Old-fashioned pleasures

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!”

sword dancing in the rainIMG_5277

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.)

dancing for fun after dinnerIMG_5236

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.

Toronto Women’s Sword performs in a pubIMG_5265

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.


5 thoughts on “Old-fashioned pleasures

  1. Sarah

    While it is perhaps not as openly glorified as the other hedonistic activities, I think plenty goes on in the camping ground that sex shouldn’t truly be considered underrepresented at an Ale. 😉

    1. Julia Post author

      I may just be oblivious. 🙂 I do know of one case where what other people thought were sex-related sounds from a tent were actually sleep apnea…

  2. Teresa

    I miss that in the US the whole female/young people divide seems fairly far in the distance.
    Sword dancing in England still has this problem though it’s getting better. All female rapper sides here are a phenomenon of the ’90s and they got a lot of problems-many of them ended up becoming co-ed to survive taking up the traditional shorts and sash. At the latest DERT, it was the first time that all the categories were won by all-female teams not wearing traditional sash costume and there were rumblings that it was just ‘affirmative action’ for women and that we all won because of our breasts instead of simply being the first year that the judging pool included contemporary dancers as well as old standards. It’s definitely better than the ’90s, rapper is definitely faster, more interesting, and better as a dance form thanks to teams like star&shadow and black swan.

    Longsword is still the domain of old men-the two major teams in Sheffield refuse female members because of the strength of certain members’ ideas that women should not do sword dancing at all. Those members also refuse to watch female rapper teams choosing to ostensibly turn their back. However, I love that the more progressive members are SUPER enthusiastic about younger people/women dancing and keep forcing their conservative colleagues to be at events involving women’s dancing. Plus, they’re dying out (somewhat literally) so their numbers grow smaller by the year.

  3. Julia Post author

    Teresa, how did I not know you’re a rapper dancer?! That’s great! Congratulations on placing so well at DERT!

    I was told at my first rapper workshop “You don’t have to be a man to do this, but you do have to act like you’re going off to war.” Not sure how I feel about that.

    Around here the best longsword team is Orion, which is co-ed, led by a woman, and very into non-traditional choreography. This last being why they’re more interesting to watch than traditional longsword.

  4. Pingback: Sociology of Morris dancing | The whole sky


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