creating community through celebration

Dancing In The Streets - January 2009

I am writing this in the immediate wake of the Presidential inauguration, and I struggled a bit to find the connection between the many vivid images of the day that fill my head and the kind of Revels elements that I usually write about in this column. Then it struck me that the connection had been hiding in plain sight.

All of the activities of the day, from the parade of nattily behatted lawmakers, to the solemn (mostly) Oath of Office, to the ubiquitous color guards that doggedly followed the presidential couple from ball to ball - all of it was an expression of that most basic of Revels modalities: ritual.

One can think of rituals as collective actions which are performed repeatedly over time in pretty much the same way. We do a lot of rituals in Revels, from the annual recitation of “The Shortest Day” poem in the Christmas Revels, to the Maypole and Helston Furry dances of May Day. Some rituals, such as “The Lord of the Dance” and the “Sussex Mummers' Carol” function almost as armatures upon which the changeable portions of the Christmas show are built. Revels features rituals because rituals exert a powerful influence on the communal spirit.

Here's how the Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield addresses ritual in his book, “The Wise Heart”:

“ Ritual is one of the oldest human languages, perhaps the most universal. It speaks in elemental symbols. And these symbols, like dreams, are our original language. The word ritual comes from the Latin ritus, “to fit together”. Ritual weaves us together with the larger meaning and fabric of the cosmos.”

This makes ritual seem rather solemn, yet “solemn” is not a word I would use to describe the demeanor of the millions of attendees at the inaugural events. They seemed quite celebratory. Was this because of - or in spite of - the ritual that pervaded the day? Barbara Ehrenreich, in her wonderful book “Dancing In The Streets” acknowledges a longstanding distinction that anthropologists have made between the solemnity of ritual and gaiety of celebration. She seems to suggest that this distinction is artificial, and reflects a purposeful suppression of celebration in modern society.

Do You Revel?

Certainly in the Revels world, the solemnity of ritual such as the “Abbots Bromley Dance” lives comfortably next to the exuberant celebration of “Lord of the Dance”. Both have a ritual presence in Revels, and both contribute to sense of belonging, of “fitting together” with a larger human community. Revels attempts to harness the powerful ability of ritual to touch a place deep within the soul and to call us to the ecstatic dance of communal celebration.

California Revels founder, Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer put it beautifully when she wrote,

“People need celebration. We need those wild and holy expressions of who we are which lift us out of isolation and into connection with each other. We need moments which inject the ordinary with awe and engage our capacities for the extraordinary. Celebration does that. And Revels does that.”

I think Lisby's words anticipated what happened the other day: many millions of people the world over seized upon the well-worn ritual of the American presidential inauguration as an occasion for coming together in collective celebration. We witnessed multitudes choosing to confront the specters of adversity and an uncertain future by regaling in hope, rather than wallowing in despair. We all saw the Washington Mall and the streets of the world fill with - revelers, propelled by the ritual of the occasion and “creating community through celebration”.

It was as if the world were roaring an emphatic reply to the question posed on our Revels t-shirts and pin-on buttons :“Do you Revel?” Yes, we do!

- David Parr, Artistic Director