Morris dancing in Syracuse, New York

Before the Beginning…

Syracuse is close to the geometric center of New York State. Buffalo and Rochester lie roughly 150 and 90 miles west, Albany is about 150 miles east (and New York City is about 150 miles south of Albany).

More relevantly, Syracuse is a little over an hour’s drive north and east of Ithaca and a little over an hour north of Binghamton.

Binghamton is the home of one of the first true community morris teams in the US, the Binghamton Morris Men, founded in 1973. Later in the 1970s, the Hearts of Oak (now defunct) started up in Binghamton with activity eventually spreading between Binghamton and Ithaca. I have been told that in the late 1970s, the Binghamton Men performed a few times in the Syracuse area. Two members of the Binghamton Men were living in the Syracuse area around 1980: John Bromka and Howard Weinberg.

Thornden Morris (Men)

The Thornden Morris men’s team is a little known bit of Syracuse morris history, and I’ve been told contradictory things about it. What follows is based on information from Howard Weinberg. In 1980 Howard was tired of commuting to Binghamton for morris practice and tried to get a team going in Syracuse. He came up with the name Thornden Morris, after Thornden Park in the city’s university area where most of the members lived. Six men signed up, and they may have practiced a few times, but they never seemed to have six and a musician for practice, and they never danced out before disbanding. A recruiting poster still exists.

Thornden Morris

In 1980, John’s girlfriend Sondra Etheredge (later Etheredge-Bromka) and some of her friends took an interest in morris dancing, wondering why the men should have all the fun. Late in the year, after the men’s team disbanded, these women started up a women’s morris team and took over the name “Thornden Morris”.

(Again, there is contradictory information on the events of 1980; Sondra once told me the women’s team came first. However, Howard says this was not the case and Tom Keays, who heard the story from team member Frank Plunkett, confirms this.)

They first performed on May Day, 1981, beginning an annual tradition of celebrating the coming of warm weather by dancing at dawn at the top of the hill in Thornden Park. This tradition continues to this day (well, this year) with participation by all of Syracuse’s morris and sword dancers. Thornden has also hosted four ales, in 1986, 1991, 1996, and 2001. Their current traditions are Fieldtown, Bledington, Bampton, and Ducklington; they also do the Upton Hankie Dance and the “Upton” (actually the Chingford) Stick Dance.

The Bassett Street Hounds

In late 1984 a second attempt to institute men’s morris in Syracuse was, for a time, more successful. Key figures were Peter Jorgensen, who had played music and danced with Sourwood Morris in Knoxville, Tennesee, and Tom Keays, Thornden’s mainstay musician. Practices were originally held in Tom’s apartment on Bassett Street, and Roberta Wackett (wife of founding Hound Frank Plunkett and a melodeon player for the team) suggested the team’s name.

The Hounds’ debut was on May Day, 1985. They have sponsored “Dog Days Ales” annually from 1994 (except 1996).

In February 1996 the Hounds became a mixed border morris team. Their present repertoire consists almost entirely of original dances.

Ribbonsteel Rapper

Christine Gaca organized a weekend rapper sword dance workshop in the summer of 1987. Later that summer, some of the workshop veterans founded Ribbonsteel Rapper. They first performed on May Day, 1988. At times they have also done some English waltz clog and some border morris in addition to rapper.

Birch Leaf Morris

By 1990 it was about time for another dance team to start up. Sure enough, under the direction of David Smukler and Kate Woodle, a children’s morris team got under way. Calling themselves Birch Leaf Morris, they made their debut in December, 1990. The team disbanded around 1997.

Salt Springs Morris

Five years after the start of Birch Leaf, Heather and Rich Holmes and Karin Howe started up yet another team: Salt Springs Morris, a mixed side doing Cotswold morris in the Wheatley tradition. Salt Springs began practicing in January 1996, and first danced out in June. Soon after, a combination of circumstances forced the team to go “on hiatus”, which was their official condition for the following three years, though they did do one dance at the Foggy Bottom Morris Men’s AffordabAle in June 1998.

The side was reactivated in late 1999 after Heather and Rich moved back to the area, and in this incarnation first danced out on May Day 2000. The Wheatley repertoire was jettisoned in favor of development of a new Cotswold-ish style unique to Salt Springs Morris. While membership was strong for the 2000 season, it began declining that fall, and after the 2001 season the team disbanded.

Griffin’s Corners Morris

Griffin’s Corners Morris was founded in 2001 and danced out for the first time four years earlier.

No, really.

In 1997 Rich Holmes found himself at the Toronto Morris Ale without a team to dance with. He wore a kit he’d thrown together, not specific to any existing team, and danced a jig (Black Joke) in an unnamed Cotswoldish style he’d been developing.

Four years later, with the demise of Salt Springs, Rich found himself living in the Syracuse area (between Onondaga Hill and South Onondaga, near an allegedly populated place called Griffin’s Corners) without a Cotswold team to dance with. He declared the aforementioned kit (which he’d worn a few times since 1997) to be a Griffin’s Corners kit, the aforementioned style (still unnamed and under construction) to be the Griffin’s Corners style, and himself to be Griffin’s Corners Morris. Peter Hoover signed on as musician in January 2002, and the “team” first performed on May Day 2002.

In 2003 Rich moved to a house in Parish, about 35 miles north of Syracuse, across the road from Grindstone Creek. Soon after, Griffin’s Corners Morris was renamed Grindstone Creek Morris. However, in 2007 Rich moved back to Onondaga Hill and the name reverted to Griffin’s Corners.

At this writing the team still has only one dancer, with three musicians.

Wild Blue Morris

Appearing at May Day in 2008 for the first time was a new Cotswold side, Wild Blue Morris. They are a seasonal team, practicing in late winter and early spring and dancing primarily in May. They do Ilmington dances.