I blame it on Crasdant. This talented group from Wales performed at a nearby theater and introduced me to traditional Welsh music. The defining moment for me was when Huw Williams, their guitar player, donned his clogs and wowed the audience with his Welsh step dancing. I was entranced. I put my name on the mailing list of the Welsh Harp and Heritage Society and some time later received a flier about Welsh Heritage Week. Among other things, it mentioned Welsh clog dance classes! Since it was being held within a 4-hour drive of my home, I determined to go. I filled out the application and signed up for every class they offered. As the time drew near though, doubts began to assail me. Though I am of Welsh heritage (my maiden name was Griffiths), I have never been to Wales and knew not a word of Welsh. Also, I would not know anybody there, and I would be there a whole week. There would be singing rehearsals every day for the traditional Welsh Hymn Sing service at the end of the week, and I don’t have a beautiful singing voice. I have never played a harp, my only transportable instrument is the recorder. Would that be okay for playing Welsh music? I don’t own any clogs, or a Welsh costume.
I sent a hurried e-mail to Beth Landmesser, the director of Welsh Heritage Week, and she sent an encouraging response which answered my questions and allayed my fears. I went to a local dance store and bought a pair of Irish Step Dance shoes, the nearest I could get in this country to dance clogs. I bought fabric and sewed a simple black skirt, packed a white blouse and some comfortable dance shoes, my recorder, my Bryn Terfel CD and Crasdant tape, and I was ready. (Since WHW was being held in Newport News, VA. which gets very hot and humid in the summer, I also packed lots of changes of clothing for after those vigorous dance classes, and an umbrella, for which I was very thankful).
When I arrived at Christopher Newport College, Beth Landmesser met me and showed me to the dorm, and gave me my name tag and the check-in instructions. I had time to unpack before the evening orientation meeting. I met Sally Bray from Denver, who would be sharing a bathroom with me. This was her second WHW. Gradually, the other attendees, seeing a first-timer, came up and introduced themselves to me. Their home states ranged from Florida to Vermont and from Delaware to Arizona and everywhere in between. The youngest attendee was 10 years old, and I think every other decade was represented up to perhaps the 80’s. They all had in common a love for Welsh culture and a great sense of humor. My concern about not knowing anybody vanished.
At the orientation meeting we picked up our booklets with the schedules for the week and a few pages of beginning lessons in the Welsh language. We learned about the Eisteddfod that would be held on Saturday night, and were encouraged to sign up for one or more of the various competitions that were being offered. We were told about the Noson Lawen talent night that would be held on Tuesday evening and again were encouraged to sign up.
We were introduced to our five wonderful instructors who had come from Wales to spend the week with us. John Albert Evans was in charge of the language and literature sessions, Lon Wright would be teaching the harp sessions, Jen Williams, an accomplished fiddler, was in charge of the instrumental music sessions, Dafydd Thomas would be teaching Welsh folk dances and clogging, and Gareth Hughes Jones was director of the choral singing for the Cymanfa Ganu to be held on Sunday, as well as a folk song class.
After the orientation meeting, song booklets were passed around and we had a lively session of folk singing (in Welsh, of course), led by John Albert. I soon discovered that every night after the last planned activity, there was an informal gathering in the dorm lounge where our instructors regaled us with jokes and funny stories. I believe that Lon, our gracious harp instructor, won the unofficial best joke of the week contest. I regret that I cannot relate it here.
I had arrived at WHW too late for dinner that first Sunday night, but I did not starve. Some of the more experienced attendees had brought snacks, and graciously shared them. Another offered her cell phone so I could phone home and let my family know of my safe arrival. I went to bed exhausted but too excited to sleep.
Breakfast was at 7:30 am, and I did not want to miss it. The staff at Christopher Newport fed us very well. And the conversation was always enjoyable no matter who I happened to sit beside. It was fun getting to know the other attendees, and mealtimes were great opportunities for this.
Language classes began each morning at 8:30 am and lasted till 11:10, with a brief coffee break in the middle. On Monday morning we were divided into groups according to our knowledge of Welsh. I was in the group for new beginners, which was taught by Gareth, with assistance from Jen. Having a native speaker for a language instructor is the best way to learn. Jen and Gareth were very patient with us. We were forever asking questions and getting them sidetracked. But we learned a lot more vocabulary that way!
After language classes each day we spent about 90 minutes in rehearsal for the Sunday Cymanfa Ganu. Gareth brought out the best in each singer and it was lovely just to sit in the midst of them and listen. I tried sitting with the sopranos first, then the altos, then back to the sopranos. I finally decided just to lip synch because I was ashamed of my meager voice. But then Sallie Huffman from Texas pointed out to me that the Bible doesn’t tell us to sing beautifully, but to sing Joyfully! By the third day I was belting out the tunes to the best of my ability, and found that rehearsals also gave me a good chance to practice my Welsh pronunciation. We were accompanied on the piano by Garnet Roth, one of the attendees at WHW, and I was very grateful for her because many of the melodies were new to me.
Lunch came next, followed by free choice time. I had chosen to take harp lessons. We were divided into two groups according to ability, and I was in the very beginner group, never having touched a harp before. For a slight fee I was given the use of a rental harp for the week.
Lon was a model of patience, and managed to teach even me several simple but lovely tunes by the end of the week.
Following harp class there was folk dancing with Dafydd. Our group was fairly small and consisted entirely of women with the exception of Danny Proud, who came later in the week. Dafydd taught us several set dances and we proudly demonstrated them at the barn dance on Thursday night and at the Eisteddfod on Saturday. We thoroughly enjoyed dance classes, and Dafydd had a wonderful sense of humor. In fact, we made note of his favorite comments and expressions and put on a skit at the Eisteddfod so the rest of the group would have a sense of the fun they were missing out on by not taking dance classes with us. The barn dance was more fun than I have had in about 25 years! I have not laughed so much since I can’t remember when, and dancing to live Welsh folk music is a real treat. The musicians consisted of WHW attendees and instructors.
After folk dancing came the part I had been waiting forever since seeing Crasdant for the first time. Dafydd taught a small group of us how to do several of the basic Welsh clog steps and taught us a dance that incorporated all of them. He kindly lent me his own clogs so I could get an idea of what it felt like and sounded like to dance in them. It was great fun and exercise, and the perfect way to burn some of those calories I had been storing up at mealtimes.
After dinner there was different entertainment planned for each night. One night was pub night. (The Subway Station in Newport News, VA. will never see the like again!) Another was the Noson Lawen, a talent night where the attendees showed what they could do. Pat Darby, our gracious hostess in Newport News, who is a real southern belle from Charleston, S.C., put on an old English vaudeville routine that I will absolutely never forget! Beth Hensley, our MC for the evening, was great. She was encouraging to everyone and funny at the same time. Then came the staff’s turn for talent night. We heard wonderful harp and fiddle playing, singing, funny stories and jokes, and some serious poetry as well. Thursday was barn dance night, as I have mentioned before. Everyone had the chance to learn some dances and join in the dancing to live music. There was a meeting on Friday night, followed by a video of a trip to Wales that made me want to visit more than ever. But the grand finale was the Eisteddfod on Saturday evening.
There were many categories for performances, some serious and some definitely not, but all very entertaining. The instructors did the judging and performed the chairing and crowning ceremony at the conclusion. It was all in good fun and the costumes and comments of the judges were hysterical. I proudly brought home a blue ribbon for my voice mail message using only words that begin with the letter ‘C’. And I did get to play my recorder with two harpers, Sallie Huffman and Judith Brougham. We were even given a third place ribbon. There were tears along with the laughter that night, as Beth Hensley read her winning entry in the prose competition. It was a very moving story told from the viewpoint of one of her ancestors, a young wife and mother who emigrated to the United States from Wales in the 19th century with her husband and young children.
Pat, our hostess, had purchased black felt hats like those worn by women in Welsh folk costume, and lace trim to go around the edges, and all the women hid them in plastic bags and brought them to the final choir rehearsal on Saturday. When Gareth turned his back to speak with the organist, we took out the hats and put them on, and when he turned around to face us he was rendered momentarily speechless.
The Cymanfa Ganu on Sunday was held at St. Johns Episcopal church in Hampton, VA., which is the church Pat and Ted Darby, our hosts for this year’s WHW, attend. It is a lovely old red brick church with a magnificent pipe organ. The service was conducted completely in Welsh and the sound of all those voices singing the beautiful old Welsh hymns in four-part harmony and joined by the organ was enough to swell the rafters and our spirits. I didn’t want it to end.
After the service, we had to return to the college to pack up and head home. After a quick exchange of phone numbers and e-mail addresses, we hugged and said goodbye to all the people with whom we had shared an unforgettable week. As the tears flowed freely, one thought was uppermost in our minds: may we meet again at WHW next year in Wales!