Morris dancers swap black face paint for blue in ‘biggest change’ in 30 years


A group of Morris dancers have changed their face paint from black to blue following concerns over racism – in what they describe as “by far and away the biggest change” in their 30-year history.

Members of the Hook Eagle Morris Men performed near the village of Hook, Hampshire, to mark the May Day dawn on Saturday, in their first show since January 2020.

In June 2020, cross-county group the Joint Morris Organisations issued a statement calling for dancing groups to eliminate the use of full-face black makeup in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Hook Eagle Morris dancer John Ellis, 70, from the nearby village of Fleet, has been with the local dance troupe since its inception as a church group in 1991.

May Day
Morris dancers revived the black soot tradition in the 1970s (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Mr Ellis said other Morris troupes had adapted their face paints to other colours, with some going green and a group in Kent opting for yellow and black stripes.

He said the tradition of covering one’s face with soot derives from poor farm workers in the 1400s who would use it to disguise themselves so they could beg – which was illegal at the time.

That historical tradition “died out”, he explained, but was revived in the 1970s by Border Morris dancers – a dance type which originated in villages along the border of England and Wales.

“We adopted this idea because the dancing is really easy, good fun and we quite like the idea of dancing in disguise,” Mr Ellis added.

Morris dancers
Morris dancers revived the use of black soot makeup in the 1970s (Andrew Matthews/PA)

He added that the group maintained social distancing guidelines, using the “longest sticks we could get our hands on” and avoided hugging – as dancers usually grip each other around the waist.

Mr Ellis said it was “fantastic” to be back performing after 16 months.

“It was completely brilliant… we had a fabulous sunrise, which is unusual,” he said.

“There is something about dance, no matter what kind of dance… the endorphins kick in, you just have fun.

“And when you’re with a bunch of guys that you’re with probably for 50 weeks of the year, it really is a team spirit.”


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