25 women with longswords and leg bells
Publication Date: Friday May 26, 1995

25 women with longswords and leg bells

The members of Palo Alto's Mayfield Morris and Sword prepare for a pilgrimage to England

by Ruth Schechter

Barbara Slone is thinking about what she's going to pack for her trip to England this summer. There's all the regular travel gear, but will there be room for the leg bells, the spare hankies and the black knickers? And what about the extra swords?

Slone, a Palo Alto mother of two and a member of Mayfield Morris and Sword, is heading to southern England's Cotswolds for two weeks to visit the age-old villages where the group believes its particular versions of morris dances originated.

And, of course, to dance.

Morris dancing is a kind of English folk dance that was originally associated with springtime country festivals such as those held on May Day and Whitsunday. Dancers often use swords or sticks to wave and bang on the ground, and bells tied to legs and arms to make a resounding din.

The 25 women of the Palo Alto-based Mayfield Morris and Sword meet Tuesdays at Foothill College's Middlefield Dance Studio. There, they greet each other warmly, as old friends do, stretch carefully to warm up, and then tie on harnesses covered with bells to each leg. The accordion player turns out a few notes, and the women begin with slow, measured steps. Then they begin to jump as they make their steps.

The noise is deafening. And exuberant.

"The first time I saw it, I said, 'Wow! What is this?'" says Slone, a founding member who now accompanies the dancers on accordion. It's possible that morris dancing began as a sort of fertility rite, she adds, and some of the movements, such as dipping the sticks onto the ground, could have something to do with the movements of planting crops. "Its origins are nebulous, and no one knows for sure when it began. There are references to morris dancing in Shakespeare."

It appeals to anyone who likes the moves of folk dancing, says Jody McGeen, another founding member and the group's artistic director. The members of Mayfield Morris and Sword range from age 19 to their mid-50s and include computer programmers, a children's librarian, a lab technician, a pediatrician, a teacher and community volunteers. Several members' spouses dance with one of the all-male or mixed morris groups in the Bay Area.

There are three established groups--called teams--in Palo Alto: Mayfield, made up of only women, and which has been in existence the longest; Deercreek Morris Men, an all-men's team; and Fools Choice, a mixed team. Each morris dancing team has its own signature outfit, called a kit, which is used to identity it at large competitions and gatherings. Mayfair's members chose raspberry-colored vests and black knickers over the traditional all-white outfits that many groups wear.

Each year, to celebrate May Day, the three groups meet at dawn at the baylands to welcome spring with dancing and singing. Mayfield appears about 15 times a year and has performed at Mayfield Days in Palo Alto, Palo Alto Celebrates the Arts, First Night in Santa Cruz, Christmas Revels in Oakland and at weddings, hospitals and street fairs. They will be dancing at the United Nations celebrations June 25 at Chrissy Field in San Francisco.

Dances are learned through research and at dance camps and get-togethers like this July's trip to England. Morris dancing includes such accouterments as longswords, ribboned sticks, handkerchiefs and clogs, and is accompanied by musicians on accordion, melodeon, fiddle and concertina.

"Though each village has its own signature dance, these have not been done in 70 to 80 years," says McGeen, who teaches music and computer at St. Joseph's School in Mountain View. "That means we can create a team style. Though the steps themselves are the same, each team does them just a little differently. Over my 10 years with Mayfield, I've analyzed the movements and added some new choreography based on the traditional movements."

McGeen started morris dancing when she lived in New York City and founded Mayfield Morris and Sword in 1985. Back then there were 10 women's morris groups in the United States and about 250 in England, she says.

The dances are aerobic as well as exuberant, and sets can last for as long at 20 minutes or more. McGeen says Mayfield is typical in that the group has a repertoire of about 50 dances; members perform about four or five at each performance.

"It takes two to three years to learn morris dance steps to the point where you look like you know what you're doing," adds Slone.

There are also some specialists, who take on special, traditional personae during the dances. There's the hobbyhorse, named Fifi la Tour, made of black velour stretched over a wooden frame; and the Fool, a bantering prankster who acts as a conduit between the dancers and the audience.

As far as joining in on the bell-ringing and handkerchief waving, McGeen says Mayfair is at its ideal size and has little turnover, but the group is always receptive to newcomers. Aspiring morris dancers should have a good sense of movement; established members will teach them the steps in separate classes starting in the fall.

After each practice session, a piggy bank is passed around for contributions. Mayfield holds a garage sale as a fund-raiser in the spring and fall, and charges a fee for performances at weddings and private functions. The money goes toward renting their practice space, insurance, and to help members who might not normally be able to afford the travel expenses to competitions.

"We're pretty serious about the dance," says Slone. "It's not just a social thing."

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