To celebrate Samhain we filmed Boss Morris, an all-female morris group, dancing at dusk and into the night on a beacon in the Cotswolds.
Morris had a revival at the turn of the twentieth century, when people became deeply concerned with the idea of Englishness and how to perform it. In pursuit of ‘Merrie England’, many Morris groups were re-formed or established at this time - most dances recorded were from the southern tradition of what is now called Cotswold Morris.
A further revival of Morris in the 1970s - when punk, rock n roll and Paganism were also gaining ground - saw a greater focus on Border Morris, which is faster-paced and wilder than Cotswold Morris.
From this wildness emerged new traditions including Dark and Prog Morris, which moved Morris dancing away from the old white costumes associated with springtime, to more contemporary styling, featuring black costumes, heavy makeup and elaborate masks. They often presented themselves as anti-establishment and subversive, defining themselves in opposition to more genteel traditions.
These new forms of Morris are perhaps a response to something in the national mood, harking back to a more nature-led time. They seem to tap into something primal inside us, a need for modern folk traditions.
One of four Celtic fire festivals that mark the turn of the seasons, Samhain celebrates the end of the harvest - but it is also the time when the boundary between this world and the spirit world is at its thinnest. Many people once believed (and some still do) that it was at this time that their ancestors might visit them, their ghosts roaming the earth.
There are many accounts of great gatherings around burial mounds at Samhain, particularly in Ireland, where Samhain festivities are thought to have begun - burial mounds were opened at this time, to allow passage to and from the Otherworld. Some of these mounds are even aligned with the sunrise on Samhain.
At Haresfield Beacon, where we shot our Samhain film, the landscape is shaped by ancient peoples and their tombs - we chose this place for this history, dancing on the mounds there as perhaps our ancestors once did.
Our costumes are a big part of Boss Morris, we collectively put a lot of time and consideration into them. The majority of Boss are artists in various ways. We are seamstresses, sewers, Illustrators, sculptors, jewellery makers and florists to name a few. We work together to come up with ideas, drawing from all kinds of inspiration, local history or old crafts. Especially in connection with Stroud, where the majority of us live. We tend to work in a slightly manic factory line type way, as we generally have a deadline to get them done for.
Our traditional Headdresses are made by Inna Chonka who is based in Ukraine. They are all handmade especially for us. We love them a lot, it means a lot to us to support a traditional craft from another country and helps brings different influences into our morris tradition.
The animal masks or ‘beasts’ as we call them, originated from Alex Merry (co-founder of Boss). They are creatures that often accompany our performances and add another layer to the morris dancing. They really give our troupe an extra presence and are sometimes used in the dances. Since then, Maddy McLeod, Rhia Davenport and Mila Harris-Mussi (other Boss dancers) have gone on to make other beasts based on mythology and personal connection to particular animals.
Our make-up is an added fun part of our costumes. They are very much organic looks that sometimes reflect the event we’re at with regards to colours. At the summer solstice we’ll use designs and colours that reflect the sun for example. Many morris sides use make up as a relatively standard accessory to costume, we use face paint as another means of creativity, to modernise it, make it feel relevant and original to us. It’s like a part of our costume that we can constantly change and fit to our mood.
A significant part of the music and dances we do are quite traditional really. Many come from the ‘black book’, morris dances and tunes collected by folk song collector Cecil Sharpe. But in recent years, we have worked on choreographing our own dances with traditional and new tunes. We’re very fortunate to have three amazingly talented folk musicians that play for us (Miranda Rutter, Rob Harbron and Sam Sweeney) and are very much part of Boss. They have adapted many of the tunes and have even written new tunes for new dances. We have also remixed morris tunes, when the event is right; using electronic music is another avenue we’ll continue to explore.
Along with the music, we like to keep our performance engaging and fun. We like to build the atmosphere while dancing with occasional whoops and shouts. We think it reinforces our dances, showing that we are having fun and that we are putting everything into it.
We have now got to a point where we don’t just want to be dancing to the same notated version as per 100 years ago. We want to Boss-ify them - in the traditional notion that all folk traditions evolve and change so they mean something to person that is dancing or playing music at the time. A lot of the changes we make (much like the costumes) come from a collaborative approach. Someone will often make a suggestion of how to adapt part of the dance whilst we are learning it in real time. We’ve also worked with experienced morris gurus to give us another perspective and suggest other ways to develop the dances to suit us as dancers.
There are so many amazing things about Boss. We love the solidarity we have a woman’s collective especially, it’s a really empowering thing and has taken us to places and discussions on folk traditions, costume and feminist issues within morris and beyond. It’s an amazing way to keep us fit, with an amazing group of talented people with so many creative talents. We’ve done so many incredible gigs, events and trips, it has given us so many unusual experiences, in the pursuit of spreading the morris word as we see it.
But ultimately, while we take it seriously in the time and energy we all commit to it, we really do have a lot of fun with it and don’t take it all too seriously.