Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Back to Gay Issues -- But Still About Morris Dancing!

A question I've been thinking about these last few days is why I had no interest in dancing Morris when I was in my twenties. I lived in Boston at the time where there was certainly a sufficiency of Morris and I definitely had connections aplenty to the dancers. Not only that, but I was around when the very first Morris revival teams began to form and bring the tradition to the major folk festivals in the northeast, which I used to attend with my family when I was a teenager. Yet somehow I never thought, "Gee, that's something I'd like to do." Or even "Gee, that's something that looks like fun." Because it didn't look like fun to me. It looked like a bunch of straight guys showing off what MANLY MAN dancing could be (remember that the major festival-proponent at the time was Tony Barrand, he of the it's like rugby where you make people dance until they puke philosophy, and if that isn't a make-a-man-out-of-you subtext I don't know what is). Feh.

As it happens, during my very first year of dancing (1998) I wrote a very (very) long essay about this general issue for the soc.motss Usenet newsgroup where I used to spend my time. The essay took off on my friend Stephen Parker's claim that Morris dancing on all-male teams exhibited what he called "straight male energy". I've just put that essay on livejournal and, should you care to check it out, you can find it at this link. I have appended the extensive exchange with my friend FJ!! that this essay yielded, an exchange that moved the subject off to a discussion of general folkie culture, about which FJ!! had some excellent insights despite being an observer rather than a participant (being partnered at the time with the man who founded the Gay Blades rapper sword team). I suspect that most people find the whole essay and exchange a bit tedious, but when I printed it out to show Michael Shewmaker he kept shouting out "yes!" as he read it when he came to the parts about growing up folkie.

This is how I concluded the essay, and I'm somewhat surprised that reading something I wrote 11 years ago speaks to me, as if I were being addressed by some younger but smarter version of myself. This helps me understand some of what I've been thinking about my place in the Morris world lately. So here I quote myself:

...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.

And yes, that's it. None of those feelings of belonging in an all-male Morris team would have been possible when I was in my 20s -- not just because of what I was bringing to the table, but because of what the Morris dance community was at the time. And without those feelings of belonging, what is a Morris team anyway? A performing troupe? 'Nuff said.

So how does this relate to the present day, and to my recent experiences expanding my Morris world beyond my team, and beyond the Twin Cities, and now beyond the Midwest? Well, the very odd thing is that none of these concerns, these concerns about belonging and these concerns about being one of the guys (or, more generally, one of the team), are active concerns at all. They are memories -- vivid memories, strong memories, memories I do not want to forget -- but they have lost their power to hurt me.

Me, I live and die by the anecdote, so I'll tell of one small exchange during Morris Intensive that shouldn't have any significance to anybody these days. It shouldn't even have significance to me - except when I remember the world that I lived in thirty and forty years ago, which makes the significance so great that I can barely take it in. In fact, it is the fact that this holds no significance that is significant. So there.

At one point in the Morris Intensive week I had the memorable pleasure of dancing across from Kevin in a set -- Kevin being one of the Morris "kids" in attendance. I have spoken of how wonderful Young Adam's dancing is, but really Kevin is every bit as wonderful of a dancer (and they even dance on the same team!). At one point I realized that I could have spent the week just watching Kevin dance and it would have been a good week. Kevin, as your partner, does a lot of encouraging and helping you -- in that it's like partnering with Rick or Douglas, for those of you from my Morris world. At one point he gave me some advice (in response to my expressing some worry about doing a particular figure), that was something like, "Just go straight and cover ground." (I don't really remember the second part of the sentence, but it's the first part that matters.) I smiled and said, "See, already before we've even begun I'm only batting 500" and Shannon, in the same set, told Kevin "No, with Steven you have to go gaily forward!". Kevin got a funny smile on his face and said, "Oh, I think I could do that" and started a little playing around with some small "gaily forward" interpretive movements. This whole exchange was all of what, 30 seconds? And it was part of us all getting to know each other and relax with each other and, as far as I can tell (and I'm neurotically sensitive to such things) had no more significance than that.

Do you have any idea how absolutely impossible how thoroughly incomprehensible how completely out of the question an exchange like that would have been 35 years ago, specifically regarding how insignificant that was as anything other than a moment of great fun? I can't even put that exchange into the terms of "coming out" -- who knows or cares whether that even applies here?

This is the point we had to reach before I could be a Morris dancer. Neither the world nor I had come anywhere near that point when I was in my twenties. So maybe I missed some good years of learning dozens of traditions while I was still a youth. But you know, I've more than made up for lost time.
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