Morris dance troupe brings foot stomping joy to Union Hall

by Karina Coombs

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Instructor Emily Williams.
(Photo by Karina Coombs)

The sounds of laughing and rhythmic foot stomping fill Union Hall as a group of smiling teens perform a sword dance, twisting, turning and spinning, but never letting go of their flexible rapper swords. Music, first from a penny whistle and then from a fife, is played throughout, while Morris dance teacher Emily Williams claps along and encourages the group to smile at an imaginary audience. The students stop to catch their breath, clearly tired from the athletic performance. What is also clear is just how much they enjoyed it.

Emily Williams has been teaching Morris dance for 17 years, most recently at Union Hall on Sunday afternoons. She first came to Morris as a child when her mother started a team. After taking a break from it for several years, Williams began teaching the dances again in her twenties. “I’ve forever been doing it,” she says. “I maybe did not dance for only six years in my life.”

Morris dancing is a type of English folk dancing that can be traced back to the 15th century. Dancers, often wearing costumes or “kits” of white, covered with colorful flowers and ribbons and bells, rhythmically step in choreographed groups. The dances are performed with live music, each song associated with a specific dance. While some practitioners insist Morris has pagan calendar roots, scholars note the earliest written record of the dance is from 1458. There are references to Morris dancing from the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII and throughout the writings of Shakespeare.

Moving from the courts, Morris dance became a part of spring church festivals throughout England until the period of Oliver Cromwell when both practices stopped. The agrarian-themed spring festivals and dancing returned under Charles II and continued until the Industrial Revolution. Morris dancing was revived yet again in the late 19th century and folklorists began recording the tradition in the early 20th century in an attempt to preserve it. It is now a common sight at festivals throughout England and a number of other countries. Morris dancing is also popular in the United States where there are currently a few hundred groups.

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Students on the Rapper Team practice a rapper sword dance. (Photo by Karina Coombs)

Williams and her family moved from Newton to Carlisle two and a half years ago. She continued to teach Morris in Brookline until deciding to approach the First Religious Society about using Union Hall, making for a much easier commute. While she danced Morris and also “dabbled” in ballet, swing, ballroom, and folk dancing, Williams clarifies she is a teacher and not a dancer, and explained the transition from dancing to teaching was not difficult. “[I] don’t even need to really think about it [and] just go up there and do my thing. It’s in there.”

Williams currently instructs a group of 32 students ranging in age from nine to18. “I like them to be nine [when they start] because developmentally it is easier for them, paying attention to feet, and body and other people around,” she explains. Interested students may join the group in late September and then again in January. Williams’ students are divided into three groups: a Morris team of younger or beginning students, a “tween” group of more advanced dancers and a teenage group forming the rapper team.

As students age out of the larger Morris group at 13, they move into the rapper group. Williams emphasizes the need for maturity within the competitive team as the reason for the age restriction. While some of her students decide to stay in the larger group, for many, a chance to join the rapper team is a right of passage they are eager to experience. “It’s a carrot for my kids,” says Williams. “They can’t wait to be on the rapper team [and ask], ‘I’ll be 13 in four weeks. Is that soon enough?’”

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Emily Williams (far right) practices with her “tween” group in Union Hall. (Photo by Karina Coombs)

The rapper sword dance, a type of Morris, originated in the pit towns of Northeast England and was performed by miners in small pubs. Trust among miners was integral to their survival in the pits and also became a core component of the dance as members move in very tight spaces while manipulating the swords. Williams explains rigid swords were exchanged for smaller, more flexible ones during the 1800s for unknown reasons. A commonly held belief is that the flexible two-handled rapper sword was once used by miners to clean the backs of pit ponies. And while there is no historical confirmation of this, it continues to be a part of the murky history that surrounds Morris dancing.

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Morris dancers in costume perform for an audience in Union Hall in March. (Photo by Ellen Huber)

Because of the agrarian emphasis of the dance, spring is considered performance season, with events almost every weekend before the group breaks for the summer, resuming again in the fall. The group will be performing at the New England Folk Festival on April 20 in Mansfield. May 1 brings May Day and the annual sunrise gathering along the Charles River on the Cambridge side of the Meeks footbridge. Williams explains it is a popular event for her kids because it involves not only waking up at 4:30 a.m., but also singing, dancing around the maypole, interesting characters, Morris dancing by both adult and children’s groups, a procession into Harvard Square and the much loved IHOP breakfast. Another performance favorite is the Ginger Ale event in Boston on May 11 with 75 to 100 dancers from various Morris groups within the greater New England area dancing along the Boston waterfront.

Williams does not advertise her classes and does not have a website. All students arrive at Union Hall by word of mouth. She typically will get several new students each year and existing dancers move up in the groups as others age out or graduate. Williams also tends to keep her students once they start. “For the most part they are lifers. They come in when they are nine and leave when they are18,” she explains. “Many parents tell me, hands down, it is [their] child’s favorite activity of the week.” ∆