It was frosty the day after the village cabaret (read about it here) and the hedgerows were white as Paul and I walked down the lane. The pub and church looked like they belonged on a Christmas card, standing bright and clear in the cold morning air. Like the houses in the village the church and pub are Victorian pretty. The hall on the other hand is as dull and utilitarian as a 20th century building could be. It squats across the road from its characterful cousins, low, brick-built and deeply, boringly rectangular.
Peer in through the windows and you’ll see scuffed wooden floors and the shabby little stage. But those floors are scuffed from decades of chairs pushed back after warm-hearted village lunches and lively Harvest Suppers, the participants full of good, home cooked food and copious quantities of wine.
Alcohol is rather a feature of the social life here in Markbeech. At the annual Royal British Legion dinner, where the older men of the village reputedly get plastered and tell stories of past glory, legend has it that Sir Robin Leigh Pemberton, then Governor of the Bank of England and that year’s keynote speaker, found one of the revellers in a ditch after dinner and had to pull him out before he could get into his chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce and head off home!
The lock to the front door of the village hall is tricky. There’s a knack to it that I’ve never quite mastered, but there’s always a lovely rush of warm air as the handle finally turns and you walk into the entrance hall. Warm because of the village nursery school held there every weekday. And because the view is held that it’s cheaper to leave the heating on constant rather than try and reheat such a big space from scratch every day. But there’s also the warmth of memories. Memories of happy evenings with friends.
There’s such a sense of community history when you enter a place like this. Markbeech villagers have been putting on shows and celebrating the signposts of the year in this hall for several generations. Stories are still told of the shows staged here by long-dead villagers before and during the second world war. When we arrived (aged 40 and 50 respectively) Paul and I were considered youngsters and the generation just above us were responsible for the parties and events. As a result the dress code was often dinner jackets and evening dress, yet there was an air of post-war austerity about meal choices and ticket pricing.
Ten years ago our age group started to take over proceedings and things changed a little. Meals got a bit fancier, more music was introduced, dress became more casual. And recently a lively younger team have started to introduce canapés and sparkling wine before dinner - a sign of the greater affluence of the generation who grew up in the 80s.
That morning Paul and I walked into a busy scene as friends cleared up the hall after the cabaret. Andro was up a ladder taking down the silver stars, Pam from next door was sweeping the floor. Serving dishes were being gathered to redistribute to their rightful owners, rubbish bags were piled high before being taken outside.
All the talk was of the success of the night before. Those of us who had performed were still high on adrenaline and audience members were full of excitement and praise. Of course people wanted to know where I learned to bellydance and so I told them a little of my story - how I had trained to be a dancer then had fallen in love with bellydance in a London nightclub in 1982 (see here).
When a group of women discover I’m a bellydancer there is always at least one person who will try out a bit of a wriggle, one who will say they’ve certainly got the belly for it, and invariably someone who will ask how you do it. On this morning there was a group of five or six women, ranging in age from around 40 to mid seventies. All were upper class, all beautifully spoken. And yes, like so many woman, they wanted to know how I did the wriggling.
Now, although I was originally self-taught, many years before I had been to classes with Jacqueline Chapman - one of the first bellydance teachers in London. A seemingly rather prim lady but with a penchant for dressing up in full performance costume to teach, Jacqueline has a killer way of teaching one of the key moves in bellydance. It’s called a figure of eight and it’s a smooth twisting movement in the hips.
Jacqueline tells her students to imagine they have a pencil where you’d never think a lady would tell you to have a pencil… She then instructs you to squeeze it and lift it up. In doing so, she’s getting you to lift the pelvic floor and thereby engage the core stability muscles. It also helps the posture; but most importantly Jacqueline then tells you to imagine drawing shapes, in particular circles and figures of 8, with that imaginary pencil.
It is a brilliant way of enabling women to visualise the movement. I’ve known bellydance teachers try to break down a figure of eight by showing a twist in the waist, then a transfer of weight followed by a half circle backwards with one hip, a twist in the opposite direction another transfer of weight and a half circle with the other hip. And I always think “Oh for goodness sake! Just teach them the bloody pencil technique!”
On this particular morning, Paul remembers a line of women of varying ages standing in front of me, one or two still holding brooms. He saw me lean towards them and whisper confidentially. Then he saw smiles start to spread across their faces, which grew into giggles and then outright laughter. My husband knew exactly what I was telling them.
He also says he had a sense of the men in the hall being excluded from a wonderful feminine secret. That there was something the women were about to do and enjoy that he could never be part of.
Andro remembers being high up on the ladder, looking down on the scene as we started to move. Me showing the women how to make the figure of eight. The line of women copying. And them laughing and exclaiming and laughing some more. I showed them how to shimmy their hips by moving their knees, how to roll their shoulders. And finally how to shimmy their shoulders by shaking them gently.
Now there are some bellydance teachers who don’t like to admit that this dance is in any way sexy. No they say, it’s a folk dance, a cultural dance from a Muslim part of the world (as indeed it is) and there should be nothing sexual about it. They say, for example, that women should never touch their own bodies when they dance (not even a hand on the hip) and they insist that when executing a shoulder shimmy the breasts should not move.
Excuse me people, if you're a woman how do you shake your shoulders without your breasts moving? It’s impossible to do it without the girls going too! They’re in the same region for goodness sake. OK maybe a bit lower now than they were when you were twenty, but even so! I've heard famous Egyptian teachers call it a breast shimmy and what's good enough for them is good enough for me.
So there they were, that beautiful winter morning, my lovely Markbeech ladies. Elegant, cultured, well bred. Standing in a line in front of me in our little village hall. Wriggling their hips and shaking their breasts.
And laughing and loving it.