The 2017 Morris Census; The Results are in.

 During 2017 all UK morris sides and as many foreign sides as possible were sent a detailed census form.  The object was to try to compile a picture of the current state of morris dancing.  The term “morris dancing” is used in its widest sense and embraces all forms of English traditional dance: Cotswold, Border, Molly, Northwest, Garland, Mumming, Rapper, Clog Step, Longsword, Appalachian, English Country Dance/Playford and Stave.  The 798 sides who replied included both UK and foreign sides.

 The results were sent to all participating sides at the end of 2017 and they are available to a wider audience at the website​ .  The site is interactive and easy to use, giving information not only for the UK, but also for New Zealand and Australia, the US and Canada and for international sides.  You can look up your Morris organisation and your form of dance and by clicking on the appropriate column find the 2014 figures too. 

Some of the conclusions.

There are roughly 13,000 UK dancers in 780 sides, an increase on the 765 sides recorded in the 2014 census.  The average age of dancers is now 53 and there are only 1,500 dancers under the age of 30.  An ageing population is not news but more worrying is the discovery that the older the average age of dancers in a side the less likely it is that they will recruit a younger dancers which is something that I think we all knew in our bones (along with the aches and pains!)  The ageing of UK sides is explained as being due to “a once-young group of morris dancers ageing over time without enough young recruits to keep the average age down”.  The average age of Morris Federation sides is 53 but it’s 56years for a Morris Ring side.  International and US/Canadian sides are younger than UK or New Zealand /Australia ones. 

 ​The survey finds that “whereas the Morris Ring is 92% male, the Morris Federation and Open Morris are 59% and 62% female respectively” (the Morris Ring of course has only very recently allowed female members and only if they are musicians).  Most sides are mixed and “the gender distribution among mixed sides is towards having more female members than male… The age distribution among morris sides' new recruits suggests this trend towards greater female participation will continue: 61% of recruits are female compared to 39% men”.

 Sides have tried a variety of recruitment methods but the most successful approach appears “to be the active methods that have a personal touch (word of mouth, recruiting friends and using social media)” though the graphs show that social media is less successful.  Dancing out in the local community, interacting with that community and raising the side’s profile is beneficial too. 

 New or alternative methods of recruitment suggested include “forming or supporting morris dancing clubs at local schools or scout groups, which might encourage young people to learn morris dancing in a group that is ‘theirs’”.  The challenge would be maintaining this support over a period of years but, if sustained, it could be a valuable investment in the future of morris dancing in an area.

 The census is a snapshot in time, situations change and new recruits may have dropped out.  To be fair, there may also have been more recruits since the survey, but some may be “morris tarts” (a member of more than one side) who though enthusiastic, by definition cannot be fully committed to each and every side they dance with. 

 Most respondents stated that high quality dancing is important to the side, but of course standards differ.  A high standard of dance although desirable, may be normal for one side but impossible for another due to age or disability.  The days when sides could afford to ask weak dancers to leave are long gone and nowadays sides may have to be pragmatic if they hope to turn out a dance side for an event.  Nonetheless most respondents seemed to be fairly optimistic that their sides will still exist in 5 years time.  With the problems regarding age and numbers it remains to be seen not only whether they will, but also whether the standard of dance will be as good.  

 There is a discussion of the different forms of face paint, masks and disguise with the reasons why sides use the method they do or have changed or have ceased to use disguise.  A link to Morris Federation guidelines is included.

 The survey requested information covering the last 2 years (since the last census) and examined:

  •  when the side started
  • numbers and ages of dancers and how many were “morris tarts” (dance with other sides)
  • success of methods of recruitment
  • styles of dance and whether traditional or own composition
  • the side’s attitude to maintaining tradition and to standards of dance.
  • how often the officers change
  • the regularity of dancing out and the type of event, fees charged if any
  • the use of face paint and/or disguise (a hot potato at present) characters
  • the traditions danced (Cotswold Morris sides only)
  • finally it asked if the side is optimistic that they will still be performing in 5 years time.

The survey and resulting analysis was overseen and performed by Jack Worth, a statistician and economist at the National Foundation for Educational Research, working in quantitative educational research. 

Gill Brett

December 2017