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.

We sent our prayers back in time, not only to the victims but also to the guards of the camps and the perpetrators of the atrocities. These individuals were also prisoners, trapped inside a sick and evil way of thinking which caused them to demonise others and commit the worst of crimes. Buddhist teacher Tara Brach describes with great insight how we project our own feelings of unworthiness outward and make others the enemy:

In this ‘us vs. them’ world, the unworthiness, the evil, is ‘out there’. Whether it is a family schism or a generations-long war between ethnic groups, creating an enemy imparts a sense of control – we feel superior, we feel right, we feel we are doing something about the problem. Directing anger at an enemy temporarily reduces our feelings of fear and vulnerability.
This is not to say that real threats don’t exist…. Yet if we lash out with hatred and violence, if we make war on ourselves or each other, we generate more fear, reactivity, and suffering. Freeing ourselves from this trance of fear and alienation becomes possible only as we respond to our vulnerability with a wise heart. (Radical Acceptance (2003), pp 17-18)

It’s not easy to eliminate deeply internalised structures of hatred, whether directed towards ourselves or others. However, the mutual acceptance and support we practice in the dance circle can literally create an experience of a more peaceful community, while also supporting our individual healing.

Circle dance has always been a place where diverse people can come together. We come from different countries, speak different languages, have different faiths, and hold different views – on politics, economics, eating habits, the environment, smoking, and any other issue you can name. Yet, despite these differences, we still hold hands and share steps in the movement synchrony which helps heal trauma. We don’t only hold hands with people who eat the same way, vote the same way, or think the same way as ourselves.

This act of joining hands with others different from us is a radical affirmation of our common humanity. At the same time, the steps we dance and the music we hear connect us with peoples of cultures and religions different from our own. Suddenly we can see those different from us as allies instead of enemies. As we accept one another in the circle, so we too are accepted, exactly as we are. This acceptance helps us release old internalised feelings of self-hatred, as well as the fear and hatred projected onto an ‘enemy’ outside ourselves.

I’ve witnessed this miracle of healing in many, many circles all over the world. Coming together in the circle, accepting ourselves and each other enables us to make a scarred place sacred – healing our wounded hearts along with the wounded landscape. This is what it means to dance for forgiveness and reconciliation.

My own journey of recovery from rape, which I mentioned in Part One, was only possible through the healing power of dance. The dances of peoples who had come through the horrors of exile and genocide with their love for life intact showed me how to do this too. Through dance, I learned to survive and to thrive, with a new joy for life and sense of purpose.

Fear and hatred are increasing again now at a frightening pace. Children are in cagesUighurs are in camps, and everywhere we look, systemic racism is exploding into increasingly overt expression. The politicians in power won’t save us, and replacing them with more humane politicians takes time. So what can we do?

Feminist spirituality asks us to safeguard the rights of all beings, human and non-human, and to acknowledge the sacredness in all things. To stand up against crimes of persecution perpetrated in the name of our faith or with the taxes we pay. To free ourselves from the inward and outward hatred which perpetuates these crimes. To wake up to the harm we can do one another, or which has been done, in our names or while our eyes were closed. To pray for peace. To pray for the ‘enemy’. To find the courage to steer our society away from hatred and violence, and towards compassion and care. These are the original values of the peaceful, egalitarian societies of Old Europe, a core template for feminist spirituality and for traditional circle dance.

We now face a common threat, worse than any war: the rapidly approaching destruction of livable habitat on earth. So let’s quit wasting time and energy blaming ‘the enemy’. Let’s help each other move beyond past trauma, find our power, and share our strengths. Let us join hands, in all of our diversity and wholeness, to change our ways and protect our planet.

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.

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