Blackface Morris dancers stir racial tension in rural Dales community

A rural community in the Yorkshire Dales, an area where the term blackface usually means a breed of sheep, has become an unlikely cauldron of racial tension.

The mayor of Settle and several visitors to the town were among those startled last weekend by the sight of Morris dancers performing in the market square with their faces dyed black.

But as accusations of insensitivity and political incorrectness filled the air, one of the country’s leading folk musicians went on the defensive.

“It’s as traditional as the flowery hats on the Costswold Morris dancers. It’s got nothing to do with the Black and White Minstrel Show,” said Mike Harding, the recording artist, radio host and artistic director of Settle’s annual Folk Gathering.

Morris dancers in Settle last weekend. Picture: Katie Kedward

That had not been the way Katie Kedward saw it. A former student in Leeds, she was enjoying a walking weekend in the Dales when she chanced upon the music and ritualistic dancing laid on in the town centre for the four-day festival.

“It was not something I thought I would ever see in England nowadays,” she said.

“I thought it was pretty universally accepted that blackface is controversial and 
offensive. I was quite shocked.”

Several Morris troupes, or “sides” were performing in an area laid out for them, and “one or two” teams were in blackface, said Ms Kedward, 28.

Katie Kedward

“I felt uncomfortable in the atmosphere. The longer I stayed, the more uncomfortable I felt.

“I felt that people were looking at me as a person of colour, and then looking at the people in blackface and trying to see my reaction,” she said. “The whole atmosphere was just very awkward. There was another girl of mixed heritage in our group, and she also felt uncomfortable.”

She and her friend decided against confronting the dancers.

“We were a bit intimidated by them. We reasoned that if these people had chosen to do this, probably knowing full well that it was a controversial thing to do, they had probably already made up their minds on where they stood. We didn’t feel confident to go up and say something,” Ms Kedward said”

Instead, she wrote to the town council, whose Mayor, Dan Balsamini, had also seen the blackened dancers.

“Personally, I would not want to see anything like that in Settle again,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s traditional – it’s culturally insensitive and not very progressive.”

He added: “These people were not from Settle. Maybe it’s acceptable in their towns, but not here.”

Mr Balsamini said he had discussed the issue with one of the town’s amateur cricketers, who is from Barbados, and would be taking it up with the council.

Ms Kedward had already received a reply from the assistant town clerk, who told her that “the various folk dancers we have authorised in the past have never ‘blackfaced’ before”.

However, a picture on the Folk Gathering website clearly shows a young woman with a blackened face, posing in the market place at last year’s event.

Mr Harding, in a letter to Ms Kedward, said the blackface Morris tradition was “a big part of the folk heritage of England and has nothing whatsoever to do with mocking or parodying African or Caribbean people”.

He added: “Had you spoken to any of the dancers I’m sure that they would have been only too glad to explain.”

Ms Kedward said: “He didn’t seem to have taken my point. Blackface has been historically used to mock black people for the entertainment of white people by promoting negative and damaging stereotypes.”

Mr Harding, a long-time resident of the area and a former president of the Ramblers’ Association, told The Yorkshire Post that the Morris tradition dated to a time when dancers “didn’t want the local Squire to know that they were going around the villages and making a few bob, because he’d have put the rent up. So they blacked up their faces as a disguise.”

A ban on blackface dancing in future would be unwelcome, he suggested.

“The traditions in this country are very strong and are worth maintaining. We don’t have a national music like the Irish and the Scots, but we do have this tradition of dancing. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with blacking faces up for it, as long as it’s done in the tradition of disguise, not of looking like minstrels.”

Asked if more should be done to explain the tradition to casual onlookers, he said: “The world’s gone PC mad, I can understand that. But where do you draw the line? Do you have to hand out pamphlets to everybody to explain why you’re blacking up?”

The best-known blackface Morris team in the North, having performed at the Royal Albert Hall, is the Britannia Coconut Dancers of Bacup.

They were not at the Settle festival, but their secretary, Gavin McNulty, supported Mr Harding’s stance.

He said: “We shouldn’t have to change a tradition that has nothing to do with what people are trying to portray it as. We stand strong and steadfast.”

But the Runnymede Trust, a race equality think tank, has said the tradition of blackface as a disguise was also influenced by north African settlement in England, and that the popularity of American-style minstrel troupes had overlapped with local customs.

The English Folk Dance and Song Society, which does not support the use of blackface, also said there was evidence that “the boot-polish, full-face, blacking-up tradition gained popularity” during the 19th century boom in minstrelsy.