Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,
Steven
unzeugmatic

Straight Male Energy; Morris Dancing and Me

April 6, 1998

I was quietly dismissive when my friend Stephen Parker spoke to me of the "straight male energy" of the all-male Morris Dance teams he had been part of for nearly two decades. For the bulk of that time -- certainly for the time period when he was most fanatically obsessed with Morris Dancing -- he was not yet out, so I figured that to some extent he was talking about his own sublimated "gay male energy" and maybe even his own "wishful thinking energy". But for the most part I consider Stephen to be an intuitive and observant man, so I found myself keeping his phrase in the back of my head, to ponder.

To the extent that I thought there was such a thing as "straight male energy", I associated it with team-sport, frat-boy culture. Get enough straight guys together, doing their straight-guy things, and, in time, I will go from feeling alienated to uncomfortable to threatened. In my experience, "straight male energy" can lead to "straight male misogyny" and "straight male bloodletting". What this has to do with vigorous ritual dancing, I couldn't imagine, except maybe the bloodletting when you miss on a stick-clash.

Three years ago I became a regular percussionist and occasional backup dancer for a "Border Morris" team that meets in the winter, and I began to get a sense of the sort of feeling that builds up among team members over the course of weekly practices and through dancing out in public, like fools, to a usually-uncomprehending audience. It's a wonderful feeling, and, in my opinion, this is the feeling that provides the reason people dance Morris, although any Morris Dancer will give you a different explanation, and a far-fetched one at that. I attend practice weekly from October through January, and most weeks I have a beer and a song or two with the (mostly-straight) guys who make up that team. There are women musicians, but there is a definite separation between the musicians and the dancers -- it's like a pit band and a musical theater troupe.

So, do I sense this putative straight male energy field when I dance Border? Well, I don't really dance Border much, mostly I sing and play my drum, so, based on Border, it's hard to say. But what's easy to say is that twenty years ago I would have doubted that I could ever feel anything other than an outsider in a group of straightguys. And I know, as deeply as one can know these things, that I am not an outsider in Great Northern Border, whatever that might mean.

This is how I know I am not an outsider, and also how I have come to understand more about what Stephen might be talking about: At the end of Border season, the dancers regroup into different Cotswold Morris teams. This is the type of Morris team you are most likely to have seen, perhaps wearing white clothes and bells, waving hankies (though some dances require sticks), and dancing at Renaissance Festivals or Mayday celebrations. Each year, at the beginning of Cotswold season, the group known as Ramsey's Braggarts decides that they miss seeing me every week and they invite me to join their team. I point out that I am too old to start to become a Morris Dancer (I'm not sure the high-on-raucousness, low-on-technique Border tradition counts), especially on a team that dances the high-impact, difficult-technique "Bledington" tradition ("It's a young man's dance," somebody admitted to me once; "Bledington is Hard to Do," go the words to a song to the tune of "Breaking up is hard to do"). I am, at 41, just past the age when many longtime Morris Dancers find they have to give up dancing because of the toll it has taken on their knees and backs -- especially if, like me, they have started to put on weight as they reached forty. Stephen Parker himself has had to give up dancing.

Well this year I realized that I would miss seeing the dancers (and the musicians, and their children) on a weekly basis every bit as much and probably more than they say they will miss me, and since I never saw through my plans to learn to play squeezebox and become a year-round Morris musician, my only option was to dance. So I hedged my bets and said that well, er, why don't I come to practice every week but I'm not really asking to be on the team. Within a couple of weeks I found that, wholly subconsciously, I had started to say "we" to refer to the team.

How's it going? Better than I expected. I didn't think I'd be ready to dance out by Mayday (the first and biggest public performance), especially since this team is very good and somewhat strict about technique, but there are a few dances for which it looks as if I am close to not destroying the general look of the dance, as long as I can dance apprentice side third corner. My feet and shins don't hurt quite so much the day after practice as they did at first. For stick-tossing dances, I don't drop the stick any more or less than anybody else. I still won't dance a figure where we have to leap-frog over somebody else (images of broken necks haunt me), but I'll be there someday.

Last week I asked Michael Shewmaker, who invited me to join the team in the first place, whether he thought I'd be ready by Mayday. Now, Michael loves me very much, which colored his answer in my favor, but still, this was his reply: "You know, there are two theories about what makes somebody ready to dance out. One is whether they have the dance and the technique down -- and you'll be there I'm sure. The other is whether they have the energy and spirit, and you've had that from the beginning."

Hey, but is it straight male energy I have? Is it straight male energy I am feeding off? I should point out that when I have brought up this "straight male energy thing" with a couple of the guys on the team, they seemed baffled, and perhaps a little wary. So I think I need to divide the concept into components to consider this.

First off, there is definitely something here that you would call "energy" -- emotions and inspirations sparking through the air when you work as a team on a ritual dance to live music. When you leap as a line, when you clash your sticks just so, when you interact with other people through movement, your heart soars. As the basics of the steps and figures become second-nature (there are brief, very brief moments when this is starting to happen for me), you fly. You fly in a way that you cannot reproduce when you are practicing at home on your own -- believe me, I've tried.

You cannot have a decent Morris Dance side by yourself. (It's like a marching band in that way.) You need to find at least five other people who want to be part of a Morris team as much as you do. A team does not work as a team unless its members develop a sense of being part of the group. I saw this the first time I walked in to a practice: a group that had developed this particular sort of bond. We begin every other practice by mopping the floor of the large hall we use, as part of our payment for the space. Even when we mop, we are a team. Sometimes we sing when we mop. This, surely by anybody's definition, is "energy".

Is it male energy? I'm reluctant to say, as an absolute sweeping statement, that men dance differently than women. But as a generality, it's true. A combination of social pressures and physical makeup yields a sort of vigorous, clomping style among men who are not trained in classical dance. Also, in my observation of mixed Morris dance sides, women are reluctant (or perhaps find it more difficult, physically) to whack their Morris sticks as hard as the men like to, or to leap as high in the air, and this makes for a very different feel to the dances. Many professional folkdance groups include men with dance training, which I think yields a different way of carrying the body than I am finding characterizes Ramsey's Braggarts -- who dance in a manner that seems to separate male-style movement even further from what I think of as female-style movement. It's not less graceful -- it just follows a different standard of what "grace" means.

Does this male energy I'm claiming go beyond the actual dancing style? This is where I start to think about "straight male energy". Because, as Cotswold season goes on and I start to look forward to my Tuesday nights as one of the more invigorating and pleasant time-blocks of the week, I'm starting to conclude that the time I spend dancing Morris on a team of straight guys feels different to me than the time I spend in mixed-gender groups and the time I spend in groups of gay men. It is in the realm of "feeling" that you find what I -- having learned such things from Stephen Parker -- call energy in the first place.

The first thing I realized, even when I was just dancing Border occasionally, was that, given my 25 years of experience in various gay settings and organizations, it seemed odd to be working with a group of men where I did not feel underlying sexual tension of any sort. There are gay men who I know would disagree with me on this assessment, men who find sublimated sexual energy in most all-male encounters. But I simply don't feel it. And these are men (well, some of them, anyway) who will hug each other in affection, who will sit in each other's laps, who will even snuggle on occasion -- and who don't exclude me from any of this. And yet I sense no sexual underpinnings to any of this, and that's not something I'm oblivious to. This makes it very different from the gay-male groups I've been part of.

I see that I'm making this sound very new-age touchy feely; that's not what I'm aiming for. I know this claim will yield skepticism, but what I see is the sort of male-male physical interaction that I associate with the innocence of earlier times -- which is no doubt a romanticization, but so is Morris Dancing in general. Morris Dancing itself is characterized by a sort of conscious innocence. It is also true that you have to be very comfortable with touching other men to dance Morris -- comfortable to the point of obliviousness to the various impositions our culture has put on this.

But there's something else I've found, that has nothing to do with sexual tension (or lack thereof) per se. This is something completely personal and idiosyncratic, that is probably more about me exorcising my personal demons than about something an outsider could conclude about the straight male energy of Morris Dancing. What I'm realizing, what I'm remembering, is just how completely, pervasively, distressingly alienated from (straight) male culture I used to feel, particularly group and team culture. I was so completely uncomfortable, from earliest formative memories, with boy games and boy groups (and with the adults who insisted that I be part of these things) that such bonding, such "male energy", was completely poisoned for me -- I would have assumed forever. I was never socially ostracized in general, and certainly coming out nearly twenty-five years ago opened up a wonderful world of gay male friendships and friendship groups that more than compensated for any previous feelings of aloneness. It never would have occurred to me -- as it wouldn't have been true in any way -- that there was something lacking. But coincidence has brought me to Morris Dancing in Minnesota, to being one of the guys. (It goes without saying that I am out-out-out with these guys, right?) And I don't feel alienated or separated or anything other than a full member of the group, albeit the worst (well, least-experienced) Morris dancer in the lot.

So this, to me, is the "straight male energy" of Morris Dancing. The irony that it would take dancing, of all things, to make this evident is not lost on me.

-Steven Levine

-------------------------------
Response from FJ!!:

In article <6gbo5g$3j...@walter-fddi.cray.com>,

Steven Levine <ste...@cray.com> wrote:
>Hey, but is it straight male energy I have? Is it straight male
>energy I am feeding off? I should point out that when I have
>brought up this "straight male energy thing" with a couple
>of the guys on the team, they seemed baffled, and perhaps
>a little wary.

Of course they are: they don't have a clue what you are talking about. In all-male interaction, this is all they know. They do not know what it is like to walk into a room, feel it in the air, and feel instantly threatened, they do not know what it is like to not want to know it. This is their home.

I do not know why they were wary, but I'd venture that it is because by bringing it up, you emphasized a contextual difference between straight and gay men they do not know how to handle and deal with.
FJ!!

----------------------------
My response to FJ!!:


Me
>>Hey, but is it straight male energy I have? Is it straight male
>>energy I am feeding off? I should point out that when I have
>>brought up this "straight male energy thing" with a couple
>>of the guys on the team, they seemed baffled, and perhaps
>>a little wary.

FJ!!
>Of course they are: they don't have a clue what you are talking about.
>In all-male interaction, this is all they know. They do not know what
>it is like to walk into a room, feel it in the air, and feel instantly
>threatened, they do not know what it is like to not want to know it. This
>is their home.
>
>I do not know why they were wary, but I'd venture that it is because by
>bringing it up, you emphasized a contextual difference between straight
>and gay men they do not know how to handle and deal with.

I think you are right about this. It is part of what I was implying. It is a gay male perspective to think of this in terms of "straight male energy". It is a perspective that can confuse straight men.

I plan to send copies of the article to some of the guys on the Braggarts -- who, in fact, were the audience I had in the back of my mind as I wrote it. I may be shattering something fragile by doing this, but what the hell.

A complicating piece of the story that had no specific place in the article is that before I moved to Minnesota the folkie world that I knew -- and the Morris Dance community in particular -- seemed to be as thoroughly and oppressively straight as the rest of the world. I gave up contra-dancing quite specifically because of this feeling, and even though I had a couple of friends in Boston who tried to recruit me to dance Morris at the time (when I was younger, thinner, and more flexible of limb) I had no interest in being the homosexual amongst the hetboys.

Some things have changed since then, both in Boston and in my own sense of imperviousness. But the integration of gay people into the Morris Dance community came strong and early in Minnesota. I attribute this to the near-simultaneous coming-out of two of the mainstays in that world: Stephen Parker and Dino's friend Brian Humphrey. But the time I arrived here, they had made the world safe for humanity.

-Steven Levine

-----------------------------
FJ!! in response:

article <6gdku1$2f...@walter-fddi.cray.com>,

Steven Levine <ste...@cray.com> wrote:
>I plan to send copies of the article to some of the guys
>on the Braggarts -- who, in fact, were the audience I had in
>the back of my mind as I wrote it. I may be shattering something
>fragile by doing this, but what the hell.

Most likely they'll end up wondering what planet you are from. The big issue here is getting a feeling of acceptance to a degree where the difference does not relevantly exists - this is a novel feeling for many gay men in straight settings. I had it from time to time with my student group at the time, but never fully, because some of the guys never could make the full step.

>I had a couple of friends in Boston who tried to recruit me
>to dance Morris at the time (when I was younger, thinner,
>and more flexible of limb) I had no interest in being the
>homosexual amongst the hetboys.

>Some things have changed since then, both in Boston and in
>my own sense of imperviousness.

Tangent: uh, yeah, it has changed, believe it. First of all, there is the whole circle of gender-free folk dance in Boston, which seems to be a lot of fun and spans many traditions, including contra, english country, Morris, and Rapper (woo-hoo!) - the last one providing a, to me, remarkable moment of interaction: last year, after one of the first public performances of the Gay Blades in a big folk fest here, they were approached by a member of another team who asked the Blades when they practiced and where and how you could join. The reason was that a member of this other team had just come out, was struggling, and the person who approached the Blades thought it would be a big help if the newbie got to be around gay people in an environment he knew. Folk as a full-purpose blanket culture to continually live your life in always amazes me - I still think of it as mostly a hobby.

The latest reports are that the gender-free dance community are stepping out back into the greater folk circles. For example, twice now a very defined group has gone to the big Christmas cotillion. The first time there was a bit of a confrontational feeling to it, but everyone adapted, and I think the second time intergration was getting ever closer to being a non-event. Many (presumably) straight men still wince when suddenly confronted with having to dance with another man, and some may have broken the line, but the fact that the same-gender group consisted of the best kick-ass dancers who can pull of any gender-role drunk, blindfolded, and with one leg in a cast, sure helped. That they are very festive helped too. There was a strange phenomenon that when the gender-role-free group started taking group pics of themselves, some of the straight people started photographing the group too, as if they were some monument or sight. The Happy People.

Of course, I am actually not involved in any of this. Dancing is the tool of the devil, y'know.
FJ!!

-------------------------------------------
My response:


Me, on being one of the guys:
>I plan to send copies of the article to some of the guys
>on the Braggarts -- who, in fact, were the audience I had in
>the back of my mind as I wrote it. I may be shattering something
>fragile by doing this, but what the hell.

FJ!!:
>Most likely they'll end up wondering what planet you are from. The big
>issue here is getting a feeling of acceptance to a degree where the
>difference does not relevantly exists - this is a novel feeling for
>many gay men in straight settings...

Yes, and I don't think it's possible to feel it if you are not out. What's frustrating to me is seeing so many men over the years who remain closeted -- or at least situationally closeted -- in the belief that this will bring them that feeling of acceptance. But it can't, because that feeling of acceptance comes when you have absolute trust that being gay does not make a relevant difference, as you say. I think we've both seen people argue that keeping-it-a-secret is the same thing as not-being-relevant, but I can tell you from experience with absolute assurance that these are not the same thing at all.

Me:
>I had a couple of friends in Boston who tried to recruit me
>to dance Morris at the time (when I was younger, thinner,
>and more flexible of limb) I had no interest in being the
>homosexual amongst the hetboys.

>Some things have changed since then, both in Boston and in
>my own sense of imperviousness.

FJ!!:
>Tangent: uh, yeah, it has changed, believe it. First of all, there is
>the whole circle of gender-free folk dance in Boston...

Even twenty years ago there was monthly "gay folk dancing" at Philips Brooks House, and by the time I left ten years ago there was the occasional (once a year, maybe) gender-free contra, but things absolutely exploded shortly thereafter.

FJ!!:
>...which seems to
>be a lot of fun and spans many traditions, including contra, english
>country, Morris, and Rapper (woo-hoo!) - the last one providing a, to
>me, remarkable moment of interaction: last year, after one of the first
>public performances of the Gay Blades in a big folk fest here,...

NEFFA?

>...they
>were approached by a member of another team who asked the Blades when
>they practiced and where and how you could join. The reason was that
>a member of this other team had just come out, was struggling, and
>the person who approached the Blades thought it would be a big help
>if the newbie got to be around gay people in an environment he knew.

Of course it would be. I read this with the sort of painful jealous ache I feel when I see what is available for high-school-age kids and on college campuses and just in the general culture now, and I see how very, very different things are for the newly and hoping-to-be-newly out than they were for me. I think about all the folk festivals I attended with my family from the ages of 10 to 17 -- eight or ten a year, some years -- and I try to imagine what it would have felt like, what it would have meant to me, to see something like a gay rapper sword team (although at the time the American Morris revival was just beginning, so there weren't even straight rapper sword teams) -- anyway, I try to imagine this and I run up against a wall because it's just beyond my imagining.

What I eventually wound up doing, or at least trying to do, was making environments I knew that were populated with gay people. It takes strong motivation indeed to put yourself through the absolute hell of starting up something like a lesbian/gay band.

FJ!!:
>Folk as a full-purpose blanket culture to continually live your life
>in always amazes me - I still think of it as mostly a hobby.

Now this is a major issue, because what you are talking about is what I call being a "folkie". It is, obviously, how I was raised -- most folkies are converts, but I can claim a legitimate heritage. It is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because it opens you up to a sort of world, a sort of way of living in the world, that provides a richness of experience that has little counterpart in the commercialized-art culture of the mainstream. But it is also a curse because it makes you feel separate from the world you have to live in most of the time, which is a feeling I think most of us know in a perhaps more-alienating form.

I tried to run away from my folkie heritage, twice -- both when I left home and when I moved 1500 miles away from all the folk-world I knew. The first time I was successful for about five years before I found myself recreating the folk world I grew up in with people who didn't know my parents -- folkies in their own right before whom I was not "Marlene and Dick's kid.". The second time I was successful for all of 48 hours, after which I went to the local Renaissance Festival and found the Morris Dancers and joined them in song. That's where I met Stephen Parker, and Denise Kania (now married to Michael Shewmaker, who is one of the only other raised-folkie adults I know), and it seemed -- at first meeting -- that I'd always known them, because in a sense I had.

That's part of the blessing, but the counterpart curse is that I cannot feel unashamedly close with people who do not understand this folkie thing, who don't understand the religious (near-religious?) pleasure I get from singing with other people and, of late, from dancing with them. I've told this story on this forum before, but I bring it up again: Several years ago a young man arrived on the scene who wanted to align himself with me, who professed to be my "love slave" (this was both a joke and not-a-joke), and I just didn't know what I wanted from this possibility. But then I took him to a shape-note singing -- he was pleasant and tolerant, but just didn't understand what this was about for me. Shortly after this I drove to Chicago with Stephen and Denise and we listened to some Folk-Legacy tapes and sang some and all felt right with the world for a few hours in that car and I realized that this was something I could never share fully with this young man and it became quite clear to me where things were (or were not) heading. As I summarized it at the time: Given a choice between a really good singing and really good sex, I would choose the former. When I told this to my aunt and brother several months later, my aunt understood what I meant and my brother said, "But how about a really good singing followed by really good sex?" and I said, "That isn't the question."

FJ!!:
>Of course, I am actually not involved in any of this. Dancing is
>the tool of the devil, y'know.

Oh sure, and, as the fiddlers say, the devil gets all the good tunes. But I would like to point out that both here, and in the past, you have shown an understanding of what this folkie thing is that very few non-folkies do.

-Steven Levine

------------------------

FJ!! in response:

In article <6git3a$hj...@walter-fddi.cray.com>,

Steven Levine <ste...@cray.com> wrote:
> >public performances of the Gay Blades in a big folk fest here,...
>NEFFA?

Lilac Sunday at the Arboreum. This day will be etched in my brain, as my parents were over for a week, and that was their last day - they would drive and fly out from there. This is the day that I found myself surrounded by spring and dance and sun and was serious that I needed therapy.

They're doing NEFFA this year, but hate their time-slot - they're against something big they'd all love to join. If I were a real folkie I'd know what, it's this dance on Sunday. Too bad, because they have a kickass set (even if it isn't fully traditional, ::giggle::).

>That's part of the blessing, but the counterpart curse is that
[...]
>tunes. But I would like to point out that both here, and
>in the past, you have shown an understanding of what this
>folkie thing is that very few non-folkies do.

I'd damn well better; I have a relationship to grow.

It is a space, a life, a culture. It is around me and shaped his mind and thus needs to be explored like I found out about magic and sex and Methodism and Quakers and Judaism and Christians and leather and madness and despair and feminism and drugs and telepathy and Trek and clubbing and Cleveland and New Hampshire and the stars and the sun and the moon through everyone else I have met. It made his heart so I must know it.

He hasn't grown up quite as steeped into it as you (good gawd, who has?), but it is a major part of his life, which actually coincides with the time he came out and did grad school, both very defining stages. I do not know how he started, but by the 'end' of it he had toured with a Servo-Kroatian dance company, done more kooky movement arts than you can shake a stick at, danced Morris in UK pubs, learned to sing shape-note, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc. He even lived with Fred in Ohio. I met him during a bit of a lull in his folk life: 'all' he did was call monthly dances in Zurich.

And what I find just doesn't stop. Recently we just happened to be in the room with a Greek Orthodox monk, and, as I asked about the place of song in services, Father Nicholas(sp?) needed a two-tone drone for a demo. So a moment later liturgy is flowing through the room and of course it was Dino who just broke into the proper drone. And the thing that I had such trouble communicating to the room wasn't the fact that I was floored that Dino was able to sing it ("But it's so easy!" "Yes!" I am almost hollering. "I am sure it is! That's not the point!") but that, of course, he had heard and known this tradition and was able to ("Every week there is something new that he 'did once or twice'! He knows all or something about every damn tradition we meet!") and then hold a discussion about Turkish influences on it.

I do not know if we could have this relationship were he in such heavy-duty mode as he used to be during his grad days, but regarding our major differences now, we might. It just depends on the time we have together. You have to want to go into each-other's minds, though, both ways, or there is no use anyway. I come from a space that really pretty much despises folk traditions as being very static, 'old', stuffy, and boring, so there has been a lot to learn. He had to learn to deal with pop culture, someone who does not want to learn a new all-over-body physical skill because I am so tired with being frustrated at what I cannot do, and someone who has given up on his voice. I have found nothing in the folk movement-arts compelling enough to make me want to face my coordination again, and I am happy to not have to try. Maybe I could dance, it is easy and lots of klutzes have learned. That is, however, not the point.

It is a beautiful place to know, though, especially in a same-sex context. Much as we are everywhere, the folk world in itself is just this excellent antithesis to what most of 'our' media-exclamations are shaping glob culture to be. It is exceedingly diverse, very sensual in certain places in very unexpected ways, thoroughly come-as-you-are, and crackingly vibrant around here. There must be a statement somewhere beyond 'Boston is small' in the fact that a bear meeting is so much a place where folk men meet as well. The first night I went, I hardly knew anybody. The next time, Dino came with me and I had all these new friends. If I have to be a widow to something, I am glad this is it.

The outlooks meet at the oddest places. Just recently over dinner he suddenly remarks that Madonna's latest video closes "with just standard bellydancing groundowrk. Egyptian, probably. Liz did it all the time. She could do it in her sleep. Nothing new there."

Naturally, he had done some himself. Once or twice. I bet it was easy.

FJ!!

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