Feet First

W hen the New Haven Morris and Sword dancers perform the steps of a Cotswold dance, they’re enacting what an ancient ritual. The first written record of morris dancing, according to a 2004 article in Folk Music Journal, dates to the year 1448 in London. And some believe that a line from the epic English poem Beowulf (circa 700-1000 CE) refers to the dances, says David Lindsay, founder of the New Haven dance troupe.

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No one knows quite how old morris dancing is, but what’s certain is that New Haven Morris and Sword aims to keep it alive. Every Wednesday evening, a small group meets in the Center Church Parish House on Temple Street to practice routines that appear to be quite simple: steps, kicks and jumps in simple patterns of six dancers. But Lindsay says it’s harder than it looks, comparing morris dancing to rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time.

I learn the truth of this when I’m cajoled into giving it a try. I’m given a wide leather strap adorned with rows of bells to tie around my shins and a large handkerchief to hold in each hand. We begin with a simple step—one, two, three, kick—and then try adding in a “hop back” step. If you do it right, you’ll add the flourish of a twist of the foot, as if you’re “pushing earth.” So far, this is tricky but manageable. But when we add in a pattern of arm movements for the handkerchiefs, I just can’t seem to remember what I’m supposed to be doing or to make my limbs follow the called instructions.

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This earnest and energetic dancing is accompanied by cheerful music—often a recorder or accordion, but tonight a piano played by team member Dottie Cameron. She became acquainted with the New Haven Morris and Sword dancers when they performed for many years at a Yule Fest celebration at her church. Eventually, she decided to try it out herself, bringing along her then-teenaged daughter and her daughter’s friend. “She kind of didn’t stick with it that well, and her friend faded away, and there I was, happily jumping up and down,” Cameron says with a laugh. That was 14 years ago, and Cameron says she’s still learning.

During a break, Lindsay shows me a notebook of dances in the group’s repertoire. New Haven Morris and Sword has, over the course of its 41-year history, learned 58 different dances. Most are morris dances from traditions named for their areas of origin: Ducklington, Sherborne, Bledington, Adderbury, Fieldtown, Bampton. Then there’s the Elm City tradition. Morris dancing is a living form, and New Haven Morris and Sword members have created eight new dances of their own, with names like “Groundhog Day,” “Peacock” and “Q Bridge.”

The “sword” part in the group’s name refers to a different group of dances that use either longswords or rapper swords. Longswords are the oldest dances of the lot, involving elaborate figures created by the clinking and crossing of sharp metal swords. Danced at the winter solstice, they often celebrate the death of the old year and the birth of the new with a mock execution of the King or St. George. Then a dancer known as the Fool brings him back to life. “The Fool, for me, is an essential part of the morris,” Lindsay says. His or her role is “to let the audience know that they don’t have to take it as seriously as the dancers do and to actually make fun of the dancers in the middle of their ritual performance.”

Unlike longswords, rapper swords are bendable, with a fixed handle on one end and a swiveling handle on the other. The younger dances that use them—dating to perhaps the 1700s, Lindsay says—originated in the coal mining communities of northern England. Still other dances call for sticks instead of swords and are believed to be part of a spring ritual to awaken the earth. Traditionally, all of the dancers would be men, but New Haven’s team included women from the beginning, a controversial move at the time.

Lindsay has been morris dancing since his earliest school years, when his music teacher was “enthusing the entire elementary school with Anglo-American folk music and dance.” He later studied morris dancing at Pinewoods Camp in Massachusetts. After graduating from Yale, he co-founded one of the first contra dances in the city—New Haven Country Dancers, also still going strong—and a year later recruited some hardy souls from its ranks to learn morris dancing. Among them was Paul McGuire, who this evening is teaching steps to the Cotswold “Forester” dance and an Elm City stick dance that seems too complicated for me to try.

McGuire disagrees. “If you’ve got one right foot and one left foot,” he says, “we can work with you.”

New Haven Morris and Sword
Practice Location: Center Church Parish House – 311 Temple St, New Haven (map)
Email David Lindsay at [email protected] to sign up for beginners’ classes in early 2020
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Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 4 features David Lindsay.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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