American Morris Newsletter  

American Morris Newsletter

Volume 25, Number 4
December, 2005

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 AMN Article  

The Not-So-Long But Glorious History of Foggy Bottom Morris: The Beginning

Jim Voorhees

Genesis

In the beginning was Rodger Sunderland. You can envision him as Quixote, sans horse, sans helmet. He was not short, but definitely thin, with a full brown beard that at times has been overshadowed by his mustache, like Quixote. In 1976 he was following a quest: to establish a Morris team in Washington. He learned the dancing at Pinewoods and became entranced by it. In those days Rodger was a caller at the Friday night dance in Washington, which met in the basement of the Concordia Church downtown. We did everything at this dance: New England contras, southern squares, Scandinavian couple dances, Playford. He took his chance to add to the mix: he taught a Morris dance. You might call this his chance to tilt at a windmill, his hopeless, lost cause. Of course, it didn't take. His quest continued.

In March 1977, Roger Avery arrived. An engineer from London, he came to Washington to help build the subway. He was clean-shaven, with brown hair that tended to curl. His dancing was "crisp" -- one of his favorite words -- with quick, short, precise motions. Roger was a showman, with a ready, knowing smile and a facility with blarney that was evident in performance, as when he would praise the team's "ability, agility, and virility." Trained by Kirkpatrick and then at St. Albans, before coming to the States, Roger asked the Country Dance and Song Society whether there was any Morris in Washington. Rodger had left his name, hoping for just such an occurrence. The two connected. Roger appeared one night at Concordia. At the break, he went to the mike and said something like:

"If you would like to do a little Morris dancing, come to the church next Thursday."

The quest was over.

Practice

The next Thursday, the last that month, several people showed up. It was more than the requisite six, but not much more. Rodger and I were among them. So were Greg Fabian and John Llewellyn. Greg, an estimable companion, is a printer by trade, with a strong, New England-born sense of what is right. He looked Amish, with a thick beard surrounding a mustache-less face. He remains one of my closest friends. John was a nuclear engineer, about twenty years older than the rest of us. Tall, slender, with brown hair, glasses, and the mustache Greg lacked, he may have been the best, most elegant dancer on the team. Others came in the following weeks, but by the beginning of May, we were down to a core that included Greg, John, Rodger, myself, Nancy Taylor, and Dick Atlee. Roger was teaching us three Bucknell dances and two Badby stick dances when he returned to England to get his family and make the move to the United States more permanent.

We continued to practice while he was gone, dancing to a cassette on which he had recorded two and a half dances. Bored after two or three weeks, we changed the dances, expecting Roger to be outraged upon his return. Not so. He liked what we had done, and you can still see the changes in Foggy Bottom's versions of Badby Shooting and Bucknell Room for the Cuckoo.

We continued to practice through that summer, getting ready for our first gig-- the new Maryland Renaissance Festival, which was due to open in Columbia in September. Laurie Andres had joined us by then. He was a classically trained piano player who had come to Washington after college to teach at a small private school. That job didn't last. He seems to have been attracted to contra dancing when in school in New England and began to dance and play on Friday nights. Finding that the piano was not portable enough, he learned to play accordion, which he did as a member of the Bosstown Buzzsteps-- the premiere contra band in Washington at the time-- and, of course, for us. With a fiery red beard, bright eyes, and immense talent, he followed Roger as Squire, earning the sobriquet "The Ayatollah."

We had the people, we had some dances, we had musicians, and we had a gig. But as yet we had no name or kit. Roger guided us in both of these as he did in most things Morris. "Foggy Bottom" sounded English and carried the name of the neighborhood where we practiced. This also made us "the only Morris team in the world with a subway station named after us." Our kit was created at close to the last minute. Roger insisted that we not wear whites. He suggested brown knickers, brown derbies, and baldricks instead. Rodger made the bells. His girlfriend, Joyce Harrell, helped sew. Joe Blundon got Metro patches from the mayor's office where he worked. Our kit was complete. Once called "The ugliest kit in North America," we still wear it.

First Gigs

On some Saturday in September we arrived at the RenFair armed with a name, outfitted in kit, and trained in enough dances to perform a set. We went to the stage where we were to appear, back in the woods away from the center of the fair. The stage was small, a rough wooden thing set on cinder blocks. There was a small audience as six of us lined up, ready for The Willow Tree. Roger began to play his melodeon and we were off, showing more enthusiasm than skill, no doubt. Our first dance done, we got our sticks and began our second dance. The music for Badby Shooting began. We began the dance, circling half way round, ending the phrase with: feet together. Jump. The stage broke, falling off the cinder blocks set below. It was a beginning somehow fitting.

The important things in starting a team were done, but we still had the formalities to cover. That happened at the first team meeting in November. We gathered in John Lewellyn's apartment, chose officers, and approved a charter, adapted from St. Albans.' A notable feature of this document that Roger insisted on was a clause that said that no officer other than the Foreman could be elected to more than two consecutive terms. Just as he let us change the dances early on in his absence, he was determined that the team would not rely solely on him for leadership. He wanted to make sure the team survived his departure, whenever it would come. Roger was then elected Squire and Foreman, one of only two Bottomites to hold both offices.

The next month we had our first traveling gig. We spent Christmas at the Boar's Head Inn in Charlottesville. It was a beautiful old building, carefully restored, just outside of Charlottesville. An Elderhostel group had chosen this elegant place for the holiday; the management had hired us and others, including John Roberts, to provide English-style entertainment. We danced some Morris; Roger taught some country dances. His wife, Rose, did some clog.

Early in the evening, Dave Shorey asked a waiter for some beer. He brought two pitchers. We asked for more. It came. And soon, like loaves and fishes, the supply began to seem inexhaustible. Somewhere between pitchers we did our dances and did well enough to be asked back the next year. The performance ended and we climbed into John Lewellyn's van. Inebriated, but not ready to return to our motel, we drove around, found a pizza place, and continued to enjoy ourselves until closing time. A grand evening, completely unsafe, not for the mature or wise. But that was true of much of much of what we did.

Character?

For we were mostly young-- in our twenties--and what most would now regard as foolish. Roger, in his mid thirties, was older than all but John Lewellyn. Except for Roger, we were regulars at the Friday Night Dance. Most of us could be seen regularly at other dances in the Washington area. We picked up a number of new members who, like the original members, placed dancing and dancers at the center of their social lives. These included Dave Shorey, mentioned above, a wondrous recorder player who was in charge of the woodwind collection at the Library of Congress (Dave was the only one I've known to express a political objection to dancing Shooting). Paul Kallina, a deceptively serious student of Lincoln, tried to join us in the fall of 1978 only to suffer an injury that kept him away for another year. Gordon Brown came down from Newtowne to add a touch of sophistication to a team that preferred not to show it. Matt Schwaller brought Binghamton's influence to the ambiance of the team, affirming what we had learned elsewhere, that the two teams had much in common.

Practices were hard work-- we took our dancing seriously and were determined to dance well. But each practice, which ended at 10:00, then as now, was followed by time at a bar. In those days, we lingered long over our beer, sometimes extending our stay well past midnight. This inspired Tubby Reynolds to exclaim, after a night when he and Roy Dommett joined us, that he had enjoyed evenings of dancing and evenings of drinking, but never an evening of dancing followed by an evening of drinking. The extension of practice continues, but we are much more restrained.

That Was Then, That is Now

Restrained because the team is older and, some might say, more subdued. It is almost certainly no wiser. In any case, there are many differences, small and large, from the team as it was in the late 1970s. These reflect both our growing age and the experience and attitudes that newer members have brought to the team. We are all friends, but not as close as the smaller crew was then. Many came to Morris with little or no dancing experience; few do any dancing but Morris. We have a broader repertoire that includes the detritus of three decades of dancing Cotswold plus border and longsword. The team seems to have adopted several officers-for-life, reelected regularly each year, abandoning the term limits set in the charter inherited from St. Albans. We seem to change foremen more often than squires.

Yet much of what gives Foggy Bottom its character came from those early years. We are now, as then, a team that dances several traditions. When dancing, we still value energy over precision. Our dancers, now as then, are men (but the addendum has something to add to that). Our music, led by Nick Robertshaw, continues to be strong, following on the tradition built by Roger, Laurie, Dick Atlee, and Dave Shorey. They tend to play faster than most American Morris musicians do, just as they did then. We continue to prefer beer and abhor ice cream on tour.

Lastly, we can note that Foggy Bottom has a higher than average proportion of the founding team still dancing, which speaks to the strength of the bonds formed almost thirty years ago. Three of the six dancers who broke the stage at that first performance are still with the team-- myself, Greg Fabian, and Rodger Sunderland.

Addendum: The Women Depart*

The careful reader will have noted that Nancy Taylor was at the first practice. She was also a part of the side that earned our first dollar. One night after practice, we put our bells on as we were going home from the bar, Bassin's GW Inn, on Pennsylvania Avenue, two blocks up 20th Street from the Concordia Church. Someone passing by gave us a dollar bill. It thrilled us to be paid, and the bill remains in the FBMM archives.

But she never danced out with us in kit. Not for lack of skill; she was a fabulous dancer. However, Roger did not believe in mixed sets. Indeed, many women felt that his attitude toward women dancing was archaic. In the context of Morris Ring of the time, he could be regarded as a moderate on the issue. But not in the Washington of 1978. That had much to do with The Divorce.

Sometime early in 1978, Roger began teaching women at practice as well as men. They danced in a parallel side in the gym at the Immaculate Conception Academy. He taught both sides Headington, a tradition he felt suited both sexes equally. Several women joined, with numbers and talent enough to form a fairly strong side.

In the meantime, Mary Chor arrived in Washington. We saw her for the first time when her New England team, the Northampton Morris Women, came to town that spring. She stood out, as one might expect. She was then, as now, a graceful dancer, with an outgoing, optimistic spirit that would have made her at home in a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movie. This proved to be something of a scouting trip for her, for she moved to D.C. that fall.

Lisa Kornberg, girlfriend to Ben Johnson, a soft-spoken, supremely talented dancer among the men, became acquainted with Morris that summer, taking it at Pinewoods with Tony Barrand. She and Mary tried to form their own women's side after Mary's arrival, Ladies' Pleasure, but there was room for only one women's team in Washington. In the spring of 1979, Lisa and Mary joined Foggy Bottom.

The two sides coexisted, but not altogether easily. As in many separate-but-equal arrangements, one side felt distinctly unequal. Roger was regarded as charming, but something of a pig, and that perception clouded the women's experience. There was one memorable moment in Bassin's after practice when Mary, taking umbrage at something he said, politely borrowed my beer and threw it on him. Others may have wished they had done the same.

It was not much of a surprise, then, when the question of divorce came up. It was the central topic of the team meeting held in November at Laurie Andres' house. The discussion was fervent, but the outcome was foreordained: Divorce. Foggy Bottom became a men's team in reality, as it had begun in spirit. The women went on to form Rock Creek, a team with quite different traditions. The split, I think it safe to say, benefited us all.

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* This story comes largely from Mary Chor, who was generous enough to respond at length to a short query.

 AMN, Vol. 25, No. 4, December 2005  ISSN: 1074-2689