Greeting spring with a decades-old tradition
North Stonington — As the sun rose over Lantern Hill, dozens of hikers stood or sat bundled in their winter coats and hats, grasping thermoses of warm coffee.
For a day that supposedly marked the beginning of spring, the weather certainly had not caught on yet.
But despite the weather and slick conditions on the cold March morning, instead of looking pained and shivering, the hikers stood joyful and mesmerized, gawking at a one-of-a-kind show steeped in tradition.
With flashes of white, green and golden yellow, black hats, jingling bells and ritual dancing, the Westerly Morris Men greeted spring alongside dozens of guests the same way they have for more than 30 years: dancing at dawn on the summit of Lantern Hill in North Stonington.
Morris dancing is a type of English ritual folk dance that originated in the early Renaissance. The North Stonington hike and dance represent a celebration of the vernal equinox, which occurred later in the day and marks the moment at which the center of the sun lies precisely above the Earth’s equator, astronomically signaling the beginning of spring.
Originally started by Betsy Storms of the Pequotsepos Outing Club of Mystic, the vernal equinox hike up Lantern Hill has been a tradition in southeastern Connecticut since at least the 1980s. Then in 1987, the outing club’s trek was joined for the first time by a performance by one of the Westerly Morris Men, a dance team founded in 1974 by Peter Leibert.
The first performance was just one Morris Man, Norman Dudziak of Barrington, R.I., who remains a member of the Morris Men today. Dudziak said that originally he had been making the hike alongside Storms and the Outing Club when one year, Storms commented that he should have brought his bells, referring to the bells that he and the other Morris Men wear on their shins as they dance.
So the following year he had a friend record the tune to a jig known as “Lady’s Pleasure” and he danced atop the hill while the song played. Dudziak told the other Morris Men about the hike and dance afterward, and they thought it’d be fun to do it, as well. The next year the solo act grew from one to three, and then a musician joined, too.
"For a few years it was three dancers and a musician, then after a while the other guys figured they were missing out on all the fun, I guess particularly after we got our picture in The New York Times,” Dudziak joked, referencing a Times story from 1990 that highlighted spring dancing in Connecticut. “Then we started doing a whole team, and we’ve been doing it ever since.”
But since its humble beginnings, the Morris Men’s dance atop Lantern Hill has been a fixture of the vernal equinox in southeastern Connecticut, and Tuesday's celebration featured six dancers and an enthusiastic crowd.
Aside from just one year when the men canceled thinking heavy rain would drive people away — it didn’t — the Morris Men and their fans have made the hike every year, regardless of lingering winters and iced-over trails.
“It’s just a really good way to start the day, even though it sounds horrible to get up at 5:20,” said Teresa Wilensky of Waterford, who made the hike along with her daughter Liza. “It’s an odd thing to do, and that makes it fun and something you want to do again."
“It’s beautiful and fun and it’s tradition,” Liza Wilensky added.
The trek Tuesday marked the fourth time the pair has participated in the annual hike, a tradition they first joined while Liza was visiting home during spring break of college. They already were familiar with the Morris Men through their connection to the Chorus of Westerly’s "Twelfth Night" celebration.
The duo joked that the chilly morning hike and dance are a fun way to confuse their friends on social media, especially those who aren’t from New England.
"We want spring that badly,” Teresa Wilensky joked.