The chain breaks to let you in. You link arms with the person either side; join in with the steps – two to the left, one to the right. The skipari (leader or “skipper”) intones the tale, verse by verse, and everyone else joins in the refrain, and as much as the rest as you can trawl from memory. As the number of dancers increases, the ring becomes a snake, coiling and rippling around the room. You watch the faces opposite as they slowly pass – young, old – male, female: all full of concentration and unity of purpose. You get warmer and warmer, as the mesmerising rhythms of purposeful steps on the wooden floor blend with the repetitive music of the ballad. After a while, you lose your sense of time, but not your sense of place. You are on the Faroe Islands, but this could be 2014 or it could be 1420. You have become a link in a chain.
Every time I have taken part in a traditional Faroese dance – whether on the tiny northern island of Fugloy nearly 20 years ago, or in Tórshavn at last summer’s Ólavsøka celebrations – I have found it difficult to remember exactly what happened. The experiences have been vivid, but afterwards it almost feels as though I have dreamt the whole thing. Participating in a Faroese dance induces a type of trance, although you are fully aware of what is going on, and there is nothing quite like it for feeling a part of living history.
So what exactly is Faroese dance? It is, in fact, not just a dance, but dance combined with song and poetry, and although it can be watched by spectators, this art form only really makes sense if you take part in it.
The origins are unclear, but it is quite likely that they go back to before the settlement of the Faroes over a thousand years ago, to the time before Christianity took root in Scandinavia. The ballads (kvæðir) deal with historical events from Northern Europe, as well as fictional heroes and Norse mythology. This video is of Regin Smiður, part of the story of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer – the legendary hero from Norse mythology. Regin the Smith forges Sigurd’s sword.
Grani bar gullið av heiði,
brá hann sínum brandi av reiði,
Sjúrður vann av orminum,
Grani bar gullið av heiði.
Grane bore the gold of glory,
He drew his sword of wrath,
Sigurd slew the dragon,
Grane bore the gold of glory.
[Grane = Sigurd’s horse]
The Faroese dance has had varied fortunes over the centuries, but the geographical isolation of the Faroes, combined with the fact that the oral culture has been so strong (the Faroese language was only written down in the nineteenth century) has meant that the Faroese dance has survived as a thriving form. Some of the country’s leading writers have added to the wealth of texts over the years, and nowadays, children learn their national ballads at school.
The dance has inspired Faroese musicians and artists, as here in this work from 1944 by the great Faroese painter, Sámal Joensen-Mikines:
Here is an example of how this motif has been used:
The stories themselves have also found there way into knitting patterns, as here, with this dragon design:
It is possible to find many parallels between Faroese dancing and knitting. They both involve a repetitive action, resulting in a whole that is greater than the parts, where repeated motifs combine to form a larger design. Both activities can be rhythmically meditative for the participant. And it is perhaps not stretching the point too far to suggest that knitters are also collaborating in a culture over time, literally connecting links in a chain with their needles, passing something on to future generations, and becoming themselves links in the story of knitting.