Corrections or additions?
This story by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on April 29, 1998. All rights reserved.
Secret Pagans of May Day
Does spring in central New Jersey make secret pagans
of us all? If the recent glorious sunshine and riot of brilliant blossoms
make you want to thank nature for spring, you may be a candidate for
the dawn dances on Friday, May 1, at the Mercer Oak in Princeton Battlefield
The Millstone River Morris will lead the May Day dances, joined by
Shandygaff Longsword, Griggstown Lock Rapper Sword, Handsome Molly,
and the Maypole Dancers. Together the groups welcome May in a tradition
that dates from ancient times.
Dances performed for an invisible audience of spirits are among the
oldest dances there are. In practically every culture outside the
Judeo-Christian tradition, ritual dances that get in touch with the
powerful forces of nature are indispensable to sacred practice. The
potent exchange of energy between performers and audience is a transformative
experience for dancer and dance-watcher alike. Together, everyone
joins to curry favor with the spirits whose goodwill is considered
vital for the community’s well-being.
The Millstone River Morris dancers are just one of the groups around
the world that will "dance up the sun" on May Day. "For
centuries in small villages in rural England, Morris dancers have
marked the seasons, brought hope, good luck, and the promise of fertility,
have represented tradition and continuity, have entertained their
neighbors, and have vexed high-minded persons," says their squire,
Ritual dances like the Morris were not danced for the social pairing
of men and women, but were danced instead by teams of people to mark
specific seasons and events like May Day, the solstices, First Night,
and Twelfth Night.
Popular in medieval times in England and Scotland, the origins of
Morris dancing are currently lost to history, but subjects of heated
debate. Among the many theories is that the dancing was part of an
ancient religious festival or combination of festivals such as Beltane
or Flora. Some teams restrict the Morris dance to men only, although
Millstone does not.
The most widely known Morris form comes from the Cotswold region of
Oxfordshire and is danced by sides of six dancers bedecked in ribbons
with bells on their legs, and handkerchiefs or sticks in their hands.
The springtime ritual may have been intended to reawaken the earth
with the pounding of sticks, waving of handkerchiefs, and ringing
of bells. Morris sides, or teams, are often accompanied by fools,
hobby horses, and other fanciful creatures.
Millstone River Morris has been dancing the Morris since 1982 and
practices weekly throughout the year on the Princeton campus. Millstone’s
"kit" or costume is white trousers (for men and women), shirts,
and handkerchiefs, with bells on the legs, and braided baldrics (the
ornamented belt worn over one shoulder to support a sword) in orange,
yellow, and green.
For Mary Zikos, a dancer and Princeton University employee, the May
Day Dance is as much of a tradition today as its was for English farm
people of centuries past. She’s been joining the dawn dances at Princeton
Battlefield Park for almost 15 years, and always takes May 1 as a
vacation day from work.
She says the area’s active community of ritual dancers grew out of
the folk and country dance scene that began in the 1970s. The ritual
dance "teams" draw most of their members from the Princeton
Country Dancers, the English and American contra dance group that
meets weekly at the Susanne Patterson Center. "It’s very incestuous,"
she says. "I’ve danced on all four ritual teams, and tried them
Zikos is one of the founders of Handsome Molly, founded
in 1993 and the youngest of the four groups. It specializes in an
18th-century English form that mocked the nobility’s codified Playford
social dances with comic travesty. Its upstart practitioners all wore
disguises so as not to suffer retribution. The Molly Dancer, a man
dressed in a woman’s colorful fake finery, is accompanied by 10 dancers
in black clothes, disguised by blackened faces.
"There are as many reasons to dance as there are dancers,"
says Zikos. "You may love tradition, you may love to perform,
or you may love to meet at the ales." The "ales" are contemporary
meetings of ritual dancers in cities such as New York and Toronto,
where as many as 20 dance teams come together to dance in the streets
during the daytime, and party at night. And these aren’t Budweiser
parties either. "There’s all kinds of home brews and special beers.
These are people who know the difference between Samuel Smith and
Sam Adams," she says.
Although a 5 a.m. wakeup call on May 1 sounds slightly unbelievable,
Zikos says about 100 people will be there at the park, its elegant
sloping expanse ringed by evergreens and decorated just now with exquisite,
hovering white dogwood blossom. The number includes about 40 dancers
and about 20 spouses and children attached to the dancers. Among the
rest of the onlookers, some are regulars who once happened to drive
Princeton Pike at dawn, and now return annually to repeat the experience.
"If you look off across the fields you see beautiful budding things,"
says Zikos. "And when the dancing is over, the team dances off
into the woods until they’re out of sight, disappearing into the mists.
It’s very romantic."
Just as all the ritual dances are seasonal, celebrating and marking
nature’s year, the Morris dance was probably about fertility. The
dancers carry sticks — straight tree limbs almost three feet long
that are stripped of their bark. In one dance, the dancers motion
with the sticks as if they were setting young plants in the earth.
"These dances were what made the routine of rural life tolerable,"
says Zikos. "It’s essential to have lots of different festivals
to break up the monotony of work." Not that routine and monotony
are strangers to the contemporary workplace, on this proverbial cusp
of the millennium. "Yes," says Zikos, enthusiastically. "We
need more cheese rolling days!"
— Nicole Plett
Princeton Battlefield Park, Mercer Street, 609-452-9373. The Millstone
River Morris will lead the May Day dances, joined by Shandygaff Longsword,
Griggstown Lock Rapper Sword, Handsome Molly, and the Maypole Dancers.
Free. Friday, May 1, 5:30 a.m.
If you miss the sunrise spectacular, you can also catch the revelers
on May Day at 10:30 a.m. at Princeton University, on the square in
front of Firestone Library, or at noon at Palmer Square.
Street, 609-921-6234. The festival includes dances by Griggstown Locke,
Millstone River Morris, and Shandygaff Longsword Dancers. Free. Saturday,
May 2, 10:30 to 11:30 a.m.
Corrections or additions?
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