Generosity and Community: the Alternative Worldview of Women’s Ritual Dance, Part 1 by Laura Shannon


My life’s work with traditional women’s circle dances of Eastern Europe and the Near East has been a natural interweaving of feminism, activism and Goddess spirituality. In more than thirty years of experience, my students and I have gained valuable insight into their potential as tools for healing and transformation.

These simple and ancient dances connect us with women’s ritual practices from the past which are rooted in a Goddess-reverent paradigm honouring the earth, the body and the female face of the divine. In the present day, the practice of mindfully dancing traditional circle dances which embody this worldview can help us imagine and create a more equitable society in the future.

Circles of women dancing with joined hands appear in rock art, pottery shards, vases and frescoes going back thousands of years,[i] showing that ritual dance was a primary means of women’s worship. (See Max Dashu’s collection of images here.) I believe that existing women’s circle dance traditions of the Balkans are direct descendants of these ancient rituals. In their expression of values of partnership, sustainability, and peace, they are living links to the matrifocal Goddess culture of Old Europe as articulated by archaeologist Marija Gimbutas.[ii]

Potsherd from Cheshmeh Ali, Iran ca 5000 BCE. Photo: public domain

In researching the roots of women’s dances, I developed a fourfold method, looking for continuity of motif in 1) the archaeological and historical record; 2) the dance patterns themselves; 3) woven and embroidered textiles; and 4) dance songs, fairy tales and related verbal (yet non-linear) texts. The often striking similarity of pattern in all four areas, in my view, is not a product of coincidence. [iii]

The main motif which emerges, again and again, from this archaeological approach to the dances is of course the Goddess, whose image is embroidered and woven into the costumes women wear when they dance.[iv] She is hidden in jewelry, in song words, and in the patterns of the dances – which I believe serve as a wordless mantra, a silent invocation and affirmation of the power of the Goddess. Other symbols of the Goddess – spiral, snake, circle, butterfly, double ax, zigzag and Tree of Life – are abundant and distinctly emphasized in the dances, costumes, stories and songs.

Embroidered Slavic Goddess Mokosh, 20th C. Photo: public domain

These symbols have been carefully passed down through many generations precisely because they carry meaning. At the end of the 4th century CE, when the emperor Theodosius ordered the destruction of the pagan temples, ritual practices honouring the Goddess did not all disappear; many practices simply went underground, disguised in apparently innocuous forms (textiles, songs, dances, and fairy tales) which could be smuggled safely through centuries of patriarchy. All of these intertwined motifs together form an unwritten language which goes back to Neolithic times.

In the words of Jean Shinoda Bolen, in her book The Millionth Circle, ‘poetic imagery is compressed information;’[v] I believe that dance steps, song texts and embroidery patterns can all be ‘read’ as women’s poetry, carriers of a legacy of ‘compressed’ women’s wisdom which has lasted until the present day. This secret language survived better in Eastern Europe and the Balkans partly because there was no mass witch-burning under the Orthodox Church (though women were oppressed in other ways). The survival of similar motifs and symbols in the embroideries, dances and fairy tales of Western and Northern Europe, shows that ancestors from this region too also once shared this hidden language.

The main messages of the women’s dance language are simple: everyone is welcome in the circle; you are never too old to dance; leadership must be shared; the body is the home of joy; connection with others is essential. The dances help us develop patience, awareness, stamina, balance and support, while the visual and kinesthetic unity of the circle replaces competition and discord with cooperation and harmony. They teach us when to conserve energy and when to release it, when to yield and when to make a stand. Participants in my workshops all over the world describe how the dances connect them with a flow of energy in the circle and the body, waxing and waning like the cycles of ‘life, death, and rebirth energy in nature and culture,’ which Carol P. Christ identifies as one of the key gifts which the Goddess can offer women today.[vi]

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.

 

(Excerpted from my essay ‘Women’s Ritual Dances: Secret Language of the Goddess’ in She Rises! Vol. 2: How Goddess Feminism, Activism, and Spirituality? Mago Books 2016, pp. 311-322. www.magobooks.com)

[i] Garfinkel, Yosef. Dancing at the Dawn Of Agriculture. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003, p. 3.

[ii] Gimbutas, Marija. The Language Of The Goddess. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989, pp. xvii-xxi and 321.

[iii] Shannon, Laura. “Women With Wings: Right-Brain Consciousness and the Learning Process”. Re-Enchanting the Academy. Eds. Angela Voss and Simon Wilson. London: Rubedo Press, 2017, pp. 325-348.

[iv] Kelly, Mary B. Goddess Embroideries of Eastern Europe. Winona, MN: Northland Press of Winona, 1989, pp. 63-68.

[v] Bolen, Jean Shinoda. The Millionth Circle. Berkeley, CA: Conari Press, 2003, p. 7.

[vi] Christ, Carol. “Why Women Need the Goddess”. Womanspirit Rising. Ed. Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow. 1st ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979, 273-287.

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Categories: Ancestors, Art, Dance, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Folklore, Gender, General

Tags: , , , , , ,

13 replies

  1. I’m glad the Goddess is hidden in our jewelry and clothing and the words we sing and speak. I believe She’s coming out of hiding now. Hooray!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “many practices simply went underground, disguised in apparently innocuous forms (textiles, songs, dances, and fairy tales) which could be smuggled safely through centuries of patriarchy. All of these intertwined motifs together form an unwritten language which goes back to Neolithic times.”

    It’s so important to recognize that this is where we will find the Goddess… she’s never disappeared – she’s just shape-shifted to sustain herself – she’s the dance and the poetry, the celebration of ritual, the birds and animals in Nature. SHE IS EVERYWHERE!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Laura, I’d love to interview you about this topic on my long-running radio show, Voices of the Sacred Feminine. If you’re interested please email me at karentate108@yahoo.com

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  4. Hi Laura — I’ve been having some physical problems, which have kept me from folkdancing. Reading your post today encourages me to start dancing again, starting tomorrow night. It should be the right group to begin with, since I, at 71, am the youngest member. thanks!

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    • That’s fantastic! Yes, I believe if you focus on dancing in a tai chi / qi gong / yoga kind of way, where you concentrate on the flow of chi in your body, it will give you more energy than you started with – and that is the key to dance as a source of healing. But the steps need to be simple enough for you to know what your feet are going to next and for you to concentrate on the advanced inner work of the energy experience. Good luck!

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  5. Another of your wonderful posts about the evidence of the Goddess all around us! Among the reasons I love to learn more about these surviving elements of Goddess culture is that I have come to see them as messages sent, consciously or not, from these ancient women directly to those people who would live in a future time when the very fate of the planet depended on hearing and heeding those messages — that would be us in the 21st century. Your work and that of so many other people here at FAR and elsewhere is a message back saying “Yes! We hear you! We’re trying our best! We can do this!”

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    • Bravo, Carolyn, I could not have put it better myself. As Barbara said in her comment above, ‘She’s coming out of hiding now’. Like you, I am convinced that they have messages for us about sustainability and survival. I believe that grandmothers of the dance – those alive now who have been my teachers as well as those going back many generations – do want to help us and the sacred earth come through the dangers of the present time. We are fortunate to be alive now to perceive these words and to relay them to others.

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  6. I was introduced to sacred circle dance at a women’s retreat last year. I am excited to attend again this year and dance more. Your article on the history of circle dance is very interesting. I look forward to learning more.

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  7. The line “many practices simply went underground, disguised in apparently innocuous forms (textiles, songs, dances, and fairy tales) which could be smuggled safely through centuries of patriarchy” makes me think of Persephone. I know you have referred to her in the past in this way, I think I’m just understanding it more this time. Especially when we think that perhaps Persephone chose to travel into the underworld in order to be the queen of her own realm. My reflexive frustration that so much was lost is softened when I can appreciate that so much has survived and is emerging anew.

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