by Laura Shannon
Laura Shannon © 2021
My lifelong search for Sacred Dance has been guided by several different passions, like branches of a single tree with deep roots in the earth. My mother, a pianist who filled the house with music daily, gave me her love for melody and rhythm. My mathematician father taught me to appreciate the magic of pattern and to see the sacred in nature and the outdoors. From very early on, I felt a longing for peaceful connection with others, a rage at inequality and social injustice, and an irrepressible desire to dance.
My earliest dance memory comes from a creative dance class when I was about 5 years old, where we learned a few movements of Hawaiian Hula, telling stories of wind, waves, and whales. I was filled with enthusiasm and kept the memory for many years as a touchstone in my heart, a proof of what was possible. I now think I measured all subsequent dance experiences against that first one, where I felt alive, free, yet connected – to myself, to others, and to the great powers of the earth, sky, and sea. Instinctively, I felt this to be holy.
Growing up in the USA in the years of the Vietnam war, my young heart was profoundly disturbed by the nightly scenes of violence on our tiny black and white TV. Why did people want to kill each other? I could not understand. Occasional Sundays at church showed that people could choose to come together in peace, instead of fighting and shouting. The beautiful hymns, the sunlight in the stained glass windows, the tall trees waving their branches beyond, all made me want to dance with joy! It seemed terribly wrong that we had to sit still. Even so, I knew in my bones that this was what I wanted to do when I grew up: to bring people together in prayer with heavenly music in a sacred space. It was an awful shock to be told that God was male, movement was bad, and girls could not be ministers. I also could not accept the idea that ‘our’ religion was good, and other religions were bad.
I gave up on church, and also had to give up on dance. The creative dance class came to an end, and the ballet and tap lessons my sister and I attended fell far short of my expectations. I could not find joy in the constrained movements of ballet or the stiff soles and slippery metal of the tap shoes. I wanted to dance in bare feet, to feel the earth, to be free! The choreographed steps and moves held no meaning for me, I could not express myself and I detested the atmosphere of competitiveness and rivalry. I felt I was freezing, drowning, choking. We did not continue the classes. Dance became for me an oasis of purely private joy, sometimes shared with friends, in wild sessions of hair-flying, arm-flinging, furniture-leaping careening around the basement to my parents’ records of Harry Nilsson and the Beatles, played as loud as we dared.
Like so many girls, I felt strongest and happiest when dancing or riding my bike – until adolescence brought an avalanche of shame and shyness around my changing body. My newly visible physical femininity, which I thought should be something to celebrate, instead made me a target for unwanted sexual attention. It seemed that girls and women could not be safe anywhere. At the same time, I was waking up to the environmental destruction imperilling our planet, and felt deeply dismayed by my sense that these two calamities – oppression of women and destruction of the earth – were somehow connected. I felt hopeless and powerless. I lost my desire to dance and only wanted to hide.
By the time I went to college in 1981, I had long let go of any dreams of dancing, but as it happened, the liberal arts curriculum of my college required students to take modules in all subjects, including dance. A kind teacher took me under her wing, and with her help I found my flame again. In those years, I revelled in modern dance, Middle Eastern dance, West African dance, International Folk Dance, and Dance Movement Therapy.
These different forms of dance brought me back to life in my body. At the same time, the blossoming women’s spirituality movement restored my pride in being female, while environmental activism and peace work gave me new hope for the future of the earth. Yet I still carried questions: How can women be leaders in a society which does not want them to lead? How can the female body be a channel for something sacred, instead of a target for attack? How can we build a peaceful society, where everyone is safe and everyone is welcome?
While studying in Paris on a year abroad, I made several visits to the Findhorn ecological community in Scotland. Here I encountered the practice they called Sacred Dance, which had been brought to Findhorn in 1976 by German ballet master Bernhard Wosien. Sacred Dance combined traditional folk dances with modern choreographed circle dances, in the service of group consciousness. The Sacred Dance circle reminded me of church – but now everyone was dancing, women could be leaders, and all religions were as one. It was my childhood dream come true.
Just after turning 20, I completed the Findhorn Sacred Dance Teacher Training, and began my career teaching Sacred Dance (better known outside of Findhorn as Circle Dance or Sacred Circle Dance). Sacred Dance offered everything I had been searching for: spirituality without dogma, connection with community, reverence for the earth, and many women teachers.
Furthermore, these simple dances clearly had a powerful therapeutic effect on people. To understand this better, I did a postgraduate training in Dance Movement Therapy at the Roehampton Institute in London, where my final thesis focused on the early pioneers of modern dance and Dance Movement Therapy. As I discovered, all of these extraordinary dancers – from Mary Wigman to Rudolf Laban, Isadora Duncan to Ruth St Denis – had had significant formative experiences with folk and ethnic dance traditions. This, I felt, was the living root of healing dance, and a clue to what makes dance sacred. Although I enjoyed the meditative circle dances choreographed by Bernhard Wosien and others, my heart’s compass steered me to seek out surviving folk dance forms wherever I could find them.
At that time, before the global internet and long before YouTube, the best way to experience Eastern European circle dance was to go there. I made my first trip to then-Yugoslavia in 1987, quickly followed by visits to Russia, Bulgaria, and Greece; eventually I travelled to every Balkan country as well as Armenia, Turkey, and North Africa in pursuit of folk music and dance. I also sought out other traditions of ethnic dance and indigenous spirituality, from India to Africa to Australia to the Americas, which helped me see European folk dance as one strand of many in a universal web. Common elements in all these traditions included a sense of the earth as sacred, a deep respect for women and elders, and an emphasis on community – exactly what I had been searching for.
Two major books by archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, ‘The Language of the Goddess’ and ‘The Civilization of the Goddess’, appeared around that time. Her meticulous research cast new light on the original cultures of Old Europe and helped me recognize European folk dance as a living legacy of these peaceful early civilizations. Archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel revealed the importance of circle dance as the main means of education and celebration in early agricultural societies, going back thousands of years.
In the millennia before Indo-European influence, (i.e. before the dominance of monotheistic religions, patriarchy, and war), communal dance embodied an ethic of mutual support and sustainable community, as surviving circle dance traditions still do today. Heide Göttner-Abendroth, Carol P. Christ, and others have shown that these are the values of the original egalitarian matriarchal societies of indigenous Europe. As Peggy Reeves Sanday explains, matriarchies are not the mirror image of patriarchies; the original meaning, ‘mothers at the centre’, simply indicates a society which honours mothers and the mothering principle, and raises males and females alike to express nurturing and care for others. This mutual compassion and care, expressed through communal movement, is an essential element of Sacred Dance.
My particular interest was in women’s dances, which tended towards easy movements rather than fast or complex steps. Simple dances are the most important, because they are accessible and inclusive: everyone is welcome in the circle, and you are never too old to dance. In stark contrast to the Western ideal of dance as performance, which places highest value on youth, beauty, and athleticism, Balkan circle dance is participatory, and in the villages it is older women who have the greatest authority as dancers.
Simple repetitive steps require little or no thought, freeing dancers’ awareness to enter an altered state, almost a trance state, enabling an inner process of insight and transformation. They allow a gentle flow of energy or chi, which I call the healing power of the dance. I experienced the benefits of this in a very personal way: after a knee injury in my early 20s, when ‘experts’ told me I would never dance again, the simple women’s dances allowed me to keep moving and helped me heal.
As well as women’s dances, I sought out dances of peoples who had suffered any kind of exile, genocide, or oppression. Mysteriously, the music and dance of those who had survived the worst of human experiences seemed to radiate the greatest vitality and life force. These dances were beacons of emotional, physical and cultural resilience, keeping alive the joy which is so often lost through the experience of trauma. Armenian, Assyrian, Jewish, Kurdish, Pomak, Romani (Gypsy) and other dances became important keystones in my teaching.
At that time, there was a flourishing worldwide network of dancers and teachers travelling to learn and share each other’s dances. We did not perceive our intercultural explorations as a form of cultural appropriation – the term had not even been invented. Rather, coming together to dance with people from different languages, cultures, and religions was an extraordinarily effective way for us to look beyond superficial differences, learn about each other’s experiences, and emphasise our shared humanity.
For me, Sacred Dance also offered a way to make amends for historical trauma. When I began teaching in Europe in the 1980s, World War Two was still an excruciatingly painful living memory. People carried a tremendous burden of unhealed pain and collective guilt, and wanted to make amends for the past but did not know how. I began sharing Jewish, Romani, and Armenian dances with groups in Germany, as a conscious act of reconciliation and healing. In dance we could come closer to our emotions around historical events which had felt unapproachable, simply witnessing them – and ourselves and each other – with compassion and love. These seminars often took place in churches, sometimes on the sites of former camps. In time, I offered these dance rituals all over Germany, then all over Europe, then all over the world. By the late 1990s I was teaching regularly in over 20 countries on four continents. I joined the faculty of the Sacred Dance department of the Findhorn Foundation and moved to the community in 1999.
As well as dancing with every teacher of folk dance and Sacred Dance I could find, and travelling to witness living dance traditions in villages all over Europe, I continued in-depth explorations in other realms of therapeutic dance and movement. I was blessed to receive generous help and support from many mentors, teachers, and guides, including Janet Adler, Anna Barton, Erik Bendix, Felicitas Goodman, Marcia B. Leventhal, Yves Moreau, Maria-Gabriele Wosien, Zuleikha, and others too numerous to mention. Authentic Movement, Body-Mind Centering, Continuum, 5 Rhythms, Contact Improvisation, and the Gurdjieff Movements were valuable influences. Yoga, T’ai Chi, and Qi Gong helped me recognise traditional circle dance as an ancient body-based spiritual practice similar to these, equally able to bring about healing in mind and body.
On my travels, I had become increasingly aware that ritual traditions which had lasted thousands of years were now in danger of dying out. Guided by a growing sense of urgency, in 2005 I shifted my base to Greece and immersed myself in a very intensive time of study. I learned the language and travelled the country to dance with grandmothers in their villages, soaking up their songs, dances, rituals and wisdom.
Looking back, I see the experiences of those years as a kind of initiation into an age-old lineage of artistic, cultural and spiritual transmission. I came to realise that the women’s dances contain specific teachings intentionally encoded in dance motifs and textile patterns. I describe this lineage as a women’s mystery school, in the sense that this hidden wisdom is not immediately accessible to everyone, but can only be deciphered by those ‘with eyes to see’. This nonverbal system of encrypting information has allowed woman-positive messages and images of the Goddess to survive and flourish under the very nose of patriarchal culture.
As I continued to research and teach these dances, I was ever more impressed with their inherently therapeutic effects, evidenced in my own experience and in that of my students all over the world. Yet I was dissatisfied with vague and baseless claims about ‘ancient healing dance’. Wishing to ground my research within a scholarly framework, I sought to balance the nonverbal, immersive, right-brain experience of the dance with analytical left-brain processes of verbal articulation and rational understanding. To this end I wrote thorough dance notes for hundreds of dances, and dozens of articles and book chapters, both academic and personal, exploring the origins and effects of these dances from a scholar-practitioner perspective.
In 2014, life granted me another opportunity to personally explore the healing power of dance, when a disabling injury from a freak bicycle accident meant I had to learn to walk again. At the same time, I entered the menopause and my body changed rapidly to that of an older woman. This time – in contrast with the difficulties I experienced in adolescence, which my culture did not prepare me to go through gracefully – I could welcome the physical changes with equanimity. Through traditional dance, I had met so many women who are indeed older, heavier, and slower with the years, yet also stronger and wiser, and still able to dance with exquisite dignity and grace. They inspired me to accept the aging process, and to welcome the wisdom and authority which transcend physical limitation.
Rehabilitation has taken a long time, but it has offered many ways to work with dance on levels other than the physical. In the seven years since the accident, I have published more than 50 further articles and book chapters on dance, and edited a book about Sacred Dance in the Findhorn Community. In 2016 I founded the non-profit Athena Institute for Women’s Dance and Culture, based in Germany, and in 2018 was honoured to be chosen as an Honorary Lifetime Member of the Sacred Dance Guild, in recognition of my ‘significant and lasting contribution to dance as a sacred art’. Last year I completed a Master’s degree in Myth, Cosmology, and the Sacred, with a thesis on the esoteric wisdom of women’s traditional dances, and have now embarked upon my Ph.D. Now, of course, because of the global pandemic, we have shifted from dancing in circles to dancing via Zoom, finding that even online, the dances bring us together and help us heal.
When I reflect on my lifelong dedication to Sacred Dance, I see that all along I have been motivated by the longing to worship with others in a way which strengthens community, welcomes the body, and honours women and the earth. The traditional circle dances I’ve been researching for 35 years have been the golden thread guiding me on this journey. The dances represent a living lineage of indigenous European wisdom, in harmony with that of non-European peoples, and the values they embody are exactly the values we need to rekindle now, as we face a critical crossroads in human history. The task of ensuring a sustainable future for our planet and the generations to come is truly sacred. And Sacred Dance can help us joyfully develop the skills we need to help each other through these times of challenge and change.
Laura Shannon is considered one of the ‘grandmothers’ of the worldwide Sacred/Circle Dance movement, and has been researching and teaching traditional Greek, Balkan, and Armenian women’s dances for more than thirty years. Originally trained in Dance Movement Therapy, she illuminates the inherently sacred and healing qualities of these women’s ritual dances in her worldwide seminars and trainings. Laura has been on the faculty of the Sacred Dance Department of the Findhorn Foundation since 1998, is Founding Director of the German non-profit Athena Institute for Women’s Dance and Culture, and in 2018 was chosen as an Honorary Lifetime Member of the Sacred Dance Guild. She has published widely on dance and has produced or collaborated on numerous recordings of music for traditional dance. She divides her time between the UK and Greece, and during the pandemic continues to teach Women’s Ritual Dances online via Zoom.