Kimberly (kimberly_a) wrote,

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May Morning

May Day

Merry May!

"What the heck is May Day?" some of you may ask. It's an ancient Druidic/pagan holiday -- sometimes called Beltane -- which celebrates the coming of summer. It often involves dances around a May Pole, gifts or decorations consisting of fresh flowers (as described, for example, in some of Louisa May Alcott's books, in which children leave baskets of flowers on people's doorsteps on May Day), crowning of a May Queen, and/or morris dancing.

What does this mean for me, personally? It means that this is one of my very favorite days of the year ... but it also means that I got up this morning at an absolutely ungodly hour to go to Inspiration Point with my friends to watch the morris dancers dance the sun up. I find the official online description of the event quite apt:
Come One, Come All!
to the Morris community's answer to the Dawn Dance!

It's May Day morning! Help us dance up the sun. Morris dancers throughout the San Francisco Bay Area will gather together with their sticks, ribbons, bells, hankies, and baldrics, for music and dance in our annual May Day celebrations (this year Thursday, May 1st, 2003). We start by waking the sun and bringing it back for a whole year! (Besides being a great deal of fun, is this dedication or what?! You may have noticed that it works, too.)

Be a part of it. Show up while it's dark and watch the Sun make a grand entrance. See the spectacle! Watch the magic! Cheer the dancers! Join in the celebration! Wonder why you're up at this hour!

Getting There

I'm not a morning person, as a general rule, and so my day started with me rolling out of bed around 5 a.m. and groggily re-setting the alarm clock for Shannon. I then came into my office, where I read the note to myself that I'd written the night before, anticipating my barely conscious state of the morning. I had given myself a list of things to do:
  • take pills
  • reset alarm for 10 a.m.
  • wear jeans and pear shirt
  • brush hair
  • brush teeth
  • wear deoderant
  • take cloak, purse, money, keys
Lists are a barely-awake person's friend.

My friends came to pick me up, and I squeezed into the back seat with Kerry and Fred. It was a tight enough fit that I wasn't able to fasten my seatbelt. No big deal, right? Hmmm.

The drive through Tilden Park up to Inspiration Point is full of sharp twists and turns. And we were driving fairly fast, because Alan is a very aggressive driver. I prayed silently to Dramamina -- Patron Saint of Motion Sickness -- that my stomach would behave, and she benevolently saw fit to smile upon me in my time of need.

At some point during the drive, I realized that I didn't have a seatbelt on and I was pressed up against the door. Whenever we took a sharp turn to the right, my body pressed against the door even more disturbingly, and I kept remembering when I was about 10 years old and my dad owned a pick-up truck with a door that wouldn't stay shut. Sometimes when he would go around a corner too fast, the passenger-side door would swing open, whether someone was hanging on to it or not. So I sat there in Deb and Alan's car this morning, praying to Securitare -- God of Car Door Latches -- that I wouldn't end up flying out onto the road and bashing my brains out.

Unfortunately, we took a couple of wrong turns and ended up exploring a bit more of Tilden Park than we'd originally intended, so I just tried to be vewy vewy quiet in the back seat and not increase the level of irritation in the front seat. And hung on to whatever I could reach, just in case my offerings to the God of Car Door Latches were rejected. But my brains -- to the best of my knowledge -- have indeed remained in my head, and so I owe a debt of gratitude to Securitare.


Because of our adventure in Tilden, we arrived at Inspiration Point after the dancing had already begun. The sky was no longer dark, but there was still plenty of time before the actual appearance of the sun, so all was well. Not long after we arrived, we saw a "sun dog", which is an optical phenomenon I'd never seen before (or at least had never realized I was seeing): it's basically a fake sun. The sun was still below the horizon, but there was a sort of light-shadow of the sun, reflecting on the clouds just above the horizon. It was really neat! For a moment, we were worried that the sun was already up and we'd missed the horizon moment, but the light shape sort of started dissolving and had disappeared entirely within a few minutes. The actual sun didn't appear for at least another 10 or 15 minutes after that.

Anyway, about 200 people were gathered in a circle (open at one end to allow the dancers to enter and exit). We noticed that the crowd was almost entirely white/caucasion, which I'd never noticed in previous years, and there were more cloaks than I've ever seen in one place before. Even little kids were wearing cloaks. Debbie ended up doing an informal tally, and she estimated that cloaks outnumbered all other forms of outerwear.

Many people wore wreaths of fresh flowers in their hair, and some had brought their well-behaved dogs. There were people in wheelchairs, old women with white hair, little kids barely able to walk on their own, teenagers flirting with each other, and more long hair (on both men and women) than one normally sees in one place. I frequently heard people calling to their children to say things like, "Gwenevere, pick up your coat."

In the center of the circle, musicians accompanied the dancers. Throughout the event, there was a guy playing a mandolin, a woman playing a small accordion, and two women playing fiddles. They were occasionally joined by a woman playing various woodwind instruments (a pennywhistle, a clarinet, etc.) and/or a guy playing a harmonica. But the music was a combination of the sounds they produced and the sounds created by the dancers.

The Dancers

The Berkeley Morris troupe dances the sun up every May 1 at Inspiration Point. They are sometimes joined by the White Rat troupe ("a sort of sexual pervert/street dyke/mildly neopagan/motorcycle gang/morris team", per their website) for a few of the dances. The White Rats weren't there this year, though.

Berkeley Morris wear white blouses, white trousers, red vests, black hats, and black shoes. They also wear sets of bells tied to their shins, and long ribbons tied 'round their arms above the elbow. When they dance, their bells ring and the ribbons wave after them.

The Berkeley Morris troupe currently consists of maybe 1-2 dozen dancers, including one little boy who's about 7 or 8 years old. Cute as hell. I've seen him with the dancers before, about 3 years ago (the last time I went to May Morning), trying to dance along with them as best he could, even though he was very very tiny then. He's gotten really good at it now, though, and they now have him dancing as a normal member of the troupe, which makes me very happy for no apparent reason. He seemed to be having a really great time.

The dances themselves are heavily coordinated, with 4-12 dancers (usually) forming intricate synchronized patterns while performing various sorts of skipping, hopping, lunging, walking, and other such motions. These various different steps set the bells to ringing in a pattern that interacts with the musicians' music and the sound of the dancers' feet against the ground. The dancers' arms are constantly moving, too: either waving white handkerchiefs or brandishing sticks.

In the handkerchief dances, the dancers' arms are abruptly lifted or lowered with almost every step in a fairly jerky motion, so that the white handkerchiefs of all the dancers move in unison into the air and then back down again. These tend to be the quieter dances, but they're often very beautiful.

But my personal favorite are the stick dances, in which each dancer carries a large, hollow stick. With nearly every step, the dancers are either tapping their sticks against the ground or clacking their sticks together, and so everything must be very carefully coordinated to make sure not only that there is a stick there to meet them when they raise their arms (otherwise the sound of the dance would not be right) but also that they aren't accidentally bashing each other in the head. Sometimes the dancers move in very intricate patterns, with the clashing of the sticks producing a really wonderful percussion music. I utterly love it.

The Fool, The Bear, and The Green Man

In addition to the musicians and the dancers, the performers also include the Fool, who is sort of the Master of Ceremonies. He announces all the dances, makes jokes, runs around being silly, and occasionally weaves his way between and around the dancers during their complicated steps. The Fool has to be very familiar with the dances, in order to prance around in the middle of them without disturbing the dancers' patterns.

The current Berkeley Morris Fool (I don't know his name) wore the same outfit as the rest of the dancers -- white blouse, white trousers, red vest, black shoes, bells on his shins -- with the addition of a taller black hat (the dancers mostly wore bowler hats, while he wore a top hat) and and a black coat with tails. The Fool is really the most visible, most noticeable person of the entire event, since he is the only one who usually talks to the audience.

Berkeley Morris has a new Fool these past few years, as their previous Fool -- Terry O'Neal -- died only a few years ago. I hate to say it, but I like the new Fool better. He seems more jolly and good-natured and just makes the whole experience more fun. But that's just my opinion.

In addition to the Fool, we've got the Bear. Her name is Lucy. Not the person inside the bear costume. The Bear herself -- as a character -- is called Lucy. I'm not sure what purpose the Bear serves ... perhaps a reference to bears emerging from their hibernation at the beginning of spring? At any rate, it's a person with a big very fake-looking (paper mache? maybe) bear head bedecked with flowers and a brown cloth that covers their entire body. So it's sort of like a very fake-looking bear with no front or hind legs. But the Bear usually dances around a little bit once or twice.

Sometimes there's also a Green Man, who mostly goes around growling at people and stuff like that. There was no Green Man this year. Just dancers and the Fool and the Bear. But that was plenty enough for it to be a lot of fun. :)

The Singing

There isn't just dancing at May Morning; there's also singing. They hand out sheets of paper with the song lyrics listed, so that everyone can sing along. When the sun first peeks above the horizon (around 6:15 a.m. today), everyone cheers and thanks the morris dancers for giving us another year of sunshine, and then everyone sings the "May Song":
Winter time has gone and passed O
Summer time has come at last O
We shall sing and dance the day
And follow Lucy Bear to bring the May
Hail, hail the first of May O
For it is the best summer day O
Cast your cares and fears away
Drink to the old Bear on the first of May
Bluebells they are starting to ring O
And true love it is the thing O
Love on any other day
Is never quite the same as on the first of May
Hail, hail the first of May O
For it is the best summer day O
Cast your cares and fears away
Drink to the old Bear on the first of May
Never let it come to pass O
That we fail to raise a glass O
Unto those who've gone away
And left us Lucy Bear to bring the May
Hail, hail the first of May O
For it is the best summer day O
Cast your cares and fears away
Drink to the old Bear on the first of May
Hail, hail the first of May O
For it is the best summer day O
Cast your cares and fears away
Drink to the old Bear on the first of May
Today we also sang "Jack in the Green":
Now winter is over I'm happy to say
And we're all met again in our ribbons so gay
And we're all met again on the best day of spring
To go about dancing with Jack in the Green
Jack in the Green, Jack in the Green
And we'll all dance each springtime with Jack in the Green
Now Jack in the Green is a very strange man
Though he dies every autumn, he's born every spring
And each year on his birthday we'll dance through the streets
And in return Jack he will ripen our wheat
Jack in the Green, Jack in the Green
And we'll all dance each springtime with Jack in the Green
With his mantle he'll cover the trees that are bare
And our gardens he'll trim with his jacket so rare
But our fields he will sow with the hair of his head
And our grain it will ripen 'til old Jack is dead
Jack in the Green, Jack in the Green
And we'll all dance each springtime with Jack in the Green
Now all you young maidens I pray you beware
Of touching young Jack 'cause there's strange power there
For if he but touch you -- there's many can tell --
Like the grain in the fields, so your bellies will swell
Jack in the Green, Jack in the Green
And we'll all dance each springtime with Jack in the Green
Now the sun is half up and betokens the hour
That the children arrive with their garlands of flowers
So now let the music and the dancing begin
And touch the good heart of young Jack in the Green
Jack in the Green, Jack in the Green
And we'll all dance each springtime with Jack in the Green

The Finale

After the sun appeared above the horizon, more dancing went on, including one dance in which the dancers encouraged the audience to join in, holding hands and dancing in a giant circle. Alan and Kerry and I chose not to join, but Debbie persuaded Fred to go out and dance. They seemed to be having a good time, but the other three of us got a chance to talk a bit more, which was also nice. Then the morris troupe danced a few more dances ... and then they were done. It was past 7 a.m. by then, and the dancers must have been very tired, as they'd been dancing mostly nonstop since before 6, with all their hopping in the air and swinging sticks around and all that jazz. Some of them looked quite out-of-breath.

Everyone applauded and hugged each other and wished each other "Merry May!" and then started migrating out toward their cars. Debbie and Alan and Kerry and I then went out to breakfast, after which I walked home from the restaurant (probably about a mile), enjoying how gorgous all the gardens were as everything now seems to be blooming. I got home around 9 and have spent the past 2 hours writing up this description so that I won't forget anything.

What a great day.

Merry May to all of you!
Tags: may day

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