Without going into historical details and accountings of vicious disputes of half a century ago and longer, I'll just say that there have been people who insisted that women should never dance Morris (I think there are very few of these people left) and there have been people who insist that it's ok for women to dance Morris but mixed-sex teams are anathema (there are Ales that do not invite mixed-sex teams to participate) and there have been people who say that the people insisting on these things have no authority to insist on these things in the first place. Also, as metallumai implied in a comment to my last journal entry, most cities don't even have the luxury of deciding whether they believe in mixed teams or not, since the bigger issue is finding enough dancers to field a team at all.
Despite not having sat down consciously to develop my personal philosophy of gender makeup of a Morris team, I found that I was coming to general conclusions -- actually more observations than conclusions. It definitely felt different to dance only with other men than to dance in mixed groups. I really haven't seen many all-women sides (and that may be a huge skewing factor here), but even when the women's sides danced crisply and powerfully and aerobically beyond what would be my abilities to keep up, I saw something different than I saw in all-male sides. Part of what I'm talking about here is a physical abandon and occasional hot-dogging that seem to characterize male sides. Think about stick clashes as one of the key moments that seem different -- think about what it looks like when the stick clashers are both men (vs. when they are both women, or a man and a woman). Maybe all I'm saying here is that I was always aware of the fact that my partner across a set was female, when I was in that situation, and this was reflected in the dancing.
I am making no judgment whatsoever about what is "better" here, except to the extent that I discovered -- to my surprise, when I thought about it -- that I liked dancing on an all-male team.
What I've read and heard elsewhere is that these differences are based on physical differences, but I don't buy that for the most part. For one thing, I personally have never been a macho masculine-prototype dancer, but I fit right in with the male groups. There are women in the Twin Cities Morris community who physically can dance in perfectly with the male teams. One of the best most vigorous most powerful sets I've ever danced included Denise and Carol in a Bledington Trunkles, and in my early days of learning Braggarts style I was helped by watching Jan shadow one of our dancers in a Mayday Guerrilla set. And, conversely, I have many times seen the wonderful Derek dance in with a set of the local women's side in perfect sync and stunning beauty. You could say these are exceptions that prove the rule, but I don't think that's it. I think that these are situations where people feel free to dance differently than they usually do, and they have developed the skills to do so (despite being the "wrong" gender for those skills). And the "usually do" is what I'm talking about when I speak of my conclusions about the differences between women and men dancing Morris. In a way that goes beyond what you can attribute to a particular team's style.
What I'm leading up to here is that one of the first things that came upon me during Morris Intensive last week was that I'm going to have to rethink my conclusions about the differences between male and female Morris dance. During one of the first day's class exercises -- an exercise in partnering -- I was in a line across from Moira, who was not technically in the class (she was the camp cook, joining us when she could find free time). As soon as we started to dance it felt to me as if I were dancing across from a Braggart, and one of the stronger dancers at that. As it happens this woman knew the tradition we were dancing, which I did not, so she had a certain advantage there, but what I saw was her sidesteps: She started firm and solid on the ground and got herself and her legs way in the air without effort. It was a Braggarts sidestep, where -- as I was coached -- you kick yourself in the nuts as you hop up, to give yourself lift. (Usually, outside the Braggarts, I'm side-stepping across from people who are more-or-less skipping rather than jumping.) All her dancing was like that. I have since glibly announced to various people that I saw women last week who danced "like men" -- but that's wrong, that was just the best summary I could come up with.
It wasn't just this woman -- the teenage girls in the class all danced like this. There was none of the sense I sometimes get in mixed sets of feeling some difference in approach. I didn't have to think about matching my "male" approach with the "female" approach of my partner or the other dancers in the set. I say that I like dancing on an all-male team. I would like dancing on a team with these girls every bit as much, for the same reasons.
These girls have all been dancing since they were quite young (in some cases other kinds of dancing), and some of them have fathers who danced on all-male sides, so they were surrounded by that. I think this means that they have something in their approach and in their abilities, deep inside their muscle memories and sense of dance, that contributes to their dancing as they do. Then they get reinforcement from dancing with each other in this way.
In other words, this is what I'm starting to think: The male vs. female Morris dance style issue is not about chromosomal makeup.
On the last day of camp, when I was sitting with some of the "Morris kids" and waxing sentimental about how great it was to dance with them, I told a couple of the girls about how watching them dance was causing me to rethink my conclusions about how women dance Morris. Emma, who brooks no nonsense, said in a funny combination of skepticism and amazement, "You changed your opinion on women dancing Morris from watching *me* dance?". "Well... yes", I said. "You, and Erika, and Moira..." At which point Erika and Emma interrupted and said, "Oh, well Moira. Of course."
When I told Shannon, who was attending the class as well, that I'd never seen women dance like the girls in the class, she didn't disagree but she said she found that very sad. She thinks this is because I wasn't around when the local Minneapolis women's side was much younger -- 20 years younger, for the most part. So I'm willing to entertain the notion that I'm seeing nothing more than what it's like to watch gifted teenage girls dance. But I really do think there's something else behind it.
So start 'em early and throw them into the deep end of the Morris pool, that's what I say.