They are bold, they are brassy and they probably invented the meaning of the word "schtick": once you have seen a straight rapper set turn into a rendition of Swan Lake, and then back again, you know that you are watching the Gay Blades, and that somehow, rapper will never seem quite the same again.
If you want to see the best of New England sword and morris, then the place to go is the Court Yard at Natick High School, outside Boston, on the last weekend of April at the New England Festival of Folk Arts. It was there that I met the Gay Blades, a rapper team with a certain amount of schtick and a reputation which would bring a great sigh of despair to some traditionalists. But rapper dances on. I talked, via e-mail, with Graham Christian, one of the founders of the side.
Gay Blades was formed in the summer of 1996 in Jamaica Plain, a semi-independent town in Boston, Massachusetts. "At the beginning, there were six members - five and a spare, but in rather short order, our sixth dropped away. Of those original six, only two remain." he said.
The principal reason Graham and Dean Allemang founded the team was that they both loved rapper, and discovered quite inadvertently that they'd both danced rapper in college. They were both dancing contras at events sponsored by the Lavender Country & Folk Dancers, a gay/lesbian/bisexual organisation, and it made sense to them to draw rapper dancers from friends they'd made there. "At the time, the constituency of the team was not so much a comment on the morris world as a celebration of what we and our friends had together."
The team was originally male-only. "While it was very interesting and powerful to have an all-gay male team, when a couple of lesbian friends asked to join, we came to the conclusion that excluding them didn't amount to much more than sexism - and we changed our minds at once. And let me add that we are delighted that we did - the women on our team are marvellous dancers, dear friends, and otherwise indispensable."
Dancing members of the team are gay/lesbian but its not necessarily a condition of membership. "At the moment, two of our three very fine musicians are not gay, and what we've always said to them is, "You know some people will take you for gay or lesbian..." I suppose that we are in that sense "exclusive," but I suppose I'd say that there are other "heterosexual" teams for heterosexual dancers - but only GB for gay/lesbian/bisexual dancers."
There has been more than one attempt at agreeing a kit (one of the team members, Anne, always smiles and says, "Ah, yes, kit wars!"). The latest version is white shirt, black britches, rainbow vest, purple stockings or leggings. The rainbow - minus indigo - has been used as a symbol of gay/lesbian/bisexual unity and progress for several years now in the States; They settled on purple for the stockings because of all the rainbow colours it looked least stupid with the waistcoats.
When the team started, Dean and Graham imagined that it would be highly traditional. "But in fact that's not remotely the case now. I think that we verge on the post-modern - we not only invent or adapt figures, but when we use a traditional figure, we frequently use comedy to "comment" upon it.
"In the beginning, Dean's memory and mine were our sources. I learned at Swarthmore College, Dean in the Newbiggin manner at Cambridge, so you might say that he is a bit closer to the tradition than I. But in truth, it had been so long (more than ten years) since either of us had danced rapper that we were, in effect, reinventing it, with the help of the Sharp chapters and the odd article. Now we look at what other teams do for ideas - or rely on our own ingenuity."
The Gay Blades dance with a certain flair and schtick . "I suspect," says Graham, "that we are more than usually free to play with gender roles or crack jokes (I am thinking of the routine in which one of the women was the whip-cracking driver in Reins, with a team of five men - which the audience loved). "
And the Swan Lake interlude? "We have had routines of more-or-less "pure" dance, but we do consistently tweak the tradition, as one of our members says. And, by now, I think some of our audiences expect comedy and schtick when we perform. We aren't afraid to be thought odd: as gay/lesbian performing folk dancers, we're a vanishingly small sub-sub-minority, and hence already odd - what do we have to lose?"
The team have not yet not yet danced outside the US, nor in fact, as a relatively young team, gone very far within the US. But they are very willing to receive invitations, particularly from the UK. But Graham also has his aspirations. "I have daydreamed about dancing by S. Marco in Venice, but I couldn't say if my team mates share this dream."
Their Best gig? "The response of our first audience - at our Lavender Country Folk Dance camp - to our very first performance, rough as it was, was overwhelming. They were so proud of us! I've never heard such a roar. Close to it was the time, again at the dance camp, when we danced at dinner, and began it with an argument between Dean and me, culminating in a sword fight (Pyrrhic combat, for the scholars - which I'd been longing to draw into a routine) with two "seconds" for each of us. We did a hey to get into the ring. I loved that routine, but we had to give up the sword fight because it was taking divots out of the sword handles"
The rapper team that Gay Blades rate? "We have a very profound admiration for Half Moon. In fact, when our team was quite new (and all male) and we saw them dance for the first time, we asked them to marry us. They looked a little taken aback, but didn't give us a flat refusal, so they may still be considering our offer."
The Gay Blades are interesting and challenging in what they do. Don't miss them.
©1998, ©2000 Janet Dowling, The Nut