Berkshire Morris Men dances welcome May Day
With "wintry mix" displayed throughout this month's weather forecast, many Berkshire residents impatiently thaw out and await the warmth and vibrancy that spring promises. Instead of waiting out the cold, this year the local Morris Dance team invites the community to join them in a sacred and joyous pagan May Day ritual of song and dance that beckons all to participate in spring's arrival.
While it may not be true that humans can hurry spring along, the intention of taking part in the waking of the Earth from her slumber is an annual ritual many pagan or Earth-based cultures have held dear for several centuries before the spread of Christianity.
The term pagan originally referred to a "rustic," "country person," a "peasant" and later it encompassed every religious practice that was not Christian or Jewish. Nicholas VanSant, one of the founding members of the local Morris team, explains, "the pagan piece is the observance of the Earth and its cycles. Its not religious in terms of a canon. It is a ritual in that we do it on a regular basis with intention. We dont expect anything magical to happen apart from enriching our lives and enriching the lives of the community, which, I think, is enough. We are pagans with a little p."
While the Morris dancers of Berkshire County do not necessarily identify with being religiously Pagan, they resonate with "being a part of a stream of oral folk tradition passed along directly from one man to another," said Christopher Sblendorio, another of the founding members of the local Morris team.
His interest in the Morris song and dance was sparked in England as he interned at a Rudolf Steiner school. The Berkshire Morris team started in 1982 at Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School when Sblendorio was playing a very rare Morris tune in his classroom. Graham Dean, England native and another longtime staff member of GBRSS, was cleaning the halls, passed by Sblendorio's classroom, and danced the precise Morris steps that coincide with the odd tune.
Sblendorio and Dean began the now 32-year-old Berkshire Morris dance team, of which three of original six members still remain.
VanSant, then a parent at the school, said, "I had no idea what it was but as soon as I put the bells on, I knew I wanted to do it! It was special; there was a certain feeling about it that's very dear to me that has grown over time."
At the May Day celebration you can expect to witness a group of strong jovial men, of varying ages and ethnic backgrounds, dressed in white, red handkerchiefs on their wrists and waist, bells wrapped around their legs, carrying big sticks, and jumping high into the air and around each other in patterns to the music of a diatonic accordion, fiddle, and/or the pipe and tabor played by a colorfully dressed, cheerful, beat-keeping melody maker.
Sblendorio often proclaims to the crowd, "the hankies are to attract the audience, the sticks are to wake up the Earth out of its winter slumber, and the bells are to attract the fairy folk." He adds that the celebration promotes, "prosperity, good luck and fertility."
Relying heavily on the oral tradition of the folk dance is a unique facet to keeping the Morris dance alive and not static.
"We are happy to be a part of a long line of dancers whose rituals made their way to us. And we hope to pass it along to others," said Sblendorio.
The dancers take basic moves from one of the basic styles and then add to it.
"We mostly do a tradition called Fieldtown, now this is a Cotswold Morris," says Dean, who got his start at Morris dancing in Shelburne, England, which is in Gloucestershire, also in the Cotswold district. Cotswold district is home to the city where our very own Great Barrington gets its name. Dean continues, "We've created four dances in the Berkshire tradition, which are unique to our team."
At this year's May Day celebration, the team will be dancing one original dance and one traditional dance. Sblendorio said as VanSant and Dean strongly agreed, "Somebody's got to do this! We would love for a bunch of young guys to come and take it over from us so we can just sit back, watch and enjoy it."
They concluded that "any men who are crazy enough are welcome to join" them every Monday evening at 7 p.m. at GBRSS for practice.
The intrigue is enhanced knowing the Morris dance team starts off every performance season at dawn on May 1, where they, each year at the same place, perform for only nature and themselves.
If you go ...
What: May Day celebration and Morris dance performance
Where: Rudolph Steiner School, 35 West Plain Road, Great Barrington
May Day, 11 a.m.
Admission: Open to all
On the Bridge
This column is a collaboration between Berkshires Week and Multicultural Bridge to encourage voices from all backgrounds in these pages.
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