American Morris Newsletter  

American Morris Newsletter

Volume 26, Number 1
May, 2006

This Issue | Past Issues | Useful Links | Search This Site | Contact Us
 AMN Article  

The Evolving Children's Morris in the U.S.

Dr. Anthony G. Barrand

Cecil Sharp's goal was to revive the singing and dancing of England by getting it in schools. I only have at best a half-memory of doing the one dance that everyone of my generation was forced to learn in school: "Bean Setting" (for the real thing, see Headington Quarry Morris Men at the Bicentennial Smithsonian Festival in 1976.) 

It didn't have much impact on me but I met my wife, Margaret Dale, at a Morris class given by Fred Breunig in Brattleboro in 1976 thanks to Sharp's books. She had enjoyed dancing Morris (along with other dances from, for example, Scotland and Hawaii) as a girl in a private school in New Haven in the 1950s so showed up to learn again as an adult. Sharp would have approved, but one sign of the short-term limitations of his strategy is that the rapid growth of Morris teams didn't happen until some 50 or 60 years after Sharp's books were made part of the physical education curriculum. That was the problem: Morris dancing was part of the curriculum. I have a much better memory of the ballroom dancing I had to learn as a teenager because, unlike the Morris, that was with girls. 

The story of children's Morris seen in my video collection, however, from the 1970s to date shows a gradual change from Morris as tolerated, school-connected activity to a club activity that encourages dancing with lots of attitude,

Adult teams incorporating children

Interestingly and perhaps unusually, the group of men seen above dancing for Headington quarry in 1976, began as a group of schoolboys in the 1950s. William Kimber's status in the folk revival probably had more than a little to do with their longevity. More typically, any association with school didn't help. In some ways, however, the story in the US over 30 years just recapitulates the progress made in England from Sharp and schools to the 1960s revival. Many teams, probably with teachers on the team have tried to maintain Boys' sides, for example, the Histon Boys (associated with the English Thames Valley Morris Men [fragment of Bean Setters, Brackley])  and the Monkseaton Morris Men's boys' rapper for six and Flamborough longsword dance (sword dances taught by Peter Brown) being two examples I have on film from 1982. 

These children's teams do occasionally provide teams with adult members but teams but a more successful strategy is incorporating children into the adult team. I saw this as early as 1979 when I filmed Francis Shergold's Bampton side in my old college stomping grounds in Crewe. Cheshire. They featured a boy dancing #1 (across from Francis Shergold himself at #2) in set dances such as "Banbury Bill"  and even jigs such as "Nutting Girl."

Of course, in this context, we need to note a custom that includes a role for children at its core: the Helston Furry. The St George and the Dragon Play is performed to the famous Hal-an-Tow song by children in white and then they have their own time in the Furry or "Floral" dance procession itself, going out first before the young adults and then the grown-ups in their ball gowns and mourning suits take their turns.

Kids Morris in the US 1970s

We in the late US in the late twentieth century, though, had to begin again after American physical education instructors, such as Helen Frost in the 1920s and 1930s, tried but failed at bringing children into the Morris or clog dancing world via schools. With respect, the first children's Morris teams were "cute".

In attendance at the first Marlboro Morris Ale in 1976 was Dudley Laufman's "Morris Minors" dancing Dudley's invention, "Cock o' the North" and, at the second Ale in 1977, they danced and sang "the Country Boy",  again invented by Dudley. The 1978 Ale featured the short-lived (that year only) "Marlboro Kids" dancing the Headington Quarry "Rigs o' Marlow" with a Fool. The Marlboro team did not acquire any adult members from the children who danced.

The Tom Kruskal Factor

When he lived in the Boston area, the former Greenwich and Pinewoods Morris Ma, Ed Durham, (seen here at #5 in "The Rose") had a boys' Morris team at the school where he taught. Before he died at much too young an age, Ed talked about his young team as if they had a new quality not previously seen in American children's teams: attitude of the sort found in a men's club with style and a strong sense of the value of their own dancing. Sadly I have no film of Ed's team, but it that quality w as soon to be seen in teams trained by Tom Kruskal. The first was Hopbrook Morris at the 1994 Marlboro Ale. Here they dance an invented Ilmington "Cuckoo's Nest", "Ring o' Bells", and "Three Musketeers", in 1977. The late 1990s was clearly the time for children's teams, perhaps because the dancers who got so excited about Morris in the 1970s had children old enough to dance. Here is Mountain Top in 1998 dancing a Bampton "Stamp and Clap".

And the attitude kept getting more self-confident in the 21st-century as exemplified by the Green Mountain Morris (boys) in 2001 dancing the Bledington "Black Joke" and Jamie Watson's Lansdowne Morris Men (boys) in 2002 with "Donkey Riding" invented by Peter Klosky of Binghamton Morris Men. And the attitude wasn't confined to teams of boys. The girls of Jane Finlay's "Maple Leaf Morris" have no shortage of vigor or imagination for example, their version of the "Upton-on-Severn Stick Dance" for twelve. Note the Vermont tune, "Twin Sisters" (collected by Maud Karpeles) for the Vermont girls. Yes, it's the familiar tune and it's from Vermont!

The Sword Phenomenon

But we need to finish with a look at what I think the most exciting development among young American dancers: longsword and rapper.  Much of it was inspired by Tom Kruskal, but not all. For Longsword at the Ale, Margaret Dale Barrand trained a group of teenage boys at the Greenwood School in Putney, VT for a film being made 1999 at the school on a story about the Unicorn and the girls of Maple Leaf Morris danced "Flamborough" in 2004. But Tom's rapper sets have indelibly put their stamp on the Ale in the last few years. First was "Velocirapper" with Tom's son, Peter in 1999. They were followed soon after by the various rapper sets of Great Meadow Morris, including "Candy Rapper"  in 2003, who achieved great success recently in an English rapper competition.
Great Meadow Morris consists of boys' and girls' sets who "get it", for example, at the Marlboro Ale in 2003. Many of them are no longer "children" and so they have adopted the dancing into their lives as young adults. My favorite example, however, that shows the distinctive impact they are having on Morris today is from last year's MMA when four of their sets ended the Newfane show with a 5-sword (or is 20-sword?) display pulling everyone into the finale. 

They improvised this at the last moment, children and young adults showing courage and imagination to make a thrilling show. They are no longer "cute". Right now the future of Morris seems secure and the "children" set the standard.

 AMN, Vol. 26, No.1, May, 2006  ISSN: 1074-2689