Morris dancers perform in green face paint for first time in 500 years

·5-min read

A troupe of Morris dancers who ditched traditional black face paint amid a racism row have performed for crowds painted GREEN for the first time in 500 years.

Silurian Border Morrismen voted to scrap the tradition which dates back five centuries in case it upset anyone in wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.

And today (Mon) the group performed their English folk dance routine to crowds of onlookers in Ledbury, Herefordshire, with their faces painted dark green.

The side said they took the decision to ditch black face for their Boxing Day Tour after watching the rise of the BLM movement during lockdown.

It is believed black soot was historically worn by the English folk dancers as a disguise so they could beg for money without getting in trouble with the law.

But there has been a growing controversy that the practice is 'black face' and a belief the word Morris derives from the word Moorish.

Morris dancer Chris Mulvey, 71, admitted the majority of the group would like to have continued with the black disguise - but felt it was the right time to change.

Chris, who has been member since 1978, said: "We are on our Boxing Day tour and this is the first time we have our green face disguise.

"There have been about 15 of us out performing this morning and we have had hundreds come and watch us dance so far.

"We've had no direct comments from anyone, we were not anticipating any antagonism from the public at all - and that has been proved.

"They just want to see people having a laugh and making fun of themselves.

"We're not in the business of wanting to upset people, we've made the change to a greenish tinge.

"We're not taking the mick out of anyone. If anybody is offended we do not want to add to that.

"We just want to come out and perform the dance we have been dancing - it has always just been based on a visual disguise.

"The idea for the disguise originally was to do with begging laws: in case any one caught out, you could say 'I don't know who they are because of their disguise'.

"We had the controversy of racism, so we changed - we don't want any confusion on that matter.

"I personally would have liked to continue with the original black face, but I am not worried about changing to green.

"We just want to concentrate on the dancing and the element of disguise."

Silurian foreman Ian Craigan admitted some people "feel it is a step too far" but wants to be "on the right side of things" to help attract new members to the club.

He added: "There has been some controversy for a long time. We need to be on the right side of things.

"We want to be a side that can turn up and dance and everyone feels comfortable watching and welcome new members from every spectrum.

"It would be foolish to pretend everyone in the side is happy with the decision.

"There are people who feel it is a step too far or a compromise.

"But the main purpose is to dance and share the tradition which is unique to Silurian which is more important than what we wear or how we decorate ourselves.

"We want to be able to do that without having a second issue clouding it

"We're often asked why we wear blackface but in all my time I have been a member of the side we have never been criticised or challenged by anyone on the grounds of it being racist.

"But we are aware of sides who have experienced antagonism.

"A few years back there was story in the papers because an influencer on holiday in Worcester saw the Welsh Border side outside the Guildhall and she put it on social media.

"We're more concerned not to cloud the issue, we're not here to be controversial."

Residents watching the performance today had mixed opinions about scrapping the tradition for the dance form, which dates back to the 1400s.

Mum-of-one Terri Fowler, 32, of Ledbury, said: "I understand that a lot of people cherish British tradition but I think this is the right call.

"In this day and age, you can't just go around with black face whether it be for fancy dress or whatever - so why should Morris dancers be exempt from this?

"If anything, this is highlighting racial issues even further and anything that does that has surely got to be a good thing.

"Sometimes traditions need to adapt and a different colour face paint doesn't detract from the dance at all so I can't see any problem with it."

But another resident, who did not want to be named, added: "I don't agree with scrapping a tradition that goes back hundreds of years on the premise that it might or might not upset somebody.

"Surely you put it into the context of the time and back then there were no racist connotations to it - and that certainly isn't the intent of Morris dancers now.

"It is just indicative of this day and age where things, which the majority of people don't mind, get cancelled just in case one or two people complain.

"We are in danger of losing our identity at the expense of appeasing a few snowflakes and I don't think that is healthy at all."

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