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Trauma Healing through Communal Dance by Laura Shannon
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.
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. (1)
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.
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.
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.
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 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. Also a musician, Laura performs throughout Europe and in the USA with her partner Kostantis Kourmadias.
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17 thoughts on “Trauma Healing through Communal Dance by Laura Shannon”
So glad you found your healing Laura.
I think back to the trauma days of grad school at Yale remembering that I often danced with myself to Nina Simone and others and also with other students at parties. One good thing about dancing then was that you did not have to have a partner (as was required in ballroom dancing and rock n roll). You could dance by yourself or you could mirror someone else and you could change who you were mirroring. Also you did not have to know the steps only to feel the music and move with it. I believe that this dancing put me back in touch with my body and the physical spiritual energy that was the life force, my life force.
In circle dances you have the added benefit of being incorporated into community. But of course you do have to know the steps which can be difficult (it was and still is for me if I don’t know the dance) if you were not born into a culture where you were dancing the steps as soon as you learned to walk.
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Thanks, Carol. You are so right. I also “believe that this dancing put me back in touch with my body and the physical spiritual energy that was the life force”, as you say.
There is something about the free dancing and mirroring that is also deeply healing. I am thinking how every 2 or 3 dances the Vlachs changed from the circle dance form to the free dance Tasiá or other kinds of face-to-face synkathistós type of dance. In my decades of immersion in both the international folk dance world and the Sacred/Circle Dance world, I observed that the ‘free’ forms of traditional dance are hardly known and rarely seen, but in so many places where folk dance is still a living tradition, the free dances make up a significant proportion of social dancing – as you know from Lesvos, for Asia Minor Greeks it is the multitude of different kinds of karsilamás or free bállos. These dances are precious because, as you say, you don’t need a specific partner, as in ballroom or swing or jive dance, yet you receive the comforting connection of mirroring with different people.
It must be a deeply-rooted, very ancient human need. Hope you find lots of new dance circles on Crete!!
You may have noticed Laura that in Lesbos many of the best dancers of zembetiko do not know the steps but rather improvise.
I am going to sign up for Cretan dance lessons as soon as I get there and look for places with music and dancing in the evenings.
Hello! I would be so incredibly grateful to connect with you. I am applying to a grant to study the healing power of dance for a year. It would be an honor to learn and chat with you!
Beautiful. This makes so much sense to me, healing with the whole body and in community. Thank you for sharing this experience.
Thanks, Elizabeth. I wonder how many people in our modern melting-pot culture have found similar ways to dance regularly for healing and connection? I bet there is a lot going on that isn;t always visible!
Laura, thank you for this beautiful post, and YES that are so many ways that allowing our bodies to MOVE in joyful, communal, life-affirming ways CAN shift the sadness, scariness, and truly traumatized energies in our bodies. I’ve been part of something called NIA in the U.S. since I left my day-job the year I turned 40. I didn’t think I could afford “taking a class” but after my first experience dancing with a joyful leader and other women who laugh, sing, and find the ways their bodies enjoy moving, I was hooked. I’ve been forever grateful. Occasionally, when a personal “downer” comes my way, I dance alone as spirit medicine and it always helps me to release whatever is getting in the way of my whole-heartedness. But in the group, feeling the free energy of other women- well nothing like it. I’ll share this wonderful piece with dancing friends.
I’m glad you found your center and your healing. Although I’ve participated in numerous spiral dances, dancing has never been something I find appealing or healing. But I’m always happy for people like you who dance and find the rhythms and movements beautiful and healing. Hooray for you!
It is so interesting that you say that, Barbara, because the few times I have participated in the Wiccan-type spiral dance, I have not felt the comforting and healing qualities which for me are the main elements of traditional Greek, Balkan, and Armenian dance. Now you’ve got me trying to figure out why!
I am struck by your words…”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.”… the only antidote I know for ridding myself of trauma is to go into my body – – – dancing brings us into that state of coherence – actually walking does too – truly amazing – writing and being with nature does the same thing – but then the coherence is with other elements/entities.. dancing is joyous too!
Yes, absolutely! Joy, walking (rhythm, movement, symmetry), being in the body, connection with nature, coherence – it all contributes to healing, and all seems to come together in the dance traditions, and it is amazing to me how we find our own way to these very same healing modalities if left to our own devices when needing to heal..
Thank you Laura, for another wonderfully intimate invitation to remember that our greatest healing is communal, embodied and celebratory in nature! So much of our current ‘evidence based treatment’ stems from these ancient practices of wellness, that our ancestors wove into their daily, weekly and monthly lives. I am grateful for these reminders you so eloquently offer us: come home to the circle, to the community, to our own two feet on the ground, moving ourselves in simple graceful ways, left then right, hand in hand, weaving and reweaving our wellness together…
Wow, CC, you put it so beautifully. I know you work with healing in the body too, and I am sure you also help your clients find paths to healing which are “communal, embodied and celebratory in nature”, as you say! These are such essential and universal needs.
Beautiful. Thank you Laura!
And of course, Max, your amazing research into ancient images of women’s sacred dance helps us to know just how ancient, universal, and widespread these kinds of experiences were and are. Thank you for helping us recognise that communal dance has been a key element of women’s worship for as long as we have images, all over the world.
Thank you, Laura, for sharing your experience and deepening our understanding of the processes active in trauma healing. I cannot but compare with the processes In physical healing, where the body removes damaged tissue (together with foreign bodies) and creates new tissue, partly using the recycled bits and pieces from the degraded damaged tissue in the process. In my experience, dancing transforms old and sometimes painful experiences into new ones, not by denying or obliterating them, but by incorporating bits and pieces of them into the formation of new experiences. Nature is fantastic.
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Thank you for sharing, with a wider audience, information and experiences which brought you healing