Minnesota Sounds and Voices: Morris Dancers welcome spring in a centuries-old tradition

Group dance
Greta Rudolph of Minneapolis, Minn. dances with other Morris dancers during a celebration of the first day of May in Minneapolis, Minn. Tuesday, May 1, 2012. Rudolph is a member of the Upton on Calhoun dance group.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Did you feel a little extra bounce in your step this morning, the first day of May?

Maybe you're a Morris Dancer at heart.

Every year on May Day at a park in Minneapolis, Morris Dancers strap bells to their shins, sing, shout and clack sticks to mark the change of the seasons. It's a 500 year-old folk tradition from England that has sunk deep roots here in Minnesota.

We coaxed Minnesota Sounds and Voices reporter Dan Olson out of bed very early today to tell us why. He caught the dancers at sunrise, forming a big circle and dancing around an old oak tree.

Minnesota in Photos: Morris Dancers welcome spring

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Among them was Bill Way, in a green tunic and mask, portrays Green Man, the spirit assigned the task of waking the trees.

"This being the first day of summer it's time to walk up and get green, although this year the forest is ahead of me," he said of the scene before sunrise along the Mississippi River in south Minneapolis.

Green Man
Bill Way of Eagan, dressed as "Green Man," sings with other Morris dancers during the celebration of the first day of May at Mississippi Park in Minneapolis, Minn. Tuesday, May 1, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The feeling outside was dark and Druid-like. But when they strapped on their bells, their sound cut through the gloom. And a half-hour later, the dancers were limber and glowing, their colorful suspenders and vests standing out against white outfits to mark different dancing groups.

Lost to history, no one knows who or what Morris was. But there are scads of groups in England where the tradition started as a pagan rite among country and village folk.

Dancer Derek Phillips describes the the Morris choreography as a bit like American square dancing.

"Circle around with your partner or go back to back with your partner or change places with someone," he said.

A search for the deeper meaning of Morris Dancing may reveal insights. But dancer and violinist Gary Schulte says socializing and the joy of performing are priorities for many.

"A lot of it is showing up in front of a pub or in a public place or a public square or whatever and just dancing there and taking over the space and everybody has a good time," he said.

There are four adult Morris Dancing groups in Minnesota and one for kids. The oldest at 40 years is the Minnesota Traditional Morris group. One of their members is authentic -- Jonathan Slack was born and raised in England, where he was a Morris dancer. Slack moved to Minnesota years ago where he says there's more variety to the tradition.

"The repertoire here is about four times larger than any English side I've had anything to do with," he said. "And there's less beer drunk afterwards!"

Watching the dancing
Kennan Fields, 4, of Eagan, Minn. and Anna Shewmaker, 17, of St. Paul, Minn. watch the dancing during the celebration of the first day of May in Minneapolis, Minn. Tuesday, May 1, 2012. Shewmaker performs with the Bells of the North, one of several Twin Cities Morris dance groups participating in Tuesday's celebration.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Women became part of the Morris Dancing scene in England about 100 years ago.

The 33 year-old Bells of the North women's group joins up with the men for the May Day sunrise event by the Mississippi.

There are co-ed Morris Dance groups, too, but Bells of the North co-founder Laurie Levin says it's also fun to have separate groups.

"It's magical to dance with bells, it's magical to dance with other women, there are dances we do as solo dances, but that doesn't happen very often, it has to do with the dynamic of the whole group," she said.

The May Day ritual attracts a crowd. There are family members, friends and others. Neighborhood resident Mary duChene says the people who come to sing, clack sticks, shout and jump are a sign the world will exist for another year.

"They're dancing up the sun and stomping on the earth to bless the earth and bless all of us and bless the whole neighborhood and the whole world. Gotta love that," she said.