Saturday, May 31, 2014

Morris Dancers

Last weekend, a friend and I took advantage of the pleasant weather and ventured uptown to the Dane County Farmers' Market. Unfortunately, at least half the surrounding area had the same idea, making for a slow-shuffling and densely packed crowd. When we were halfway around, we bought pastries from our favorite bakery stand and sat along the walkway leading up to the Capitol to eat them.

As we found a place to sit, a motley group of performers, many of them sporting bells, began to gather in the middle of the walkway. This, of course, piqued our curiosity.

We soon learned that they were a troop of Morris Dancers. The Midwest Morris Ale, to be exact — naturally I had to do a bit of research on it this week. According to their website, "Morris dancing is a tradition of folk dancing with its origins in the Cotswold region of England." Apparently, there are several dozen teams of dancers here in the United States, and many were in the area for an annual gathering called the Midwest Morris Ale.

The Hobby Horse is a traditional part of the dance team and prances about the ring of dancers. In times of yore, he would often carry a hat to solicit money from observers. Here, he served as informer, answering audience questions about the troop and the dances performed.

It is also usual to have a man dressed in women's clothing — hence the gentleman sporting the yellow sun dress and top hat. Known as The Betty, he is believed by some to be an ancient fertility symbol. Um...sure. If they say so.

Morris Dancing is an English tradition combining dance and music, and has been performed for more than 500 years — perhaps even longer. The origins have been lost over time, with dances being passed down from one generation to the next.

The dances are typically performed by a set of six dancers, but with such a large group, exceptions were made. It turns out there were around 50 performers stationed at each corner of the Capitol Square, which we noticed as we continued our circuit. The dancers waved handkerchiefs during some dances, and clashed sticks together in others, while bells strapped to their legs jingled with every move.

An "ale" is a private party where a number of Morris teams come together and perform dances for their own enjoyment. The term dates back to the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, where "ale" referred to a church- or village-sponsored event at which ale or beer was sold as a fundraiser, with Morris dancers hired to perform. In North America, "ale" is now widely used to describe a weekend of dancing, including public performances and workshops.

Music is always performed live. Alas, between the observers and performers, I was unable to get a clear shot of the musicians. Traditional instruments include the pipe and tabor (a small drum), but may also consist of a fiddle, guitar, accordian or concertina.

We only stayed to watch the first two dances, as it was growing hot and the pressing crowd had us feeling rather surly, but it was definitely an interesting diversion. And really — how often do you happen upon something like this, especially in the vast Midwest of North America?

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