American Morris Newsletter  

American Morris Newsletter

Volume 25, Number 4
December, 2005

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 AMN Article  

The Way We Were: One True History of the Original Muddy River Morris

Cynthia Whear


No retrospective of the last 30 years of American Morris is complete without some specific mention of women's dancing. Because women's sides are commonplace today, it is easy to forget, even by those of us who were there, that the establishment and recognition of women's teams was a hard won battle on physical and emotional levels. Although I intend to address some of these issues more fully in future writings, it is important to acknowledge in the history of a side the factors that shaped its development. 

As Tony Barrand frequently notes, a group's dancing is an expression of themselves in their culture of that time and place. If we recall the American cultural climate of the 1970's, it make sense that women's sides appeared when and how they did, i.e., the early women's sides were definitely an expression and reflection of the turbulent issues of the 70's . The hallmark of this period was the "women's movement": women were challenging conventional roles and redefining themselves with few role models for how an emancipated woman would express herself without marginalizing herself. It is, therefore, no surprise that women's sides were formed as part of the tidal wave of interest in Morris dancing in the 1970's. We all were caught up in the process, whether we knew it or not.

There were three sides of women at the first Marlboro Ale in 1976. When Ring o' Bells, Muddy River Morris, and Marlboro Morris were founded, there was no Title IX (equal funding for girls athletics), there had never been a female supreme court judge, vice presidential candidate, or prime minister; and women weren't suppose to have Lionel Bacon's "Handbook of Morris Dances." (You laugh now, but it was true!) The ink on the Roe vs. Wade decision was barely dry. Women had just begun to be able to attend Ivy League colleges and military academies, and to be allowed (allowed!) to wear pants to school (but not to the Friday night International dances in Cambridge, MA). Anatomy might not be destiny, the Equal Rights Amendment still had a prayer (though, ironically, women's professional basketball at the time, did not). And J.R.R. Tolkien was very in. 

Or simply stated, 30 years ago women performing Morris was A BIG DEAL. There were strong emotions and extreme behaviors about it. And there was a sense that women just were not physically capable of doing it. Really! (It was also thought once upon a time that women were not mentally and physically capable of using typewriters either....)


Janet Hayashi (nee Holtz) and I started Muddy River Morris in the fall of 1975. Our first practices were at Wheelock College, in Brookline MA because we were largely composed of the Wheelock students of Roger Cartwright who had seen New Cambridge Morris Men dance. Janet and I had met at CDS Boston Centre dances and had no affiliation to Wheelock, other than Roger , whom we knew from CDS. The College gave us $200, a huge sum at the time, plus free rehearsal space in exchange for Christmas and spring performances. 

That Christmas we danced "in" on stage at Wheelock, in makeshift kits of dark knickers white shirts and ribbons. We were exhilarated. The Wheelock affiliation ended by fall 1976 when our members were no longer students. I found practice space at Rindge School in Cambridge in exchange for performances and we became a Cambridge-based team.

In January,1976, a group of people more associated with CDS joined us. Most of these "new faces" were to become the core group of the team. Due to their association with CDS this group was more attuned to the controversy regarding women dancing than the Wheelock students. This awareness created a subtle but constant ripple of disconnect among our members. We danced for the vernal equinox in whites at Wheelock, then had our first tour in secret on Lilac Sunday (April) in the Boston Arboretum. Women performing Morris and /or "dancing out" was so controversial, only our close supporters...notably Bob Paul and two Black Jokers, Chris Nelson, and Tim Cavanaugh, (who later became dancer extraordinaire with Marlboro Morris Men) knew about it. They cheered in the right places, carried our sticks and watched Janet's dog, Max. 

Our first appearance before people who knew Morris dancing, was dawn on May Day in Cambridge, where, as the guests of New Cambridge Morris Men, we debuted our kits: blue tabards lined and edged with green, with a unicorn emblem and brown shoes. We were all nervous, especially those of us who understood the challenge we were making. The response to our dancing was overwhelmingly enthusiastic, and the thought that we were physically incapable of performing the dances was dispelled. However, I recall one New Cambridge man kept commenting on our cross-backs : he couldn't believe we did something so "complicated" so easily--he himself could not. (Really! Truly!) The next significant dance out was the first Marlboro Morris Ale at the end of May. 


A larger subject for another article; suffice it to say, I loved watching Morris, and dancing it in classes, where I had my "Paul on the Road to Damascus moment" that I JUST HAD TO DO IT. I will admit that I was pretty tired of categorical rejection based on gender, not ability (the 70's remember!) and that added some fuel to my fire, but passion for the dance was the primary reason. Besides, I had been told by my first Morris teacher at Burnley High School for Girls , Burnley Lancs., England, (where Morris and sword were part of the physical education curriculum thanks to Mary Neal) "YOU ARE NEITHER MALE NOR FEMALE IN THIS, JUST A DANCER." Consequently I was shocked to be learn Morris was for men only. I also had to endure many persons (mostly male) accosting me in social situations and informing me of their opinion and disapproval of my enterprises (whether they had seen us or not!). The disapproval from those who had seen us did not bother me as much as one would think, because it meant we were good enough to somehow be threatening !


We chose the name because the other suggestions were so much worse! Brookline is on the Muddy River and was originally known as Muddy River Town. Other suggestions had been of the Bonnie Green Garters, Ladies Pleasure ilk, all names that did not bode well for being taken seriously. Skylar's Muddy River suggestion was the one name those present would all agree to. And yes, I wish I had thought of "Commonwealth" then instead of 10 yrs later. (Some readers may recall a short lived Commonwealth Longsword team, which predated Commonwealth Morris -- great name, great team-- by several years).


Dressing down and looking neutral was a standard practice of those seeking credibility in male dominated ventures in those days. We had a large range of body types to accommodate and blend together...and there weren't sports bras then either. The tabards were based on ones I'd seen at Thaxted in 1975, and on the Westminster and Greenwich Men. Originally they were intended to have blue fronts, green backs because of the effect created in a hey, but the persons delegated to the task got the wrong material. Consequently the green was used for lining and trim. And yes, we picked the colors because the suggestion of spring earth and sky: relating back to the earth was another 70's theme. And yes, we were charmed by the alleged relationship of Morris to ancient pagan rituals. (Remember, Tolkien was very popular.)

The unicorn emblem came from 2 sources: 1. my father, who printed posters on antique manual printing presses as a hobby, printed our original posters with a unicorn on them because he liked it; 2. we liked it, and some of us also claimed a kinship with the maiden and the unicorn tapestries and the empowering legends of the maidens taming unicorns. (Again, remember these were Tolkien and other fantasy inspired times without availability of computer graphic enhancements!). We once practiced next to a bridge which crossed the Muddy River so it was the unicorn was placed on it. Janet thought a hand should reach up from under the bridge about to grab at the unicorn's ankle and on her emblem it did.

Green socks: Thank you to Binghampton! We'd admired the effect of their red socks and assimilated the idea. Our first "groupie" buttons had unicorns wearing green socks. And somewhere someone has suggestive pictures of trails of green socks leading to various scenes on what was then known as "Women's Hill" (now just Fieldtown and Bampton cabins, and co-ed for 20 years) at Pinewoods Camp.


By 1978 we had a hobby unicorn, and a fool whose costume seemed to be largely purple (the beginning of a change to purple?) appeared soon after. I recall Robin Rogers Browne as the fool character.


When we first started, I had been dancing a little more than a year in classes, and Janet even less, so initially we sought some teaching support from out side my own resources of taking every class, and workshop, and reading everything I could find. Larry Jennings (initially ambivalent about women dancing with the intent to perform, but unable not to support someone developing a dance group) and Howard Lasnik (supportive and a teacher) from the Black Jokers gave some advice and teaching in fall of1975, but it is to J.M. "Shag" Graetz that Muddy River is most indebted. 

Shag told me to stop kvetching about the resistance and censure to women dancing Morris and just do it, saying it was a woman, Mary Neal , who had initially rescued Morris from disappearing and started the revival. Thus no one really had any business saying we should not do it . (Shag, a founding member of Pinewoods Morris Men, had just returned from a year in England studying and collecting dancing, including the contribution of women in the revival.) Though busy teaching Cotswold Morris, Sword, and Northwest classes at the CDS Boston Centre, he, at my request, managed to give us about an hour a week of teaching or coaching for several months before the first Marlboro Ale. Over the next couple of years, he returned when asked to give us workshops in specific traditions we wanted to explore, e.g., Green Man Lichfield. He also provided Ha'Penny Morris with some instruction, and supported my venture into Esperance Morris in the early 80's by playing the piano accompaniment for it, as was written in their books.

From the beginning, Shag recommended we concentrate on one tradition and develop our own style in it. (A concentration on Fieldtown and Bucknell began in our second year.) For dances we already thought we knew, he offered stylistic details as he had studied or observed them, e.g. "box" hey in Bucknell, cross-backs in Headington, Adderbury for 8 with double sticking vs. the homogenized versions we had learned. He emphasized moving together as a group and clarity of individual movements, and changed our double step technique.

Additionally, he gave us largely tacit but unequivocal support which enhanced our (or at least those of us with CDS affiliations) confidence. As was true with larger social issues of the time, some men completely rejected the idea of women dancing, but far many others were ambivalent about it even as they intellectually supported it. Ironically, many of the men who believed Morris dancing belonged to men had been introduced to Morris dancing by women teachers. The familiar pantheon of CDSS of female teachers, e.g., May Gadd, Genny Shimer, etc. all taught Morris dancing at some point in their careers. Many of those male teachers who did not (or perhaps could not) bar women from their classes, had strong feelings against women performing it. (When I attended Berea Christmas school in 1975, women were grudging allowed into the "ritual" classes, but barred from the mummers class and Morris demonstrations because "that's for men!").

Shag's support was not unconditional however. While he never belittled us or hurt our feelings (often a big concern of women in groups!), he did not hesitate to tell me "that dance was not ready to dance out, its presence unsure and you lost the double step in the Back to Backs...." etc. I knew how to run a rehearsal from my father, an orchestra conductor, but my initial understanding of how to look at movement and dancing I owe to Shag. Given the number of women who were motivated to dance Morris from seeing Muddy River, and the number of women's sides I coached or taught over the years, women performing Morris owe a lot more to Shag than anyone (including himself) know.

At the second Ale we danced a Hinton in the Hedges dance for two sets, in part as a surprise and thanks to Shag, who had taught it in CDS classes.



Among the significances of the Ale was the success and recognition of women's sides. At this Ale, certain well known dancers did not come and/ or had "other commitments" in protest that women's sides would be there. Pinewoods Men had considered it an important enough issue to debate and vote on whether or not to tour with women (4 had vetoed it and, yes, I knew who they were). As nervous as we felt on May Day, it was a drop in the bucket compared to the anticipation of the Ale. We didn't know what to expect, how we would be received by the larger Morris community, or whether we cared. However, the mantra of the 70's for any woman attempting to establish herself in any male dominated area was "you have to be better to be as good." With practices 2 times per week and some novelties up our sleeves, we were ready. All 3 women's sides in their own ways were very ready though we never talked about it amongst ourselves.

For the Saturday dancing at the College, Marlboro women, up first (if memory serves) as the host team, set the bar very high for everyone, men and women, with their breathtaking flow and precision in their Headington . (Double Set Back?). Whether you thought women should be performing or not you could not help but be mesmerized by them. Ring o' Bells' excellence was already known; they were, after all, the first U.S. women's team and composed of experienced first-rate dancers. We were biting our nails, as we were next to last. As half the side had no affiliation to the Boston Centre, they were excited about doing something women were not supposed to do, but still mostly oblivious to the high emotions concerning women performing those of us with CDS connections experienced. Our extra practices paid off, however. Our 8 person Adderbury (Blue Bells of Scotland)with unexpected doubletime sticking, got people's attention, and I heard many times how well we danced as a group which had been a goal. The Ale was such an exhilarating experience for all on so many levels that everyone there experienced connection to all those present. I personally know of several men who had a "conversion experience" regarding women dancing at that Ale. While the conflict of women performing Morris was by no means over, at the end of this Ale, it was established as something viable, exciting, and here to stay. It was the end of the beginning. At least that was certainly the sense I had, as evidenced by the mushrooming of women's sides in the following years. Although many of those sides are now defunct, there are current incarnations of all three of those original women's sides, 30 years later.

 AMN, Vol. 25, No. 4, December 2005  ISSN: 1074-2689