I know this bloke who has recently taken up Breton dancing called themanwho. He thinks it's really fun and has granted me an interview. For our readers who don't know, there is this small piece of land in the top left corner of France called Brittany. It still has a fairly strong celtic culture, with its own particular music, language and dances. Unlike many other parts of the western world, where folk dancing is something of an anachronistic hobby, in Brittany, these dances are still very much a living tradition.
I catch up with themanwho at a one of the fest noz ("night party") which are organised (or sometimes just happen) on a daily basis in Brittany, particularly during the summer and can be found more irregularly across the world, to the great pleasure of expat and adoptive Bretons. The view from afar is pretty amazing: a long line of people holding arms is progressing, caterpillar-like (but sideways) around the dance-floor. On closer inspections, all the dancers are performing the same complex-looking steps at a very fast pace. The music breaks off and the dancers stop, exhausted. Another dance starts up. In this one, the steps look simpler, but the arms are swinging about in perfect synchronicity. Many of the dancers seem to be in some sort of trance. I watch them mesmerised for several minutes when my own trance is interrupted by themanwho.
You wanna do that interview then?
Yes! So tell us, what first attracted you to Breton dancing?
Well... it's a long story. In short, I am not quite pleased with the world as I find it. Too many people seem to be worried about success, beauty, money and all that stuff. Many see folk dancing as a way of escaping, of returning to our roots. For me, this is done just by taking pleasure in the simple things in life. Breton dances are nearly all communal and danced either in chains or circles. There is a sort of ant-like quality to participating in them: your main concern is to make sure you are contributing to the dance as a whole; any showing off or private pleasure is tolerated, accepted or even encouraged, provided it does not hinder anyone.
For me, Breton dancing is unique in that I don't find it boring as I do line dancing, ballroom dancing and several other forms of collective dancing. It is very close to what you get at a concert when people are tired of dancing alone and try to get some semblance of collectiveness or organisation; you feel part of a big community. Except in Breton dancing, there is a form of organisation which allows complexity without hindering togetherness.
How do you describe these dances?
Unlike dances which focus on figures (which are made up of people moving across the floor in relation to each other), Breton dances very much focus on steps. The simplest dances are a repeat of the same 4, 6 or 8 steps. Many are accompanied by arm movements such as swinging and folding back. More intricate dances alternate between several sequences of steps while the more tiring dances have three parts, each lasting two or three minutes, the middle part being a simplified step allowing you some rest.
So Breton dancing is quite easy?
Yet another reason for liking them! They go from a very easy one-and-two three to complex figures with kicks and irregular arm movements. There are a huge variety of dances, probably way over a hundred different ones, some of which can be picked up quite easily and others take years to master. Hey! they're just starting off an An Dro now. That's one of the easiest, come and dance...
This one involves both your feet and your arms. Listen to the music. One and two, three and four. Now watch that guy's feet: Left right Left (to the left), Right left Right (without moving). The arms swing up and roll into a spiral on the way up and then un roll back again.
Now you try! Just remember what to do with your feet and let your arms be swung by the people to your left and right...
So I do. Coordinating hands and feet for this "simple" dance is very difficult at first. And five minutes later, just as I get the hang of it, a different tune starts up. Themanwho is nowhere to be seen, but a girl next to me grabs my hand and we join the row. As we're dancing, she shouts out the counts to me and seems convinced I can do it. Left Right Left-right-Left Right Left Right-hop. One two three-and-four, five six seven-eight! This is called a gavotte, just do as I do. The hours fly by and all too soon the fest noz is over. I only understood a couple of dances, but usually got dragged along for the others anyway. I can see there is a challenge to be met in trying to master Breton dancing. And I only got half my interview. Themanwho probably knows I'll catch up with him at the next fest noz anyway. Bastard!