Morris Dancing as we know it today owes itself to a series of coincidences. On Boxing Day 1899, Cecil Sharp, a London teacher and musician, came across a revival team from Headington Quarry, Oxford, performing out of season to raise some extra cash. He so enjoyed the dancing and tunes that he decided to document both the music and the steps.
This was the first time that Morris dancing had actually been recorded! Traditionally in the Morris all the dancing steps, the movements and music were passed down from father to son within each village or Morris side.
Nobody actually knows when the Morris was first seen in Leicestershire! People always take their customs for granted and centuries ago why would anyone bother to write anything down about their local Morris dancers?
We do know that in Shakespeare’s day the Morris was certainly an accepted part of life as he mentions it in one of his plays. The earliest written reference to Morris locally is in the Court Records of 1599. A group of men were hauled up before Leicester magistrates for dancing in the wrong place at the wrong time – Whitsun, as it happens – and were punished for their sins. They clearly did not learn the lesson and the same thing happened again in 1603, and they were duly summoned to appear once more.
The Morris then dropped out of sight locally for quite a while, and the next recorded mention is in the last decade of the 19th-century, when dances with sticks were seen in Market Bosworth and other parts of West Leicestershire.
Leicester Morris men, like the majority of Morris sides dancing today are ‘revival’ clubs, and base what we perform on the materials collected by people like Cecil Sharp at the end of the 19th and early 20th Centuries.
In the 1920s a side of dancers was performing Cotswold Morris in Leicester, and the current side were in touch with one of them, Eric Swift, until his death some years ago. Fortunately he was very encouraging, though it was a humbling feeling to be watched by a man who was dancing before most of us were born.
The present Leicester Morris men were formed in 1953, and they initially met just to learn the dances, with an occasional demonstration. In 1957 Steve George organized the first summer season of “dancing out”, and the side has never looked back.
We claim to have danced in every town and village in Leicestershire, and many other places besides, and hope to give as much pleasure to audiences as we derive ourselves from keeping the Morris alive.
Leicester Morrismen are now one of the established Morris sides in England, and have been members of the Morris Ring since the early 1960s (the organisation for Men’s Morris clubs). For more than forty years we have annually performed at between fifty and sixty venues in our published programme of ‘tours’ and support up to half a dozen festivals or Weekends of Dance as well as various fates and similar events.
Each side has its own unique costume, ours being white shirt and trousers with black baldrics, with the Leicester Cinquefoil on the front, and manciples decorated with white, gold and red ribbons. The same colour ribbons decorate the bells pads that we strap just below the knees and our hats – which are also adorned with flowers. We are led by a Squire (President) who is assisted by a Bagman (Secretary / treasurer), and hindered by a Fool and our Animal, which being Leicestershire is ‘Charlie’ Fox.
The side remains predominantly a Cotswolds Morris side. That is, they dance traditional Morris dances collected from the Cotswolds villages. They can be seen throughout the summer months, around the villages of Leicestershire, performing Cotswolds Morris, in their white trousers and shirts, large bell pads, black baldrick (cross straps) with the Leicester cinquefoil on the front and the dancer’s individual design on the back, black manciples (armbands) with ribbons of red, white and amber, and straw hats with the same coloured ribbons and decorated with flowers which completes the outfit.
However in 1989 they also started to perform traditional Border Morris dances (Dances collected from the Welsh – English border villages). So, in the winter Leicester Morrismen metamorphose into Red Leicester The white summer kit changes to black trousers and a tattered rag coat. The straw hat bedecked with flowers becomes a black top hat or bowler decorated with ribbon and pheasant feathers. The large bell pads become one single string of bells and the Morrismen’s faces are painted red! In Border Morris the tradition is to black ones face. However, Leicester paint their faces red for two reasons. In keeping with the famous cheese Red Leicester and also because Leicestershire is a sheep county. During the mating time red raddle is put on the ram’s belly and eventually it appears on the ewes’ backs. In this apparel the Leicester Morrismen Red Leicester!