Local folk dancers visit Peabody

The Yale Bowl wasn’t the only destination for students and their parents this past Saturday. Further east, the New Haven Morris and Sword Dance Troupe performed at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in honor of the group’s 30th anniversary.

The Yale Peabody Museum organized the event to expose the New Haven community to diverse art forms and to celebrate the reunion of a performance group that has a long history with the museum and with Yale.

“It seemed fitting for a Saturday morning at the Peabody Museum, a place where we try to give visitors a glimpse of a wide variety of cultural practices from around the world,” said David Heiser, Head of Education and Outreach at the Peabody.

Morris and Sword was founded 30 years ago in New Haven to explore the tradition of Morris Dancing, a 15th century English folk dance. Morris dancing arrived in the United States in the 1960s following a resurgence of popularity in England. According to David Sacco, the Squire, or leader, of Morris and Sword, American groups first began appearing in college towns and within university communities.

“Many of our original members worked at Yale, were students at Yale or had some connection with the University,” he said. “It really started because of the community on campus.”

Despite their close connection with Yale, the group — which meets once a week and includes members between the ages of 16 and 60 — does not currently have any undergraduate members. But they will be holding beginners’ seminars soon to encourage students to join, Sacco said.

The origin of the term “Morris” is unknown, but it has been suggested that it derives from the word morisca, another type of dance, or Moorish, referring to Spanish and North African Muslims. Morris dance has similarities to traditional dancing throughout Europe, especially in Eastern Europe and the Basque region of Spain, and may have been introduced to England by another nation.

“There are similar forms of dance in Eastern Europe and the Basque region of Spain; it is not necessarily unique to England,” Sacco said.

Sacco says he has been approached on several occasions by a wide variety of foreigners who say the dance is similar to that of their home country.

“A Portuguese man once came up to me and said that it looked just like what they used to do back home,” he said. “I’ve seen similarities in dances from countries as far away as Sri Lanka.”

Morris dance usually consists of a six-person formation in which dancers use props such as swords, handkerchiefs and sticks to accompany the physical movement. Dance groups, which are also known as sides or teams, are normally accompanied by one or more live musicians playing a traditional jig. The dances are intended to celebrate the fertility of the earth, including its winter death and spring resurrection, according to the New Haven Morris and Sword Web site. Morris dance is very structured and does not provide many opportunities for abstract movement.

“I really enjoy the emphasis on structure in Morris dance as opposed to free form dancing — there are choreographed steps that must be followed,” said Amy Brewer, a current member of Morris and Sword.

The dance is traditionally performed at festivals, and the Morris and Sword group has performed throughout Connecticut, in New York and in England. They plan on performing at the New England Folk Festival in 2008 as well as the Nomad Festival in November, Sacco said.

The members of Morris and Sword are always eager to perform on campus and have performed on Cross Campus numerous times, including this past Saturday. Sacco felt the event was enjoyable and worthwhile.

“We had a wonderful time performing at the Peabody,” he said. “It really seemed like everyone had a great experience.”

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