Morris dancing is a living tradition of performance dance and music which began in England and has survived for more than 500 years, perhaps longer. Villagers in Bampton, Oxfordshire, say that Morris dancing has been performed at Whitsuntide, in early summer, every year for more than 800 years, except in times of war. Despite the strong oral tradition documenting Morris dancing over many centuries, historians are unclear about the exact age and specific origins of early Morris dancing.
Morris dances are typically performed by a set of six dancers wearing bells on their legs. The dancers use handkerchiefs or sticks for flourishes and embellishment as they perform the figures of the dance. The dances are sometimes accompanied by traditional folk characters. The Fool interacts with the set, attempting to distract the dancers while amusing the audience. The Hobby Horse – not always a horse – strolls around the outside of the set, and engages with the audience. The Betty – an intentional gender-bending and cross-dressing character – also engages with the audience, and is thought by some to be an ancient fertility symbol.
Live music is an integral part of Morris dancing. One traditional Morris instrument is the pipe and tabor; a single musician simultaneously plays a three-holed pipe with the left hand and a small drum with the right hand. During the twentieth century other instruments have come into use, including the accordion, the melodeon, the fiddle, and the concertina. Other contemporary Morris music instruments include plectrum banjo, trombone, and clarinet.