Dancing can be an act of prayer, ritual, meditation or magic. Shared dancing reinforces bonds of community and celebrates rites of passage. It can also be part of how we get to those rites of passage. More in the sense of helping people pair up and reproduce than in the sense of killing people. Thinking about dancing can be useful for thinking about ritual, because there are similarities of function and implication. Ritual too can be full of prayer, meditation and magic, can reinforce community, celebrate rites of passage and whatnot.
The celidh is a structured form of community dance where people are helped into groups or pairs if needs be, and told the steps. A few dances will give you most of the basic steps, it’s easy to get the hang of. The structure facilitates contact, reduces awkwardness and self consciousness, enables people with little natural talent to dance, and happily includes people of all ages.
The disco, on the other hand, gives you far more scope for innovation. You don’t have to dance with anyone, and no one is telling you what to do. On the downside, they can be very slow to get started, everyone too self conscious to be the first person up, the only one strutting their stuff. It’s very easy in fact to go to a disco and never dance – no one will be encouraging you in the same way. It’s harder to ask for a dance partner in that scenario too, while the structure of the celidh makes it easy.
Both, of course, have their pluses and minuses. The more formal structure there is, the less room you have for personal innovation. Except, once you get good at celidh dancing, once you know the steps and have confidence, you find there is a lot of room to develop your own style, express yourself creatively and so forth. You can still choose how you dance.
Druid ritual is more like a celidh than a disco – which has little to do with the possible music preferences of druids. There is a fair bit of structure and being told what to do. The steps become familiar, but different rituals, like different dances, will have their own shapes. You don’t really need to know what you’re doing to participate and it’s easy to learn by doing. But how rigid do we want the frame? Do we need a script? Do we need bits of ritual that will dependably be the same, everywhere? How much familiarity do we want or need, and how much need do we have for innovation?
It’s rare to have a ritual circle where all the participants have similar levels of experience. If a Druid ritual is open (as many are) then the capacity to embrace a participant who has never done it before, is vital. That means you need someone calling out the steps. If you leave the inexperienced to just improvise, they may be paralysed by self consciousness, or just have no idea what to do and thus feel excluded. But on the flip side, I find too much structure stiffling. I hate having a script. The wilder and more improvised a ritual is, the more I tend to enjoy it, especially if I’m working with people who can just go for it. I suppose, by my own metaphor, that makes me more of a disco druid. (She who lives by the metaphor, dies by the metaphor…)
Of course it’s all about balance. It’s about knowing the nature of your ritual group, or knowing enough to be able to guess what will be called for (as with open rituals). Even in the most carefully planned and structured ritual, it’s possible to leave some space for in the moment creativity. I think it’s preferable to do that, it makes it possible to bring in the energy and inspiration of the moment. And even in the most structured and scripted of rituals, there is still room to perfect your art and find your own way of dancing.
And, just for the record, it was a celidh last night that prompted this, not a disco.