May day Morris dancing

The Palo Alto Baylands before dawn on the first day in May is a chilly place, quiet except for a few startled shorebirds and the shuffling of feet. People gather in the parking lot, talking quietly between yawns. Later there will be revelry, laughter, and silliness, but right now they wait. And just before the sun comes up, men carrying deer horns emerge from the darkness to dance to a haunting tune in a minor key.

Abbots Brumley Horn Dance (Thaxted version)  Watercolor on Arches paper
Abbots Bromley Horn Dance (Thaxted version) Watercolor on Arches paper

This is Morris Dancing, an English style of folk dance that is very old. No one is quite sure how old it is, but evidently records dating back to the 1600s mention it. It’s almost died out several times—Cromwell and his puritans put a temporary halt to it, then the industrial revolution bled people from their culture and nearly killed it—but was revived in the early part of the 20th century. How ironic that it’s had another revival in this age of technology killing culture. In fact, it may be that technology has helped it grow (although some predict a decline),  and now Morris teams all over the world clash swords, shake bells, wave hankies, and dance to the music of accordions and fiddles. They dance to help the sun rise on May 1, a brilliant endeavor, and a happy one. Then, I believe, they go have some beer.

The dance I’ve painted here is the Thaxted version of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance.  The Thaxted version is haunting, mystical. You feel like you’ve stumbled upon some primitive rite in the midst of the megalopolis. Like an ancient god will spring from the bay mud and perhaps accept  a sacrifice as the dancers make their moves. It’s deliciously chilling and meaningful.

But the Thaxted version an after-market dance. The original, still performed in Abbots Bromley after something like 800 years, is lively, fun, and a little goofy. Danced in daylight. Lot’s of bouncy tunes. To this Yank, Monty Python springs to mind. In the best possible sense, of course.

This is a study for a larger painting I have in mind. As always, I imagine I’ll paint it many times before I get it to the place I want it to be.

If you’re up before dawn on May 1, find a Morris team near you and go help them dance up the sun.

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