No, the Trustees of Amherst College have not changed Orientation by adding a new welcoming ceremony. The event is Dance Amherst, and these men are the Marlboro Morris Men.
“I love the motion, the moment [of Morris dancing]. I love dance in general,” said Aaron Hayden, a 12-year member of the group and an employee of the College as an engineer. “It’s very hard to explain to a non-dancer how exhilarating dance is.”
It seems like explaining Morris dancing can also be a difficult task. “Ask two Morris Men what it is, you’ll get three different answers,” said Hayden.
Though Morris dancing began in the agrarian villages in England, its form and function differ from group to group. Originally the dance functioned as a fertility rite welcoming the spring season, but now the Marlboro Morris Men dance just as much for the bonding as for the tradition.
“To work with a group of people on an art form is really neat. There are so few opportunities for people to be constructive with each other in a positive way,” said Hayden. “When practice is over, all our effort is on being good buddies.”
The dozen or so committed members meet weekly to practice and form their own style of Morris dancing. Withstanding the pressures of back problems, knee injuries and children, the group continues to dedicate itself to the art form they love.
“The guys are very, very focused,” Hayden said. “We’re all different sizes and shapes, and we all work hard to make it fit together. I’m very proud of the guys. I love them dearly.”
The group works with two styles: longboro and bampton, which the Marlboro Morris Men have shaped into their own brand of Morris dancing. “We’ve developed a style based on what is in England. Every team has their particular style,” Hayden explained.
He described longboro as “a very slow dance: big jumps, which is very exciting for me.” Bampton is a more fluid form, which Hayden said “flows from one form to the next. It’s beautiful.”
Historically, fathers taught Morris dancing to their sons through generations of English families. The art form reached the United States through books written by American folklorists who had gone to England and recorded what they learned about the dances.
In the 1920s, Morris dancing became very popular in the States. According to Hayden, it was often done at the “dude ranch” or summer camps.
Founded in 1974, the Marlboro Morris Men have had their own “complex history.”
“A Morris team, like any other group, has all kinds of life changes,” Hayden explained. “The short version is that for many years the team was associated with Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vermont, and moved further and further south … until we ended up here in Amherst,” said
The group has been growing in number even as its members come and go. Now only one of the original Marlboro Morris Men remains.
The various members of the group have learned about Morris dancing from family, theatrical communities, musical interests or just by chance.
Hayden was introduced to social dancing in high school, where he learned English country dancing, and sword dancing, among other forms. “I enjoyed it. [The students] enjoyed dance in general,” he said. “One thing leading to the next, they introduced us to Morris dancing.”
Apart from the traditional May Day festivities, the group performs on many other occasions. They visit schools, many of which have Morris dancing as part of their physical education program. During the spring, they often can be found dancing in the street. “We’re out there doing it,” said Hayden.
There is also an international dance festival held in Vermont, with over 250 dancers who come from places as distant as California, Canada and England.
Hayden admitted that dancing at Amherst Dance’s recent concert was partially an advertisement. “It was time to come out of the closet and let the dance community know what was going on,” he said. “I would love to have some Amherst students join us.”
Hayden suggested that the experience of Morris dancing is something that Amherst students can carry with them throughout life. After graduation, the skill of Morris dancing is “a neat thing to have,” he said.
The group would like to be a part of the College’s dance community. Last year Hayden attended an Amherst Dance meeting to discuss the opportunities for dance on campus.
The Marlboro Morris Men currently meet Tuesday nights at 7 p.m. in the special exercise room at the Amherst Alumni Gym.
Hayden’s vision for the group is simply to expand. He would like the group to attend more performances, put on more local shows and gain more members.
“What we are doing is interpreting in a modern American way this ancient English tradition. Two reasons: for the dance’s sake and for the sake of the camaraderie that comes out of it,” he said. “For dance and for pals!”
And, if the friendship and dance don’t win you over, Hayden offers another incentive: “How often do you get to wear white clothes with bells on your legs and hankies and go out in public and jump up and down?”