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Happy belated May Day! Every May 1, or May Day, Morris dancers bring the spring celebration to the streets of Toronto, usually in front of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), as these delightful dancers did yesterday afternoon.
I came upon them as I was walking along Bloor Street, having just finished watching Nina Conti’s Her Master’s Voice at Hot Docs, an international documentary film fest I volunteer at. Crossing the street was a man with a big bass drum strapped to his chest, colourful streamers billowing from his body, and rows of brass bells decorating his shins (check him out below!). Bemused at the thought that hoards of oddly dressed one-man bands were congregating out front of the ROM, I continued on my way home, desperate to nap between films.
But when I spied a few more ribbon-bedecked people merrily marching their way along Bloor, I just had to ask one what was going on.
Morris dancers! They were Morris dancers! In truth, that meant nothing to me when she said it, as I’d no clue what Morris dancers are. After questioning a performer, I learned that Morris dancing is a traditional English folk dance based on stepping (that was obvious from watching them) and performed throughout the month of May. The dancers carry white handkerchiefs and wooden sticks in their hands and jingle bells (bell pads) on their legs as they step and hop about.
Dressed in torn strips of vibrantly hued fabric outfits called tatter jackets, these dancers were delightfully twirling around one another and whacking their sticks in time to the tunes played by their wee band: two drummers, two accordionists, an oboeist and even a girl skilled with an ugly stick (a traditional Newfoundland instrument made from an old mop handle, bottle caps and bells).
The colourful costumes really were a sight to behold and are historically based on the part of England the dancers are from. This one (below) looks like it’s made from recycled ties and shirts.
The dancers before the tatter-jacket-wearing group were still vibrantly hued, but a tad more subdued in traditional green vests or crossed baldrics (shoulder belts), crisp white shirts and black pants. They too were dancing up a storm with the wooden sticks, white kerchiefs and jingley bells!
Their dances were much more like the stepping I’m familiar with, with the dancers aligned in rows and performing in pairs.
It was such a fun and fabulous sight to come across, seemingly random but not random at all. In fact, various groups of Morris dancers can be spotted performing all around Toronto in spring and fall, particularly on May Day (as seen here) and on Labour Day. They practice year-round for these performances, which are akin to flashmobs, given that they came together unannounced and performed for about half an hour before just as promptly dispersing.
Abd when they were done dancing, traces of them walking in front of the Crystal was all that was left of them.
I’m going to keep an eye out for these mischievous musicians and dancers over the next few months. What a wonderful way to start the merry month of May (my birthday month, of course)!