“Joy”, that is the word we have heard multiple times tonight, in varying forms too. “Joyous” has been another one and I think a “joyful” even slipped in somewhere. This is how everyone is describing the ceilidh. And those we haven’t spoken to wear the expression of joy on their faces. Granted, their expressions are mixed with a look of exhaustion and more than a touch of exhilaration.
And when we finally join the dancing, we immediately feel it too. Spinning and jumping around the room to lively Scottish folk music, who’d have thought?
We are at the Ceilidh Club up in Cecil Sharp House next to Regents Park. It’s a rainy Friday night in London but there at least 150 people in the old hall.
For those not familiar with the word, “ceilidh” is pronounced “Kaylee”. Confusing? Yes. It’s not an English word, it’s Gaelic from the Highlands of Scotland and it originally meant “gathering”. But now if you say “ceilidh” to anyone in the know, their mind immediately turns to a night of enthusiastic and highly energetic Scottish dancing.
There’s a lot of linking arms and being spun around, stamping and clapping and taking hands and dancing in circles. For a moment you feel you have stepped back into another era as the dance are very similar to those in Pride and Prejudice.
However, in this scenario, instead of sedately dancing with Elizabeth Bennet, Mr Darcy is doing his best to spin her off the ground and everyone is a lot more out of breath. We finish each dance both with a sadness that it’s over but also a sigh of relief, knowing we will have five minutes to compose ourselves before being flung into the happy madness again.
It is no surprise that these dances originated in cold countries. They do an excellent job of keeping us warm and with all our body heat, the temperature in the room quickly rises as well. Ed McCabe, the founder of the Ceilidh Club, tells us that the weekly events are most popular in autumn and winter, which makes a lot of sense.
The crowd is varied. Though the majority of the crowd seems to be between the ages of 25 and 45, it is really a rather young group, which says something about the ageless enjoyment of this activity. There are a few older men too, who must be in their eighties. They are a little slower in their dancing and speak in thick Scottish accents and have obviously found a happy touch of home at these weekly events.
For those who are attending for the first time, which is a lot of the people we are talking too, there is no need to worry about not knowing any of the steps. The band sit at the top of the room. Drums, an accordion, a violin, and a caller. A caller? A loud Scottish man whose job it is to instruct everyone on how to the dancers.
This is standard practice at every ceilidh. No one has to worry about not knowing what to do. And if they forget mid-dance, they don’t have to worry as the caller is right there, sometimes on the dance floor next to them, his voice booming through a microphone.
There is a lot of dancing in circles and moving from one group to another. We seem to get the chance to interact with nearly everyone in the room. The idea of holding a complete stranger’s hand may seem odd at the start of the night but by the time the evening is coming to an end you greet everyone with a smile and happily begin dancing with them.
The last dance of the night is ‘Strip the Willow’, perhaps the most exhausting of them all. We are instructed to form long lines, facing our dance partners, then each pair takes turns to spin down the rows, dancing and spinning with everyone.
The more enthusiastic of the pairs do their best to spin each other off the ground, the more reckless and dangerous the better. There are a few trips and falls but no one cares, it’s all part of the excitement and the fun. A bruise at the end of the night almost feels like a prize.
We end by linking hands and singing the New Year’s Eve classic Robert Burns poem, Auld Lang Syne. “Should old acquaintance be forgot?” No, we think, and neither should new.