Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

A Morris Dance Exercise

I injured my foot pretty badly dancing in the parade at the Renaissance Festival yesterday (it slipped or turned and my hopping weight fell on it and down I went). As a result, in a sort of subconscious way, I find myself wondering how anybody could possibly want to dance since my body at the moment is telling me to just sit still and not move perhaps ever again. It's like watching people eat when you have a stomach virus; you wonder why anybody would ever want to put food in their mouths. To combat this, I want to write a little bit about the exercise we did to start off the Morris Intensive week at Pinewoods last July. I don't write this for the purpose of suggesting an exercise for anybody to do, but to examine a little bit about what it can mean to dance with other people. The class leaders had one goal in mind here, and I took away something else.

I'm also writing about this because a few weeks ago I ran into a Morris dancer from another local team who had been reading my accounts of this program and she said that she had expected me to be writing more about the actual exercises we performed in class rather than the more emotive responses I had been describing. So this is in large part a response to that, which I've been meaning to write up.

Remember that this was the very first thing we did, before we all knew each other as dancers, at least collectively. In looking back at this, I can see how very key this was in starting us off, in terms of how I felt about things.

For the exercise, we faced outward in a circle, so we couldn't see each other. The class musician started up a tune and we were instructed to start dancing -- whatever Morris steps the music told us to dance, in no particular tradition although we all drew on traditions we knew best. It's key here that the class members have enough experience to do this -- it's not a beginner's exercise. After a while we turned to face in, while still dancing, and coalesced into groups of four, ostensibly getting together with others who were dancing similarly, but that wasn't terribly key. At this point, without talking, we danced with each other in our groups until we were doing the same stepping sequence -- adding things at the end of the musical phrases, perhaps, but working to dance together, to feel the dance together, to match each other.

From here we were asked to come up with a word to describe what characterized the stepping sequence we had developed, and then to dance some more to work on emphasizing that word in the dance. Then each group danced for the rest of the class, who had to guess the word based on the dancing.

The next day (after some intervening exercises) we divided into the same groups and were given one of the other group's words and we had to modify the style of the stepping sequence we had come up with the previous day so that it conveyed this other adjective.

What the instructors wanted to encourage was the idea of a Morris "style" independent of the particular steps/tradition, as well as working together to achieve and communicate this. And this was all well and good, but some other things were happening for me here.

For one thing: This was the best way I can think of to start from minute one dancing with the other participants. No wonder that by the end of the week I started to feel as if these folks were on a team with me. I also don't have much experience in my life of communicating without words, of getting to know other people through the dance alone. This felt wonderful. I suppose to some extent we were sussing each other out, but not in a hot-dogging competitive way (well, not beyond the feeling that we absolutely had to keep up, in my case with the younger dancers). We were learning how we danced, how we danced with each other. This was great fun, with give and take and continuous uninterrupted word-free dancing.

There is often a problem at Morris practices of most teams where the temptation to talk through a dance when teaching it starts to cut too much into actual dancing. This may be necessary -- it's certainly a common style of teaching. But at the core you just want to dance, to jump in and feel it. Which, practically, you can only do if there is a critical mass of dancers who already knows the style and dance. But here we had an exercise which let you just dance, without all that talking through.

This was a nice start.

I hope that my describing this exercise gives some idea of what, exactly, we did at an "Advanced Morris dance" class, and maybe why it turned on all the Morris switches in my brain. But mostly I hope that by remembering that exercise and what it felt like I can forget that just at the moment I can barely walk.
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