I spent the weekend at a gathering of 200 or so Morris dancers doing English folkdance in the Vermont countryside. It rained and snowed. We had a great time.
And it had me thinking about why Morris is such a delightful occupation, because it doesn’t sound that fun. It’s hard to explain to people: “We wear costumes and jump up and down. We have sticks and bells.” At times during the weekend I heard dancers joking, “Why do we do this? What a stupid hobby!”
But Morris is also significantly about hedonism. At a Morris ale (a gathering) people spend perhaps 1/3 the time actually doing or watching Morris dance. The other time is spent catching up with old friends, drinking beer, eating, singing, social dancing, playing tunes, and enjoying the countryside. People stay up until dawn singing and playing music with their friends. (Sex is perhaps the only primal pleasure that’s underrepresented at Morris ales, due to physical exhaustion and lack of privacy. But also that ales are about large group interaction, and isolating with one other person would feel kind of wasteful.)
I notice a conflict between two lines of thought that I often hear: the reactionary strain says human life is pretty much as it has always been, and we’d better glean the best from the past rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. The other, progressive strain says that we can do better, and that change is good.
In some ways, progress has clearly made Morris better than it was. The dance itself may be medieval, but I’m very glad to be living in the 21st century. Women weren’t really welcome in certain styles of Morris dance until the 1980s, and there was significant conflict over what their role could be. That dispute is largely past, and it’s hard for me to believe there was a time when women and children weren’t welcome at events like the one I just went to.
But it also seems that a Morris gathering taps into some things that run very deep in our mammalian heritage. It combines things that have made people happy for a long time – socializing, showing off for their friends, physical exertion, alcohol, good food, and song. It’s hard to beat the old-fashioned pleasures.
In the words of one favorite pub song:
Eating and drinking are so charming,
Piping and dancing there’s no harm in.
All these things we take delight in,
While we are together.
Let union be in all our hearts,
Let all our hearts be joined as one.
We’ll end the day as we begun,
We’ll end it all in pleasure.