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The year I learned to fly

August 8, 2017

On a frigid night in January I knocked on the door of a nondescript brick bungalow and waited. A stranger answered the door; my friend who had brought me greeted her cheerfully. We stomped snow off our boots, divested ourselves of coats and sweaters and scarves, and trooped up the stairs to where the largest bedroom had been emptied of furniture, leaving a passable wooden dance floor.

My friend handed me a pair of large dinner napkins and nudged me into the middle of a set of six. “Just do what Laura does,” she said, nodding to the woman across from me. “She’s an old hat at this, she’ll take care of you.” An accordion bounced through the first few measures of a tune, the guy at the front waved a napkin in the air, and movement exploded around me as I fumbled through the steps of my first Morris dance.

Walk-throughs and explanations came later. There were plenty of words — the single and double steps, the heys and gyps and rounds, the forry capers and the splitters, the hook legs and galleys, each movement quickly illustrated like it was the most obvious thing in the world by a small grizzled fellow with bad knees. There were sticks, pounded on the floor in rhythm; there were songs whose words everybody knew; there were the names of a dozen welcoming teammates. And above all else there was the music, sprightly notes flinging us in the air and welcoming us back to earth. It filled the house, straining against the frosted windows as if to wake the frozen world outside.

It was like I had opened my eyes on the first day of autumn and seen the riot of blazing leaves and blue sky; I could not look away from the outbreak of life. I wanted to drink it all in, and have such an expression of joy for myself; I wanted to pour it all out, and slake the thirst of others. I came back the next week, and the week after that, and every week thereafter. As winter rolled towards spring, the dances crept into my bones. First I learned to be in the right place. Then I learned to step in time with the music. Eventually I got my hands coordinated with my feet, and my napkins (hankies, I learned they were called) snapped out precisely. I felt like I was discovering my body for the first time; the graceful flow in my arms, the spring in my legs, the power in my core.

By spring I danced like I had been dancing the Morris for years. They said I was born to it. “You see her dancing and you’re like, how?!” one of my teammates said when she introduced me to a friend at my first Ale.

I have never felt like I was born to athleticism.

My parents did not enjoy sports, and I only played them in gym class. Like a lot of nerdy kids, I was no good at them. It wasn’t so bad in elementary school, but in middle school I fell further and further behind. I couldn’t run as fast, or as far. I fumbled the basketball and missed my passes in soccer. I was sorted into remedial swimming. In softball I would swing the bat over and over before getting any chance to run. I tripped over my own feet, and I never managed a cartwheel. Athleticism, I thought, was an inherent property that some people had and I did not. My physical “education” grades were always based on effort — didn’t that mean that my teachers could expect no more from me?

But it turns out athleticism is a skill you can learn, and the structure of Morris dancing gave me a space where I could finally learn it. The sports I had failed to learn in school required a frustrating combination of techniques I would have needed extensive practice to master and split-second tactical decisions that always eluded me. By contrast, Morris dancing is choreographed, removing the element of panicked decision-making, and the physical skills involved are easy to prioritize. I had the support and encouragement of a team, without the fear of letting them down that comes with competitive activities. And all of this was packaged up in one of the most objectively ridiculous activities I have taken part in; I found it impossible to give in to my normal crippling restraint and self-consciousness when I’d already decided to do something so absurd as strapping on jingle bells and jumping around with napkins.

May 1st of that year dawned cold and foggy, with freezing mist blowing in off the lake. We danced the sun up with Morningstar, and summer arrived with a barely-perceptible brightening of the gray morning. As the summer waxed hotter and brighter, I began to dance upwards. My foot-together-jumps bounced as if on springs; my hankies, like wings, bore me aloft in capers. Even my double steps gained air, and I only touched the ground to propel myself towards the sky once more. I learned the trick of putting exactly the right amount of effort into my jumps, so that I only landed when the music said I could. It gave the most incredible illusion of flight — as if I, not gravity, were deciding when to come back down to earth.

I’ve since tempered the flinginess of my dancing to some extent. Morris dancing, at its heart, does not rely on individual physical prowess so much as team togetherness. The respected elders of my team can’t dance a foot in the air, and as the more adaptable dancer it’s my responsibility to match them. Besides, I want my knees to still be fit for dancing when I reach their age. But my discovery of the physical power with which I am embodied in the world will always be with me, and so will the gift of flight.

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