I’ve enjoyed W B Yeats’ poems since I was a teenager, and recently I’ve been reading more about his magical life and his ambitions to found a mystical order based on the sacred places and spirits of Ireland. So I decided to try and write something about one of his poems, and in the process find out a little bit about how Yeats saw things. The poem is called The Hosting of the Sidhe, and before we go any further, we need to know that ‘Sidhe’, which is an Irish word for faeries or otherworld spirits, is pronounced ‘Shee’. Yeats writes about the Sidhe in his notes on the poem:
“The gods of ancient Ireland, the Tuatha De Danaan, or the Tribes of the goddess Danu, or the Sidhe, from Aes Sidhe, or Sluagh Sidhe, the people of the Faery Hills, as these words are usually explained, still ride the country as of old. Sidhe…
We are about to start working on the special dance which is the climax of The Dancing Floor. This dance is crucial to the film – it embodies the mysteries which the rest of the film has been hinting at – and yet it will be performed by ordinary people, dance newbies or amateurs, who will help with devising the details, developing it and rehearsing it –on and on – until it works. Luckily I have found a local choreographer, Gillian Hipp, to partner with on the project.
The dance includes a wild horde of children being the Four Elements, a shamanic animal dance with masks which morphs into a vigorous Morris, then there are the courtly dances of the gods and goddesses as they make the worlds and the poignant dance of the sacred couple, the Owl and the Hawk. The symbolism is from the fourth branch of the Mabinogion (which is a creation myth). Each phase of the dance has a completely different quality and should have a specific effect on the audience so that they go on the journey of creation and re-union with the dancers.
This has made me think about what sacred dance really is and does and what sacred dancing I have done in my life. I found three main strands: Tai Chi, Gurdjieff’s dances and the whirling dances of the Mevlevi dervishes. In each case, watching each of these in action, I was aware of a powerful and unusual effect on me. With Tai Chi it was a sense of weightless flow and ease which was irresistible, like hearing for the first time a language which seems familiar though you cannot speak it. (A bit like the chattering of the swifts outside today, ‘don’t fly through that door, it is a prison and a fierce orange cat guards it, he will eat you…’) With a certain Gurdjieff dance it was an upswelling of strong emotion, both exquisite and painful, which had been long half-buried, and with the whirling it was, simply, a sense of being in the presence of God. The whirling I saw at the tekke of the Halveti dervishes in Istanbul, when their sheikh was a very holy man, and I will never forget that it was this practice from mystical Islam which literally opened the gates of heaven for me.
I learnt the whirling myself in a church hall in Manchester, taught by my friend Dick who had learnt it from someone who’d learnt it from the Sufis. We approached it with proper respect and once we had got over feeling nauseous, were able to whirl together, floating round each other as we moved, for half an hour at a time. At the end I felt as if I had been drenched in crystal water, and had woken up a different, much enlivened being. I also noticed, as I sipped my orange juice, that I felt very well disposed towards all present, my heart warmed up and open to the world.
The Dancing Floor dance also springs out of a long study of sacred geometry and principle. When I first tried to get my head round this metaphysical stuff about the origin of the worlds, I would either fall asleep or get angry. I just couldn’t get it. It felt like trying to scale a sheer cliff with no handholds. Then I saw that there were other ways of scaling cliffs and my mind started to take some short flights, which eventually made me realise that we can understand a lot more than we think we can – just not with the front brain. The whole being, the whole body needs to get involved.
I realised that movements, gestures and rhythms which map or limn these abstract principles have a kind of subtle power, which tweaks and shifts your normal consciousness, takes you to different places, and this is why sacred dance can have such a strong effect. You can see traces of these patterns in much folk dancing. Maybe that’s why we find (some of it) so compelling?
The ‘dancing floor’ pattern we show in the film is a way of expressing the way something comes out of nothing, which our normal rational minds cannot ‘get’. But deeper down there is something in us all which does get it and which knows the truth – and I believe dance is one of the best ways to activate this part, whether you perform it or simply watch it.
So, if you live in south Wales or borders (I am between Hay and Brecon) and would like to get involved in working on this dance, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.