What is making Sheffield the new Morris dancing capital of the UK?

IT IS a quintessentially English tradition that goes back to the court of the 15th century and was later performed by working class people.

Yet 10 years ago, there were fears over the future of morris dancing as fewer people were getting involved.

Now the number of dancers has risen and in Sheffield there are more active morris dancing sides than anywhere else in the country.

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With the May Day bank holiday signalling the start of the season, Sheffield has around 20 active teams and 46 new members have joined.

Five Rivers Morris Dancers, left to right, Darren Yendley, Jon Brenner, James Merryclough, Richard Surridge.

James Merryclough conducted a survey of Sheffield sides and is a member of Handsworth Traditional Sword Dancers, who can trace their history back 150 years, and Five Rivers Morris.

Handsworth have six new dancers, while Five Rivers, formed in 2010, have seven new members. He said: “Sheffield is particularly healthy. It is not a massive growth but there is a bit of a surge of interest in places. From what I have seen from the people that we have had, it is as a result of an enforced period of inactivity, sitting at home and people have reassessed and said ‘I will go and try new things’.

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“I think the appeal is that it is a complete hobby; it combines the fitness and stamina of a sports team; the sense of satisfaction and pride of performing arts; and the socialising and camaraderie of a social club. There’s also the opportunity to attend festivals and events around the country and be part of a friendly, diverse and thriving community – none more so than here in Sheffield.”

Handsworth Sword Dancers have six new members as Sheffield looks to be one of the most active cities for Morris Dancing. Sheffield has around 20 active teams and 46 new members have joined.

Other Sheffield teams include Pecsaetan Morris, formed in 2001, who welcomed five new members and Harthill Morris, formed in the 1970s, who attracted six new dancers. The past few years has also seen several new teams form. Sheffield University Morris, based at the University of Sheffield Students’ Union, has been introducing students to morris dancing and Sheffield City Women, formed as a companion team to Sheffield City Morris, formed just prior to the pandemic.

Kelham Island Rapper joined Sheffield Steel Rapper in representing the fast and furious Northumberland ‘rapper’ sword dancing in the city, while in 2021, Cutlers Gate Morris, who perform dances from the English-Welsh border, formed and are practising in Woodhouse.

Simon Brock, captain of Handsworth Sword Dancers, added: “We’ve been amazed at the interest. What’s been particularly striking is the diversity of recruits and motivations for joining.

“One joined because his grandad and great-grandad danced with the side, while we have also members from Iran, Peru and Croatia who want to have a go at an English tradition.”

Sheffield City Morris dancers. The group is one of the newer ones to have formed across the city.

The 2020 ‘Morris Census’, surveyed teams across the UK, finding a rise of almost 800 dancers since 2014.

There are more than 900 morris teams in the UK and if the recent rise in Sheffield was mirrored across the country there could be almost 2,000 new dancers. There are 100 sides in the USA, healthy representation in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, as well as teams in Japan, Hong Kong, Netherlands and Finland.