Traditional women’s dances of Greece, the Balkans and the Near East come from cultures which have survived countless periods of upheaval, and teach skills which can help us through difficult times. I see their gifts as a precious inheritance from the ancestors, passed down through many generations. One particularly valuable skill which the dances emphasizes is that of mutual support and shared leadership among women.
Leadership in traditional dance is not limited to a few who have garnered social rank and power. Dance leadership is shared according to the occasion, and everyone must be prepared to lead dances at important events in their lifetime.
On Greek islands such as Lesvos, a small parea or group of women will typically dance the Syrtós together in a short line or open circle. The first dancer may express herself through turns and graceful flourishes of her free hand, varying her handhold and body position to dynamically interact with the other dancers. The women continually change places in the circle, encouraging one another to take the first position so that everyone eventually has a chance to lead.
The egalitarian experience of sharing power in women’s ritual dance emphasizes the importance of courtesy, respect, and social ties, based on a cultural ideal of mutual empowerment. Essentially, it is an investment in the community, creating a society where all women have the skills to assume leadership, and know how to pass it on, as circumstances require.
The ‘first dancer’ role gives each individual the opportunity to ‘shine’, helping even shy women build courage and confidence. Shared movement in the circle synchronises brain waves and gives a sense of connection and belonging, while the pleasure of the dance promotes the flow of hormones such as oxytocin which create good feelings. The visual and kinesthetic unity of the circle affirms harmony, so that competition and conflict are transmuted into cooperation and co-creation. Thus the dance circle becomes a healing container in which insight, connection, solidarity, joy, and mutual support can all take root, creating a safe space where each woman can feel deeply held.
I consider the custom of shared leadership in dance to be a pre-patriarchal type of power. Along with cooperation, community, creative expression, and reverence for the earth, it is a key value of the Goddess-worshipping Old European worldview articulated by Marija Gimbutas, Carol P. Christ and others. It beautifully illustrates the Partnership paradigm described by Riane Eisler, and also Starhawk’s concept of ‘power-with’ instead of ‘power-over’. Sharing power in this way promotes equality, peace, and ‘natural authority’, which Heide Goettner-Abendroth tells us are hallmarks of matriarchal peoples.
Goettner-Abendroth describes the ‘natural authority’ of matriarchal societies as a power based not on domination but on ‘possession of authority / fortitude / dignity as a property of nature in one’s personality.’ She goes on to state that ‘natural authority is power based not on force but on insight’ –precisely the power we witness in the shared leadership of women’s ritual dance.
The notion of leadership as a competition, where only one may lead and the others must follow, is a standard principle of patriarchy. It is epitomised by the ‘divide and conquer’ strategy which Goettner-Abendroth defines as the intent to ‘divide the people by sowing discord through unequal treatment and rule over them with the help of the quarreling factions’. In the peaceful, egalitarian cultures of matristic Old Europe, societies were united. By fostering this ancient and healthy worldview of unity, women’s ritual dances reveal their roots in pre-patriarchal times along with their relevance for the present day.
Looking towards the future, Heide Goettner-Abendroth counsels us to ‘create small, humane, units such as affinity groups, clans, communities, and regional networks’ – to this list I would add circle dance groups – in order to ‘break up the dangerous superstructure of industrial patriarchy that rules the world today’ and create a new culture of ‘humane life in small communities, of mutual attention and assistance, of a high ethical level of interaction and relationship with nature.’
The women’s ritual dances strengthen the exact skills which are now needed to confront the crises of our time: crises of faith, politics, gender, and the environment, not to mention the devastating lack of self-esteem and soaring rates of depression currently afflicting young women and girls in the UK, for example. For these reasons, it serves us all when girls and women develop self-confidence and leadership skills, and learn to cherish one another in the mutually strengthening way which has its roots in the time before patriarchy.
To borrow Judith Duerk’s inspiring and wistful phrase from her book Circle of Stones: how might our lives have been different if we had grown up knowing how to do this?
How would our lives be different if we could count on our sisters, friends, colleagues, teachers, and students, to unequivocally and joyfully support our own blossoming leadership skills? How would our lives be different if we started to do this now? If we all did that for each other, perhaps we could begin to create a society where everyone knows how to step forth and how to step back, unafraid either to be strong or to let others be strong.
That’s the kind of world I would like to live in. So, my sisters, where you lead, I will follow – and if you need me, I promise to also lead.
Christ, Carol. ‘Why Women Need The Goddess’. In Womanspirit Rising. Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow, eds. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979. 273-287.
Duerk, J. (1989). Circle of Stones. San Diego, Calif.: LuraMedia.
Eisler, Riane (1990). The Partnership Way. San Francisco: Harper.
Flinders, Carol Lee (2002). The Values of Belonging. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Gimbutas, Marija (1991). The Civilization of the Goddess. San Francisco: HarperCollins.
Goettner-Abendroth, Heide (2006). ‘Notes on the Rise and Development of Patriarchy’. In The Rule of Mars, ed. Cristina Biaggi. Manchester, CT: Knowledge, Ideas, and Trends. 27-42.
Shannon, Laura (2011). “Women’s Ritual Dances: An Ancient Source of Healing in Our Time”. In Dancing on the Earth: Women’s Stories of Healing through Dance. J. Leseho and S. McMaster, eds. Forres: Findhorn Press. 138-157.
Shannon, Laura. ‘Sacred Space and Postures of Power / Heiliger Raum und Körperhaltungen der Macht’. Neue Kreise Ziehen Fachzeitschrift für Meditativen & Sakralen Tanz, Heft 2014-2.
Shannon, Laura. ‘Dance as Space of Protection and Healing / Tanzraum, Raum des Schutzes und des Heilens’. Neue Kreise Ziehen Fachzeitschrift für Meditativen & Sakralen Tanz, Heft 2015-2.
Shannon, Laura (2016). ‘Women’s Ritual Dances: Secret Language of the Goddess’. In She Rises! Vol. 2: How Goddess Feminism, Activism, and Spirituality. Helen Hwang and Mary Ann Beavis, eds. Mago Books 2016. 311-322.
Shannon, Laura (2016). Limani: Traditional Dances of Greece and Asia Minor.
Siddique, Haroon and Denis Campbell (September 29, 2016). ‘Mental illness soars among young women in England’. The Guardian.https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/sep/29/self-harm-ptsd-and- mental-illness- soaring-among- young-women- in-england- survey
Starhawk (2015). ‘Toward an Activist Spirituality’. In She Rises! Vol.1: Why Goddess Feminism,
Activism, and Spirituality. Helen Hwang and Kaalii Cargill, eds. Mago Books, 2015. 267-274.
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
14 thoughts on “Shared Leadership: The Hidden Treasure of Women’s Ritual Dance by Laura Shannon”
Recently I attended a wedding party in Lesbos. Our community is torn by the refugee crisis that brought economic disaster to many in our village. Some have turned their fear into hatred of the refugees. I wasn’t sure I would want to dance with people with whom I seriously disagree about humanitarian aid for refugees fleeing war. But in the dance our common humanity was affirmed. I will continue to speak out as they will, but in the dance we remembered the ties that bind us together.
Thanks Laura. This is a marvelous insight and way of life, where you say: “One particularly valuable skill which the dances emphasize is that of mutual support and shared leadership among women.”
And that path reminds me of how we work at FAR too, the changing of author every day, for instance, and yet at the same time a steady hand at the wheel in Carol’s leadership. The comments here also create those rings of dancers I imagine in your post, where you explain magnificently that “the visual and kinesthetic unity of the circle affirms harmony, so that competition and conflict are transmuted into cooperation and co-creation.”
Very interesting. I hadn’t thought of dance as an example of “power with” or partnership, but the dancing you describe does seem to give any woman an opportunity to lead that I hope women will carry into other parts of their lives. I’m trying to visualize women’s dancing at political events. How would that work?
Affirming post. I love the idea of using dance as a way to demonstrate shared power.
Yes – this kind of dance both demonstrates shared power and also builds and strengthens it for those participating.
I love your post, Laura. Even in the international dance circle I used to belong to, where patriarchal power-over still exists, when it was a women’s dance, it felt much more cooperative. I have to go back!
Heide Göttner-Abendroth’s description of “small, humane units” that “look toward the future” reminded me of many feminist groups I have participated in, including the “Sacred Earth Chalice Group” at First Unitarian Society here in Madison. We have shared leadership, and women in the group know how to “step forward and step back.” We are “unafraid to be strong and to let others be strong.” Reading about this was a wonderful affirmation of our group.
Makes me want to call my neighbours together and start dancing! Thanks for the inspiring post Laura.
Thanks so much for this piece. Applause! I have been involved with group circle dancing for forty years. I love the notion that different leaders step in as they are inspired. However, here is what I have come across in my decades of leading Dances of Universal Peace. Yes, it is true that this particular path of circle dancing relies on certified leaders and your article has given me a big dose of reflection on that point.
Here’s the BUT: most people are very uncomfortable with not only their own bodies, but also of holding hands with others. I would so love to dance with others as they rotate their gift of leadership but sometimes I feel as though I am speaking Martian when I give a direction of “right foot, left foot”. This beautiful practice of dancing together has disappeared from mainstream society much to my sadness. If I can in anyway help to bring the experience, which you have so elegantly described, into the consciousness, into the possibility of a social joy/connection, then I guess it has to be me leading – for now. It is my privilege to have introduced circle dancing to many pre-K teachers at conferences and in my writings in the hopes of instilling community building in their classrooms. But again, it is so very foreign to so many, women and men.
I will contemplate your notion of women leading women. We are so much more willing to bond I think. But I will also continue to be one who challenges the comfort zone of many by suggesting they have fun together.
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Rotating leadership assumes that everyone knows that dance by heart and in her body. It is not for beginners or in any case not for a group that is mostly beginners. It is also true that in Greece every village dances only about 5 dances of the many dances that exist. This way, it is assured that everyone knows the dances. It is about dancing, not about learning as many dances and dance steps as you can.
Just an addition, as right left dislexic, I find right foot left foot very difficult even if necessary at times.
Yes “rotating leadership assumes that everyone knows the dance”. That was exactly my point. Unless we are fortunate enough to live in a small community where everyone knows, then this is what I lament. This joyful secret of dancing together is almost gone from today’s busy world as far as I have observed. That is why I have invested so much of my life leading Dances of Universal Peace — to bring it back in.
And to your point of right/left — I hear you loud and clear! Actually I am slightly dyslexic my self and have a heck of a time saying which shoulder or foot goes first. I usually have to touch my own shoulder or side which informs my mouth which word to use (left or right) Almost always it is best to show, not tell.
And as far as learning a lot of dances with a lot of fancy steps, I totally agree. Although I do know several, I usually select the dances that are the most simple so that participants can “get there” without a lot of fuss. My hope is that this practice of circle dancing together, spreads no matter what we call it. I agree totally with Laura.
Re Shared leadership. We in Ontario Canada have been exploring shared leadership in Sacred Circle Dance for close to 20 years. We have all grown with this experience and I find it hard to imagine our circles without this shared leadership component. In these circles, anyone who wants to contribute a dance can do so, and each week we take turns being the one who “holds the energy of the circle” and in practical turns, decides on an order for the dances. And some people choose not to take this leadership role – and that’s fine as well. And as with any close group, there are lots of “bumps in the road” – learning experiences and also bruises and hurts.