From 2007-2013 I was working in the USA at the Stem Cell Institute of the University of Minnesota. I had been looking for a position like this, and, since our kids had grown up, it was also an opportunity to go abroad for a while. One problem was that it meant leaving behind my beloved Holt Morris and the associated festivals and traditional music events which I enjoyed. I never expected to find any such thing in the USA, particularly not in Minnesota, one of those states in the middle that people have sort of heard of, but don’t know quite where it is.
Minnesota is actually more or less in the middle, just south of the Canadian border. It is renowned in the USA for having the coldest winters (apart from Alaska). This is because it lies almost exactly in the centre of North America continent and has an extreme continental climate with hot summers and very cold winters. The temperature usually falls below freezing towards the end of November and thaws out again in March-April. In between there is a blanket of snow over everything with temperatures around -10°C, and sometimes a lot colder. More than half the population live in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul, which form a single conurbation astride the Mississippi river. The rest of the state is rather sparsely populated with plenty of agriculture and some iron mining in the north.
How delighted I was when, thanks to the magic of Google, I found that there was actually Morris dancing in the Twin Cities. There are several teams but the one I found was Minnesota Traditional Morris, MTM, which is a male Cotswold team like Holt Morris but considerably bigger. I phoned up their secretary and found out where the practices were and started attending as regularly as I was able.
I am often asked whether American Morris teams are composed of expat Brits. Not this one. They were all Americans. The team was started in 1974 by Ed Stern who had learned some Morris dances at events in Chicago and had attempted to set up a team that would be relentlessly traditional and authentic. I found the dances very familiar. There were the usual Cotswold traditions also performed by Holt Morris: Fieldtown, Bampton and Adderbury, together with many others: Headington, Litchfield, Bledington, Ilmington and the dreaded Longborough. Brackley was also introduced while I was there. I had originally started my own Morris career with Crendon Morris at Long Crendon in Buckinghamshire, and there I had previously done some Headington, Litchfield and Bledington so these were not entirely new to me. But all dances evolve steadily and so when you change team you always find that the same dance is performed slightly differently. Just as I had discovered on moving to Holt, it is harder to relearn a dance than it is to learn it in the first place, so it took me about 2 years to accommodate to the MTM style. My chief difficulty was the middle position of the Fieldtown hey. The MTM style, which I think is probably “authentic”, involves going in forwards and doing a reverse turn. In Holt we back in. If you look at other English teams on Youtube you will find a whole range of variants including going in forwards or backwards, and various degrees of turn. Needless to say, as soon as I returned to Holt in 2013, I immediately forgot the MTM style and reverted to backing in.
Apart from the differences of style I was astonished at the size of the MTM repertoire. In my time with Crendon and Holt I had formed the view that teams cannot remember more than about 20 dances in any one season. But the MTM repertoire contains about 120 dances, of which maybe half are ready to go at any one time. This may be associated with the American tradition of hard work, the practices being two hours long, not one, and followed by just one small beer! At the start I had been slightly apprehensive about whether my activities in stem cell research would cause a problem as this is greatly disapproved of by the religious right in the USA. But it was no problem at all. As far as I could tell, nobody in the team was a Republican. Actually nobody in the University was a Republican either, and not many people in the Twin Cities generally. The only two places I ever met any Republicans was at fund raising dinners where one has to talk to “high net worth” individuals, and at odd speaking engagements to bodies such as Rotary clubs in the outer suburbs or in small towns elsewhere in the state.
Anyway I worked at the practices and the new styles and was eventually ready for public performance. As with most teams the programme is similar from year to year. It starts on May Day when all the dance teams in the Twin Cities gather at a beautiful spot on the banks of the Mississippi (see image, with myself arrowed in red). Usually the snow has gone by May 1st and the weather is sunny, so this realy does signify a rebirth at the start of the growing season and the new dance year. After the riverside ceremony we went to eat a “traditional” bacon and egg breakfast and then did a number of other spots around the cities. These ended up in downtown Minneapolis and I did feel it was especially incongruous to have Morris dancers performing on the pavement (sidewalk) in between gigantic skyscrapers, but after all we were in America and my colleagues thought it quite natural. Other bookings were more familiar. One I went to each year was a village fete at a small town on the St Croix river called Marine. This resembled an English village fete, complete with Maypole, although unfortunately the Maypole dancers were not reheared and were rather a shambles. The Cambria Crush was entertaining. Surprisingly, wine is produced on a modest scale in Minnesota although many wineries probably make more money putting on shows for visitors than by selling their wine. The Cambria Crush was a competition to see which local team could crush the most grapes with their bare feet in a short time. It was all done with much razmatazz to which we contributed with dances and music. There were also occasional pub evenings at Merlin’s, an Irish-themed pub near the practice room and fortunately within bicycle distance of my home. At this point I should put in a plug for Midwest ales, which are very tasty with a good hop content, unlike many modern English beers. The Summit brewery in St Paul was a principal supplier to the area and I can thoroughly recommend the Summit Extra Pale for any occasion.
The chief activity of the year for MTM, and the chief earner of income, was the Renaissance Festival. This took place at Shakopee, just south the Twin Cities, on a permanent site next to a large quarry. The Renaissance Festival is a fantasy experience. The site is made up to look like a medieval European village with stall selling a variety of traditional clothing and all sorts of other things. Many of the participants come dressed in medieval, or at least vaguely old fashioned, costumes, and there are numerous performances by jugglers, dancers, acrobats etc. to mimic an imagined “Merrie England” kind of atmosphere. The festival runs over seven weekends in August-September and MTM appears every day doing 4 dance spots plus the procession. For some of our team this was their main holiday of the year and they liked to camp at the site. I just used to make some day trips to do my contribution each year. Among my souvenirs from the RenFest are my red peasant hat which I wear when playing for the Belles Angels, and an astrolabe which I can use to tell the time from the sun around latitude 40. The team engaged in some other activities which I did not share. I did quite enough travelling for my work so was not keen on taking more flights to go to the Midwest Ale or other events requiring travelling. I also, naturally enough, passed on the England trip which took place in 2008. This is an event occurring about every 10 years, and the next is this year, 2017.
The team had its annual break from the end of the Renaissance Festival until New Year. Some members filled in this time by participating in a Border team: Great Northern Border, which was mixed sex and also did a few public performances, including a Halloween street party and an Apple Orchard event. I had never done Border before but went along to this and had became moderately competent by the time I left.
I returned to England in 2013 and rejoined Holt Morris. By leaving in 2007 I had missed the chance to acquire my 15 year tankard from Holt, but I had maintained my Morris activity and had a very good time thanks to MTM. Since returning I have repatriated a few of the MTM dances. I have taught Holt the Brackley “Bonnets so Blue” and the Ilmington “Cuckoo’s Nest”, although of course we have found it necessary to change the style slightly. I have also taught the Brackley “Rick O’Malley” to Belles Angels who, being female, wanted a more aggressive stick dance in their repertoire.
I am very grateful to MTM for having welcomed me and provided a spare time activity to take my mind off those grant applications, problems with experiments, and struggles to publish papers, all of which are typical of academic science today. I am very happy that we can welcome them on their England trip in 2017.