creating community through celebration

“Dance, then, wherever you may be…” - December 2008

One of the defining moments in every Christmas Revels occurs the end of the first act when all present are invited to sing and dance to the inspiring “Lord Of The Dance”. For many Revelers, this song is an eloquent and powerful metaphor for the sense of community and celebration at the core of the Revels experience.

It is perhaps a bit surprising to learn that this Revels tradition is not “trad.” in the way that early music of unknown composition is identified. In fact, “Lord” was written by Sydney Carter , a 20th century English composer who just passed away in 2004. While the tune does quote from the Shaker song, “Simple Gifts”, in fact the Carter lyrics and music were published in 1963.

“Simple Gifts” was written by Elder Joseph Brackett while he was at the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine in 1848. These are the lyrics to his one-verse song:

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,/ 'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,/ And when we find ourselves in the place just right,/ 'Twill be in the valley of love and delight./ When true simplicity is gain'd,/ To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,/ To turn, turn will be our delight,/ Till by turning, turning we come out right.

Several Shaker manuscripts indicate that this is a “Dancing Song” or a “Quick Dance.” The references to “turning” in the last two lines have been identified as dance instructions.

Recently, Jim Gasparini, one of our veteren Revels choristers, presented to the pre-show cast circle a fascinating insight into the creation and meaning of the song. He showed the influence on Carter of the Hindu god Nataraja - a depiction of Shiva as Lord of the Dance. Jim also discussed the Neopagan variant of the lyrics which are sometimes sung, much to the displeasure of Carter’s publishers who consider the words a crude parody of the original.

Most impressively, Jim quoted the words of Carter himself, explaining his own interpretation of the text: “I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance. But Jesus is the one I know of first and best. I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus. Whether Jesus ever leaped in Galilee to the rhythm of a pipe or drum I do not know. We are told that David danced (and as an act of worship too), so it is not impossible. The fact that many Christians have regarded dancing as a bit ungodly (in a church, at any rate) does not mean that Jesus did. The Shakers didn't. This sect flourished in the United States in the nineteenth century, but the first Shakers came from Manchester in England, where they were sometimes called the “Shaking Quakers”. They hived off to America in 1774, under the leadership of Mother Anne. They established celibate communities - men at one end, women at the other; though they met for work and worship. Dancing, for them, was a spiritual activity… Their hymns were odd, but sometimes of great beauty: from one of these (Simple Gifts) I adapted this melody. I could have written another for the words of 'Lord of the Dance' (some people have), but this was so appropriate that it seemed a waste of time to do so. Also, I wanted to salute the Shakers.

Sometimes, for a change I sing the whole song in the present tense. 'I dance in the morning when the world is begun…'. It's worth a try”.

From Green Print for Song, Stainer & Bell (1974) and Lord of the Dance and other Songs and Poems, Stainer & Bell (2002)

- David Parr, Artistic Director