The highlight of my week was a spot of ‘strip the willow’... an experience as joyful as it was energetic. (And no, it didn’t involve removing any clothes...)
Attending a friend’s wedding in Robin Hood’s Bay, I was already blissed out by the spectacular views, briny sea air, and the stunning bride’s mega-watt smile.
Then the ceilidh band started up...and euphoria set in. At first the guests looked hesitant. All clumping brogues and faltering stilletoes. Nervous laughter as the do-si-dos descended into do-si-don’ts.
But by the end of the first set there was a Baccanalian air of abandon. Shoes discarded, faces glowing, the wedding guests threw themselves into the Virginian Jig with oomph.
With most guests working in mental health, there was a professional interest in this mood-lifting experience.
As my friend Sally cantered past at high speed, locked in a whirlwind-like clinch with her sister, she shouted: ‘I never knew galloping could make you feel this good!’
(I expect to see ‘galloping’ prescribed on her all treatment plans from now on.)
Another guest told me about his (very interesting) job at the Leeds gender identity service. After enjoying a spot of galloping myself, I felt compelled to seek out his professional opinion.
‘There’s twice as many women here as men,’ I pointed out, ‘So I’ve just had to dance as a bloke twice. Now I’m feeling very confused about my gender.’ (This observation was reinforced by the fact that my dancing partners all commented on my vigorous style. Apparently, several ended up with bruised biceps. Whoops).
My new friend reassured me that I made a pretty convincing woman.
This came as a relief.
But it also prompted further reflection on why we humans dance. For us wedding guests, the ceilidh was simply a physical expression of joy. It didn’t matter whether we galloped with women or men, as long as the floor was bouncing.
Yet for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, the rituals associated with dancing have signified something more fundamental and profound.
I used to frequent a nightclub with a George Bernard Shaw quote emblazoned above the entrance: ‘Dancing is the perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire.’
The sexual tension released when boogying with your object of affection is only part of what this alludes to. Dance has long been the social grist to the marital mill. The waltz may seem genteel but it’s been the key to a million successful courtships. Just ask Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy.
Not so long ago, the gender of the dancers would have been of vital importance; dancing with your sister (as my friend did so merrily) a kind of social suicide. For farmers across the Yorkshire Dales, for example, the village dance was where you met a wife. Miss the dance, and you’d be a bachelor for another year. I once heard a story of a Yorkshire farmer who infected himself on the back with a particularly virulent skin disease, Orf.
Transmittable by sheep, Orf commonly affects farmers. Yuck. But the good news is, if it appears on one part of your body, it won’t crop up anywhere else.
So this farmer got his brothers to deliberately scratch his back and infect him with Orf – so that he could guarantee he wouldn’t develop unsightly sores on his hands or face before the village dance.
That year, the farmer met his bride. The scar on his back remained with him for life – but so did his happy marriage. I hope the same will be true for my friend and her new husband. Minus the Orf, of course.