Generosity and Community: the Alternative Worldview of Women’s Ritual Dances, Part 2 by Laura Shannon

Dr. France LeJeune Milchberg taking her turn to lead the dance line, Lesvos 2007. Photo: Sheryl Ackerman

Starhawk describes the work of her Reclaiming collective as the creation of ‘spaces of refuge from a harsh and often hostile world, safe places where people can heal and regenerate, renew our energies and learn new skills.’[i] These words also apply to the women’s traditional dances. One participant on my courses expresses it thus: ‘In the circle no-one is left out, no-one is ignored, all are held and included, all have their place, all are connected.’[ii]

Crucially, women’s ritual dances empower everyone to develop leadership skills. Every woman must know how to lead the line at the appropriate time, and she must also know how to pass on the responsibility afterwards.

This is a potent antidote to today’s social paradigm which claims that only some can be leaders and the rest must follow and obey. This belief system states that only a small affluent elite may have access to adequate food, education, housing, health care, security and safety. This worldview, according to Riane Eisler, is defined by ‘authoritarian structure of rigid rankings and hierarchies of domination,’[iii] and those who profit from it insist to us that there is no other choice.[iv]

However, women’s ritual dances present an alternative worldview. The dance circle gives its blessings freely and without limit, exemplifying the giftgiving economy as articulated by Genevieve Vaughan.[v] The more people join the circle and partake of the joy and togetherness the dances offer, the more these gifts are strengthened and available for everybody. Communal dance is a collective investment in the well- being of the whole group, on the principle that the community is successful only when each of its members has an equal opportunity to thrive.

This commitment to the well-being of the whole, not just a few individuals, is part of the culture of peace the dances foster. It leads naturally to a commitment to activism, based on hope for a better future and faith in our power to help create it. In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Animal Dreams, her character Hallie speaks for this hope: ‘What I want is so simple I almost can’t say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed.’[vi]

This is why I see my lifelong quest to raise awareness of traditional women’s dances and bring them back into the folk dance and Sacred Dance worlds as part of an overall collective quest to restore wholeness and balance in the human family. I also work with Jewish klezmer dances; Armenian, Assyrian and Kurdish dances; Greek dances of Asia Minor; dances of the Roma; and dances of other oppressed and minority peoples. They each bear witness to a history of exile, exclusion or attempted annihilation. They are dances of people who have survived, and as such they can guide us, too, through times of crisis and upheaval. They can teach us emotional, physical and cultural resilience, and above all they can help us stay in touch with the joy which is so often obliterated through any experience of trauma. The dances connect us with the life force which is the source of healing, not only for ourselves but for all those with whom we share a world.

This is essential, because whatever remains unhealed, unwelcome or split off within ourselves will lead us to project this splitting onto others around us. Dancing the dances of the ‘other’ can help us transcend intolerance and embrace all those who have been made into scapegoats in our society, as well as the parts of ourselves which have been cast into shadow. Dancing consciously with the themes of exile and homecoming can help us rediscover the inner homeland of female wisdom and the dancing body; more than that, the dances open our hearts and help us respond with compassion to the myriad stateless wanderers presently on the move in search of refuge and asylum. This is the crisis of our times.

The militaristic worldview of competition, domination and ‘power-over’ which has displaced these millions of refugees is the same power which has tried to suppress women’s wisdom throughout history. For this reason, any attempt to try to heal the causes of the present wars must be based in a conscious healing of the wounded feminine. By affirming wholeness in our movement repertoire and in our psychological being, the dances affirm wholeness in the diversity of the entire human family. This is the work of peacemaking which strengthens ‘power-from-within’ – and this is the power which can transform our world.

Every dance circle can create, albeit temporarily, a society which values the earth, the body, and the female. First we need to learn to see the pattern and our place in it, and this may require a lot of time and patience, because our industrial civilization has torn the fabric and the threads must be re-woven. Ultimately, however – and this is the object of my trainings in women’s ritual dance – each of us can learn to decipher the symbols and access the information directly, in a gnostic way of knowing which empowers everyone equally. The language of the dance is an open secret, generously yielding its treasure to all who have eyes to see and ears to hear – even to those of a different culture and a different age. And although the dances come from a gender-segregated tradition, in today’s gender-fluid society their benefits are accessible to all.

Women’s Ritual Dance circle on Lesvos, Greece, 2018. Photo: Laura Shannon

In all their aspects, women’s dances reawaken our sense of the sacredness and simple joy of nature, the body and the cycles of life. The values they embody – partnership, cooperation, creativity, equality and community – are the values of the ancient Goddess, and are precisely the values we need to cultivate for a peaceful present and a sustainable future. By committing ourselves to this work, with the help of countless dancing ancestors, we are, in Genevieve Vaughan’s words, ‘respecting the need of the people of the past not to have lived in vain, to have a progeny that survives on this magical planet, which must not be destroyed.’[vii]

You can read Part One here.

(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.

[i] Starhawk, “Toward an Activist Spirituality”. She Rises! Vol.1. Ed. Helen Hye-Sook Hwang and Kaalii Cargill. Lytle Creek, CA.: Mago Books, 2015, p. 269.

[ii] Hough, Rosalind, in String of Pearls. Ed. Laura Shannon. Winchester, UK: Sarsen Press, 2016, p.90.

[iii] Eisler, Riane. The Power of Partnership. Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 2002, p. 212.

[iv] Monbiot, George. “Neoliberalism: The Ideology At The Root Of All Our Problems”. The Guardian Web. 15 Apr. 2016.

[v] Vaughan, Genevieve. For-Giving: A Feminist Critique of Exchange. Austin, TX.: Plain View Press, 1997, pp. 30-32.

[vi] Kingsolver, Barbara. Animal Dreams. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1990, p. 299.

[vii] Vaughan, Genevieve. “Gift Giving and the Goddess, A Philosophy for Social Change”. She Rises! Vol.1. Helen Hwang and Kaalii Cargill. Lytle Creek, CA.: Mago Books, 2015, pp. 191-206


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 in Greece and in the Findhorn ecological community in Scotland.

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

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8 replies

  1. Although I love to dance and have since my twenties, I also experienced being left out of the dance when dancing was in couples and a girl or woman had to be asked. This all fell apart in the late 60s when we all just started to get up and dance for joy and release of all the bonds that were holding us. One of the things I love about circle dances is that you don’t have to be asked. You don’t have to have a date. And you don’t have to be part of a couple. What joy! What freedom. And what community. The 60s and 70s were great but we did not always join together in the dance. Sometimes we were in our own individual worlds, sometimes we mirrored another (gender immaterial), and of course we all danced to the same music. But the circle dance is something special.

    Liked by 4 people

    • You are absolutely right, Carol, and as you know, the circle of mainly women dancing is one of the oldest and most widespread archaeological representations of human activity that we know of. So we are connecting to something truly ancient: as you put it, joy, freedom, and community! Blessed be!


  2. When I first heard the call of the Goddess, I had a dream I still remember. (For context, I am directly descended from generation of Episcopal priests.) The setting was a cathedral. The organist started improvising; the pews were gone, and women began dancing in a circle! I had already left the Episcopal Church for the Society of Friends, in large part because in the small meeting I attended people sat face to face, more or less in a circle. In most churches people sit in rows of pews facing a raised alter where the priest stands with his assistants (all male in my youth). The arrangement is almost identical to a courthouse! So the divine and secular authority is beyond and above the people, The shift to a circle is essential in all aspects of life is essential! How beautiful that dance opens the way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a very beautiful and deeply meaningful dream, Elizabeth, thank you for sharing it. Your insight about the configuration of pews, priest and altar resembling a courthouse is a telling one.

      When I was growing up seeing the same set-up in churches, and feeling excluded by virtue of being female, I would never have been able to imagine that now there really are churches where people move the pews and join hands in circle dance as part of the service – in the worldwide liturgical dance movement and in the Sacred Dance Guild.

      I remember as a young child, how my family laughed at me when I announced that I wanted to be a minister when I grew up. Yet in the circle dance, as I have since discovered, every participant has the chance to serve as a priestess or priest of the divine, to invite the sacred energy into the sacred space – the temporary temple – of the circle on behalf of everyone present. And of course in the shared leadership model of Balkan dances, this leadership role passes among all the dancers – again, so different from the exclusive, hierarchical dominator-model most of grew up with in the churches. But this is the model we will have to cultivate to bring about a change in our society and help safeguard the future of the earth, so aren’t we lucky that we have these ancient dances to help us remember how to do it?

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Beautiful photos, delightful post, thanks Laura. The term “ritual” is somewhat surprisingly a part of what we do here at FAR. A sacred circle of our own here also, that is, not just a list of speakers, but a group delightfully creating a whole. And so each person who comments, takes up the inspiration of the previous writers. And thereby all these comments of ours, one by one, gradually build an exceedingly delightful friendship ring here too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s lovely to hear, Fran. I think you have touched on the essence of why women have danced in a ritual manner for thousands of years – so that we can develop the habit of creating sacred circle also in daily life and all our relationships with others. You are right, this community grows despite all the obstacles of space and time. It’s wonderful to see the internet serving to connect people in such positive ways!


  4. Just to let readers know, last night Karen Tate and I had a delightful discussion sparked by this article on her wonderful radio show, Voices of the Sacred Feminine. It’s always such a pleasure to talk with Karen! You can hear the show at:

    Since several people have asked me, I wanted to say that if anyone is looking for a circle dance group in their own area, is a good website with information for North America, and has information for the UK.

    Most of the circle dance groups connected to these sites are likely to follow the current trend of dancing newly choreographed dances to modern music, and the traditional ritual dances which I love best may be few and far between – but all circle dance is worth doing! You can always find traditional dances in the worldwide international folk dance scene, although those groups tend to lack a conscious focus on the spiritual dimension of coming together and dancing in a circle, so it really depends on what you want. There is always the option – as I have been encouraging Karen to do – of inviting a teacher to come and help you set up your own ongoing circle!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I appreciate how elegantly you describe how dancing in community leads to to activism and why dance is such a powerful resource for restoring wholeness to the human family. I absolutely experience this irresistible flow – the gift of life energy insists on moving out to bless the community beyond the circle. It’s taken me years to develop language around my intuitive kinesthetic understanding of this. Thank you for all the work you do to develop right and left brain and whole being understanding of the power these dances have to support collective healing.


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