Jeff Weed is one of the few people who can say he will ‘be there will bells on’ and not be speaking euphemistically. He will show up wearing not only bells but colourful ribbons and sashes, too. He will bring along a group of friends all similarly accessorized. And there will be music and dance.
Weed is a member of the Toronto Morris Men, a group dedicated to perpetuating the centuries-old art of Morris dancing, and anyone who happens upon one of their performances is in for a treat. On May 1, they will gather in High Park at dawn to dance the sun up as the traditional start of the Morris season.
Morris dancing dates from 15th-century England when rural villagers performed ritual dances to encourage crops to grow in the spring. Participants used bells and sticks as noisemakers to awaken the earth.
“The bells and the use of sticks for clashing and the sound of the music are all associated with making rhythmic noises,” said Weed. “If you look at the beliefs that this is a spring rite to re-awaken the soils and re-awaken the earth, it’s a form of noisemaking, and the bells add a lot to the rhythmic nature of the dance. They perform a dual purpose of being a noisemaker to wake up the earth as well as being a good accompaniment to rhythmic dancing.”
Although similar rites were performed throughout England and Europe, Morris dancing is a particular version from the southern part of England, dating from about 1440.
“There are lots of records in church books where the Morris often danced at fetes for the church to raise funds,”he said. “There were often entries in the ledger saying ‘Bells for the Morris dancers – 15 shillings’ and things like that.”
The Toronto Morris Men perform the Cotswold dance, originating in the southwestern part of England. Bells, sticks and even handkerchiefs are all part of their kit, or costume.
“In that area it was very typical to use sticks, and at some point the handkerchiefs may have just been a replacement for the sticks,” Weed said. “Some dances actually use joined handkerchiefs. The handkerchiefs become extensions of the hands and can be waved in various ways. Again, very rhythmically and very unique, depending on which village the tradition comes from.
“Each little village had its own variant of the dance,” said Weed. “They were fiercely competitive in terms of the way they protected their own dances. They had their own dance, their own tunes, and so the stepping is different, the sticking is different, the handkerchiefs are waved in a different way.”
Dancers traditionally wore white shirts and breeches, a knee-length pant that they would have been wearing while working in the fields. To distinguish one team from another, each village had its own group of coloured ribbons or sashes and no two teams are alike. Weed’s team colours are red, white and black.
Weed, originally from Wales, was introduced to Morris dancing when he attended the University of Bath in England in 1972, and he’s been involved ever since. Part of the allure is the travel. His team tours regularly throughout Canada and the U.S., and a few years ago performed at Carnaval, celebrating the sugar harvest, in Santiago de Cuba. This summer the team will visit Iceland.
The Toronto Morris Men love to put on scheduled and impromptu performances around the city. On Victoria Day (Monday, May 21) you will find them on Queen Street and along the boardwalk in the hours leading up to the fireworks display.
“Morris Dancers like to dance for crowds, like to dance for people,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about. We do it because we enjoy doing it, and that’s a great event where there are many people.”
On Labour Day weekend the team will meet up with dancers from around the world for an annual gathering in Queen’s Park and Dufferin Grove Park. They will also perform for weddings and special events, or you might just run into them on any given summer evening in the downtown core.
“One of the traditions of Morris teams is simply to go out into the city,” said Weed. “We’ll meet at a pub, we’ll dance outside the pub and then move on to another pub and dance outside of that pub. We’ll go to two or three different hostelries during the evening, and we’ll do that all over the city all through the summer.”
The Toronto Morris Men welcome new members, and although this particular team is male only, there are also women’s teams and mixed teams.
“It helps if you can be a little extroverted and don’t mind walking around in a funny costume in public,” adds Weed. “But you soon get over that once you’re with a bunch of other people dressed like you. It’s like being on a sports team.”
And be ready for a workout.
“It’s been described as a cross between aerobics and basketball,” said Weed. “It’s a dance form with a lot of jumping and leaping about, a fairly energetic dance form.”