New Dancers, Ancient Traditions

The bright shining morning smiles over the hills, with blushes adorning the meadows and rills… In May, greenery unfolds across the treetops so fast you can almost see it ripple. Light flows up the hillside, and the chorus of frogs gives way to birds… and bells.

If you’ve never heard them before, the wild jangle of May bells might alarm you. It’s supposed to be cacophonous—a wake-up call to soil and snoozing seedlings. For me, a grown child of the Morris community, the sound is as evocative as the scent of turkey on Thanksgiving, or the hiss of 4th of July fireworks. The sound of bells carries memories of dewy grass, cold strawberries in sparking cider, and the fresh snap of white handkerchiefs. Each year on May 1st, dancers gather together to wake the earth from hibernation.

And the merry merry horn cries come, come away…

Dancers gather in the dark. All over the country, staggered across oceans and time zones, they prepare to bring the sun up. In England, where many of these dances originated, the belief was: if you didn’t dance, the sun wouldn’t rise. Although dance teams are not formed around religious affiliation or united belief, something is shared. After this particularly dark and merciless winter, the dances carry palpable relief, and hopes for a brilliant summer.

Awake from your slumber and hail the new day…

The Valley is a hub of English folk dancing activity. Teams come from a variety of traditions and each wear an identifying ‘kit’ or costume. Some wear shirts made of rags, some wear silk vests or suspenders. Garland dancers wear white skirts and thick wreaths of flowers. There seems to be an across-the-board fondness for funny hats and odd musical instruments.

Morris dancers are a common sight in Northampton, often holding ‘stands’ where space and weather permits. My current cohort, And Sometimes Y Morris, is a teen team that practices weekly in Hadley, MA. It is formed and run by industrious teenagers who practice Manx dancing; a tradition from the Isle of Man. The team successfully funded a trip to the Isle through a Kickstarter campaign in 2013. The goal was to learn and bring back traditional dances. ASY plans to return to the Isle in 2016.

For the whole month of May, the Morris community rejoices, blessing (or infesting) pubs and commons across New England. The best way to sniff out a ‘stand’ or performance location is to approach someone in an outlandish costume and ask them where they’ll be dancing next. Most people are delighted to talk about the tradition they practice (each style is distinct: Cotswold and Border are to dancing as seaweed and cacti are to plants). And if you can, drop by Montague May Day, where many teams convalesce on the first Sunday in May. Located on and spilling over the Montague common, you cannot miss the color and energy filling the streets.

It used to confound me that most kids went to school on May 1st. Surely May Day was just as important as Labor Day! And I still feel that way. These archaic celebrations honor the natural world, a side of reality that many of us lose touch with in day-to-day living. The dances acknowledge the sun, the crops, and the importance of a good harvest.

If you hear bells, the clash of sticks, and the yelp of concertina, maybe it’s time to stop and listen for a moment. They are calling the newness of things, a shout from the distant past that still resonates. For me, it doesn’t matter what the dancers wear or whether they clash sticks or swords. It’s a call that still makes me smile.

So awake from your slumber and hail the new day! *

*Bright Shining Morning, Traditional Folk Song

Photo: "Johnny Jump Ups at Sunrise" by Willow DeLyon. A children's Morris team gather at dawn on May 1st, 2015.