Visitors to the National Zoo Saturday afternoon must have wondered at the scene across Connecticut Avenue in front of the Oxford Tavern. Several dozen brightly dressed men with bells on their ankles were hopping into the air, waving billowing white handkerchief or cracking thick walking sticks against the pavement in ritualized rhythms. It was a scene out of Currier & Ives, accentuated by a good-time exuberance.
It was also the third annual Memorial Walking Tour sponsored by the Foggy Bottom Morris Men, 16 bureaucrats, scientists, printers, teachers and musicians who yearly bring the ancient English sport of morris dancing to Washington streets. Saturday, the dancers trouped from the zoo to Dupont Circle, stopping at several bars for ritual dancing and general carousing.
Morris dancing, which dates back to pre-Christian England, is a boisterous, noncompeitive sport in which dancers create elaborate patterns with intense teamwork. The dances were traditionally performed by the men of small villages in early springtime. According to Roger Avery, the Foggy Bottom Morris Men's foreman (or teacher), "The story goes that the higher the men leap off the ground, the higher the crops."
Avery, a British electrical engineer, had been part of the 50-year-old St. Albans (England) morris team. When he moved to Washington four years ago, there was already an active folk, square and contredanse scene; the Foggy Bottom Morris Men grew out of that core. There's also a similarly sized women's team here, the Rock Creek Morris Women. Saturday's walk was also attended by the Bowery Boys Morris Men and the Binghamton Morris Men from Upstate New York.
One of the most intense watchers at the Oxford Tavern was 90-year-old Laura Dewey, who came up from Annapolis for the walk. The dancers learned she had studied 70 years before Cecil Sharp, the English folklorist and collector credited with reviving English folk song and dance traditions at the turn of the century. The afternoon was immediately dedicated to Dewey.
Dewey stood up, nodding her head to the movements of the dancers. "Lovely, lovely. You can just see some of these lads, they give a little extra twist of the foot or the knee for the girlfriends," she said. "They show off a bit." The dancers wore ankle bells, which, according to one, are practical as well as ornamental for boisterous, hard-drinking morris dancers: "If you lose someone late at night, you can usually hear him clinking around."
Morris dancers are very much into their own performances. "We don't want people to join," said the jovial Avery. "We want them to be an audience. We're egotistical, we're conceited, the whole bit." The Morris Men dance, he said, to show "our virility, agility and ability."
Last year, at 18th Street and Columbia Road, a dancer grabbed a big fish off a market stall and proceeded to execute a most unusual pas de deux. This year, the partner was a rather large turnip.
A long rain delay in the middle of Saturday's tour made the stop in Lord Telford's Pub a little longer than expected, though the Morris Men continued to dance in the cramped surroundings.
After a final stop at Dupont Circle, the morris dancers and their friends retired to the Dupont Villa for Greek cuisine. "It's definitely urban morris," conceded one dancer.
And in the streets where the Morris Men had passed, knots of children stepped out, imitating the hop-steps, waving imaginary kerchiefs.