School Troupe Brings Renaissance Flair to Musical Performances
Living in an English village for seven years gave Carol Mills a deep appreciation for the rich history of the British Isles, including its folk music and dances. When she became the music teacher at St. John the Baptist Catholic School in New Brighton, Mills brought her love of folk music into the classroom. From there, it blossomed into the Merry Minstrels—an extracurricular group whose members dress, dance, sing and play music to evoke 15th century England.
“We perform Morris dances — a form of English folk dance that features rhythmic stepping with choreographed figures,” explained Mills, who founded the Merry Minstrels 20 years ago and continues to serve as its creative director. “What really appeals to kids is that Morris dances use props, like sticks, colorful scarves, a maypole and even wooden swords. We like to talk about the symbolism of the dances as well, such as when two swords clash to symbolize the combat between winter and spring, between dark and light.”
Equally appealing to parents is the group’s broad membership, which ranges from second graders to eighth graders. Everyone is welcome, with no audition needed, and the group typically numbers about 18 students.
“There aren’t a lot of school sports or groups the kids can join when they’re in second or third grade, and most don’t have all ages involved,” said Christine Reynolds, whose youngest daughter is in sixth grade. “It’s truly an ensemble. Everyone participates, even the younger ones who have just joined.”
Mastering a Repertoire
Reynolds also has two older daughters, who both performed with the Merry Minstrels from elementary school through eighth grade.
“Carol engenders that type of loyalty because she’s so dedicated to the kids and invested in what they’re doing,” added Reynolds, who just began her ninth year as a Merry Minstrels parent volunteer. “I also appreciate Carol’s flexibility, because she will alter what the group does each year based on who is in it.”
Reynolds’ youngest daughter, for example, is a gymnast, so Mills expanded the group’s repertoire to include a stunt dance in which students can showcase their talents for handstands, cartwheels or backflips.
“In addition to the whole performance piece, which builds confidence for kids, the dance movements build coordination and core strength, and encourage connections in the brain,” Mills noted. “Morris dances are pretty complex and require the dancers to work together, which teaches them teamwork and cooperation.”
Every member of the group learns all of the dances, each of which features six to eight participants, with the more complicated dances assigned to the older students. Coco Wraneschetz, who is currently in her eighth year as a Merry Minstrel, admitted that it takes time to learn all the songs, dances and recorder music that form the group’s repertoire. But, she added, “Everyone is nice and funny, so there’s always laughter.”
Both Wraneschetz and Joseph Uzelac were named Master Minstrels, an honor reserved for students who not only have a long tenure with the group, but also have contributed to its success.
“Becoming a Master Minstrel really takes devotion because you have to know all the dances and be committed to helping the younger kids learn them,” explained Uzelac, who spent seven years as a Merry Minstrel.
Uzelac said he’ll always have fond memories of performing at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival in the fall. Traditionally, the Merry Minstrels make their first public appearance of the school year on the festival’s closing day, giving several half-hour performances.
In keeping with their motto to “Share the Love of God through the Joy of Music,” the Merry Minstrels take their colorful velvet costumes and show on the road throughout the school year. Wraneschetz said she has especially enjoyed the group’s annual performances at the Como Park Zoo and the Midtown Global Market. She and her fellow minstrels have also performed at nursing homes, senior centers, homeless shelters, low-income housing developments and other schools. This outreach, Mills said, underscores to students that “performance is a gift you give to other people, wherever and whenever you are sharing your music and dance with them.”
Interested in the Merry Minstrels? Have the group give a workshop at your school or perform at a church event. For more information, contact Carol Mills at firstname.lastname@example.org.