Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,
Steven
unzeugmatic

It's so Quaint and Charming

When I went to the beer bust at the Eagle after dancing Morris at the Powderhorn Mayday Festival, I told some of my bar acquaintances what I had been doing all afternoon. These are friendly folks, who sincerely wanted to know more about what I meant by Morris dancing, and they asked me what kind of dancing it resembles. That's actually a fair question, but I tried to explain that it would be misleading for me to put it in those terms, because what dance form it might superficially resemble is beside the point and would not explain what Morris dancing is at all -- but that didn't get me very far. The notion that context matters most of all in explaining what something "is" has not made its way into the general consciousness as much as I would like.

("What kind of music do you like?" "For what? Singing with friends at 2am? Listening to in my car on the way to work in the morning? Paying to see performed on a stage?" Just try to give that answer and see how far you get socially with it -- even though it's the only answer I could possibly give. Reason number 378 why I feel I live in a world that is not optimized for me.)

Eventually, with my friends, I had to resort to a description that included the phrase "folk dancing", even though Morris dancers traditionally take great umbrage at being called folk dancers -- this despite the fact that if you go to the Wikipedia entry on "folk dancing" there is a prominent photo of Morris dancing. Why is this so -- that Morris dancers in general do not consider themselves folk dancers?

I wish the answer were simple. To me it's a question of the context in which "folk dancing" is danced in our culture -- which is different than the context in which it is danced in its country and epoch of origin. I think that is very different than the context of Morris dancing -- which at essence is street theater, and which has the goal of integration into a community (dancing out and performing at public events). When I first heard of White Rats Morris in the Bay Area -- a Goth-influenced team that actually sews their bells to their arms for some performances -- I remember hearing praise for the fact that even though in some ways they were not "traditional" (in terms of their kit, for example) they did a better job than most teams of trying to be the team for a particular community (dancing at bondage parties and the Folsom Street Fair and the SF Pride Parade). My larger point here is that it's not the specific dances that White Rats Morris performs that is most significant to the discussion, but where they dance and why. This is what I believe distinguishes Morris from folk dancing -- that is, folk dancing outside of its country or community of origin, which is mostly what I see in the US.

I know that folk dancers would probably claim otherwise -- that this distinction I make here about folk dance privileging the choreography over the context doesn't hold. But I think about all the folk dancing enthusiasts I've known, and what I've seen is that their dances are from a variety of cultures and regions. The pleasure is in the choreography, and the folk dance community itself (and these are great pleasures indeed)-- but is the folk dance community the same as the cultural community in which a particular dance originates? And then there's the distinction between folk dance clubs and folk dance troupes that perform for a paying audience -- are those the same thing? I would say emphatically no, even when they do the same dances. But you could probably have guessed that I would say that.

Besides the conversation at the Eagle, I also had occasion to think about this recently when d33ann wrote in her journal about seeing Morris dancers on a stage at the Seattle Folklife Festival (and thinking of me). My first response was that if she saw them on a stage she didn't really see Morris dancing, but that sounds more snide than I'd want it to. Mostly I think this touches on my thoughts about the dance having meaning only in context, and the context of a stage is not where it seems like Morris dancing to me. It seems like -- ah ha -- folk dancing.

I get support for my notions here from Tony Barrand in his book about Morris dancing, Six Fools and a Dancer. Now, there's a lot I don't agree with in what Tony says -- or perhaps the way he says it -- but he talks about this distinction from folk dancing in various places in the book. At one point, in discussing Morris as street theater, he writes: "The Morris in not an art form for its own sake. That would be merely folk dancing". (Did you catch that "merely"? Without the "merely" I'm in agreement. With that one word he manages to offend all folk dancers worldwide, and that's what I mean about not agreeing with the way he says things.) He also argues for Morris teams to maintain a single tradition (rather than many) and to keep that tradition over time, in support of which he writes this:

...the choreography is really only a very small part of what the Morris is about. The meaning lies in the occasion, in the performance of the season and of one's links with a time and place. That can be achieved with any one set of individual and group movements....To switch traditions or to perform several different ones is to keep what is expressed through the Morris at a shallow level. It is to be a folk dancer for whom the choreography is the raison d'etre rather than a Morris dancer for whom the choreography is a means to achieve more powerful ends."

Again, at the core I agree with the distinction he makes -- or in any case I find support for a distinction I was already making, in an inchoate form. But he's got to throw in this implication that folk dancing by definition keeps dancing at a "shallow level" -- which is not really what he's saying -- the shallow level part is a separate point from the folk dance distinction -- but you've got to read really carefully to figure that out. Still there's no question about what he means when he refers to Morris dancing as achieving "more powerful ends" (than folk dancing) -- as if there is a competition or ranking. That's where I part ways. But if you can get through that obnoxiousness and focus only on the description of what Morris is (minus any explicit comparative ranking against other forms of dancing that are so different -- contextually -- that ranking is irrelevant) then you've got some things to think about. By which I mean that I myself have some things to think about here, in regards to what I myself do.

But I wouldn't call myself a folk dancer, either.
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