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