Kyria Loulouda calls to her sister to help her wind the yards of woven girdle around and around my waist. Kyria Stella’s aged fingers, still strong, tuck the sash ends in tightly, smoothing down the fabric she and Loulouda wove themselves. The snug embrace of the sash supports my back and encourages me to stand proudly upright. As they help me with the intricate tucks and pleats of the festival dress, and the careful tying of the flowered headscarf, I see their tired, careworn faces come alight with joy and expectation. When they are satisfied, they turn me towards the mirror, smiling.
We gaze at ourselves, a row of three women, dressed alike. Like the butterflies embroidered in bright silks on the dark cloth of the bodice, we too are transformed. The food is prepared, the housework is done, the animals taken care of for the night; the other women await us in the square where, by tradition, they will open the dance with their own singing as they have done countless times throughout their lives. We are in the village of Pentalofos in Greek Thrace in the early twenty-first century, living a timeless scene which has been repeated through the generations for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.
As I experienced for myself when Kyria Loulouda and Kyria Stella dressed me in the costume of their village, the securely wrapped layers of traditional folk dress strongly shape the posture and movements of the women wearing them. Variations in costume from village to village naturally correspond to variations in dance style, determined, for example, by skirts being longer or shorter, narrow or full. The dance and the costume worn while dancing are thus inseparable. The same symbols and patterns may be expressed in both forms, so that the one helps us better understand the other. Just as the style of the dance depends on the costume, the costume reciprocally depends on the dance, as details such as fringes, sash ends, jewelry and headdresses are shown to their best effect only in movement.
The relation between costume and dance is emphasized in the common embroidered motif known in Bulgaria as ‘horo’, ‘dance’ which you can see in my previous blog post. The pattern, showing a row of identical female figures holding hands, neatly mirrors the row of identically-dressed women in the dance line. Goddess figures in both embroidery and archaeology tend to lack distinguishing facial features, indicating that they were not intended as portraits of individual women. In similar fashion, the ritual dance circle where all women are dressed alike also subsumes individual characteristics. I suggest this is intended to help women overcome the limitations of personality in order to serve on ritual occasions as transpersonal or archetypal representatives of the feminine. In my view, ritual dances can facilitate an experience of both transcendence and immanence: the dancers become aware of the divine feminine embodied within them, a force vastly larger than themselves but of which they are inextricably a part.
Textile researcher Sheila Paine identifies as ‘goddess-derived’ embroidered female figures which appear in repeated symmetrical patterns such as the horo motif described above, or which themselves display a symmetrical, centrally focused ‘ritual stance’.
Repeated symmetrical patterns, rhythmic gestures and ritual stance are basic characteristics of traditional circle dances. Through taking on these attributes, I believe the dancers are enabled to transcend their individuality and themselves enter a state which is ‘goddess-derived’. As Iris Stewart points out, since ancient times this has been the role of the priestess, who consciously employed ritual dress, jewelry and headgear – just as Balkan women did and still do – in order to move beyond personal identity and embody a larger power. This ability to move between the worlds is represented by the image of a woman with wings.
Surviving texts and archaeological evidence show that ritual dance was a primary means of women’s worship in ancient Europe. Images of women dancing with joined hands have been depicted in rock art, pottery shards, vases and frescoes, as much as ten thousand years before the present. Flutes made of animal bones, 35,000 to 40,000 years old, have been discovered; musicians are often shown accompanying the dance. The many portrayals of women dancing and drumming indicate that these activities were considered important in the earliest civilizations. Furthermore, images of women’s ritual dance in antiquity are often directly reflected in customs which can still be witnessed in Eastern Europe today.
The archaeological record confirms the significance of the dance in a wide area of Eastern Europe and the Near East. At the heart of this region is the area known as Old Europe, birthplace of agriculture, whose indigenous inhabitants lived in peaceful agrarian settlements for thousands of years. Excavations here have yielded countless goddess figures in bone, wood, stone, and pottery, dating back to the origins of agriculture some 8000 years ago and even back to the Paleolithic period, over 25,000 years ago. Because the area where the goddess figures are most widespread corresponds to the area where circle dance traditions are still most concentrated and most intact, I suggest that women’s dances surviving today can be seen as living remnants of the Old European Goddess culture, which may have persisted for over twenty thousand years.
According to archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, the Goddess of the earliest Old European civilizations was a deity of birth, death and regeneration. Feminist theologian Carol P. Christ identifies an essential function of the Goddess symbol for women as the affirmation of the female body and the life cycle embodied within it. This connection to the cycle of life is also a key aspect of women’s ritual dances.
- Paine, Sheila. Embroidered Textiles. London: Rizzoli International Publications, 1990
- Stewart, Iris J. Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance: Awakening Spirituality Through Movement and Ritual. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2000
Laura Shannon has been researching and teaching traditional women’s ritual dances since 1987. She is considered one of the ‘grandmothers’ of the worldwide Sacred / Circle Dance movement and gives workshops regularly in over twenty countries worldwide. Laura holds an honours degree in Intercultural Studies (1986) and a diploma in Dance Movement Therapy (1990). She has also dedicated much time to primary research in Balkan and Greek villages, learning songs, dances, rituals and textile patterns which have been passed down for many generations, and which embody an age-old worldview of sustainability, community, and reverence for the earth.