So... What's with the Bells?

By Audrey Goodman

RPM.jpgHave you ever found yourself at a local festival and heard some lively folk tune accompanied by...what was that... jingle bells? Curious, you may have felt compelled to follow the sound so you could investigate for yourself.

Eventually you would have found some musician(s) playing solo or in concert with others on fiddle, melodeon, piano accordion, maybe even a recorder or whistle, but bells? Nope. Hmmm...you'd then have to notice that these musicians weren't playing for their or your own fancy, but were actually accompanying a small but energetic group of dancers; all wearing matching costumes, and weaving around each other in patterns while waving handkerchiefs or sticks which would be clashed together on varying beats of music. Cool. Then, as you looked at their legs you'd find the source of the jingling. Each dancer would be wearing leather squares tied around the front of their calves, adorned with rows of jingle bells and as they danced, they would be shaking said belled calves to the beat of the music. Really cool! "But," you may ask, "what's it all about?"

It's about 500 years old that's what! Well, according to some written records somewhere, and in Shakespeare plays. Yup, Shakespeare actually talks about Morris dancers in a play or two. Some folks say, it's sourced even earlier than the Renaissance, just undocumented. Whenever it started, what you see these days is a modern day example of an old but ‘living' English folk tradition called Morris dancing.

These folk dances are derived from the Cotswold farming regions of Southern England. Although theories abound, no one knows of actual documentation proving the dances' existence earlier than the 17th century, though the music used for the dances is derived from an abundant body of early English folk repertoire. Some sources say these dances could have evolved as part of Celtic festivals celebrating fertility of the land (and no doubt the ladies of the local villages). However, in lieu of tangible written evidence, we Morris dancers choose to simply enjoy the mystique which surrounds the origins of our favorite hobby.

The heyday for Morris Dancing was early nineteenth century, when there was rivalry between villages in the Cotswolds as to who could turn out the best dressed, best danced ‘teams' or ‘sides' as they're known. Regional ‘dance outs' were plentiful and no doubt, plenty competitive!

The shift of population into urban areas during the Industrial Revolution dwindled the interest, amount of and attendance at festivals in small villages where Morris was primarily performed. The tradition was further marginalized by not only the Victorian desire to reduce the allegedly drunken, rowdy behaviour at said festivals (imagine!), but by abundantly plentiful and inexpensive railway tickets which encouraged folks to leave their villages on holidays rather than celebrate locally.

After nearly dying out at the turn of the century, Morris would enjoy modest revivals two more times in England over the next 50 years, thanks largely to the efforts of various folk dance aficionados who made a habit of reviving such things.

In 1934 the "Morris Ring" was established and the tradition kept afloat. By the 1960s, which ushered in a huge folk revival in the UK and America (as well), modern Morris groups experienced a new heyday which has been hanging on ever since. It was during the 1960s that the dances truly made their way across the pond where they've been being danced, if not slightly modified or embellished upon by us Yanks (mostly with permission of course) in cities all over the United States. Morris groups exist in a number of cities and towns all over the States, with particularly large numbers in San Francisco, New England and oddly enough, Twin Cities.

One such group is the local Rising Phoenix Morris, of which I am the squire. We're a traditional Cotswold group based in Los Angeles that performs throughout Southern California, the Western United States. When we've been invited and can afford the journey en masse, we've even performed at English festivals in the UK.

RPM, as it's affectionately called by its members, is a non profit ‘mixed' side, which means we have male and female members who perform dances together which aren't gender specific, and we're definitely not making money doing it! Most performances are free of charge and any monies acquired are used only to cover costume and/or travel expenses of the group. We're all gainfully employed in various fields, and this is our hobby of love, not fortune.

Our style of Morris is an exuberant repertoire of dances from certain Cotswold villages of our choice, each of which features its own unique style of stepping and ‘figures.' The dances incorporate either the use of waving handkerchiefs or sticks of varying lengths which are clashed together in rhythmic patterns that fit the particular tune being played. The dances are performed with 4-8 dancers moving in and out of these ‘figures,' rather than as couples. They're definitely NOT English Country dances and all involve a healthy dose of aerobic ability on the part of the dancer.

Rising Phoenix Morris happily performs at festivals and public venues bringing our enthusiasm, ‘village square' style dances and musicians with us. Our goal is simply to keep this fun and eclectic tradition alive for ourselves and others, by performing it as ubiquitously as possible. We are joined in this endeavor by two other Morris groups in Southern California; Wildwood Morris of Long Beach who specialize in "Border" Morris, and Morton Bay Fig Morris of San Diego, another Cotswold side. We each have unique costumes, music, dances and styles of performance.

If you'd like more information, you can contact me at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

We also have our own website, www.risingphoenixmorris.org.

A few of our upcoming performances are listed on the FolkWorks calendar for the months of July and August.

Hope to see you ‘out there' sometime!

Audrey Goodman is a music educator, armchair therapist working on a degree in Music Therapy, and teaches private piano. She lives in Santa Monica with her partner Brian, fur children Charlie, Cea, Rhiannon and Merlin (who 'took over the place' once the human children left) and dances Morris with her partner and friends whenever possible.