Last week I was in Belfast for the Belfast Book Festival. While I was there my old friend Daniel Roberts (Reader in English at Queen’s University) took me to the Giant’s Ring, a local henge monument dating from the Neolithic era (c. 4000-3000 BC).
The Giant’s Ring, near Shaws Bridge, Belfast: the chamber tomb barely visible at the centre
A beautiful and amazing place: it consists of a raised circular bank (technically, the ‘henge’) 180 metres in diameter, with a passage tomb – the kind of thing we might think of as a ‘dolmen’ or ‘cromlech’ – in the centre.
I was fascinated because it’s so much like Mayburgh Henge just outside Penrith in Cumbria. The main visible difference is that Mayburgh has huge ash trees growing on top of the circular bank, so that shape is not quite so obvious. Mayborough is 117 metres across, and long ago it had four standing stones at the centre. Now there’s only one, but I wonder if those four were also the supports of a passage grave once upon a time?
If so, both monuments would be of the same type – perhaps public assembly arenas, around the tomb of an important ancestor?
Naturally I couldn’t resist getting inside the tomb, where (having paid respect to the ancestors) I was invited to present Daniel’s dog Tipoo with a biscuit. (Thank you for the photographs, Daniel – and for taking me to this amazing and beautiful place! I’m surte Tipoo enjoyed it as much as I did.)
For too long, the major poetry of Charles Williams has been hidden away – obtainable only in expensive or rare second-hand editions. But that is about to change. I’ve just finished working through the proofs of The Arthurian Poems of Charles Williams – which I’m editing with Arthurian and Celtic scholar John Mathews.
The book will contain the full texts of Williams’s two major collections – Taliessin Through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944) – together with all the other poems on Arthurian themes that Williams published during his lifetime.
At last, readers new to Charles Williams (1886-1945), or those who know only his remarkable spiritual thrillers (War in Heaven, The Place of the Lion, All Hallows Eve and the rest) will be able to sample these remarkable, deeply original and thrillingly vivid poems on the Arthurian world and the Grail, which have been almost unobtainable for so long.
‘The Damsel of the Sanct Grael ‘ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The poems are deeply original. Portraying Logres – Arthurian Britain – as an autonomous kingdom within the Byzantine empire, they depict the establishment of the kingdom, many of the most dramatic events of its history (Merlin’s summons to Arthur to become king; the Battle of Mount Badon; the achievement of the Grail; the madness of Lancelot; the Table’s fall through the treachery of Mordred; and much more) in a wholly original modern style.
The poems are challenging at times – they use a modernist style as demanding as that of T.S. Eliot or the late W.B. Yeats – both of whom admired Williams’s writing, though Yeas probably knew only his prose. But they open world of magic and vision to the reader. As critic Naomi Royde-Smith wrote at the time, the poems, if you let them work on your imagination,
become at once lucid and alarming. They take on the concrete value of a popular ballad…the efficacy of a rune. The mind cannot escape from them. In sleep they return, not with the echoes and remembered imagery of their own themes, but evoking other shapes and other associations. It is as if, steeped in the lore of Taliessin, the poet had acquired a bardic gift and, whether he knew it or was involuntarily possessed by it, had exercised it in the physical inspirations and respirations proper to the full exercise of his manifestly occult prosody.
The Arthurian Poems of Charles Williams will be published first as an e-book, and later, we hope, as a physical volume. It won’t be available for some months yet but we are moving on steadily towards publication. It’s another step, following my biography Charles Williams: The Third Inkling, towards bringing Williams back into the mainstream as an important and indeed central twentieth-century writer.
I’ll be researching my next salsa review later this week. Meanwhile I couldn’t resist posting this superb video from Alexander Abreu and Havana D’Primera. It was Kerry Ribchester of Key2Cuba who drew my attention to it, on Facebook.
Alexander Abreu and his band are one of the very finest Cuban bands, but another reason for posting this video is that a lot of the dancing is by MEN. And it’s a great demonstration of something they never teach male students at UK salsa classes: HOW TO MOVE THE UPPER BODY.
Watch a bunch of British men dancing salsa and you’ll mostly see them with slightly-hunched shoulders and flat chests. There’s no dynamism in the upper body.
When I say ‘flat chests’, I’m not advocating that men develop boobs. What I mean is that when dancing salsa, a man needs to expand the chest slightly up and forwards, and push the shoulder blades a little bit back. If you do that, the chest suddenly becomes positive; you look and feel confident, alert, ready for anything: to charm a woman, to handle a fight, to compete and win. (Maybe you don’t need to do any of these things, but when you dance salsa you want to look and feel as if you could!) And the upper body takes a positive part in the dance. Your style will immediately improve. Check it out with a mirror and practise!
Watch the guys in this video and you’ll see what I mean. And when I call this a secret, it’s because you won’t usually learn this in the UK. I had to visit Cuba four times before I was taught this. (And yes, thanks, you can pay me later if you insist!)
Amazingly, I have a photo of the very same domino table that appears in the video, taken in Calle San Miguel, Centro Habana in 2005 – I think some of the same players are there, only a bit younger! Here it is:
Domino Players, Calle San Miguel, Centro Habana, 2005
Anyway, enjoy the video. And if you’ve always dreamed of visiting Cuba, go now and go with Key2Cuba, who will give you the most authentic experience. And in the meantime, you can join me on my first visit to Cuba, and come with me exploring salsa across Latin America and the Caribbean, in my book Travels on the Dance Floor. Just click on this link to get 30% off:
This week, for the second in my series surveying Manchester salsa classes and events, I’m looking at Mancuban Salsa – especially their Monday evening classes.
Les and Lorraine of Mancuban were among the earliest teachers to offer Salsa in Manchester, and their classes are still up there with the very best of the Cuban Salsa scene. In fact they’ve gone from strength to strength, thanks to regular visits to Cuba to work with leading professional Cuban dancers. This means that they have a wealth of authentic experience in Rumba and Orishas as well as in mainstream Salsa and are able to teach all of these.
Monday evening classes are at the Ape and Apple pub, 28-30 John Dalton Street, Manchester M2 6HQ (Beginners and Improvers 7:15; Intermediate Salsa/Casino Rueda 8.00; Advanced Cuban Salsa 9.00; dancing 10-11. £5 per class, two classes for £9). Amanda and I have been fairly frequent attenders at these, and always get a lot out of them.
Stylish dancing between classes @ the Ape and Apple
Lorraine’s an inspiring teacher who works to a very high standard, yet manages to do it without being intimidating. She’s an enthusiastic and encouraging teacher for beginners; and for the more experienced, she has a sense of how to help dancers develop and improve by gentle attention to small details. Lorraine’s years of experience with many kinds of Cuban dance give her a depth of knowledge which is genuinely rare in the UK.
Les, besides having a similar level of experience with Cuban dance, is one of the most purely entertaining teachers I’ve come across (readers of my book Travels on the Dance Floor will spot him there as the teacher ‘who could have made a living as a stand-up comedian’!). At the advanced level he tends to specialise in teaching quite intricate moves – there’s always that ‘little bit on the end’ that I find quite challenging, being a bit of a slow learner myself. But the advantage is that even if you remember only a quarter of a move, you usually come away with something new that you can actually use on the dancefloor.
The Rueda classes often include elements of Orisha dances – the Afro-Cuban dances associated with the West African gods brought to Cuba by the slaves and fused into the Cuban religious culture of Santería. This is truly valuable, because Salsa gets its spiritual dimension from the elements of Afro-Cuban religion that find their way into the music and dance. You may not know it, but many of the tracks you dance to in clubs or classes have lyrics about the Santería gods: this is spiritual music that’s completely at home in a secular context. (I have a theory that this is one reason Salsa is so addictive: it works on levels other dances don’t reach!)
The venue has a good wooden dancefloor, and Les’s sound system is outstanding – both he and Lorraine do a lot of DJing – and there’s a fair amount of time for free dancing between and after the classes. It’s a notably friendly crowd so newcomers at all levels get a warm welcome.
Other points to consider: Classes are upstairs in a pub; if you want a drink you’ll need to bring it up from the bar downstairs. And we tend to be on Cuban time here: classes often run over and things are fairly relaxed, so don’t expect your class to start and finish exactly on time!
If you want to learn more about links between Salsa and the Afro-Cuban gods, or simply escape February in the UK for a Salsa tour of the Caribbean, try my book Travels on the Dance Floor (currently available at 30% off) – just follow this link:
Other Mancuban classes to note: Friday 10 a.m. to 12 noon at Langworthy Cornerstone, 451 Liverpool St, Salford M6 5QQ: Casino Rueda and Afro-Cuban, mixed levels, £6; and Sundays 3 pm at The Jam Inn, 537-539 Wilbraham Rd, Chorlton, Manchester M21 0UE: Cuban Son, £5 (a really unusual class, which I’ll write about in a future post!).
This week I’m writing about Solar Salsa – first of a series in which I plan to review as many Manchester salsa classes & events as I can. There’s so much going on in the city that it’s easy to miss good things. And for beginners it can be hard to know where to start. Hopefully these reviews can help – and I can have some fun doing the research!
Solar Salsa: Special session last year with visiting teacher Kerry Ribchester of Key2Cuba (centre, in black); Pauline at front, in white
SOLAR SALSA is an easy place for me to start: I’ve been a regular for some years. Classes take place on Tuesdays and Thursdays downstairs at the Spread Eagle in Chorlton (526-528 Wilbraham Rd, Manchester M21 9LD) with Beginners’ and Improvers’ classes at 7.30 pm, Intermediate and Advanced at 9 pm. The style is emphatically Cuban. The main emphasis is on RUEDA: salsa circle dancing, changing partners with someone calling the moves.
Mandy explains the finer points of the next move!
There’s a team of experienced teachers: Pauline and Mandy mainly taking Improvers and Advanced classes, with Mike and Christine taking Beginners and Intermediate.
For me the biggest feature of Solar (and the reason I started going) is that it’s FUN! It’s consistently friendly, totally welcoming and there’s a lot of laughter, particularly owing to Pauline’s incredibly positive attitude. I don’t know how she does it, but Pauline is the most positive person I’ve ever met: I think the title Solar Salsa must reflect not just her belief in renewable energy but her sunny disposition! That’s not to say everyone doesn’t work hard, but the atmosphere is always very happy. It’s a class that’s guaranteed to cheer you up if you need it. No other class I’ve been to is quite so consistently positive. GREAT FOR BEGINNERS!
A close second in importance is that Solar is one of the very few classes which teach authentic Cuban body movement. Mandy goes to Cuba often, works with Cuban teachers and has danced on stage with Cuban bands. She has a full understanding of Cuban styling and ‘body isolation’ – as Mike also has from a male point of view. Cuban body movement is something that very few classes in the UK can genuinely offer. But it makes all the difference: without it, salsa is just a lot of footsteps and arm movements. But once you have the body core movement, the whole experience is different, and even dancers knowing only a few moves become elegant and exciting. There is no substitute.
The emphasis on Rueda is something that might not suit everyone. It’s a very good way for beginners to learn, but some people find it daunting to start couple-dancing alone when they’re only used to dancing rueda. The Thursday classes try to emphasise couple dancing more, but still the rueda emphasis can creep in. If you hate rueda, this might not be the class for you.
Numbers of dancers are currently good: classes are well-attended without being crowded and generally there’s a good balance of men and women. In the more advanced classes there are normally some female leaders: great if you’re a woman and want to learn to lead, not quite so great if you’re a woman and really want to dance all the time with guys!
Classes are good value: currently £6 for the whole evening, no matter if you take one class or two; plus you get some free dancing – usually about three tracks between classes. That said, there isn’t a great deal of free dancing.
(Check out the video above, with Los Van Van and Key2Cuba: can you spot Mandy (orange, pink and green dress) in the rueda?)
A couple of things to watch out for: (1) Classes begin very punctually (unusual in the salsa world)! If you’re not on time you’ll miss the warm-ups. (2) Dancing is mostly on carpet – though this isn’t nearly as much of a problem as you might think. It’s a thin hard carpet and mostly I forget I’m on it. Plus this is due to change: a new floor is supposed to be installed sometime soon. But if you have knee problems and need a totally smooth floor it could be a deterrent.
Overall this is a fun class, good value, excellent for beginners, with an authentic Cuban connection. Points to consider: Emphasis on Rueda; short period of free dancing; dancing on carpet. RECOMMENDED.
And finally: to cheer up your winter with a salsa adventure in Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Puerto Rico and Miami, why not read my book Travels on the Dance Floor, availabl;e by following this link (quote code DANCE for a 30% discount!):