Gender

The Gender of Morris Dancers


Key findings
  • The number of women dancing has grown from not very many before the 1970s to make up 46% of morris dancers in 2014. 
  • The majority of new recruits are women and if that trend continues then morris will be majority female within a few years.

The gender of morris dancers has been an important theme throughout the history of morris dancing. Before the 20th century, morris dancing was a predominantly, but not exclusively, male pursuit. In the early 20th century Mary Neal and the female dancers of the Esperance Club were as instrumental as Cecil Sharp was to popularising morris among a wider audience. A male-only climate during the 1950s and ‘60s excluded women from what was then the only organisation, the Morris Ring, and therefore from organised morris dancing. Female morris sides began forming in the early 1970s and developed with support from the Women’s Morris Federation.

Today the Morris Federation (as it is now known) and Open Morris allow member sides regardless of the gender of their members. The Morris Federation “has always taken the view that the dances themselves are more important than the gender of the dancers who perform them”. The Morris Ring does not permit its member sides to have female dancers, though female musicians have been allowed since 2011.

Data from the Morris Census shows that 54% of morris dancers are male and 46% are female. The growth of mixed sides since the late 1970s has meant there is a wide variation in the gender balance of different sides’ dancers. A majority of sides are single sex: 32% of sides are all male and 23% are all female, whereas 43% of sides are mixed sex sides. A small number of sides (2%) have teams of male and female dancers within the side that perform separately.



There are differences between organisations, the largest being between the Morris Ring and the other two UK organisations. All sides in the Morris Ring only have male dancers. After allowing female musicians in 2011, 37% of Morris Ring sides now have at least one female musician.



Whereas the Morris Ring is 96% male, the Morris Federation and Open Morris are 59% and 62% female, respectively. Outside the Morris Ring a majority (55%) of sides are mixed sex and 31% are sides of all female dancers. Interestingly, most (78%) mixed sides have more female members than male.



The gender variation between styles of morris is also quite large. Rapper, Mummers and Longsword sides are the most male as well as Cotswold sides, which are comprised of two-thirds men. In contrast, Clog Step, North West, Garland and Border sides are largely female.




Gender - change over time

Morris Census data also shows how the gender balance of morris has changed over time. Whereas 46% of current dancers are female, recruits are 57% female. If this trend continues then gender in morris will be balanced within a few years. It even suggests that the long-term future of morris is with a majority of female members, representing a transformation since the 1960s when morris dancing was largely a men-only activity.



Comparing sides by the decade they were formed also hints at how women's participation in morris has changed over the decades. Sides formed in the 1950s and 1960s were, and largely still are, male only sides, whereas a majority (61%) of the members of sides formed in the last 15 years are female. Also, sides that are not optimistic about continuing are 62% male.



How have the changes in, and attitudes towards, female participation in morris affected you?

Please leave comments below.

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