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Morris Dancers face being banned from performing in blackface after shocked rambler, 28, complained

A troupe of Morris Dancers could be banned from performing in blackface after a shocked woman came upon a centuries-old festival in a Yorkshire Dales town and reported it to the Mayor. 

Katie Kedward, 28, from Leeds, was on a walking tour in the Dales when she chanced upon the Morris dancers taking part in the four-day festival in the town of Settle. 

She said that, as a person of colour, the performance left her uncomfortable and she reported the troupe to the town’s Mayor. 

Mayor Dan Balsamini, has joined the protests after shoppers saw the Morris men and women prancing in the market square with their faces dyed black.

The Morris Dancing troupe may be forced to stop performing in blackface after the backclash

Ms Kedward said: ‘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.

‘It was not something I thought I would ever see in England nowadays.

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

Several Morris troupes were performing in an area laid out for them, and ‘one or two’ teams were in blackface, she said.

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.’

Instead, she wrote to the council, whose assistant town clerk 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.  

Katie Kedward, 28, from Leeds, was on a walking tour in the Dales when she chanced upon the Morris dancers taking part in the four-day festival in the town of Settle

Katie Kedward, 28, from Leeds, was on a walking tour in the Dales when she chanced upon the Morris dancers taking part in the four-day festival in the town of Settle

Mayor Dan Balsamini said: ‘Personally, I would not want to see anything like that in Settle again.

‘I don’t care if it’s traditional – it’s culturally insensitive and not very progressive.

‘These people were not from Settle. Maybe it’s acceptable in their towns, but not here.’

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

But the troupe has been defended by TV and radio comedian and singer Mike Harding, who is artistic director of Settle’s annual Folk Gathering.

‘It’s as traditional as the flowery hats on the Costswold Morris dancers’ he said.

‘It’s got nothing to do with the Black and White Minstrel Show.’

Mike 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, said 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 said.

‘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 of England, 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 craze for performing minstrels. 


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