When I first began researching traditional circle dances in the mid-1980s, I was amazed to find that the peoples who have suffered the worst of human experience – oppression, exile, genocide, war – also produce the most vibrant and joyful music and dance. Armenian, Jewish, Kurdish, and Romani (Gypsy) dances, in particular, were passionate affirmations of life, despite the horrors these peoples have gone through in their history. The dances seemed to hold clues to the mystery of moving on with life after trauma.
This was something I was desperate to learn how to do. Barely 20 at the time, I was struggling to keep my dignity and optimism while growing up female in a woman-hating world. The trauma of a violent rape on my 18th birthday had robbed me of my joy for life – but I could experience joy again in those dances.
Early on in my research and teaching, therefore, alongside the women’s dances which were always my main interest, I began to focus on the traditional dances of persecuted peoples, which I called Dances of Exile and Homecoming. These songs and dances seemed to have an inherently therapeutic potential, profoundly moving for people from any background and any culture.
The dances were not only joyful. There were also powerful songs and ritual dances touching on universal human experiences of grief, loss and longing. My training in Dance Movement Therapy helped me see them as containers for traumatic experiences to be safely held, witnessed, shared, and eventually healed: not ‘healed’ as if the trauma had never happened, but healed enough to make the trauma bearable and for life to go on with joy and purpose. This also began to happen for me. It felt like a miracle.
I see Eastern European circle dances as direct descendants of the original civilisations of Neolithic Old Europe, egalitarian societies of peace which lasted thousands of years, according to archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. Modern-day egalitarian matriarchal cultures (brought to our attention by Heide Göttner Abendroth, Peggy Reeves Sanday, and Carol P. Christ) honour mothers and the mothering principle, teaching men and women alike to use their strength to nurture the vulnerable.
Traditional circle dances also embody this mothering principle. When we dance them, we are practicing peaceful and mutually supportive ways of being together in community. Thus we learn the egalitarian values of Old Europe, handed down through the living lineage of the circle dance.
To return to my story: in my early years of teaching in Europe and North America, I began sharing Jewish, Romani, and Armenian dances with groups in Germany, as conscious acts of reconciliation and healing. In time, I offered these dance rituals all over Germany, then all over Europe, then all over the world.
The late 1980s and early 1990s – with the fall of the Iron Curtain (1989), the opening up of the Eastern bloc, and German reunification – were a time of collective reckoning and tremendous discussion of the Third Reich, the Holocaust and WWII. In that time before the internet, many events had been covered up, and much suffering had been silenced. Not even 50 years had passed since the war.
Most of the women at my dance events had been born shortly before, during, or after the war, and carried both their own individual cellular memory, and also the inherited epigenetic family memory, of terrible trauma. As adults, many felt burdened by a sense of collective guilt for ‘German’ actions in both world wars, even though they themselves were not responsible for those atrocities, and, as children, they too had suffered unspeakably.
There was a feeling that even with all the talk, the past could not be healed. Exhausted and broken-hearted, people could not countenance what had been done ‘in their names’ but did not know what to say or how to make amends. For these German women, dancing Jewish and Romani dances (often in churches) provided a nonverbal bridge to cross this chasm. In dance we could come closer to one another and to our own emotions, and to historical themes and events which had felt unapproachable, simply witnessing them – and ourselves and each other – with compassion and love.
Buddhist teacher Tara Brach describes how many people, especially women, commonly struggle with a deep-rooted and often unconscious conviction of being deficient, unworthy, not good enough as we are. She describes how ‘out of fear, we turn on ourselves and make ourselves the enemy’, but also how we ‘project these feelings outward and make others the enemy’. My journey of healing from rape had shown me how important it was not to lose myself in anger and blame, either towards myself or towards the perpetrator. I needed to acknowledge my feelings without being destroyed by them. I needed to not make ‘all men’ my enemy.
Our danced rituals of reconciliation also sought to move beyond anger and blame, to transcend stark categories of victim and perpetrator, ‘us’ and ‘them’, and to cultivate compassion for everyone affected by trauma and war.
The dance circle provided a safe space for this work. I think people trusted me to facilitate these rituals because I was neither Jewish nor German, and did not obviously favour ‘one side’ over the other. Instead, we were all standing on the side of reconciliation and peace. Rather than blaming ‘all Germans’, I tried to bring an open heart and compassionate gaze to the suffering of all children traumatised by war, and to the hundreds of thousands, even millions, of women who were brutally raped as one or another army surged across the ever-changing lines of the front. We danced to acknowledge our shared legacy of suffering, to witness everyone’s wounds, and to pray for everyone’s healing.
I am writing about this now, after so many years, because the fatal dynamic of ‘enemy’ and ‘ally’, ‘us’ and ‘them’ has become dangerously active again in our present time. Dancing together is just one of the ways we can come together in forgiveness and reconciliation, and create peace instead of war.
To be continued…
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 holds the M.A. 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.