Traditional Morris dancers or 'racist and insensitive?'

A group of traditional Morris dancers were "forced to abandon" a city centre performance on Saturday after they were threatened and accused of being racist for painting their faces black.

Witnesses claim the group, from Alvechurch, were heckled and threatened by a minority of onlookers during performances on Corporation Street and New Street near the Bullring.

The dancers were one of more than a dozen Morris groups who were in the city centre on Saturday to celebrate Plough Monday – the traditional start of the agricultural year.

Witnesses claim the Alvechurch group arrived at 11am and had performed without incident in pubs, to groups of local and visiting football fans and to the majority of shoppers.

A source close to the group said:

The Alvechurch group held a similar event last week after more than 100 villagers watched their New Year’s Day performance.

The dance group, dressed in black and with black painted faces, gave a traditional rendition of a mummers play where they slayed a dragon to crowds outside the Crown Inn pub.

The historical dancers, who formed a group in 1989, perform centuries-old dances including the White Ladies Aston, the Dilwyn, The Evesham Stick Dance and the Bromsberrow Heath.

Credit: BPM.

Morris dancers have performed with black face make-up since the origins of the dancing tradition in the 16th century. Known as "Border Morris" the tradition sees performers wearing black paint in order to disguise themselves.

One theory is that it started when impoverished 16th century farm workers had to conceal their faces to avoid being recognised while begging during winter, as asking for money was illegal.

Shrewsbury Folk Festival bosses announced last year that it will no longer book acts who wear full black face paint.

Equality group Fairness, Respect, Equality Shropshire (Fresh) said the ban showed sensitivity “to a changed social climate”. But Morris dancers say there were “no racial connotations” and they had “never wanted to upset people”.