging vigorously and the bells were used to accent the kicking or flinging of the leg. The dance also used leaps that are about a foot high. At the conclusion of the dance the participants sometimes engaged in shouting. Swords and Sabers (originally wooden) are often times used to portray battle when both sides meet. Sticks (like the stick dance) were used rhythmically thru-out the dance as well. If someone was killed (acted-out) they were buried on the spot with no priest present.
Morris dancing does go by many various names, some are known as Moresque, Morisque, Morisco, Morrisk, Morrice and Moorish, however the dance was essentially the same and was mainly a male only dance, while on the other hand the Zambra, a Flamenco/ Spanish dance is of direct Moorish origin, performed by women only (moras and moros) and was only danced to flutes and oboes. The Sarabande also is a Spanish dance of Moorish origin when the moors invaded Spain. Of the Portuguese dancers, in their ceremonies usual on conferring knighthood fights with the Moors were replicated, and thus the form called Mourisca was originated. In the Azores it was still preserved under a dramatic form called Mouriscadas. There was also a dance known as the Moor's Pavane in the 16th. Century. As a side note the Puritans saw the Morris dance as a heathen form and prohibited it from being done until Restoration marked a half hearted revival.
Fernaão Lopes, describing the character
of King Pedro I, says of him that he was a great votary of the
Morris dance. Dances such as the Baixa, Chacola, Mourisca, and
Villão were usual at all Court weddings in the sixteenth
century. The Baixa is a distinctive kind which includes other
dances. Religious festivals gave most opportunity for the dance
as it is pretty much an exhibition (not-social) type dance.
In 1599 William Kemp (actor), danced the Morris dance from London to Norwichin nine days (took him over a period of four weeks) which he wrote about in 1600 titled "Nine Daies Morrice," in this writing he called himself "Caualiero Kemp, head-Master of Morrice-dauncers." He took three people with him on his quest, Thomas Slye his Taberer, William Bee his servant and George Sprat.
Today the Morris dance is a festival or show dance, done by performers of the traditions, rather than a social dance and is considered firmly English. In the simple form it consists of three men, usually dressed in white, carrying handkerchiefs and or sticks with small bells attached to their legs, and Baldrics (ribbons) worn on the shoulders. However, there are different "Traditions" or styles of Morris dancing, which can have all male, all female or mixed with number of performers being 3, 5 or 8 etc. and can have a certain amount of overlap of styles.
There are different styles or "Traditions" of Morris dancing in different parts, with some being called North West Morris, Bampton Morris, Bedlam or Border Morris, Headington Morris, Adderbury Morris, etcetera. In Morris speak the styles consist of an Ale (gathering of dancers), Caller (basically a choreographer), Chorus (Set or Corner), Kit (Costume), Set (Number of dancers), Team (Organized group.) These dances or sets may utilize a "Fool" (usually the leader), a "Hobby Horse," "Sticks," "Bells," "Swords," "Jigs," "Hornpipes," etc. and "May" is still the favorite month of the year for this dance as was in olden times.
There is much debate over the history of the Morris dance, with some ignoring its roots of the Spanish Moors while others embrace it, whatever the history of this dance, it is as fun to watch today as I am sure it was back in the day of its creation. Also see: Sword Dance for more info.