by Lily Kruskal Leahy
Morris dancing is something I grew up with. To me, it was as normal as fireworks on the 4th of July—it just came to me, like walking. I was, of course, “formally” taught by my dad, Tom Kruskal, who started a children’s morris team when I was 12 because I wanted to dance. And just as morris dance has been a constant in my life, the dance form itself has always been constant. It is a tradition that hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years.
However, in 2006, I watched something that made me more excited than I’d ever been about morris dancing. A long time dance friend, Jan Elliot, shared with my family a video of a morris dance show performed in England by a group called Morris Offspring. This group, led by Laurel Swift, was mostly made up of second generation morris dancers who had grown up just as I had, surrounded by morris dancing, and were continuing the tradition. However, they had done something completely new to this old tradition and had written new dances for far more people than the usual six. They used different tunes, figures and costumes and even omitted the traditional bells. I became transfixed and amazed. I wanted to be a part of something so innovative, but it didn’t happen. Life got in the way.
A few years later, on Monday night July 15th, 2013, I was lucky enough to be in the audience for “Rootbound,” a morris show performed by Maple Morris, a group of young, mostly second generation, morris dancers from the U.S. and Canada, and Morris Offspring who came over from England to participate. The show was the culmination of a cultural exchange between these two groups.
Maple Morris started as a group of young morris dancers who wanted to get together socially and to learn each other’s dances. They quickly became a large network of dancers putting together weekends of dancing, learning, and creating in many different locations. Around the same time, Laurel Swift, founder of Morris Offspring, was invited by Scott Higgs to teach morris at CDSS’s English & American Dance Week at Pinewoods. I had the great fortune to attend this week and was very excited to take her classes and meet the woman who had inspired me. I shared with Laurel my awe at her choreography and my vision of wanting to do something similar here. Two summers later, as the chair of CDS Boston’s 4th of July session, I invited her back to Pinewoods to teach. It was there that she met up with members of Maple Morris and started to brainstorm this cultural exchange.
While I never ended up becoming a part of this amazing show, I was honored to have had a small role in it. The story of “Rootbound” is that of how morris dance has been passed down through the generations. The characters of “the child” and “the fool” play vital roles in and amongst the dancers. The child sees morris dancing and after learning how, she becomes the teacher, and a new child takes her place. For those of us who grew up in the tradition, this is our story.
I will end with a Facebook post that I wrote the day after seeing “Rootbound.”
“Last night was like something out of a dream. When you move away from home, not only do you leave behind a place you love and family and friends, but you leave behind a community, a collective group of people that make up who you are, and you leave behind hobbies and passions. Last night all of those things came together for me in a way that doesn’t often happen anymore. As I walked into the Somerville Armory, excited to watch a much anticipated morris show, what I got was so much more. I walked into my past in which long lost faces swam before my eyes. Smiles greeted me at every turn, arms embraced me and I went through an almost waltz as I glided from hug to hug, greeting friend to friend. And as I scrambled to find my seat what unfolded before my eyes was truly awe inspiring, energizing, moving and riveting. It pained me not to be up there dancing and made me proud to know most of these young dancers–especially proud to watch my brother. And the story behind it all: my own story, all of our own stories, of the traditions passed down through the generations and embraced by this community–my community, although I may live far away. Thank you, Maple Morris, for the dream that was last night.”
Watch part of a dance, accompanied by Ian Robb’s singing (July 16, 2013).
Watch the full cast finale (July 16, 2013).
Lily Kruskal Leahy lives in Ireland with her husband and children and enjoys getting a chance to dance and going to CDSS Family Weeks when she comes home to the U.S.