• Otter Views: Maypole Dance a Fine Faire Finale

    The Monterey Bay charter school on David Avenue pitched a May Day faire on Saturday, but I was tardy hearing about it. When I finally pulled into the school parking lot, all indicators suggested I would need to try again next May Day.

    I’ve been part of enough festive events now to recognize when one has passed its zenith. Exhibitors loading folding tables into their vans and driving away is one sure sign. Another is parents leading flower-decked, face-painted children away from the fun zone.

    Also telling is the forlorn silence that remains where, barely an hour earlier, an entire medieval village had jumped and jived. Vibrations lingering in the gray air suggested the place had teemed with jugglers, minstrels, stilt walkers, shepherds, fairies, elves, pie sellers, Morris dancers, shield-bearing knights and flower-wreathed damsels.

    Clues underfoot indicated that games of skill and chance had been played along here; white-frosted May cakes decorated there; blossoms, greens and stems twined into garlands over here. And judging by the stacked panels awaiting cartage, a banquet table and a plywood castle once stood beneath yon sturdy oak.

    Were jousts held? Was there archery? Did faire goers wear cloaks, tasseled boots and feathered caps? Alas, I cannot say. You’ll have to ask me next year. But I can report on the maypole dance, which organizers kindly scheduled at day’s end so even laggards could watch.

    Having grown up in a land where hula is the May Day dance of choice, I was curious to see an actual maypole dance. I knew it involved a lofty, beribboned pole circled by gamboling young people, but beyond that I was clueless. England? Did the tradition come from England?

    As it happened, the David Avenue dancers had chosen the more rigorous of the two maypole dance styles my research unearthed. In the simpler format, the long colored ribbon each dancer holds attaches to a revolving disk at the pole’s summit. As the dancers skip or sashay around the perimeter, the disk spins freely, the ribbons remain their original length, and the pole stays bare.

    In the more challenging dance, there is no disk. The ribbons are secured to the top, and paired dancers try to “weave” a pattern of alternating colors down the pole as they circle in opposite directions, stop, and reverse course, all on cue.

    Because the ribbons are fixed at one end, they shorten and overlap with each circuit as the dancers duck and rise past other couples. If the dancers work together, they should finish at the base of the pole at the same time, and the final weave pattern will look as tight as a Navajo blanket or a summer camp lanyard.

    If not, it’s total chaos.

    From what I could tell, several factors contribute to success. The pole must be tall, sturdy and well anchored; the ribbons long enough for bodies to skip over and pass beneath. Also essential are a spirited leader, cooperative dancers, and rhythmic musical accompanists.

    Luckily, all those elements came together Saturday afternoon. The maypole stood firm and true, and the ribbons stayed attached to it. Green-gowned leader Giulie Garland had clearly done this dance before, confidently calling out directions and corrections as the ribbons started to turn.

    For their part, the paired dancers responded admirably and cheerfully. Whether ducking or leaping, skipping or tucking, running forward or reversing, they somehow kept their ribbons from tangling. And they did it all to a dance beat.

    Providing the beat were musicians from “Danse Macabre,” a troupe of fiddlers, pipers and hand drummers who entertain at California renaissance faires. Clad in earth-toned buckskins, velvets, canvas and billowy linens, the slouch-hatted minstrels kept the maypole dancers spinning and the colored ribbons twining.

    At length the piper’s last notes sounded, and the smiling dancers faced each other at the center of the circle. Overhead, the pole was proudly “clothed” in a sort of court jester’s raiment – zigzag diamond patterns of overlapping spring colors. Pleased and amazed at their achievement, the young dancers clamored for another go, and the musicians consented. The second wrap was even tighter.

    Watching the dancers in motion, I wondered what the whole thing might look like from the top of the pole. The carousel whirl of colored ribbons and the couples circling in opposite directions was a Busby Berkeley routine by way of Breughel.

    I can imagine next year’s dancers mounting a GoPro atop the pole and posting the results online. Of course, by then that will probably be passé.

    As the maypole dancers and the Danse Macabre musicians strode off to various parking lots, I felt wistful about having missed the rest of the faire. If the finale was any indication, merriment was had by all.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on May 15, 2015

    Topics: Otter Views


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