Pajama Press

Posts Tagged ‘blog-post’

The Semah: ritual movement for International Dance Day

Posted on April 29th, 2016 by pajamapress


British Columbia artist Pascal Milelli created an illustration of a couple dancing the semah for the cover of Dance of the Banished.

International Dance Day is a yearly event intended to celebrate dance as a universal art form that brings people together across cultural, political and ethnic barriers as a shared language. We’re celebrating today by giving centre stage to the semah, the traditional ritual-dance of the Alevi-Baktaşi people that is still flourishing today.

Both of the main characters in Dance of the Banished are Alevi, and Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch did a lot of research so she could depict these little-known people and their customs accurately. In her Author’s Note she writes that Alevism is “a 6000-year-old religion that originated in Anatolia. Over the centuries Alevism has incorporated aspects of other religions. For example, Alevis consider Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammed, to be divine. Alevis avoid mosques and do not pray five times a day. They consider women equal to men.” (229)

The semah is the key form of worship among the Alevi. It is a twirling dance where men and women dance together but never touch. The semah’s style can vary widely depending on where it is performed, but its movements are always an expression of faith that symbolism the relationship between God, the Universe and Humanity; the rotation of planets; the progression of time and change; Ali’s ascension into Heaven; and the flight of cranes. It is always accompanied by a devout musician, often the community’s dede (spiritual leader), playing the bağlama (also called the saz), an instrument like a long-necked lute, but the music’s rhythm and characteristics also vary with community and region.

The dance is commonly understood to have three parts. The ağırlama, the first stage of the dance, is characterized but slow movements; the yürütme, when the dance becomes more lively and the dancers begin to move around in a circle while making swooping arm gestures, and finally the yeldirme, the fastest and most difficult part of the dance.

In 2010 the semah was registered on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. There are several organizations in and outside of Turkey that work to protect and preserve this ritual-dance for future generations of Alevi, including offering semah training courses to Alevi youth and instruction in the bağlama for young men.

You can learn more about the semah and the Alevi people in Dance of the Banished by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch, or by checking out the links below.

Learn More:
Semah, Alevi-Bektaşi Ritual
Semah, Alevi-Bektaşi Ritual (UNESCO)
Re-Imagining Identity: The Transformation of the Alevi Semah by Ayhan Erol

About the Artist

Pascal Milelli is an artist and painter based in British Columbia. He has contributed his talents to a variety of projects worldwide, including tea packaging in Holland, videogame slipcovers in England and book jackets. Perhaps his most recognizable work is the original cover art for Deborah Ellis‘ Breadwinner trilogy. Pascal is also the award-winning author of three children’s picture books. Click here to learn more about Pascal and view his portfolio.

Early Modern Words for Modern Readers

Posted on April 22nd, 2016 by pajamapress

Namesake - a Lady Jane Grey novel by Sue MacLeodSince UN English Language day lines up with the anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, we’re going to take a page out of his illustrious notebook and talk about some old-school English words that aren’t used so much anymore.

Often mislabelled “Old English“, Shakespeare’s English is properly called Early Modern English, the direct forerunner of the Modern English we use today. Early Modern English rose with the Tudor dynasty, the British monarchs who ruled during the era featured by Sue MacLeod’s  YA novel, Namesake. In this novel each chapter opens with an Early Modern English word that has fallen out of general use. For English Language Day, we’re going to share a handful of our favourites here.


Let’s start with a strange one that has well and truly disappeared. The only reason we have any record at all of the word “aroint” is because Shakespeare used it in Macbeth and King Lear. This unusual verb means “begone!” or “get thee gone!” and only exists in its imperative form as a command. Its origins are unknown, though there is some speculation that it is local slang that emerged from farming communities in and around Cheshire, England, where milkmaids were recorded saying “rynt thee” to their cows after milking. In another context, “aroint thee” is used as a defense against witches—“Aroint thee, witch,”—having been popularized in Macbeth. This usage may have its roots in ‘rauntree‘, an alternate name for the rowan. Rowan wood, it was popularly believed, had properties that could deter witches and protect cattle.


“Garden Dormouse (Eliomys quercinus)” (llustrierter Leitfaden der Naturgeschichte des Thierreiches) by T.F. Zimmermann, 1876.


The root of this Anglo-French word is from the French dormir (to sleep). The second syllable may have been mistaken for “mouse” by early English speakers, or it may be a compound of the English “mouse” and the French dormir. In Tudor times, Dormouse could also refer to someone who was sleeping or dozing, in the same way we might call a messy person a pig today.


Our last featured word for UN English Language Day is “ruth”, which has virtually fallen out of use in English except as its opposite, “ruthless.” In the Tudor era it was a noun meaning “pity, compassion, or sympathy”. This form of “ruth” predates the Early Modern period by about 350 years and may originate from the Old Norse word hryggð meaning “sorrowful” or “grieved”. A second possibility is that ruth developed directly from the Old English verb “rue”, whose meaning reflects a state of feeling sorry or regretful, and is linked to emotions like grief and distress.

There are plenty of other obscure English words to explore in Sue MacLeod’s Namesake, where a history project and a mysterious prayer book connect two teenage girls across time, sparking an unlikely friendship.

Be word nerds with us:

Online Etymology Dictionary

Out of Shakespeare: ‘Aroint Thee’

Celebrate Earth Day with the Peregrine Falcon

Posted on April 22nd, 2016 by pajamapress

Skydiver: Saving the Fastest Bird in the World  by Celia GodkinEarth Day is celebrated worldwide every year to give global citizens the chance to demonstrate their support for and dedication to environmental protection. This year Canada is participating in an ambitious campaign to assist in planting 7.8 billion trees—one for every person on the planet—by 2020.

With so much work to do, it’s easy to feel daunted at the prospect of saving the earth. That’s why, while continuing work to protect the environment, it’s important that we also celebrate what we’ve already achieved. A great example of a feel-good environmental success story is the rehabilitation of the Peregrine Falcon.

After the Second World War DDT was developed as one of the first modern synthetic pesticides. Within a decade it was being used extensively all over the world to control insect pests. However, by the end of the 1950’s scientists and researchers noticed insect populations had built up an immunity to it, while species that weren’t its intended target—like the Peregrine Falcon—were exhibiting signs of DDT poisoning. Because the Peregrine Falcon is at the top of its food chain, the birds accumulated large amounts of DDT from the song birds and fish that they fed on, who had absorbed the chemical in smaller amounts from the insects they preyed on.

A DDT build-up in a Peregrine Falcon’s body is not lethal to the bird itself, but it makes their eggshells thin and prone to cracking, causing chicks to die in their eggs. Many breeding pairs of Peregrine Falcons were unsuccessful during this time and their population saw a dramatic decrease. By the mid-1970’s Peregrine Falcon populations had declined by 90% and were at risk of becoming locally extinct, or extirpated, in North America.

Fortunately bird experts and volunteers recognized the need to intervene and save the bird. In 1974 the Peregrine Fund, and other agencies in Canada and the U.S., had initiated a reintroduction program for the Peregrine Falcon. Rescue teams moved clutches of eggs out of the wild to incubate in research labs, giving them a better chance of survival. They were also able to secure mature falcons through bird hobbyists—the Peregrine Falcon has been a prized hunting bird for hundreds of years—to successfully breed in captivity. When chicks were three weeks old they were placed in artificial nesting sites where they were fed and cared for until they were mature enough to develop their own hunting skills.

Initially these nesting sites were located in the wild to duplicate the falcon’s natural habitat, but researchers soon found that chicks were being taken as prey by great horned owls before they could reach maturity. The project was re-homed into cities, where sky scrapers approximated the cliffs where Peregrine Falcons usually nest. The benefit to this change is that, aside from humans, Peregrines have no natural predators in urban environments, but there is still an abundance of small birds and rodents for them to hunt. Because these birds are a migratory species, it was only a matter of time before mature birds began to move back to the wilderness, though there are still many thriving populations of peregrine falcons in large cities across North America.

Since 1974 over 6000 Peregrine Falcons have been released back into the wild; enough that officials were able to remove the Peregrine Falcon from the endangered species list in 1999. The birds are still protected under the Migratory Bird Act, but to this day the return of Peregrine Falcons to the wild is the biggest success to come from the Endangered Species Act.

So any time an environmental initiative—like planting 7.8 billion trees—seems too big to accomplish, it’s good to remember that human intervention has already saved the fastest bird in the world, and with concerted effort and dedication, we can do so much more to help the earth and its creatures.

To learn more about the Peregrine Falcon and what it took to save these incredible birds, Celia Godkin’s non-fiction picture book, Skydiver: Saving the Fastest Bird in the World is a great resource for classrooms, libraries or curious children. Click here to check out Skydiver‘s book trailer.

Learn even more:
From Death’s Door to Life in the City: The Urban Peregrine Falcon
History of Peregrine Falcon Efforts in Indiana
Journey with Nature: Peregrine Falcons
National Post: From the brink of extinction, Prairie falcons make a comeback
National Wildlife Federation: Peregrine Falcon
Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky
The Amoeba Sisters: Biomagnification and the Infamous DDT