In Rebirth of the Goddess, Carol P Christ offered Nine Touchstones of Goddess Spirituality as an alternative to the Ten Commandments. The Nine Touchstones are intended to inform all our relationships, whether personal, communal, social, or political. In this series of blogs I am exploring ways in which these Nine Touchstones are embodied in the traditional women’s ritual dances of the Balkans, which I have studied as a spiritual practice for more than thirty years.
Carol P Christ’s Second Touchstone is: ‘Walk in love and beauty.’ As she says, ‘love and beauty are the great gifts of bounteous earth’. Dancing women of the Balkans walk in love and beauty each time they put on their festive dress to dance together in the courtyard or the village square. Their ceremonial costumes are created from the bounty of the earth – just a couple of generations ago, this was literally the case, as the women tended the sheep, prepared and spun the wool, wove, sewed, embroidered and ornamented their garments with the work of their own hands. Even now, the cloth they buy is purchased with money they have earned from working and harvesting the land.
The patterns and pictures on their festive clothing depict the beauty and bounty of the natural world, the positive energy of the flowing life force, and humanity’s place in a harmonious cosmos. The women look beautiful, they dance beautifully, and they behave in a beautiful way with one another, simply by overcoming whatever conflicts may exist between them to join hands and dance. By creating joyful community through harmonious movements, they bring good feelings to those who dance as well as those who watch. This is an act of love and caring which goes far beyond the individual or family sphere, to bless the entire community. A village where all the women regularly dance together, strengthening love between friends and neighbours, is a village investing in the happiness of all its inhabitants and the health and well-being of all its families.
The Third Touchstone is: Trust the knowledge that comes through the body. Carol offers this in response to the separation of mind and body, rooted in Platonic philosophy and Christian ascetism, which has been normalised in western cultures. She movingly describes her own process of learning to get in touch with her feelings, and tells us that ‘trusting intuition begins with trusting the feelings in the body that emerge in every interaction with another person.’
Women’s ritual dances are a natural way of connecting the rational and the intuitive mind, and of fostering the love, empathy and reciprocity which are essential to building healthy relationships. Carol reminds us that of primatologist Franz de Waal’s conclusion that ’empathy learned in the mother-child relationship of all mammals is one of the building blocks of ethics.’ As she explains, ‘Empathy is a feeling in the body that is transferred to the mind. When we are whole in ourselves, empathy, feeling the feelings of others, will be the first principle of all our personal and social interactions, and the first principle of politics.’ Now wouldn’t that be wonderful?
Dancing within this atmosphere of caring and concern improves our mood and strengthens our sense of connection, to ourselves, to nature and to one another. It is the quintessential means of nonverbal expression and communication: we find out how we feel when we dance, and we learn how our friends are feeling by dancing with them. The women’s dance circle, particularly, provides an experience of love and belonging that may be missing in the home environment. In this way, circle dance can help to heal trauma and repair damage caused by inadequate bonding with the mother or insufficient love and caring in the home. I have written about this in an essay in Revisioning Medusa: from Monster to Divine Wisdom (Girl God Press, 2017):
Past trauma can be transformed through ‘physical experiences that directly contradict the helplessness, rage and collapse that are part of trauma’ and which foster a renewed sense of self-mastery. Because trauma tends to be experienced in ‘isolated fragments,’ treatment particularly needs to engage the entire organism, ‘body, mind, and brain’ , [for instance through] creative skills which help the survivor engage fully in activities which strengthen new neural pathways for pleasure and joy.
Healing from trauma is also facilitated by rhythmic action shared with others, such as music, song and dance. In ancient Athens, the Goddess Athena was celebrated with choral dance and song, and similar practices can still be witnessed today in traditional women’s circle dances of Greece and the Balkans. Through my lifetime of researching these dances in situ, I have come to believe these dances provide essential comfort and healing support for women who must live under patriarchal oppression.
I believe that traditional circle dances provide a context for women to affirm and transmit pre-patriarchal values, such as the importance of community, mutual support, and shared leadership, within a circular, not a hierarchical structure.
To be continued…
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.
 Van der Kolk, B. (2014) The body keeps the score. London: Penguin, 4, 40, 53.
 Van der Kolk 2014, 333.
 Connelly, J. 2007. Portrait of a Priestess. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 29-30, 294.
 Shannon, L. (2011) ‘Women’s Ritual Dances: an Ancient Source of Healing in Our Time’ in J. Leseho and S. McMaster, eds., Dancing on the Earth: Women’s Stories of Healing Through Dance. Forres: Findhorn Press, 144.
 Shannon, L. (2017) ‘Medusa and Athena: Ancient Allies in Healing Women’s Trauma’, in G. Livingstone, T. Hendren, and P. Daley (eds), Revisioning Medusa: from Monster to Divine Wisdom. Girl God Press, 206-222.