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The woman with the silver bracelets

"Keep dancing," said the anxious woman as the drums grew louder. "Please, you must keep dancing." JANET DOWLING relates the powerful tale of an encounter in London, 20 years ago.

I HAVE been dancing morris since 1974, but now as I hang up my bells and take on new interests like storytelling, I have been looking back over the number of people that I have met whilst out dancing. But of all the people that I have met none have made as great an impact on me as the woman with the silver bracelets.

It was back in 1979 or 80. It was a hot Saturday in July. My team, New Esperance Morris, had been invited to dance at a multicultural fair in St Martins in the Fields, next to Trafalgar Square. It was the usual sort of thing, sarees, steelbands and samosas- we were to represent the English contingent.

We started dancing at about two o'clock. It was a desperately hot summer's day. The first dance went well, but as we finished and came off we could hear the sounds of drums beating in the distance.

The second dance was all right, but the noise of the drums was getting louder and louder. A constant beat, a jarring beat. As we came off from the second dance , we could hear the word spreading around the fair. It was the National Front, they were marching to Trafalgar Square for a demonstration, and would be passing by the courtyard we were standing in.

The drumming was now so loud, that we were debating whether we should wait until the drums had gone by, but then we became aware of a woman standing by us - totally nondescript, except for an armful of silver bracelets which she played with, one by one. "Keep Dancing," she said, "Please, you must keep dancing. "

We went on to dance again, finding it difficult to hear the rhythm of our music against the constant beat, the jarring beat of the drums. As we finished our third dance, at the end of the courtyard, you could see the union jacks held high by the National Front as they passed by. Row upon row upon row. It seemed like they would never end, and that constant beat, that jarring beat seemed to fill everywhere. A cold shiver went through the courtyard. In front of us was our musician, and next to her stood the woman, playing with her silver bracelets on her arm.

Instead of calling us off, our squire called out, "Dance On - Gentlemen Soldier!"

It didn't matter that we couldn't hear our musician, we clashed high, we clashed low, we clashed hard, we clashed strong. We were not going to be dominated, we were not going to be overwhelmed.

By the time we were finished the drums and the flags had passed by, and were in the distance. It felt like everyone at that fair was now surrounding us, and the applause we got when we marched off was like nothing we have ever received then or since. We were exhausted, hot and sweaty. The woman with the silver bracelets came up to us and said, "Thank you, thank you for dancing. You must always keep dancing, and you must never let them win."

I was tired, I was hot, I could hardly speak a word, but I caught her eye and nodded. Something passed between us, and then she turned away. As she went the silver bracelets on her arm fell apart, to show the numbers tattooed there.

I kept on dancing, and now I'll keep on telling.

And I'll never let them win.

Janet Dowling

There is a postscript to this story (writes Janet). I first told it at the Sidmouth story telling competition four years ago. I didn't win, but a lot of people said how the story had touched them, and that I must keep telling it. Four weeks later, at the London Day of Dance, New Esperance were on tour with Stony Stafford Morris when one of them came up and asked who had told the story at Sidmouth. I was pointed out to him, and he introduced himself. He had been at the competition, and was amazed to have heard the story, because he had been on the march himself. I was somewhat taken aback, when he hastened to assure me he had been one of the policemen patrolling the march, and not actually on the march. But he remembered the drums, how they had dominated everything. And he said I should keep telling the story too!