American Morris Newsletter  

American Morris Newsletter

Volume 25, Number 3
July, 2005

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 AMN Article, Vol. 25, No. 3

The Marlboro Morris Ale at 30

Part III. Is There An American Morris?

Anthony G. Barrand, Ph.D.
Boston University

I ended Part II of this essay on the thirty-year history of the Marlboro Morris Ale with the suggestion that I would end with an "...attempt to show why what we have at the Ale now is American Morris and not just Morris in America." 

This has been an issue for me for a long time. I think it became so when, after living in the U.S. for only a few years, I went to do research on Morris in the library at Cecil Sharp House in London (headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society) and was taken for an American. "But I'm English!" I protested. "Oh surely not," the librarian said, "The way you entered the room, the way you set about doing research, the way you dress and, of course, the way you talk are completely American." And this was from a pale-faced, clearly English belle who, it transpired, was from Connecticut. It was startling to confront the idea that I could have become "American" (and she, English) in so short a time, though wasn't a surprise that movement as well as speech can have what we might call a "dialect." 

I knew this from my academic training as a perception psychologist trying to understand artistic behavior. The most interesting descriptions of complex expressive gesture, such as dance or song, were from scholars who at saw them as complex communication systems that enmeshed psychology and culture. Most notable among these were anthropologists Ray L. Birdwhistell (Kinesics and Context, 1973) and Edwin T. Hall (The Hidden Dimension, 1966), and the unclassifiable Alan Lomax for his work on systems of "cantometrics" and "choreometrics," literally measures of song and dance performance (1968). Lomax is best known for recording a wealth of American "folk" or, as I now call them, vernacular songs and singers (such as Hudie Leadbetter or "Leadbelly"). His complex, but inevitably flawed, systems were based on the obvious, but perhaps undervalued, observation that people sing and dance as they do because of how and where they live. 

Consistent with this, then, would be the way that the many forms of the English Morris were most likely to be differentiated in terms of their region of origin, for example, "Cotswold" Morris. So it seemed to me, then, that a complex expressive gestural form such as Cotswold Morris done by American bodies in American places and on American occasions HAD to be different from the English variety. My field trip to England in the summer of 1979 was mostly to record and bring back film of the best dancing I could find in many forms of the Morris. But part of the looking at, practicing with, and filming Morris teams in England was to get a feel for how the English actually danced. And I left convinced not only that the regional differences within England were indeed reflected in the local genres of Morris but that there was a perceptible qualitative "something" about how all the forms of the Morris were done or were doable on opposite sides of the Atlantic. 

I was convinced enough about it that I began my 1991 book, Six Fools and a Dancer: The Timeless Way of the Morris, with the deliberately provocative first line: "I am an American Morris dancer." But what did that mean? I'm less sanguine now that I could put my finger on the key features.

My experience looking at and filming English teams dancing Morris in the summer of 1979 and at American teams appearing in the 1970s at the Marlboro Ale nuanced my perception of differences in dance style and confirmed my opinion. I thought by the end of the summer of 1979 that I could tell, for example, when a team dancing North-West or "Processional" Morris in clogs was from Lancashire (in the industrial north, e.g. The Rumworth Morris)  or had originally learned Cotswold Morris and was from the south of England (e.g. Bedford Morris Men). I think the difference stems from the more flexible legs and less upright stance necessary for Cotswold dancing, but words fail me beyond that.

It isn't easy to describe the differences between two things so similar even when it seems so obvious. I'm reminded of the "identical" twins I knew in my teenage years. My mother recently sent me a school photo from 1956 that was published in my old local newspaper. The story identified everyone but lamented that they couldn't tell which twin was Anthony and which was Michael. They should have asked me; the difference was still obvious after all these years. Again, it's easy to see but hard to describe the difference. 

Boys of Bletchley Grammar School, ca. 1956 
Anthony is second row up, second from the left, Michael is third from the left; I'm sitting cross-legged on the front row, second from the left in front of Anthony.

But the twin approaches of both a careful and close examination and a stepping back and trusting one's perception may reveal the secret. George Bernard Shaw usually gets the credit for observing that "England and America are two countries divided by a common language." There are famous vocabulary differences, even in the Morris. For example, if an English women's Morris team danced with their "nickers" (in American "panties") showing, the Morris might get very popular and attract more men than the dancing, whereas American women commonly choose "knickers" (knee-britches) as a basic kit or costume. But, when they start talking, people on both sides of the "Pond" can instantly hear a "Yank" or "Limey." They might get it wrong: as I said above, in England I'm seen and heard as a "Yank," but Americans still tell me that I have a "cute British accent." Right or wrong, it's instantaneous.

But can one see an American dance dialect in a Morris dancer? I believe the answer is "yes," "no," and "it depends." I was not always so equivocal. I have tried on three previous occasions to discuss the impact of place on dance style in the Morris. 

One was in a 1988 essay in Sing Out! entitled "But America for a Morris Dance!" (33 (4), 1988, 14-21) when I applauded the variety and vigor of Morris appearances in North America. The title was a parody borrowing from a curious, and oft-quoted 17th century pamphlet, Old Meg of Herefordshire (1609), which claimed:

The courts of kings for stately measures: the city for light heels, and nimble footing: the country for shuffling dances: western men for gambols: Middlesex men for tricks above ground: Essex men for the hay: Lancashire for hornpipes: Worcestershire for bagpipes: but Herefordshire for a Morris dance.

I liked this quote for my purposes because it demonstrates that there might be change over time in where the main focus of Morris can be located. After the revival in the 20th century, many contemporary dancers might have expected Oxfordshire in the Cotswolds rather than Herefordshire on the Welsh border to be named as the county associated the Morris. So it seemed to me that the Morris in America was no longer a novelty but had become the location, at the end of the 20th century, where the dance was finding the most creative place in the lives and bodies of dancers and their communities. Partly because of the Marlboro Ale, it was even becoming a major place one would go to see and join in the dancing.

But my first effort was in this very publication in its 10th anniversary year, when it could still be said to have "pages" and "covers" ("American Morris or English Morris in America? Implications of an American May Day," American Morris Newsletter, Vol. 10 (2) July 1986, pp. 14-28). 

I focused in that essay on what I called the "insecure anachronism" reflected in the front cover declaring the newsletter to be about "American Morris" but the back cover claiming it was "A Publication of English Ceremonial Dance." Both were true, of course, but I argued that the latter was relevant only in the, perhaps, trivial sense that the publication wasn't about French or Balinese dance. I think it's at best anachronistic and quaint to call a dance "English" when it has been done repeatedly all over North America for almost a century. Similarly, when John and Ruby Lomax collected the ballad "Bobby Allen" from African-American Hule ("Queen") Hines in the Florida State prison, it's nothing more than an historical footnote to call that version an "English" ballad.

I emphasized regional movement style as the key factor and said it "...will always win through in the end" and suggested that "...the way a dance is performed will always be a balance between what [the dance] needs and what the current group brings to it" (p.27). When that happens, a performance reflects local circumstances. It makes something "American," just as, in a different place, it would make something "English."

I followed this up when I got more specific in my book, Six Fools and a Dancer (1991). In this current examination of the ways in which the Morris is or can be "American," I'm going try to make use of my digital archive (see "The Digital Video Research Archive Collection of Morris, Sword, & Clog Dancing," American Morris Newsletter, April, Vol. 25 No.1) to make the quality perceptible rather than just have it be a point argued. In the book, I identified seven sources of movement style from which local "dialect" in movement stems. 

1. Choreometric or Broad Cultural Factors
Alan Lomax hoped with the term "choreometric" to refer to elements of performance style that would correlate statistically with other measures of culture. In short, it assumes we dance as we live. For my purposes, I look to American dance occasions that simply don't exist in England. The Marlboro Ale itself is one of those. Founded as a way of enabling teams from diverse settings to see the best of dancing available, it included men's and women's and mixed sides from the beginning. This gave it an essentially democratic and, thereby, American tolerance, acceptance and support of and enthusiasm for whatever teams brought their performance. Was this visible in the dancing? Teams came to the first Ale from Maine (Strong Morris) and from Boston (Muddy River Morris) and New York (Greenwich Morris Men). More recent clips reveal the same qualities seen here on relatively inexperienced dancers. I can't imagine seeing anything like it an English gathering, even in the early days of the 20th century when the Morris was new to many.

2. The Physical Environment
This influence includes the shape, size and appearance of the dancing area, the weather or climate, and the clothing worn by dancers.

a. Dancing Area
Most of my film of English teams was taken in relatively sheltered pub settings. Dancing surfaces (tarmac and grass) may be similar in Vermont, but local villages and towns don't have anything like a pub. The processionals at Marlboro College, especially, reflect the rural hills, fields and trees of Vermont (search on "+winster +college") even after the massed show switched to tarmac from grass (1979).

b. Weather and climate
Without the heat of an American summer and the cold of a New England winter, English teams often dance all tear round. Many American teams, however, limit their dancing to April and May, September and October. This climate imposed limitation on the length of the dancing season and, therefore, on the number of public performances, seemed to me keep a freshness and enthusiasm among team members. Unable to give in to the temptation to dance all the time without going indoors, a lot of the problems caused for any performer by undue repetition can be avoided. That may only show up in subtle ways in the dancing but I'm sure it's there.

Then there's rain. The English think they know about and expect rain and, on my 1979 field trip, teams came out in it to dance for me, for example, John o' Gaunt Morris Men and Manchester Morris Men. They came out in the perpetual English drizzle, anyway. If you want to see real rain, the Marlboro Ale has known some and things happen that may not be seen in England, for example, the Marlboro Morris Men's topless version of "Nuts in May" on the Brattleboro Common. 

c. Clothing or costume
I think there are lots of distinctly American aspects here but I'll mention especially the observation that there were no skirts to be seen until the 5th Marlboro Ale when the Court Square Dancers brought ribbon and garland dancing in 1980. And I, dancing as "Mother," (e.g. Shepherd's Hey)  may be the only one to do Cotswold Morris in a skirt at the Ale; no women's Cotswold-style team ever has. Standard American women's Cotswold Morris "kit" from the first Ale in 1976 has been knickers (that's knee breeches!). See, for example, Ring o' Bells and Marlboro Morris and Sword.

3. The Musical Environment
Cecil Sharp's assistant, Maud Karpeles, probably deserves credit for my favorite observation on Morris aesthetics; "The job of the musician is to make the dance audible; the job of the dancer is to make the music visible." A corollary is that while you can dance badly to good music, you cannot dance well to bad music. So a lot depends on the music. Many American and English Morris musicians use the 2-row D/G button accordion (what English musicians call a "melodeon"): a diatonic instrument, it's loud, portable, and works for most Morris tunes. Styles of playing seem similar on both sides of Atlantic as recordings by English players such as Reg Hall, Rod Stradling and John Kirkpatrick have been influential. Alan Whear has also been a major influence through his workshops at Pinewoods Camp for CDSS and the many appearances by Windsor Morris at the Ale. 

However, the pipe and tabor has not only attracted a large following in American teams but a distinctive manner of playing has developed. It shows up especially in the drumming. The drum held on the wrist is still popular with English players such as the late Alan Brown of Monkseaton Morris Men or,  perhaps its best exponent, Bert Cleaver (here playing for Roger Cartwright in Abingdon as he is announced as "one of the few American Morris dancers")  and it is played with many light almost textural drum beats, very similar to that used to accompany the Basque txistu (for example, Basque women at the Scarborough Sword Spectacular) American players, notably the multiple players of Marlboro Morris and Sword (here are two of them: Andy Horton and Maggie Schiele Sullivan) and Jessica Murrow of Bouwerie Boys. They seem to drive the dance with more dynamic from the drum on the down beats and less of the texture.

4. Psycho-biological Factors
By this I meant such elements as personal physical condition (what the English call being "fit" and Americans call "shape," as in what "shape" are you in?"), somatotype (after Sheldon, 1940), and motivation. Although American men and women tend to be taller than their English counterparts, It isn't clear to me at this stage that these factors are responsible for much difference dance style except for average age issues. Perhaps because English teams have existed for so much longer, it is more common there to see older (heavier?) dancers. This will affect tempos; older dancers either need faster tempos or they have to work harder and be more convincing with upper body gestures. That's beginning to show up on American teams. John Dexter, longtime leader of the Bouwerie Boys and one of the finest dancers in North America (at #1 in both films), noticeably has to work harder now (at the2005 Ale) than he did in his youth (at the 1988 Ale) to dance the Sherborne capers at the slow tempos the Bouwerie Boys prefer. As they beautifully set the younger, springier dancers for the last crossing at third corners, the contrast is obvious.

5. Choreographic Factors
As many dances performed by American teams share the choreography with those chosen by English teams, I'm relying on my examination of repertoire in Part II of this essay to reveal any American preferences, (American Morris Newsletter, Volume 25, Number 2, July, 2005 "The Marlboro Morris Ale at 30: Part II. Skits, Spoofs, and Invention: the Ale as a Cradle of Creativity"). The one issue not explored in that essay concerned individual movement style. As my anecdote quoted above about my appearing to move like and "American" at Cecil Sharp House illustrates, there may profitably be aspects of movement dialect to explore here that I, at least, don't have the language to pursue.

6. Psycho-social factors
The latter comment is reinforced around this aspect of dance style. In Six Fools, I speculated about the "dance mirror" which leads us to dance like the people we can see in the set. In other words, we move like the people we can see around us. This multiplies the dialect factor beyond one individual into a team quality. I can't do better on this aspect right now other than recommending a broad search in the DVRA looking at performances found by searching on "England" and "USA" within any Morris genre. Looking across genres would confuse things beyond all bounds.

7. Community Function or Context
Why is the audience at a Morris show? It differs between England and North America. It's not common for an American audience unexpectedly to come across dancing in the street; I've been told more than once by English non-Morris dancers, complainingly, that one can't go to a nice pub in the summer without having to listen to Morris bells. So, for an English audience the Morris may look like an English nuisance, maybe even an object of amusement because of the long running cartoon (comic strip) by Bill Tidy, "The Cloggies, an Everyday Story of Clog-Dancing Folk." But for American audience, there may typically not be any context for understanding a Morris show, With its colored costumes it looks "ethnic" and inspires the question: "where is this from?" American teams typically reply "England" and may have a flyer or brochure to hand out which says something about it being "ancient" and a "fertility rite." 

Because of the Marlboro Ale, however, there's a very knowledgeable audience for Morris and sword dancing in Windham County, Vermont. They see the Cotswold-style Morris in May or the sword dance and mummers plays in October as local, community events, and the Ale as a special aesthetic display. And they don't just appreciate the spectacular parts such as the leapfrogs or split-capers. At the ending massed Ale shows in Newfane, especially, they're as likely to applaud a simple but well-done common figure, such as a "back-to-back" with clean and straight "lines" and musical handkerchief gestures. 

And they don't see the dancing often enough to tire of it from over-exposure. The southern Vermont Cotswold teams can only be seen in various towns on weekends in May (and never in the same town twice in a year) and the sword/mumming teams only dance on Columbus (the women of Marlboro Morris and Sword) and Halloween (the Green Mountain Mummers men) weekends in October.

This means that visiting teams at the Marlboro Ale are both welcomed and appreciated. This helps teams produce what I see as a fresh and energetic set of performances. The audience plays a major part of what happens in any performance and, since the Morris is an interactive display, what an American audience brings to a show will inevitably put an American stamp on the dancing

In conclusion:
All of these American influences may not result in a movement style that is as perceptibly different as a Yankee speech dialect. Not yet, anyway. The strongest image I have after thirty years of the Marlboro Ale is of the children's and teenager teams almost too numerous to mention: Great Meadow, Maple Leaf, Mountain Top, Green Mountain, Velocirapper, Candy Rapper and Lansdowne Morris. They have grown up with the Morris as a fixture of their lives. Many, such as my daughter, heard and felt the rhythms while still in utero, went to sleep as babies at Morris practice, and watched all the teams at the Ale every May. If their parent generation dancers haven't yet developed an American way of dancing, they will.


Barrand, Anthony G. "American Morris or English Morris in America? Implications of an American May Day," American Morris Newsletter, Vol. 10 (2) July 1986, pp. 14-28).

Barrand, Anthony G. "But America for a Morris Dance!" Sing Out!, 33 (4), 1988, 14-21.

Barrand, Anthony G. Six Fools and a Dancer: The Timeless Way of the Morris. Plainfield, VT: Northern Harmony Pub. Co., 1991.

Birdwhistell, Ray L. Kinesics & Context. London: Penguin, 1973.

Hall, Edward T. The Hidden Dimension. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966 .

Lomax, Alan, & Victor Grauer. "The Cantometrics Coding Book," in Folksong Style and Culture, Alan Lomax (ed.), pp. 34-74, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington DC 1968.

Lomax, Alan, Irmgard Bartenieff, & Forrestine Paulay. "The Choreometric Coding Book," in Folksong Style and Culture, Alan Lomax (ed.) pp.262-273, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington DC 1968.

Sheldon, W. H. The Varieties of the Human Phsyique. New York: Harper. 1940.

 AMN, Vol. 25, No. 3, July 2005  ISSN: 1074-2689