This page was inspired by a workshop with Bessel van der Kolk at Kripalu Yoga Center. Van der Kolk is arguably the world's foremost expert on trauma and post traumatic stress. He was at Kripalu because his studies have shown that yoga helps relieve symptoms of PTS and he has two yoga teachers on his staff at the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute.

We did movement exercises as part of the workshop. At one point he had us all dancing (singly, improvisationally) to Bruce Springsteen. "This is who we are as alive human beings."

As part of a talk about failure to bond in infancy and isolation as important factors in the development of PTSD, he said that what heals is "touch, rhythm, and movement." I wrote down these words because touch, rhythm and movement are part of Circle Dance. There are many testamonials that dance is good for us, but I did not know that it could, literally, heal the effects of trauma.

We have collected a number of writings that describe the function of dance, especially collective dance, in community bonding and healing. More than one person has come to us and said "Circle Dance saved my life." There are good reasons why this might be literally true.

Jenny's personal story   For more about my experiences with trauma, see about Jenny.

Barbara Ehrenreich, in Dancing in the Streets, makes a powerful argument for the role of community dancing in preventing depression. She summarizes this argument in an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times.

Barbara Kingsolver describes the powerful sense of oneness and belonging created by the traditional Cherokee Stomp Dance in Chapter 26 of Pigs in Heaven.

Carol Lee Flinders describes how this sense of oneness through dancing is used by two tribes in Northern California to help resolve conflicts.
Her description of the Jump Dance is in her book Rebalancing the World.

On the CD set Radical Prayer, Matthew Fox tells how circle dancing transformed a group of radical environmental activists.

The Moonfires, dancers in Canada, respond to an article in the Utne Reader about war.

Studies show that dancing helps memory function in seniors.

Joanna Macy used the Elm Dance in her work with the survivors of Chernobyl. This dance was choreographed by a circle dancer, Anastasia Geng, as one of her Bach flower dances. The Bach flower essence Elm is for being discouraged and overwhelmed by responsibilities. I very much like the idea of reminding oneself of one's intention as an antidote to overwhelm.


I have no question that circle dancing "saved my life". Dancing in a circle to traditional music has been very powerful in helping me transform a life almost completely disabled by severe depression and anxiety rooted in Post-Traumatic Stress. When I am going through a bad spell, and there's nothing I can do that makes me feel either pleasure or safety, I continue to teach and participate in circle dance. It keeps me moving physically, gives me a chance to connect with people without having to talk, and without having to explain my condition or lie about it.

My first experience with anti-depressant medication was horrendous. The psychiatrist had prescribed Paxil, and each day I took it my level of fear got higher. On the fifth day, I was completely unable to sleep and stopped taking it. Possibly I had some kind of allergic reaction. Each day was an intense effort just to survive. On the fourth day, I was alone and having an extremely hard time. I put on music, and did the dance "Kitka", a new choreography to a piece of Russian music. It was one of my favorites, and had very complex steps. Hanging on to the music and the steps helped me get through that day.

In the summer of 2001 I went through a very bad bout of hypervigilance. I had signed up to go to Findhorn for the Festival of Sacred Music, Dance and Song. I would sit on the sidelines, watching the dancers, and feeling like the last thing in the world I wanted to do was go out on the dance floor. Then I would make myself go join the circle. There I could hold the hands of people on either side of me, and focus all my attention on moving my feet in the simple pattern of the dance. About 2 minutes after I joined the circle, the fear would be gone. Unfortunately, it kept coming back, triggered by a bright light or loud noise. But at least I had this one activity where I could find relief.


Op-Ed piece from the NewYork Times, Published: June 3, 2007
Dance, Dance, Revolution

Compared with most of the issues that the venerable civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel takes up, this one may seem like the ultimate in urban frivolity: Late last month, he joined hundreds of hip-hoppers, salsa dancers, Lindy Hoppers and techno-heads boogying along Fifth Avenue to protest New York City's 80-year-old restrictions on dancing in bars.

But disputes over who can dance, how and where, are at least as old as civilization, and arise from the longstanding conflict between the forces of order and hierarchy on the one hand, and the deep human craving for free spirited joy on the other.

New York's cabaret laws limit dancing to licensed venues. They date back to the Harlem Renaissance, which had created the unsettling prospect of interracial dancing.

For decades, no one paid much attention to the laws until Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, bent on turning Manhattan into a giant mall/food court, decided to get tough. Today, the city far more famous for its night life than its Sunday services has only about 170 venues where it is legal to get up and dance - hence last month's danced protest, as well as an earlier one in February.

Dust-ups over dancing have become a regular feature of urban life. Dance clubs all over the country have faced the threat of shutdowns because the dancing sometimes spills over into the streets. While neighbors annoyed by sleepless nights or the suspicion of illegal drug use may be justified in their concerns, conflict over public dancing has a long history - one that goes all the way back to the ancient Mediterranean world.

The Greeks danced to worship their gods - especially Dionysus, the god of ecstasy. But then the far more strait-laced Romans cracked down viciously on Dionysian worship in 186 B.C., even going on to ban dancing schools for Roman children a few decades later. The early Christians incorporated dance into their liturgy, despite church leaders' worries about immodesty. But at the end of the fourth century, the archbishop of Constantinople issued the stern pronouncement: "For where there is a dance, there is also the Devil."

The Catholic Church did not succeed in prohibiting dancing within churches until the late Middle Ages, and in doing so perhaps inadvertently set off the dance "manias" that swept Belgium, Germany and Italy starting in the 14th century. Long attributed to some form of toxin - ergot or spider venom - the manias drove thousands of people to the streets day and night, mocking and menacing the priests who tried to stop them.

In northern Europe, Calvinism brought a hasty death to the old public forms of dancing, along with the costuming, masking and feasting that had usually accompanied them. All that survived, outside of vestiges of "folk dancing," were the elites' tame, indoor ballroom dances, fraught, as in today's "Dancing With the Stars," with anxiety over a possible misstep. When Europeans fanned out across the globe in the 18th and 19th centuries, the colonizers made it a priority to crush the danced rituals of indigenous people, which were seen as savagery, devil worship and prelude to rebellion.

To the secular opponents of public dancing, it is always a noxious source of disorder and, in New York's case, noise. But hardly anyone talks about what is lost when the music stops and the traditional venues close. Facing what he saw as an epidemic of melancholy, or what we would now call depression, the 17th-century English writer Robert Burton placed much of the blame on the Calvinist hostility to "dancing, singing, masking, mumming and stage plays." In fact, in some cultures, ecstatic dance has been routinely employed as a cure for emotional disorders. Banning dancing may not cause depression, but it removes an ancient cure for it.

The need for public, celebratory dance seems to be hardwired into us. Rock art from around the world depicts stick figures dancing in lines and circles at least as far back as 10,000 years ago. According to some anthropologists, dance helped bond prehistoric people together in the large groups that were necessary for collective defense against marauding predators, both animals and human. While language also serves to forge community, it doesn't come close to possessing the emotional urgency of dance. Without dance, we risk loneliness and anomie.

Dancing to music is not only mood-lifting and community-building; it's also a uniquely human capability. No other animals, not even chimpanzees, can keep together in time to music. Yes, we can live without it, as most of us do most of the time, but why not reclaim our distinctively human heritage as creatures who can generate our own communal pleasures out of music and dance?
This is why New Yorkers - as well as all Americans faced with anti dance restrictions - should stand up and take action; and the best way to do so is by high stepping into the streets.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of "Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy."

For some great videos of "collective joy" check out dancers in big public spaces:

     T-Mobile train station dance

     Belgian train station dance

CHEROKEE STOMP DANCE: Excerpts from Chapter 26 in "Pigs in Heaven"

A sign at the gate of the Ceremonial Grounds says: VISITORS WELCOME, NO DRINKING, NO ROWDINESS. Alice and Cash have fallen quiet. Several trucks are ahead of them and a stationwagon behind, all rolling through the gate in to a forest of small oaks.
The dirt road ends at the edge of a clearing, and in its center Alice can see the round, raised altar made of swept ash, knee-high and eight feet across. The fire is already burning there, glowing inside a teepee of stout logs. At the edges of the fire a large log lies pointing in each of the four directions, giving it a serious, well oriented look, like a compass.
The altar is surrounded by a ring of bare earth some twenty yards across, and at its perimeter a circle of middle-aged oak trees stand graceful and straight-trunked, their upper limbs just touching. People are beginning to gather and settle on hewn log benches under the oaks, facing the fire.
The benches have filled up entirely and the chief now stands by the fire. He raises his head suddenly and sends a high, clean blessing to the tree branches. He prays, or talks, pacing back and forth on the bare dirt circle, sometimes looking up at the sky but mostly addressing the fire. His words seem very calm, more like conversation, Alice thinks, than preaching. Sugar says he is preaching though. "He's saying how to be good, more or less. Everyday wrongs and big wrongs. Same stuff he always says."
Now and again a latecomer truck pulls up through the woods, joining the circle, and respectfully dims its lights. The focused attention in the clearing feels to Alice like something she could touch, a crystal vase, small at the ground and spreading as it goes up into the branches of the oaks.
All at once the chief raises his voice high, and something like a groan of assent rises up through the crowd, and the glass is shattered.
"Now we get to dance," Sugar says, excitedly. A dozen teenaged girls come out, checking each other seriously and adjusting side to side as they line up in a close circle around the fire. They're all wearing knee-length gingham skirts and the rattling leggings made of terrapin shells filled with stones.. They all begin to move with quick little double sliding steps, giving rise to a resounding hiss. Several old men fall into line behind them, nodding and singing a quick, perfect imitation of a whippoorwill. Then the old men begin a song, and the young women step, step, step, counterclockwise around the fire. As other people come into the circle, they take up hands behind the singers and shackle-bearers, making a long snake that coils languidly around the fire. All at once, when the chief holds up his hand, everyone's feet stop still in the dust and the dancers whoop. It's the sound of elation.
"Oh, that looks fun," Alice cries to Sugar. "Can you do it?"
"Oh, I will directly. You should too. You don't have to wait to be asked, just go on up anytime you feel like it."
Another dance begins right away. The song sounds a little different, but the dance is still the same gentle stomping in a circle. Only the girls with the turtle shell legs do the fancy step, concentrating hard, with no wasted motion in their bodies; everyone else just shuffles, old and young, pumping their arms a little, like slowed-down joggers. There are several rings of people around the fire now, and the crowd is growing.
Alice realizes that it's the first time she has witnessed an Indian spectacle that had mothing to do with tourism. This is simply people having a good time in each other's company, because they want to.
"What are the songs about?" she asks Sugar.
"I couldn't really tell you," Sugar answers. "Maybe it don't mean anything."
"Well, it would have to mean something, wouldn't it?"
Sugar seems untroubled by the idea that it might not. "Let's go," she says suddenly, grabbing Alice by the hand.
She follows Sugar in, trembling with nerves, and then there she is, stomp dancing like anybody. At first she is aware of nothing beyond her own body, her self, and she watches other people, imitating the way they hold their arms. But she's also aware that she's doing a strange and unbelievable thing. It makes her feel entirely alive, in the roof of her mouth and her fingertips.
The song turns out to be a short one, and Alice is disappointed to see that when it ends everyone leaves the clearing and settles back down on the benches of their respective clans. The dancers take a break.
Alice can't believe it's 2:00 AM and people are still driving in. The crowd has grown to several hundred. The turtle-shell girls are assembling around the fire again, and when the dance starts, Sugar and Alice are among the first up. Alice feels endurance creeping up on her gradually. This time the singing lasts longer, and she forgets about her arms and legs. It's surprisingly easy to do. The music and movement are comforting and repetitious and hypnotic, and her body slips into place in the endless motion. For the first time she can remember, Alice feels completely included.
The instant a dance stops, she becomes aware of her body again, her muscles and her sleepiness. She understands how, if she kept dancing, she could keep dancing. A keen, relaxed energy comes from forgetting your body. She sees how this will go on all night.


TRIBAL JUMP DANCE: Jump Dance, from Rebalancing the World

Jump Dance is performed every two years in a village near the Klamath River in Northern California. It takes place over ten days following September's full moon, and it brings together the members of two tribes that have lived adjacent to one another for as long as anyone knows.
Jump dance addresses the sorts of differences that arise and accumulate between human beings whenever two or more of us gather together over time. But the reason it's so powerful, I believe, it that it also, more fundamentally, addresses difference itself.

The conflicts that the Yurok and Hupa dance to resolve aren't abstract; they're contemporary, raw, and complex. They concern land use, for instance, and water rights, preservation of native traditions, and religious differences (for some of them are Christian) - the issues that human beings have always come to blows over. And yet the singing and dancing don't address specific issues directly or explicitly.

The ceremony itself is extremely arduous. Male dancers representing two "sides" - seen to be both complementary and competing - take turns dancing in a partly subterranean pit. Many of the younger men fast and thirst and barely sleep the whole time. Two lead singers perform in the middle, "bound together," as anthropologist Thomas Buckley observes, "by a rock-steady chorus of men ranged symmetrically beside the singers, forming a line."

The ceremony is carried out with the sense that it has to work. The various tensions that have divided people against one another must be transformed into a collective yearning for unity, and then, for even the briefest moment, that unity must be experienced by everyone present. No one expects it to go on forever - just a taste is considered enough.

While the dance is going on, humdreds and even thousands of people gather to participate and observe, and in the two camps the women of the two "sides" feed them all - and feed them well. Even as Jump Dance is going on, with no reference to the specific issues that might be of concern that year, the camps themselves are the sites of lively discussion. So it isn't that ceremony replaces debate; both modalities have their function.

As the ceremony enters its last days, the number of dancers and singers increases, and the most ancient and beautiful regalia are brought out and displayed in the dance.

On the last day, the men in the pit are joined by young women, and finally all of the dancers from both sides join tobether; and if the two lead singers are very, very good, the songs move from unison to perfect harmony. And for just that moment, everyone present feels a falling away of differences and a mysterious sense of wholeness and balance.

Through the intensity of their engagement and their longing, they have, however briefly, "fixed the world."

Buckley describes the climactic moment of the 1990 dance, on the tenth day, when the early September heat broke and both sides danced together, raising their medicine baskets in union: "Spectators said later a great spiritual force rose from the pit to hang in the sky above. People were happy (and perhaps relieved) as they went off to feast and talk in the two camps. 'If we can get through the dance we can get through the next two years,' they said."

Politics is Jump Dance, one informant told Buckley. And Jump Dance is politics.
The beauty of Jump Dance, from what I can gather, is that it doesn't pretend that one side is right and the other wrong. The burning question is simply: How can we transcend separateness? And the answer appears to be that every one of us must want mutual understanding so much that we'll work as hard for it as we work to stay on our feet and keep singing during the ten days of the dance. That's why the ceremony seems to me to have such universal significance.
And because that desire for mutual understanding is so strong, Jump Dance participants carry their moment of unity with them for the next two years, knowing that difference itself - and the many tribal differences they face routinely - will never go away.


In the CD Set "Radical Prayer", produced by Sounds True, Matthew Fox tells the story of a workshop in Oregon on Recovering the Cosmic Christ. He used Circle Dance as part of it. Afterward a young man came up to him and said "I'm an environmental Zealot." He had been in jail many times and lain down in front of bulldozers to protect old growth forest. He said "That dance we did was more radical than anything I've ever done before. I can hardly wait to take it back to my activist friends."

A few months later Matthew Fox met him again and asked what had happened. He said he had taught his friends the dance and "an amazing thing happened. Because of the dance - it awakened our imaginations so we're now rethinking who our allies are. We're creating more links, networking. It's not 'us and them' any more. We can see that hunters are not our natural enemies but our natural allies... Until we started dancing in circles, we didn't have that consciousness of circle."


DANCE AS AN ANTIDOTE TO WAR: Circle dancers respond to an article in the Utne Reader, Jan-Feb 2003 Comments on this piece by the Moonfires, dancers in Canada

Here are some more reasons to keep telling people about sacred circle dancing!

The most recent issue of Utne Reader (Jan-Feb 2003) has an article entitled "Why We Love War-and what we can do to prevent it anyway" by Lawrence Leshan. It begins by saying that "To understand why humans go to war, and have done so throughout history, we have to acknowledge certain psychological facts. One of these is a relatively recent scientific insight: that humans organize our perceptions of reality in a variety of different ways, and that we often shift between modes without being aware of it. . War promises to fulfill some fundamental human need or tension. One central human tension is the problem of how to be both an individual and a part of the larger group. . On the one hand is the drive to be more and more unique and individual, to heighten one's experience and being. On the other hand is the drive to be a part of something larger, a full-fledged member of the tribe." The article goes on to mention only "two different means to satisfy these drives simultaneously and without contradiction. The first involves turning to one of the schools of esoteric or spiritual development" which "espouse various meditative techniques." The author then adds that "the problem is that the meditative path is too lengthy and difficult for most people. . Historically, there is a second means of resolving this tension between our conflicting needs for singularity and group identification: war. . Though war clearly does not deliver exactly what it promises, it does offer temporary solutions to psychological problems for a very large percentage of the population."

And yet as sacred circle dancers, WE know of yet another way to achieve this same goal! Leshan's descriptions of both the path of meditation and the path of war could describe what many of us have experienced in our dancing circles! Many could agree that we have felt both "the Way of the Many" in which "we view ourselves as separate and individual" while we are dancing. At the same time, in "the Way of the One", we feel ourselves "as part of the total cosmos, within which nothing, including ourselves is separate from anything else." We can also be "conscious of our own insignificance, aware of being but a drop in the ocean of [humanity], and yet at the same time are conscious of [our] strength as a part of an enormous whole." Tolstoy was describing war's effect in War and Peace, but it could easily describe our sense of ourselves and each other when we hold hands and dance As One.

Leshan also says that "the way that people begin to perceive reality in the period typically preceding the outbreak of war is very seductive." He calls it "the 'mythic' mode of perception, as opposed to the 'sensory' mode we ordinarily use." Examples of 'mythic thinking' are "God is on our side," "History will absolve us," and Good and Evil being reduced to "Us and Them. There are no innocent bystanders; there are only those for or those against us."

Leshan feels that "any serious effort to protect ourselves against war" should "encourage the use of alternate realities-as often achieved during meditation, play, listening to or playing music," and, of course, dancing! Many of us include in our dancing repertoires, music and dances from around the world. As one of my students wrote in her dancing journal, "I feel that I have learned so much about many of the different cultures of the world. Dancing to music from different ethnic communities, whether from long ago or today, opens their world to me and I feel closer to them." Dancing is a wonderful way to hold ourselves in the 'sensory' mode of perceiving in which it is so much more difficult to see 'them' as different from 'us' since 'we' are listening to the same music and dancing the same dances.

And so rather than feeling helpless and hopeless in the face of what seems like an inevitable progression towards international conflict, I feel an even greater passion for inviting everyone to come and dance! And by dancing, to fulfill what seems like a basic human need to feel the sense of oneness in the circle, to delight in the sense of individuality while holding hands and moving our feet together to music which we share with our sisters and brothers around this beautiful earth!

The Moonfires in Cobourg, Ontario



Studies have shown that mentally stimulating activities such as reading, playing cards and board games, and doing crossword puzzles may prevent or minimize memory loss from aging. When researchers compared these brain-boosting hobbies to more physical activities in 469 seniors, dancing was the only one of eight that appeared to help with Alzheimer's prevention.

A study at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York found that the most active seniors reduced their risk of developing dementia by 63 percent, compared with the least active seniors. Researchers are now finding the best activities are those that challenge the brain, are done with other people and might even involve a good workout, such as a fast spin around the dance floor.

Joe Verghese of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine wondered what everyday hobbies might give the brain that edge. Seniors who love to waltz will love the answer that Verghese came up with in his study published in June 2003 in The New England Journal of Medicine. Ballroom dancing protected against Alzheimer's, as did playing games such as chess or backgammon, reading books or playing a musical instrument.

 "And dancing isn't purely physical. It involves some mental effort, as opposed to climbing stairs or walking, which are more automatic as far as the brain is concerned," says lead researcher Joe Verghese, MD, of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

A study presented this summer in Philadelphia at the ninth International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders suggests that the best activities offer a combination of mental, social and physical elements. For example, ballroom dancing taps all three: Dancers have to learn complicated steps, they dance with a partner, and they get a workout, says Laura Fratiglioni of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.


The Elm Dance, by Joanna Macy
The dance is not only for the healing of the elm. It is for intention. It is to strengthen our capacity to choose a purpose, and to follow through on the resolve our hearts have made.

     There is a circle dance we do in every workshop and class of mine. We do it to open our minds to the wider world we live in and to strengthen our intention to take part in its healing.
     We taught this dance to people who had been in the fallout from Chernobyl. The movements are easy to learn, and soon the circle was slowly orbiting to the music; each time we stepped toward the middle, raising our hands high, it was like a giant sunflower or a many-petaled lotus.
     Evening now, and before disbanding to go home, we are circling once more to the music. A guitar is playing and a woman singing. She sings in Latvian in honor of the elm and in hope of its healing, for that trees ails in the Baltics as in my own country. Her words, I'm told, disguise other meanings as well - a call for freedom from Soviet occupation and for the will to endure and resist.
     By now the simple steps are so familiar that some people are dancing with eyes closed. Their faces grow still, as if they're listening for something almost out of reach. Once they had their own folk dances. When did those old traditions die away, relegated to a useless past? Was it under Lenin? Stalin?
     Vladimir Ilyich gestures to a picture of a beautiful woodland scene. "That is where the children may not go - or any of us, for that matter. You see, the trees hold the radioactivity a long time. And that is very hard for us because, you see, our ancestors were of the forest, our old stories are of the forest... Yes, we were always people of the forest."
     I asked him "When will you be able to go back into the forest?" With a tired little smile he shrugged. "Not in my lifetime," he said and, looking at his grandson, he added, "not in his lifetime either."
     It is the second morning, and the people entering take each other's hands and, before any words are spoken, move into the Elm Dance. Every fourth measure, between moving right or left, forwards or backwards, we pause for four beats, gently swaying. To my eyes this morning, we could be trees, slender trunks swaying from firm roots, our arms, as we raise them, looking like branches meeting, interlacing. Do we dance for the forests we can no longer enter?
     As I circle in step with all the others, I recall the connections that brought me this dance - how it came to me from Hannelore, my friend in Germany, who had received it from Anastasia, her German friend, who had created it from the Latvian song. The dance is not only for the healing of the elm, said Anastasia to Hannelore to me. It is for intention. It is to strengthen our capacity to choose a purpose, and to follow through on the resolve our hearts have made.
     I have kept the promise I made to my friends there. I spoke of them at the World Uranium Hearing, and then to every group I met. I found it easier to share their story when I shared the Elm Dance they loved. Wherever I led workshops, I asked people to imagine they are dancing with the men and women from that place. I have wanted them to feel, more strongly than they can through words alone, how their lives are interlaced with the people of Chernobyl.
     Now, strikingly, the truth is this: the Elm Dance has become both the medium and the message. Because people do it with their bodies and with each other, the dance has acquired its own reality - its own life momentum, spreading from group to group, city to city, country to country. It has become a teacher in its own right. Being a dance of intention, it helps us strengthen our resolve, not only for the well-being of those around Chernobyl, but for wider healings as well. The custom has arisen, in the last half of the dance, to call out spontaneously the names of those whose healing we desire: salmon, redwoods, topsoil, the schools, the prisons, Bosnia, Kosovo, the Amazon. Entering the dance then is like entering a sort of neural web in which we can experience our interconnectedness with all beings.
     We do not say this though. The dance says it for us as we stop talking and circle up, moving in steps that seem to remember themselves. Afterwards, copies of the tape are made and taken out to other people, other places - classrooms, churches, meeting halls.
     "The police don't arrest us while we're dancing," say our friends in Australia, who have incorporated the Elm Dance into their direct actions to protect the last stands of old growth forest and to try to block construction of more uranium mines. They dance, they say, to stay connected with each other and steady in their intention. I have seen the dance encircle a bulldozer and bring it to a halt. I have seen it stop the noonday traffic in downtown Sydney.
     Aboriginal Australians had something more memorable to say about the Elm Dance when our friends from Perth made a pilgrimage to their ancestral lands to protest a proposed uranium mine. As traditional owners of the sites to be excavated, the native elders have been mightily wooed by the mining industry and its proponents in Government. But when the pilgrims from Perth arrived and the old ones saw them circle up and move into the Elm Dance, they grinned. "You White fellas must know something real if you dancing."

Excerpts from Widening Circles, by Joanna Macy

For more about Joanna and the Elm Dance, see her website.