The Origins of Morris Dancing

When you're out in the world Morris Dancing, everyone asks what you're doing. Actually, more typically people ask "What country is this from?" but I don't know what that means. In any case, this past weekend I witnessed the following exchange between elderly spectator to the foreman of a certain New York City Men's Team as the tour was moving between stands:

Spectator: What is this and where is it from?

J.D.: It's English Morris Dancing, do you know what that is?

Spectator: No.

J.D.: Do you care?

Spectator (pauses, unsure of how to continue) Yes, is it like cricket or football?

J.D. Cricket.

(At this point the spectator continued about his way satisfied and the tour continued to the next stand.)

This exchange, as these usually go, was pretty good. And the cricket part is totally right. There's actually, as I understand it, a lot of connection between the history of cricket and Morris Dancing: village's teams would play cricket and dance Morris, Morris Kits were often cricket uniforms with ribbons and bells, and before cricket, most Morris dancers wore black pants.


Maple Morris Review

A few weekends ago, I went to very weird get together. The week before I went to upstate New York to a festival that drew 5000 attendees. Then, I went to Washington, DC to dance with 24 or 25 other people from across the country and Canada. I think of it as "my generation," Morris dance gathering.

This May marks my 10th anniversary of being a Morris dancer. I've spent most of that time, easily being twenty years away from the next-youngest Morris dancer on my team. Morris isn't aging quite that fast: but there are a lot of quirky things that happen given the small sample sizes.

I've been involved in the folk world for years. Lots of folk dance and traditional music. I'm so accustomed to this, that I'm not really sure what people who aren't do with their time. When I think about other communities, I always reach back to experiences and phenomena that I've seen in the folk world.

While I grew up in the folk dance world, I'm coming to terms with a couple of things: First, folk communities are different in different parts of the country/world, and the community in Boston (or New York, or Philadelphia) is very different from what I grew up with. Second, I'm realizing that while I'm "a young person" who grew up with music and dance, I'm no longer "a folk dance kid," (and that's a nifty thing to experience.)

Given this, I've had the following Morris related thoughts, that seem worth recording:

  • It's really nice to be part of a single age cohort in this activity, mostly because I've not had significant opportunity to dance with people in my general age group.
  • I quite enjoy being more than just a familiar face in a contra dance line, or someone that you see across the square when singing sacred harp.
  • These weekends always challenge me to be a better dancer, and make me realize that I need to focus and work on certain aspects of my dancing.
  • While it's in-ideal to have gatherings capped at really small numbers, having a small group means a greater strength of connection between everyone, and it means that a few people can do the organizing work without much institutional/organizational overhead. That's really cool.
  • Once again, my motto is "you don't have to do everything." Which is particularly difficult around Morris. But I think by avoiding overdoing it I'm able to: avoid injury and have greater successes at the things I do try. Can't argue with that. I'm young and I hope to dance for many years to come, and there'll be time enough for Sherborne then.

Dance Flurry, Review

I went to the Dance Flurry a couple of weeks ago (!) and I wanted to write a few notes here about the experience, and a little bit of reflection. I hope you'll spare me the indulgence.

A year ago, I was pretty new to the East Coast: I didn't really know people, and while I'd been dancing for a while and I wasn't a bad dancer by any means, but I wasn't quite comfortable in my own skin in big dance events.

This year, many things were different. I'd been to a number of other important regional events: I knew more people, I knew the bands and the callers, I knew the venue, and I knew what to expect.

It was great. I got to dance with friends that I hadn't seen in months. I got to dance to great bands. The callers were top notch, and there was never a shortage of great ways to spend my time.

My motto for the weekend was "you don't have to do everything." Which meant not staying until 1am, just because there was a dance going on; or not showing up at 9am because that's when things started. Prevailing sanity is an amazing thing.

It meant that I didn't hurt myself; I didn't come back from the vacation more tired than I was when I left; and I still had a great time.

It's amazing.

A Flurry of Contra Dance

I went to a Dance festival a few weeks ago, and wanted to collect, as I am wont to do, some thoughts on the subject. No particular order or organization.

There was a sacred harp singing event at the festival, and then a group of us had a little ad hoc sacred harp session in a hallway (better acoustics) afterwords and the next day. The end result: I feel like I'm starting to really have a clue about Sacred Harp singing. I mean I'm not great or anything, but I don't feel epically lost at a singing. Because I don't come from a particularly background, and don't have any real training with the singing thing, singing from the Sacred Harp has been an adventure. But now I sort of feel like I have the basics: I'm able to get the pitch most of the time. I feel like I have a good sense of myself as a leader and the kinds of songs I like. I'm beginning to become more familiar with a number of different songs in the book, and so forth. I don't have the shapes memorized (or the middle verses to most songs!) but these things are coming.

It was also a very rewarding experience to be part of a group of singers who did that--for lack of a better term--jamming in the hallway. I don't play an instrument, I don't really lead songs in informal settings, so the whole "jamming in the hallway thing" is something I've never really been able to participate in. And getting the chance to do that was pretty cool.

But it was a dance festival. So how was the dancing? Pretty good. the space sucked (bad floor,) but the quality of the dance was wonderful. Contra-dancing in the Midwest, where I hail from, isn't the hip musically experimental thing that it is out here. Part of that is due to the incredibly strong Old-time music community in St. Louis, which isn't a good thing (even the less amazing contra bands in St. Louis are pretty damn good.) And there are a lot of factors that make contra dancing awesome out here: open/participatory bands as musical training grounds, more bands that travel (because things are closer together,) and more dancers that travel as well. That's always nice.

Having said that, I've never really felt like a contra dancer. In high school, when I got into folk dance, I did a lot of international folk dance, and I think my defining folk-dance participation these days is Morris dancing, even though I probably do more contra than anything these days. When you're a kid in the dance community, particularly one of the few kids in your local dance community you can pretty much glide through everything on enthusiasm and good intentions. While I think I've learned a few things about folk dance, I'm aware that I'm not the flashiest, or the most polished dancer around. This is particularly apparent at big dance festivals. But I got to dance with people who I think of as great dancers, and I had a lot of fun, so maybe it all works out. And then I went to a local dance and felt like a great dancer, particularly in terms of my ability to gracefully recover from flubs, and my sense of a dance's relative complexity. So there you have it.

Things that are awesome about contra dance:

  • Gender swapping partners in a dance. Particularly when everyone can go with the flow.
  • Dips.
  • Long rooms where you don't get to the other end of the set in a given dance.
  • Bands with awesome elements like foot percussion and woodwinds.
  • Changing lines when you get to the other end of the dance.
  • Rewriting a dance from the dance floor. Partner do si dos that become balance and swings. Shadow alamandes that become swings.
  • Spins with your neighbor's partner in the middle of heys for four.
  • Conspiring with your partner to mess with neighbors.
  • Graceful recoveries from dance flubs.

Onward and Upward!

Midwest Morris Ale Round Up

I wrote a post about the 2008 midwest morris ale as a series of vignettes of great moments and memories from that ale.

This year I don't have quite the same kinds of stories, or new stories, really: /home/tychoish/websites/ ~/writing/ - There was a killer cool ad-hoc set of "Queen's Delight," (Bucknell) my ongoing favorite dance. I handpicked the set, after the organized portion of tour ended, and we did well. Very fun.

  • During dinner Sunday night, there was a little ad-hoc moment were a bunch of people sang some songs in a hallway with good acoustics. This is one of my favorite things to happen on, and it's hard to plan, and you just have to be lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Songs sung included the ever favorite "Let Union Be In All Our Hearts," and (at my request, mostly) "When we Go Rolling Home/Round Goes the Wheel of Fourtuine." Brilliance.
  • There a dance called "Flowers of Edinburgh" (something more or less like this, except we do double time and current midwestern trends in the Bampton tradition are a bit different.) Anyway, while the choreography is simple, the dance is physically challenging in the extreme. It's one of those dances that doesn't get done much in daylight. In anycase, someone came up to me and said "Sam! we should do flowers!" and I of course said yes, and both did the dance and called it. My legs are still sore from the experience, as I think there are several muscle groups that humans only need to do this dance, and to do nothing else. In any case, I find this disturbing/hilarious mostly because I've become the guy you go to when you want to do this dance. Sigh.
  • On the injury front, I think I'm doing pretty good, and I definitely think that all of the exercise and stuff I did this year has helped my ability to dance better/longer, in pretty noticeable ways. I wasn't totally unharmed: I basically used up my voice too quickly (calling dances, singing), and I sprained my knee (or something) fairly seriously on the last night doing Queen's Delight (again), which put the kibosh on my dancing. Thankfully that happened near the end, and I hope a few days of rest, stretching, ice, and anti-inflammatories will have me back in dancing condition.

Spending a weekend away with "my people," people I don't get to see very much, was (and is) an incredibly powerful experience. I think that many folks have "going and hanging out with our peeps" moments (academic conferences, science fiction conversions, various retreats) and beyond this comparison I don't have a very good way of articulating why this Morris Dance gathering I do is so amazing for me.

In other news, I'll be putting some videos up on YouTube and flickr in the next few days that my mother took. So stay tuned for that, and I'll get back to (and continue) to post things here.


happy mayday

Happy May Day Folks!

Chances are when you're reading this I've already been to dance the sun up this year (so if the sun's up, you're welcome).

In honor of this, I present to you a Morris Dance Video that I quite enjoy.

Notice a few things:

  • Mixed set. Looks great. All you nay sayers who think "Morris should be danced in single-sex teams?" Wrong.
  • Morris need not be done to English tunes. There is latitude here for some creativity, even in the Cotswold tradition.
  • Although in the midwest, we are prone to judging the tradition of Bleddington as being particularly challenging and exuberant given the awesomeness of the Ramsey's Braggarts team. While it's not a sedate tradition like, say Fieldtown, there aren't really sedate Morris Dance traditions, Bleddington can be enjoyed less exuberantly.

And of course, the first half of what remains my favorite morris dance ever, done last year by a Toronto team, Queen's Delight: