top of page


Autumn 2023

preservation of fire

a conversation with Boss Morris

Screenshot 2023-11-17 at 08.21.52.png

Boss Morris is an all-female Morris dancing collective based in Stroud, Gloucestershire. This Autumn we caught up with them to talk about their radical approach to English Folk heritage and how it feels to make toddlers cry. (This interview is comprised of all of their voices, collectively known here as BOSS)

Melissa Chambers for The Signal House Edition: Morris dancing has ancient origins, what were the origins of it for you? How did the group form?

Boss Morris: Our own ancient origins were in 2015, when the original members of Boss met through mutual work in the creative industries. The group was founded by Alex Merry alongside her sister Kate (who now heads up The Wad in Falmouth); Alex previously danced with the Belles of London City and on moving back to Stroud, wanted to continue dancing.


We’re a tight knit group, and have all been drawn into Boss for a number of different reasons. The underlying thread that we have in common is of course a mutual interest in folk, but also an abundance of creativity, and a want to breathe a new life into the tradition.

TSHE: For our international readers who have never seen a Morris dance, can you describe to us the basic features of the dance? Which Morris tradition do you dance (broadly speaking).


BM: Our dances are in the Cotswold tradition, which is often very light on the feet with lots of skips and steps keeping rhythm to the music, and ‘hays’ which create swirling shapes and patterns which fill the space. We dance using hankies flicked high into the air, or adorned hazel sticks clashing above our heads.

You’ll see most Cotswold Morris sides dancing with the double step, a ‘one-two one-one’ alternating from the right foot to the left (left, right, left, left), which makes up the majority of the dances. Morris dancing is a bit like lego - once you have the building blocks of the stepping and the figures then most new dances we tackle can fall into place, it’s such a great feeling when that happens.


The real brain-melting moments come when penning our own dances. We recently worked with the wonderful Laurel Swift to create a dance to the gorgeous tune ‘Bonnets So Blue’. The dance came together beautifully, but once we began practising and overthinking each movement and step, it began to falter. It’s almost as if you need to allow the movement to wash over and work through you, a bit like being in a flow state - that’s when the dances work best.

TSHE: You’re an all female group. There’s historical evidence of Morris dancing dating back to the 15th century but the modern revival of it seems to have started in around 1899. Interestingly the first recorded Morris performance in London consisted of all women, but over the 19th and 20th centuries Morris dancing teams appear to have become predominately male. What caused this gender imbalance do you think?


BM: It’s hard to say for certain, but it’s difficult to deny that there does seem to be a preconception of those outside of morris that it is for a certain type of person. Most people have a vision in mind when they imagine a morris dancer.

With regards to a gender imbalance, this isn’t necessarily the case with the sides which we’ve met and danced with - most have been mixed, and there are some fantastic female sides around the country who have been dancing for a long, long time.

Perhaps from such strong roots the women of morris were pigeonholed into that age-old structure of unconscious oppression; women have historically had to fight a little harder for their voices to be heard. Even when the Women’s Morris Federation (now simply the Morris Federation) was started in the mid 1970s it was met with hostility from those questioning the ‘historical validity’ of female morris dancing. The most recent development came in 2018 when the Morris Ring officially voted to allow women to join. This wasn’t exactly met with mutual celebration from the whole of the morris community.


In the last week or so Brighton Morris Men have dropped the ‘Men’ from their name in an effort to be more inclusive of non-binary and trans people in a mostly male dominated space, which we think is fantastic. The tide is turning, albeit slowly, but still in the right direction.

TSHE: How does the popularity of Boss Morris sit with the traditional Morris men? Has there been a reaction?


BM: Not a reaction as such, there’s been a couple of comments regarding what we wear and how our dancing is ‘surprisingly’ good, but overall it has been positive.

TSHE: Are you breaking any cardinal Morris rules with your dances? Is there such a thing as a Morris rule?

BM: This depends on which camp you fall into - there are those who want to preserve the dances as they were recorded in the early 20th century, and those who want to see them develop. You can probably guess which side of the fence we’re on. In our opinion, who needs rules? Traditions are made to evolve. These dances have descended generations through word of mouth, often with a skipped step, a different arm movement or a crooked foot here and there.


Each village has its own trademark move for each dance - Bledington dances, for example, hold the arms upright very rigid by the sides, whereas Fieldtown is a waftier, gentler hanky movement. This difference in tradition throughout the Cotswold Morris leaves it open to interpretation. Tradition by its very nature works its way through each generation picking up bits and pieces of each person who has hopped their way through each movement; there’s a trace of each person’s step in the dances. Boss have developed small quirks here and there which are unnoticeable except to those outside the group. It’s instinctive!


As Mahler said, “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”

TSE: You’ve performed everywhere from church fetes in Gloucester to this year's Brit awards (alongside Wet Leg). It seems like there’s a real appetite for the Boss Morris vibe, a kind of mystical, playful Englishness at a kind of confusing time for that idea nationally. What does ‘Englishness’ mean to you?


BM: We like this idea of a playful type of Englishness. It’s interesting that the zeitgeist of this particular moment seems to be a resurgence in folklore, as people turn to things which are unaffected by outside factors. It’s a history and cultural identity which ignores political change, it’s always been here and always will be.


The collective national identity which we have all been given in recent years by austerity politics and global events sits somewhat uncomfortably with how we’re feeling now - perhaps this resurgence in the search for a deeper national voice has risen as an antithesis to a harmful nationalism. To be English, or proud to be English, is to walk a tightrope between two ideologies where one can so easily slip into another.


When thinking of things which are traditionally, quintessentially, ‘English’, it typically conjures up stale stereotypes which are a hangover of our colonial past. It’s not surprising that in the 21st century Britain people are trying to move away from this idea that being English is all about union jack bunting and cups of tea, not that there is anything inherently wrong with this, but there is something deeper at work, something lurking beneath the earth which is primordial; an idea that transcends wealth, class and race - a more ancient sense of place and purpose.

TSHE: What does ‘folk culture’ mean to you? And what do you think it means in 21st century England?


BM: As we embrace a more ancient sense of identity, so comes a want to connect with the land.

A lot of the way in which people connect with nature and with other people has changed dramatically since the pandemic. Since 2020, there’s definitely been a cultural shift of getting back in touch with what surrounds us - a rewilding, getting back to nature, a softness almost, a very gentle connection to the land itself and the ritualistic cycles of nature which dictate our lives.

There was a bit of a cheesy quote by the scientist Neil DeGrasse-Tyson which popped up on Instagram recently which sums this up pretty well: “We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.”

TSHE: Morris dancing references seasons a lot and also place, a particular move, as you’ve said, might be associated with a particular village for instance. You are all based in Stroud, Gloucester. Does anything about your dancing reflects the community that you live in?

BM: As we mentioned before we’ve been working on a Boss tradition of dances, which we hope will be passed down to the new generation of morris dancers who come after us. A more tangible link to Stroud is paid homage in our costumes - this area is famous for its wool, which is still made here today. Woollen cloth for soldiers' uniforms was made and pegged out across the common land on the hills to dry, a visual we referenced in an abstract painted pattern on one of our costumes. We also have ponchos made out of tennis ball wool made here in Stroud, although we haven’t worn them in a while as they are quite an alarming shade of yellow, and a bit itchy.

TSHE: Alongside the dancing is an extraordinary array of folk inspired costuming (post-folk… Po-fo?), face painting and hand made creatures the you dance alongside. Who creates all of it?


We love a bit of the ol’ razzle dazzle. It truly is a collaborative effort between the whole group, as we’re blessed to be such a talented bunch individually and all bring a different perspective to the costume and beasts etc. It would be a lie to say that we can all agree on an idea straight away, but that is definitely part of the process, and means that we have something at the end which we’re all happy and comfortable to dance in. 

Tell us about the beasts.
We have quite a menagerie of beasts these days - Hooty the owl, Ewegenie the sheep, Capri Horns the goat, a donkey simply known as ASS, a minotaur, Sweet Red Onion our pouty-lipped Boss babe, and Aello Trunkles, a harpy with a hooked nose and a very impressive set of blue boobs.


A lot of them were conjured up and created by Alex, with Hooty owing life to Maddy and Aello to Rhia (of not-for-profit folk arts collective Weven and Mila (who heads up the brilliant Mussi Knit). They create quite a stir when accompanying us to dances out and festivals. It’s such a thrill to make a child cry by simply wearing a goat’s head and prancing about.


TSHE: Finish this sentence: “Without ritual our lives would be….”


BM: Untethered and adrift from the very essence of what makes us human. Ritual is in our everyday lives. A morning cup of coffee can be a special ritual if your perspective will allow.

BOSS MORRIS is an all-female Morris dancing collective based in Stroud, Gloucestershire. It was founded with the aim of bringing a fresh & energetic perspective to traditional English Morris dancing. The group performs a vibrant & playful style of dancing, characterised by intricate footwork, bright costumes & jingling bells. Boss Morris is dedicated to promoting the cultural heritage of Morris dancing & making it accessible to all. WEBSITE | INSTAGRAM | THE WAD | WEVEN | MUSSI KNIT

Photographs (top - bottom, L - R) by 1. Becky Morris Knight (website), 2. Aloha Bonser-Shaw (website), 3. Gareth Iwan Jones (website), 4. Simon Pizzey (website), 5. Gareth Iwan Jones, 6. Jonathan Cherry (website), 7. Gareth Iwan Jones, 8. Electra Bruce-Smith (Instagram), 8. Aloha Bonser-Shaw.

bottom of page