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Edward L. Stern
Origin and Diffusion.
The town of Abram is situated in the northwest part of England, in the county of Lancashire, close to and south-southeast of Wigan (which is small, but much easier than Abram to find on a map).
A detailed description of the Abram Morris dance was first published by Maud Karpeles1 in 1932. It is a bona fide Maypole dance, and its performance (at least once every 21 years) ensured that the plot of land upon which the Maypole stood remained the possession of the Morris dancers of Abram. For more information on the dance as performed traditionally in Abram prior to 1901, or as revived in that town since 1984, refer to the publications listed below 1-6.
Since the 1960's a number of variants of the Abram Circle dance have emerged 7,8 including one or two done wearing clogs 9 and using slings. The history of one American variant, the "Midwest" version of the Abram Circle Dance is as follows:
The Chicago Morris Dancers existed on the campus of the University of Chicago from 1969-71. This group was basically "on its own," mostly relying on library resources, some films available from the Country Dance and Song Society of America, and the odd itinerant Morris dancer who visited for a day or two. I was one of the leaders of the group, and was looking for dances within our capabilities to introduce into the repertoire.
Stimulated in part by finding a 78 r.p.m. phonograph recording of the Abram Circle Dance 10 and in part by an upcoming May Day celebration, I first taught the dance described below to the Chicago Morris Dancers in 1969.
In 1971 I moved to Minnesota and, in 1974, formed the Minnesota Traditional Morris (MTM). The Abram Circle was taught early on, and became a mainstay of this group. It is the first dance performed on almost all major "days of dance": it is danced as the sun rises on May Day morning; prior to the first stand each day at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival; and it is often used as a dance of honor, of luck, of "blessing" around nuptial couples, etc.
The dance began its gradual diffusion to other Morris groups in 1979 and 1980 when MTM attended the Marlboro (VT) Morris Ale and performed the MTM version of the Abram Circle as a "show dance". At that time American Morris dancers were, for the most part, unaware of the existence of this dance. (ed. note: Click here to see a video of MTM -- part of Tony Barrand's Digital Video Research Archives -- performing the dance on 05/24/1980 at Soccer Field, Marlboro College, Marlboro, VT).
After the Midwest Morris Ales began in 1981, MTM had interactions with other mid-west Morris teams. Through this and a similar event begun a few years later at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, aptly called the "Morris Madness Weekend," MTM introduced the Abram Circle to numerous other teams, primarily but not exclusively from the central third of the U.S. To my knowledge this is the first detailed description to be published 11.
The Dance Itself.
Music for this dance has been published several places. 1,7,12,13 (ed. note: ABC notation for the music can be found here, or click here to hear the tune as an MP3 file. The MP3 file is computer generated from the ABC file.)
Any even number of dancers can take part. Dancers carry a white handkerchief in each hand; they stand in a circle, facing the center, numbering round counter clockwise, so that odd numbers are on the left of their partners and even numbers on the right. The group is usually centered around a Maypole or a tree, a nuptial couple, someone being honored, etc.
Figures use either a walking step with the two arms swung in opposition forward and back alternately (i.e. the left hand is swung forward as a step is taken with the right foot and vice versa), or a relaxed single Morris step with both hands thrown up at the same time on the up-beat (count "&") prior to count 1 of bar 1 of the melody (i.e. at the end of the previous melody). Generally the figures alternate between those using walking and those using single Morris steps. Always begin by stepping onto right foot on count 1 of the melody.
A relaxed dance. Arm swings are made with a very loose arm, about waist height; steps are gentle.
1 - 8 Walking step; begin with right foot. Dancers, making a quarter turn to the left, move round in a circle, clockwise, in couples with even numbers on the right of their partners (i.e. inside). Evens try to catch up and be next to partner within about 4 steps. 16 walks, total.
On the last beat of the last bar, face partner (even numbers with backs to the center); on count "&", throw both hands up overhead.
1 - 4 Using 8 single steps, partners dance back-to-back passing right shoulders, throwing both hands up overhead on the last "&" count.
5 - 8 Using 8 single steps, partners dance back-to-back passing left shoulders. (Do not throw hands up at end.)
1 - 4 Walking step. Couples move round clockwise as in A 1 - 4 for 6 walks; on the 7th walk swing left arm higher than usual (straight overhead) as you execute a 180 degree pivot turn on right foot (both dancers clockwise, toward the Maypole); the 8th walk is forward around the circle in the counter-clockwise direction while the left arm swings down in front of you and the right arm swings forward as usual. [As seen from the outside, the left arm makes a complete circle in space; the dancer may see their left arm swinging forward and up to the top, then forward and down to the bottom, ending behind them. Perspective is everything!]
5 - 8 Couples move round counter-clockwise (even numbers still on the inside, i.e. on the left of their partners) using 8 walking steps. On the last beat of the last bar, face partner (even numbers with backs to the center).
1 - 2 Partners face and stand still. The right hand is
swung round in a big circle in the plane in front of the body,
counter-clockwise, starting from the outward and upward direction
the second bar, as the hand is lowered, partners make a slight obeisance to
3 - 4 Repeat as above, swinging the left hand round in a clockwise direction (starting from "eleven o'clock"). Throw both hands up overhead on the last "&" count.
1 - 4 Using 8 single steps, dancers move once round in a small circle, clockwise (almost a turn single) to end facing their partners. They throw up both hands overhead on the last "&" count. There are no other hand movements.
5 - 8 As above, but making a one-and-a-quarter turn, counter-clockwise, so that odd numbers finish facing clockwise and even numbers counter-clockwise (each has right shoulder toward partner).
|F.||1 - 16 32 walking steps. In concentric circles, odd numbers move clockwise around the outside of the circle, while even numbers move counter-clockwise immediately inside the others. As the end of the musical phrase approaches (after about 20-26 steps), even numbers begin to move outward and arrange to enter the outer circle alternating between two odd numbers. Dancers finish in ring formation, facing the center. All throw up both hands on the last "&" count.|
1 - 8 Using 16 single steps, all move slowly forward toward the center (arms in low "balance" position); all throw up both hands on the last "&" count.
9 - 16 Using 16 single steps, dancers fall back from the center (arms in low "balance" position).
The above movements are then all repeated. In the final bar, as the dancers have retired from the center, they pause as the hands are swung up on the first beat, and on the second beat they are swung with a gentle but decisive movement, down and out, to shoulder level. This forms a ring of not quite touching dancers, which is held still for a few counts to end the dance.
1. Karpeles, Maud, "The Abram Morris Dance." Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, 1, 55-59 (1932).
2. Corrigenda Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, 2, (1933) [cited in Marshall7].
3. Dann, Tony, "The Ancient Festival of Abram Called the Morris Dance", English Dance and Song, 45(2), 6 (1983).
4. Leyland, J., Memorials of Abram, 113-115 (Manchester, 1882) [cited in Marshall7].
5. Hughes, Geoff, "The Abram Morris Dance, a personal account of its revival." Morris Matters, 10(2), 2-7 (1991).
6. Hughes, Geoff, "The Abram Morris Dance, a personal account of its revival." The Morris Dancer, 2(13), 221-230 (1991). [This is a longer article than the above, and contains a photograph of the Abram dancers taken in 1901 and another of the revival group taken in 1986.]
7. Marshall, Chas, et al., Abram Circle Dance (Workshop Series), The Morris Federation, Leicester. (1985).
8. Personal observations of the author, and film in archives of The Morris Ring.
9. The Abram dancers, like many Morris dancers in the Northwest of England, wore boots; it is a common misconception that all Morris from that area was danced in clogs. [See, for example, Boswell, Pruw, Morris Dancing on the Lancashire Plain, The Horwich Inquiry, The Morris Ring (1984), p. 4: "...Almost without exception the teams from the Lancashire Plain which danced prior to 1900 wore shoes..."]
10. "The Abram Circle Dance", Columbia DB1795, The Folk Dance Octet (Arnold Foster arr. & cond.). This is a very symphonic sounding arrangement!
11. At least two brief descriptions of the "Midwest style" Abram Circle have been previously distributed; I believe both were intended for use in workshops at Midwest Morris Ales, and both compare it to the dance as originally published, but neither is a detailed description. One was prepared by Julia Schult for a workshop at the 1994 Midwest Morris Ale, and the other was prepared by me. The description in the present article was distributed electronically to teams participating in the 2005 Midwest Morris Ale.
12. Fleming-Williams, Nan and Shaw, Pat (eds.) A Popular Selection of English Dance Airs, Book IV, Sword and Ceremony, English Folk Dance and Song Society, London. (1971).
13. Foster, Arnold, in A Collection of Six Morris Dances and Jigs, English Folk Dance and Song Society, London. (1938?). This publication also contains another description of the dance as collected by Maud Karpeles.
The Chicago Morris Dancers performing the Abram Circle Dance on May 1, 1970.
Dancers (from left to right): Howard Johnson, Jim Dowling, Demi Miller, Marketa Klas, Bob Trobbiani, Martha Willi (playing accordion), and three unidentified dancers; at extreme right side Ed Stern (hat brim and nose, etc.)
(Photo taken by Lloyd Eldon Saunders)