Sacred Circle / World DanceThe Very Symbol of Unity and Wholeness
Circle Dancing is a folk art, a new and burgeoning branch from the thick old trunk of International Folk Dance. Human beings have danced in circles for literally thousands of years to the music of drum, chanting, flute, bagpipe, around the central fire in the village. The dances were passed on, generation to generation, changing as they moved, just as folk songs travel and the tunes & words get modified. Only the advent of recorded music (recording technology) has given us the idea that there might be a “correct form” for the folk arts. Most of us know better, know that for dances & songs to be kept alive, they need to pass from person to person, changing to fit new environments.
Our branch of this art, sometimes known as “Sacred” Circle Dance, had its birth at Findhorn, a New Age Community in Scotland. Bernard Wosien, a German ballet master, had collected very old traditional dances from Eastern Europe, mostly from Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Romania. He thought that these dances encoded ancient knowledge, and he was concerned that they not get lost. In 1976, he was invited to Findhorn, to a Conference on “European Spiritual Renewal”. The Findhorn Community gleefully took on the dances and began choreographing new dances that followed the same format, essentially a series of dance steps that keep repeating over and over, and so is easy for a group of beginners or non-dancers to learn.
Circle Dance differs from International Folk Dance, though we do many of the same dances. Folk dance tends to gather lots of dances, the more complex the better, and tries to accurately reproduce the original ethnic style. We are focused on using the dances to build community, and as prayer and meditation. We tend to do simpler dances, for a longer period of time, allowing ourselves to be held by the circle, and to sink into the rhythmic movement, allowing our minds to relax.
We dance in a circle or line. No partners are needed. All dances are taught or reviewed every time and beginners are welcome. We dance around a centerpiece that usually contains one or more candles, crystals, driftwood, feathers and other representations of the four elements, or any thing that we want to celebrate by our dancing. It’s not about performance, but about prayer. We are fond of saying “there are no mistakes, only variations”. We stand in silence at the end of each dance, allowing ourselves to become aware of the energy we have created.
Dancing in a circle is a metaphor for a community of peers. All are equidistant from the center/Spirit, each one able to reach directly to Spirit on their own, yet at the same time connected to each other. All are equally important, and we all move together, each doing the same steps with their own unique style.
Here at Neskaya I teach Sacred/Circle Dance. We have about 1000 pieces of music, contemporary and traditional, from all around the world. We have traditional folk dances and modern choreographies to dance to, and we are able to design a program to meet the needs of many varied groups.
“I see each dance as a map or a message, which can teach us if we learn how to listen. Decoding the messages depends on precision and subtlety of style, an understanding of historical and spiritual contexts, and above all a sense of the relevance these dances can have for our lives today. In my work I encourage each dancer to seek the meaning within the movements, and to remember dance as a celebration of life for all the human family.”
International Folk Dance
The International Folk Dance collectors and organizations have done invaluable work since the 18th century in finding, preserving, archiving and keeping alive the traditional dances of many lands, especially those areas in which the industrial world and political changes are eroding and destroying the traditional cultural forms. The many folkdance groups worldwide gather to enjoy dancing these surviving and more recently created dances, and hold festivals and folk dance camps where folkdancers from everywhere can learn and exchange dances. Folk dancing has been a popular recreational activity in schools and community centers as well. There is considerable emphasis placed on the exact place of origin of the dances and on transmitting and dancing them precisely as they were collected in the field.
History of Sacred Circle Dance
Sacred/Circle Dance includes many of the same dances enjoyed by the folk dancers, but our emphasis is a bit different. The whole Sacred/Circle Dance movement really began with an extraordinary Bavarian Dance Master named Bernhard Wosien. A prominent dancer and choreographer with the Berlin Ballet for 50 years, Professor Wosien had a great love for the traditional folklore and and dances of Europe, and studied for many years with a master of the ritual, symbolic and esoteric aspects of these dances. In 1976, seeking a repository for his vast knowledge of traditional dance, Professor Wosien, together with his daughter, Gabriele, came to the Findhorn Foundation, an international spiritual community in Scotland. A Sacred Dance group was formed among community members to learn what Professor Wosien called the “Heilige Tanz”, or Sacred Dance. As dancers went out from Findhorn, the Sacred Dance went with them, and within a few years there were groups all over the UK and Western Europe, enthusiastically carrying on Bernhard WosienÌs work. Since the term “Sacred Dance” was easily confused with liturgical and other religious forms of dance, many groups changed it to Circle Dance, but it may be found under either name. In time it took root in North America as well, and in 1990 the first week-long Circle Dance Camp in New England drew participants from all over the US, as well as Canada, the Bahamas and England.
Dancing in Circles
Once upon a time, they say, we danced our lives through – as we worked, played, ate, slept, fought, and loved. We danced to petition and appease the gods, to help the sun rise, the rivers flow, and the plants grow and thrive. By dancing we understood our power and our place in the universe, and through dance we transmitted this understanding to the next generation. We danced to celebrate life’s rites of passage, from birth to death; through the dance we attuned to and imitated the rhythms, cycles and the awe-inspiring process of nature, and we danced to express our joy, fear, grief and hope. According to Bernhard and Maria Gabrielle Wosien, “Dancing has always been an imitation of the divine mystery in manifestation.” To live was to dance.
Most importantly we danced together. We danced in a circle, the very symbol of unity and wholeness. Our circles created a sacred space, a Temenos, within which we created and recreated our cosmos and our realities. Outside was chaos and the unknown – within the circle was order, power and community.
Then came the rise of cities and trade, suppression of “pagan” forms of celebration and worship and the ravages of industrialism. We lost touch with our earth and our communal unity. Our dance became more purely social; the circle became opposing lines and squares, then broke into couples, until recently we see the ultimate in dissociation – dancing alone, unaware of the whole and isolated from one another. The circle of the dance was broken, but the need for it remained deep in our psyches, in the places where we remember our wholeness.
Circle Dance and the “New Age”
In October of 1976 the energy of the sacred circle dance re-emerged in a new form for a New Age. The Findhorn Community in Scotland held a conference on European Spiritual Renewal, and among the invited guests were Professor Bernhard Wosien, Dance Master from Munich, and his daughter, Maria Gabrielle, who shared with the community their living knowledge of the sacred dance traditions of the West. Bernhard, although a classical dancer by profession, had studied the traditional European dances and their meaning and significance with a master who embodied a tradition transmitted through a line of teachers tracing directly back to Pythagoras. Bernhard had his own school in Munich, but for years he had been looking for a place where the spiritual essence of dance could be appreciated and where tradition could be absorbed and used as the foundation for new creations. In Findhorn he found his place, and over the years until his death in 1987, he returned again and again to share his knowledge and Being with the Sacred Dance group which was formed to receive it.
What is it that draws so many people back to Sacred/Circle Dancing at this particular time? It is no news to us that the spiral energy is spinning faster, bringing outworn fear-based and destructive patterns to an end and initiating new, more conscious, love and community based forms and structures of relationship and activity. In this time of transition we need to move harmoniously together into the new consciousness, using the best of the wisdom traditions to ground us as we explore and experiment with creative expression of the New. Under the Seventh Ray energies, ceremony and ritual, celebration and festival become increasingly important as shapers of new consciousness, and the Sacred/Circle dance is a vehicle marvelously and flexibly suited to this purpose. Dancing the old dances, or employing the traditional dance steps and patterns as an alphabet and a grammar to create new ones, there is no limit to the group rituals that can be created or the healing and celebrating uses to which it can be adapted.
Rowan’s Experience at Findhorn
I was living at the Findhorn Foundation at that time, and though I had never been a dancer, the impulse was strong. I was drawn to join the Sacred Dance group to work with Bernhard. Something truly special was happening there, in a place already known for its magical gardens and its spiritual pioneering. Bernhard was an extraordinary elf of a man, who, though already in his seventies, left us panting in the wake of his intense and tireless energy. He came, he taught, and when he left we practiced and learned the many dances he had given – many so ancient that their origins are lost in time, others of more recent provenance, and some which he had himself created from his intuitive understanding of the tradition. Through listening, and repetitive dancing of all these under his guidance, we discovered our own profound connections to the spirit of the dance, the community of the circle, and a sense of the power of ritual and symbol in transformation of consciousness.
Transformation of Energy
That first year, and for years after, Bernhard created dance presentations for the community – an early one based on the symbolic pattern of the Pentagon, another on the “Round Dance of Jesus,” from the Apocryphal Acts of St. John, a Gnostic mystery teaching banished by the church from the canonical scriptures. One year we greeted the Spring with a dance drama story of Theseus and the Minotaur, a myth so germinal and powerful that resurrecting it evoked protest from some members of the community. Was it appropriate, they asked, to dredge up from the distant past such dark and violent images, and what might it do to the community energy? This is the myth of the hero and the labyrinth – of the descent into darkness, overcoming the monster therein, and re-emerging into the light, transformed. It is a universal metaphor, symbolized most simply in the image of the spiral, for the journey of the soul through death to rebirth. He assured the questioners that no harm would be done. The key was “transformation” – transmuting the darkness of old thoughtforms into light.
This is what Bernhard had done: he had taken the old energies of conflict and death, these dark and outworn forms from our past, and transformed them into a new understanding of ourselves. We no longer seek to slay our shadows, but to accept and transform them. This is a myth for a New Age, with roots in forever. And so with the old dances. Bernhard has said “… in dancing these old forms it is as though we are entering another time and are guiding this ancient knowledge into the present movement. It is like finding something again; you recognize it as something you have known; you have connected with the ancient stream of knowledge which flows on through you.”
Bernhard Wosien is gone now, but the legacy of the Sacred Dance, continuing still at Findhorn and the School in Munich and moving out into the larger world with successive waves of dancers, is alive and growing.
The folk dances of Europe, especially those of the less industrialized East, have been well preserved, and still embody the ancient energies, though their precise meanings may have been long forgotten. The patterns, rhythms and gestures carry a power which may reveal itself to us when we dance with “sacred intent.” Like all true products of the folk traditions, they connect us with our inner mythic world, giving us a deeper sense of who we are, where we come from and why we are here. These dances are a link to the highest aspirations of our creative collective unconscious. The moving circle, through its own dynamics, creates a vortex of energy which assists us in raising and accessing our own divine energies of transformation.
The key is “sacred intent.” As with any activity, we get back what we put in, and we find that the dance rewards our intent many times over. Many of us find in the dancing circle aspects of ourselves that we had never recognized, a grace and fluidity and rhythm we had never expressed. We find in the circle a safe place to be ourselves and to share our energies, whether it be peaceful moving meditation or a laughing, playful romp. For us, the Sacred/Circle Dance offers a way of being and relating, a key to understanding and a joyful opportunity to celebrate our oneness with each other, our world, and those who have danced this way before.
For Circle Dancers, this form of dance is much more than fun and relaxation, although it is certainly that as well. We find in the energy of the circle, in the patterns, rhythms and steps of the dance a deep connection to ourselves, each other and our world. The psychic and spiritual need to dance and celebrate together has not been lost with the vanishing of the custom. We still have, even if unconsciously, a powerful yearning for this kind of communal sharing, and in the Circle Dance we experience a rich and satisfying sense of returning and reintegration. It is a path on our Way, a strand of the great web which gathers all life together in wholeness and unity. Come, dance with us and discover for yourselves what we have found.
Written by Rowan (Janet Scott)
127 East Street, Hadley, MA 01035
One Man’s Experience:
FERRY BEACH 2000: CIRCLES IN THE SAND by Dick Scobie
(Ferry Beach is the UU Camp on the shore of Saco Bay in Maine)
Like Brigadoon, it rises from the sea (every year, not every hundred). Each gathering like no other, yet the same rich blend of old and new friendships, shared experiences, opening of hearts, self discovery, giving and receiving, relaxed playfulness and spiritual reflection – all before the eternal vastness of the sea.
One morning at dawn I sit on the beach, looking down at the waves and the blazing reflection of the sun on the water – a corridor of diamonds, from the surf line to the horizon. Silhouetted against the light is a woman, with long gray hair and a rattle. She is making a mandala, a medicine wheel in the sand. A self proclaimed Shaman, she traces the circumference in the sand with her toe, marking out the directions of the compass, north, south, east, west. Flocks of swallows skim across the surface of the water as gulls wheel and dive in their wake.
It occurs to me that the figure could have been on any beach on earth in any century, going back hundreds of thousands of years. From the beginning of time people have gone to the shore at dawn to find and enter a holy place, to honor and praise the mystery of creation, of life, death. They have made sacred circles and sung hymns of praise and supplication, just as this woman as she faces the sun, raising her hands skyward, shaking rattles and chanting.
My friend Darrell sits up the beach, cross-legged, his hands folded in prayer as he chants his Budhist sutras. Others stand together and chat near the board-walk path through the dunes. The first breakfast bell sounds. Having already sent out my own hymn to the sun, I gather up my bagpipes and coffee-cup and head back to Quillan and the warmth of food and companionship.
My workshop this year is “sacred circle dancing.” I elected this rather than the more disciplined writing workshop that I have done in the past. As I explained, half jokingly, I was looking to something easy that would tell me the secret of life. This was a good choice.
Ten of us spent two and a half hours a day, all week, dancing to stirring and hypnotic music from Greece, the Middle East, Medieval Europe, Ireland, Africa and America. The instructor, Jenny, is enthusiastic and skilled, and by the end of the week we are a family of kindred spirits, dancing our prayers. As one Greek dance expressed it: “we look to the future, we honor the past, we praise the spirit, and we live in the present.” At the end of each dance we stand, still holding hands in our circle, to absorb the energy and feel the sense of centeredness.
An image comes to me that, like the woman on the beach, we are doing what people have been doing for millennia, on beaches, in forest glens, around campfires – dancing together in circles to express their joy, their passion, their solidarity, their pain, their faith. Our little circle occupies the present moment, while directly behind us I see a circle of those who we have known who have passed on, and behind them another circle of those we have heard of, or can imagine, and behind them circles upon concentric circles of people who have done the dance of life and then returned to the earth, the sea, the sky. Tom takes the image further, seeing the altar around which we have been dancing as the center of energy, the creative source of life from which new generations will arise, while we take our places in the second circle.
As the lunch bell rings, we share a last nostalgic dance to Van Morrison’s “End of Summer” (These are the Days) and trail across the grass to Quillan or down the road to the Grove – for food, companionship, and the long, delicious afternoon.