I wasn't expecting to be dancing on the gravestone of the High Sheriff of Brecon(1774) and his Clerk when I signed up for Circle Dancing at Brecon Cathedral this week.
I'm a regular circle dancer at a local village hall in Cardiff. We are a group of mainly older women who are retired or semi-retired. Our members come from all walks of life. They include an ex surgeon, social worker, midwife, drama adviser, lab technician, administrator, and a Russian academic who was also an accomplished musician specialising in medieval music. Sadly, she got dementia and following the dances became increasingly difficult for her. Despite encouragement from the group she felt embarressed and anxious and finally left. Our oldest member was 89 this week and we celebrated with home baked muffins. Phyllis had been a P.E. teacher and until recently took a Keep Fit class for the over 50s. She may be deaf and aching with arthritis but she glides around our circle with the grace of a young woman.
We dance to folk music from Israel, Romania, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Ukraine. Our teacher has had a series of problems with her health. She often forgets the steps herself so is very forgiving when we do too. She calls it 'variations on a dance from another village'. Last week, during a rowdy Greek song with scarves she stamped hard on her own foot. We fell about laughing. Poor teacher! We waltz, skip, jump, limp, yelp, whoop, and clap ourselves. It's the one time in the week when you are guaranteed a good laugh.
Circle Dancing in Brecon Cathedral was a very different experience. I went with a friend I'd first met in Indonesia, forty three years ago. She suffers from a nasty chronic cough and was anxious that she wouldn't be able to dance for very long without it getting the better of her. We were there celebrating the end of winter and the joy of this glorious spring and early summer. The leader was a green goddess dressed in shades of jade chiffon and sparkly black shoes. In front of the altar our large circle of women and men gathered to dance to the music of Kopanitsa, a two person band, playing guitar, clarinet and accordion. In the middle of our circle was a church candle swathed in an embroidered cloth. People were invited to place items of personal importance on the cloth. I spied a teddy bear, some crystals, a drawing of Swirling Derbishers, a sprig of ivy and a decorated jar of something that looked like blackcurrant jam.
At the start the Dean read out some biblical references to the joy of the dance and the evening began. I was standing next to the Dean, a tall willowy man. He squeezed my hand while we listened to instructions from the green goddess. I didn't like it. I mean I'm married. Couldn't he see my ring? In the interval my friend who'd been holding his other hand asked me if I'd noticed the Dean's nervous finger spasms.
We danced slowly and reverently over the tombstones of local heroes with names like Lancelot and Prydderch. When a dance came to the end we stood very still, holding on to each other's sweating spasming hands, and following the clarinet's last notes circling high up into the rafts of the Cathedral. The saints in the stained glass windows smiled angelically down on us. There was no laughing, whooping or yelping. Even my friend's cough had been silenced. This was a sacred experience - a pagan celebration in the house of Christ at Easter time. Two hundred years ago you'd probably have been hung by the High Sheriff for taking part in such a blasphemy. I smiled to my pagan self and returned the Dean's squeeze.