I started dancing morris lots of years ago. I've been a member of Seattle Morris for a bunch of those years (counting isn't my forte - ask anyone on my side). Seattle Morris was originally a men's side but couldn't consistently generate enough men, what with the persistence of the Mossyback Morris Men. So after a couple of years, we became a mixed side. This led to certain changes in the look and feel of the team. Although we still used the same kits, everyone agreed that we looked different. And those who took the trouble to feel us here and there also noticed certain changes in the topographical prototype of at least some of the dancers. Enough introduction.
I have stumbled across a variety of ways to keep a side excited about dancing, and being a member of a team. From the point of view of a relatively small or newly formed side, the following may be of some use. An experienced team may find I am preaching to the converted. Coals to the Eskimos and all that.
1. Master each tradition you do before you adopt others. Doing only one tradition, however pure and idealistic, is a recipe for boredom. If you do chose more than one tradition, clearly differentiate among them. Seattle Morris has been doing Sherborne almost since we formed. We used to do Wheatley, opposite in many ways from the Sherborne tradition. It's a damn sight easier to learn and it's crisp and angular everywhere Sherborne is fluid and majestic.
Although we liked Sherborne better, it has no stick dances. (Well, supposedly there is one, but we've never seen it.) So we dropped Wheatley a few years ago and took up this apostate tradition called Elm City invented by Rick Mohr and the New Haven Morris Men, which was taught to us by our Fore at the time, David Sacco, a former member of NHMM. It's as sharp as Wheatley but is exclusively a sticking tradition, which dovetails even better with Sherborne. (New Haven also did Sherborne at the time.)
So we now do Sherborne as slowly and powerfully as ever we can, and crack, snapple and pop our way through Elm City in between. Since we have no actual rookies on the side this year we've been working on Bampton, which we hope will form the third leg of our repertoire. With Bampton, we emphasize the relaxed, almost hypnotic charm of the tradition. Still, our active repertoire is small (no more than ten or twelve dances), and we try to never lose sight of the salient differences among traditions.
So what does this have to do with reducing boredom? Because doing each tradition really well is the key to having members of other sides slathering praise on you, leaving you with the misguided but gratifying impression that you are a wonderful person and have a meaningful impact on the world.
2. Do non-morris stuff together from time to time. We conduct a traditional pre-season expedition to a club called Entros, a multi-media, high-tech adult gaming emporium here in Seattle. Once, we split into three two-person teams, and entered a "game show" where an array of slide projectors flashed assorted images of pop-culture icons, not for identification, but to complete a pun. Of the six teams in competition, Seattle Morris took the first three places. We were awesome.
Once, we stayed an extra day after a Sunset Duck and went to Disneyland as a team. At another California Ale, we arrived early to take in the boardwalk at Santa Cruz, including the big coaster and laser tag. There is something to be said for rediscovering the inner child in each of us.
3. Invite out-of-town teams to visit and dance with you. That is, if word hasn't spread after you've worn out your welcome with local teams. Out-of-town teams are generally unsuspecting and will enthusiastically accept virtually any invitation credibly proffered. While Seattle Morris, for example, may have long since exhausted its welcome with local and regional sides, we still invite English teams. We regale them by e-mail with tales of marauding painted savages ambushing stagecoaches carrying payrolls of gold and they think it's an opportunity to get in on a great cadge.
4. I've heard it said that there are three things you must do to earn your credentials as a complete morris dancer: dance out with your side, play an instrument for a dance, and perform a solo jig. Stupid saying, really. So your foreman and best dancer is only 2/3 of a morris dancer just because he/she doesn't play an instrument? Balderdash. Still, members should be encouraged to work up jigs and learn to play an instrument. An individual accomplishment representing your team is good joss all the way around.
I entered the solo jig competition several years ago at Sidmouth. I didn't win or even get a particularly good score. But people came up to me all week afterward and lied very convincingly (as I was predisposed to be gullible anyway) about how much they enjoyed my "interesting" interpretation. On the other hand, after the first time I played my melodeon for my side, no one spoke to me for a week.
5. Do karma gigs. There's nothing like performing at an old-folks home to make even the oldest stiffs among you feel like they're back in the prime of life. Try not to trip and fall on any of the residents and stay away from the cider.
6. Working up team skits for presentation at Ales and other functions can be a fun thing for a team to do together. Watching the skits worked up by other teams is a dicier proposition. Seattle Morris, in a compassionate gesture too seldom emulated, forswore Ale skits several years ago in the interest of humanity.
7. Start practices on time and keep them short. We used to schedule practices between 7:30 and 10:00. Despite gentle prodding, inducements, and threats, we seldom started to dance before 8:00, then were often too whipped to continue until 10:00. Plus, it was too late for some to continue on to the pub by then. Now, we still start at 7:30 but end practice by 9:00, so people are actually showing up ready to dance at 7:30 most nights. Now, no one has an excuse for not going to the pub so team business can be postponed until then. And, team meetings are more fun after a pint or two.
8. Summer practices can be particularly boring. You are nearing the end of the season and your repertoire is well rehearsed. You can work on lines or drill long sidesteps, but we prefer to devote the majority of practice time to more creative pursuits. Bring a great tune and make up a dance. Or take an existing dance and open it up for tweaking. Prime candidates are dances with repetitive figures (step up, chorus, rounds, chorus, rounds, chorus, rounds…). These dances, however enjoyable to perform and however ancient their lineage, tend to bore the audience to tears. While we are addressing team, not audience boredom, this is a golden opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.
We invented a new Sherborne figure in this fashion, though more by accident than design. I was calling the dance (seldom permitted, even though I'm Fore, but always an adventure), and was perilously late calling the next figure. Eventually, I called rounds just as Jeff Terry, in a third corner spot, came to the rescue and called facings. The middle couple did facings and the rest of us did rounds. It looked great and "flounders" was born.
9. Be respectful of other team members or go join another team. Actually, it would be best if you took up another avocation. Don't bring your interpersonal conflicts with other team members back to the team. If you encounter unavoidable tension with another dancer, be the big one and go up and say, "Hey, I can be an asshole sometimes. Sorry about your kit. I know this great dry cleaner…" I've never personally found the need to abase myself in this manner, but I've seen it work wonders for others.
10. On a mixed side, recognize the men are from Mars, the women are from Venus. If there is some dispute and someone is upset by something happening on the team, the women should go off to one side and process it. The men won't understand anything you're talking about anyway and just get confused and depressed. Once everything has been thoroughly processed by the caring contingent of the side, explain whatever action is required on the part of the men (i.e., involving the ultimate positioning of toilet seats, etc.), and move on. Any actual effect of this process is transitory at best, but everyone will have conformed to expectations and felt the exercise to be a valuable lesson in relationship building. If this is not a satisfactory way of resolving differences to you, for Pete's sake, don't ever get married!
Conclusion: For years, I was a morris dilettante. I believed my role to be that of the anti-Squire, carefully dispensing measured doses of crap to everyone in a position of authority. Now, as I creep up on my declining years, I feel a growing sense of responsibility and a more enlightened understanding of the importance of morris in my life, not to mention respect for figures of authority (now that I resemble one).
Morris dancing is a good thing and it's worth nurturing your team to make it a better thing. It is excellent exercise and way less boring than jogging or aerobics. If you have an academic bent or even a smidgen of intellectual curiosity, morris is a treasure trove of historical fact and baseless speculation. You have the opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the most intriguing and peculiar persons in circulation. But most importantly, participation in the Morris can be the creative outlet necessary to the maintenance of sound mental health.
©2000 Steve Galey, American Morris Newsletter