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CONTRA DANCING & CELTIC KNOT WORK… SUBVERSIVE POLARITIES?

Last week I went to a Contra Dance & I’ve been musing on the geometry we dancers were “writing” in our movements to the caller’s instructions. I found myself inside a new experiential relationship to the Celtic knot work which I’ve studied & used for so long it has become a structural part of my design language.

I understand for myself that there is a deeply ancient, broadly pragmatic, sub-verbal, mostly visual “alphabet”, if not actual language. I have found, for example, identical knot patterns in Chinese bronzes, Aztec decorative work & Celtic illuminations… seeming to be a glyph of an idea. One sees it labeled as a “endless knot” or “treasure knot” in current marketing of imported oriental goods. I would observe that its real treasure is perhaps hidden in the roots of what must have been some proto-language, useful to form & hold an idea so fundamental to human consciousness that it gets submerged under what developed into the more iconic glyphs we use to denote spoken & written communication.

It seems the “idea” of an idea… not yet a symbol nor even a glyph… a path, perhaps, through the earliest brain. I sense It as spatial thinking which can have parallels to written language while yet having more to do with actual or implied manipulation of material. a practical communication born of the fingers as much as the mind. It is one way makers still think. It is showing an explanation before the meaning of words can have any basis to compare & communicate the abstraction. It has much to do with the prepositions of demonstration: one makes a knot learning what “over” or “under” looks like. What it feels like as one turns it over to verify what must otherwise be extrapolated. We still say a picture is worth a thousand words… artists might quip that we might have saved a lot of effort if language had not become the defining human accomplishment!

Maria Gimbutas has done work of an incredibly more evolved system of such notion. Her books are a wonderland of drawings of prehistoric pottery & stone carvings she catalogues into a visual glossary. I’ve found inspiration in them at a similar level. I have used her concepts of such iconography even more than the richly drawn illustrations of those archaeological images to inspire my work.

While Jungian archetypes dance more conceptually in similarly deep territory, they always are layered over with much complexity of history in verbal & written language. While each of the dancers last night exhibited archetypes of personality, we were involved in learning to be parts of a evolving concept of geometry… each learning the path of a pair of lines [remember learning to line up with your kindergarten [now preschool] mates? Remember also the rudimentary sexual education begun in identifying boy/girl, boy/girl?

That is the beginning lesson to contra dancing. Two lines of humans facing each other boy/girl boy/girl, partnered to the one across & neighbored to the one above… the top being the end of the floor with the musicians & the caller… two couples making a square. We eventually accumulated four squares,

Pattern begins as perception of simple formation, often linear, so we have now the conception of a warp, the parallel cords over & under which the more active weft cord is woven to make textile. Basic polarity in action toward function. Simple utility inviting new interaction into what is straightforwardly implication of further complication. We learn simple steps, spinning ones partner, then spinning ones neighbor before crossing the square with our four left hands while turning in a circle before changing partners in a do-se-do, for the repeat of what becomes a social braid of subtle complexity inside communal effort to understand bodily the pattern of those who hold thrall for this musically driven instruction.

I came to this train of thought as I began looking from inside our effort to see familiar visuals in this line dance. It was as if there were those kind of footprint illustrations, explaining with arrows the dance steps we made over the progressing course of a song… I saw we were tracing the pattern of a basic Celtic knot work border… I was dancing the wedding rings I used to carve.

Such activity is something far from my usual. A new monthly event instigated on the Island by some remarkable folk, one of whom has become a good friend. [I must write about Tom one day.] They have also begun our local Free Range Folk Choir. I was not the only novice. The form of this old English tradition seems always to have that basic social educational aspect. Its currency in this new time rather requires bringing almost childish reminders of wonder to aging adults like me.

We all were learning simple skills: basic steps, then making them again & again into processional progression. Some of us had to take remedial lessons… again!… in learning our left from our right hands, or which way the clock’s hands go. Most must have, like me, reacted variously to being called tops or bottoms. Several women tried to break in while another friend was giving me a waltz lesson, whether desiring the fun themselves or believing I might prefer to not be following the lead in another man’s arms, I’m not certain, but I taught my own lesson when I declined to stay with my partner. ll was all good natured, of course.

I found this happy description on the web:
http://www.sbcds.org/contradance/whatis/#Def0
… Contra dance is Real People in Real Time with Real Music. It is Real Life. You cannot experience this while sitting on your duff, VR helmet or not. Get out more often! You know you spend way too much time in front of your computer and/or TV. In other words, it is impossible to record the incredible synergy and spirit that occurs when you combine enthusiastic, connected, happy dancers, hot musicians and swell choreography. It would take quite a talented multimedia author indeed to capture just a tiny slice of that magic that takes place.

On the way to such spirit, our group experienced the curious vicissitudes of polarity, beginning with a lack of gents enough to pair everyone by external gender. Some ladies necessarily became honorary gents. While such unequal proportion too seems part of dance tradition we needed to be aware which of us were temporarily trans-sexed as we dance boy/girlboy/boy/girl. The confusion brought us to laughter any times.