Highland Rave: Why Ceilidhs are Hardcore

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Friday night found me wandering into a secret part of Camden I never knew existed (my mad friend Harry had invited me out dancing). For the first time ever, instead of heading towards the market and the lock and the stables, I went down a road just opposite the station exit, and kept going.

It’s quite a nice road, far quieter than the madness of the main strip. As it headed towards the back of Regent’s Park, it got quieter and quieter, eventually running out of restaurants and bars altogether. And just when I thought I must have taken a wrong turn, a huge building came looming into view through the trees, emblazoned with the ominous words: ‘The English Folk Dance and Song Society’.

It felt like I’d stumbled across the HQ of some secret underground cult. There was a society of folk song and dance? Since when?! Surely no-one else could know about this imposing house hidden round the back of London Zoo. But as I descended the staircase I heard the muffled sounds of an absolute rumpus inside, and was surprised to find at least 150 enthusiastic participants vigorously prancing, twirling and charging across the floor in ragged unison to the sounds of a live band. It was quite a sight to behold.

As I took in the scenery, I was struck by the cross-section of people present – and was also secretly pleased to discover I was not the only brown face in the room (there were at least five of us on this occasion!). From seven to 70+, all ages were represented. And unlike many of these types of events, there was a strong male contingent present. I was impressed.

What I was witnessing was a ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee) – a traditional Scottish or Irish social gathering that usually involves Gaelic folk music and dancing at a house party or larger community space – in this case, a hall. From what I could see, it’s basically like a big Gaelic barn dance.

The band included a caller, who guided us through all the steps required for each dance. Apparently, they were taking us through all the traditional ceilidh dances you might expect at a wedding – from Strip the Willow, to the Gay Gordon, to the Eightsome Reel. And my word, what a workout! It was like a Highland Zumba class. There was sweat pouring down everyone’s faces, and a few G-force-inducing spins had me flat on my butt. But I had an absolute ball. Here’s the view from my shirt pocket:

I’ll hold my hands up and admit that I had fully expected this thing to be stuffy, geriatric and a little bit dull (sorry, Harry!), but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was vibrant and energetic, full of life and fairly rowdy – but not for the reasons you might suspect. Despite the well-stocked bar, a quick scan of the room at half-time revealed most people were downing pints of water – all that hop-scotching and chain-making is incredibly thirsty work.

As I retired to the sidelines to catch my breath, I watched the throng dancing around the hall, smiling and laughing as the band played on. And I was overwhelmed with a feeling of sheer joy. As far as Friday nights go, this is probably about as far from ‘edgy’ as you can get – and that’s what was so fantastic about it! I can’t remember the last time I had that much fun without any alcohol – come to think of it, the last time I felt that free without the aid of grape juice was probably back in the playground at primary school.

Seeing everyone coming together like that, enjoying a big fat healthy dose of good, clean fun, was so lovely. Sometimes it’s difficult to imagine that such places still exist in this grubby city – but now I’ve found a little corner of north-west London where you can leave your troubles at the door, and feel like a kid again.

: )


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