Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Me and My Drum

At the Midwest Morris Ale there is a lot of what you call "mass dancing", which is when all the dancers from all the teams (or "all who will" which is usually most of them) get up to dance the same dances together. At the Midwest Ale this was an enormous number of dancers. My understanding is that this is not a common Morris phenomenon -- I'm told it's hardly done at all (if ever) in England. How could this be common, really, since different teams dance different traditions and different styles, so it's not as if being on a Morris team means that you share a body of dance or even a way of dancing with all other Morris dancers. There are a few dances that are generally known -- Abram's Circle, for one, and the Bonny Green Garters processional is I think a common massed thing -- but beyond that you've really got to develop a regional culture of common dances. Friday night of the Midwest Ale is given over to teaching that year's selection of mass dances, which always includes several taught in previous years.

It's all worth the confusion and bother and preparation, because the sight of a vast field of Morris dancers is something to behold, and the feeling of dancing in such a body and dancing with people from other teams in a lovely set is one of the great joys of the Ale.

But above and beyond the issues of getting dancers from different teams in different cities to learn the same dances in the same traditions, you've got the logistical issue of providing music for the mass dances. Each team develops a deep and interactive relationship between the dancers and musicians. How does that work when you add everything together? This is not like a band or an orchestra with sheet music and a conductor. Equally significant is the issue of volume. Many teams work with musicians whose instruments can't really be heard beyond the range of a single set or two. The farthest dancers need to hear and feel the music. I'm just summarizing some key issues here; in fact there are many others.

In the last couple of years the issue of mass dance music has improved quite a bit specifically because we now have somebody who has been asked to be in charge of the musicians -- that being my team's alpha musician Bob. This means you have somebody organizing things like assigning a single musician playing once to his/her self to lead into the dance, or calling on individual sections to play alone, or keeping the tempo steady, or giving cutoffs at the end of a musical phrase. I suppose you could say you have a conductor, but it's something a little different than that. And while sometimes the musicians might get a little put out at the novel situation of having to work with a conductor for MORRIS dance (harumph!), that is nothing compared to the level of frustration many of the musicians have felt in the past when this has not been the case.

So this year my role, as bass drummer, was the clearest it's ever been. In the past I've been a little hesitant to assert my drumming as I always felt it needed to be asserted to steady the tempos and keep the furthest dancers up to speed, because you don't want to step on the other musicians. But with somebody in charge you are actually freer to give what you think is necessary, knowing there's somebody whose role it is to direct you or to let you know if you are on the wrong track. With Bob's help we set up a regular structure: Each dance begins with one musician playing alone to lead into the dance, I come in strong and powerful and as clear as I can be for just the last measure of this lead-in, and then the dance begins and all the other musicians join in while I pound-pound-pound on the downbeats. To this I add my own stuff: I do try to modify what I'm doing in terms of volume and resonance to push the dancers along for particular steps, and the dancers I watch to work with are always the ones farthest away. And, just as on the march, it is also my job never to falter. At the core, though, my significance in the musician group is that there are frequent periods when the furthest dancers can hear nothing but the bass drum.

This was particularly key for Bonny Green Garters, where the line of Morris dancers extended, oh, an eighth of a mile? Here's a cell-phone picture of the line after it had doubled back on itself; for most of the dance this was one long line. Note that even doubled back you can't even see the end of the procession.

As you can imagine, I was finally free to play the fortississimo I've long dreamed about. I'm told that when the dancers lined up the ones far in the back looked over at the musicians and went into a momentary panic because from their position they couldn't see me. "Oh no! Where's Steven?" rang out the plaintive cry, or so it was claimed. But then they heard the drum, and watched the hankies of the dancers leading the procession, and the entire line stayed together for the duration of the dance.

In fact, I was told by various people over the weekend that when they blocked up for a dance they would look over to be sure I was in the musician's group. The delay was that I have to take my drum off when I'm not playing it for a while, and I had no idea when the mass dances would be called during the group dance time, so I frequently made it to the musician area at the last second. Here's a picture of me standing on the sidelines next to my drum. That's springiswrath with his arm around me, and hey rsc and jwg: that's Carol Ormand to my left. And that's a big smile on my face, such as I wore most of the weekend. Behind me is Mike from Madison in his role as the Betty.

The bass drum is not an inside toy. It it absolutely wrong for a single set of Cotswold Morris dancers. But outside, amongst of field of 10 or 15 sets? I think it makes a big difference. Who would have thought that all my years on the march were merely practice and preparation for my being a legitimate Morris musician?
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