Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

The Dilettante's Downfall

At the Midwest Morris Ale, on most nights the pickup dancing goes on until the very wee hours of the morning. Dancers from different teams accompanied by some versatile musicians get together and dance any dance in any tradition for which you can muster a side. Sometimes a dance will get taught. Sometimes a specific team will get up and dance for the others. But it's mostly just dancing for the joy of it, you just jump in and follow, and after enough years people get pretty good about faking all manner of traditions and dance. It is one of those pleasures that deepens with time and experience.

There are a few traditions surrounding late-night pickup dancing, and one is that when the sad realization hits the last weary dancers that the dancing has wound down for the evening it is then time to dance "Saturday Night" in the Bucknell tradition (technically we dance a variant processional that allows for an infinite number of dancers rather than 4 or 6). This is a dance that starts with two dancers for the first iteration, then two more join them, then two more and so forth. The first two turn around when they come to the end of the room and dance back, facing the dancers who are approaching, turning the dance into a partnering figure. When the very last pair of dancers has danced up and down the whole room, the dancers move  into a big circle and dance the whole figure one last time as "rounds".

With 12 or 16 or 20 or 30 dancers, this can take a very, very long time indeed, to get all the dancers up and back across the room. There are legendary accounts of 20 and 30 minutes worth of this dance some years (or longer?). Which might seem extremely tedious, and I suppose from the outside it must be, but the dance (in this context) is about dancing *with* each other, partnering up and down the room. It's the Minnesota long goodbye made manifest in dance.

Last Saturday was the second "Morris On Dance 'Til Dawn" we have held in the Twin Cities, holding a session of Ale-inspired Morris pickup dancing for all who will in conjunction with and following the weekly contra dance. Unlike at an Ale, we start dancing at 7:30 or so (the building has two dance rooms, so this doesn't interfere with the contra dance). So we don't actually dance until dawn, or at least we haven't so far. About 2 am it seemed time to wind down, with Saturday Night. (As a side point I should say that *after* we finished dancing Saturday Night we danced Flowers of Edinburgh which is another end-of-pickup tradition but we had forgotten to dance it earlier.)

I, myself, did not join in Saturday Night (I was having some back issues by that point, although I got some great dancing in throughout the evening so weep not for me). Instead, I stood to the side and marvelled at the amazing notion that there is this particular dance that we reserve for this particular sort of moment. It's just "known" that we do this dance to end pickup dancing. It's what we do. I love this.

I often find myself trying to answer the question of "What is this Morris dancing that you do". And I can give a good accounting of its origins, of what it means to have a "tradition", of what my team in particular does in a dance season. I can talk to some extent about the different steps and styles. But how, in such an explanation, do you weave in an explanation of the tradition of dancing "Saturday Night" at the end of latenight pickup dancing?  There's pickup dancing to explain, there's the Ale to explain, there's the idea that with some Morris experience you can probably learn a dance like this if you wait and watch the first 10 or more times through the dance. There is, at the core, trying to explain what it means to dance *with* the other dancers, from all the represented teams.

Now and again I will hear somebody say something like, "Oh yes, I've danced Morris. I took a class at Pinewoods". That's a great thing, that there are places that give some exposure to the dance form and the dance feel. But, to my mind, there are so many other things that define what it means to dance Morris. There is, at the core, what it means to have a team in and for a specific geographic community, that adds to the texture of life. There is being part of a team that practices together, that travels together, that goes out for beer and song after practice. And there is the occasional rare but specific tradition, that you just know and you just do.

And this makes you happy for a long time afterwards.
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