In these challenging times, one of the hardest things to do is to keep our hearts open. Grief and despair tend to shut them down. And even among close friends, colleagues, family members, and people with whom we share worship, when we clash over differing political opinions, trust can swiftly erode. These kinds of losses and sorrows can make us just want to close the doors to our hearts.
Yet hardened hearts and minds are not going to help us overcome conflicts and affirm connections. Only if we can open our hearts to one another, holding the fullness of our (and others’) feelings in a compassionate way, can we weather the storms which threaten to divide us further. And only if we are united can we find our way together through those storms.
One of the best ways I know to connect with others and to open my heart is through the joyful experience of traditional circle dance, particularly Armenian dances. I have written previously on this blog (The Dance of Memory, The Wishing Tree) about Armenian dances and their ancient roots, their links to the pre-Christian Goddess, and how they affirm survival throughout the traumas of history. I have also written about my friend and colleague Shakeh Major Tchilingirian and her inspiring Circle of Life project, which brings Armenians, Turks, Kurds, Assyrians, and other survivors of atrocities and genocide to dance together for reconciliation.
Of course, any time people join hands in a circle to dance together, we open our hearts, but Armenian dances are particularly suited to bring us together in this way. In the Armenian dance handhold, we join hands by linking little fingers, which traditional Chinese medicine teaches is where the heart meridian runs. As we dance, this sensitive contact with our neighbors on either side, whose little fingers are gently linked with our own, stimulates the chi, or energy, of the heart meridian to flow. We hold our arms at heart level, slightly forward of the body, creating a space in front of the heart chakra like a chalice which we can sense slowly filling with the energy of the dance. This energy is often expressed, literally and symbolically, through the candles we hold in the ‘mom’ (candle) dances common in Armenia. As each dancer connects to this energy, the whole circle becomes a chalice, full to overflowing with this sacred life force.
This vital, beneficial energy is known variously as prana, shakti, väki, mana, chi or qi, and is a perceptible warmth which we experience as we dance. It is the same gentle yet powerful energy which we can experience in movement practices such as yoga, T’ai Chi and Qi Gong. Like these other practices, Armenian lyrical dance incorporates movements inspired by animals, birds and elements of nature, aiming to harmonize body, mind and spirit. These activities bring health benefits not only through physical movement, but by activating a flow of energy which is not linked to aerobic activity.
When I went to Armenia in 2001 with my friend and colleague Shakeh Major Tchilingirian to research traditional dances and record our CD Gorani, one of our teachers spoke directly about this energy. This grandmother compared the up-and-down dance movements to the action of an old-fashioned water pump like those still in use in rural Armenia. The constant subtle bending and straightening of the knees in certain dances, she said, ‘pumps’ life-giving energy up from the earth and into our circle. She referred to this energy as ‘the water of life’ which can ‘quench the thirst of the soul of the dancer’.
This energy can be scientifically measured. In his book The Energy Healing Experiments, Dr Gary Schwartz shows how the electromagnetic frequencies of our hearts and our brains can influence those of other people, and how electromagnetic fields in the body are magnified both through movement and in the presence of others. This is what is happening when we dance. Through shared movement, we experience a sense of greater energy and connection to others, which can help us shift our thoughts and feelings to more positive frequencies.
Dr Schwartz also suggests that these electromagnetic fields, ‘which interconnect all things, might be functioning as healing fields’. Because ‘we humans are ultimately and fundamentally energy ourselves’, we can ‘experience the heartbeats of all things’. The basic rhythm of the oldest and most widespread Armenian ritual dance, Govand, is a 6/8 rhythm played slow-quick, slow-quick, like a heartbeat. When I dance Govand, embraced by this rhythm, I feel carried by the cosmic heartbeat I feel and hear with every step. I feel held. I feel healed.
When this flow of connection, mutual support, and shared goodwill fills the dancing circle, I feel overwhelming love, gratitude and appreciation for every person present, regardless of our different ethnic roots, religious backgrounds or political opinions. In this way – by fostering loving and respectful connection, even among people who disagree – the dances bring about healing on the social level as well.
Armenian dances help us reconnect with the joy of community, the powers of nature, the harmony of the cosmos, and our own part in it all. They strengthen our capacity for resilience, forgiveness, and healing, and help us connect to one another and to ourselves. They open our hearts.
In their emphasis on community, nurturing, and knowing ourselves as part of Nature, the dances embody values which Marija Gimbutas identified with pre-patriarchal Goddess cultures of Old Europe. I see the dances both as a living link to a healthier worldview of the distant past, and as a bridge towards a more peaceful and sustainable future.
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.
Shakeh Major Tchilingirian is an acclaimed solo dance artist and choreographer based in London. Her unique presentation highlights the power and spirituality of Armenian dances as intricate narratives of the human spirit. Shakeh teaches with great awareness of the sacred dimension of the dances and their capacity for personal transformation, as well as the historical context of Armenian dance. Shakeh will be the guest teacher at the Findhorn Sacred Dance Festival, July 14-21, 2018, in Findhorn, Scotland.
Call for papers: Shakeh and Laura are preparing a compilation of writings on the theme of Armenian dance and would welcome your contribution of any length, be it a scholarly article, travelogue, or personal sharing of your own experience of what Armenian dances mean to you. Please email Laura by March 1st:<firstname.lastname@example.org>.