The last few weeks have been difficult for me. I was already feeling raw from the treatment of refugees in Greece, the upheaval of impending Brexit in the UK, the fires devasting Australia and the Amazon, and so many other tragedies going on in the world. Then on Christmas Day I was thrown completely off balance by someone shouting abuse inches from my face, in a space where I had believed myself safe.
Someone restrained the woman and I made my escape, but the close-up image of her furious screaming face – eyes bulging, spittle flying, chin thrust up, chest thrust out – stayed with me long after the incident.
Like a car accident or other unexpected shock, this scene played back in my memory, night and day. I could not sleep, could not concentrate; I woke with nightmares, burst into frequent tears, suffered a string of migraines, and felt consumed with anxiety and fear.
In the following weeks I tried hard to overcome the trauma and to stop the flashbacks replaying continually in my mind, using all the resources available to me. However, I only really found a cure once I came back to Athens and went with my husband to a night of traditional dance with live music.
Greek Vlach women in traditional costume, aprons embroidered with ancient symbols of the Tree of Life (photo: public domain)
This was a gathering of Greek Vlachs (Armánoi or Aromanians), a unique ethnic group who speak a language related to Romanian. Like the Arvanítes, Sarakatsán, and other distinct peoples of Greece, they are a close-knit people, relying on music and dance to keep their culture alive.
Since the dance is open to anyone who knows the steps, style and customs, I joined in early on, feeling more than ready for the dance to work its therapeutic magic. Carefully choosing my spot in the open circle – towards the end of the line, but not at the very end – I entered the dance with a feeling of eager anticipation. It reminded me of going to the hammam with women friends in Morocco, knowing we will be brought through a sequence of treatments for relaxation and release, to arise at the end refreshed and reconnected to the joy of being alive.
And just as the cleansing sequence in the hammam is always the same (henna with rosewater, beldi
soap, exfoliation, rassoul mud, rest), the dancing on occasions like this also follows a specific order. Tonight begins with the simple Sta Tria and Sta Dhio
: joining hands, people move counterclockwise, in the ancient dance direction which I believe follows the movement of the night sky around the pole star
After half an hour, the music signals a ‘yirisma’ or change to the free dance Tasiá
. People dance in pairs, in sets of three steps, with the occasional turn; hands are either one up and one down, both up or both down, or simply at rest with one hand up and one hand on the hip.
The emphasis is on symmetry: balancing left and right, up and down, self and other. This holistic pattern brings us fully present in all seven directions. As I give myself over to the ancient dance, the movements bring me back to my own centre: my self, my body, my place between heaven and earth, and my home in the human community. As we dance, sharing movement synchrony, we slowly come into a state of coherence, a steady alignment of electromagnetic waves in our brains and hearts. If we had machines handy, we could measure this, but we just look at each other and smile.
Tranós Chorós, the annual ‘great dance’ of the Vlachs of Vlastí, Kozáni, Greece (photo: public domain)
The musicians play a suite of songs which ‘shift gear’ through several changes of tempo or key, infusing the dance with new energy at every transition. The movements are physically gentle, so everyone can join in without risk of injury, but after three-quarters of an hour, we have all been brought to a sweat, as by the gentle heat of a sauna. Our faces radiate joyful relaxation, just as they do after the hammam.
The night went on. The clarinets and violin wailed, the singers poured out their hearts in Greek and Vlach, the laouto and defi laid down a rock-solid rhythm, and people danced for hours. More complex dances appeared, but the circle always returned ‘home’ to the simple favourites: Sta Tria, Sta Dhio, and Tasiá.
To my immense relief, the traumatic memory in continual playback on the screen of my mind was finally replaced by beautiful images of people dancing together, laughing, and holding hands. New memories from the music and movement accompanied me through an excellent night’s sleep, my first in weeks. I awakened feeling happy and safe.
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’. (4)
Traditional circle dance does all of this. It offers the support of the collective to anyone whose individual burden is too heavy to carry, and bestows the blessings of joy and vitality which are everyone’s birthright. This is powerful medicine.
Once again, the dance healed me when I needed it. I will always be grateful.
- You can see Kompania Kyratzídes playing the circle dance Kínik followed by the free dance Tasiá on the Greek TV programme ‘To Aláti tis Yis’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tMHsRzPSx1o&t=90s
- and a short clip from a long Sta Dhio danced on that evening in Athens here: https://youtu.be/ySiIOzRywJs
- Another episode of ‘To Aláti tis Yis’ from the Vlach town of Metsovo can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wFOvhBpFM1o Notable moments include the women’s weaving songs and the ritual dance ‘Sta Tria’ at 10:00; the women’s ‘kravgí’, the ancient cry they give at the end of their dance, at 11.45 and 16.28; Kyria Maria Vantevouli leading the women’s Syrtos Sta Tria and Sta Dhio very gracefully and skilfully with her mandíli (handkerchief) at 33.30.
Laura Shannon has been researching and teaching traditional women’s ritual dances since 1987, and is considered one of the ‘grandmothers’ of the worldwide Sacred / Circle Dance movement. She trained in Intercultural Studies (1986) and Dance Movement Therapy (1990), and is currently pursuing postgraduate studies in Myth, Cosmology, and the Sacred at Canterbury Christ Church University in England. Her primary research in Balkan and Greek villages seeks out songs, dances, rituals and textile patterns which descend from the Goddess cultures of Neolithic Old Europe, and which embody an ancient worldview of sustainability, community, and reverence for the earth. In 2018 Laura was chosen as an Honorary Lifetime Member of the Sacred Dance Guild in recognition of her ‘significant and lasting contribution to dance as a sacred art’. Her articles and essays on women’s ritual dances have appeared in numerous publications, including Re-Enchanting the Academy, Dancing on the Earth: Women’s Stories of Healing Through Dance, She Rises! Vol. 2, Inanna’s Ascent, Revisioning Medusa, and Spiritual Herstories – Call of the Soul in Dance Research. Laura is also Founding Director of the non-profit Athena Institute for Women’s Dance and Culture. She lives in Canterbury, Greece, and the Findhorn community in Scotland.
Categories: Art, Community, Dance, General