Women’s Ritual Dances: Secret Language of the Goddess by Laura Shannon

Laura Shannon square crop

My life’s work with traditional women’s circle dances of Eastern Europe and the Near East has been a natural interweaving of feminism, activism and Goddess spirituality. I would like to share how I came to discover these dances and their potential as tools for healing and transformation.

Circles of women dancing with joined hands appear in rock art, pottery shards, vases and frescoes going back thousands of years1, showing that ritual dance was a primary means of women’s worship. I believe that existing women’s circle dance traditions of the Balkans are direct descendants of these rituals. In their expression of values of partnership, sustainability, and peace, they are living links to the matrifocal Goddess culture of Old Europe as articulated by Marija Gimbutas.2

Tell Halaf, Iraq, ca, 5000-4000 BCE (Garfinkel)

Incorporating symbols of the Goddess in her many guises, these women’s ritual dances are deeply spiritual. They are feminist in the way they provide women with a place of power, not ‘power-over’ but ‘power-from-within.’3 They are an activist practice because the qualities they embody – connection, inclusiveness, balance, empathy, and mutuality – are the principles of a Partnership society, as proposed by Riane Eisler;4 or in Carol Lee Flinders’ term, a society of Belonging.5  Each dance circle is an opportunity to practice being in community in a respectful and cooperative way, which can offer a profound source of healing.6

How did I come to these women’s dances? As a child I was convinced of certain truths: that nature is holy, that God is also female, and that instead of hurting one another, people should celebrate together with music and dance. These longings led me to the rich folk dance traditions of the American melting pot, women’s Middle Eastern Dance circles, and the women’s spirituality network. Around the same time, in the early 1980s, I encountered the meditative communal dance practice known as Sacred Dance. Together with my university training in Intercultural Studies and Dance Movement Therapy, these different streams helped shape the path of my life.

Sacred Dance inspired me very much. Also known as Circle Dance, this community dance form was developed in the 1970s by a German ballet master, Bernhard Wosien, his daughter Maria-Gabriele Wosien and his student Friedel Kloke. Bernhard adapted circular folk dances of Eastern Europe as well as newly choreographed circle dances as tools for personal insight and group connection, and brought Sacred Dance to the ecological community of Findhorn in Scotland in 1976.7 I was able to learn directly from these original teachers as well as Anna Barton and others at Findhorn, where I completed two teacher trainings in the late 1980s.

Kazineh, Iran, ca, 5000 BCE (Garfinkel)
Kazineh, Iran, ca, 5000 BCE (Garfinkel)

While I found the Sacred Dance choreographies and simplified folk dances very beautiful, I also observed that they were built on a foundation of Christian, masculine, sky-oriented, hero- and saviour-based interpretations of myth and symbol. There remained in my heart a hunger for something more balanced, more inclusive, more earthy, more womanly. I had found this in Middle Eastern dance, a women’s solo dance tradition which goes back thousands of years,8 and wondered whether the women’s circle dances depicted in the archaeological record might also still survive.

Dancing women of Chania, Crete, early 20th C.
Dancing women of Chania, Crete, early 20th C.

Many research trips to the Balkans beginning in the 1980s enabled me to experience living circle dance traditions, and to see how communal dancing was still a normal part of life for many ordinary people. I quickly saw that women and men there typically dance in different styles and with different steps, and also that simple dances were by far the favourites among all ages. By contrast, in the international folk dance groups in western Europe and North America, where I thought I was learning authentic Balkan dances, the repertoire was heavily biased toward men’s dances with large steps, vigorous movements and complicated variations, while women’s dances and simple dances (they are often the same) were ignored almost completely. This was ironic considering that in the many folk dance groups I visited in Western Europe and North America, women dancers overwhelmingly outnumbered the men. This folk dance scene was a microcosm of western society, really, where the male norm is considered the human norm9, and women’s concerns are cast as secondary or denied altogether.

Dances with simple steps were derided as ‘boring’ in these groups, but after I severely injured my knee at the age of twenty (during a men’s dance), these simple dances were the only ones I could do. Now I felt for myself the joyful power of repeating a simple familiar pattern in synchrony with others, where everyone is relaxed and confident in their movements. My studies in dance movement therapy allowed me to understand how simple repeated patterns synchronise brain waves and establish a collective feeling of unity, connectedness and being held10 – the opposite of the atmosphere at folk dance classes where people struggled to execute one complicated choreography after another, in a climate of judgment, hierarchy and competition. Instead of this, the simple dances emphasised acceptance, community and cooperation. This was a life-changing realisation for me. It led me away from the ‘consumer’ culture of a folk dance and circle dance world ever hungry for more new dances, and set me on my path of rediscovering simple women’s circle dances as a practice of healing and a source of wisdom.

Through my immersion in this world, I entered a lineage of transmission, a way of accessing and understanding encoded wisdom which has been faithfully preserved in the dances for many generations. My dance therapy training and my experience of women’s spirituality circles, along with the original Findhorn example of consciously using dances for groupwork, helped me recognise the potential these dances still have – not as ethnographic curios or audience entertainment, but as powerful living tools for healing and transformation. Through these experiences I came to see the dances as a movement practice like yoga or t’ai chi, or a women’s mystery school where the dances transmit encoded information with conscious intent.

An excerpt from Laura Shannon’s essay in the recently released She Rises Vol. 2 from Mago Books.

1 Yosef Garfinkel, Dancing at the Dawn Of Agriculture, p. 3.

2 Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess, pp. xvii-xxi and 321.

3 Starhawk, Truth or Dare, p. 10.

4 Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade, pp. 7-41.

5 Carol Lee Flinders, Rebalancing the World, pp. 201-202.

6 Laura Shannon, “Women’s Ritual Dances: An Ancient Source of Healing in Our Time”, pp. 138-157.

7 Maria-Gabriele Wosien, Bernhard Wosien: Der Weg Des Tänzers, pp. 21-22

8 Wendy Buonaventura, Serpent of the Nile, pp. 25-26.

9 Dale Spender, Man Made Language, pp. 1-3.

10 Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets, pp. 337-343.


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. Laura’s essay ‘Women’s Ritual Dances: An Ancient Source of Healing in Our Times’,  was published in Dancing on the Earth. Laura lives partly in Greece and partly in the Findhorn ecological community in Scotland.

Author: Laura Shannon

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 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. Laura’s essay ‘Women’s Ritual Dances: An Ancient Source of Healing in Our Times’, was published in Dancing on the Earth. Also a musician, Laura performs throughout Europe and in the USA with her partner Kostantis Kourmadias.

27 thoughts on “Women’s Ritual Dances: Secret Language of the Goddess by Laura Shannon”

  1. When I first came to Greece, I was offended that the men seemed to have all of the “starring” roles in Greek dancing. Like you, I came to understand that in the circle dances the women go into a light trance holding hands with each other–holding the community together. Carol Lee Sanchez, my Native American friend who came from a matrilineal tribe, used to say that the grandmothers understood that young men need to be given an opportunity to show off and to be praised for doing so for activities that allow them to expend their energy but do not involve war or aggression. I have also come to believe that is true.


  2. Thank you for Tthis very expressive article. But in my opinion if you could embrace other culture in the world, it would then be more “global”. And to reach a holistic view on the subject I think you should explore Latin America and Africa culture.

    For exemple, in Benin my country (West Africa) with a multitude of ethnic group, we have various interesting and unique traditional dances. Each dances can be linked to the heritage from which that ethnic group comes from. They all have specific characteristics and moves that are very pleasing to witness. And of course here the transmission of <> recovers a very deep meaning. In the former Abomey (the same famous Kingdom known by the amazones, woman warriors) some dances are performed by both men and women… with no starring role but <>.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it’s a shame that folk dancing communities in the U.S. have focused mainly (and sometimes exclusively) on dances from all across Europe, plus to a certain extent, on the modern Israeli dances. You can find classes on African dance, African dance performance groups, but few dancing communities that practice African dance just as fun. From what I’ve seen of African dance, it seems to be much more athletic, and as a result, not for everyone (For example, having back problems, I won’t do certain hip thrusts that I’ve seen in much African dance). Also I’ve never seen a line or circle dance that was African. I’m sure they must exist, but here in the U.S. we don’t know about them.


    2. Yes, I agree with you. In all my worldwide travels, in which I have sought out traditional dancing, I have found dance customs with ‘a very deep meaning’, as you also describe. This makes me feel even more strongly that there is a fundamental bond among all members of the human family, on all continents, and of all ethnicities and religions, expressed through music and dance. I have had wonderful experiences, also with African dance.


      1. Please look into The Dance of Universal Peace of rmore info on cultural dance. This used to be called Sufi Dancing. it is wonderful and incorporates song….. also see Max Dashu about her 40+ years of cultural heritage esp women, pre-Christian…..Also see Sohpie Drinker’s book “Women and Music” over 50 years old.


        1. Yes, Sophie Drinker’s 1948 book is wonderful. I love how she writes that she was inspired to research missing women’s music by her ‘intense interest in the enrichment of women’s inner lives’ (from the Foreword). For me, too, the missing women’s dances (which of course are inseparable from their music) have so much to offer women – the deep research into them is never, for me, motivated by purely academic or intellectual curiosity, but because they are powerful tools for healing and transformation which continue to ‘enrich women’s inner lives’, even across the years and miles, for women living in very different cultures and eras from those where the dances originate.

          What I most appreciate about Dances of Universal Peace is the way they bring together different religious traditions with the same understanding: that every spiritual path has something to offer, even to people from different backgrounds and beliefs, and that by singing and dancing the diversity of faiths together we can promote harmony and tolerance among different peoples and religions in the world. This is a wonderful approach which all the different teachers of Western Sufism (including Murshid Sam, who founded the DUP) have brought into our collective awareness.

          We see the same process when dancing women’s ritual dances of Greek, Armenian, Turkish, Kurdish, Jewish, Romany, Albanian, Bulgarian, Assyrian, Latvian and other peoples, with a conscious intent to seek common elements of community harmony and peace which are present in the dances of all – despite historical enmity among some of those groups, there is something stronger which can overcome that legacy. I have found it particularly moving, over the last 30 years, to dance Jewish and Romani dances in Germany, for instance, as a conscious act of reconciliation and a step towards historical healing. Sometimes shared movement can touch places which words cannot. My friend Shakeh Major Tchilingirian is doing the same work with her collective dance ritual, Circle of Life, bringing people of different religions (for instance Armenians and Turks) together with music and dance, while honouring 50 of the different peoples who have been targets of genocide in the 20th C. More about Shakeh’s work at:


          And of course, yes, Max Dashu has done wonders with her Suppressed Histories Archive to rescue and share the otherwise lost images of women’s music, dance, and power, inspiring seekers for decades and giving us the incontrovertible proof of our own ancient power. Her invaluable illustrated talks (including some on women’s sacred dances) are fantastic. Everyone should know (and support) her work if they don’t already:

          Thank you, Raven, for reminding us of these precious resources.


  3. Thanks Laura, for this sharing here at FAR on circle dancing! Interesting too your reference to ritual dance as a primary means of women’s worship. And I loved seeing those ancient drawings too. We need more posts on WOMEN IN DANCE and maybe regards some of the famous women dancers in history and their stories.

    Also I thought you might enjoy this wonderful poem by Emily Dickinson — here is one of the all-time great women poets writing her way through her love of dance via her mystical imagination — and transforming herself too in the process. She says:

    Two Butterflies went out at Noon —
    And waltzed upon a Farm,
    Then stepped straight through the Firmament
    And rested, on a Beam —

    And then — together bore away
    Upon a shining Sea —
    Though never yet, in any Port —
    Their coming, mentioned — be —

    If spoken by the distant Bird —
    If met in Ether Sea
    By Frigate, or by Merchantman —
    No notice — was — to me —

    ~ Emily Dickinson

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “Through these experiences I came to see the dances as a movement practice like yoga or t’ai chi.”

    Interesting comment. It’s the slowness of t’ai chi that always fascinated me. So I wonder how fast are the dances you’ve mentioned here? I used to practice walking meditation in a group, done very slowly, and it was quite wonderful in terms of letting go of self-consciousness, because you couldn’t just walk, you had to concentrate on every movement.


    1. Well, the dances are mostly a lot faster than ‘walking meditation’ which when I have seen it has been extremely slow indeed, but the women’s traditional dances are a lot slower than the ‘usual’ folk dances. Sometimes they have elements such as arm movements which enable a bit more of a workout, and sometimes the dancers work up a real sweat happens purely through the activation of chi and not through an aerobic or athletic type of movement. The dances need to be relatively simple and slow so that every woman can dance them throughout her entire life, since in Greece and the Balkans the expectation is that people will continue to dance even in their older years. This is so important in helping maintain good health, good spirits, and good connections with the community.


      1. Laura, this was a delightful, inspiring article – thank you. I love here where you comment that the sweating can happen through “activation of chi” and how this is available to women through all phases of life. That touches me deeply… Blessings!


  5. As a DJ who has used the dance floor to study cultural taboos and rituals of mating, I must agree full heartedly with any conclusions of higher forms of consciousness as a result of female ritual dances.
    As a researcher in reclusive sub-cultures, experiencing first hand- the power of 30 women during a full moon healing ceremony involving psilocybin properties, states of exctasy and uphoria were at the peak of most involved .
    Simple movement to music creates multitudes of reactions in the Human brain , adding safety, let alone pleasure or dopamine receptive chemicals, releases most individuals into a meditative and largely blissful state of being!
    Long live the Dance!
    THC The Drumming DJ


  6. As a former folk dancer (and hopefully a future folk dancer), I also found my greatest joy in the simple, women’s dances. Their hypnotic quality moved us all into trance through “brainwave entrainment,” one of the known methods of creating alpha waves in the brain.

    My experience also mirrored yours in that the dances that people admired most were complicated, and usually fast, men’s dances, performed by men and women alike. The women’s dances were often performed by women alone, which may be another reason that I loved them.

    My experience with sacred dance is through the Dances of Universal Peace. They are all simple pieces that the group both sings and dances together. I find that combination particularly effective, since it uses all of the participants’ bodies and minds, and therefore, spirits together.


  7. “the joyful power of repeating a simple familiar pattern in synchrony with others, where everyone is relaxed and confident in their movements.” Yes, yes, yes! and over time this energy builds joyfully and opens up the soul energy into a healing and rejuvenative flow. We need to do more of this, and give it time, to slow ourselves down into this old ceremonial spirit.

    I invite you to look at some pages on The Women’s Dance, much of it ancient rock art, from my blog:

    Southern Asia: http://www.sourcememory.net/veleda/?p=385

    Northern Africa: http://www.sourcememory.net/veleda/?p=413&amp;

    Southern Africa: http://www.sourcememory.net/veleda/?p=432&amp;

    Northern Mediterranean: http://www.sourcememory.net/veleda/?p=450&amp;

    North America: http://www.sourcememory.net/veleda/?p=466&amp;

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly! Max, thank you for these links to your amazing posts, with your rich and thorough collection of other images of women’s dance in the archaeological record. You’ve done fantastic work in bringing all these images together – all my favourites from the diverse sources in my library plus many new images I have not seen before. Well done and thank you.

      The 2 archaeological images in my blog above are from Yosef Garfinkel’s book, Dancing at the Dawn Of Agriculture, reproduced also in Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s excellent book The Dancing Goddesses. The historical photo of women in Crete is from the archive of the Lykeion ton Ellinidon, Chania.

      I think it is worth mentioning that the archaeological record shows overwhelmingly more images of women dancing in groups and circles than images of men’s or mixed groups and circles. And for me it is interesting that nowadays in the Sacred Dance and International folk dance scene, as I mention in my blog, women dancers overwhelmingly outnumber the men. In this way I feel that we, dancing in circles of mainly women, are carrying on a tradition that has clearly existed for 8,000 years and more in Europe and all over the planet.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. As Max writes,
    ‘…over time this energy builds joyfully and opens up the soul energy into a healing and rejuvenative flow….’
    Nancy also describes her great joy in the simple, women’s dances, whose ‘hypnotic quality moved us all into trance….’
    For me, these elements are at the very heart of what makes these women’s dances so important. They are an endless source of healing and rejuvenating energy which dancers can tap into and receive the benefit of, every time we dance. In this way they give us more energy than it costs us to do them. What a gift! This is indeed sacred.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Another beautiful article by you, Laura – thank you! – and startlingly honest about your personal journey. I particularly love your phrase, “a lineage of transmission”. Yes! It captures both the energy and urgency of the contemporary task and the faithfulness of our foremothers. Much more meaningful than that rather stolid and ‘churchy’ word, “tradition”! Excellent writing!


  10. The rich folkdance culture of girls (in particular) and women with the East Slavs (Russians, Belarussians and Ukrainians) can be added. They compose of circle, round and other dancefigures and are mostly preformed on their own yearcycle ceremonies.


  11. Hi Laura, a friend of mine alerted me to your post – which I read with great interest. I’m one of the editors for the Journal of Dance, Movement and Spiritualities, and we have a special issue on the Goddess. Would you be interested to submit something?

    Deadlines for that are 30/11, so although I know it might be very short notice, there still is some time and I’m sure you have so much material that could quite easily be drafted into a paper. If you are interested, please have a look at the call for papers, which you can find here:

    Click to access DMAS_CFP_Goddess.pdf

    you can contact me on Eline.Kieft@coventry.ac.uk. Thank you, and hope to hear from you!

    Warmest wishes, Eline


  12. May all women everywhere dance, now more than ever! Dance in the face of those who tell you that you may not! Dance in celebration of the Divine She! Dance in the rejoicing of birth and beauty! Dance for the feminine, dance for the Goddess, DANCE FOR LIFE!
    So mote it be!


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