Dancing with Destiny

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For all the pseudo-medieval world building there is out there in Fantasy land, it struck me yesterday that there’s very little dancing. People build castles and set demons on their peasantry, or arise out of humble beginnings as a kitchen drudge to kill (or tame) dragons, but magic seems to be very much of the ‘read a grimoire and point a wand at it’ variety.

As a morris dancer, I am offended at this. Or perhaps offended is too strong a word, perhaps I mean ‘mystified.’

You see, even now, I go out with my morris dancing side at 5.25am on a May Day morning and do the dances required to make sure the sun comes up for the rest of the year. On plough Monday, I and my side (technical term meaning ‘a group of morris dancers’) go out to do the dances required to make sure the fields will be fertile. Just this weekend I was dancing for one side and playing the special morris music for another side at Mill Road Winter Fair. Admittedly, this had no sacred purpose other than getting in some money for beer, but for your average pseudo-medieval peasant, I’m sure getting the beers in was a sacred activity in itself.

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The morris dance has a history so old no one can tell with certainty how far back it goes. Some say it arrived in the UK from Spain in the 15th Century. But then what are we to make of the fact that the Abbot’s Bromley Horn Dance is danced with horns that have been carbon dated as being a thousand yearsold?

(This is actually a vid of the Thaxted version of the dance, because the honest-to-goodness real Abbots Bromley dance doesn’t look anything near as impressive. As Sir Terry Pratchett says, ‘Things that try to look like things often look more like things than things.’)

Of course morris is not alone in being a magic dance once performed to achieve all kinds of good things. Here is a vid of the Romanian Calusari dance, once danced in secret to heal the ill and frighten away evil spirits.

Speaking of Terry Pratchett, I give him big credits for including the morris in his Discworld, and for inventing the Dark Morris, danced at midwinter. He gets my ‘approved by dancers’ stamp. As does Tolkien, whose Silmarillion featured the elf-princess Luthien defeating the Dark Lord by way of a magic dance. This is heady company, but I can at least claim that my hero in the Under the Hill books is a morris dancer, and that I mention Dandiya Raas in passing.

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~

Within the pavilion, they found the lips of wells. A cold air came up from them, and the water within was black and smooth as jet. Ben didn’t understand how the villagers could possibly unite these passages to the underworld with the kind of prancing and ribbons and flower scenes of the fete.

“This is…old,” he said, feeling it, not stopping to wonder what he meant.

“Yes,” Chris agreed, leaning on the lip of the well, looking down. He tipped a penny into the shaft, and they both listened to the plunk as it hit the water. Ben stepped up beside him and saw his face broken into circles on the surface. “But then so is the dancing. The flowers may be to placate the spirits that live here—to tame them. That may be why the church is here too. But the morris dance is different.”

“It’s not as stupid as it looks.”

Chris laughed and leaned back on his elbows, the deep drop behind him. “You have a way with a compliment. But you’re right. The dance…flouts everything. Everything but itself. ‘See,’ it says, ‘we’re men. We’re alive and strong and beautiful. Bollocks to everything else.’ It’s a kind of defiance to this sort of thing.”

“Like the haka, but with pansies.”

Chris slapped his top pocket, frowned as if he’d expected to find something there, came up empty handed. “Yes, well, the haka’s a bit unsubtle, isn’t it? morris is a lot more English—male-combat display, but with irony.”

“Hankies and flowers instead of swords.”

“Exactly.” He slid a sly look in Ben’s direction. “We’re undercompensating.”

Ben’s turn to laugh. “I’d like to see what for.”

~

I think dance makes an interesting and unexpected vehicle for magic in a fantasy, and one that hasn’t yet been overused, but maybe that’s my ignorance talking. Can you recommend any other books in which ritual dance forms a part? Why do you suppose there are so few? Is it really that uncool? If so, why?

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16 responses

  1. I’ve always loved to watch the Morris Dancers when they perform at fairs here. There are several sides here in the Midwest and I’m glad they have the exposure. Thank you for sharing your perspective!

    • It does seem to be a great time for morris dancing, these days. They have a strong presence in Australia and New Zealand too. And from what I’ve heard, the original Spanish dances are still going strong in Catalonia – and still recognisable as part of the same tradition. There was a time when it looked as if it was going to die out, but I think that time has passed now :)

  2. Seeing as I’ve heard a lot about a troop called The Wild Hunt hately, this fits rather well with my accidental post ;) I loved Bombers Moon with a passion, btw!

  3. While off cleaning your teeth, I was thinking how I have just betad an awesome C17-set fantasy story with some dance in it, and that I’ve used dancing in one WIP and am writing it in another one. I kind of hadn’t thought it was uncool…then again, I’m not sure I’m a great judge of such things, and actually beyond what I’ve mentioned, I can’t think of any others…but will have some thoughts.

    • Oh, excellent :) I don’t think it’s uncool either (obviously), but YouTube is full of comments on morris dancing vids saying ‘you ought to be ashamed of yourselves!’ and ‘I’d kill any daughter of mine before I let her marry a morris dancer.’ It’s characteristic of the Brits to hate their own culture, I find.

      I wonder if David Bowie in Labyrinth singing ‘Dance the magic dance’ qualifies?

      • I have to say, where I grew up, the Morris dancers were and still are much loved, and the annual Boxing Day dance draws in big crowds. I think (hope) it’s the internet that tends to bring out hate for…well…pretty much anything :/ But I know what you mean re: culture.
        Oooooh, it’s a while since I’ve seen Labyrinth. Maybe I should remind myself ;)

        • My Dad was very much a ‘the sooner it dies out the better’ man, but most of the people we encounter while dancing seem a combination of mystified and entertained. Possibly the haters just go out of their way to avoid us.

  4. Pingback: Alex Beecroft – Author of Gay Historical and Fantasy Fiction » Blog Archive » Dancing with Destiny

    • *g* Thank you! I think that version of the horn dance has been retro-engineered to look more impressive than the real traditional version actually is, but if so it certainly worked :)