Back in medieval England, on May Day, small groups of men (and sometimes women) would converge outside village pubs to celebrate the return of spring, with a ritual known as Morris dancing.
They’d dress picturesquely in white, don bells and throw handkerchiefs in the air in an exuberant display of joy and rustic charm.
Over the centuries, this tradition has not only endured, but it’s also radiated from the English shores to nations in Europe and to the U.S.
One such homegrown dance troupe is the American Travelling Morrice, whose members are bringing their 33rd annual tour to the area.
62-year-old John Dexter, the group’s founder, explains how he was introduced to this British folk art: “Many years ago, in 1965, while in my deep youth, I bumped into [it] purely by accident, while attending a dance camp.”
What he saw and heard impressed him enough to take it up as a serious hobby and to go about forming a “side”—which connotes the word “team” in the argot of the Morris community.
James Walker, a 10-year-Morris dance veteran who’s in charge of this year’s event and is an active member of Dexter’s troupe for the past five years, is a native of England, where he danced with a London team for a few years. Hoping to continue the thread, after he moved to the U.S., he looked around for a local group.
“I ended up joining the New York side, “The Bouwerie Boys.” John Dexter is the Squire [leader] of the Bouwerie and was instrumental in involving and teaching me the tradition that the team dances,” Walker said in an e-mail response.
The American Travelling Morrice has 30 members on its current tour, who come from various walks of life, said Dexter. Though Dexter himself is a viola player, not all are musicians.
“There’s nothing quite like the Morris dancers. The music of fiddles and melodeons, the sound of the bells on the dancers’ legs, and the bright colors flashing in the Sun create an unusual spectacle, which catches people by surprise,” said Walker in a statement.
“Suddenly, there appears this incredibly energetic and exciting situation right in the middle of the day!”
What’s the dance like? There are six predominant schools of Morris dancing—Cotswold Morris, Northwest Morris, Border Morris, Longsword dancing, Rapper and Molly Dancing.
The American Travelling Morrice follows the Cotswold style, wherein there’s a set of six dancers, arranged in two rows of three.
While some dances hold handkerchiefs, others use short sticks that are either clashed against each other, or against those of the partner. Part of the costume includes bells, usually worn tied below the knees.
Morris men usually wear a white shirt, white trousers or dark breeches, and black shoes. Colored sashes or baldrics worn over one, or both shoulders, or a waistcoat, serve to distinguish different teams.
But you can see all of that (for free) on August 22, if you happen to be in the Pleasantville railway station area, around 1:45 p.m., or on Sunnyside Avenue, at 3:45 p.m.
What the audience will walk away with is “some solid good luck,” promised Dexter.
While the origins of the Morris dance tradition are lost in the mists of time, the centuries-old custom is known to have a magic power and serves both to bring luck and to ward off evil.