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:<email@example.com>.
24 thoughts on “Opening Our Hearts Through Armenian Dance by Laura Shannon”
During the refugee crisis that tore our village of Molivos apart, I was invited to a wedding that was to include dancing. Part of me did not want to go, because I knew that people who did not want a single refugee to set foot in our village would be there. I went and in the dance I connected to people on the level of our bodies and basic humanity. It was a healing moment.
What a beautiful description, Carol, of the healing power of the dance. It’s a perfect example of what I am talking about in the article. In the old days when there was a dance event – a wedding as you describe, or a village feast day or just the weekly dancing people always used to do in the villages on Sundays – the dancing was not optional. Everyone was required to be present and to join in, thus overcoming grudges and hurt feelings in order to connect ‘on the level of our bodies and basic humanity’, as you say. I think of this custom as a kind of inherent investment in mental health, well-being, and community solidarity for everyone, probably with roots going back to Neolithic times. I wish we had that now!
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Thank you for this wonderful article and remind us how important it is to open our heart also to people who have political opinions we do not agree. Even it is the biggest challenge in life I think it is the only way to support the healing energy that our world needs in this times.
I agree with you, Monika, and something that concerns me in the political situation, both in Europe and the US, is how few opportunities people really have to come together and practice in this way. You are right that it is challenging – and also that it is necessary.
I feel better just reading about this, Laura. We very much need all the ritual that would bring us together in community.
I have a question that wasn’t addressed in the article. How do people with disabilities participate? If someone is in a wheelchair, or unable to stand, how are they included in the dance?
That’s a great question, Barbara. In the traditional context, from what I have seen, if someone in the community cannot stand up or walk at all, they would still come to the dance and sit with other elders, watching with great attention. The belief is that the positive energy that the dancers invoke is a blessing on the place and all the people present, even those who no longer join in.
I am remembering last year in a remote part of the Anti-Atlas Mountains in Morocco, dancing women’s Ahwach dances in a date palm grove with girls and women there, one grandmother in a wheelchair had been parked on the side by her daughter-in-law, and we brought the dance line around her to include her. She clapped, shimmied, smiled, whooped and was obviously partaking of the energy. Big joy for everyone!
In our contemporary contexts, many circle dance groups all over the world are able to adapt the steps and movements of traditional and choreographed dances to be as inclusive as possible. I know of many groups where someone dances along in her wheelchair, with a friend to push her, and that can work great.
Through my lifelong research with traditional dances I have observed that the oldest and most powerful ritual dances are also the simplest, with slow and gentle steps which almost everyone can do. I cannot count the times I have seen an older grandmother or grandfather literally put away their cane or walker and join the dance. After dancing, they walk better, stand up straighter, have a livelier smile and a spark in their eye…
Thank you to all who responded. I’ve gone to some of the different programs here to help seniors keep moving and not be isolated, but didn’t find them that helpful. But I saved the video to play often.
They would probably sing at the table, wave their arms, and sway. However, old people you might think were infirm often get up and dance beautifully, and little children often stand near the dancers and try to mimic them. Of course in villages very infirm people remain at home, but I don’t think the bemoan their fate as we would, they know they had their time.
Absolutely! Well put.
This is a good point. I would like to share with you a short clip of my experience of dance workshops with people of all abilities including in wheelchairs. I always state at the beginning of our workshops that sometimes when we are dancing inside, it may not always be visible to onlookers. Here is the link.
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How beautiful and moving, Shakeh! I had not seen this clip and it made me cry. It reminded me of some of the grandmothers we saw dancing in Armenia – such beautiful arm movements and suddenly so much light shining from their faces – lousavor! – you could just see the years and decades dropping from people’s faces and easily envision how they looked when they were younger. Thank you for sharing this testimony to your valuable work.
Thanks Laura. I sometimes have a sense of participating in a dance when I read through the various insights and comments here at FAR. The community is so mutually supportive, it really does seem at times like we are all here together holding hands.
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Beautiful. Thank you Laura.
Such a beautiful description of the power of traditional dance. I love the imagery of pumping up energy from the earth.
Thank you for this lovely description. I was at a grief ritual recently that included drumming and stomping, which helps create a sound cushion for people who are grieving. Of course, drumming and stomping also happen in celebration and praise, and are things many people who are in wheelchairs can do as well. This is one reason it is helpful to have flexible worship spaces where we can participate in different kinds of communal rituals. Thanks for the interesting post!
Thank you for this fascinating post. Circle dances have always been part of my life growing up in a Greek American community. The older I get the more I appreciate the many benefits of these cultural classics that must go way back in time. I loved the chalice metaphor, the research of Dr. Schwartz and the video of the elder Armenians dancing. Fortunately it is Glendi season here in Florida, so I’m putting my dancing shoes on this week for some ritual, healing, fun, joy, community, peace, love and so much more.
Nice to hear your comment, Nick. I also see many parallels between Greek and Armenian circle dance traditions. Where in Florida are you and where are the glendia? If you know of anything happening this week in Boca Raton, please let me know!
I live on Siesta Key, near Sarasota, Florida on the Gulf side of Florida. The nearest Greek festival to Boca Raton this weekend is at St. Demetrios church in Fort Lauderdale. Here’s the link:
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This was so beautiful….I believe the inner dance is what is so important…those who weren’t able to move were also dancing xxx
Beautiful! I am inspired by your research and work to keep women’s dance rituals alive and move them forward. We need this healing, especially in these times.