The unmasked ball – an old revolution in rural France


“How did it start?” I asked my friend.
“Well, we were at a gathering just after the lockdown lifted. We were all wearing masks. I’d forgotten mine and had to borrow one from someone. But this guy entered the room, and recognized a friend of his and just strode up to him. His friend pulled off his mask and embraced him.”
“And that’s how it started?”
“Well, that’s how it started for me, but the same things were going on everywhere. It just takes one.”
I asked him if they were afraid of getting caught.
He laughed.
“You mean the virus?”
I had meant the ‘authorities’ but he knew it and was just playing. “Well, I think everyone there just decided on their own that they were okay with the risk and that got expressed collectively in a group of people who knew and trusted one another. They’d decided that this was more important.”

THIS was the Bal Trad. Bal Folk as its sometimes known. A dance form indigenous to Northern Europe with an embedded footprint in rural mid-Western France. It is Gaelic in origin and has more than a touch of the Irish about it. The individual steps are angular and spiky, but the linking group form swirls in circles and spirals.

The little community hall was empty when I arrived except a white-haired man with a trim waistcoat and his rather elderly looking dog who sat on a chair perfectly composed like someone’s uncle, while his owner or should i say, partner, swayed around the floor, practicing his steps. By the time I had finished the overly sweet glass of apple cider there were four more people, two couples, and then more, until we were in the upper 40s in number.

The band began to play, a medley of French country songs, high octane Celt, hide toned drums shepherding notes from fiddles tripping over themselves but never falling on their faces as bright as freshly minted daisies.

And here we were. No social distancing, no masks, and lots of ‘bisouses’ (both cheeks in this region thank you) And the average age? 70. Eyes catching eyes. Hands reaching out then clasping to pull each other around the floor, toned legs leaping like green shoots through concrete. It dawned on me that these were the people we’d been told needed the protection of the rest. The so-called weak and vulnerable. Bold-faced, trim and fit as the fiddles that were dancing them.

I am in no place to judge them. They simply are not from our ‘there, there, generation’

They know the risks of the virus. Probably more than most. Hell, some of them were so old they were only a couple of years shy of the last pandemic. They had lived through world wars, rationing, births, sickness and recovery, love, marriage, divorce and reconciliation. Leagues of death and loss between them. The rise and fall of rock in all its forms, umpteen presidents, more disappointment and failure than most of us can imagine, had eschewed vanity and by-passed social media almost entirely. And they can dance for several hours straight into the small hours. Perhaps they’d lived long enough and well enough to have decided for themselves what their destiny would be. The residents of the Deux-Sèvres have the greatest longevity of any department in France. Whatever, it’s a stretch to call them ‘the vulnerable’.

It wasn’t that they were trusting one another not to be contaminated. They were trusting one another not to mind. While, I suspect, keeping a watching brief on the case and death statistics, which have remained far less alarming than the news headlines. The statistics show that indeed 91% of cases have targeted their age group – 75 years and over. But since the first recorded cases in the beginning of the year, there have been 22 Covid-related deaths in the Deux-Sèvres; a department with a population of 369,000. Fourteen of these deaths occurred on a single day–April 25. The Deux-Sèvres is one of several French departments that has consistently recorded fewer than 3 ICU cases per 100,000, and only 1 positive case per 10,000. Over the course of the pandemic, only 123 people were hospitalized for the virus here. At the time of the dance, however, there that number was zero and in the past three and a half months, their had been a total of two deaths, the last one occurring over seven weeks ago.

Case numbers remained more or less stable in May even with the lifting of the most severe lockdown restrictions and as people began moving about again outside and gathering in groups. But after June 2 when the bars and restaurants re-opened, the numbers began to creep up again. The good news was that far fewer people were falling ill and dying. This is a trend seen all over Europe; a post-lockdown spike with a significantly less lethal tip.

Up until the end of July, the department had reported a grand total of 332 positive cases. Nervous about the increase in cases, from August 6, the prefecture organized free screenings at several locations in the department. Hundreds of people have been getting tested at these centres; 4483 in the last week of August alone. Unsurprisingly, case numbers have risen since the testing drive was put in place and the department’s incidence rate has risen from 1.0 to 1.9.

On September 6, the Ouest France paper somberly announced that detected cases of the virus had doubled from the number of cases the previous week to reach a total of 550. And yet all of these new cases were asymptomatic. Whereas previously people would only get tested when they showed up with nasty symptoms at the hospital, now people are being encouraged to get tested simply as a precautionary measure. The departmental authorities, quoting the increase in cases, are cautioning for increased vigilance. Part of their concern is the increase in positive cases among the young who may not suffer themselves but might pass the virus on to those with compromised immune systems and the fragile elderly. And yet here we are, several weeks into an uptick in cases still with zero hospitalizations and zero deaths. What has happened?

If you look at the Coronavirus case numbers for France as a whole, from June the graph is a mirror image of the first few months. More experts are dismissing the concept of a ‘second wave’ that came from our experience with the influenza virus in favour of the idea that the corona virus never went anywhere and that after lockdown, people became exposed to it again in greater numbers. But the burning question is, why did they stop getting fatally ill from it? Perhaps the virus has mutated to a less virulent form as some epidemiologists have suggested, or perhaps there is something to this herd immunity business after all. Perhaps both are possible.

I’m in mid-thought as a firm arm slips around my waist and I’m whisked to the floor. My partner is a slim Astaire-type gentleman somewhere in his 70s with a full head of sleek grey hair, a set of imposing dimples and a pair of feet to beat the band.
“Vous n’avez pas peur?” I managed to pant in between accidentally kicking his shin bones.
“Oui, bien sûr,” he replied, “Mais pas des choses que vous pensez.”

I imagine the arrival of the Police Municipale, or even the Gendarmerie, shouting down the music and escorting my septuagenarian partner and the other unmasked revelers out the building. What a picture for the history books that would make.

I do a quick scan of the other bodies spinning around me. I catch several ladies around my age. 50ish. We do that ‘Not doing so badly for a woman your age’ once over nod and veer off towards another sector of the almost sacred geometry of that evening, the embodied mathematics of motion and form, seen from above like the patterns of cells dividing, the primordial contours of life itself. Not just in form but in time. Time enough to know that innocent people get punished and the guilty walk free. That life is not known through hiding. And the geometry of thought. That all the best ideas repeat, and the best ideas are the ones that set us free.

The kind of calculation that people who’ve lived a while can do. The risks they’re facing just getting up in the morning. The risks they’re willing for. They dance like teenagers with the engines of twilight. But their horizons are not endless. They have seen the edge of the abyss rising towards them. They have survived cancers and cancer scares, marriage, childbirth, child-reading and divorce and reconciliation.

Their eyes blink in octaves, five steps at a time.

But it’s not the courage that I’m in awe of that evening, but the vitality. I envy that, with my jaded pseudo-political ideals and my post-feminist regret. Where did they get that….joy? And it is. Pure joy that emanates from them. Galloping around that drab community hall like it was the Elysian fields, for four hours forty minutes straight with barely a pant between them.

I walk out into the night of the Gâtine and look West towards the Atlantic where the breeze is cooling the fields around me, hot as tumble-dried sheets. And I am filled with the vastness of the ancestral terrain around me, so under-estimated, so unknown. All over France this must be going on. A secret underground of long-lived dancers. A force to be reckoned with in panicked times.

About subincontinentia

writer and eternal optimist
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1 Response to The unmasked ball – an old revolution in rural France

  1. Kevin says:

    Love it!I hope I am like that if I manage to get that far up the ladder. That’s living.

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