Thursday, July 11, 2013

Starting a Morris Side

This post is a little different - it's not about history. It's about modern folk dance, and me experimenting with a tradition that has its roots in the fifteenth century. I look forward to getting to the point where I'm going to be able to tell you something about what the first couple hundred years of morris dance history were like, but right now all the information I can find is confusing and contradictory. (Best guess: "morris" was a catch-all term for performance dances done in disguise, some of them sword dances, some related to modern morris traditions, and some something else entirely. But I can't back up that hypothesis at present.)

Anyhow, I'm starting a sword and morris dance side, mostly out of a desire to learn more about this family of dances. We're dancing in for the first time on Saturday.

There are several kinds of morris dance done today. Cotswold morris (which originates in southwestern England) is the best-known, and appears to have great similarity to a style described by Ben Jonson in the 1630s. The dancers, who typically wear white, have pads with bells on them strapped to their chins. They perform an energetic but formal dance with a verse-chorus structure, usually for a set of six dancers. The verses consist of a prescribed set of actions that are the same for every dance within a particular village's tradition, while the chorus is unique to a particular dance. The dancers usually carry either sticks or handkerchiefs, which are clashed together or waved around during the chorus section. Modern revival sides often consist only of dancers and musicians, but it used to be the norm for them to be accompanied by a fool, and often a hobby-horse. (These characters are fascinating and merit their own blog post sometime when I have had a chance to learn more about them and their traditional performance styles.)

Northwest morris, also called clog morris, is a more recent variant of Cotswold morris in which the dancers may or may not carry any props, and tend to wear clogs, permitting stepping choruses which resemble other forms of step dance. Not a lot of information is easily available about this style, which is less than a century old and still very much in development. Molly dancing, originating in Cambridgeshire, is likewise hard to find as much information about. It is performed by men in tacky clothing, classically of a sort intended for women (hence the name).

Border morris (from the Shropshire, Herefordshire, and Worcestershire regions), however, is the style I'm going to be starting out with as a focus. In some ways, it resembles Cotswold stick dancing, though the style is much earthier and it is often danced with greater vigor. Unlike a Cotswold dance, however, each border dance has its own unique verses as well as a unique chorus. (Typically the first verse will be a half-verse of "once to yourself," where the dancers stand and may tap their sticks in time while the music plays - a common introduction in other styles also - followed by "rounds," in which the dancers go about in a circle before settling into their positions for the first chorus, but there are exceptions.) The dancers' faces are often disguised (most commonly through the use of black makeup, though for obvious reasons American sides usually stay away from that particular stylistic choice), and traditionally they wear jackets covered in strips of cloth called "tatters."

Border morris, unlike Cotswold, is not something that underwent a revival while the tradition was still vibrant. Rather, the old dances were mostly lost and poorly documented, and as a result when the tradition started to come back in the 1960s most sides found they had to write new ones. While there are a few old dances still being performed within this style, the vast majority of those performed are under half a century in age. For instance, the first dance my group is going to work on, "the Drunken Idiot" (chosen because it's for a set of just four dancers and I'm not sure how many people will be able to make it to our first practice), was composed by an American side in 1997. Despite this recent history, there is a definite continuity in the tradition going back at least to the seventeenth century - but like most continuity in folk customs, it's a matter of one thing evolving into another until it no longer looks like the original. Unlike most of what I describe on this blog, we're not currently looking at the early manifestations. Given my interests, however, it's only a matter of time; look for posts about the early history of morris dancing as soon as I know enough to write them.

Starting a morris side without direct contact from experienced dancers who can lead us (an unfortunate result of the fact that the nearest other group doing morris of any sort is three hours' drive away) is a special challenge. I've had a bit of luck so far asking for advice on a morris dance e-mail list, including offers from people within driving range to run a workshop for us once or twice as we're getting off the ground, along with tips about what to pay attention to when I watch good morris dancers on YouTube. Still, it's a daunting prospect; my request for advice touched off a discussion of the question of whether there can be any real substitute for in-person instruction, and I'm firmly on the side of those who answered no.

Another part of the challenge, of course, is that for the moment I'm doing all the support work myself, as coordinator and host of practices, researcher and teacher of dances, player of music. Many teams prefer a bit more division of labor, something I hope to emulate once I have a well-engaged team of dancers. (I'm also definitely hoping I'll have musicians aside from myself - I want a chance to dance, after all, though I'm certainly willing to play at least as often.)

Sometime down the line, once real progress has been made, I'll post more about how this project is going, especially as we get into more historically-relevant dancing.

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