MossyBack Morris Men to dance on Whidbey

The MossyBack Morris Men, a Morris dance troupe which hails from Seattle, will be returning to Whidbey Sept. 19 for performances in Coupeville, Langley and Bayview.

The MossyBack Morris Men know how to ring in a good time.

The troupe of dancers and musicians relish tradition as much as a quality stout, and are as comfortable dancing in a pub after a pint as they are taking to the street like a brightly-clad Morris-style flashmob.

The group, which hails from Seattle, will be returning to Whidbey Sept. 19 for performances in Coupeville, Langley and Bayview.

The day will begin with a 10:30 a.m. dance on Front Street in Coupeville. At noon, the men will travel south to Maple Ridge Retirement Community in Freeland. At 1 p.m., a dance will take place at a to-be-determined location prior to lunch, followed by a 2:45 p.m. performance at Boy and Dog Park and a 4 p.m. performance at The Taproom at Bayview Corner.

This year, the men will be joined once more by the Vancouver (B.C.) Morris Men. The Bells of the North, a women’s dance group from Minneapolis, will be accompanying the MossyBacks for the first time.

The MossyBacks, who dance in the ancient Morris style of England, first visited Whidbey approximately 20 years ago, according to founding member Bob Greco.

Greco had first become involved with Morris dancing while living in New York. He carried his passion with him to Seattle, where he and fellow Morris-enthusiasts established the group in 1980.

In college, he recalled, a coworker of his was a Morris dancer. Though Greco didn’t consider himself a “dancing in public kind of guy,” he was engrossed by the jubilant nature of the dance, and its performers.

It’s a people’s dance, Greco explained, noting its ancient history as a “traditional folk dance for the people.”

“I was attracted to the camaraderie, the history, the music and the movement in general,” he said.

The earliest written record of the dance is dated to 1448, though the dance’s origins may date far earlier, as little is known about pre-17th century English folk dances.

“It’s a very old dance,” said Greco. “In Shakespeare’s time there were several references to it.”

Shakespearean actor William Kempe Morris danced from London to Norwich, as chronicled in “Nine Daies Wonder,” published in 1600.

Greco explained that the dance is believed to have begun in the Cotswold area of England as a way for the men to beckon good fortune and wellness to the village. Although, he added with a chuckle, other records mention “Morris thieves,” depicting the dancers as petty thieves or beggars.

Regardless of its origins, Greco said, the dance emits a contagious energy and seldom fails to put smiles on the faces of audience members.

The MossyBacks dance choreography with origins harkening from two Cotswold-area villages, Bledington and Ducklington. The majority of MossyBack dances include handkerchiefs,- and others involve long wooden sticks.

Upon once visiting England, Greco recalled the opportunity to “dance a Bledington dance in Bledington.”

“In some ways it was fulfilling and in some ways it seemed ironic because there wasn’t a team there at the time, and we were doing a dance that was their dance,” he said. “It felt good to be continuing a tradition that wasn’t able to be continued there.”

Many English teams were discontinued during WWII, Greco said, though there are four teams who have danced continuously for centuries.

Of the 15 MossyBack members, there are two “token brits,” said Greco.

The MossyBack troupe includes six musicians of various instruments, including the fiddle, concertina and drum. Greco plays a melodeon, sometimes called a “button accordion.” Like the choreography, the music is derived from tradition, though some songs and dances are original, fashioned by the MossyBacks in the Morris style.

Jon Pfaff, who has been a member for six years, joined the group after meeting Greco.

“This is a group of guys who are extremely well educated. Many have advanced degrees, and they just found it to be a fun thing as well as (an opportunity) to get some exercise every week,” said Pfaff. “It has a certain amount of class.”

Pfaff said he’s looking forward to the group’s annual Whidbey performance, as “there’s always good conversation, always good challenges, always beer afterward.”

“There’s nothing better than going out to perform and having people that literally came to see you, rather than just stopping by,” Greco said, adding that due to the group’s long history of performances on Whidbey, he’s always enthused to see familiar faces.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Pfaff of the dance. “It’s a real pleasure.”