May Day dancing: Rite of spring

COLUMN: Small Talk

By: Ilene Dube
   May 1, 5:17 a.m. — the parking lot at the Quaker Bridge Mall is empty. Without street lights, it would be pitch dark.
   5:20, Quakerbridge Road headed into Princeton — only two cars are on the road, and one passes the other to defy the speed limit.
   5:22, Princeton Pike — you could rollerblade down the center of the broad expanse of roadway, with no fear of being hit by a car. At Battlefield Park, about 20 cars are parked along both sides of the road.
   As the light grows brighter, a small crowd can be seen assembling by the site of the late Mercer Oak. Bells jangle.
   “I brushed my teeth, but it’s way too early to think about make-up,” said one crowd member.
   “I have no problem waking up this early — just don’t expect me to put on my contact lenses,” said another.
   Several children arrived with their parents and sat on blankets, some eating breakfast in Royal Doulton Beatrix Potter bowls; smaller children were bundled in warm clothes in strollers. The temperature hovered in the mid-30s, and frost tipped the blades of grass.
   A thin sliver of a crescent moon was suspended low in the sky, and as a streak of purplish light grew brighter, the moon gradually faded.
   5:40 a.m. — dawn. The Millstone River Morris Dancers break into action. Wearing white trousers and shirts, with strips of colorful fabrics sewn on looking like feathers in the early morning haze, bells strapped to their legs add light notes to the music of a fiddle and accordion.
   The Princeton May Day tradition in Battlefield Park dates back to the mid-1980s, and in recent years has been attracting a larger crowd. In the past, the dances were performed around the Mercer Oak, and sometimes included a song to encourage the Mercer Oak grow. This is the first year the dances were performed without the tree.
   Morris dancing was popular in England and Scotland in medieval times, and it was believed that the pounding of the sticks, the waving of handkerchiefs and the ringing of the bells was meant to awaken the Earth.
   May Day, sometimes called Beltane (literally, fire of Bel, the bright and shining one), heralds the arrival of spring and the reawakening of the Earth’s fertility.
   Pagans believed that having sex in the fields would encourage the crops to do the same, and thus the celebration was found offensive by the Puritans. In the 19th century, the Victorians emphasized the innocence of May Day, with girls wearing white dresses and holding posies. May Day also is celebrated as an international Labor Day.
   Porkpie hats bedecked with branches of pink flowering dogwood were worn by some of the dancers in Princeton, as well as white skirts and sweaters. Colorful floral skirts swayed during the hoop dance, and many dancers wore L.L. Bean hunting boots and layers of Polartec to keep warm.
   Molly dances are six-person dances from East Anglia and the southeast sections of the Midlands in England. The dancers are led by a “Molly” in dances that involve high stepping and loud stomps of feet, often accompanied by the unaccompanied voice of a singer. Molly dances were traditionally performed by men wearing women’s clothing, and one of the male members of Handsome Molly in Princeton wore a colorful apron over a skirt.
   After the hour-long performance, spectators, whose bones were growing brittle, were invited to participate in a dance around a maypole. The maypole tradition evolved from the Pagans who took a live tree from the woods and brought it into the village to mark the coming season of growth.
   According to myth, if you bathe in the dew of Beltane morning, your beauty will flourish throughout the year. But no dew could be found this year; as dancers danced and callers called, clouds of frost escaped from their lips.