All of the dancing is done to live music, traditionally performed on instruments such as pipe and tabor (a small drum), button accordion, fiddle, etc. Modern Morris dancers have been seen accompanied by saxophone, baritone horn, guitar, bassoon,or whatever else is handy. The songs are mainly traditional in origin, and each dance goes with a particular tune. Since Morris is a living tradition, new dances are being written all the time, to traditional or new tunes.
Although the dances originated in England, there are now teams around the world. Large ales create the opportunity for many teams to dance and party together. There are well over 100 teams in America, as well as teams in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Canada. This world-wide network creates an unofficial travel club for dancers. Many teams travel to England and elsewhere, visiting and sharing dances, music, beer, and conviviality with their fellow and sister dancers.
The origins of the Morris are the subject of much speculation and little actual knowledge. There is written documentation dating from the sixteenth century, including references in Shakespeare, indicating that the dances were considered ancient at that time. These sources confirm that the dances were done by both men and women, and that they were a popular form of spectacle. They would seem to have gotten away somewhat from their pagan significance by this time, although these roots would be familiar to an audience which had been Christianized but hardly severed from superstition and the influence of ancient myth. Even the name Morris is a mystery. Some claim that it is a corruption of Moorish, indicating that the dances may have had their origins somewhere in Africa. Or it may simply refer to the dancers practice of blackening their faces with cork as a simple disguise (as in much ritual dance, the dancers were considered to be someone other than their usual selves while they were dancing). Or it may be derived from the Latin moris, meaning custom or tradition. Or maybe it has something to do with some guy named Maurice. We have no idea.
At any rate, the Morris was danced for hundreds of years, at least, passed down through the generations in the villages of rural England. Like many other rural traditions, it became endangered in the late ninetheenth century due to the social upheavals brought on by the Industrial Revolution, mainly the depopulation of villages in favor of increased economic opportunity in the cities. Fortunately, there were those who were concerned enough about the potential loss of cultural heritage to go into the countryside and collect the songs and dances from the old villagers who still remembered them. Due to the efforts of Cecil Sharp, and organizations like the Country Dance and Song Society, many of the traditions were rescued from the edge of extinction. Revival sides were started in several villages, and the dances reintroduced to new generations. Sometimes the dances had to be reconstructed from less than clear notes, which has led to some divergence in practice. This may charitably be regarded as another anomaly of the folk tradition, which invariably results in the evolution of practice over time.
When speaking of Morris dancing, the first thing that comes to mind is Cotswold Morris, which may be thought of as the regular kind. This is generally danced in groups (or sets) of six dancers, arranged in two rows of three. The dancers hold hankies in their hands, or perhaps sticks, either two short or one long one, and have bell-pads tied at their knees which make a loud and cheerful rhythm as they dance. Border Morris originated in the Border region (that is, close to the Welsh border), and is usually danced in sets of four or eight. Most of the dances involve sticks rather than hankies, and the costumes worn are slightly different than those for Cotswold, although they also include bells. The dances also tend to be a little wilder, although this may be a more recent development.
There are other kinds of English folkdance which are often seen in conjunction with Morris. Sword dancing is of later origin. Longsword tends to be rather slow and stately, involving repeated patterns danced by a group of six dancers linked by long wooden bars. Rapper sword developed in the area around Sheffield with the invention of spring steel. It is danced by groups of five or six dancers in a tight knot, and involves quick stepping and complex patterns woven by the swords of bendable steel which link the dancers. Northwest Morris is danced, usually but not always by women, in sets of eight. The dancers wear clogs rather than bells for rhythmic noisemakers, and carry beribboned sticks which they twirl and clash. As one might guess, this dancing originated in the northwest of England.