Before the first flush of wonder fades for good, never to return, I wanted to write of one particular Morris Dance moment, which might offer a glimpse into the whys of this particular affectation.
Despite a surface similarity, dancing Morris is unlike any other dancing I've done. In other folk (and ballroom) dancing I've done, you can reach a certain minimal level fairly quickly. You can learn to get through the dance and then, incrementally, you build the skills that make you proficient. In Morris dancing it seems much more all or nothing. To do a Morris dance at all you have to learn the movements and the styling and the feet and the hands and the interplay with the other dancers -- all of those things, all at the same time. Some people have a facility for this sort of coordination, and can watch somebody dance a particularly complicated set of body movements and then repeat those movements on the first try, with gracefulness and ease. I am not one of those people. I have to break movements down into their smallest components and drill those movements into my muscles, over and over and over, before I can coordinate my brain with my body. Add the complexity that my team dances a tradition that requires a degree of physical strength that I had to build up to (while losing enough weight that I could leap high and pivot long without destroying my knees).
In retrospect I am willing to say that the learning period was more frustrating than I would admit to at the time. But the flip side of this frustration is that when the dancing comes together, it really comes together. As my friend Denise (the team's main musician who has been watching me for months and offering me the occasional coaching) said to me on Mayday morning, "It's happening for you."
One of the last things to come together is true "partnering" with the dancer across the set. This is moving in absolute sync with the person you are doing your figures with, feeling the music together and leaping at the same precise moment and, in general, communicating with each other on a level that I compare to the sort of communication I feel when I'm singing harmony with close friends. And, as in singing harmony, it feels very different to partner with different people. Sometimes you just click. At those moments it seems as if the earth temporarily stops on its axis.
It didn't surprise me that the first sense I got of the great joy of good partnering came when I was dancing opposite my friend Michael. Michael and I are very close, which is a big part of it, but Michael is also the sort of dancer (the sort of person, really) who is able to adapt himself and his dancing to his partner. In other words, like a good harmony singer, Michael makes his partner look good.
But it did surprise me last week when I had a moment with Matt. An amazing dancing moment. I was surprised because Matt's background isn't dancing or music, but sports (football, swimming, serious biking). As Denise puts it, he "dances like a jock". This is not a criticism. Matt is very strong -- particularly in his legs -- and when he leaps he conveys a sense of defying gravity. It's not simply a question of height, but of spring and control.
At the Mayday festival on May 3, Matt and I were opposite each other for one of the dances, and we noticed -- to our mutual surprise -- that we were with each other. This is not something you talk about explicitly -- you sort of look at each other at key moments, when the step comes together, and grin. Then, at the end of the dance, you shake hands, or give each other a quick congratulatory hug. It's like saying "yasher koach" to somebody leaving the bima after they've done the blessings before and after the reading of the Torah. Or something like that.
Two days later, instead of having a practice, we went over to Macalester College (where Michael and Matt and a few other team members went to school) and danced out in front of the student center. Our last dance of the evening was "Queen's Delight" (stop snickering), which is a "challenge dance", in which a good portion of the dance involves pairs of dancers, in sequence, doing particular sequences of steps. Matt was my partner, and I wasn't doing particularly well, but then came the last challenge step of the dance: "splitters". You hop on your left foot while kicking with your right, then you hop on your right foot while kicking with your left, then you jump up and do a mid-air split with your right foot in front and left foot behind. Then you repeat, in mirror image. (Are you getting an idea of why I say this is high-impact stuff that's hard on the knees?)
Usually you do your final splitter in this dance next to your partner, while traveling across the set, but as Matt and I prepared for our splitters we looked at each other and somehow knew what was coming: We did our splitters -- both of them -- facing each other, belly-to-belly. My right leg kicked directly under his left, and his right leg kicked directly under my left (and then we did the same thing reversed). We flirted with danger and emerged safely. The musicians said that from the side it looked like one pair of legs in the air. The rest of the team stared at us with smiles of astonishment and approval. When the dance ended Matt and I were grabbing each other like a quarterback and receiver after a winning touchdown pass. We all went out for beer afterward, and Matt and I kept talking about those splitters. Dancing those splitters is a moment I found myself looking back on for several days, with great pleasure.
Sometimes the metaphor is enough.