May Day at BWS
Remember, Lords and Ladies, it is the first of May
In our 50th anniversary year, BWS continues a longstanding tradition of “welcoming in the summer” with the celebration of May Day. One of our most colorful festivals, Berkshire Waldorf School celebrates this outdoor event to shake off the last vestiges of winter and welcome summer with singing, dancing, music, flower crowns and an authentic Maypole.
For the first time in 40 years, last May we weren’t able to gather as a community. (There was fiddling, plenty of flowers and a food drive instead.) Our former Maypole became the tent pole for second Grade’s outdoor classroom, Maypole Cottage, during the pandemic. So this year’s celebration inaugurated our new 25-foot Maypole planted on the “village green,” in the center of campus, between the Betty Szold Krainis Early Childhood Building and the grade school building.
We were up long before the day
The ancient spring festival of May Day is brought to life at school with sprightly dancing and singing accompanied by musicians playing accordian, fiddles, flutes and guitar. Generally, the whole Berkshire community is warmly invited to bring blankets and picnic on the green; in fact, a local magazine declared BWS the “Best May Day in the Berkshires.” In prior years, country dancing included elementary students; performances by local Morris and Garland dancing teams; a dance for alumni, who came back to the school from all over the world; a faculty dance; and a dance for the whole community, followed by three rousing cheers of “Hip-hip-hooray” and May crowns tossed in the air.
To welcome in the Summer, to welcome in the May
May Day festivities started at BWS in 1981, when one of our teachers, Christopher Sblendorio, who had participated in May Day during his Waldorf teacher training at Emerson College in England, began doing country dances with his students. He realized that May Day made a perfect seasonal celebration in New England, too. After all, contra dancing has long been an important part of the social fabric here.
At BWS, fourth through eighth graders literally move through the end of winter by learning country dances during the weeks of waiting for spring, using ribbons, bells, kerchiefs and wooden sticks. Similar celebrations take place all over the world, with different music, different dances, but the same purpose; in nearby Columbia County, New York, members of the Mohawk Nation are also dancing with bandanas to wake the earth!
Living close to the land and seasons in the Berkshires, honoring May Day is one of the ways we mark transitions in the seasons of life. And celebrating together the transition from a New England winter (or a global pandemic) connects us to the Earth, our human past and present–our community. We delight in Second Grade’s spontaneous singing at the bus stop, and the early childhood children full of joy in their May crowns.
For summer is a-coming and the winter’s gone away
In our Berkshire Waldorf tradition, fourth grade performs a long and complex dance called “Goddesses,” an English country dance. Adults would have a hard time doing this one, because it’s so long, but fourth graders are overjoyed. It has a beautiful figure-eight chorus which is so harmonious, they can do it and do it, and they don’t get tired. Fourth graders are so light, and they skip easily.
In sixth grade, students do their first Morris dance, with bells and sticks. This tradition is called “bean-setting,” of putting beans in the ground, with wooden sticks rhythmically rapped together or on the Earth. It has the same weaving figure as in Goddesses, and in the Maypole dance, but a different kind of stepping. It’s not the light and easy skip fourth graders do, but step-hop, step-hop. Sixth graders are moving through adolescence; they’re starting to feel the weight of gravity, and they have to overcome it to spring into the air. The rhythm of the dance moves them to make that effort.
Through seventh and eighth grades, students learn more complex dances, using short or long wooden sticks, bells or handkerchiefs — and laughter is such an amazing part of it all.
Fifth graders perform dances that weave bright ribbons around the Maypole. Because they are in that “balanced” place in our school, between being younger and being older, fifth graders are perfectly capable of a more complex figure, based on the “weaving” they learned in Goddesses the year before, yet they are still young enough to enter into the dance. They’re also just the right height to be able to dip under the ribbons at the very end. And then that look on their faces of “We did it!” Weaving together all those different strands is a metaphor for life. The teachers say, “We don’t tell them; they learn by doing it.”
Since the BWS community wasn’t able to gather (even outside) on May Day last spring, both fifth and sixth graders shared the Maypole dance, weaving their ribbons around the pole in quite the seaworthy wind! The bright ribbons will remain woven around the pole until they are “undanced” on the last day of school, as we enter full summer.
Happy May Day!