Reading About Ritual: Starting Thoughts

I have mentioned my church at a bar in a couple of previous posts. I even mentioned ritual in one of those posts. Before I start reading The Power of Ritual for book club, I wanted to get some thoughts down. To see how they change.

On Thursday nights, in a social club called the Polish Armory, embedded in a neighborhood of close-set two-story homes, mature trees overarched by an expressway, and a basilica, we gathered. It had been going for some years before I got directed to it, and it continued for some years after my wife and I moved away. It might still be going now. I hope so, but the people who set it up had special relationships with the social club’s board, and cut a sweetheart deal to use it each week. And they were the age then that I am now, and this all happened nearly a quarter-century ago.

Year round, under the late afternoon sun of 7pm summer, or the deep night of snow-encrusted 7pm winter, we would show up, find a parking spot, and enter the rough-looking rear door of a two-story building from 1892. People would be milling around, greeting newcomers and long-time friends with warmth. We met in one of the two rental rooms in the building, each week directed to the right one, and newcomers were directed away from the members-only bar that took up about a third of the main floor.

In the room would be people greeting all with handshakes and hugs, chatting about the news of the week. Generally not the News, but the more important things of daily life: births, illnesses, job changes, recipe exchanges. The people ranged in age from brand new to barely there any more. Usually we were in the main room, on the main floor, a room with a big parquet dance floor and a slightly raised platform where a pick-up band was tuning up. Someone was setting up a PA system. There was fiddler Bruce, the Americana musician, carrier of tradition, carrier of All the Songs, carrier of the patience of the saints. There was a loose collection of about 8 other musicians who cycled in and out depending on things like if they were needed on a shift on the wrecker or something. Guitars, a dobro sometimes, usually a mandolin, a bodhrán most of the time, sometimes another fiddle. The sound was full, and they were present, unpaid, learning tunes, learning to play together in a pick-up session, learning to play in public, learning to play for dancers (which is a Thing), and living a tradition of musicians being music.

At 7pm the dancing would begin. One of the core of four people who knew the dances would stand, welcome everyone, and remind us all of the three rules. 1) Have Fun, 2) Be Where You are Supposed to Be, When You Are Supposed to Be There, 3) If You Can’t Remember Rule (2), Go Back to Rule (1). While he was talking the regulars would line up facing the band, a few ranks and a few files, a loose grid of dancers in street clothes. Regulars would help newcomers find a place, any place would do. There were no special locations reserved for special people. Someone would announce, or the word would ripple through the group, that warming up is important, and the band began. This is how the Irish Céilí Dance and Social Comedy hour would begin.

The warm up dance was just a few of the standard steps: shuffle right for seven, jig for three (in Irish céilí, ten equals 8), shuffle left for seven, this time during the jig also rotate 90 degrees. Ultimately we would dance the box this move would put each dancer through two or three times.

Then the dance selections began. Because it’s social, there was no actual agenda of dances, though there were a handful we would generally do. There is a book, too, we used it when the group assembled was the right size and experience and we would learn more complex dances.

There would be a confab, maybe a loose vote, and a dance was selected. The band was informed, jig, reel, hornpipe, something of a certain length for some dances. Someone would introduce the dance, remind people of the steps involved, and maybe if there were enough newcomers (or it had been a few weeks since we danced it) a musicless walk though. The Eight-Hand Reel, Wall of Limerick, Gates of Derry, High Cauled Cap, Trip to the Cottage (which soon enough became the dance I would introduce), and the Fairy Reel were typical selections.

Dances were couple’s dances, holding hands (the woman on the right, “because the woman is always right,” her hand atop the man’s). Couples varied by dance, everyone could dance with anyone, and newcomers who came tother would be split up if they were up for it so everyone got the benefit of dancing with someone who (more or less) knew what they were doing. It was social, and social comedy, so people who had been one time before were now considered (more or less, and enough anyway) to know what they were doing. If there were not enough men or women to round out a dance, single-sex couples were the norm; the group would always rather add a dancer or two to round out the set rather than exclude anyone who wanted to join in.

Some dances were progressive. Two lines would face each other, run through a round of the dance, and then the lines would pass through each other, and each line would then dance with a new line. When a line reached the end of the group, it would turn around, and progress back up the hall. If there were an odd number of lines, that was OK. Progressive dances can last forever, lines passing through and dancing with the next, and in very large gatherings where maybe a whole gymnasium is filled with facing-lines progressing from one end to the other, they can feel like it. We would typically run a progressive dance until the lines had run up and down the full length one time, dancing with each other line twice. Gates of Derry is a progressive dance.

Other dances were circle dances. Four couples would form a boxy circle, two facing two. These dances had an end point. Typically, there was a set of steps, and then a progression, and then a different set of steps, and so on for a fixed number of sets. Often these dances had particular tunes that they went with. The Fairy Reel is an example of this, and when we danced it we always did a run-through. It has a move, the fairy knot, which is a little bit complex, and involves the dancers turning their backs on each other while holding hands. It felt a little tippy, better to test everyone’s balance slowly.

During the evening, once the awkwardness natural to any gathering, hand-holding, and individual attention passed, something could happen. Dancing is actually fully natural, even with complex scripts of movements that made a rule like “be where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there” necessary (it could be easy to get lost as the order of moves just keeps happening, there are really no breaks in a dance, and once lost you should just get to the place–someone will help direct you, maybe even bodily if you’re ok with that). Like breathing.

This is true of Irish céilí. You are only really shifting your balance from right to left, and every move is balanced by a move that’s the same but in the other direction. Once your body finds that, it does not matter if you know the shuffle step, or the right kind of jig step, or any of the details. When you find that, you can disappear. You are there, your body is there, the movement is there.

The dance happens.

And you are not there as a being separate from your body, you are not separate from the dance. The dance only exists because you are there being the dance, or, because this is social dance, being part of the dance. Someone lets the band know to end the music, and you come out of the dance. It’s not a total dissolution, you’re never not yourself, but the you while absorbed by the dance loses concern for the you who was there before and who is waiting for after the dance.

Not every dance will absorb every dancer every time. Progressive dances are especially great for face-to-face socializing. You are always with your partner, and your line faces another line for a minute, maybe, at the very outside. Long enough to see who else is there, long enough to make a greeting, long enough to see how those people are. Maybe between dances you will seek them out this week, check in, maybe share a dance and catch up a little more.

After several dances at the social club, the final céilí dance of every week would line up, Haymaker’s Jig. Two lines form, facing one another, and two couples, the one at the head and the one at the tail of the lines, would do the thing, there would be a circleround and pass through arches formed by one couple, and eventually everyone would be part of the top and bottom couple, and the dance would end. This dance has a lot of spinning, and it is a wild, raucous exercise in contained energy. After that a waltz to cool down after all that exercise.

The band would pack up, the hosts would ask for donations for the hall from those who could make them, and everyone would pull on their coats, hug their good-byes, and set up plans for the upcoming week. Would there be dinners together? Does so-and-so need a ride to the doctor, or to go see someone in the hospital? Does your daughter need a meal brought over? That movie is opening on Friday, wanna go?

People would head out into the 8:30 evening, singles, pairs who came together, small knots who talk every minute, and will probably call each other five times in the next two days, and head back home. Or out to dinner maybe.

Hands held, egos soothed, dances embodied.

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