American Morris Newsletter  

American Morris Newsletter

Volume 25, Number 1
April, 2005

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Children's Morris in the Boston Area

Kem Stewart

The future of American Morris and sword dancing is bright if the children's Morris scene in the Boston area is any indication. At least 70 children aged 10 to 18 are dancing on four youth sides. Some are children of local Morris men and women, but most are not. Many are heavily involved in the local country dance and music scenes. Quite a few are accomplished fiddlers, and some are whistle or box players, playing for their own sides. Many of these children have already joined or will join adult sides, or join or start up Morris or sword sides when they disperse after high school. 

In the Beginning, There Was Banbury Cross 

In 1981, Lynn Beasley started a children's Morris and longsword team at the First Parish Unitarian-Universalist Church (known henceforth as First Parish UU) in Brookline. The side was dubbed Banbury Cross Morris & Sword, after the Oxfordshire town with a monument to St. George featured in the nursery rhyme "Ride a Cock Horse." Banbury recruited dancers aged 10 to 18 from the church, Morris, and Christmas Revels communities to which Lynn and other team parents belonged. The list of Banbury's teachers over the years reads like a Who's Who of Boston-area Morris: Curt Hayashi, Jan Eliot, Steve Roderick of Pinewoods Morris Men, Jacob Bloom and Bruce Brandt of the Black Jokers, Tom Moussin, Dave Titus, and Steve Dyer of Commonwealth Morris Men, Laura Allen of Orion Longsword, and Dave Stryker of Newtowne Morris Men. In 1995 Banbury moved to the First Unitarian Society in Newton, where its squire and many of its dancers were congregants, making room for a new children's side in Brookline. 

Banbury's primary traditions have been Bampton and Fieldtown, with longsword and mumming occupying some autumns. Fifteen 4th through 12th-graders currently belong to the side. 

Next year will be Banbury's 25th season. It's believed to be the oldest continuously-operating children's side in the US. At least three of its dancers grew up to become its teachers or to found other children's sides. 


Banbury Cross does the Binghamton Stick Dance at NEFFA, 2001

Children's Morris Explodes in the 90s 

In 1990, Tom Kruskal and Steve Roderick of Pinewoods Morris Men started Hop Brook Morris, a 5th to 8th-grade Morris and sword team at the First Parish UU in Sudbury. Hop Brook dancers practice and perform longsword and mumming in the fall, and Ilmington and Bampton Morris in the winter and spring. 

Emily Williams, Lynn Beasley's daughter and a member of the very first Banbury Cross side, started a new children's side at the First Parish UU in Brookline in 1995. Like Hop Brook, it caters to primary and middle schoolers and mixes longsword and rapper with Cotswold Morris. 

In 1996, Tom Kruskal attracted a talented quintet of high-schoolers with Morris music and dance experience from Hop Brook and Banbury Cross, who were enthralled with rapper. This side called itself Velocirapper, eventually becoming a sensation at NEFFA and the NY Sword Ale. Their example ignited interest among Hop Brook and Banbury graduates and other local dance-community teens, in rapper specifically and the idea of a high-school-aged Morris-and-sword side generally. Joe Kynoch and Tim Radford volunteered to help Tom teach rapper and Morris to these teens starting in 1999. This crew, now numbering over 30 counting recent graduates, is named Great Meadows Morris & Sword. They perform Adderbury and Longborough hankie and stick dances as a group, and are divided into five semi-autonomous rapper sides: Candyrapper, Slightly Green, Beside the Point, Scrambled Six, and Pocket Flyers. 


Slightly Green does Prince of Wales at the 2004 Whitby Sword Spectacular

Children's Morris is Similar but Different 

Children's sides exhibit regular turnover for the obvious educational, social, and developmental reasons. Banbury has finished seasons with as many as 18 dancers, and started seasons with as few as three! Despite distributing flyers and giving demonstrations at schools and fairs, most dancers are recruited via personal friendships in neighborhood, school, church, and traditional music, dance, and song communities. 

Boston-area children's sides practice weekly for 60 to 90 minutes, followed by a 15 to 30 minute snack and bull session. Most practice on Sunday afternoons or early evenings, sometimes immediately after a church service or Sunday school session that brings many of the children together anyway. One area side practices on a weekday evening from 6:30 to 8:00. 

All the Boston-area sides currently practice in Unitarian parish halls. Every New England town has a Unitarian church, and most are willing to donate or charge minimally for practice space in return for participation in seasonal observances such as the winter solstice or May Day. 

Children's sides rely on parent volunteers for logistical support, including helping with kit and bell making, secretarial and bookkeeping chores, providing after-practice snacks, fundraising to defray trip expenses, and chaperoning trips. Usually a children's side is taught by a dedicated adult Morris dancer who may or may not have a child on the side. It's generally a volunteer job, although occasionally the teacher is paid an honorarium. Banbury's current foremen are a pair of high-school juniors who have danced with the side for seven years. The several rapper sides that comprise Great Meadows have their own teen foremen and musicians, and choreograph their dances independently. 


Ariana Hall carries the May dolly her side made for Newtowne's annual May Day celebration in 2001


Adam Cole-Mullen and Dave Stryker, at NEFFA, 2001, demonstrate that morris musicianship is cross-generational

An Ale of Their Own: The Ginger Ale 

In May of 1997, Peggy Marcus, Banbury Cross squire and mother of Morris and sword dancers Andrew and Aaron Marcus, along with Tom Kruskal, invited local children's Morris and sword sides to an all-day event called the Ginger Ale. Held every year since then, between May Day and Lilac Sunday, the Ale is a miniature Marlboro Ale for Morris youth. As many as eight New England children' teams tour Boston or its suburbs, finishing the day with a big massed and show stand at a high-visibility location like Boston's Quincy Market. A feast at a local side's parish hall ensues, often featuring pick-up dancing, skits, and English country or contra dancing. 


Amelia Mason of Great Meadows and Adam Pepi of Beyond the Fringe lead the Winster Processional at the 2003 Ginger Ale


Banbury Cross foreman Gillian Stewart dances 
Fieldtown at the 2004 Ginger Ale

The Current Scene: Boston and Beyond 

In addition to Banbury, Mulberry, Hop Brook, and Great Meadows, there are children's sides in nearby areas, most of which regularly attend NEFFA (the New England Folk Festival Association) and the Ginger Ale, and occasionally the Marlboro Ale. Examples include Beyond the Fringe and the Johnny Jump Ups from Western Massachusetts, and Green Mountain Morris and Maple Leaf Morris from the Norwich VT area. Jamie Watson formed a boys' side in Lansdowne PA, which appeared at the 2002 Marlboro Ale. There have been children's sides on Martha's Vineyard and in New Haven CT. Waldorf primary schools sometimes recruit local Morris dancers to teach their 6th-grade classes Morris dances for school-wide May Day celebrations. Less frequently, local public- or private-school music teachers with Morris or sword experience introduce their students to the traditions. 


Maple Leaf Morris finishes Highland Mary at NEFFA, 2002

Back to England 

Making an English pilgrimage is not solely the province of adult sides. Velocirapper distinguished themselves at the Whitby, Yorkshire, Sword Spectacular in 2000, as did Great Meadows in 2004. Candyrapper and Beside the Point placed 2nd and 4th respectively in the open division (6th and 8th overall) at the 2005 Dancing England Rapper Tournament (DERT), achieving "premier" status and guaranteeing a return invitation. 

Just like the English country, contra, and traditional square dance movement, the Morris revival in America has ebbed and flowed over the decades. However, the quantity and quality of young Morris and sword dancers in New England bodes well for the vitality of English ritual dancing. 


Great Meadows at the 2004 Whitby Sword Spectacular

 


Webography 

Ginger Ale: http://www.gingerale.org/ 
DERT: http://www.rapper.org.uk/gallery/dert2005/ 
Banbury Cross: http://www.banburycrossmorris.org/ 
Great Meadows: http://www.freewebs.com/greatmeadowsmorris/ 
Candyrapper: http://www.pixton.org/candyrapper/ 
Velocirapper: http://www.velocirapper.com/ 
Green Mountain and Maple Leaf: http://engineering.dartmouth.edu/~cgl/youthmorris/ 

Kem Stewart is a member of Newtowne Morris Men, past squire of Banbury Cross Morris & Sword, and secretary of Great Meadows Morris & Sword. He can be reached at kem.stewart@alum.mit.edu.

 AMN, Vol. 25, No. 1, April 2005  ISSN: 1074-2689