You remember “Cool Britannia” don’t you? It was the notion started by magazine editors in the mid-1990s that Britain was the ‘home of cool.’ That the UK was where innovative music, fashion and culture thrived. That the British people were effortlessly and painfully hip- an entire nation on the cutting edge of trendiness.
If you bought into this concept, and you’ve come over to the United Kingdom for your summer holiday based on that hype, you might be forgiven for expecting to encounter a cultural icon on every corner. That you might see David Bowie cigarette in hand, singing, while Kate Moss lithely lounges next to him, wearing a Vivienne Westwood frock. That this entire tableau would be captured in spray paint by street artist Banksy, while Daniel Craig looks on in a tuxedo, nodding approvingly.
If you come to the UK you won’t see any of those things. But you will see Morris dancers.
Like mosquitoes, every spring the Morris dancers emerge from hibernation and flit about in swarms until after summer is over. You’ll see them in high streets and villages, in town squares, and at festivals in London suburbs. They’re ubiquitous, and yet, no one talks about them. They’re completely unknown outside the UK- in fact if you’re American and you’re reading this, you’re probably asking yourself right now ‘what is he talking about- what is a Morris dancer?!”
What’s a Morris dancer? It’s Britain’s secret shame.
The reason you don’t know about Morris dancing is not accidental. British people don’t want you to know about it. You won’t read about Morris dancing in guide books, or see footage of it on travel programmes devoted to the UK. It’s not featured in BBC TV shows or British movies. The first time you actually see Morris dancing for yourself, you’ll understand why it’s kept as a secret from outsiders.
Please don’t watch this:
So what is Morris dancing anyway?
Morris dancers are men, women and sometimes children, who deck themselves out in frilly, puffy clothes and big hats, and prance around in circles, whacking sticks together while waving around little flags. Sometimes they wear little bells. It’s even worse than it sounds. It’s really just embarrassing to watch. It’s the antithesis of cool. It’s, lame, awkward, weird and it’s even a little bit racist. You see, many Morris dancers perform in blackface. Yes- blackface. It’s one of England’s most commonly-seen cultural activities, and it is often performed… in blackface… all around the country.
Now I’m sure there’s a history and cultural context to why white English people would want to caper around village squares with their faces painted black in some kind of wicker man-inspired minstrel show. I suppose I could do some research to understand it all better, but I refuse to do so. I really don’t want my internet search history to contain the phrase: “WHY MORRIS DANCING IN BLACKFACE ISN’T REALLY REALLY RACIST.”
But you go ahead and Google it if you want, and then come back and explain in the comments section about how you’ve learned that black faced dancing performances are an integral part of rural English life, and that they shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand by some snide American expat who doesn’t understand or appreciate this country’s heritage. Well done! Next, I suggest you find some charcoal, darken up your face, and go perform that heritage-filled dance in inner-city London. Bells jingling, you can explain it all again, to what I’m sure will be a captivated audience.
No dance is completely worthless, it can always serve as a bad example
And yet, watching Morris dancers ply their trade is strangely engrossing. It’s car-crash entertainment of the best kind. When I watch, my imagination runs wild. I try to imagine what British people might think if they were to happen upon some of my own country’s less sophisticated cultural offerings. For example, how might David Niven react if he stumbled across a monster truck rally in rural Kentucky. “Oh my,” he might say. “This is one of those motor car celebrations that local persons known for the redness of their necks participate in. How fascinating!”
But monster truck rallies are at least an awesome spectacle- uncouth and vulgar, but loud, brash and fun. Morris dancing on the other hand is numbingly boring. It’s so incredibly square, naff and corny that everything else seems cool by comparison. Maybe that’s the secret to being cool in Britain- with a baseline as low as that presented by the dancers of Morris- everyone else seems avant-garde by comparison.
When I was a child, I learned square dancing, played dungeons and dragons and played with a ventriloquist dummy. Next to someone who grew up around Morris dancing, I was still cooler than David fucking Bowie.