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My First Ceilidh - with our cellist Florence Petit

Ensemble Hesperi had a great experience a few months back – although it seems like years now! – playing for a Scottish Ceilidh at Brighton Early Music Festival. I had never attended a ceilidh either as a player or a participant and didn’t know what to expect. I had also never really danced in my life, with the exception of a little of ballet from age 6 to 7. Even then, the only thing I remember is the sweets that we were given at the end of the class if we had been good. These were different times!

As a cellist, I don't often get to see dancers perform as we usually play in a theatre pit with the dancers on stage. A bit of arm or leg flinging is what we get to see! Also, we rarely get to talk or share experiences with dancers. We often are in different parts of the theatre and our worlds are so different that we find it difficult to find common ground despite all being Artists. Fortunately, this changed for me when we started to collaborate with Kathleen Gilbert! She explained to us how Highland Dance works and the meaning of gestures, leg movements and the fascinating origins of each dance. So, when we came to play for the ceilidh in Brighton, I knew a bit more about some of the dance movements, although Highland dance is a bit different from Lowland Scottish Country Dancing that we were accompanying. In our previous concerts, as well, Kathleen had been dancing to classical Scottish Baroque music and not the traditional Highland Dance music.

People started coming in the church where the ceilidh was being held: there were tables and chairs around the centre of the venue for people to have drinks and nibbles. As the church filled up, chatter was getting gently louder. Excitement was becoming palpable. There were people of all ages and all backgrounds mixed up together, just waiting to join the swirl of movements. A lot of them were wearing tartan, others had dancing shoes on. Our experienced caller, Andrew Kellett, had a kilt with a sporran and a Sgian Dubh - a striking sight! I was getting more thrilled about this event. We do not often get to see so much excitement and enthusiasm before a classical concert.

The caller started the Ceilidh with a warm-up routine. Everybody was in a circle and we started to play. Jigs, reels and slow airs were on the menu for the evening. The music usually consists of an 8 or 16 bar tune which repeats, usually 16 or 32 times. This aspect of the music is unusual for classical musicians. We often get to play variations but exact repetitions one after the other is uncommon. Once we got in the swing of the ceilidh, our main challenge became counting the repeats. MJ had been in touch with our caller to discuss the music and we had had one rehearsal beforehand. However, there is much less room for change of tempi with dancers so we were very aware of keeping playing at the right speed. The four of us were very focused on counting but we were often distracted by the dancers - they were having such fun! In the middle of a piece, we would turn to each other, mouthing that one of us was lost (or having a lost expression on our faces). Usually, another would then mouth a number to indicate which repeat we were currently playing. Hurray! We usually (!) finished at the same time as the dancers.

Participants came to us during the break to say how much there were enjoying our live music: livelier and with more vibrancy than a recording. Some people looked at us regularly with delighted and excited expressions on their faces while we were playing for them. This good atmosphere was relaxing and charming. We started playing more freely – still counting! – and improvising a bit, especially MJ and Magda. Tom and I are the building block at the bottom, so we tend not move around too much. Dancers and musicians finished the evening in great spirits. It had been a joyful event and we got to meet a lot of nice people. I will certainly go to a ceilidh next time I get the opportunity !

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