BRATTLEBORO -- I have a scene from a book in my head. I can’t remember the title, characters or plot, but I think it was set in Alaska. In this scene, spring has come and a group of schoolchildren are outside, maybe on the playground, with their teacher or principal. One by one, the children raise their arms to the newly returned sun, until at last the grown-up does too. They are long removed from the traditions that connected their spirits and rhythms to the earth, but they can’t help themselves. They have to do this dance.
The scene came to me the other day as I talked with Andra Horton of Marlboro Morris and Sword. We sat in the beautiful Oak Grove School library, where Andy has long been the librarian, with first-graders galloping in to check out books on fairies, caterpillars and trucks.
"Our sword dance, which we’ll be doing this weekend around Windham County and in Walpole, is connected to the fall," she said. "With the weaving of the swords, through the shapes and patterns we create, the dance reflects the cycle of the seasons."
Morris and sword dancing are forms of traditional English dance dating back at least to the 15th century, in which groups of people perform choreographed steps, leaps and turns, called figures, usually while wearing bells and often while waving long white handkerchiefs. Sword dancing forsakes the bells and cloth for blunt-edged longswords or flexible steel swords.
Andy has been a member of the Marlboro Morris and Sword team since it began in the early 1970s. At that time, a British invasion of sorts brought folk song and dance to the U.S., where it found young people eager to become part of the tradition and enjoy the strong community that forms around shared music and movement.
"We joke sometimes that since 1974, we’ve been members of the church of Morris," says Andy with a smile. "It’s very much like family, people dancing together every week for all these years. And it is really so, so much fun."
While the Marlboro women’s team performs both Morris and longsword dances at other times of the year, notably at the Marlboro Morris Ale every Memorial Day weekend, their Columbus Day weekend tour concentrates on an intricate and athletic sword dance of their own creation.
Wearing black pants, black shoes and black vests over simple white shirts, the six dancers move at a fast walk throughout the five-minute performance. The button box accordion and pipe and tabor accompaniment give them a bright beat and saucy lilt, as if a chorus of swallows and chickadees was singing the tunes.
The women start in a circle, connected by the swords. Their concentration is palpable but not forced, and their communication with one another is long-practiced. They move as a group, coordinating the hops and spins and the raising and lowering of the swords in different shapes, but each dancer’s personality is also revealed. One catches the eye of every dancer she passes, smiling a little. Another’s focus is inward. A third moves her lips in a bap-bap-bap along with the button box melody.
"We were thinking of threes when we made this dance," explained Andy. "We form triangles, pyramids, peace signs. We repeat most of the figures, including the chorus, three times. We wanted to make something that would be interesting for the audience to look at."
She smiled. "We were going to call it Triptych, but that felt a little, well, fancy."
Morris and sword dancing is not meant to be necessarily highfalutin, though many dances require serious stamina and mental sharpness. Rather, they are celebrations, made up by people who love to move, meant to entertain and uplift both the dancers and the audience.
Besides, the short play that precedes the Marlboro Morris and Sword’s dance throws sophistication and reserve out of every available window.
"Yes, it’s pretty ridiculous," laughed Andy. "It’s a mummers play, another English tradition that we’ve been doing since 1976. Historically, mummers were performed by men and they always included classic male archetypes -- the hero, the fool, the quack doctor, and some sort of wizard or magical force. We borrowed our first play from a women’s team in New York, and adapted it to further draw on women’s archetypes."
The themes of a mummers play are death and rebirth, and they are often performed around the winter holidays. The Marlboro women’s play, however, explores a specifically female relationship.
Andy smiled again. "Well, the hero is Joan of Arc, and her mother is Mrs. of Arc. The death happens because Mrs. of Arc is badgering Joan about getting married, having kids, all that, and it drives Joan crazy. Three crones tempt her to give her mother a poison apple, but Joan says no and just speaks badly to her -- and breaks her mother’s heart! And Mrs. of Arc falls down dead."
After many bunglings by a Registered Nurse, who if she can’t make things better will make things worse, Mother Nature, the magical force, resurrects the mother and all is well.
"And then the music and dance begins," Andy said. "By that time we often have a big crowd, 50 or so people, and they really love the sword figures. Like I said, it’s a lot of fun."
At the end of the dance, the six women come together in a tight, small circle. They seem to be shuffling; the swords clack together. To an inexperienced eye, it seems as if something might have gone wrong. Then one dancer lifts a star made from the interlocking swords high, and the dancers glide out in that fast, happy walk, while the star turns and turns in the sky.
It’s a celebration of the sun, of these dancers and musicians, of their history together, of old traditions carried step by hop by step into the future. How can we help but dance?
Marlboro Morris and Ale will perform the sword dance and mummers play this Saturday at 10 a.m. at Melrose Terrace; at 11 a.m. outside the Merchant’s Bank; at noon outside the Brattleboro Food Coop; at 2:15 p.m. at the Brattleboro Farmer’s Market; at 3:15 p.m. at the Newfane Heritage Festival.
On Sunday, the schedule is 10:15 a.m. at the Putney Farmer’s Market; 11 a.m. at the Putney Harvest Festival; 12:30 p.m. outside Burdick’s in Walpole, N.H.; 1:45 p.m. at the Scoop in Walpole; and 2:45 p.m. at the Walpole Winery. For more information, call 802-254-2651.
Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer. To suggest people for this column, write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.