IMAGE: 17 to 70 – the youngest and oldest Foggy Bottom Morris Men team members, Abe Joyner-Meyers and Art Shaw, at a recent Silver Spring contra-dance where the folk dancers performed in “informal kit” hoping to recruit new members. Photo by Bill Brown.
BY CHRIS MILLER
The Takoma Park Folk Festival is not the only local institution turning 40 and in need of new blood.
The festival had to cancel its 39th event his year for lack of volunteers. New volunteers stepped up this fall, giving hope that there will be a festival next year – and beyond.
The Foggy Bottom Morris Men dance group was also founded in 1977 and also has strong Takoma Park ties. Almost half of its members live in or near the city. The folk group performs three or four times a year at Takoma Park events, including the Folk Festival. Their May Day Dawn Dance at the gazebo and Winter Solstice performances at the Takoma Park Library have entertained residents for decades.
Foggy Bottom Morris Men performing at the 2013 Takoma Park Folk Festival.
Can they continue to perform as their numbers decline and members age? The dance troupe’s summer 2016 trip to England was canceled. They did not have a dozen dancers, the number they needed. The trip was tentatively rescheduled for 2017.
The “Foggs,” as they call themselves, struggle to recruit new—and especially young—members.
The group currently has four men younger than 30, but needs at least two more to have a complete dance set.
Why don’t more men join?
Member Gus Voorhees, in his mid-20s, believes the struggles are partly due to a cultural anti-dance attitude held by many young men. Voorhees, whose father is a founding member and still occasionally dances, is an elected team officer, the “bagman,” or secretary.
Alan Peel, the teams squire (team leader) struggles to ascertain exactly why more men are not drawn to the Foggs.
Dancing at dawn on May Day, May 1, 2015 at the Gazebo plaza in Old Takoma.
He speculates that some men might be put off by the many intricacies that come with morris dancing, even comparing it to the highly-technical ballroom-style dancing.
He also wonders if people have preconceived notions regarding the term “folk music.”
“Even the word ‘folk,’ whether a person has actually seen or heard it, can be off-putting for some people,” he says.
The group says anyone can learn the dances, which are English in origin, and have a long history.
“It’s really for the people,” says Peel, “and the people should feel comfortable coming and trying it out.”
If they don’t, there is a good chance Takoma Park will lose its own morris team to attrition. No more dancing up the sun on May Day, no more capering through the Folk Festival and the annual February Mini-Fest and no more Winter Solstice dancing and holiday mummers play at the gazebo or city library.
The team is particularly worried about not being able to travel to England for their 40th. They need at least a dozen dancers for that. But even the prospect of English pubs and dancing with the locals hasn’t enticed any prospects so far.
2014 annual city library solstice celebration mummers play performance by the Foggy Bottom Morris Men. Photo by Eric Bond.
Morris dance is a “vigorous dance that involves lots of leaping, handkerchief waving and stick clashing,” says member Art Shaw.
There are usually two lines of six dancers, with alternating pairs of two men clashing their sticks. Bells strapped to their ankles jingle while they perform.
The men dance to live music, usually played on the accordion, fiddle or concertina. Jim Besser is the team musician for the group.
The oldest known written record of morris dancing is from the 15th century in England.
There are several other morris dance groups in the Washington DC area: Rock Creek Morris Women, Arlington Northwest Morris Women and sword teams Cutting Edge and Charm City Rapper (Baltimore).
Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin shows his skill with a morris stick at the 2013 Takoma Park Folk Festival. Photo by Bill Brown.
Every Thursday night before the group goes to the Olive Lounge, they leap, sweat and clash sticks while in rehearsals at the Knock On Wood Tap Studio from 8-10. To the men, this is not simply a dance, this is a way of life.
Morris dancing is rooted in family tradition–the dancing and culture is often passed from generation to generation.
“It’s a living tradition, says Shaw, whose son dances with a morris team in New York City. “It’s a community that stretches across many generations and many miles.”
Abraham Joyner-Meyers, 17, the youngest Foggy Bottom Morris member, has been part of the group for five years. He first saw the group as a child attending the Takoma Park Library Winter Solstice Celebration. The team has danced there annually for decades. So impressed was he that Joyner-Meyers dressed up for Halloween as a morris man at age 6. His father, David Meyers, is also part of the group.
Nathaniel Brown, 24, started morris dancing when he was three. His father was also a morris dancer. “It’s 100 percent a lifestyle,” he says.
That’s especially true for Peel. He had never been part of an all-male club before joining the group in his late-30s. But with two daughters at home, Peel says it’s “nice to have a guy’s night out.”
Performing at the annual February Mini-Fest at Takoma Park MIddle School, 2012.
“The most important relationships in my life have come from morris dancing,” Voorhees says. “When I’m with these people, I identify as a morris dancer and there’s nothing that can hurt me.”
On December 3, FBMM will be performing at the 5th annual Krampusnacht DC, a parade along H street, where people dress up as demons and help raise money for Santa’s Cause DC. The Krampusnacht DC Facebook page has more information.
On December 15, FBMM will be performing at the Winter Solstice Celebration. At 6 p.m., the group will perform at the Takoma Park Gazebo and again at 7:30 p.m. at the Takoma Park Library.
Contributor: Bill Brown, Managing Editor