Colorful joy

Why we dance, and why we’d like others to join us

BRATTLEBORO — For four decades and counting, Morris dancing has colored the cultural landscape of Brattleboro and New England. Performed outside in the springtime, often in front of a pub or some other local landmark, this traditional dance form originally from England is a colorful, joyous celebration of spring.

Three years ago, a group of dancers formed a new Morris team in southern Vermont. The first performance of the team called Windham took place at the grand opening of the Putney General Store in 2010.

The following May, Windham danced at the Marlboro Morris Ale, an event held each Memorial Day for over 30 years where 200 dancers converge on Brattleboro and the surrounding area for a weekend of dancing.

Windham took everyone by surprise. One longtime Morris dancer remarked that “Windham has the most exciting dancing we've seen in a dog's age.”

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The style of dancing comes from the small English city of Lichfield. The Lichfield tradition is known for its unusual combination of elements: precision, drama, and wild energy.

For a little background on the history, we recently interviewed local dancing legend Tony Barrand, who founded the Marlboro Morris Ale.

A longtime professor at Boston University known to many area residents as one of the four singers in the wonderful Christmastime pageant “Nowell Sing We Clear,” Barrand serves as choir director at the Guilford Community Church and foreman of the Northwest clog Morris team, which performs every year on at the Saxtons River July 4 celebration.

Tony Barrund almost singlehandedly brought Morris Dancing to southern Vermont, and his passion over the years has inspired many others to take up the dance.

He also started the Marlboro Morris Men, renowned for dancing the Lichfield style three decades ago in this area, and he offers this bit of history.

“Lichfield is the smallest city in England, and is only designated as such because it has a cathedral. It's just outside Birmingham, in the West Midlands, on the border of the Welsh border counties, and the Cotswolds [an area known for its many Morris Dancing teams].

“Historically, Lichfield dancing combines the complex Cotswold style and the simple, energetic border style. Cotswold presents discipline, and border adds a high level of energy.

“The Marlboro Men started dancing Lichfield in 1978. It took six years to learn all eight traditional Lichfield dances. When we started learning the dances, we discovered how different each one was.

“All the dances in the Lichfield repertoire are connected in some way to the city. One dance, where you had two sticks, called the Ring of Bells, relates to the cathedrals; it may well have had an imitation of the rhythm of the bells.

“Another is called Milley's Bequest, which was an amount of money left by someone named Milley to the city of Lichfield.

“Another is called the Sheriff's Ride. In England, the towns were required to define their legal limits by having the sheriff ride around the town.

“All the dances had this quality. It told us we could localize our dancing by naming or getting ideas for new dances from happenings and places in and around Brattleboro.

“Windham has learned all the Lichfield dances in three years. The fact that the Windham teacher was an experienced dancer from the Marlboro Men helped, and they also have some experienced dancers from other Morris teams; still, it's astonishing how much the Windham team has learned so fast.

“What is wonderful about watching the Windham team dance is so much youthful energy. I'm sort of short - I'd be lying if I said I was five-foot-eight - and Windham seems to have a lot of taller men. So even the littler guys dance very big, and they dance with a scale of energy that is almost scary.

“Wow” was the first word that came to my mind. It is very disciplined, but also has a quality of being almost wild, in terms of how much energy is being exuded. I love the scale of everything.

“Daniel Sullivan [whose father Dave danced with the Marlboro Men and is now one of the Windham musicians] learned the dancing when he was 9, and he has translated that into something else, now that he is 6'3, and very muscular.

“There's one photo from last year's Morris Ale, where I'm toasting with the foreman, Will Fielding, in the center of the dance, and it looks like the other guys are about to leap over me.

“A friend of mine in England claimed that when he got a group of young men dancing, it looked like it was 'almost ready to explode at any point - under control, but wild.' The Windham guys, to me, look like that.

“I love that quality. That's exciting.”

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Morris dancing is a celebration of spring that is over 500 years old. Those of us dancing today feel we are part of that tradition, but we also feel it's a tradition that is alive and well in 2013.

In Vermont, when spring comes around again and we all feel like celebrating, here come the Morris dancers, as sure as the melting snow - stick swinging, bell ringing, foot stomping, street dancing!

Morris dancing is team camaraderie, a challenging physical workout, a team sport without winners or losers, a connection to our town where we live and work.

It is a reminder to stop and celebrate life.

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