© Tim Skelton
On Whit Tuesday morning, 50 days after Easter, medieval fever hits Echternach as the annual Dancing Procession pays homage to its founding father, St Willibrord. The origins of this bizarre ritual are somewhat obscure. First recorded in the 15th century, some historians believe it may be older, possibly 11th century. There are those that suggest pagan beginnings, others that it was an embellishment to yearly tithe processions, when people from the parishes under the jurisdiction of the abbey came to Echternach bringing offerings. Legend has it that pilgrims from the nearby village of Waxweiler simply began performing a ‘hopping dance’ as they marched, and it caught on. Another theory stems from pilgrims coming to visit St Willibrord’s grave, often to pray for healing from the epidemics of plague and epilepsy that blighted Europe in the Middle Ages. People may have thought that by imitating the movements of the latter disease, they would be protected against or recover from it. There are even suggestions the idea originated in Cornwall, but there is no consensus about this. Alternatively, it may have come to Luxembourg with Willibrord himself. In short, there are as many theories as there are historians studying it.
Whether the dance’s roots are pagan or Christian, it has now been thoroughly absorbed by the Church. And despite occasional attempts to ban it, it’s a popular local custom in which everyone gets involved. In 2010, it was inscribed on the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, an honour that has put it on the map and will likely raise its profile in future.
It all kicks off with Mass, followed at 09.15 by the arrival of guest bishops in the square by the abbey, accompanied by a golden statue and relic of Willibrord. The Bishop of Echternach makes a speech from the abbey steps, then the first dancers set off at 09.30, weaving their way around the streets before arriving at St Willibrord’s tomb in the basilica’s crypt. Participants cover the route hopping slowly from one foot to the other, in time to an endlessly repeated ancient melody performed by dozens of groups of musicians. The simple tune, based on a traditional folk song, goes round and round for hours and if you listen to its relentless routine for too long there’s a fair chance you risk insanity. At the very least you won’t get the infernal thing out of your head for weeks. It will be 13.30 by the time the last group completes the 2km route. Some start out from Prüm (in Germany) and Waxweiler the evening before, marching their way through the night to Echternach.
Although called a Dancing Procession, it could equally be termed the ‘hop, skip and shuffle’ procession as the step isn’t complicated and anyone can master it. Participants dress in white shirts and – ahem – ‘dance’ their way forward in rows, linked together by white hankies (which have no symbolic meaning – they merely serve the practical purpose of keeping everyone in line). It’s a joyful spectacle, both to participate in and to watch. Around 12,000 pilgrims take part, either dancing or in one of the 50 or so bands that serenade them by playing ‘that’ tune, and thousands more line the streets to see the medieval equivalent of ‘The Timewarp’ from The Rocky Horror Show: a hopping step to the left, followed by a hopping step to the right …