After posting photographs of the Morris troupe dancing near Fingle Bridge last week, I was reminded of my favorite local troupe: Beltane, performers of the wild, almost shamanic form of the dance called Border Morris.
Americans tend to view Morris dancing as a quaintly charming slice of "olde England," and don't often realize how many of the English themselves find it hopelessly twee.* (This is the kind of dance they're generally thinking of.) As an oft-repeated quote (variously attributed to Thomas Beecham, Wilde, Shaw, and others) says snidely: "Try everything at least once once, my dear, except incest and Morris dancing." Personally, I like Morris dancing of all sorts (thereby "outing" myself as deeply uncool); and I especially love modern Border Morris as practiced by younger troupes like Beltane, with goth, punk, and neo-pagan leanings.
Border Morris originated in the west of Britain -- probably sometime in the late Middle Ages, arising from dance traditions that were older still -- developed primarily by dancers and musicians along the border of England and Wales. The distinguishing characteristics of Border Morris (as opposed to other forms) are shorter sticks, higher steps, ragged costumes, blackened faces, and larger bands of musicians. The history of the blackened face is much disputed: it may have had ceremonial significance in the dance's deeply pagan origins; or it might have been a form of disguise adopted in years when Border Morris was frowned upon as rowdy, subversive, and un-Christian.
It certain is rowdier than most other forms of Morris; it's also more overtly pagan, and thus (to me) more powerful. Often performed at sacred times in the Celtic lunar calendar, the dances invoke a palpable magic tied to the land, the seasons, and the mythic wheel of life, death, and rebirth. Like other forms of sacred dance the world over, the drum beat and the dancers' steps weave patterns intended to keep the seasons turning and maintain the balance of the human/nonhuman worlds. Yet in contrast to other, more mannered forms of Morris, Border dancers unleash an energy that is earthier, lustier, more anarchic...both joyous and unsettling to watch, especially by dusk or firelight.
Howard and I once came across Beltane dancing in our village square, just as dark began to fall. At one moment in the dance, the music went quiet. The troupe dropped to their knees in unison, sticks pounding the ground in a slow, steady rhythm. Then, just as slowly, the dancers rose...the music started faintly...quickened and loudened...and the dance romped on again. It was breathtaking to watch: both beautiful and chilling. If a portal into Faerie had opened at that moment, I would not have been at all surprised.
In the video at the top of this post, Beltane performs a Fire Dance at the dawn of May Day (Beltane), 2012. The dance took place on Dartmoor, on a foggy crossroad near Hay Tor.
Below, a dance for Winter Solstice at Stonehenge, filmed last December.
And last, just for fun:
Dancing in the sea. This video (complete with wind and barking dog) was filmed at Teignmouth on the south Devon coast.
* The American equivalent of the English word "twee" would be "hokey" or "corny."