©05 The Media Desk
It is a terrible deficiency.
Once again The First State has been left out.
They do it in Rhode Island and in Texas. California seems to be thick with them. There are several in New Jersey and Virginia and a couple in Florida. Pennsylvania has at least one, as does Alaska. And in Massachusetts there are so many of them they are probably tripping over each other. They even do it in West Virginia.
What is it?
In Short: Groups of people, the Morris Side, formerly all men, dress in bright costumes and perform traditional English (and other) folk dances to live music. While it had been a dying art it has been revived and may now be more popular than ever. The origin of the name 'Morris' itself is lost to antiquity, although several explanations exist for it, none are overly satisfactory.
The tradition started in England and some other areas in Europe, and dates from the dark days of Roman occupation and maybe before. It has been cited as a fertility ritual, or to drive out evil spirits, or even just to earn the dancers some free drinks at the pub.
It involves, as does that curious Philadelphia tradition of Mummery (see below), people (usually men) dressing up in more or less colorful costumes, and dancing around to quite lively music being provided by fiddles, accordions, pipes, drums and other instruments. But there the similarities end for the most part. The Morris dance itself is often very energetic and almost acrobatic. As the dancers often wear bells and carry rattles and sticks with which to make even more noise the result can sometimes be called a cacophony. But if it is truly Morris, it would be an enthusiastic one.
The Morris Side's costumes are usually based on a white outfit with sometimes brilliantly colored accessories such as ribbons and flowers and hats that sometimes defy description. (One British Side was reported as wearing gardens on their heads.) The musicians are often dressed in similar garb. And sometimes the dancers are accompanied by masked or made up characters depicting a fool or jester and a beast or demon.
You've probably noticed the overuse of modifiers in the above paragraphs: 'usually', 'often', 'sometimes'. This is intentional.
That is Morris.
There is no 'Gospel of Morris Dancing'. No International Code to follow. No rule like the America's Cup 12 Meter Formula to follow [see Desk 12m article]. If the local club decided to do something, they do it. Sometimes to the absolute consternation of other clubs, like when several mainstream teams began to allow women to dance. Or the use of taped music instead of live musicians. Or a dramatic change to a centuries old traditional costume. It is all Morris.
While there are several 'federations' with international reach, they have no power to tell a local side 'lose the electric guitar'. They might throw the local club out of the federation, and then the local club can start its own federation of clubs that allow women to dance while playing the electric guitar on tape.
And that has happened. That's where one of the larger international organizations came from. Well, it wasn't over the electric guitar, but... nevermind.
The Morris Federation began in the 1970's as the popularity of women dancers boomed and some of the more traditional groups balked at women joining and dancing with some clubs and even forming entire teams of their own. In 1975 it was founded as the Women's Morris Federation, then in 1980 they opened it up to mixed sides and basically never looked back.
There is also the Morris Ring, founded in 1934 of all male dance groups, which it seems to still be. And the Open Morris which allows mixes groups as well.
There are also Morris organizations promoting the tradition in the US (well over a hundred active groups) and Canada as well as New Zealand and other countries.
Now. About the dancers and the dance itself.
The DANCE is Morris. And Morris is the Dance.
Nice circular reasoning there.
And they do dance in circles. Unless they don't.
In the UK- If you are in one part of Wales, the Glorishears (all women) dance a traditional English dance with hankies and sticks. South of London the Brighton Men dance in several styles including their own unique Lewes style. In the north central part of the island the Ripon City Morris style is from Lancashire and Cheshire with heavier clogs stomping on the pavement in time to the dance music.
The same goes for the 'kit', the costume the group wears in performance. Traditionally, for what that is worth, the primary color is white. But if you are in New Hampshire in the US and watching the Jack in the Green dancers, they're as green as a pack of Leprechauns, appropriate given the 'Green Mountain Boys' history of the region. The Blue Ox team in Minnesota wears biker chains. Oregon's Renegade Rose Morris wears eye popping reds and blacks. Usually there is a story or tradition behind the costumes, sometimes there isn't.
The motions, formations and movements of the dance do have some history going back to olden days.
Some of them have been handed down, more or less unchanged, since the 1500's. They celebrate planting and harvest. They incite good weather, or ward off pests. Some commemorate a particular battle, or in at least one case, a favorite pub in a hotel that had closed.
To say every dance has historical or cultural significance would be reading too much into it. Some they do simply because they are fun or it was written by a member. Others show off particular skills of the members or are aimed to please the audience with a lot of flashy action.
They do some that tell tales: some humorous, others tragic, both truthful and tall. Or they render a short play into music and dance. A few sides sing or chant, others don't.
Some teams, particularly those with strong Irish and Scottish traditions incorporate other folk dances such as the Sword Dance or various jigs. Others do English Garland dances with flowered arches in procession.
The only way to appreciate Morris Dancing is to see them in action.
Many sides perform at events like Renaissance Fairs or local festivals and historical events.
Following this article are several outside links for more information.
And now a question that Must be asked... really, it must.
Are Morris Dancing and Mummery as practiced in Philadelphia and Mardi Gras from New Orleans Related?
Well... looking back, you have to answer with a qualified 'Yes'.
In Short: Mummers appear to be a uniquely Philadelphian tradition but there are somewhat similar practices on a much smaller scale by different names in a few other places. Mummers dress in outrageous colorful and usually feather laden and sequined costumes and play stringed and woodwind instruments while performing in various formations or while 'strutting' (marching). The acts sometimes involve skits and short plays staged with portable set pieces and props. Their primary performance day is January 1.Both traditions can be traced more or less along similar paths to ancient pagan feasts and customs involving fertility and the god Saturn and so on right along with the Morris dancers.
Also: Mardi Gras An Americanized version of the Rio de Janeiro Carnival to mark the beginning of Lent. The various Krewes stage separately organized parades through their cities, most famously but not exclusively New Orleans, to unveil their Royalty and often these days celebrities brought in for the occasion. The Krewes bestow gifts on the parade watchers in the form of inexpensive beads and other trinkets and sometimes candy or fruit. Krewe members also wear elaborate costumes and masks they also make and use fantastically ornate floats in their prades.
As to when the various groups don their headgear and go about their business is where the traditions seem to have diverged.
Some have attached themselves to Religious Holidays, as Mardi Gras (or Carnival in South America) is observed the day before Lent begins. Others, as the Morris Teams, don't need a special day to dress up and dance.
Thusly the Mardi Gras costumes and floats as well as the New Years Day processional can be far more involved and elaborate, and expensive, than something you are liable to be breaking out and using a couple of times a month.
Today. Mummery and Mardi Gras are shows and tourist attraction complete with museums in Philadelphia and New Orleans. The date of the Mummer's foolery has been settled as January First thusly removing the last link to anything like 'Old Christmas' or the Feast of Saturn or anything else pagan or Christian although some of the groups maintain they are following a long tradition and trace their roots back to places in Scandinavia, Germany or Italy. Also where some groups get together for charity performances and concerts here and there, they usually don't crank up the circus they bring out for the New Year's celebration.
In Philly various Mummers groups have categorized themselves as Fancy Brigades or Comics and compete for prizes and bragging rights. The parade is televised and later, you can hire the Polish American String Band or any of over a dozen other groups to perform at your event, some will even come in their feathers and clown shoes.
In New Orleans the 'Krewes' such as the famous Rex and the Proteus parade organizations, observe rituals and vote for royalty, just as the Mummers elect a 'Captain' who gets an ever more outlandish costume and competes with other Captains for the top prize. The Krewes hold their float designs secret and various parade routes through the city are coveted real estate not to be discussed lightly in city council meetings and the most desired dates and times for individual parades can sometimes result in actual fights.
Unlike the Mummers where some groups welcome anybody that likes clarinets and feathers, some of the krewes almost demand you be a direct descendant of one of the group's founders before you are allowed in, although city ordinance now prohibits a discriminatory krewe from officially staging a parade. As to membership in a Morris team? Can you dance?
Delaware MUST have a Morris Side.
That's all there is to it.
The State already has a send up of the Mummers parade in Middletown with the Hummers Parade and every fall there is the Jazz Funeral for Summer at the beach. But there is Nothing here remotely like a Morris Side!
Maybe the Governor's Office could appoint a special blue ribbon committee to go out and recruit dancers to move here as she has for other things.
There is a MORRIS DANCER GAP and we MUST CORRECT IT!
Links to US and International Morris Teams. The Morris Federation Site has a side locator service for Britain, many of them with individual pages with pictures and history. In the US they are listed by state. MorrisDancing.org.
The total source for All Things Mummer. Some clubs have individual websites some of which are lnked through www.mummers.com
Base page for everything you would ever want to know about Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
And for comparison, Carnival in Rio at www.ipanema.com/carnival/home.htm
[NOTE: The Desk Is NOT affiliated with any of the outside links listed above Thank you ]
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