Monday, 3 July 2017

This Girl Can Morris Dance!, by Steph West

Project manager, Steph West, recently visited Dr Lucy Wright's solo exhibition on the theme of 'Fluffy Morris' at Cecil Sharp House. Here she tells us more about the tradition and the show... 

My first experience of ‘fluffy’ or ‘carnival’ Morris dancing was seeing it on a one of the dance talent show programmes on TV. I was amazed when they described themselves as Morris dancers; they looked just like cheerleaders and they were dancing to American pop music! I’d been involved in Morris dancing for nearly my entire life, but I’d never seen anything like that. I have to admit that at first I thought it was a joke and I’ve since heard a lot of people from the ‘traditional’ Morris teams express ridicule towards this form of Morris, or at least dismiss it as ‘not really traditional.’ Perhaps due to this attitude, Fluffy Morris has remained separate from the wider Morris community and is not well known outside its North West heartland.

However, it could be argued that Fluffy Morris is one of the few dance traditions that has maintained ties to its roots and to the community that originally instigated the dance form. It is a fascinating example of how a traditional expression can change and evolve over time. Rather than trying to recreate a past era, as most other traditional forms of dance attempt to do, Fluffy Morris has unconsciously adapted to incorporate contemporary fashions. However, underneath the sequins and the glitter, the origins of the North West Morris dance form can still be seen in the precise figures and incredibly neat polka step.

More recently the wider Morris community has taken notice of this style of Morris, with Platt Bridge Morris Dancers performing to great acclaim at the rebooted ‘Dancing England’ showcase earlier this year. The dance has also been the focus of an exhibition currently on display at Cecil Sharp House, where I was able to visit on a recent trip to London. ‘This Girl Can’ Morris Dance!: Girls’ Carnival Morris Dancing in the 21st Century by artist and ethnomusicologist Lucy Wright features contemporary photographic works, as well as a range of artefacts and archival photographs.

The photographs on display show Fluffy Morris in all its sparkly glory, demonstrating the preoccupation with appearance that has almost as much emphasis placed upon it as the dancing. Above all, Fluffy Morris is intensely competitive and the photographs that I found most intriguing were those that showed the End of Season results ceremony. In particular one photograph shows the Trophy display, a vast array of enormous shining trophies, which are apparently revealed to great fanfare and even indoor fireworks!

Though my own tastes and personal experience of Morris dancing lead me to find it all somewhat kitsch, it is undeniable that the existence and history of Fluffy Morris helps to demonstrate the major role that women have played in the performance of Morris dancing in the North West of England. The use of the Sport England ‘This Girl Can’ campaign logo in the title of the exhibition subtly introduces this theme; and archival photographs, many taken from The Morris Ring Archive, show teams of girls, women and even mixed teams from as early as 1905. It makes me wonder if perhaps one reason why Fluffy Morris has been largely ignored by the broader Morris dancing community is because it challenges the widely held belief that women’s and mixed Morris is a recent phenomenon, and the hopefully less widely held belief that women should not participate in Morris dancing.

Visiting Lucy’s exhibition has been great food for thought when contemplating our own exhibition, which will similarly be made up of both new contemporary works and archival material. Yet, this is not the only similarity between the two. Both seek to explore traditional expressions that have their roots in the past, but are very much relevant and alive today; expressions that are continuing to change and evolve, sometimes even influencing and inspiring the creation of new traditions.

This Girl Can Morris Dance is on at Cecil Sharp House, London, until 30 July.