Next time you run into a group of people dressed all in white, bedecked with brightly colored ribbons and sashes, jingling with bells and wildly waving sticks and hankies at dawn, don't direct them en masse to the nearest asylum. They're probably Morris dancers, and it must be spring.
This weekend the sight may be more common than you'd think. Three busloads of Morris dancers and musicians from all over the country will descend on the Boulder/mountain area for the Midwest Morris Ale, or festival, making various stops to dance at Front Range parks and pubs.
A colorful dance deserves a colorful past, and Morris, with its pagan roots, has one. Spokeswoman Nancy Sauer of the local Maroon Bells Morris group says the tradition's been around in the British Isles for at least 600 years, and possibly much longer. Originally performed on Beltane, or May Day, and perhaps related to Spanish military dances brought to England by the Moors (hence the name), Morris dancing started as an annual ritual meant to "dance up" the sun and wake up the slumbering earth at the beginning of the growing season. The pagan rite first ran into problems in Scotland, where it was shunned by the clergy. "It was clearly evil stuff," Sauer says, "but England had a different view. They brought the tradition into the church, where it grew into a new tradition of dancing on Pentecost, or Whitsunday. They replaced the pagan festival with this one, though it's now common for English dancers to do both."
By the end of the last century, Sauer says, the practice had nearly died out before Boxing Day in 1899, when Cecil Sharp, an English folklorist, just happened to be in a town in the Cotswolds called Headington, where the quarrymen were on strike. Though it wasn't the traditional time for it, the unemployed rock-harvesters went out Morris dancing. "Sharp looked out of his hotel window and said, 'Oh, my, this is something I need to know more about,'" Sauer recounts. "So he collected dancers from all over the Cotswolds, wrote it all down and started teaching. It spread like mad and was done anywhere there was English heritage. I've even heard of a team in Fiji."
Veteran Morris dancers are almost at a loss when it comes to describing the ritual. "It's a bunch of people leaping around to music--with ribbons flying and bells jingling," says Dennis Barrett, who is the Maroon Bells troupe's "squire," something akin to a business manager. "The idea behind it," Sauer adds, "is waking up the Earth in spring with the clashing of sticks and waving hankies shooing off winter. The ideal is to look like one 1,200-pound organism out there. But it's hard to do in sync." Much of the fancy footwork involves groups of six, but more intricate two-person jigs are also done. "Typically, two dancers will try to outdo each other with capers and fancy hankie movements," Sauer says. "People will stand on the side and jeer."
A mostly white-collar avocation, Morris dancing seems to appeal to professors and scientists and computer programmers. "We go and do our nerdy stuff all week, then we get up and do this outrageous stuff," Sauer says. And how do they hook up in the first place? Not a problem. "Morris kind of finds the people," she says. "Why do we like it? We do it all day and we do it all night, because it is a fertility rite."
Midwest Morris Ale events, May 24-25. For complete schedule, see Dance listings on page 34.