Tag Archives: Morris Dance

Singing and Dancing and Other Fun Stuff on May Day in China

photo courtesy Jeremy Carter-Gordon

photo courtesy Jeremy Carter-Gordon

As requested, three intrepid Morris dancers checking in from Shanghai, China where we have been having an interesting May Day celebration, both in the dancing sense and in the communist regime sense.

Our May Day celebrations began last night when we decided to do a bit of busking in the busy commercial district by the river overlooking the China Pearl (that crazy tower that sort of looks like the Seattle space needle). Jeremy was playing banjo, Tasha was singing, and Libby was fooling, dancing and being our caller on (in Chinese, no less!) We were only a few seconds into our first song when a crowd started gathering, taking pictures of us and with us and generally gawking at the strange instrument and crazy laowai who were performing traditional songs in English  We had a little tin mug that we had purchased earlier that day for too much in a Chinese market. However much we had overpaid for the mug, it was returned to us in spades as the money started flying in. People gave us money to take pictures with us and in between songs Libby got her introduction to public speaking in Chinese  There was some stretching of the exact meaning of some aspects as the movie “O brother where art thou” became “Where are you little brother??” Nevertheless, “I’ll fly away” was a crowd favorite. Libby grabbed some people from the crowd and flung them into a dance. After about 15 minutes we had made an astonishing 150 yuan and lots of new friends.

It was at that point when the Chinese police officer stormed into the center of the ring of people, blowing his whistle and talking on his radio. Jeremy and Tasha kept playing while Libby–the fool, cultural interpreter, and crowd control–went to find out what was going on. He actually refused to speak to us, in English or in Chinese, but Libby heard him say “There are foreigners here and they have a lot of money!” over the radio. We saw the reinforcements on their way. It was time to make a hasty exit. We grabbed our stuff, and started walking quickly off. The police officer followed. As we left, Libby started talking to an old man who told us that apparently it is illegal to sing in public in china if you are not singing the glories of the Chinese nation! Probably the money didn’t help.

We decided we really would rather not spend our holiday in a Chinese prison cell and made our best effort to disappear into the crowd. Unfortunately at 6’3″ (1.9 m) Jeremy towered above the population. We zigged, we zagged, we backtracked and after about 10 minutes lost our police trail. We hastily ducked into a subway station and made our escape. As we passed one CCTV after another, we realized that our faces are probably on some file somewhere in Beijing. If we don’t check in next May Day, come looking for us.

Now we are off to a park, washcloths and Qing dynasty temple bells in hand, to dance in the May. With any luck, we will get the old Chinese folks doing tai chi in the park to join us in a May pole and Sellinger’s Round.

Yours from China,

Jeremy Carter-Gordon (Pinewoods Morris Men, Newcastle Kingsmen)
Libby Chamberlin (Muddy River Morris, Maple Morris)
Tasha Carter-Gordon (Itinerant)

Morris Dancing at the UN (updated)

Happy May Day! In the spirit of this international day of morris dancing, here’s a photo from the archives showing morris dancing  at the UN:

This photo was taken in 1947 at the United Nations Fiesta at Rockefeller Plaza, NYC by Genny Shimer. My colleague Pat MacPherson shared this photo with me. While Pat might know more of the individuals pictures, I’m sorry to say at the moment I don’t. (If you know or think you know, drop a comment below!)

I can tell you that at the front right is Bob Hider, whose papers inspired two recent posts from Pat. The photographer, Genny Shimer, was a former CDSS director, teacher, and scholar. You can read more about her here and here (pdf). She authored, among other things, the modern Playford Ball (with Kate Van Winkle Keller) and our Genevieve Shimer Publications Fund is named in her honor.

You can also see Genny in this charmingly grainy video (featuring Tony Barrand) which I recently came across of a jig competition at Pinewoods in 1982:

(Parts two, three, and four also available.)

Traveling another thirty or so years forward, I never tire of watching Maple Morris: The Movie. If you need some morris inspiration and energizing, you can’t do better.

Well… I didn’t intend this post to be a mini-retrospective of morris over the last 50 years, but it’s happened anyway. Time to get outside and step sprightly. Enjoy your May Day!

— Max

UPDATE: Caller/scholar David Millstone, who scanned the original UN photo, provides the following elucidating information:

Left side, back to front: Jack Langstaff, William Partington, Russell Loughton

Right side, back to front: Jack Shimer, Bob Guillard, Bob Hider

Jack Langstaff is, of course, co-founder of Revels, along with his daughter, Carol, and he also led some weeks at Pinewoods for CDSS back in the day. I don’t know that we can say for certain that Genny took the photo, although it did come from the photo album that belonged to her and her husband, Jack Shimer. After Genny died, Jack Shimer married Joan Carr, who was for a time the CDSS Assistant Director. As Joan Carr, she was the recipient of Pat Shaw’s dance, “Quite Carr-ied Away, or Joan Transported”. And after Jack died and Joan was preparing to move, she asked that the album be passed along to CDSS. 

Celebrating Tom!

Photo courtesy Arthur Ferguson.

This past weekend, I was pleased to attend the CDSS Lifetime Contribution Award ceremony for Tom Kruskal. The Lifetime Contribution is presented annually to individuals who have made a long-term and exceptional contribution to the mission of CDSS. In 2010, there were two recipients: John Ramsay and Tom Kruskal. John Ramsay’s award was given on October 16, 2010 in St. Louis. You can read about that here (pdf).

CDSS presented Tom Kruskal his award in Framingham, MA, on Saturday, April 2, where the greater Boston dance community celebrated Tom, and enjoyed one incredible party. For more than 40 years, Tom has — among many other things — nurtured morris and sword dancing in America, most recently establishing teams and mentoring innumerable young dancers.

The Celebrate Tom! Committee (Karen Axelrod, Deborah Kruskal, David Fleischmann-Rose, Erika Roderick, and Andra Horton) did a superlative job organizing the party and planning the program. Over 300 people, from the Revels community, Tom’s church, and the music and dance community, joined in the festivities. Many past and present CDSS Governing Board members came, as did members of the CDSS staff — these are their impressions.

Candyrapper taking the stage. Photo courtesy Arthur Ferguson.

Brad Foster, CDSS Executive Director: “The mix of youth and longtime CDSS members was fabulous and it was wonderfully overwhelming to be there. I would turn around and say, ‘I haven’t seen you in years’ and then turn around again and say the same thing.”

Steve Howe, CDSS Assistant Director of Programs: “It was a terrific gathering for someone who so clearly deserves it. Seeing seven sets of Great Meadows teams dance Cotswold was a great joy; I’m only sorry I was standing up so people behind me couldn’t see.” [Steve is over 6′ feet tall.]

Robin Hayden, Associate Director of Development: “Having worked at CDSS for over 20 years, I well remember a time when we worried about the future of morris. Well — our worries are SO over! It’s clear, from the national perspective we have at CDSS, that the widening ripples of this ‘youth quake’ — arising from Tom’s work and that of many other dedicated leaders — have had a profound effect on the whole culture of American and English dance across the continent. Morris on!”

Tom's supporters managed to fill a large stage. Photo courtesy Marty Stock.

As for me, it was both joyful and moving to be there. I had a wonderful time, reconnecting with old friends, helping out at the greeting table, and watching the spectacular dancing from Candyrapper, Pinewoods Morris Men, New Moon Sword, and Tom’s kids and teen teams: Hop Brook and Great Meadows Morris & Sword — with music by Tom, and others, on concertina.

Here’s a video from Emily Ferguson of PMM dancing at the ceremony:

At the greeting table there were two baskets of ribbons, for past and present members of Hop Brook and Great Meadows to wear. A little girl was looking wistfully at the basket and obviously was torn about whether she could take one or not. She disappeared and reappeared a minute later with her Mom, who asked, “Can future members of the teams take a ribbon?” This little girl’s older siblings are team members, and she has been waiting more than eagerly to join Hop Brook herself and now that she is 9 1/2 years old, the moment is in sight. Past, present, and FUTURE — give that girl a ribbon!

— Pat

Visit cdss.org for an interview I did with Tom, music samples, and a tribute & chronology.

Joel Gonzalez also posted two nice YouTube videos of Great Meadows singing “The Parting Glass” and their rapper finale. Thanks!

Meetup.com: A Resource to Consider?

Is this a useful resource for dance and song organizers?

Over the last few months, I’ve heard from a few groups about their experiences using the online social network Meetup to attract new participants. I’ve even seen its effect at a local dance. This got me wanting to find out a little more about Meetup and how dance and song organizers have been using it. I don’t have enough anecdotal information to really know how useful Meetup can be for dance and song groups, but let me share what I do know.

What It Is

Meetup, whose slogan is “Use the Internet to get off the Internet”, has been around for a decade now. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s a social networking tool meant to facilitate face-to-face meetings. The organization’s mission statement speaks to a lot of the values I hear traditional dancers and singers express: “Meetup’s mission is to revitalize local community and help people around the world self-organize. Meetup believes that people can change their personal world, or the whole world, by organizing themselves into groups that are powerful enough to make a difference.”

How this sentiment works in practice on their site is that organizers create groups (and pay dues of between $12-$19/mo) and those groups have members and events.

Meetup isn’t the only site out there doing this sort of thing, of course. BigTent seems to be another resource, although this doesn’t seem to have a lot of folky representation at the moment. And there’s plenty of overlap with what you might already be doing with Facebook. Indeed, Meetup also connects with Facebook with an app. (I should note that it’s a time of transition for Meetup, which just underwent a major facelift a few days ago that not everyone likes.)

Who Is Using It and How

Meetup contra dance groups and interested members across the globe.

There are a number of Meetup groups out there done by the organizers themselves. Contra dance and square dance both generate some hits across the country. English Country Dance doesn’t seem to have a lot of representation, with the notable exception of the Las Vegas Country Dance group. There is a little morris out there as well. “Folk song” and “folk music” generate lots of hits of various stripes.

Meetup sites can contain a lot of information, as with this Chicago Sacred Harp page. Reading the quotes from participants is also quite fun. (It’s the sort of thing that would be nice on any website, really.)

Looking through these can give you a sense of how organizers might use Meetup.  There’s another way Meetup can impact communities, too: a broader Meetup group can decide to go to a dance as one of their activities.

This can happen when one of the organizers of a group that finds fun, unusual things to do decides contra dancing sounds interesting. I experienced this type of Meetup effect at a dance recently, when this contra dance was sponsored by the Nerd Fun – Boston, a group with almost 3,000 participants. Lo and behold, a group of a dozen or so descended on the dance.

Is It Worth It?

A little effort and money can give you a Meetup site, but is it worth it? I don’t know.

While $12/month isn’t a huge investment, it’s not a drop in the bucket either; it’s only going to be worth it if you see results. If you have several groups with close missions (e.g. contra and English or pub sings and a morris team), I could see combining forces to share the burden.

So, have you used Meetup or something like it to promote a song or dance event and/or find new participants? How? Did it work? Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear about it and I am sure others would as well.

– Max

Morris Dancing Is Cool

The holidays deserve a bit of fun, so here’s a video from across the pond. It’s a selection from the BBC show Argumental where teams comedically debate a proposition, in this case: Morris dancing is cool. Special guests are London’s Greensleeves Morris Men. Please note the content is slightly PG-13 rated, and not just because of the morris dancing.


The proposition doesn’t quite win out, but it’s clearly close. Compelling arguments are made on both sides; I’ll admit it’s hard to argue with the point that morris dancing is indeed “the least stealthy of the martial arts”.

More reflectively, it’s revealing to see something folky through the vantage point of mainstream coverage, particularly when that coverage is neither entirely reverent nor mocking. This clip gives us that unusual vantage, with good fun being poked against the background of a fair amount of respect, from both sides, for morris and morris dancers. And after all, who can disagree with the ultimate conclusion that if morris dancers are not cool, they certainly are hot?

Are there other interesting examples of mainstream media attention to traditional dance/music/song that come to mind? What do see in the relationship between the traditional and mainstream? Is morris the least stealthy of the martial arts? Your comments welcome.

– Max

Tradition and Change

by Brad Foster, Executive & Artistic Director

I gave a keynote address to the Southeast Dance Leadership Conference in North Carolina in October of this year. I wanted to show the lively and innovative state of change of contemporary life, and to contrast that to similar change in the past. I chose three videos to make the point.

First, the Demon Barbers Roadshow, a performing group in England combining superb English clog, morris and sword with hip-hop:

The concept, as they say in the video, is “to try to see the similarity between traditional dance and modern dance, especially street dance and clog. Quite soon we realized that a lot of footwork was very, very similar.” This collaboration between traditions of dance — and, you’ll notice, music — yields a discovery that they aren’t so different. In a sense, of course, morris is street dance, too.

On our side of the pond, another kind of fusion is going on with contra dancing right now, as in this video from Seattle:

Techno contra: hard, driving beat, sampled music, glow sticks, hot and sweaty dancing, and new moves. In addition to great camera work from Doug Plummer, there’s another reason I highlight this video in particular. Techno contras emerged, as much as you can pinpoint these things, in the Asheville, NC area only a couple of years ago. Amazing how widely it has spread in that short time!

Techno contra is one current manifestation of taking tradition and playing with it, but here’s the 1964 version:

Nelson, NH with Dudley Laufman calling. It’s an encounter between generations of dancers: there are the old-timers and then there are the newer, mostly younger dancers. How joyful and familiar it is to watch their interactions, all contained within a single community. It’s essentially the same experience we have still. In the Nelson video, you can see some of the traditions that were changing back then, but you’re also seeing what’s happening now. I love how we now take for granted things I remember as radical to us 30 or even 20 years ago. Twirls of all kinds. The twos joining in Petronella!

The fact that we have fusion is nothing new. Often you are in the middle of it and you don’t notice it until something unexpected happens. But in truth, the unexpected keeps happening. Traditions will adapt. The forms will change.

Are techno contra and hip-hop morris part of our future? In both cases I’m sure the answer is “definitively maybe” or “sort of”. It’s likely some elements will make their way into the run-of-the-mill, as happened with swing moves in contra dancing. Both will influence our traditional arts but won’t become those arts. Even techno contra is morphing, with people saying, “That’s nice, but I want to try taking it in yet a different direction.”

I find all of this fascinating and exciting. The chaos that comes from all this change is a very good sign. It’s a sign our traditions are alive.

So, how does all this speak to your experiences? What changes and innovations have you seen? Which are on the horizon? And, of course, what aspects of our traditions remain unchanged?

– Brad