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.
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. www.magobooks.com)
[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.