TALES OF TAKOMA: The Foggy Bottom Morris Men and the Winter Solstice

2014 Takoma Gazebo solstice performance, mummers play. Everyone crowds around the doctor to see the "little bottle of stuff" he has to cure the Turkeysnipe. Photo by Julie Wiatt.

TALES OF TAKOMA • BY DIANA KOHN*      PHOTOS • BY JULIE WIATT, ERIC BOND

#4: The Foggy Bottom Morris Men and the Winter Solstice

In honor of the Winter Solstice we explore how this troupe of musicians and dancers brought medieval traditions from Britain to Takoma Park reminding us that at the heart of our winter holiday season lies the return to days of longer light. Since time immemorial humans have celebrated this seasonal milestone with festivals; we continue the tradition with an amalgamation of spiritual and cultural customs.

Since 1992 the Foggy Bottom Morris Men have helped mark the solstice in Takoma Park with dancing, drama and merriment that has its roots in the rural folk dances of medieval Britain.

The dance group was founded in 1977. In that year, Rodger Sunderland, a caller at the Friday night dance in DC, and Roger Avery, a transplanted Brit, teamed up over their shared passion for morris dancing.

Rodger recruited like-minded souls. Roger took on the task of training them in the basic steps, the clashing of sticks and flashing of kerchiefs that distinguish Morris dancing (the earliest documented reference is 1448, with traditions likely much older).  By September they were ready for their first performance at the new Renaissance Fair.

Rodger Sunderland, a founding member of the group, plays the drum at the 2012 Takoma Park Solstice performance. Photo by Julie Wiatt.

Some of the original morris group members lived in Takoma Park and Takoma, DC, Takoma Voice co-founder Mary Chor among them. At first the dance group was co-ed, but the women split off in 1978 to form their own Rock Creek Morris Women. To this day the two groups often perform together.

Jim Voorhees, one of the first recruits and resident historian, recalls they took the name Foggy Bottom “because it sounded British and it carried the name of where we practiced, making us the only Morris team in the world with a subway station named after us.”

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Founding member Jim Voorhees at a fall 2014 dance event, Washington, DC.

They were asked to dance in the Washington, DC Revels. There in 1983 they learned the Revel’s version of the Abbot Bromley Horn Dance. Written references to the horn dance date back to 1686.

An invitation from Takoma Park City Librarian Jill Hershberger in 1992 for a Solstice performance at the library created another tradition, still going strong. The morris men performed the horn dance for the audience of mostly young children.

The Foggy Bottom Morris Men performing their horn dance at the Takoma Park town gazebo in Old Town. PHOTO BY JULIE WIATT

The group’s version of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, as performed at the Takoma Gazebo in December, 2012. The horn dancers process through Old Town to the Gazebo. Photo by Julie Wiatt.

In 1997 then-foreman (choregrapher) Nick Robertshaw combined  the rhymed couplets and actions of a mummer’s play with a dance the morris team saw performed on a recent trip to the UK.

The play features Prince George who does battle with Turkeysnipe (derived from “Turkish Knight”). A Doctor is on hand to revive the slain – evoking the death and rebirth cycle echoed in the Solstice celebrations. Boisterous plays like this evolved from the court masques of Henry VIII and Italian pantomime to become a key feature of 18th century English Christmastide, where they were performed door-to-door in expectation of money, food and drink.

The library’s Solstice Celebration dates back to at least 1990. Bill Jenkins took part in the first of these, leading a children’s drumming session. He was joined by Foggy Bottom Morris Men performing the mummer’s play and the Horn Dance. The morris dancers performance at the Old Takoma Gazebo was added, hosted by the Old Town Business Association. Every year, the Gazebo performance comes first around 6:-00 PM, then the group rushes to the library to perform in the second half of the Solstice Celebration. In some years, they’ve taken the mummer’s play door-to-door in Takoma Park neighborhoods.

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1986 Mayday dawn dance at the Takoma Park Gazebo. Photo provided by Stan Fowler.

Takoma Park looms large in the team’s history. In the late 1980s, no one remembers exactly when, it became the preferred location for the annual May Day performance at dawn, and then for practice space.  They currently practice in Takoma, DC, convenient to the 8 dancers and musicians who live nearby. Local recruits included Voice editor Bill Brown and Charlie Pilzer (on tuba).  Takoma Park was a good fit – a place that, as Bill Brown observes, “attracts the folklorists, folk musicians, ethnocologists, free-thinkers, environmentalists, believers of various faiths, non-believers, scholars and scientists who value traditions and are willing to reinterpret them to keep them relevant.”

As of 2014, original group members Rodger Sunderland and Jim Voorhees remain active, handing down the traditions to a new generation.

*Research and writing contributions by Bill Brown.

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About the Author

Diana Kohn
Diana Kohn is president of Historic Takoma, Inc., which is dedicated to preserving and celebrating the heritage of both Takoma Park MD and DC. Diana is co-author of Images of America: Takoma Park, a photo history of the town.