In Brief

Black-face Morris dancers heckled in Birmingham

Group deny accusations of racism after being threatened for wearing traditional costume

A troupe of Morris dancers was forced to abandon a performance in Birmingham after being heckled and threatened by onlookers who accused them of racism.

Dancers from the Alvechurch Morris, who belong to a tradition that performs in black face paint and ragged clothing, were reportedly accosted near the city's Bullring shopping complex on Saturday after performing in several pubs without incident.

A source close to the group told The Times they were "roundly abused and threatened with violence" and that some onlookers responded by "jumping in-between the dancers and knocking off their hats".

The source added: "One lady was particularly angry and a group of young men started to become very abusive and confrontational, accusing them of being racists, which of course they are not.

"The dancers tried to explain why their faces were painted black but they would not listen. Things took such a turn for the worse that the performances had to be abandoned."

The incident is the latest controversy in the long-running debate on whether it is appropriate for white Morris dancers to perform in black face paint, which many observers find reminiscent of the offensive caricatures of blackface minstrels.

Defenders say Morris men have been blacking up since the 1500s and so the tradition long predates the minstrel shows of 19th century America.

However, others say the term "Morris" comes from "Moorish", a historic name for the people of North Africa. While this might simply reference the exotic nature of the dance, some scholars suggest participants originally blacked up in imitation of the Moors.

Other theories say black face paint was intended to ward off evil spirits or to disguise the dancers as miners or beggars.

Writing in The Guardian after David Cameron posed with blacked-up Morris men in 2014, Lola Okolosie argued a "kneejerk reaction" condemning the practice as racist would negate its complex history and only "serve to strengthen the anti-PC/Ukip contingent that is so quick to feel beleaguered".

However, she added it was equally disingenuous to ignore the "obvious tension between the ritual and its modern-day connotations".

While many folklorists argue the tradition is innocent, some see it as incompatible with modern sensibilities. The Shrewsbury Folk Festival announced last year that it would no longer book dancers who wear full black face paint.

The equality group Fairness, Respect, Equality Shropshire said the ban showed sensitivity "to a changed social climate", reports the Times.

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