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Oral Storytelling, Ancient Myths, and a Narrative Poem

This is an early rendition of a mythical Siren created in the 6th century BC. Local myths are often part of oral storytelling.
This is an early rendition of a mythical Siren created in the 6th century BC. Local myths are often part of oral storytelling. | Source

The Magic of Oral Storytelling

Oral storytelling is an old, widespread and much loved tradition in many cultures. The tradition appears to be experiencing a revival in some parts of the world, including North America. It's a performance art that often involves interaction between the storyteller and the audience, who usually sit close together. The event is used to entertain the listeners or to teach or reinforce information or cultural values. Stories aimed at people of all ages are shared orally.

An oral story is often presented as prose but may take the form of a poem or a song instead. The ability to act is a useful skill for the performer. The performance may sometimes include dance, music or other forms of media. Ideally, the storyteller presents his or her ideas in a way that stimulates the listeners to visualize or otherwise imagine the story in their own mind. The presentation and interpretation combine to create the story.

Myths and traditional stories are often shared orally. In this article I include a narrative poem related to Ancient Greek myths about the Sirens, Orpheus and the lyre. The story in my poem is told by an oral storyteller.

The Sirens' beautiful song lured men to their death. The decoration on this vase (480-470 BC) shows Odysseus, his crew and the Sirens.
The Sirens' beautiful song lured men to their death. The decoration on this vase (480-470 BC) shows Odysseus, his crew and the Sirens. | Source

According to the story in Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus was bound to a mast to prevent him from responding to the song of the Sirens. His crew put beeswax in their ears so that they were unable to hear the Sirens.

Oral Storytelling Today - A Performance Art

Some storytellers use only the power of their speaking voice to transmit their message. Others add body language, gestures and special effects created by their voice. Some use props as part of their presentation. Singing, chanting, music and dancing are other methods used to convey an idea, information or mood. Some storytellers include photos, paintings or short videos as a background to their talk.

One of my former colleagues became an oral storyteller when he retired. He used only his voice to maintain his audience's interest, which he did very effectively. He was a drama teacher, which probably helped his performance. Additional elements in a performance can certainly be useful, but I think that it's important that they add to the story instead of distracting the listeners and weakening the overall effect.

The video below shows the wonderful potential of an oral storytelling performance that uses no props or additions beyond what the storyteller's body provides. Her personality and acting skills and the audience participation create a very enjoyable experience. The video ends before the story is finished, but it's still very useful.

Diane Ferlatte Tells the Story of Brer Rabbit's Dance

Storytelling Festivals, Competitions and Conferences

Many storytelling festivals and competitions and several conferences are held each year in North America. Two useful links are given at the end of this article. The first site includes a calendar of events for the United States. The second includes similar information for Canada. Both sites contain useful information about storytelling for people in many countries. A quick look at either site will show how popular storytelling is in North America today.

World Storytelling Day is held every year on March 20th. This date is the time of the spring equinox in the Northern Hemisphere and the autumn equinox in the Southern Hemisphere. The day is a celebration of the oral storytelling tradition.

The Myth of the Sirens

In some parts of the world, myths are a frequent theme of oral stories. While the myths are not always viewed as literally true, they may still impart important truths or ideas about life to the listeners.

The tale told by the storyteller in my poem below is based very loosely on the Ancient Greek myth of the Sirens. The Sirens were beings that sang an irresistible song. Their music lured sailors to their death by shipwreck on the island (or islands) inhabited by the Sirens. There were often said to be three of the beings, but the reported number varies.

In classical art, Sirens are often depicted as beautiful women. In the time of the Ancient Greeks, however, they were said to either have the head of a woman and the body of a bird or the upper body of a woman (with or without wings) and the legs of a bird.

The Sirens were believed to have originally had the form of a woman. Their form was changed by a goddess either to enable them to complete a task by flying or as a punishment for a misdeed. As is often true in mythology, the stories that have survived vary in their details.

An Ancient Roman depiction of Orpheus and the animals that he has charmed
An Ancient Roman depiction of Orpheus and the animals that he has charmed | Source

Orpheus, Jason and the Argonauts

Orpheus was a legendary musician and poet who was said to produce exquisite lyre music. The music charmed animals and protected humans from the Sirens. The latter abililty is highlighted in a myth from Ancient Greece described below. In some legends Sirens play lyres, too, but their music was no match for that of Orpheus.

Jason led a band of heroes called the Argonauts. The group went on a sea voyage to search for the Golden Fleece of a ram, which was a symbol of kingship. They travelled on a ship called the Argo. The term Argonauts means "Argo sailors". Although their story has been enhanced over the years, the basic ideas come from ancient times.

Jason was the rightful heir to a throne, but his uncle had claimed the throne instead. The uncle gave Jason the task of finding and delivering the Golden Fleece, believing that Jason would be killed during the difficult journey. After many adventures, however, Jason succeeded in his quest. He needed the help of a sorceress named Medea, though. She put a spell on the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece, causing him to sleep. Jason took the fleece and used it to claim the throne.

During their voyage, Jason and the Argonauts encountered the Sirens. Luckily. Orpheus was on board. He played beautiful music on his lyre that masked the song of the Sirens and kept the men safe.

Another story about Orpheus describes his visit to the underworld to rescue his wife, who has died. He finds her and returns to the upper world in front of her. Unfortunately, he turns to look at his wife before she has fully emerged from the underworld. As a result, he loses her once again.

An illustration on a vase showing a muse playing a lyre; dates from 440-430 BC
An illustration on a vase showing a muse playing a lyre; dates from 440-430 BC | Source

The Lyre

The lyre is a plucked string instrument that is handheld. The ancient lyre looked like a small, u-shaped harp. It was played in different cultures and in multiple historical periods. The number of strings varied. The lyre in my poem contains seven strings, as in the photo above.

Lyres are still played today, although they often have a modern design and are sometimes known as lyre harps. They are usually plucked but are sometimes bowed. Some musicans try to create historically accurate versions of lyres based on the remains and illustrations that have been discovered.

The sound of a lyre varies and depends on many factors, including the materials used to make the lyre, the instrument's size and the tension of the strings. We can never know exactly what the lyre sounded like to Ancient Greeks, but in my poem I imagine a sound like that in the video below - rich and resonant.

The Sound of a Lyre

The Story of Huw and the Sirens

The path of ages on her face
and misted eyes for secrecy
In a gnarled voice of power
the storyteller spoke

The eager words rejoiced
at freedom to create,
released into the wild
to weave their fantasy

Dragons roared above
and flew with mighty wings
over caverns full of gold
and treasure from the past

The listeners looked in awe
at depths of gleaming jewels
They felt Huw's growing lust
and heat of dragon fire

Then a haunting melody
sung by eternal youth
echoed through the caves
to lure humanity

Bewitched by pulsing sounds,
compelled to seek their source,
Huw found the ocean shore
but saw no singer there

Pulled in by rising waves
and current of the song,
dragged down to depths of fear
and life without a breath

Sirens circled round their prey
before him and behind
and spun a web of sound
to trap him in their midst

A warrior at heart
Yet Huw could not respond
Conquered by the sound
from women of the deep

With deafening shrieks of hate
disguise of beauty shed,
their beaks and talons raised
to pierce his heart with spite

Then music of the lyre
played by an unseen hand
stayed the path of pain
and pushed his fear away

The music soared in joy
drowning raucous cries
replacing threads of woe
with gossamer of love

The melody of the strings
lifted Huw from grief,
returning empathy and breath
while carrying him to shore

The dragons slept in peace
and dreamt of ancient times
lulled by the lyre of care
and alchemy of sound

Huw took but seven jewels
in memory of the lyre
tempered greed with love
and left the rest untouched

The clan in celebration sang
of battles fought and won,
of dragon gold and sea,
of sirens and the lyre

The smell of roasting food
a feast for young and old
warm hearth and golden mead
good friends and company

The storyteller stopped
but still her tale lived on
with giddy dance and love
and laughter in the air

The words swirled round the room
continuing to create
She smiled at them with love
and called them to her care

The coffee shop restored,
dark screens of devices mute
The listeners slowly stirred
and clapped as she arose

The storyteller left
in company with words,
faint music at her side,
soft laughter in her wake

Each listener resolved
to hear her talk again
and enter other worlds
in the storyteller's dreams

Two Oral Storytelling Resources

© 2016 Linda Crampton

More by this Author


Comments 62 comments

Jodah profile image

Jodah 8 months ago from Queensland Australia

Alicia, this is a wonderful overall hub. Just packed with historical and mythological information about oral story-telling (of which our own Australian aboriginals were proficient). The icing on the cake, for me, was the delightful poem 'The Story of Huw and the Sirens." Great work.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you so much for such a kind comment, Jodah! I appreciate your visit a great deal.


billybuc profile image

billybuc 8 months ago from Olympia, WA

Such a rich tradition in storytelling....great hub about a cultural tool handed down from generation to generation. Very interesting, my friend.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Bill. Thanks for the comment. I love the tradition of oral storytelling and the fact that telling stories is still popular.


Venkatachari M profile image

Venkatachari M 8 months ago from Hyderabad, India

Very great article on oral storytelling and the traditions. This art is prevalent in all corners of the world and it needs to be revived and protected.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment, Venkatachari. I agree with you - the tradition of oral storytelling does need to be revived and protected!


manatita44 profile image

manatita44 8 months ago from london

That was some story, Alicia. So sorry that it was not finished. You presented the whole Hub excellently. I'm also familiar with some of these heroes and their stories. Such a nice Hub and great music from the Lyre.

I saw a girl being interviewed today, and I heard some of her stories. A black Jamaican performer who lives in Canada. I thought that she was awesome! Her interviews were also so lucid ; so much depth!

Thank you so much. I know of Brer Rabbit and told many stories of Brer Rabbit and Brer Anancy in Granada. Truly remarkable tales.


MsDora profile image

MsDora 8 months ago from The Caribbean

Your article took me back to childhood, and my grandmother's storytelling about Brer Anansi (Caribbean folklore). Good information to know. I admire story tellers.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Manatita. Thanks for the comment. I thought the video was excellent as well and would have liked to have seen more of the story. Thank you for sharing the information about Granada tales. I'll have to investigate them.


manatita44 profile image

manatita44 8 months ago from london

Grenada, where I was born. There is a girl here in England called Kat Francois, who tells some of these stories, and of course the Jamaicans and Trinidadians are very good. I believe that Dora did touch on this lightly once. It is a Caribbean tradition, but perhaps we got it from the Africans.

Interestingly, myths as you so nicely explained, are not new. I have followed the spiritual life for 33 years and I have learnt a great many stories both East and West. Sages have used them to inspire and help us, but yes, they change and become embellished, as they are handed down. Great Hub, Alicia.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the visit, Dora. Caribbean folklore definitely sounds interesting!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi again, Manatita. Thanks for the second visit and for sharing more information. I find many myths inspiring, too. I never dismiss them as "just fiction" without thinking about how they could apply to life. They may not be literally true, but I think that they often contain great value.


heidithorne profile image

heidithorne 8 months ago from Chicago Area

Thank goodness at least some of these oral myths and stories have survived! With today's emphasis on "storytelling" in marketing, it's obvious that the skill is still one that's important even in our time. Thanks for another informative hub. Have a great week!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Heidi. Thanks for the visit and the interesting comment. I hope you have a great week, too.


Blond Logic profile image

Blond Logic 8 months ago from Brazil

I am glad to know that oral storytelling is still going on. With so many people immersed in technology and feeling like they need to be constantly connected, it is good to have that human element take center stage. I am sure there will come a time when we will feel starved of human contact.

To have an audience hanging on your every word and holding their attention is a talent.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Blond Logic. I agree - the human element is very important. The best oral storytellers are certainly very talented! Thanks for commenting.


bdegiulio profile image

bdegiulio 8 months ago from Massachusetts

Wonderful Hub Linda. Hopefully there will always be a place for storytelling even as technology advances and makes us ever more addicted to our devices. Sometimes it's just nice to actually hear someone's voice.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much, Bill. Like you, I hope that oral storytelling continues even as technology advances. I'm encouraged by what I see happening at the moment.


Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 8 months ago from southern USA

Oh, I love oral storytelling and the video you included is wonderful and such a treat to watch.

Linda, this is such a wonderful hub. Down here in the South, way back in the day, oral storytelling is exactly how they passed on family history through telling of stories and such, plus so many were so poor, that's all they had, and funny how that works out to be a blessing.

Your poem is phenomenal, Linda. You are gifted in so many areas.

Thank you for all the hard work you put into this hub, but I know it must have been so enjoyable to write.

Sharing everywhere

Looks like you have a HOTD here!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you so much for the lovely and very kind comment, Theresa. I appreciate it a great deal. I appreciate all your shares, too. You're absolutely right about my enjoyment in creating this article! Though I always like writing hubs, there are some that are especially enjoyable for me to create. This was one of them.

Thank you for sharing the information about storytelling in your area, too. It's always interesting to learn new things by reading comments!


nicenet profile image

nicenet 8 months ago

Thanks for sharing your hub. I remembered our days when we sit in circles at night, when the moon radiated its bright light and we listened to our elders tell us folk-tales and folk-lores. I think oral story telling should be integrated into the curriculum.


DDE profile image

DDE 8 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

Hi AliciaC you shared an informative well presented hub. I enjoyed the learning lesson.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Your memories sound lovely, nicenet! Thank you for sharing them.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the visit and comment, Devika.


Frank Atanacio profile image

Frank Atanacio 8 months ago from Shelton

wonderful hub and a very well tuned poem.. awesome my friend :)


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you, Frank! I appreciate your comment very much.


Erzulie LM profile image

Erzulie LM 8 months ago

A really great and informative hub. It really resonated with my because oral story telling within the family, community or though a Griot is part of my culture


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment, Erzulie LM. Thank you for sharing the information, too. I had never heard of a Griot before reading your comment.


Robert Levine profile image

Robert Levine 8 months ago from Brookline, Massachusetts

I'd venture to say that much early storytelling was done in verse--the Homeric epics, the Norse sagas & Beowulf, & the Mahabharata all originated in oral tradition. The meter & rhyme, as well as stock elements like the trademark Homeric epithets ("rosy-fingered dawn"), make the material easier to memorize.

There was a griot from Mali who used to perform in the subway stations here in Boston. Oddly, he never spoke or sang; he just played a lute-like instrument called a kora, & played it exquisitely.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for sharing such interesting information, Robert. Today's oral storytelling does seem reminiscent of earlier times. I'm glad that the tradition is becoming popular again. I think it has a lot to offer us.


Suhail and my dog profile image

Suhail and my dog 8 months ago from Mississauga, ON

Awesome hub!

Your hub reminded me of a big city of Peshawar, Pakistan. Peshawar is the largest city of its Khyber Puktoonkhwa Province. there is a marketplace in the city called 'Qissa Khawani Bazar', meaning marketplace of the story tellers. Back in the days, trading caravans used to rest here and their story tellers used to share the adventure stories of their travels.

Come to think of story telling, my late father was good at it. The way he read us siblings our very first book of R. M. Ballantyne's Coral Island, I will never forget that. I think his story telling contributed a lot to my habit of reading books.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment, Suhail. I love the things that I'm learning about storytelling in other countries and cultures via the comments on this hub. The idea of a marketplace for storytellers sounds wonderful.

Your second paragraph reminded me of my father. When I was a child, he told me bedtime stories that he created on the spot. I loved to follow the adventures of the two characters that he created. I'm sure that this contributed to my love of reading, just as your father's storytelling did.


Suhail and my dog profile image

Suhail and my dog 8 months ago from Mississauga, ON

Exactly, Linda.

I tried to pass it on to my children, reading them the first books of Harry Potter, but then they started reading on their own rather early. Given how the next generation is all into electronic gadgets, I am not sure how will my children continue with the story telling with their children :-)


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Suhail. Yes, electronic gadgets are a concern. They have some wonderful uses, but they also have some serious drawbacks. The intense interest of youth in electronic devices does make one wonder about the future of oral stories.


MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 8 months ago from South Africa

This is a very interesting hub and excellent poem, Alicia. The Story of Huw and the Sirens is a winner!

I often contemplate the time way back, before stories were written. Imagine the villages, people gathering, probably weekly, to be entertained by talented storytellers. While today we have radio, movies, TV, books....

My father was an excellent storyteller. I remember a time in the 60's when he entertained me and my siblings at least once a week with a story. He made us laugh and cry. We hung upon his lips as he pulled his face and changed his voice. During family gatherings he always came forward with a story, usually a comedy.

Thanks for reminding me of this :)


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

The memory of your father is lovely, Martie. It's interesting and sad at the same time to think of the stories of the past. Thank you very much for the comment about the hub and the poem. I appreciate your visit a great deal.


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 7 months ago from Stillwater, OK

Fortunately, this is not a forgotten art. I recently saw a short video of a Native co-worker, singing and telling tales in his language to his infant son. It pierced my heart with intent, and made me respect the father that he became from a young and indolent man such a short time prior.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

This is another lovely story. Thank you for sharing it, Deb.


Jackie Lynnley profile image

Jackie Lynnley 7 months ago from The Beautiful South

Such a great idea. Storytelling I know is somewhere in all of our lives but quickly moving away. I hope it will never become a lost art.

Love your poem too!

Come over and see us as creative exiles sometime!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Jackie. I hope that storytelling never becomes a lost art, too. Thank you very much for the visit. I appreciate your comment!


Harishprasad profile image

Harishprasad 7 months ago from India

Linda, this hub touched my heart. Your beautiful poem took me to a wonderful world. Storytelling is a great art, it is a good news that it is again taking roots. Not even mythical ones but also real life stories, if told artfully, gives the listeners a great joy. You have penned a fantastic hub that 'll surely act as potent balm against so much stress around. Thank you very much.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you so much for such a lovely comment, Harishprasad. I appreciate your visit and your kindness a great deal! I'm glad that storytelling is becoming more popular, too. It is a great art, as you say.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 7 months ago from Houston, Texas

I truly enjoyed your poem. The folks listening to the tale in the coffee shop were transported to another world and time with that story. Interesting how stories are passed on from generation to generation...be they fact or myth. Great job as always!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much, Peggy. I always appreciate your comments!


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 7 months ago from England

In the storytellers dreams! woo I loved it! this is my kind of subject, I love all the old myths and the way they used to be spoken! fascinating read and I love the poem, nell


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Nell. Thanks for the visit and the comment! I love the old myths, too. They are often very interesting. I find some of them very meaningful as well.


Vellur profile image

Vellur 7 months ago from Dubai

A great hub about oral storytelling enjoyed reading and loved the poem. Listening to stories is like entering into a world created by the words of the storyteller and it is magical. India, my home country the art of storytelling still lives on.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the comment, Vellur. I agree - listening to a story can definitely be magical. It's great to hear that storytelling is still popular in India.


Nadine May profile image

Nadine May 7 months ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

What an entertaining hub with great mythical stories. It reminded me of the time years ago wen I was telling oral stories to my own children before bedtime. It started one evening ... I came up with the life of one cent in an old ladies purse. From then on every night I had to keep adding more adventures of the one cent, how it sometimes felt unworthy because of its value compared to the bigger coins. it traveled from one place, or purse to another...On and on...

Your poem was awesome.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

I love the sound of the bedtime stories that you told your children, Nadine. I liked to hear familiar stories from my father, but I also liked him to add new adventures, as you did in the tale of the cent. Thank you very much for the comment about the hub and the poem.


Larry Rankin profile image

Larry Rankin 7 months ago from Oklahoma

The oral story is how it all began, and is probably a be contributor to the history of intellectual thought.

Great read!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Larry. I hope oral storytelling never loses its popularity and is regarded as an important contributor to our history! Thanks for the visit.


FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 7 months ago from USA

Your poem was excellent; I prefer poetry packed with meaning rather than forced rhyme. My parents just returned from a visit to Charleston, SC where they were delighted and entertained by a Gullah storyteller. My dad never tips anyone but he tipped this woman, as she was truly phenomenal. They raved so much about her that I'm going to have to go visit for myself.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment, Flourish. I do occasionally write poems with rhyme, but I usually create ones without rhyme. The storyteller that your parents heard sounds excellent. I'd like to hear her myself!


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 7 months ago from Houston, Texas

Good storytelling is an art. When I was a child I heard many stories from my grandparents and listened with great interest. Whether it relates to truth or fiction a good story can capture one's attention and spur one's imagination. I enjoyed your poem at the end while listening to the music of a lyre being played. Nice!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

I agree, Peggy - storytelling is definitely an art and can certainly stimulate the imagination. Thanks for reading the poem and listening to the music.


Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 7 months ago from San Diego California

A very captivating poem. We've been telling stories since we first started sitting around the campfire in bearskins. As language developed, so did the stories. I think people love stories because it stirs something in the genetic memory of the species. Great hub!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Mel. Thanks for the visit and the comment. It's very interesting to think about the development of stories and the history of storytelling!


Rachel L Alba profile image

Rachel L Alba 6 months ago from Every Day Cooking and Baking

Hi Alicia, I had an aunt who was a good story teller. You thought you were right there in her story. She never had children but all of us younger cousins would follow her around waiting for to tell a story. I enjoyed the poem also.

Blessings to you.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 6 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Your aunt sounds like she was certainly a great storyteller, Rachel. It's wonderful to meet a person who takes you into their story!

Blessings to you, as well.


vespawoolf profile image

vespawoolf 2 months ago from Peru, South America

Thank you for explaining the elements of the poem. The storyteller illustrated in the video has an amazing talent. I'm always impressed by those who can keep the attention of an audience in such a situation. Some people have that knack, but I know it can also be developed. I've always enjoyed mythical tales. Thank you for this well-written article.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, vespawoolf. I agree - the storyteller in the video is very talented. She can definitely hold the attention of an audience! Thank you for the comment.

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