Morris Dance is Popular in Maplewood
Morris dance, a form of English country dance, has never been as popular in the Midwest as it is on the East Coast but Maplewood is host to two morris dance teams.
Back in 1983, when Maplewood resident John Shewmaker was trying to put together a morris dance team, hardly anyone in St. Louis knew what morris was.
Morris dancing is a high-energy dance with highly rhythmic steps. Dancers often wear bells on their legs and wave cloth squares called hankies, or clunk wooden sticks or poles together and pound them on the floor.
The problem was, Shewmaker himself had no idea how to morris dance, a type of English folk dance, and no one to teach him, said John Long, Shewmaker's brother-in-law.
“What really got it off the ground was this little English bird called him and said, ‘I hear you have a morris team,'” Long said. Shewmaker admitted he didn’t know what he was doing.
She offered to teach Shewmaker and helped get the group going, Long said.
The next spring, the newly formed team went to the Midwest Morris Ale—a gathering of morris dancers—in Indiana.
“From nothing, all of a sudden we had 13 people,” Long said. “Everybody at the ale said, ‘Where did you come from? ‘And, ‘You’re actually pretty good.’ They were really surprised that suddenly this team erupted.“
That’s the way it goes with Morris dancing, he said. “Sometimes teams die just as fast,” he said.
“People occasionally want to do something else in their life—unbelievable as that may be,” said Ken Johnson, the group’s administrative leader.
Today Long is dance leader of Capering Roisters, the morris team Shewmaker, who now lives in Columbia, formed back then. The Roisters and the River Rats, an offshoot of the Roisters, meet at Focal Point and perform variations of morris.
The Roisters have survived all these years, although Long is the only original member still with the group. Three others—Johnson, Judy Stein and Bryce Kehoe—joined early on.
Nancy Collis of South County, a former music teacher, has been dancing with the Roisters since she retired nine years ago. She learned of morris dancing years ago at a teacher workshop and taught it to her older classes. “The kids just loved it,” she said.
Collis loves it too.
“It’s good exercise and I love the tunes,” she said.
On a recent Thursday night at Focal Point, Collis’ former student Ivan Kawaler provided music on his recorder as the Roisters danced.
After Kawaler returned from the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Collis invited him to play with the Roisters. “I thought it was going to kind of be a one-time thing,” he said. That was a year ago.
New dancers have come and gone over the years. The group finds them through “any way we can,” Long said. For example, several years ago, after St. Louis hosted an ale, an ad in the Riverfront Times brought out 25 prospects, Johnson said.
The team, however, lost about 20 prospects right away and a few more later. “After about a year we were down to one,” Johnson said.
Morris dancing isn’t for the faint of heart or those lacking fitness. The dancing can be vigorous and heart pounding.
“It’s kind of a specialized activity that requires a certain amount of physical conditioning and a certain amount of musical sensitivity, at least,” Johnson said.
While Long has mastered the moves, they didn’t necessarily come easy for him.
“I didn’t come from a dance background,” he said. “I was involved in various physical things like soccer so I could jump across the room but I was usually on the wrong foot. I had to figure out what to do along the way.”
Want to see the Capering Roisters in action? They’ll dance at dawn near the Jewel Box in Forest Park on May Day. Dancing at dawn on May 1 is almost a tradition with morris dancers, Johnson said.
Want to give morris a whirl? The Roisters meet at 8:15 p.m. on Wednesdays at Focal Point. For more information, call Ken Johnson at 314-781 2814. The River Rats meet there at 4:30 p.m. on Sundays. Call Judy Stein at 314-726-4707 for more information on that group.