The founding National Association of Morris and Sword Dance Clubs

Black Make-Up in Morris Costume

The handout on the use of black face paint issued for the JMO day of dance has now been withdrawn and is no longer to be used. At this time (June 2020) the Morris Ring and Open Morris revised version is under further review and we will be able to give a new statement well before we are able to return to public performance!

The Squire and Officers of the Morris Ring had been privy to the legal advice received by the Morris Federation, and have discussed this at length with them and the Open Morris. It is clear it is an uncertain and developing issue that will need to be kept under review and is even more relevant following the Black Lives Matter protests. Please read our article Does black face paint matter? and our Notice to Membership re use of black face make-up issued in March 2020.

Some background to the subject:

Eddie Worrall, Squire of the Ring, issued this statement in December 2016:

I do not believe there is any intentionally racist behaviour in any of our member clubs who perform like this. I am also sure all of us would want to see action taken against any club who did intend to offend.

The opening paragraph of the Morris Ring’s Constitution reads:-

1. The object of the Morris Ring shall be to encourage the performance of the Morris, to maintain its traditions and to preserve its history; to bring into contact all the Men's Morris Clubs or Teams. The purpose of the Ring is not to replace or supersede the existing organisations, but to subserve them. The Clubs shall in all respects retain their independence, ...

This is the sound basis on which over 80 years of association between Morris Ring clubs has been founded. It recognises the independence of a club and its right to choose how to perform. This clearly extends to the use of black face paint in (for example) Welsh Border dancing as much as any other aspect of Morris.

As many of you will know an issue arose at Shrewsbury Folk Festival in 2015 where a complaint was made about a Border Morris side. The essence of the complaint was that the use of black face paint was Racially Harassing under the terms of the Equality Act 2010, and therefore could give rise to a Civil claim against the side and the Folk Festival. That particular allegation was never taken any further, but did cause change in the booking policy of Shrewsbury Folk Festival and much debate in the Morris world.

The nature of any such claim would be particular to the facts of the case. However, it is clear that sides using black face paint in their performance will be open to such allegations.

The Morris Ring is not a regulator or governing body. It is for sides to decide themselves how they wish to perform. However, clubs will need to clearly understand why they are using black face paint, and be open about why they are performing using it with their audience, local communities and press. They must also be ready to defend their arguments if challenged.

Nigel Strudwick, Eastern Area rep, has put together this short paper on the historical references regarding the use of black face paint in English Traditional Dance. I hope this will be of help.

The Joint Morris Organisations continue to communicate on this issue and will monitor how it develops. In the meantime, if any member side has any direct experience of this as an issue please squire [at] themorrisring [dot] org (contact me and the other Officers).

Eddie Worrall
squire [at] themorrisring [dot] org (Squire of the Morris Ring)

December 2016

Revised June 2020

Blacking up--a literature survey--Strudwick.pdf