by Jan Elliot, Dance Teacher
“Up, up! Lift your swords to the music.
Don't be afraid to depend on one another.
Morris is about leaping. Shake those bells!
It's the swords that are dancing. That's where the magic is.”
I have taught traditional dance at WSCC since 2010, but have danced all my life. Moving to music lifts the spirit and feeds the soul, as well as exercising the body. Dancing as a group sharpens the feeling for teamwork and common goals. Tradition deepens a sense of communal history, while exploring dance styles from other cultures broadens horizons. Authentic costumes and implements add color, sound and vitality as well as purpose and meaning. All of these elements are explored in dance classes, and shared in assembly performances.
The tradition of Morris dancing dates back to the 12th century. Once popular in many areas of Europe, it took hold in England in pre-Elizabethan times, evolving from court entertainment to stage performance to rural pastime. Outmoded by the industrial revolution, it was revived by the work of folklorists who notated tunes and steps from elderly ex-dancers. Today it thrives across the English-speaking world and beyond.
At Waldorf our middle school grades (5 through 8) learn the basics of Morris in distinctive village styles ranging from East Oxfordshire to the Welsh border. We dance with sticks, wearing traditional leg bells and armbands or colorful rag-covered vests. The dances are challenging, athletic and team-spirited. Live music is a crucial element, and we are very grateful to Mr. Gable for playing for classes and performances
We are also exploring two styles of Sword dance from northern England: Longsword and Rapper. Longsword, from Yorkshire, emphasizes smooth and mesmerizing movements, as dancers move under and over wooden swords before weaving them into a star or “lock.” In this exacting tradition we explore the true meaning of teamwork, since every movement depends on all dancers working together. As part of a traditional Mummers play, the duty of the dancers is to cut down winter in the guise of Saint George, who willingly accepts his ritual beheading and is eventually revived as spring. The sword dance literally makes the seasons turn!
Rapper sword is the youngest tradition, about two centuries old. This fast-paced and complex form fits well on young bodies, requiring lightning-quick movements and strong, clean tapping steps. The swords, made of flexible steel with a swivel handle, evolved from mine workers' tools in the far north of England. Rapper is alive and well in America, with young teams sprouting up everywhere and competing in national and international tournaments. Several Waldorf graduates have gone on to join established Rapper teams.
In class we balance the intensity of Morris and Sword with rhythm games and social dances from around the world. We have learned dances from across Europe as well as Russia, the US and Africa. Exploring movement traditions and music from other cultures can be physically challenging, but is also fun and allows for social interactions. Handclapping, miming nonsense syllables, “sleepwalking” and changing partners are all part of our journey through the world of dance. As the children become more experienced, their enjoyment increases. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing smiles on their faces by the end of class, or hearing requests for particular dances. Long may the Waldorf tradition continue!