Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,
Steven
unzeugmatic

Three Dances for the Ages

So I gotta' tell you about three amazing dances I was part of at last weekend's Midwest Morris Ale, dances in circumstances so specific to the Ale that they will remain unique. My challenge will be to translate the humor and fun expressed as movement into words, which at best provide only a second-order glimpse into that fun. Interestingly, two of these fine times involved dancing with Smack Young Walser, the just-turned-13 lad who is in his third year dancing with Ramsey's Braggarts.

Mrs. Widgery's Lodger at the Quay Street Brewing Company
At our Saturday afternoon pub stop in Port Huron, we cleared aside the chairs and bought a few pitchers of beer and sang for a while. Then the Braggarts formed up for Mrs. Widgery's Lodger, one of our few dances that we can do indoors. It's a column dance: The two dancers at the top of the set dance a particular step and then walk to the back, then the middle two, then the final two. I wanted to partner Smack because once at a practice I was across from Smack when he got a little bored and added some extra small fun steps that I joined him on and this was a hoot.

When the first two dancers did their foot up, I looked over at Smack and started pantomiming that this was something we could do better. Somebody caught a photo of us looking conspiratorial just at this point:



After the first pair did their step, we danced the same step with exaggerated snootiness, then strutted our way back to our spots before the chorus figure of the dance. This set a pattern, and for each new figure we would point at the first couple and make fun of their dancing (during the right-toe-backs Smack stuck out his butt in exaggerated mockery of what the step looks like from the rear) and then we would haughtily dance the figure -- which gave us the goofy energy to dance really well, I think.

So it was a total goofball dance for us, with continual interaction and improvisational pantomime and some real good stepping to back up the silliness. At a bar in Port Huron Michigan on a warm afternoon, surrounded by dancers we know from around the country. It was street theater, really. Afterwards I said that I had just danced in one really great dance, and that alone makes the Ale worthwhile for me.

Vandals of Hammerwich at the Sunday Night Pickup
Smack and I have a game we have played once or twice, when we are both not part of a set for a stick dance. We stand on the side and dance the dance with air sticks and then, at stick clashes, we pantomime whacking each other hard and responding accordingly. Or we just pantomime punches and kicks. Why is this fun? I don't know. But it is.

Just a little bit into the pickup dancing at the Ale on Sunday night, at perhaps midnight, they called Vandals, which had been one of the weekend's mass dances so everybody knew it. Smack had been out of the room with 16-year-old Anna Bean and when they heard the dance start they came running over to dance it, but of course since they didn't hear it until the dance had started all of the sets were already formed and dancing. Seeing this, I ran over because Vandals is the perfect stick-whack dance: Some of the chorus sticking is a two-beat slow stick, which provides lots of time to lift a threatening imaginary stick in a big windup. I got a good fake whack onto Smack just as the chorus started, then he responded in kind.

Anna Bean, as we all learned last weekend, is very good at thinking on her feet during a dance, so she picked up on this immediately and by the end of the chorus we had our pattern down: I whacked at Smack, he whacked at Anna, Anna whacked at me. Or we'd reverse it. Each time we did everything slightly differently, but always perfectly with the music, echoing the entire packed floor of dancers.

Ah, but the chorus of this dance, after the sticking, goes into a step where the dancers step brightly to each side with their sticks held at an angle -- a happy, peppy figure. This figure can look messy if the dancers are not focusing on moving in tandem with each other, or not keeping up the bounciness, but when there is good partnering this is a fun figure. Needless to say, Smack and Anna are very skilled at partnering. Which meant that the chorus of the song was wild fake whacking to the music, and then suddenly, turning on a dime, the three of us were standing erect with big happy smiles and a jauntiness to our stepping. Then we'd repeat the sequence.

Ok, that's just the chorus. For each figure to the 8-person dance we improvised a 3-person version on the spot, which is always fun. The Ilmington Hey for 3 in particular was a blast -- Anna and Smack have known this dance since they were young children, so working off of it is, er, child's play to them. But whatever we did, each figure ends with three big capers, so we would suddenly all be together in synchronized capers (both Smack and Anna are famous for their capers), which is like resolving the chord at the end of a line of music. Then the chorus.

This is art: Wild abandon, contrasted with elegant perfection and unity, different each time, over and over, with nothing coursing through our minds but joy. Plus we did a lot of stage fighting. Best. Mass. Dance. Ever.

Orbitals vs. the Red Baron at 4am
Our local Border team does a few Molly dances, including one called "Orbitals" that is danced to the song "Tide Flows In", usually with me as the singer. This past season I got to thinking that "Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron" might work as well, and it was a nice fine joke to try this once or twice at practice. It does, in fact, work, but it changes the feel of the dance. It was also great fun to do, so after the first try we would bring it out now and then as a little treat of a dance.

Lo about 3:30 am on Saturday night at the Ale, maybe a little later, sitting around the fire where the singing was taking place, I noticed that a few of the folks who know this dance were present. I got to thinking it would be funny to dance this then and there. I consulted with Matt about this and he liked the idea, but we weren't sure we had the dancers. Shortly afterwards the pickup dancing started to break up, with folks dropping by the singing on their way home to bed, and it was clear we had the full quorum of dancers and then some. I got things organized so that as soon as a particular song ended there were six dancers standing off to the side all ready to go and I started singing the dance and we were off.

We not only were off, but the dancers danced this difficult dance as well as they ever have. Rick Nagler came and joined me in the song. Usually I don't like anybody singing with me for a Molly dance, but with Rick it was different and I enjoyed having him there. All the singers stood up and gathered to get a better view. Some of the women from Rock Creek began some doo-wop dance moves in the background. It was a great dance moment, and when we finished the singing resumed.

Now here's the thing: I expected the reaction to be a response to the joke of dancing a Molly to this particular song, but that wasn't the response at all. Nobody thought there was anything at all amiss to setting a Molly dance to a novelty tune; in fact, that's the norm with some of the newer Molly sides. Instead, the response was to the quality of the dancing, and the glory of the moment. Which is good, very good indeed, it just was not what I thought it would be.

The greater resonance here for me is not just that the assembled Ale attendees took it completely in stride that we would dance a Molly to Snoopy vs. the Red Baron, but that at 4am without prearrangement or practice or planning there were six dancers and a singer who could get up and do this dance, the way you might start up a round of Happy Birthday. It is the very fact that this was unnotable that, to me, is so very notable. This is the Ale world to me in a nutshell, where these things just happen. Of course there's a Molly. Of course Steven can sing for the Molly. But wow, what a strange assemblage of people and circumstance it takes for that to be an "of course". It is stunning, really.

And I loved being part of that dance.
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