A group of traditional Morris dancers have been forced to abandon a performance after passers-by, mostly a group of Asian youths, objected to the dancers’ use of black face paint as part of their costume.
In an incident in Birmingham’s Bullring shopping centre, a group of dancers from nearby Alvechurch were forced to leave after the youths knocked their hats off and verbally abused them. A young Asian man was caught on camera insisting: “This is racist. […] Do you not think you’ll hurt someone’s feelings? I am one of those people. Explain yourself.”
The group was one of five Morris troops celebrating Plough Monday, the traditional start of the agricultural year, by dancing down Corporation Street and New Street in the city centre on Saturday.
Unlike their fellow dancers, the Alvechurch group chose to perform with their faces painted black – a style known as ‘Border Morris’, dating back to the 16th century origins of the dance. It is thought that the face paint, far from being an allusion to black people, was originally a form of disguise.
A source close to the group told ITV: “The atmosphere had been great with the vast majority of people, but I was absolutely amazed by the vitriolic abuse they started to receive.
“One lady was particularly angry and a group of young men started to become very abusive and confrontational, accusing them of being racists.
“They started jumping in between the dancers and knocking off their hats. The dancers tried to explain why their faces were painted black, but they would not listen.”
The editor of the Birmingham Mail, Mark Reeves, told Talk2Me Radio there was “clearly” a “cultural misunderstanding because people didn’t understand the culture of what they were seeing.”
However, he declined to ascribe that “to one particular group or another” although he agreed that it “seems to [have been]” ethnic minority people who objected to the event.
A poll run by the Mail on its website found that just 18 per cent of readers found the Morris dancers’ costume offensive, while the overwhelming majority had no problem with it.
One reader commented: “Such a shame our traditions are being shunned. This is a performance based on history and not racism. These guys were trying to entertain people not offend.”
Last August the Alvechurch group were told by Shrewsbury Folk Festival, one of Britain’s largest folk festivals, that they will not be welcome at this year’s festivities unless they abandon their traditional make-up, as the organisers were fearful of causing offence.
Social justice group Fairness, Respect, Equality Shropshire (FRESh), who pushed for the ban, welcomed the decision saying: “We entirely understand the argument from Morris dancing communities that this is something that goes back to tradition.
“However, there are other ways of celebrating this other than blacking up, which has very strong connotations of racism.”