Dancing for Forgiveness and Reconciliation – Part Two By Laura Shannon

In Part One of this article, I described dancing Jewish, Romani, and Armenian dances for forgiveness and reconciliation with groups in Germany and all over the world. I also offered danced rituals of remembrance at former concentration camps and other places scarred by the atrocities of war.
I went to camps including Dachau and Auschwitz, to genocide memorials and sites of massacre throughout Eastern Europe, in Australia, and the Americas. At first, my prayers were private: I brought flowers, lit candles, danced my grief, and spent time in meditation. I tried to visualise the prisoners in those places, sending them my deep sorrow and regret back through time. I wanted to let them know that they are remembered and mourned by people from their future. My prayers contained a fervent apology as well as a soul commitment to do my part in this lifetime to overcome prejudice and stand for peace.
In time I invited others to dance with me for healing and peace. We danced at former camps in Germany, including Bad Gandersheim, a subcamp of Buchenwald, and on many occasions in Steyerberg, a former prison camp and forced-labour munitions factory which is now the site of an intentional community called Lebensgarten (‘Garden of Life’), a centre for permaculture, non-violent communication, and other ecologically and spiritually oriented ways of living.

Continue reading “Dancing for Forgiveness and Reconciliation – Part Two By Laura Shannon”

Dancing for Forgiveness and Reconciliation – Part One By Laura Shannon

Armenian Candle Dance with Laura Shannon, Findhorn 2015 (photo: Hugo Klip)
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.

Continue reading “Dancing for Forgiveness and Reconciliation – Part One By Laura Shannon”

Trauma Healing in Collective Crisis by Laura Shannon

My previous post on this site, Trauma Healing through Communal Dance, on February 1, told of a traumatic event and its lingering effects, including insomnia, brain fog, nightmares, tearfulness, migraines, anxiety, and fear. Now I’m hearing reports of similar symptoms from virtually all of my friends who are affected by the trauma of the coronavirus pandemic.

Three months ago, Greek communal dance helped me recover from my traumatised state. Now, nobody has access to communal practices like circle dance to help us get through it.

So how do we heal when we all need healing? When we don’t have access to the things which would normally help us heal?

Circle Dance with Laura Shannon, Germany 2008 (photo: Beate Frey)

There is a lot of talk right now about strategies, small and large, which can keep us sane in this crazy time. Many speak of the ‘silver linings’ we can find in this enforced retreat, and I have found a few myself. But I have also heard from people who aren’t in a safe place, or who just aren’t coping well.

Even if you are blessed with a peaceful home, access to nature, and continuing income, not everyone is made for isolation. The lockdown can be particularly hard on extroverts. And many people may find that high stress levels in this time of separation, loss, and uncertainty awaken old ghosts of unhealed trauma.

My earlier blog named some of the therapeutic aspects of communal circle dance, including connection with others, shared movement synchrony, realignment with ‘my self, my body, my place between heaven and earth, and my home in the human community.’

Armenian Candle Dance with Laura Shannon, Findhorn 2015 (photo: Hugo Klip)

As I wrote in Medusa and Athena: Ancient Allies in Healing Women’s Trauma, “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’.”

So, dancing is perfect. Circle dance, particularly, is my ideal method of trauma healing. But how can we dance without a circle?

A lot of us are dancing on platforms including Skype and Zoom, but the slight time lag with this technology means that true synchrony is impossible; everyone’s movement appears slightly off the beat. Nevertheless, I love seeing cherished faces, talking together, and dancing despite the distance.

My favourite way to dance ‘in circle’ is without any online technology, simply connecting in heart and spirit. Since the start of the lockdown, my network of dance students, friends, and colleagues in different countries have been ‘meeting’ at set times twice daily, and it is deeply moving to join together in this way. We light a candle for loved ones, health workers, key workers, and anyone who is unwell or needs extra support at this difficult time. Then we each dance the same sequence of circle dances, plus our personal favourites. Knowing that my friends are all dancing in their own homes, and that we are all thinking of each other at the same time, is very precious.

Candle (photo: Laura Shannon)

If you too are separated from your loved ones, you can choose a time every day to stop what you are doing so you can think of one another, with no need for online technology. You don’t have to dance; just put on your favourite music and know you are connected.

Doing things you love can also provide an antidote to trauma – cooking favourite foods, lovingly repotting houseplants, or embarking on a fun creative project – anything you enjoy can connect you to your own power and experience of mastery as a source of healing. With my housemates here in Canterbury, we created a beautiful Easter feast – twice, first for Western and then for Orthodox Easter – with photos of our missing loved ones on the table. It was such a simple act, but nourishing on so many levels.

Time in nature connects us with the flow of life force which is in each of us. As we walk outdoors, feeling the earth below and the sky above, we can remember when we have come through challenges in the past, and let those memories reassure us that we will come through this now too. It was the same earth under our feet then, and it’s the same sky around us now and so it will be in the future when all of this is behind us.

Trees (photo: public domain)

Sometimes a larger crisis, like this pandemic, can put things in perspective, and bring us closer to forgiveness and healing. To support this inner process, I have found the Hawaiian indigenous practice of ho’oponopono to be very powerful. Hawaiian scholar and educator Mary Kawena Pukui describes it as a practice of forgiveness and reconciliation, for family members to ‘make right’ broken relations and prevent problems from erupting.

What can we do to foster forgiveness, move beyond blame, and focus on what we have in common? One recent story on the Karuna website tells how rival gangs in South Africa are now cooperating to deliver food to the vulnerable in their community. Amazing!

There is always something we can do, for ourselves and for others. And let’s not forget the larger context: life as we knew it has hit the pause button, and we have a chance to make some different choices in preparation for when we once again press ‘play’. Maybe we will find that all of us – and all of humanity – are suddenly dancing to a more beautiful tune.

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 AcademyDancing on the Earth: Women’s Stories of Healing Through DanceShe Rises! Vol. 2Inanna’s AscentRevisioning 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.


The Tree of Life and the Forest of Friendship: Circle Dance to Restore our Hope by Laura Shannon

Tree and Goddess motifs on the ‘Wall of the Foremothers’ (Ahninnenwand), Bodensee, Germany, 4th Millenium BCE

Yes, times are tough. But a better understanding of our interconnectedness can help us move beyond the cynicism, frustration, and despair we may be feeling in the modern world. A closer look at trees, and at women’s traditional circle dances, can offer valuable lessons about friendship, community, and the interconnectedness of all life.

The sacred Tree is found in virtually all cultures, often identified with the life-giving figure of the Goddess. Both motifs appear abundantly in archaeological finds dating back to the early Neolithic era. Dance archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel affirms that humans have been dancing in circles since then and probably for far longer.

The Tree of Life is central to the women’s traditional circle dances of the Balkans and the Near East, which I have been researching for over thirty years.  The pattern of the Tree of Life is encoded in the steps of dances, many dance songs refer to women as sacred or magical trees, people often dance around or under sacred trees, and Tree and Goddess motifs are featured on the textiles worn while dancing.  Furthermore, each dancer resembles a tree, with her ‘trunk’ upright and centred, arms symmetrically extended like branches, and hands joined so that we support each other in the circle.   Continue reading “The Tree of Life and the Forest of Friendship: Circle Dance to Restore our Hope by Laura Shannon”

Women’s Ritual Dances: Secret Language of the Goddess by Laura Shannon

Laura Shannon square crop

My life’s work with traditional women’s circle dances of Eastern Europe and the Near East has been a natural interweaving of feminism, activism and Goddess spirituality. I would like to share how I came to discover these dances and their potential as tools for healing and transformation.

Circles of women dancing with joined hands appear in rock art, pottery shards, vases and frescoes going back thousands of years1, showing that ritual dance was a primary means of women’s worship. I believe that existing women’s circle dance traditions of the Balkans are direct descendants of these rituals. In their expression of values of partnership, sustainability, and peace, they are living links to the matrifocal Goddess culture of Old Europe as articulated by Marija Gimbutas.2

Tell Halaf, Iraq, ca, 5000-4000 BCE (Garfinkel)

Incorporating symbols of the Goddess in her many guises, these women’s ritual dances are deeply spiritual. They are feminist in the way they provide women with a place of power, not ‘power-over’ but ‘power-from-within.’3 They are an activist practice because the qualities they embody – connection, inclusiveness, balance, empathy, and mutuality – are the principles of a Partnership society, as proposed by Riane Eisler;4 or in Carol Lee Flinders’ term, a society of Belonging.5  Each dance circle is an opportunity to practice being in community in a respectful and cooperative way, which can offer a profound source of healing.6

How did I come to these women’s dances? As a child I was convinced of certain truths: that nature is holy, that God is also female, and that instead of hurting one another, people should celebrate together with music and dance. These longings led me to the rich folk dance traditions of the American melting pot, women’s Middle Eastern Dance circles, and the women’s spirituality network. Around the same time, in the early 1980s, I encountered the meditative communal dance practice known as Sacred Dance. Together with my university training in Intercultural Studies and Dance Movement Therapy, these different streams helped shape the path of my life. Continue reading “Women’s Ritual Dances: Secret Language of the Goddess by Laura Shannon”

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