Free movement dance exercise at Journée de la Lenteur in Montreal. (Photo by Hugh Gilmore)

Free movement dance exercise at Journée de la Lenteur in Montreal. (Photo by Hugh Gilmore)

by Hugh Gilmore

Our family takes an annual trip to Montreal each summer. In the past we went at no particular time of the season, just when it was convenient to go. But three years ago we happened on “la Journée de la Lenteur” (the Day of Slowness), a small festival designed to coincide with the summer solstice on June 21. This event is so sweet, so corny (in our jaded American opinion) and so much fun we’ve begun timing our trips so we can attend.

The event takes place in the Mont Royal neighborhood, in the Parc Lafontaine, near the circle and statue dedicated to Félix Leclerc (a French-Canadian poet, singer-songwriter, actor and political activist). The basic idea behind la Journée was stated on a small sign hanging from a clothesline strung over one of entrances to the Leclerc Circle:

A Manifesto for a Simple Life:

• Eat Less, Move More

• Buy Less, Make More

• Stress Less, Laugh More

• Feel Blessed, Love More

• Find a quiet spot every day

• Breathe

This year La Journée began around 11 a.m. and went on into the night. As you might expect, it proceeded at a less-than- breathless pace. Workshops included “sweet meditation,” yoga, Le Qi Gong-danse, Gurdjieff meditation, improvised dance, laughter yoga, choruses, contact dance (for flâneurs and flâneuses), Joe Guitar band, massage therapy, group movements, the “Dance of the Five Elements,” and a sculptress who wrapped trees in long strips of pastel-colored silk. That’s just a sample of the workshops.

And the background, all day: world music. (Perhaps best described by fRoot magazine as “local music from out there.”) Some of the songs were standards, but most of it seemed improvised.

A new musician would emerge from somewhere in the park, unpack his instrument (from his bicycle, of course), and ease his sound into the mix. The instruments included guitars, a mandolin, a saxophone, an accordion, various types of ethnic drums, a cello, and even an upright piano – certainly a pleasantly unexpected sight (and sound, in this age of synthesizers) in a public park. All seemed welcome to blend their sound with what was happening.

As French hipsters always manage to do, the participants in every program seemed sincere as they danced, group hugged, chanted, strummed and massaged in order to drive the bad spirits away. I detected not a single note of irony. I confess that even I hummed along with the crowd several times. Just for fun. Just to let go of the binding, almost crippling, stone-faced demeanor an American city dweller must adopt if he hopes to survive a few hours outside his barricaded, armored home. So, yes, I hummed, sometimes loud enough to be heard. Mostly I just smiled and felt happy.

But yet another confession: I get a bit restless while observing silent meditation. Shifting from one foot to another leads after a while to downright moseying along to another event. By pure chance, it’s usually one where pretty women of all ages are dancing a slow, swaying homage to the first day of summer. And from there (even that gets tiring after a while) I inevitably wander back to the musicians.

At 5:30, the event coordinator, a likable man named Patrick, cried “Oyez!” until a crowd of about one hundred people assembled for the emotional finale to the daytime events. A woman approached me to tell me that I would be given a butterfly, if I wished. I should whisper to the butterfly a secret (or yes, a wish – in answer to my question, since I’m not into telling butterflies my secrets). When the grand moment came, each person would release his or her personal butterfly.

Monsieur Papillon (Mr. Butterfly), a round, bearded, red-faced man, was then introduced. He called for everyone to come forward and take a butterfly. I, my wife, Janet, and son, Andrew, worked our way through the milling crowd to get ours. The butterfly was inside a colorful small, triangular box.

As we waited, Mr. Papillon began telling the crowd the significance of what we were about to do. He talked for quite a while, long enough to start becoming a Mark Twain stump speech satire. Many of the assembly tuned him out and treated themselves to a little peek inside the pretty boxes they’d been given. Butterflies began fleeing the coop all through his speech. When Mr. Papillon finally gave over, and gave the command to release, perhaps only a dozen butterflies flew up at once. The rest clung to shirts and hats until sufficiently prodded to go airborne.

Two more things. First, one couldn’t help but wonder how they wrangled the butterflies into the boxes. And from habit I wondered about the political, biological and ecological correctness of the ceremony. The butterfly box had the website and a telephone number printed on it. Coming to a fundraiser near you next, I guess.

Second, – and this is a warning if you’re thinking of coming up here next year – I went up to the directeur, Patrick, that evening and told him how much I liked the Journée de la Lenteur. I told him we had come both last year and this year on June 21 specifically to attend. I told him it reminded me of the 60s.

“Really?” he said, delighted and surprised, as though the idea had never occurred to him.

“Yes,” I said, “it was very much like this. Peace and love, you know?”

“That’s amazing,” he said. Then he brightened, as though he’d just got a great idea, and said, “How would you like to come here next year and do a workshop for us about the 60’s?”

I told him I just might do that.

(Journée de la Lenteur has a Facebook page and a website, with both pix and videos. You can even play “Where’s Hugo?” by spotting me dead center in a Leclerc Circle crowd pic.)