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Arts & Culture
An ancient English dance form lives on in Berkeley
Have you heard the expression “I’ll be there with bells on”? It indicates that you’re very enthusiastic about the activity. Practitioners of the ancient art of Morris dancing are enthusiastic about their dance form. They not only wear sleeves of bells on their legs during performances; they also practice with them.
“It’s very traditional. Morris teams have bells,” says Pleasant Hill resident Randall Cayford, foreman of the Berkeley Morris dance team. “That’s one of their defining characteristics – that you wear bells on your shins.” I’ve personally seen dancers in England who had the bells sewn into their skin. But that’s “extreme Morris.”
Cayford says that while the origins of Morris could go as far back as the Ice Age, the costumes they wear resemble old style cricket uniforms: black knee socks, white knickers, red vests, and broad-brimmed hats.
When we’re not using sticks, we have hankies,” says Crayford.
Sticks and hankies, explains Beth Bergen, of Alameda, are as essential as bells. She’s the squire of the group. That would be an office manager elsewhere.
“There are two styles of dances. There are handkerchiefs, which are waved up and down and snapped, in precision time, usually in time with the music. And there are stick dances, where each dancer will have one or two sticks. And they’re clashed in a certain pattern, or tossed,” Bergen says.
If this all sounds a bit silly, well, it is.
“Morris is one of the more goofy styles of folk dancing,” Bergen explains. “So if you like traditional folk dancing, and you like the bells and hankies and sticks, and patterns, it’s really a fun time.”
And all the leaping and capering about in Morris dancing is good exercise. Just ask Bob Orser, who splits his time between the Morris teams in Berkeley and Santa Cruz. He was a latecomer, not starting until he was 51.
“I’m 80 now,” he says. “It keeps you in shape. It keeps you from getting old.”
The Berkeley Morris dancers are currently running their annual free workshops. The final two are this month: September 10th and 17th. Each one features a different style of dance.