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Daylight Saving Time

Robert Scheer

Dance by the Light of the Sun: Morris dancers Aedan MacDonnell (from left), Leila Marcucci and Dana Mackenzie jingle their bells and whack their rods.

Thanks to a few bawdy songs and fertility dances, the sun came up again

By Traci Hukill

AS THE FIRST STREAKS OF light warm the sky over the Santa Cruz Mountains, West Cliff Drive stirs to life. Joggers and cyclists pass each other on the cool fragrant path, a few surfers carrying boards thump barefoot down the stairs to the beach, and a couple of dogs on leashes stop to sniff each other and exchange tail wags. Everyone's happy, all is well. The last thing on anyone's mind is that the sun might not rise today.

Well, almost anyone's mind. A small group of brightly clad dancers is frolicking away with serious intent at Lighthouse Field to the whine of a fiddle and tweet of a fife, leaping and spinning and dancing jigs, the twirlers jangling bells and whooping loud enough to harass even the laziest celestial body out of the sack. This is May Day, and as all good morris dancers know, it's up to them to get the old man up 'n' at 'em after a long, cold winter. That's what morris dancers in the English countryside have been doing on May 1 for centuries--or so the popular history goes.

Presently the bells stop their jingling. "We do it all day/We do it all night/Like rabbits in Australia," bawl the dancers lustily, laying waste to any notion onlookers might have about highbrow revivalist endeavors. That's the trouble with fertility rites--they're barely presentable sometimes. And dancing, the Seabright Morris and Sword team is quick to point out, is about getting the barley to grow and the belly to swell.

As for the song's contemporary flavor, that can be chalked up to morris dancing's vague and therefore generously malleable history. This song dates all the way back to the 1970s.

The dancers resume their choreography, green vests and black knickers moving in unison, ribbons fluttering from armbands, white-stockinged legs stepping high as one. They wear bells strapped onto their legs and wield long sticks for some dances, white hankies for others.

Suddenly a big green fish darts into the fray, slipping through the dancers, under their clashing sticks, around the outside and back through again, silk fins of maroon and purple streaming behind her. This is the Fool, the wild card of morris, an unpredictable element in a highly ritualized dance. After a few chaotic spins through the set, the Fool retreats to the sidelines until inspiration strikes again.

Just then, the first ray of sunshine pokes over the mountains to the east. While a loosely assembled band of friends, kids and curious joggers applauds the dancers for a job well done, the set finishes up and the team members cheer. Once again they've successfully danced up the sun.

Rattle of Mugs and Words

THE ORIGIN OF MORRIS is unclear. Some say it's a remnant of Druidic rites, others insist it's Italian, and still others believe it was learned from the Moors by Crusaders. Shakespeare alludes to it in Henry V. Shortly after Shakespeare's time, however, morris disappeared from popular English culture. Only by chance did a scholar named Cecil Sharp happen on a morris dance in an agricultural region southwest of London in the late 19th century.

Recognizing it as a vanishing folk tradition, Sharp documented the dances of various villages, each of which nurtured its own style of morris. From his study sprang a revival that eventually worked its way to America in the '60s and '70s.

Seabright Morris and Sword, which also includes a sword-dancing side, turns 6 this year. Although the Greater Bay Area is rife with morris teams, Seabright is the sole club on Monterey Bay. It is also mostly female and very intelligent.

"Morris dancing seems to be dealing in a high percentage of librarians and tenure-track physicists," laughs fiddler Ruth Temple, who is herself a data analyst for Silicon Systems.

She's right. An eclectic group of talented folks casually knitted together by a common interest in morris, Seabright team members pun and make allusions (and rattle off words) no one else understands. Their ranks include a clutch of programmers and people blessed with obscure gifts: a Celtic harpist, a violin repairwoman, someone who makes Celtic woodcuts.

That comes as no surprise. Brainy, creative and wholesome, morris dancers share a niche with contradancers, English country dancers and Renaissance Fairegoers. A morris team or two usually turns up at a Renaissance gathering, fiddler and fifer in tow, to perform dances with names like Shepherd's Hey, Greencoats, Cuckoo's Nest and, of course, Rabbits in Australia.

Asked if she sports her magnificent fish costume at the Renaissance Faire, Fool Loren Washburn winces a little. "It's not exactly legal," she says, "because there's purple in it, and only the queen's allowed to wear purple." Although she uses the costume for Fooling, technically it's a hobby outfit.

The hobby fish, like the traditional Welsh hobby horse, works the crowd, although the Seabright version is considerably less disturbing than the horse skull skewered on a pole historically favored by the Welsh.

Like all English games, morris provides a good excuse to swill beer, and as such, large morris gatherings are called ales. Seabright Morris just hosted an ale in April attended by 15 sides. They traversed all over town, dancing at Lighthouse Field, Pacific Avenue, Seabright Brewery and Boulder Creek Brewing Company. They're dancing this Saturday and again on May 31, and it looks like the latter will be big enough to qualify as a mini-ale.

Seabright Morris couldn't be happier about a schedule that can be pretty demanding for people with full-time jobs. This is how they celebrate life, according to Aedan MacDonnell, a petite harpist with a shock of auburn hair. "Some people go to church, some people meditate, some do drugs. We dance," she figures. "If the music's in your heart, you can't get it out of you."

Seabright Morris and Sword accepts beginners in November. For more info, including itineraries for upcoming events, call 688-4323.

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From the May 15-21, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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