Academic journal article Yearbook for Traditional Music

Making Traditions: Girls' Carnival Morris Dancing and Material Practice

Academic journal article Yearbook for Traditional Music

Making Traditions: Girls' Carnival Morris Dancing and Material Practice

Article excerpt

Girls' carnival morris dancing holds a curious status in the canon of English folk performance. On the one hand, this highly competitive team-formation dance operates at a fundamental remove from the conventional spaces and narratives of the two English folk revivals with which most morris dancing is associated (Wright 2017).1 More closely linked to the popular "town carnival movement"2 of the late-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries than to the contemporary folk scene, girls' morris dancing is practised in sports halls and community centres, predominantly in the northwest of England and parts of North Wales, and is rarely seen in public. The dancers-almost exclusively girls and young women from working-class communities-compete as members of morris dancing troupes within regional and cross-regional carnival organizations. They do not straightforwardly identify as "folk" dancers.3

On the other hand, girls' morris performances share aspects of a common history with other forms of morris dancing in the Northwest. Once an integral feature of the popular carnival street parades held throughout the region during the summer months,4 troupes of carnival morris dancers performed alongside "North West" morris sides5 in Cheshire, Lancashire, and Cumbria from at least the 1890s onwards. Dance scholar Theresa Buckland suggests that girls' morris dancing demonstrates convincing claims to an historical depth, geographical continuity, and social role comparable to most morris groups in the UK (Buckland and Howison 1980; Buckland 1991). Similarly, morris dancing historian, Roy Dommett, described the practice as "heir to the richest of the English dance traditions" after attending a girls' morris competition at a carnival in Colne in 1968 (1986:5).

Although most contemporary scholars acknowledge girls' morris performance as congruent with any "defensible definition" of folk dance (Heaney 2006:39), the practice is largely neglected in extant morris dancing literature.6 Mike Heaney suggests that associations with an urban context and female participants, as well as the presumed modernity of the form, have led some "purists" to "deny its place in descriptions of traditional ceremonial dance" (ibid.). It is well documented that performances associated with industrialized centres were largely neglected by the early folk collectors (see Buckland 1991), not least because rapidly modernized, post-agrarian contexts were deemed inauthentic. Georgina Boyes has also argued that the contribution of women (and children) in the first folk revival is unfairly represented in scholarship: they are "at worst trivialised or ignored" (1993:xii).

Less has been written about how notions of modernity may continue to influence attitudes about traditional dance, or about the ways in which an association with contemporary origins comes to be identified with one type of performance instead of another.7 This seems particularly important when those assumptions about modernity lead to differences in interpretation, influencing whether a practice is regarded as traditional or not. Girls' morris dancing arguably possesses a role and provenance similar to that of many other morris dancing styles, but it is viewed and interpreted differently. Could it be that an impression-or appearance-of modernity provides one of the keys to comprehending girls' morris dancing's marginalized position in traditional dance discourses?

Distinguished by heavily embellished costumes, pom-poms ("shakers"), and precise, synchronous routines choreographed to recorded pop music, girls' morris dancers superficially bear little resemblance to the better-known morris performers of the English folk revivals. In particular, the girls' morris dress-brightly coloured and abundantly decorated with sequins (see figure 1)-is more often likened to the costumes worn by competitive Irish dancers or American cheerleaders than to other forms of morris dancing attire.8 At least in part, this distinction can be attributed to regular changes in girls' morris dress designs, which are replaced annually (or as often as funds allow) as part of a yearly cycle of competitions rewarding originality in both costuming and dance routines. …

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