Monday, 19 March 2018

Horses in the Castle: Women Dancing on the 5th of 7 Sundays in Spring... by Fern Smith

Instructions for A Dawn Art Ritual to Welcome the Spring Equinox

·      Be a woman. Or identify as one for a while.

·      Download Patti Smith’s album ‘Horses’ onto your phone or recording device. Get yourself a pair of headphones.

·      Put the date in your diary on or within a few days of the Spring Equinox.

·      Arrange to meet with others, or decide to do this as a solo art ritual.

·      Get up in the early hours in time to be somewhere special where you can see the sun rise.

·      Put on a black dress (and lots of layers depending on the outside temperature!).

·      Make a dedication aloud or silently to someone or something.

·      Put on your headphones and prepare for your silent disco. Press ‘Play’ at dawn.

·      Dance. Laugh. Cry. Sing along. Go wild!

·      Leave an offering and/or give gratitude to the place.

·      Return home moved, enlivened, re-vivified and knowing you have connected to the rhythms of the universe as well as your inner artist and ritualista.

Woman Dancing. Photo by Phil Ralph

It is dawn on Sunday 18th March 2018 - the Sunday closest to the Spring Equinox. The location is Dinefwr Castle, ancient seat of power of the Great Welsh line of the Princes of Deheubarth. Rhys ap Tewdwr (d.1093), Gruffudd ap Rhys (d.1137), Rhys ap Gruffudd (d.1197), Rhys Gryg (d.1233), Rhys Mechyll (d.1244), Rhys Fychan (d.1271) and so it continues. Looking at the lineage, it is of course an all-male line-up. And now….

“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine...”

These first words of Patti Smith’s iconic album ‘Horses’ see thirteen women scattering through virgin snow to the various parts of the castle. There are women on the ramparts, women stationed at the four directions around the tower, women surveying the Tywi Valley from the high lookout and women down below in the keep. The women have taken over the castle. Thirteen women are gathered here - thirteen Dancing Women who are participating in a 7-week time-based project I’m organising called: ‘7 Sundays in Spring.’ This is art. This is ritual. This is prayer. This is hard to articulate….
Dinefwr Castle icicles. Photo by Eleanor Brown
It is blizzard conditions. The MET Office have issued travel warnings. The snow is falling. There are ten-inch icicles hanging from the stone arches, it is slippery underfoot. There is common-sense but there has been no risk-assessment. And still the women dance.

Women Dancing at Dinefwr Castle. Photo by Eleanor Brown
This is a gift given and a gift received. This is an everyday art event. An event which honours ‘all the women I’ve ever met’ in my lifetime. It is conceived by me, an artist, who holds a deep-seated conviction that we are all artists or have the capacity to be so if we are able to create the spaces in our lives to do or be it. It is my wish to make art experiences where there is as little separation as possible between artist and audience. These are transitional times we have never seen the like of which before. We are all in this together. I also believe that ritual can help us create community and connection. It is in the space between us that the alchemy happens. Yes, this is immersive. Yes, this is experiential. Yes, this is site-specific and site-responsive. This is where art and ritual blur, merge, and marry. Whilst respecting traditions, I am not wedded to one particular path or ‘right way’ of doing things. As the ‘School of LostBorders’ - where I trained last year - puts it so beautifully, this is about re-finding and trusting our deep connection to ‘self-generated ceremony.’ As long as we have the right intention, it is  creative, democratic, and needs no specialised knowledge or skills to participate in or practise this work.

In my invitation to participate I emphasise that ‘Women Dancing’ is not about being ‘A Dancer:’

We welcome you if you are in your first decade or your last. We welcome you whether you love dancing but never do, or love dancing and do so at every possible opportunity. We welcome you if you love dancing and know you can, or love dancing but think you can’t. This is about dancing for the joy of it, dancing because your soul needs to or dancing because that’s the only thing you can do in this time of global confusion and uncertainty.

You can dance for the sun, the earth, the sky, someone you love or someone you’ve lost. The ritual will be the ancient rite of moving our bodies in celebration in the open air. It’s about the feel not the look of what we do. There may be two of us there may be two thousand. Those of us that turn up will be the right ones.
Dancing Woman. Photo by Eleanor Brown
Women Dancing is in honour of the Spring Equinox, and also this year, as I’ve been re-iterating in these blogs, it is dedicated to ‘all the women I’ve ever met’. It is also an honouring of one of the most significant living artists of our times – Patti Smith. Me also being a Smith, I trust I’m somehow related to her - or at least I’m a part of a very large and extended family!

We thirteen women are aged from 20 to 70 and are from all over the country. We have each put on a black dress and walked in silence through the dim light of the early hours and the falling snow to get here. We are wearing ball-gowns, skinny black dresses, big flouncy skirts, shiny-sheeny numbers and layers and layers of clothes to protect us against the sub-zero temperatures and arctic winds. The invitation states emphatically that the event will go ahead regardless of the weather but none of us were expecting this….
The walk to the castle. Photo by Eleanor Brown

2018 has been one of the coldest and most snowy years on record… These are the erratic, climatically chaotic conditions we find ourselves dancing in for this the 5th year of ‘Women Dancing’ in a row. We are longing for the Spring, ready for the sun. We need to do this.

For the first four years, ‘Women Dancing’ has been held at Caswell Beach on Gower. At the time, I’d lived in Swansea on and off for over 30 years. At dawn, Caswell is one of the most beautiful beaches on Gower, the first recorded ‘Area of Natural Beauty’ in the UK. Last year I moved to Dinefwr Park outside Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire and have spent five Autumnal and Wintry months getting to know this extraordinary place. It is a place of stories with a most colourful and unlikely past. This year’s ‘Women Dancing’ is in some way a celebration of this land and the many birds, beasts and beings that currently live or have ever lived here.  Dinefwr also has one of the most beautiful and dramatically located castles in Wales and its doors are open all hours. It felt like an opportunity too good to miss. And so, ‘Women Dancing’ in 2018 came to be part of the ‘7 Sundays’ project as: ‘Horses in the Castle’.

‘Horses’ is the name of Patti Smith’s first and most enduring album. Patti Smith is 71 this year and is still touring and performing songs from the album. For over forty years ‘Horses’ has represented one of the most powerful musical statements ever made. My friends at Wikipedia tell me:

Horses has since been viewed by critics as one of the greatest and most influential albums in the history of the American punk rock movement, as well as one of the greatest albums of all time. Horses has also been cited as a key influence on a number of succeeding punk, post-punk, and alternative rock acts, including Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Smiths, R.E.M. and PJ Harvey.

According to Smith, Horses was a conscious attempt "to make a record that would make a certain type of person not feel alone. People who were like me, different ... I wasn't targeting the whole world. I wasn't trying to make a hit record.

The album lasts for 47 minutes – or it does if you happen to have the bonus track live cover of ‘My Generation’ which was recorded for the 30th anniversary edition. ‘Horses’ is not just a collection of some of the most sublime and rocking songs ever recorded, it also represents a meditation on life, death and memory. It’s both an incantation and prayer and sounds as fresh and iconic today as when it was recorded in 1975.

Following the success and the response to the first ‘Women Dancing’ in 2012, I wondered whether, if I ever did it again, that the music should change? There are of course plenty of significant and incredible albums made by female recording artists. Perhaps ‘Women Dancing’ could dance to a different album every year? I fast decided that it should be ‘Horses’ or nothing. For me, there is no other album like it. I believe it’s akin to one of the great enduring mythic sagas such as ‘The Mabinogion’ or Homer’s ‘Odyssey,’ or poetic meditations such as Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’. Every time I hear ‘Horses’, I feel something different and I hear different words.

When dancing on the Beach at Caswell I noted the plethora of sea and tidal references in the songs….

There is no land but the land
(up there is just a sea of possibilities)
There is no sea but the sea
(up there is a wall of possibilities)
There is no keeper but the key
(up there there are several walls of possibilities)
Except for one who seizes possibilities, one who seizes possibilities.
(up there)
I seize the first possibility,

I hold the key to the sea of possibilities
There's no land but the land.


Women Dancing at Caswell Beach. Photo by Phil Ralph
And here in this ancient walled castle whilst dancing in a snow storm, I hear:

Snow started falling,
I could hear the angel calling.
We rolled on the ground, he stretched out his wings.
The boy flew away and he started to sing.

Ice, it was shining.
I could feel my heart, it was melting.
I tore off my clothes, I danced on my shoes.
I ripped my skin open and then I broke through.

Break It Up

It is music which can stir up deep memories and connect us powerfully to mood. It also connects to story and place as well as having the ability to somehow commune with the beings that inhabit or are associated with those places.

The Raven is a regular visitor to Dinefwr and is represented on its Heraldic Standard. As we huddle together in a circle in the castle keep at exactly 6.25am in readiness for the dance, Raven flies over croaking a morning greeting. According to Jo, Raven does another fly-by, during the extended track, ‘Birdland’, close to where she is dancing in the upper reaches of the tower:

And where there were eyes were just two white opals, two white opals,
Where there were eyes there were just two white opals
And he looked up and the rays shot
And he saw raven comin' in

And in the same song

It's me, it's me,
I'll give you my eyes, take me up, oh now please take me up,
I'm helium raven waitin' for you, please take me up,
Don't let me here…

And he crawled on his back and he went up
Up up up up up up


This morning, as I begin to sit down to write, Raven loudly announces itself sitting atop the tall pine outside the window where I’m working in our little rented cottage in Dinefwr Courtyard. In recent years, I have learnt that if I speak to the universe, the universe often speaks back, whether I can hear it or not.

Thirteen women dancing. Much has been written in many different traditions about the significance of this number. Whatever the truth or otherwise of this, I like it’s ring. It feels mysterious and magical. Anarchic. Mysterious. We are thirteen women artists, activists, writers, poets, seekers, pilgrims, warriors, mothers and daughters. Most of the women have only just met, but on arrival in circle are sharing intimate reflections from the heart. It is powerful hearing our reasons for wanting to dance. It’s a good way to meet your future room-mates too - since I offered as part of the experience an, it-must-be-said, crowded sleepover at Grooms Cottage. Women crammed in, head to toe, sleeping on mats and mattresses in all corners.

The snow added another dimension to Women Dancing. It added challenge. It meant that many other women who had planned to meet us in the morning couldn’t get to us (though some of them danced in their own back-yards instead). I was surprised that none of our number changed their mind at 5am on looking out the window at the blizzard conditions. The snow also added beauty and reminded us of the fragile balance in which our world climatically - and in so many other ways - currently dwells. It also added massive amounts of fun, seeing us slipping, sliding and rolling around in it.  A snowball fight for an encore. A crunchy trudge over the fields on our return, stopping every now and again to make snow angels…
Snow Angel. Photo by Fern Smith
We joke over a big shared breakfast - all giddy on carbs and caffeine after our early rise and crazy dancing - that we like to think we might be ‘woke’ women. It’s hard to ‘wake-up’ and it’s hard to ‘stay woke’ on your own. Things like this help. We have another talking and sharing circle on returning from the castle. It’s touching and powerful hearing how each of us were impacted by the dance.

Many of us remarked on how magical the whole experience had felt and how much fun it had been. We’d enjoyed moving our bodies, dancing alone as well as the many encounters we’d had with others during the dance. One of our number shared that she anticipated a future time – hopefully a while away yet - as she lay dying and was going over the ‘Peak Moments’ of her life, Women Dancing 5 would, she said, definitely be among them (in addition to the Women Dancing that she’d done previously on Caswell Beach!). Another woman and mother of two young ones, shared that she had little opportunity for fun in her own life, since as a single parent she is so strongly aware of her responsibilities. Another, connected by blood to the great Rhys lineage of Dinefwr, spoke powerfully that there was something significant about returning the feminine to Dinefwr – redressing the balance of history by adding her stories, her songs and her dances. Perhaps this is the most significant aspect of these ‘7 Sundays in Spring’. It is not about excluding the male, but honouring the female - since these are Women Only events for the most part.
At Cadair Idris. Photo by Phil Ralph
 In the invitation I sent to ‘all the women I’ve ever met’ I said:

I want to honour the significance of the passing of time between women friends and to honour the nourishment emergent meetings bring. I desire to celebrate and weave the incredible women I know together in a way which feels playful and significant. It will involve gathering 7 different circles of women to celebrate the feminine, creativity, wildness as well as the gifts and mystery inherent in all life.

Yes, this is about sisterhood. Yes, this is about “hashtag me too.” Yes, this is about identifying as women witnessing the beauty and the sorrow of this time. It’s also about honouring the fragile nature of life at a time where things and people appear to be falling apart on a daily basis.

Today as I write this, the snow has disappeared and is but a memory. I am getting messages from the Dancing Women saying that they are ‘still smiling.’ The temperature outside is now a balmy 4 degrees. The sun is shining. Perhaps the long-heralded Spring is come at last. Time passes and Tempus Fugit, as the final track on ‘Horses’, Elegie, reminds me. Life is beautiful, painful, transient. Change is the only constant. The cycles of nature keep turning from Equinox to Solstice and onward to Equinox again. Next week for my 6th of the 7 Sundays in Spring, the clocks will move forward one hour to official British Summer Time. You are invited to join me in Glastonbury for The Rite of Isis. This time men as well as women are equally welcome. Contact me if you’d like to hear more.
Equinox Sunrise. Photo by Eleanor Brown
Fern Smith is an Arts Council of Wales Creative Wales Recipient and has just discovered with the help of a close friend, that she is an 'Experiential Ritual Artist'

If you are interested in joining one of the 7 Sundays in Spring gatherings contact me at

Future work includes:

Practising the Art of Living (co-guiding)

Woman Time (co-guiding)

Vision Quest (assisting guiding May 18 - 27)

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