The Fremont Winter Solstice Feast
This is an article about a very different dance event. I encourage you to please read on! But before you do, let me ask you to be careful before you make any limited assumptions about who I am or what kind or style of dancer I am.
I am not very easily pegged. One minute I am whirling with the Mevlevi Dervishes in Rumi's tomb in Konya, Turkey. The next moment I'm bellydancing at Unity Church, the next at a seven year old's birthday party, or doing a movement meditation in Hathor's temple in Egypt, a night club in Ballard, or a wake for a dear friends Mother. Sometimes I'm in Maui teaching people to dance into the ocean with nature or twirl a scarf with a 9/8 beat. I can jam with the best of musicians, regardless of whether they play Egyptian, African, Uzbek, Turkish, classical, new age or techno rock. What I am, above all, is an artist.
I live in a remarkable community, called Fremont, within the city limits of Seattle. What is so interesting about this area is it has been a denizen for artists for many years. These artists are so dedicated to the community spirit of creativity as the route to opening hearts and souls that it is almost an addiction! I moved to Fremont some nine years ago and since that time I have seized the rare opportunity and pleasure of becoming involved with many of the community projects put on by the Fremont Arts Council. This is a story about the annual Fremont Winter Solstice Celebration in general and, more specifically, about the 1998 event.
Many years ago, while I was working as a mid-east dancer at George's Bar & Grill, it was Denise and Peter (two of the founding members of the arts council) who first came in to see me dance and then courted my participation in the Winter Solstice Celebration.They needed a temple priestess to carry in the flame used to torch the straw "Sun King' on December 21st winter Solstice. I must admit this sounded a little strange. "Tell me more," I insisted.
Denise and Peter went on to describe the event. "We put on an medieval feast!" they exclaimed. "It is a celebration of the sun standing still in the sky, the longest night of the year. The shift from darkness back into the light. A time since time immemorial when folks young and old have come together to break bread, be merry, sing dance toast the new year with well wishes and blessings!"
So Winter Solstice Celebration happens annually with impressive, enthusiastic support from the community. Each year they prepared by gathering in donated warehouse spaces and community centers for a month of craft workshops and planning committee meetings. Then the city found their way clear to allow the arts council to procure exclusive year round use of a small city building for their permanent workshop headquarters. It's called the the Powerhouse. The feast itself requires a large space with at least two separate areas. One for the feasting hall and one for the sanctuary. Every year it is a challenge to find the appropriate venue.
For the feast, the community gathers to make Christmas tree ornaments, table decorations, banners, as well as festive hats that people will wear at the feast, and all kinds of art. Every year a ton of candles are hand made with extra large wicks so they will burn the brightest. The entire evening is lit by candlelight only; all electricity is forsaken on this night. Live music, all unamplified enhances the event. In this day and age, these are extraordinary goals.
At least a week before the feast begins, the work parties begin to install the decorations at the event site. The work parties are on going. Artists begin building huge art works that celebrate a yearly theme. (Each of the first four years were dedicated to a different element.) These art works are meant to transport one's spirit to a place outside the everyday lull of ordinary consciousness, to a place of wonderment and awe. The event fosters a sincere connection with community. These works of art are huge, large even that that people can walk amongst them and enter into them.
Invitations are sent out . Of course, there is an invitation making party and these invitations are special works of art in their own right. The Solstice Feast always takes place on actual day of the winter solstice, rather than on the closest weekend night because it is crucial to observe the exact moment. There is always a ritual candle lighting ceremony at the precise time of solstice even if it's just for a small group of people. The feast formally begins at 6:00 p.m.
Everyone gets dressed in costumes and finery ranging from fantasy to creative anachronism to Sunday best. Every one brings food. Big food; this is a Feast mind you! As you enter you are greeted and if you are not wearing a hat you are given a choice from off the Solstice Tree. Coats are hung in a coat room so you can enter the hall in costume. All the walls are covered in holly and evergreens. Hundreds of candles glow along the banquet tables stretch before you. Guests are transported back in time to a medieval castle but without an uncomfortable chill in the air. The transformation is so utterly complete that no trace of the original warehouse can be seen.
At about 6:30p.m., two long twisted loaves of bread -- as long as a banquet table -- are brought in, warm from the oven . Everyone gathers around and participates in the ritual bread-breaking opens the feast.
In space to the banquet hall, there is the Sanctuary space. The sanctuary is a place created by the artists where guests can go within, reflect on the past year. Participants can then write a wish, a prayer, or a blessing on little oriental paper and tie it onto an amazing effigy of the sun king. This work is "pyrotechnically dynamic", designed to eventually burn without much smoke.
The artists create the most incredible things every year, depending on the event space. One year the theme was water, so a stream of water complete -- with boulders and ferns -- crashed through the ceiling into the center of the space and flowed into the ground. In another installation,water from all over the world was held in glass vials and mixed together at the zenith of the solstice.
My favorite was an ice sculpture. It was a life-size figure of a woman /Goddess facing into the candle-lit night. Standing back to back with her was an identical figure woman/Goddess made of beeswax and a flame was burning at her crown chakra and both images were melting in the night. When I came upon this image, this life size form, I stopped dead in my tracks all thoughts dissolved, my mouth dropped open, my breath was stolen away. This sight was absolutely arresting. There were no words.
When the theme was "earth," an entire lawn was brought in as a carpet! For the theme of "air" the sanctuary space was a spiral of vertical hanging cords that got shorter, creating a space at the center where six or seven people could sit and meditate!
One year, the organizers acquired a huge, two-story warehouse so the theme celebrated all the elements and an other worldly environment was concocted. Around the edges of the sanctuary was a wooden boardwalk that made little stops at altars dedicated to various elements. The boardwalk floated on a sea of evergreen branches that washed up to the island shore at the center. Huge multi-ton stone boulders and truck-loads of sand were brought in to build the island. A huge 24-hour, hourglass sat at the center of the stones.
All these installations are quite danceable. For many years now, whenever the spirit moved me and I saw a musician in these places, with a flute or violin in hand, I have been known to do what I call a weeping dance -- dance of letting go, of traveling to a place of soul tears. It's private spontaneous and completely clandestine. My formal role as temple dancer in these proceeding is yet to come.
The music and entertainment begins in the banquet hall around 8:00 pm,the tables are pulled back and a spectacular circular floor painting is revealed. The drummers gather at one side of the circle and dancing ensues. Sometimes a special guest artist performs. People are free to move back and forth between the external revelry of the dancing drums and the internal peace of the sanctuary space.
At about 11:00 pm, the ritual leaders gather with me at the sanctuary. The circle is cleared in the hall and surrounded by the candles from off the tables. Our stage is entirely candle-lit. Overhead are evergreen candle -lit chandeliers. When the time is perfect, we ceremonially lead the sun effigy from the sanctuary to the public circle where the guests are waiting. By this time ,there are anywhere between 200-350 people in the room. The sun king effigy is hoisted over head. There is a storyteller who weaves a tale of acknowledgement about this time of winter solstice. The story explains the process we are experiencing; the shift from darkness to light; the shift from winter toward summer, our place on the earth, our the connection with the elements and the directions.
In 1998, I called upon my Visionary Dancers -- Sarah Teller, Laura Legere, Faye Zama, Pine Crook, Corinne Holister, Corone Scott -- to assist in the process of bringing in the light. All dressed in white, we entered the circle singing a healing circle song accapella . We held candles in each hand. I held the space in the center. It the end, the dancers all sat down and I was left standing with my candles overhead. Steve Flynn began a ney (reed flute) solo and I slowly danced to its gentle and soulful melody.
The drums were called. La Drum, as she is called, led the troupes of African drummer on one side; Steve answered with a big davul drum on the other. My feet and hips found the pulse of the earth and my dance began. My role in this dance was to embody the feminine half of the life-cycle and pass the light back to the sun king. It was an amazing honor for me as a dancer, artist, and community member to have this opportunity to perform for an audience with such understanding, focus and support .
My dance was ecstatic -- drums pounding, crowd swelling with emotion, gathering power. Then Peter Toms handed me a huge, unlit torch. I ignited it from the flame of one of the burning candles in the circle and danced around (carefully),brandishing the flame. The faces of my community literally lit up as I passed by. The torch was hot and its radiant glow felt good. At the peak of the crowd's ecstatic fervor, I raised the torch to lick the the edges of the prayer-filled effigy. For a moment we stood in awe as the Sun King dissolved into the night with the blazing power and glory of the elements. I turned and kissed my husband. The Visionary Dance priestesses followed my example, passing a kiss around. The candles were moved to the center, surrounding the left-over embers of the charred body of the Sun King. Everyone joined hands and danced!
At the end of the evening a closing ceremony was held. A flame was passed as everyone held a candle. Then we all held hands and sang a carol.
Pretty wild, wouldn't you say? Fairly pagan. Yet it is the Fremont Arts Council's sincere objective to remain open and all-embracing.The Winter Solstice is a celebration of time, place and the human spirit. It is not about any particular religious affiliation.Yet it is worth reflecting that most religions and national traditions have a winter ritual which focuses on light. In the dark of winter, we need to nurture the hope of Eternal Spring. Each person brings to the festival whatever is in his/her own heart. We all make our own wishes, prayers and affirmations towards the new year.
Delilah of Seattle Washington