Morris dancers ditch black face paint to avoid accusations of racism

A troupe of Morris dancers has scrapped black face paint in favour of green, after members voted to end the tradition because of its association with racism. 

The Silurian Border Morrismen performed their annual Boxing Day dances in green rather than black paint, in order to avoid "confusion".  

Ian Craigan, Silurian foreman, said: "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.”

The Silurian Border Morrismen said they were happy to change to green to be 'on the right side of things'

Credit: Anita Maric/SWNS

The move from the Ledbury-based group follows a similar decision by the Hook Eagle Morris Men in Hampshire, who switched to blue face paint earlier this year. 

The links between the origin of the blackface tradition and racism are the subject of debate, but both groups suggested that the modern context made the practice untenable. 

Morris dancing group members say the tradition is linked to the practice of people covering their face with soot as a disguise when begging, dating back as far as the 14th century.

But references to blacking up were rare until they proliferated in the mid to late 19th-century, indicating a link to racist US minstrel shows, according to the chief executive of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. 

The practice dropped out of favour, before becoming popular again in the 1970s. 

Historians have uncovered other links, including evidence that ‘morris’ is derived from the term ‘Moorish’. 

‘We’re not here to be controversial’

The Silurian Border Morrismen side were established in 1969, with dances from surviving Welsh Border Morrismen that had been performed in the 1920s. 

Members now perform traditional dances from towns and villages on the English and Welsh borders. 

Mr Craigan said the switch had caused some controversy among some of the members, who said it was “a step too far or a compromise”.

“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," he said. "But we are aware of sides who have experienced antagonism.

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

Spectators 'just want to see people having a laugh and making fun of themselves', members of the group said

Credit: Anita Maric/SWNS

Chris Mulvey, 71, a Silurian Morris dancer, said the switch to green had not caused any backlash among audiences during the Boxing Day dances. 

"There have been about 15 of us out performing and we have had hundreds come and watch us dance,” he said. 

"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.”

He added that he would have preferred to maintain the tradition of blackface, but said: “I am not worried about changing to green.

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

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

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