Having seen stick dances in the "Elm City" tradition danced by New Haven Morris and Sword, the editors of the American Morris Newsletter invited me in 1995 to write an article for a special issue on "inventing dance traditions". The following article appeared in the summer 1996 issue.
The (Short) History of the Elm City Morris Tradition
by Rick Mohr
"Elm City" is a style of Cotswold morris dancing developed in 1988 in New Haven, Connecticut and still danced today by New Haven Morris and Sword. New Haven was nicknamed the "Elm City" in the days before dutch elm disease swept across North America; perhaps fittingly, Elm City is a long-stick tradition, with seven dances in the repertoire.
In the fall of 1988, I was co-foreman of New Haven Morris and Sword, a ten-year-old mixed team with 22 dancers and a reputation for strong dancing. For at least five years, the team's main traditions had been Field Town and Sherborne, and many dancers were interested in learning something new. The team felt strongly against giving up either of our main traditions, but I felt strongly that adding an entire new tradition would be too much unless something was let go. (We also fielded one or two rapper sides, and often a longsword side in the winter.)
With Field Town and Sherborne as main traditions, our repertoire leaned strongly toward handkerchief dances. For variety in performances, we danced one Adderbury stick and two Bledington dances, as well as two from Field Town. These stick dances held a crucial place in our repertoire, but we seldom had time to practice them and our style suffered for it. The compromise we settled on was to satisfy the desire for newness by learning a new stick tradition, but to make room by letting go of our existing stick dances. But what Cotswold traditions have a rich repertoire of stick dances? Adderbury, but we wanted something with more motion. Lichfield, but nobody knew it well and we didn't need yet more hankie dances. Headington, same issues.
Besides, I was excited by the opportunity to create something new. Dancers and audience both like stick dances, and stick dance possibilities haven't been as thoroughly mined as have hankie dances.
Goals for a "New Tradition"
I had strong feelings about the characteristics of a "new tradition" (quite the oxymoron when you think about it). The dances must be fun to do and interesting to watch, but they shouldn't look obviously made up or frilly. There must be enough variation to keep the dancers interested but enough regularity that the dancers can remember how the heck they go.
I think that one of the biggest challenges in creating new morris dances is resisting the urge to over-innovate. Some of the best morris dances are very simple, and the things that are joyful about morris aren't complicated: bursts of speed, crisp, simple figures, dancers moving together, dancers shining individually. For me, overly fancy patterns can detract from a dance. I also shy away from dances that are complicated to explain; nobody likes standing around in practice listening to explanations, and we need to be able to train new dancers before they die of old age. One new idea can make a great dance; it's often better to put two ideas into two dances rather than cram them into one.
Having ranted on my soap box, I'd better now get specific about what in Elm City was drawn from tradition and what was innovated. This is not the right forum to describe the entire tradition, but a few specifics are in order.
Tradition and Innovation
The steps are standard Cotswold double, single, and side steps, plus one novel step in the basic sequence. Naming this new step was a horrible challenge; the best I could come up was the stilted-sounding "high step." That didn't last even one practice as everybody just called it the "up-a-down-down," after a night of hearing "DOU-ble step and DOU-ble step and UUUP a down down, foot together jump." No dignity at all, but what can you do. Malcolm Sanders recently suggested "the neutron step" (neutrons are composed of one up quark and two down quarks) but it may be too late.
This basic double-step phrase is fairly traditional, with the enhancement that the arm motions are more choreographed than in most stick dances. In traditional dances, arm motions tend to be rich with hankies but simple with sticks; there seemed no reason why richer arm motions couldn't enhance a stick tradition as well. In addition, I chose to keep the clash in its standard Cotswold position at the end of the musical phrase rather than borrowing the gonzo beat-one clash from border morris.
The Elm City figures (foot up, crossing, facing, cross rounds, hey) have much the same form and sequence as standard Cotswold figures, with enough differences to distinguish them from other traditions. Some are big with bursts of speed; some are quieter for contrast. The "up-a-down-down" provides an alignment point in every figure; horizontal motion stops as everyone leaps vertically and displays the stick.
To give the dancers a prayer of remembering how the dances go, I feel strongly that variation between dances should be restricted to the chorus rather than the figures. In the New Haven Field Town repertoire, the figures varied quite a bit between dances, leading to endless memorizing and reminding in practices and in the quick huddle before a performance. As a result, all Elm City dances use the same figures.
Creating New Stick Dances
However, this "vary the chorus not the figures" philosophy presents a problem for a stick tradition. There are precious few examples of Cotswold stick dances in which the chorus is something other than sticking plus half-hey. The first two Elm City dances used the "sticking plus half-hey" structure, but then we were on our own.
The chorus of a successful stick dance must contain three things: some sticking, some moving, and some resting. If there's no sticking, you've lost the main reason for a stick dance; if there's no moving, the chorus becomes too static; and if there's no resting, the dancers complain bitterly and never want to do the dance.
"Sticking plus half-hey" dances supply all three features nicely. Finding other workable chorus structures wasn't so easy, but here are five that found their way into dances:
- Sticking plus circular weaving with clashes (The Q Bridge)
- Sticking alternates with sidestep crossing (The Club)
- Corners cross then everybody sticks (Oxford Crossing)
- Sticking plus half-rounds (Three Musketeers)
- Sticking while moving (Minstrel Boy)
Creating non-half-hey choruses raised a completely unexpected problem: the need for tunes of non-standard length. Elm City dances end "all up" in a line of six across coming out of a hey. If there's no hey in the chorus, then the dance must end with a whole hey as a figure. When a dance has five figures instead of four, it can start to seem a bit long for both the dancers and the audience; one good solution is for the chorus to be shorter than the standard 16 bars.
But practically all of those old square 19th-century songs that make such great morris dance tunes are just that: "square," nice straight eight-bar phrases with comforting solid cadences at the end. Eight bars is too short for a chorus, but scouring through Bacon provided "Princess Royal" (a 12-bar chorus) and the Longborough tune "Kewbridge Gardens" (a ten-bar chorus). There aren't many others though, so I wrote The Club for a dance with a 12-bar chorus. It was quite challenging to write a tune of that length that still sounded "morrissy."
All told, we composed two tunes, swiped three morris tunes, and used two songs ("Candlemas Eve" and "The Peacock," a.k.a. "The Parting Glass"). The dances and tunes were derived together, as opposed to making up a dance and then finding a tune to fit it.
Another interesting restriction on finding tunes for Elm City was introduced by the presence of the "up-a-down-down" step in the basic stepping sequence. The rhythm of that step fits very well with 4/4 tunes ("dotted quarter, eighth, quarter, quarter"—you know, like the end of the Jeopardy theme) but not at all well with 6/8 tunes. All of the Elm City tunes are in 4/4 time, altered when necessary to have a dotted quarter in the right place.
How It Happened
Most of the ideas for Elm City came quickly. I was excited about the chance to create a new tradition, so it was often on my mind. One day I found a long stick on the ground and made a complete fool of myself hopping and prancing around trying out different ideas as I walked home.
In hindsight, the look of the dances really grew from the goal of a stick tradition with more highly choreographed arm motions. "Okay, the stick can swing quietly with the first two double-steps, but then what? Well, it feels good to snap it to a vertical position at the end of the second double-step. What then? This vertical stick seems to cry out for a high leap with the stick thrust upwards. Yes, that feels great! Then it can come down (though staying vertical, like holding onto a fireman's pole) and there should be two steps before a jump and clash."
Once the basic stepping sequence was decided, the figures came easily, with the "up-a-down-down" step providing an obvious alignment point. The "crossing" figure was the only one with a distinct influence, seeking to duplicate the joy of snaking across to a wide set in the Chingford Stick Dance (a.k.a. the Upton on Severn Stick Dance). I worked out most of the ideas in my private enthusiasm before bringing them to the team, whereupon Paul McGuire contributed a much-improved and simplified idea for the hey, with all six dancers forming a horizontal line in mid-hey for the "up-a-down-down."
On the whole, the team reacted very positively to the new style. Initial mourning for our old stick dances gave way to excitement as we fleshed out the tradition. Feedback from audiences was also good ("It moves!"), but of course one never knows what castigating thoughts go politely unexpressed.
Seven years later, New Haven is still dancing Elm City, so perhaps it may now be unequivocally called a "tradition." I moved away in 1991, but the styling has stayed fairly consistent under Paul's leadership. Paul created a seventh dance, Minstrel Boy, borrowing a complex sticking pattern from a Portuguese stick dance collected by Tony Barrand. (Paul also wrote our second dance, The Peacock.)
Elm City has spread a little; I taught it in a day-long exchange of "made-up traditions" with members of Midnight Capers (Vermont) and Fiddler's Reach (Maine). David Sacco and Amy Brewer (formerly of New Haven) taught it to the Seattle Morris, who continue to dance it as a second tradition to Sherborne.
The AMN editors asked how I might feel about the tradition evolving. In fact, I feel honored that it is being done at all, and very interested to see how it might evolve. Ken Smith (Seattle's foreman) told me of one change they have made, raising just the stick hand on the "up-a-down-down" rather than both hands. I think it's a first-rate idea, but maybe that's because I made the same change myself in a recent workshop for the Commonwealth Morris Men.
Just my luck that if I'm remembered at all by Morris historians it will be as the creator of "up-a-down-down."