The sights and sounds of authentic English Morris Dancing will be on display along the Upper Delaware River Valley during late July and early August as performers of the American Travelling Morrice present a weeklong series of shows in communities throughout Bucks, Mercer, and Hunterdon counties. The ATM is an international ensemble of dancers and musicians that has come together each summer since 1976 to offer authentic presentations of the ritual dances of the English Cotswolds in performances throughout the United States and England.
One of the longtime members is Jamie Watson, a Plainsboro resident since 2007. He was first introduced to Morris dancing in 1979 — at three different folk festivals.
“The thing that attracted me is the music,” says Watson. “Aspects of the dance go down to half the tempo to accommodate leaps through the air, and each part of the dance does something different. It is the integration of a forceful music with dancers, and the tempo is driven by what is happening.”
Most of the men on the tour have been dancing for a number of years, and close to 30 members get together every summer for the tour. “It is really a performance dance,” says Watson. “The beauty of the Morris dance is physical and athletic and requires great teamwork.”
The dancers are usually men. Practice and performances are usually September to May with performances at sunrise all over the world on May 1 (May Day).
This year Watson is the Squire, also known as the leader. He has been trying to get the ATM to the Delaware Valley for many years and organized the tour. During the tour the men all camp together on a private property for a week.
Born in Philadelphia, Watson has a dancing background. His mother was a skater in the USO and still practices ballroom dancing. Watson learned ballroom dancing in the kitchen at home. His father was also a ballroom dancer. Watson became familiar with the Princeton area as a resident student of American Boychoir (then called Columbus Boychoir). “When my sister swam with the YWCA my mother met a woman with a son in the school,” says Watson, who was a boy treble for four years.
Along the way Watson learned how to play guitar and banjo and played the coffee house circuit. He graduated from Temple University with a degree in filmmaking and worked as a film editor in Philadelphia. Watson now runs the cable television station for West Windsor and Plainsboro townships and the WW-P school district.
His son, Casey, 22, is also a Morris dancer in ATM, and the pair is one of several father-son duos. “He saw the dance all his life,” says Watson. When Casey was a fifth grade student at Lansdowne Friends School, he and his friends formed a group that did Morris dancing. “It was a big secret at the school,” says Jamie. Casey attended Stateside Restaurant School in Philadelphia and has been a professional chef in Philadelphia for two years.
Watson met his wife Jackie when he was organizing a reunion for the Boychoir and she worked in the reunion development office. She plays the viola with Princeton Symphony Orchestra and teaches music at Millstone River School. Their daughter, Anya, graduated from High School North in June.
Jamie and Jackie coach an all-girls team at Waldorf School. He plays the accordion and she plays the viola. “I love it and I think it’s a great activity for kids,” he says. “The kids have their own costumes, and they dance at dawn on May 1.”
Morris dancing was already a well-established tradition in Shakespeare’s time, with roots in medieval street theater. For hundreds of years, white-clad Morris men have performed the intricate patterns of the dance featuring ringing bells, clashing wooden sticks, and waving handkerchiefs in time to lively folk tunes played on accordion, fiddle, or the traditional pipe and tabor.
Each team or side has its own costume and the kit worn becomes its trademark. Many sides are typically decked out in traditional whites, said to represent springtime and the renewal of life after the dormant darkness of winter. The blue suspenders and tricolored rosettes worn by the dancers are emblematic of the American Travelling Morrice and add a festive flash of color to the dance. The bells ward off evil spirits and gloomy thoughts, and the fierce clashing of sticks may survive as a vestige of the pagan rituals of much earlier times.
Many of the music used today for Morris dance dates from late 18th-century folk music literature. Modern step and arm movements can be traced to the English village where the individual dances originate. Many sides in the United States have recently created their own American Morris dances based on the English styles.
The time-honored custom of passing the hat has always been associated with the Morris. This ongoing tradition allows the audience to share in the dance and express gratitude to the dancers. It has often been said that dropping a coin in the upturned hat of a Morris man brings the donor good luck and prosperity for a year and a day.
English Traditional Dance, American Travelling Morris, The 37th Annual American Travelling Morrice is performing at several locations on each of six days. Each 30-minute show is different. There are 25 guys and the repertoire is large. 609-575-2100 or americantravellingmorrice.org.
Sunday, July 29. Howell Living History Farm at 11 a.m. Wells Fargo Bank, Lambertville, at 2:30 p.m. East Ferry and Main streets, New Hope, at 3:30 p.m. Logan Inn, New Hope, at 4:30 p.m.
Tuesday, July 31. Riegelsville Inn, 11 a.m.; Ship Inn in Milford at 12:30 p.m.; Frenchtown Inn at 3 p.m.; and Lumberville General Store at 4:30 p.m.
Tuesday, July 31. Riegelsville Inn, Riegelsville, PA, at 11 a.m. The Ship Inn, Milford, 12:30 p.m. Bridge and Front streets, Frenchtown, 3 p.m. Lumberville General Store at 4:30 p.m. Stockton Inn at 6 p.m.
Thursday, August 2. Trenton Farmers’ Market at 11 a.m.; Grounds for Sculpture at 2 p.m.; and Douglas Plaza in Trenton at 8 p.m.
Friday, August 3. Peddler’s Village at 11 a.m.; Fonthill Castle at 1 p.m.; Mercer Museum at 4 p.m.; Doylestown downtown at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, August 4. Honey Brook Organic Farm, Pennington, at 10 a.m.; Washington Crossing Park at noon; Nassau Hall, Princeton, 3 p.m.; and Princeton Public Library at 6 p.m.