Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Morris Dancing is Not The Ale

It's very easy to get caught up in the Shangri-La quality of a Morris Ale, it being that rare and inspiring world where everybody speaks the gestural language of Morris and random singing is the norm. To sing and dance wholly outside of a performing context without self-consciousness is a heady and addictive thing. Why can't we dance all night, every night? Or perhaps more pragmatically: Why can't we live in a world where everybody wants to sing and dance all night, every night? I do love when people approach my team when we are dancing in public to ask/demand "Who are you!?" (as happens several times over the course of nearly every performance); this is better than ignoring us, and shows at least a minimal interest. But it is freeing to dance for two days where everybody knows the answer to this question already (even if everybody "knows" a different answer entirely).

But the key to the Ale, and the answer to the "Who are you?" question, lies not in the Ale itself but in the rest of the year. Each team at the Ale represents months and years of practice and work and organizational travails. What we see at the Ale is the tip of an enormous iceberg, an iceberg of people who are encouraging and preserving and participating in this tradition and -- in my estimation and analysis -- creating community wherever they live. The teams at the Ale are not focused on sitting home, surrounded by their home entertainment systems, removing themselves from cultural interplay. They are out practicing dance and learning music and finding places to bring a little bit of joy and luck and music and texture to their neighborhoods -- and this is despite the fact that our culture not only provides no places for this, but actively discourages this. "Open spaces" in our urban areas are maintained (at great tax benefit, I should point out) by private corporations, who can send their security guards out to kick us off their parks and plazas faster than a team can form up. And just try to find a bar that will turn down its music or turn off its tv and let you sing or dance. Just try. (If you find one, support it with your patronage.)

What we see at the Ale is a reflection of how much work so many people have done, just so they can dance the Morris -- out and publicly in their communities. These are not folk dancers, dancing in folk dance associations or on stage. These are people who have gotten caught up in a tradition where a village, as part of regular village life, supported the public display of ritual and tradition -- as well as the occasional song in the pub. Morris dance exists in its surrounding community, not in the wonderful embracing atmosphere of an Ale. Or to put it another way: Morris dance exists in the real world, and the Ale is not the real world, alas.

I had happy occasion to ponder this on Tuesday night, when Ramsey's Braggarts Morris Men attempted our first tour of Northeast Minneapolis. It could be the neighborhood itself, it could be the time of year, or it could be wholly random, but every place we danced we encountered people who seemed to understand and enjoy what we were doing -- that is, we were providing something interesting and fun on a random Tuesday evening.

This was our tour:

- We danced in a vacant lot at the corner of Central and Lowry, in the middle of a neighborhood that has seen better times but is having something of a revival (although we still had to be sure that we kept our instrument cases and kit bags near to us). Yes, we danced in a rundown vacant urban lot next to a major thoroughfare. One car, with a family inside, stopped and watched us for a long time. The proprietors of the business next door came out to suggest we participate in the neighborhood parade, and to offer their encouragement. Many cars driving by beeped their approval.

- We walked up to a food co-op about a block away and danced in a parking lot. There were few people around, but the ones present expressed great pleasure. One woman beamed enthusiastically and announced that she thought she was just dropping by to pick up some portabella mushrooms but instead got this! It was the first time we have been compared favorably to mushrooms, I should point out. Usually it's a closer call.

- A neighborhood association was sponsoring an outdoor band and movie night, and Nat (from our team who lives in the neighborhood) has asked them if they'd like us to drop by, and they were quite enthusiastic about the idea. Again there weren't too many people present but we danced out in public and random people asked us who we were and the organizers of the event were pleased.

- We went over to a hip bar on Central, where we thought we were way too early for the edgy youthful crowd that frequents the place. But Morris magic happened: A passing car stopped, its inhabitants fascinated. They pulled into the parking lot and talked with us for a while and wore expressions of delight and amazement -- when we danced and when we sang. They had never seen anything like this, they kept saying. They bought us beer! And the other bar patrons sitting outside (where you have to sit if you smoke) did not put on those peeved expressions we sometimes see -- they even commented on how wonderful it is to have a random Tuesday night event like this. They kept encouraging us to stay on, to drink more, to dance more. We stayed longer and danced more dances than we had planned -- our dancing space was a narrow strip of sidewalk, after all. We all felt good afterward.

- We then walked over to our final bar of the evening, a neighborhood institution of beef and garlic sandwiches and punk bands and Sunday polka nights. To my amazement at least, the folks in the bar and the proprietors were happy to have us. There was a softball team enjoying post-game drinks, and they were the best and most enthusiastic audience in the world, Another one of the patrons manages a bar in Minneapolis -- right near where we danced out the other week -- and he wanted our contact information so that he could arrange to have us come and bring fun and excitement to his bar. He said that when we walked in -- all in white, bells ringing from our shins -- it completely changed the feel of the bar, and for the better. Hooray!

We moved some tables aside and danced two dances and then pulled the tables back up to sit and eat and have another beer. I looked around and noted that the particular group sitting around was the same group that had gone to the Ale (which is most of our team, so that wasn't too unusual). We toasted our dancing Orange in Bloom at the Nebraska State House. We talked about maybe going back to Toronto for the Toronto Ale. These were wonderful memories and plans, but at the core of who we are as a team was what we had experienced right there that evening in our own city.

It was a fine time.
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