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‘Dance, dance, DANCE!’

Ancient tradition invigorated by a whole new generation of dancers

  • The Johnny Jump-Ups circle around piper and drummer Geoff Rogers, who helps teach morris dancing to children with his wife Andrea.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    The Johnny Jump-Ups circle around piper and drummer Geoff Rogers, who helps teach morris dancing to children with his wife Andrea.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ribbons flow around the bells of a dancer as the Stick 'N the Mist morris dancing group practices outside Whately Elementary School.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Ribbons flow around the bells of a dancer as the Stick 'N the Mist morris dancing group practices outside Whately Elementary School.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bell pads jingle as young morris dancers stomp and step in the Shutesbury Elementary School gymnasium during a Johnny Jump-Ups practice. Children from ages 6 to 10 are preparing to perform in May festivals.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Bell pads jingle as young morris dancers stomp and step in the Shutesbury Elementary School gymnasium during a Johnny Jump-Ups practice. Children from ages 6 to 10 are preparing to perform in May festivals.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amalie Sullivan-Joyce, 11, holds the ends of all the garlands as her fellow dancers Macy Anhalt, 6, and Amrita Rutter, 8, twist around her. The girls are all part fo the "Morning Glory Girls' Garland" group, which practices at the Whately Elementary School on Sundays. At age 13 the dancers will graduate to the Women's Garland Dancing group.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Amalie Sullivan-Joyce, 11, holds the ends of all the garlands as her fellow dancers Macy Anhalt, 6, and Amrita Rutter, 8, twist around her. The girls are all part fo the "Morning Glory Girls' Garland" group, which practices at the Whately Elementary School on Sundays. At age 13 the dancers will graduate to the Women's Garland Dancing group.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • The Johnny Jump-Ups from left: Selena Davidson Carroll, 7, Robby Hayes, 10, Hezekiah Sims, 9, Gillis Macdougall, 9, Andrea Rogers, Geoff Rogers, Liam Black, 8, Eden Mast-Lippmann, 7, Fedya Michael, 10 and Cedar Skinder, 6. Libby Hayes, 6, is absent.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    The Johnny Jump-Ups from left: Selena Davidson Carroll, 7, Robby Hayes, 10, Hezekiah Sims, 9, Gillis Macdougall, 9, Andrea Rogers, Geoff Rogers, Liam Black, 8, Eden Mast-Lippmann, 7, Fedya Michael, 10 and Cedar Skinder, 6. Libby Hayes, 6, is absent.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amrita Rutter, 8, Amalie Sullivan-Joyce, 11, and Macy Anhalt, 6, prance forward with undressed garlands during their practice at the Whately Elementary School.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Amrita Rutter, 8, Amalie Sullivan-Joyce, 11, and Macy Anhalt, 6, prance forward with undressed garlands during their practice at the Whately Elementary School.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • The members of the Stick 'N the Mist morris dancing group, from top left: Shelby Howland, Bill Ezell, Peggie Ezell, Jen Dorval, Emily Menard and Laura Wildman-Hanlon. From bottom left: Tracy Rebman, Juniper Talbot, Tom Wildman-Hanlon and Jennifer Marrapese.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    The members of the Stick 'N the Mist morris dancing group, from top left: Shelby Howland, Bill Ezell, Peggie Ezell, Jen Dorval, Emily Menard and Laura Wildman-Hanlon. From bottom left: Tracy Rebman, Juniper Talbot, Tom Wildman-Hanlon and Jennifer Marrapese.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Tracy Rebman of the Stick 'N the Mist morris dancing group draws back her stick to hit against her dancing partner's stick at the group's practice at the Whately Elementary School.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Tracy Rebman of the Stick 'N the Mist morris dancing group draws back her stick to hit against her dancing partner's stick at the group's practice at the Whately Elementary School.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Shelby Howland of the Stick 'N the Mist morris dancing group plays a tune for dancers during group practice at the Whately Elementary School.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Shelby Howland of the Stick 'N the Mist morris dancing group plays a tune for dancers during group practice at the Whately Elementary School.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • The Johnny Jump-Ups circle around piper and drummer Geoff Rogers, who helps teach morris dancing to children with his wife Andrea.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Ribbons flow around the bells of a dancer as the Stick 'N the Mist morris dancing group practices outside Whately Elementary School.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Bell pads jingle as young morris dancers stomp and step in the Shutesbury Elementary School gymnasium during a Johnny Jump-Ups practice. Children from ages 6 to 10 are preparing to perform in May festivals.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Amalie Sullivan-Joyce, 11, holds the ends of all the garlands as her fellow dancers Macy Anhalt, 6, and Amrita Rutter, 8, twist around her. The girls are all part fo the "Morning Glory Girls' Garland" group, which practices at the Whately Elementary School on Sundays. At age 13 the dancers will graduate to the Women's Garland Dancing group.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • The Johnny Jump-Ups from left: Selena Davidson Carroll, 7, Robby Hayes, 10, Hezekiah Sims, 9, Gillis Macdougall, 9, Andrea Rogers, Geoff Rogers, Liam Black, 8, Eden Mast-Lippmann, 7, Fedya Michael, 10 and Cedar Skinder, 6. Libby Hayes, 6, is absent.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Amrita Rutter, 8, Amalie Sullivan-Joyce, 11, and Macy Anhalt, 6, prance forward with undressed garlands during their practice at the Whately Elementary School.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • The members of the Stick 'N the Mist morris dancing group, from top left: Shelby Howland, Bill Ezell, Peggie Ezell, Jen Dorval, Emily Menard and Laura Wildman-Hanlon. From bottom left: Tracy Rebman, Juniper Talbot, Tom Wildman-Hanlon and Jennifer Marrapese.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Tracy Rebman of the Stick 'N the Mist morris dancing group draws back her stick to hit against her dancing partner's stick at the group's practice at the Whately Elementary School.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Shelby Howland of the Stick 'N the Mist morris dancing group plays a tune for dancers during group practice at the Whately Elementary School.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

At the tippy-top of the morning this May Day, six pint-sized dancers, dressed in blue vests, white shirts and pants and jingle bells strapped to their bounding calves, greeted the dawn with “Shepherd’s Hay” on the Shutesbury Common.

It was still dark and cold when the Johnny Jump-Ups arrived for this annual ritual, their bells shaking off their sleepiness. But it was the youthful dancing of these morris dancers, their leaping, their skipping and waving of hankies, along with the dancing of the groups like the Morning Glories and And Sometimes Y’s, that seemed to awaken the sun and beckon the spring.

These ancient pagan dances might just strike new eyes as less than completely serious, especially done by tots. And that’s OK. Morris dancing is an ancient ritual about lightening up, no matter how it’s done.

After the hard winter we’ve just been through, just watching the Johnny Jump Ups and teams like them are enough to bring a sigh of relief.

“I feel really happy,” said Libby Hayes of Shutesbury, 6, in anticipation of dancing today as part of her second season with the Jump Ups. “It’s usually pretty cold on May Day, but I’m pretty excited, like I’m jumping around inside.”

No wonder her favorite dance is “Shooting.” When you watch these dancers bounding as high as they can into the air, it dawns on you why this season truly is called “spring.”  

In all the festivities that abound on May Day, and this weekend, with annual Maypole celebrations on the common in Montague Center (Sunday) and the northern Amherst village of Cushman (Saturday), the gaggle of raucous adult morris teams may garner most of the attention.

But young teams like the Jump-Ups and others taking to the Shutesbury Common and then on a tour of area schools — Greenfield Center School, Gill, Leverett — are the best indication that morris dancing, an Old England tradition that had a resurgence in New England in the 1970s, may actually have taken root.

“It’s really nice to pass it on,” says Andrea Rogers of Shutesbury, who teaches this troupe of beginning morris dancers from Greenfield, Montague and other area towns. She and her husband, Geoff, started the team in 2002 when their son, Angus, was in second grade, drawing largely on kids involved in the annual Welcome Yule pageant at The Shea Theater in Turners Falls.

“He had been following us in morris tours when he was in utero,” says Rogers, who joined her first team, Swarth Morris, in 1979 in Pennsylvania and now dances on the Amherst-based Wake Robin team after having also danced with Bells of the North in Minneapolis, Millstone River at Princeton and Ha’Penny in Cambridge before moving to the area in 1986.

Geoff, who plays concertina for the Jump-Ups, started dancing in 1981 on Juggler Meadow. Angus, who danced with Jump-Ups until he was in seventh grade, is now 19 and on Juggler Meadow, even though he’s a college student in Maine. (His 14-year-old sister, Fiona, is an eighth-grader who graduated from Jump-Ups to the teen team, And Sometimes Y Manx Morris Sword, which practices in Hadley and raised money to travel last year to Britain’s Isle of Man to perform the rare Manx morris dances there.)

Cedar Skinder of Greenfield was only 5 when she started dancing as a Jump-Up last year.

“I feel good (when I’m dancing) because I’m with my family on morris teams. Both Mama and Papa dance.”

As shivering as the pre-dawn preparations will be for the Morning Glories and the other teams on the Shutesbury Common, says 7-year-old Selena Davidson-Carroll of Montague, they warm up with dances like Three Musketeers, one of her favorites. And although it’s only her second year dancing, she remembers, “In Montague (at the Town Common celebration), it gets really hot dancing if it’s a hot day, because we have long shirts and all.”

Awakening a tradition

Morris dancing dates back to at least the 15th century and was originally called moryssh from the French “morisque,” meaning dance. It had a revival around 1900 thanks to the pioneering work of British folklorist Cecil Sharp, who formed the English Folk Dance Society and published two collections of morris dances in 1905 and 1907. It was in the late 1960s and 1970s that it came alive in this country with the help of Roger Cartwright, often called the “Johnny Appleseed” of morris dancing in this country.

Cartwright helped form the Village Morris Men in New York City and led a tour of England in 1973. That Pinewoods New Englanders tour spawned creation of several other U.S. Morris teams, including New Cambridge Morris Men, which first danced out in 1974 and, soon after, the Marlboro Morris Men in Vermont and a short-lived Berkshire Morris Men in Greenfield in 1978. Cartwright lived in Shutesbury before his death in 2011.

Rogers said many of the morris teams that abound today — Massachusetts has more teams, 30, than any other state — can be traced back to dancers inspired by Village Morris Men or New Cambridge Morris Men.

“They were all taught by Roger or one generation down,” she said. “There’s that cohort of people in college or grad school in the ’70s, who are now in our 50s and 60s, so there are lots of morris dancers in that age range. But then there’s a lost generation of people now in their 30s, who didn’t get recruited a lot. And now there are a lot of kids dancing.”

Garlands and ‘girly-girls’

While it’s not exactly morris, the garland dances performed by Morning Glory Girls’ Garland are closely related, with girls in white skirts and blouses dancing on the common bearing flower-bedecked half-hoops and jingle bells.

“We’re the girly-girls, the pretty ones. We balance the rougher stuff,” says leader Laura Wildman-Hanlon of Montague, who started the team three years ago after being a part of all-women Hart’s Brook Garland for 15 years and hearing team members’ daughters say, “That looks like fun!”

The hoop dances, which echo the lilting though rough-and-tumble morris steps with what almost seem like skipping, have been traced back to the start of the Industrial Revolution in the mill towns of northern England, says Wildman-Hanlon, who believes they may actually be much older than that.

“This was a way to give the women who worked in the factories dancing as a form of exercise,” she adds. Although it doesn’t present the same “up your nose” attitude toward the gentry that men’s morris dancing did, “It’s a beautiful style dance,” she said, especially when it was brought to the verdant countryside in England, just as it is in rural New England.

Wildman-Hanlon, who admits, “It’s a dying tradition,” hopes to next year launch a first-ever all-garland “ale,” or gathering of dancers, locally to draw the five or six teams from around this country, “to get the garland style out there and stir more interest, before it disappears.”

The especially feminine dance form, in frilly costume with colorful waist ribbons, may not be especially popular in a gender-role-defying age when women vie with men on stick-clashing morris teams.

This year’s Morning Glories number just four or five, contrasted with as many as 21 in some years, says Wildman-Hanlon. Team members’ ages range from 7 to 12, when according to another tradition, interests tend to change and “they become very self-conscious,” she said, pointing to a pair of alumnae gabbing in the corner of the Whately Elementary School gym during a recent, pre-season practice.

“I hope that with the girls team, if we get them interested, they’ll remember and come back, saying, ‘I want to do that again’” on an adult team like Hart’s Brook,” said Wildman-Hanlon, who’s also a member of another family morris team, Stick’N the Mist, that also practices at Whately on Sundays along with the girls’ and women’s garland teams.

“It’s fun,” says 16-year-old member Orlando Wildman-Hanlon, the son of Laura Wildman-Hanlon and her husband, Tom, who are also on the team. In between dances at the Whately gym rehearsal, he’s shooting baskets in the Whately gym. “We dance a lot of cheerful dances. There’s a lot of jumping,” adds the former Johnny Jump-Up, getting in a dribble or two between shots and comments as he considers what the morris feels like from inside. “Skipping ... We use sticks often ... I get a little nervous when we’re dancing out in public. Once we’re doing it, it’s fun.”

The members of Stick ’N the Mist’s costume, or “kit,” features rags of black, grays or blues, with ribbons and sneakers, with black vests, knickers and fedoras. Standing in a “set of four,” they strike each other’s wooden batons across the set, in turn, first low, then high, before turning and doing the same with the “corners” beside them, and then swinging each other, arm in arm, as in a square dance or a contra dance, in a boisterous, energetic “border morris” tradition.

Fourteen-year-old member Emily Menard of Greenrfield, who joined the mixed team of adults and kids from Montague, Greenfield, Deerfield and Cummington this year, says she’s drawn to morris because it connects her with her family’s English heritage.

“I’m really into the music,” which is provided by fiddle played by Shelby Howland of Buckland, and the button accordion of team leader Peggy Ezell of Whately. “What I like is connecting with my ancestors.”

Menard, an eighth-grader at Frontier Regional School, joined the Morning Glories three years ago after she saw a flier in Deerfield Elementary School. “My friends and I thought it would be fun: we get to dress up in skirts and flowers. That (garland) feels a lot more graceful, this (morris) feels a lot ...” she flexes her bicep with a laugh and a stomp of her foot … “manlier.”

Although the pre-season practicing of dances like “Belligerent Blue Jay,” “Clockwork” and “Old Bones” has been a fun way to knock off any lingering winter blahs, and warming up at last weekend’s New England Folk Arts Festival was a thrill, stepping out for May Day is really special.

“It’s really, really great,” Menard says. “It make me feel happy. Having an audience really adds to the fun.”

On the Shutesbury Common, she says, “We dance up the sun! But then I have school right afterward, so I’m really tired.”

‘Dance, dance, dance!’

When their weeks and months of practice give way to “dancing out,” typically from May through September, morris teams, are a study in almost perpetual, inexhaustible motion. But if you want to see where they’re going in this ancient tradition, keep your eyes on the young ones.

“They like dancing, they really like dancing,” says Rogers, speaking mostly of the teen And Sometimes Y group, to which many of the Johnny Jump-Ups graduate. “I think they like participating on a team that’s not competitive. There’s not the intensity there would be on a sports team, but a lot of them take it really seriously and work really hard at it.”

The enthusiasm of dancers on the other kids’ teams is also noticeable, though.

“When we’re on tour, it’s all, ‘Can I be in this dance?’ If there are 10 kids and we need six, I have to pick, But everyone wants to dance. I can think kids are sort of lukewarm at practice, but when it came to dancing out, they really wanted to dance.”

Even when the adult dancers are hanging out after their May Day festivals — heading down to the Harp pub after Cushman or to Lady Killigrew after Montague, “the parents drink, but the kids aren’t done with dancing yet ... The adults are singing, the kids want to dance, dance, dance!”

When she began teaching morris dancing to kids, she was concerned about behavioral issues. “They want to dance. There are no issues at all,” Rogers says. Unlike adult members who sometimes have to be reminded during practice sessions to stop talking and pay attention, the Jump-Ups “are interested in everything about it,” including the tradition of the dances. “They’re very enthusiastic.”

While adult morris teams like Juggler Meadow and Wake Robin have their Harvest Ale around the region on Columbus Day weekend and the Marlboro Ale in southern Vermont on Memorial Day weekend, the Jump-Ups head to Boston’s Ginger Ale in Boston, as well as keeping their leaping and dancing fresh at fairs around the region as schedules allow.

The last time Rogers went to the Marlboro Morris Ale, five years ago, she noticed a new reality had begun visiting an old tradition.

“It used to be all us, us, us,” says the 55-year-old Morris enthusiast.“Now there’s a real representation of kids under 21 at the ale, singing the songs, leaping in the air. We’re being eclipsed. It’s what should be happening. It’s really being passed on. And it’s changing. They have their own identity. It’s a living tradition.”

On the Web:

/www.kickstarter.com/projects/794688447/and-sometimes-y-visits-the-isle-of-man?ref=card

www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7QD_P_jGjs

vimeo.com/11608666

www.youtube.com/watch?v=F9hzlkqNd1U

www.youtube.com/watch?v=P42vQdYqYrw

Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at The Recorder for more than 35 years. He can be reached at rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.

Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at pfranz@recorder.com or 413-772-0261 ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.

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