After waking before dawn for an outdoor Easter Sunrise Service a few weeks ago, this morning I rose in darkness again for a celebration rooted in the pagan faith: a gathering of Border Morris dancers on a quiet road by Hay Tor, on Dartmoor, to call up the sun at the dawn of Beltane with the pounding of feet, the cracking of sticks, and the music of fiddle, squeezebox and drum.
My favorite troupe (or "side," as they're traditionally called) is Beltane Border Morris: a wild and wonderful group of dancers who describe their art as the dark side of folk. This isn't the "bells and hankies and tea with the Vicar" sort of Morris dancing, it's fierce, eerie, athletic, unbridled -- invoking magic from the bones of the land and the old country lore that has not been forgotten.
Border Morris originated in the west of Britain -- probably sometime in the late Middle Ages, arising from dance traditions that were older still -- developed primarily by dancers and musicians along the border between England and Wales. The distinguishing characteristics of Border Morris (as opposed to other forms) are shorter sticks, higher steps, ragged costumes, blackened faces, and larger bands of musicians. The history of the blackened face is much disputed: it may have had ceremonial significance in the dance's deeply pagan origins; or it might have originated as a form of disguise adopted in years when Border Morris was frowned upon as rowdy, subversive, and un-Christian. It's important to remember today, however, that it is a form of masking, making the dancers anonymous and Other than their usual selves, and not intended to mimic black skin.
Border Morris certainly is rowdier than most other forms of Morris; it's also more overtly pagan, and thus (to me) more powerful. Often performed at sacred times in the Celtic lunar calendar, the dances are tied to the seasons and the mythic wheel of life, death, and rebirth. Like other forms of sacred dance the world over, the drum beat and the dancers' steps weave patterns intended to keep the seasons turning and maintain the balance of the human/nonhuman worlds. Yet in contrast to other, more mannered forms of Morris, Border dancers unleash an energy that is earthier, lustier, more anarchic...both joyous and unsettling to watch, especially by dawn, dusk, or firelight.
This morning, there were two other local sides dancing with Beltane: Grimspound Border Morris, and a small group bedecked in ribbons whose name I didn't catch. The air was cold, nipping fingers and toes, as they danced the sun up over the moor and beat out a rhythm for summer's return.
When the sun was high, we said our goodbyes and made our way home across the moor, then down to Chagford through hedgerow lanes turned yellow with flowering gorse. It was early still. The village was quiet, and my own household still fast asleep. But while they slept, at the foot of Hay Tor the remnant of an ancient folk ritual ensured that another summer would come. The land had been blessed. We'd all been blessed: dancers, watchers, and sleepers alike.
To learn more about Beltane Border Morris, please visit their lovely new website. You can watch a short video from this morning here -- and from previous May Days here and here. For more information about the folklore behind May Day and Beltane, go here.
I wish you an abundance of May blossoms and wildflowers, fecundity in your creative work, fluid communion with our animal neighbours and all the non-human world, the lusty good luck of the Jack-in-Green, and all of the season's good blessings for growth and renewal -- especially for those of you who live on the world's other side, entering the Long Dark of the year.
I wish you dreams of drums, and of feather-clad dancers who move like a murder of crows taking flight.
I wish you a blessed, wild, and merry Beltane. Up the May!