SHROPSHIRE, England — A row has erupted after the organisers of the Shrewsbury Folk Festival (SFF) decided to ban morris dancers from wearing blackface at this year’s event. The annual festival is one of the biggest of its kind in England, and it celebrates folk music and traditions from across the UK and farther afield. A morris dancing contingent is customary. However, this year’s costuming tradition must be changed due to the ban precipitated by an equality campaign group, Fairness and Racial Equality in Shropshire (FRESh).Festival director Sandra Sutrees said, “After last year’s festival, the event was accused of racial harassment and threatened with legal action by FRESh, following performances by morris sides wearing full-face black make-up in the town centre.” In a statement, the organisers of SFF further stressed, “The festival finds itself caught between two sides of this opposing argument and believe that this is a national issue that should not be focused solely on SFF.”
Morris is a traditional English dance, others of which include sword and clog dancing. Some Morris sides, especially what is known as border morris, (so called as it is a dancing style that originates from the Welsh border counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire) paint their faces black. In other words, the dancer appears with all or most of the face covered in black make-up as part of the costume or guise.
There are many theories on the origin of this tradition in morris. One is that it was a form of Moorish dance, which inspired its name. Another is that it is from an ancient folk custom known as guising, which was used at various festival times, such as Hallowe’en and while dancing to protect oneself from malevolent spirits. As it was common during festival periods, it has also been used in mummers plays, which are often performed around Easter or Christmas, and they often incorporate aspects of Pagan traditions.Guising also had a more practical application of protecting the identity of beggars during a time when it was still illegal in England and Wales. They often hid their faces under a layer of soot or coal dust. As Sutrees explained: “The use of full-face black make-up is an age old tradition, particularly within border morris. The morris movement has always evolved over time and some sides have made their own decisions to move away from using full-face black make-up towards other forms of colour and disguise.
“In the past 18 months, of the three sides we booked for this year’s festival, two have already moved away from wearing full-face black make up of their own volition.”
The stressing of blackface as an ancient tradition is a sentiment echoed by Adam Garland. The outgoing Ring Squire (leader) of the Morris Ring states: “All over the world, one finds traditional folk customs for which costume and face paint are integral parts; for example, certain tribal dancers in Africa white their faces for the performance. In England, the Morris world is no different; many morris clubs use face paint as part of their costume.”
The ban was welcomed by FRESh leader Jonathan Hyams, who applauded the change as representing sensitivity to “a changed social climate”.
In a public statement, Hyams said: “From FRESh’s perspective, it is good news. We entirely understand the argument from morris dancing communities that this is something that goes back to tradition. However, there are other ways of celebrating this other than “blacking up,” which has very strong connotations of racism.”However, the ban has provoked anger from some parts of the morris community. Garland responded, “The theory of the tradition originating as a form of disguise through the use of soot has been well documented. These days within the three organisations – The Morris Ring, the Morris Federation, and The Open Morris – a whole range of different colours can be seen in many places around the country. The use of one particular colour within these costumes is in no way a statement against one particular societal group and the morris community refutes the accusation of racism most strongly.”
One aspect that has complicated the issue is the guising tradition being conflated with the more modern version of blackface coming from American customs, such as the old minstrel shows that were still being televised in the UK as late as the 1970s. The Morris Ring of the UK is keen to stress the differences between the two customs.
The ban has divided dancers and locals alike. Joseph Healy, secretary of the Britannia Coco-Nut Dancers, who are a clog dancing side from Lancashire in the North West of England and who traditionally used coconuts on their clogs to make a distinctive sound, told LBC radio that for his side, the tradition came from the mining heritage of the area. He added: “We will always dance in blackface because that is the complete and full costume we turn out in.”
Richard Day told to BBC Radio Shropshire, “Just because we have done something for a long time does not necessarily mean we should continue it – unless you want to bring back the burning of witches, maybe?” The Shrewsbury Folk Festival has decided that from 2017, they will not book any troupes that still use blackface.Meanwhile, the Morris Federation is attempting to move the debate forward and open up a dialogue about the issue. It said in a statement: “Blacking up in morris is a very sensitive and emotive subject and we are truly saddened by the division it has caused among morris dancers. We would like to reiterate that the Morris Federation is currently seeking legal advice on the impact of blacking up in morris and chairing an open discussion with our membership at our AGM on September 24th.”
It looks like this debate is set to continue.
CORRECTION 9/20/2016: The original story suggested that it was the Shopshire Council that had banned blackface. But we confirmed that the decision was made by the Shrewsbury Folk Festival. The article has been corrected.