An interest in how current identity is shaped by the past inspired Faye Claridge to look at morris dancing during her year as artist in residence at Rugby Art Gallery & Museum.
She had a bit of a head start on the subject, as her dad was a member of Green Man’s Morris in Birmingham, which itself is interesting as morris dancing comes across as much more of a village pursuit.
She said: “I am very interested in how people connect to history and relate to history and my dad was a morris dancer so I spent a lot of my early years going to folk festivals.”
She was surprised to find that the borough of Rugby didn’t have its own morris dancing groups, so went outside the area to find one. She then got involved with local contemporary dance group Rugby Youth Dance, which was set up in 2009 to meet the needs of young people in the Newbold on Avon area of Rugby, which has the lowest levels of educational attainment in the borough, and an unusually high number of anti-social behaviour incidents.
It’s easy to draw parallels between this involvement and the work of Mary Neal, who the exhibition partly pays tribute to. She lived between 1860-1944, and as well as being a suffragette and social reformer she spent about 20 years working to inspire poor young women to find happiness, and a place in society, by performing and teaching folk dances and songs.
So how did the girls take to the idea of trying morris dancing? “They were really open minded – most of them hadn’t heard of morris dancing.”
Faye had to explain to them all about it, and also to the morris dancing group she brought in, Plum Jerkum Border Morris, of Warwick, that she didn’t know what reaction they would get. “The guys walked in with their bells and black faces and the girls didn’t know what to make of it but they got dancing quite quickly. It was brilliant.”
It ended up with the professionals and Rugby Youth Dance taking part in a procession at the Warwick Folk Festival which went for miles – and the girls were most impressed with how the ‘old guys’ managed to keep going throughout! Faye said she was very impressed with how much the girls got out of it and how positive they were about the whole experience.
As part of the project six girls were photographed in the traditional costume with blacked up faces. This seems a bit questionable these days – but Faye says the answer is in the history.
“It’s got a long tradition and there’s a few different theories for it. The morris men would have been dancing on the Sabbath so they wouldn’t want to be recognised, or maybe dancing when they should have been working, or begging. Or another interpretation is that strangers are lucky so you disguise yourself.”
The exhibition is on until March 6, and on Wednesday, January 26 from 12.30-1.30 at the gallery there will be a free talk by John Frearson on the origins of morris dancing. To book a place call 01788 533201.
A review of the exhibition will appear in the Coventry Telegraph on Friday, January 21.