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The American Morris Newsletter

December, 2007 -- Volume 27, Number 3

 

Woodford Morris and Sword, Versailles, KY, 1975: a DVRA Time Capsule of American Morris and Sword

Tony Barrand and David Macemon

In a recent and welcome development, the DVRA (Tony Barrand's online archive of Morris, Sword and Clog dancing) has begun receiving tapes and DVDs submitted by dancers and teachers interested in adding their recordings of performances to the collection. Among these are teams from a Basque sword dance festival (Ezpata-dantza jaialdia sent by Oier Araolaza), for example, Gure-Kai dance group from Deba in the Basque Country). The new additions also include official- (from Mike Cherry) and unofficial- (from Chris Brady) tapes of the Reading Traditional Step and Dance Group ("Reading Cloggies"), for example, Mick Mulkerrin's Sean Nos routine from Connemara in Ireland and Alex Woodcock's 1930s Tap Steps from Northumberland. The amazingly varied Reading tapes will be the subject of a later article.

The Woodford Morris Time Capsule

The archive has, however, also been sent films and videos of American dancing. One, in particular, inspired this article: a copy of Dave Macemon's first team in 1975 when he was a Junior (11th grade) at Woodford County High School in Versailles, Kentucky. The quality of the Morris and sword dancing is exceptional, by both boys and girls. Most interestingly, this film represents a veritable time capsule of how Morris was conceived and presented in the US in the late 1960s and mid-1970s before the Marlboro Morris Ale, in part, expanded those horizons.

I grew up in England but I first saw Morris dancing at Swarthmore College, at age twenty-two in 1967, where it and Maypole dancing had been performed by members of the senior class since the early twentieth-century.

 

Morris Dancing at Swarthmore College, ca. 1970

How did it get to Swarthmore and other American colleges at about the same time? We probably will never know but it was likely some combination of the visits to America by disciples of Mary Neal and the Esperance Guild and by Cecil Sharp himself. It was undoubtedly fostered by the interest in using "folk dancing" in schools in the 1920s.

My own slides of the dancing from 1967 have not survived and a search in the Swarthmore library archive revealed only two photographs, including Plate #1. The Woodford films took me back directly to my Swarthmore experience because the two repertoires matched so closely.

At Swarthmore, the men danced in sets of six and started with a dance in which each performer held one stick that was twirled, "dibbed" on the ground and held like a rifle to "shoot" the corner dancer. I didn't know enough at the time to identify the source style. The Woodford team began with Brackley "Shooting".

I don't remember characters such as the Fool (or jester) and Hobby Horse at Swarthmore but it's likely they were there because they were an essential defining aspect of the Morris. This changed as the dancing became more important to the team's presentation than the costume. The team also did one dance that defined the more complex aspects of Morris: Bledington "Glorishears" a.k.a. "Leapfrog".

Similarly, the young women at Swarthmore didn't dance in sets but displayed solo dances or "jigs". They danced the Fieldtown "Nutting Girl" and the Headington Quarry "Bacca Pipes". At Woodford, the still popular Nutting Girl jig was danced beautifully by Debbie Lafoe and, amazingly, her performance was equaled by Bonnie Reynolds' "Bacca Pipes", a dance that has all but disappeared from American Morris teams.

My first jigs, learned at Pinewoods in 1974, were the Nutting Girl (taught to me by Genny Shimer-had she learned it from May Gadd, who might have learned it from Cecil Sharp?) and the Bampton "Fool's Jig" taught to me by Jim Morrison. In Morris tours of Pinewoods Camp in the 1960s and 1970s, the Fool typically displayed the "Fool's Jig". It was no surprise, then, that at Woodford Dave Macemon came out in a Jester-type costume and showed this jig.

It's also no surprise, though, that the repertoire of the Woodford dancers matched my experience. Dave Macemon's first exposure to the dance knowledge at Pinewoods Camp came the same year as mine, but his route getting there was entirely different. I asked Dave for a history and what follows is based on his account.

History of the Woodford Dancers / Woodford Morris

Background:

Jane Britton, music teacher at Woodford County Jr. High, Versailles Ky., saw the Berea College Country Dancers (Berea CD) and decided to start a Country Dance group at the high school. When the 1973 school year started, she invited the whole freshman class to join a dance team, some of us responded. Jane taught us the "Level I" dances from the Spring festival list (Who could forget The Fireman's Dance). We didn't have the skill or knowledge to tackle the "Level II" dances. Jane took six boys and six girls to the Mountain Folk Festival in Berea in April of 1974

Ethel Capps (then Director of Berea CD and Berea Christmas school), suggested that Jane attend Pinewoods to learn more about country dancing and about teaching dance. She did so in summer of 1974. Other first time attendees to camp were Tony Barrand and John Roberts. At camp she met Garnet Sloan (Former Berea CD) who helped Jane come up to speed. Garnet also put Jane in touch with other former Berea Country Dancers: Peter Rogers (Peter's family is from Pine Mountain Settlement School, KY where Cecil Sharp collected the Appalachian running set), Wayne Alan, Brent Combs, and Doug Duff (At one point, Doug's parents administered Hindman settlement school and also taught dance to the students). This group volunteered their time to help us with country dance-Playford, "Barn", Contra, Squares, Danish-and Morris during the 1974/75 school year.

At Christmas 1974, Jane took three of us (myself, Alan Vickers, and Dean Stoops) to Berea Christmas School, where we had our first introduction to Morris from Jim Morrison and to rapper from Johnny Owen. Genny Shimer also taught English country dancing to the teen group.

In the fall of 1975, the Woodford Dancers (we had 24 dancers: 12 boys, 12 girls by now) traveled to Gatlinburg, Tennessee for a workshop sponsored by the "Mountain Morris Men", an umbrella group made up of mostly former and current Berea Country Dancers. While the focus was to learn additional Morris dances and to hone our style, John Ramsey (then director of the Country Dancers and Berea Christmas School) had a video tape of the Monkseaton Morris Men dancing the North Walbottle dance. We were amazed, impressed, and inspired. We wrote a rapper routine that included seven dancers. We used a Betty and a Hobby as can be seen in the clip that was the finale of the 1975 show.

Note that we also misremembered the stepping sequence, so our stepping became 4 singles and 2 doubles, where Monkseaton danced 2 doubles and 4 singles.

When school started in the fall, the Woodford Dancers performed for the high school as a money raiser and charged $0.50/person (it was a small school). The Morris and sword dancing represented by the clips from the show was at the end of a 60-minute program that started with country dancing.

[It is also important to note that, in 1975 in central Kentucky, it was taken as fact that only men (boys) would dance Morris and sword in sets. The girls, as noted above, were allowed to dance Bampton "Bacca Pipes" and Fieldtown "Nutting Girl".]

The Woodford Morris and sword team's "coming out" was at 1975 Berea Christmas school. Since our homes in Versailles are only about an hour from Berea, those of the team who didn't attend Christmas school traveled to Berea for the Morris tour at the end of the week. Woodford rapper danced after the Berea College rapper team, and the audience was thrilled. (The college boys were not all that happy about being out danced by a bunch of high school boys, at least that's the way I remember it).

From 1975 until Dave Macemon graduated in 1977, Woodford continued to travel to Berea for Christmas school and Spring Festival, and also attended Dance weeks at Brasstown, North Carolina. Additional teachers of note from that time frame were Fred Breunig and Tony Barrand.

Commentary:

These clips provide valuable insight into some of the American Morris and its teachers of the 1970s. The quality of the individual and team Morris dancing by the young men and women is very, very high, as good as the best of the teams at the first Marlboro Morris Ales. This a testament both to the information they (particularly Dave) received, to Jane Britton's teaching, to the groups' motivation and to their age and physical ability, as we have seen with the youncinghng dancers emerging in recent years. Then as now, the rapper, especially, is the beneficiary of young energy and ability. The final message I take from the clips is a vote of encouragement about the function of film in the learning process. A film of excellent dancing by Monkseaton inspired these young people to acquire the skills and to invent. That's a story worth repeating.