SHARING OUR STORIES IN 2022: WOMEN'S CONNECTIONS
We are very pleased to introduce “SHARING OUR STORIES: Women’s Connections” by sharing our first story for 2022. Dilys Dana Pierson’s thoughtfully and beautifully written story describes the importance of sacred circle dance in her life. Beginning in 1985 with her return to the United States after several years living and working in Asia, Dilys shares the many ways in which she has made connections through sacred circle dance. She describes the ways in which the delicately woven connections from circle dance to feminist psychology, goddess religions and Greek mythology have helped her understand herself and her own development. She invites us to think really deeply about ourselves and our connections to women who came before and to cultures not our own as a way of better understanding ourselves and where we are right now.
Dilys (Dana) Pierson, M.Ed., grew up outside of Philadelphia with a strong Quaker background. For almost 30 years, she has served as managing editor for various education-based organizations and has taught circle dance and led rituals in nature/Goddess worship throughout New England. In July 1997, she was the keynote speaker at the Southern Connecticut State University’s conference on women’s spirituality, addressing service to and worship of the Goddess through the forms of sacred circle dance. A 1978 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Connecticut College in Asian studies and Chinese language, she returned to the States in the 1980s after pursuing her graduate degree at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and teaching in a Chinese high school during most of her 20s, while traveling extensively throughout Asia.
Connecting to the Sacred
A stranger in my own house
After living and working in Asia, in 1985 I landed in New Haven, CT, and a country I didn’t recognize. When I’d left in the ’70s, Jimmy Carter was president and solar panels were on the White House roof. Eight years later when I returned for the final time, it was apparent that the country had turned sharply in a different direction. I was overwhelmed by the public’s appetite for things, acquisitions, and social advancement. An insatiable unfocused energy seemed to drive these pursuits, behind which was an incoherence and haste, lack of proportion, abuse of energy, and a brutal competitiveness. During the zeitgeist of the ’80s, I felt as if I were a stranger in my own house, and I then understood Emily Dickinson’s “Returning.”
I years had been from home,
And now, before the door
I dared not open, lest a face
I never saw before
Stare vacant into mine,
And ask my business there.
My business—just a life I left,
Was such still dwelling there?
Thus began a search for a reason to stay in my own country and a way to try to build a new life in a place that felt more foreign to me than Asia had been when I first arrived there at the age of 22.
I was familiar with dance as an art, as my mother had been a dancer with the company that was precursor to the Pennsylvania Ballet. I’d grown up dancing first in her school as a child and then at the Chester County Ballet School in my teens. The concept of dance as a spiritual/religious practice, however, was new to me; yet through a confluence of my work with Kathie, my discovery of sacred circle dance, and my
own studies in goddess mythologies, I understood that Way had opened into a new religion and practice through circle dance, which I ended up teaching for many years and which I still do either privately or with close friends.
Connecting to ancient rhythms
In 1926, P.A. Talbot observed that “dancing takes to a large extent the place that prayer occupies in [modern western] religions, representing the power of the supernatural influences, the ecstasy of joy in life, and all the deeper feelings so far beyond mere words.”
It is these supernatural influences that work through many of the traditional dances in the circle dance repertoire and my spiritual practice. The simple rhythms of these dances evoke the universality of human experience. Many of the dances belong to a single family and derive from the same root pattern. The ancient Faroe Island family of three-measure dances is so widespread that it is believed to be the oldest existing dance pattern in the western tradition, having emerged in different styles known from the North Atlantic Faroe Islands to western Asia and India.
In so many of the three-measures dances that comprise traditional circle dances, the first two measures travel forward and the third measure mirrors the second in the other direction. In other words, we take three steps forward and after a pause, one step back. Well-known circle dance teacher Laura Shannon describes this pattern as a “metaphor for the year’s season cycle that requires us to rest in order to grow. We experience the sensation of moving ahead, yet savor where we are. As with the year’s cycle, we need to go through this over and over again in order to remain aware of the truth in this rhythm, the rhythm of life. … This succumbing and prevailing is an eternal cycle that plays itself out in the steps as we dance to the endless recreation of life.”
Shannon notes that these three-measure dances are coded with such simplicity and antiquity that it might be easy to miss the extent to which they mirror so many patterns in our natural world—lightning and water to name but a couple—patterns that also appear in neolithic art, cave paintings, pottery, and later embroidery. She explains also that in its simplest form, this pattern was a kind of early Christian prayer performed in cathedral labyrinths as a symbolic transformation because it represents the path of human frailty: “I go forward, yet I falter.”
Coincidentally from the same region, the traditional pilgrimage dance “Sol Ele Encina” describes a woman from southern France who goes on a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago. In fact, the entire route of the Camino is dotted with shrines that were once centers of pagan rituals, and many still are. Every year at Vall de Boi and more than 60 other villages in the Spanish Pyrenees, residents hold an ancient fire ritual, the Falles, which culminates in the throwing of huge burning torches onto a bonfire as participants discard their cares and hope for a clean slate until the next summer solstice. These echoes of pagan belief systems still prevail throughout the region of the Camino and much of the region from which our three-measure dances emerged.
Connecting to the Goddess
One of the most profound and deeply held beliefs of the matrifocal Old Religion is that life is an endlessly repeating cycle. The Goddess creates life, sustains it, destroys it, and takes it back into Herself in death, only to resurrect what she has killed and restore it to life once more. Nature eternally weaves life out of the strands of death, and nothing is lost that yields itself to Her handling. The widespread vision of the Goddess as a triple goddess expresses this cycle of birth–death–rebirth as manifested in the aspects of the Maiden, Mother, and Crone.
As Maiden, she is exuberant and joyful girlhood, and circle dances commonly done in the springtime and summer celebrate this aspect of the Triple Goddess. These may include the Armenian “Sweet Girl” and the flirtatious “Pustano Ludo” from Yugoslavia, in which the female singer talks of a young man she’s met: “What shall I give him? Shall I give him my white face? No, my mother is watching. Shall I give him my dark eyes? No, my father is watching. Shall I give him my slim waist? No, my mother and father are both watching.”
The Triple Goddess in her Mother aspect expresses the fertile maturity of life, the nurturing aspect of the feminine archetype, and it is with this archetype that most current dancers feel the strongest identification: For if it is a universally disseminated belief that we are born of the earth (as Eliade further states in The Sacred and the Profane), then every mother in our circle is connected to the Great Genetrix. This is likely why pieces such as the “Midwives Dance,” to a traditional Romanian lullaby, and “Sou Gan,” to a Welsh lullaby, are so popular.
Additional dances that speak to the Mother aspect of the Triple Goddess include the many variations of the chochek, the queen of dances in Bulgaria, Albania, and Macedonia. Numerous variations of the chochek can be found throughout the region, and this particular version, led by veteran circle dance teacher Laura Shannon, may appear simple and repetitive, but therein lies its power. Once the steps are in the muscle memory, each dancer can move to a place of complete connection, reaching (in the words of one dancer) “a point of no mind” when she becomes one with the music, the present and the past, and the other dancers in the circle. The circle thus becomes a time out of ordinary time, a space apart from ordinary space.
This muscle memory translates to variations of the chochek because what they all have in common is that their steps make a faint triangular pattern, which symbolizes the female pelvis in prehistoric art found in the region of the chochek. Chochek variations such as “Rumelaj” activate the hips and pelvis, making it a vivacious and vibrant way to celebrate women’s center of power and gravity. It’s no wonder, therefore, that the chochek in all its variations is danced in celebration of the Mother.
Among the three aspects of the Triple Goddess, however, it is the Crone who is most powerful in both of her archetypes, Wise Woman and Destroyer, who initiates us into the deepest mystery of death.
The Crone’s aspect as the Destroyer has always been the most savage and frightening, but Carlson explains in In Her Image, “as Receiver of Death, she appears again as the loving and tender Mother, cradling death as she cradled life.” Two pieces in the circle dance repertoire perfectly illustrate these seemingly conflicting roles of the Crone. The first is “Dimna Juda” from Macedonia. The lyric describes the old witch Dimna Juda, who “built a castle on the mountain in Vlaina, the posts of which were made of sturdy young men; the crossbeams were maidens waiting for the caress.”
To a sensitive 21st century mindset, this may sound goulish; yet Dimna Juda is a vision of deep spiritual truth. Yes, the Crone leads us into the primeval forest, into the fearsome; yet in this initiation, deep rents of the heart transform our innocence into experience, and if we pass the initiation, transform our pain into tenderness that springs from understanding and temperance. The dance is actually quite lively, as if to dance upon the disasters of life in celebration of the full and joyful catastrophe of living.
This same spiritual truth is the foundation of the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone—an allegory of life and death as symbolized by the seasons. Hades abducts the young girl, the Kore, and drives her to his underworld to be his queen. After persuading her to eat six seeds of the pomegranate, she is destined to live with him for six months of the year, during which her mother, Demeter, strikes the earth barren of crops and grain. For the remaining six months, however, Kore—who has been transformed by her own experience with death into Persephone—can be reunited with her mother in the upper world as the earth’s fertility is restored. Thus has Persephone become, in a way, her own mother, giving birth to herself not as an innocent girl but as a powerful restorer of life. Kore, one of the most profound dances in the repertoire, celebrates this myth and the Eleusinian Mysteries that were practiced in Greece for almost 2,000 years in homage to Demeter and Persephone. The dance, choreographed as a women’s initiation dance based on figures depicted on Greek pottery, symbolizes the story of Demeter and Persephone, regeneration, and the cycles of life.
Another popular dance for the crone is “Old Woman,” the lyric of which emerges from Native American creation myths told in Daughters of Copperwoman. In the music, the old woman presides over the cycles of life. She watches over us as she gathers, mends, and weaves anew the fragments of our lives into a meaningful whole until, in the end, we find the old woman in ourselves.
In these dances and others, we acknowledge the healing powers of the Triple Goddess, each aspect participating in the balance between Creatrix and Destroyer. The ritual dances we do throughout the year can support us as we move through similar transitions in our lives—in essence, helping us to ignite creative forces within ourselves after shedding that which is no longer productive in our lives.
This letting go can often require that we take time to work through feelings of loss, and several dances help us move through this process on a physical level in support of our emotional process. One of my favorites is “Oi Dai,” an old rune piece from Ingria, Finland, about a young married woman who has moved from her homeland into the household of her husband, in unfamiliar surroundings away from all she has known and loved. According to Libana, who found this song among the Finish women of Karelia, Russia, it was sung as a lamentation for their homeland after the borders between the two countries had closed.
“Göç” is a women’s dance from Erzeroum, which used to be in Armenia. Erzeroum was an important city for Armenians before the diaspora during the Turkish genocide in 1915. In this dance, the soles of our feet slowly caress the ground, bidding farewell to a place we must leave. The tender, quiet steps allow us to experience our sorrow, but they also serve as a ritual act, moving us toward a new place, both literal and figurative.
Even dances that celebrate life transitions help us work through mixed emotions around change. The music that accompanies the Russian bride’s dance “Kaku Kluchika” is, as one dancer in my Connecticut circle once observed, “full of anticipation, but not going anywhere.”
These dances and others enable us to appeal to every aspect of the Triple Goddess as we move through the stages and changes of our lives, seeking guidance and support through ancient steps and music. We do these and many other dances over and over again because they provide a gentle and fluid place through which to reconcile divided emotions, wishes, and goals as we prepare to move from one place to another on a symbolic level before it happens on a material level.
Closing the circle
At a deeper level, the stories, the music, and the steps behind these and other dances provide us with metaphors of seasonal renewal and our own life cycles. The dances thus become ritual acts that enable us to bring our inner experience into harmony with the outer natural world, so inexorably are these two things linked in my own worldview. The powerful combination of traditional steps and stories creates a bridge between the cyclicity of Nature and the human experience that has been at the core of ritual dance throughout the generations. As ritual acts, they enable us to experience the profound mutability of Nature and the adaptability of human response in the face of Her vicissitudes.
As each of us delves into the dance, we cannot know what significance the movements or music will take on, nor what we will learn from them as we dance the wheel of the year; yet we do know that in an age in which many kinds of community have been atomized by government and the media, in an age which has lost much of the pastoral context for old practices, sacred circle dance can serve the same eternal purpose that dance has done throughout history—to assuage the human desire to participate in and identify with the natural world. In this way, sacred circle dance enables us to integrate healing, faith, and power into the ways we live our lives and understand ourselves.
Among all of the dances I’ve known or danced, there are two that exquisitely express the deep connection to the ancient feminine divine and the living descendants of primitive dance. One is Tulum Havasi, a women’s harvest dance from Turkey. Though the video linked here is a bit poorly filmed and danced, close your eyes and take in the music, which communicates something that words cannot. The other is “Erzeroum Bar,” a lyrical Armenian piece, the steps of which in some cases can be traced back 1,000 years. While this particular version is more formal and more stylized than the dance we in do in the circles I facilitate, the music resounds with echoes of the past. Pieces like these, similar in depth to the “Midwives Dance” and “Kore,” help us to hold a collective memory, to understand anew and reconnect with that which is ages old.