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,

Curtis Hoberman.

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

all out."

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

May Day, The Millstone River Morris, Mercer Oak,

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.

May Madness, Princeton Shopping Center, North Harrison

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.

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