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Ritual Dancing: Beyond The Spiral
Article ID: 10084
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Of course, one of the natural complements to drumming and singing is dancing. Most people follow their natural instincts to dance when they hear drumming or music with a good beat.
Around the communal fire at a gathering, everyone may start out sitting around the fire, but once the drums begin, someone will get up and start to dance, then others will get up and join in the dance. Although some of it is bellydance and some is African-inspired, usually dancing around the fire is sort of a freestyle affair. In ritual though, we want to focus and raise energy, and that is more effectively done when there is a type of dance that brings the energy of the group together in some coordinated way.
One of the uses of dance in rituals is to raise energy for the workings, whether it is to send healing energy, to do divination, cast a protective spell, bring fertility or prosperity or to support any other sort of intention the group has agreed on.
I find it peculiar that only one form of ritual dance seems to be popular at the present time. I have been in large circles at regional gatherings and small circles in people’s homes, and it seems that the only sort of ritual dance we ever did in those instances was the spiral dance.
As good as that can be, I started to wonder why more groups didn’t use other sorts of dances.
If we trace the flow of music and dance along the pathways of the European immigrant settlers, what we have are descendants of dances that were popular among people from the British Isles, France, Italy, Germany and other places. Well into the 20th Century, in major cities you could still find ethnic organizations, like German Clubs or Italian Clubs, where people still enjoyed doing traditional dances to the accompaniment of music from their old countries. In many cities you can find Irish or Scottish country dancing groups and classes. Contra dancing has its deepest roots in New England, but there are now avid contra dance groups throughout the US. Square dancing evolved from that same cultural vein, and Appalachian music, bluegrass and folk music can all be traced back to old European ballads and dancing music. Folk dancing in these forms were popular recreations for American settlers for generations, just as they provided the entertainment for country people and working people in the old countries of Europe. Dances such as the waltz were considered scandalous at the time the upper class people began doing them. Two people holding each other, facing each other, dancing slowly, in public! It was considered far too intimate a display of affection for everyone to see in polite society settings.
Given this context, it would be totally in character if Witches and Pagans did such dances in their full moon and sabbat gatherings. What could be more symbolic of the eternal dance of the God and Goddess than people in circle dancing together? And doesn’t dancing together frequently make for an erotic atmosphere conducive to amorous adventures? I believe that authors are right when they claim that forms of folk dancing and waltzing were commonly part of ritual celebrations.
What other choices are there? Consider that if Witches and other Pagans were traditions that evolved from common people, they would have used folk dances and music that everyone could relate to.
Highly choreographed ritual dances, such as the Morris Dances, do not really fit this description, since people have specific parts and costumes and the dances follow a prescribed pattern. Morris Dances can still be found in Britain and the US today, although they are usually regarded simply as presentations of historical folk dances, rather than Pagan rituals. There is excellent information on these types of dances in Nigel Pennick's Crossing the Borderlines and in Sacred Mask, Sacred Dance by Evan John Jones and Chas Clifton.
However, there is ample evidence that circles have a long tradition of other types of music and dance. In her book The Rebirth of Witchcraft Doreen Valiente talks about doing a dance called The Mill, where everyone shuffles around in a circle, raising energy that can be felt from the feet up, due to the friction between the feet and the earth. The grinding of the feet, even if it is bare feet on a carpeted floor, emulates the action of an old fashioned grist mill, where the raw energy of grain was refined into a powdery mixture that was easier to cook with. In its time, the mill was as much a source of hypnotic magic as the ancient blacksmith turning earth into metal. If you have ever seen a mill in operation, you know how hypnotic it can be.
In The Grimoire of Lady Sheba the author writes a detailed description of a dance called The Circle Eight. This form of dancing will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has ever done contra dancing or square dancing. She says that before this form of dance was called square dancing, it was called round dancing.
In this form of dancing, you have a caller and music to lead the dancing and coordinate the movement. Typical instruments for this type of music would include fiddle, guitar, flute or recorder, and occasionally, some sort of percussion. The percussion can include various types of drums, spoons, bones, and I’ve seen more than a few people in such bands use their feet, clad in hard soled shoes on a square of wood to beat out the rhythm, while they play an instrument. Other instruments in such bands include piano, pennywhistle, harmonica, mandolin, accordion, banjo, clarinet or harp.
Dances of this type stir up energy through the constant change of patterns and partners that flow with the music. In such a dance, everyone will end up dancing with everyone else at some point, so that everyone in the circle has an opportunity to dance with every other person in the circle as a couple and as a whole group. The group dances a few steps or does a few movements together as a whole group, then people break off into couples for a few steps or a few sequences of movements, then rejoin the whole group before breaking off into new couples. The dances can continue for hours, with the energy being periodically kicked up to a higher level when the musicians increase the tempo.
It has been my experience in doing contra dancing that it always raises a great deal of high spirited, playful energy and a sense of group unity and fellowship. People are always smiling and happy after doing this type of dancing. Actually, all types of dancing generally lift a person’s spirits. Movement stimulates the flow of energy and elevates moods. Dance activates our pleasure centers. That is why we see so many smiling faces at the end of an evening of dancing.
In Patricia Crowther’s books like Lid Off the Cauldron she talks about how even dances such as the jitterbug or waltz were used by Witches in circle, although these dances may have been known by other names in earlier times.
The waltz, in particular, seems well suited to a small coven. No doubt it can also work with a large group, but if a group only consists of four or six people, you can have two or three couples dancing around the altar in circles. Recorded music will work just fine for this, and no caller is necessary. Once again, you have the polarity of male and female energy being moved in a circle with people breaking off into couples, then rejoining hands to send off the cone of power.
Another, more organized use of drumming in ritual can be seen in Layne Redmond’s instructional video A Sense of Time (formerly called Ritual Drumming) where she and her students create processionals and rituals using frame drums and tambourines. Any coven could create similar rituals and adapt them to suit their tastes. This, again, like Morris Dancing, is something that would require practice of a coordinated effort, rather than just winging it. Layne’s work is stunningly beautiful and powerfully evocative in creating a ritual atmosphere with the simplest of drums and movements.
The tambourine once again brings us around again to the old images of Witches in the woods dancing around the fire. Perhaps the examples I have offered are the methods and activities that a single frame of illustration tries to capture and present to us. Or it may have been more freeform and wild. The tambourine was the favored instrument in the old Pagan religions because of its unique sound qualities, its portability and ease of playing. Another example is in the recording of Tarantata: The Dance of the Ancient Spider by Allessandra Belloni, who sings, plays tambourine and dances until she drops while her band accompanies her and provides music. Allessandra Belloni explores the roots of the spider dance, an erotic dance meant to cure the "affliction" of love in women. The old folk dance, the tarantella, has older, darker, more mystic and mythical roots than many people are aware of.
Try some of these other types of dance in circle and see how effective they are for raising energy. Our group has tried a number of these drumming and dancing techniques and obtained excellent results. I encourage you to expand your use of dancing in ritual far beyond the spiral dance. I contra dance regularly, I’ve done workshops with Layne Redmond, we’ve spiral danced, done the mill and waltzed in our circles. We’ve drummed in processionals, drummed as a form of meditation, drummed to awaken our psychic vision, drummed to energize our magical spells and drummed to send healing energy to others.
Why were so many old Witches and Pagans depicted as drumming and dancing so frequently? Because these always were great and reliable ways to raise energy.
Try one of these dances in your circles and see for yourself what kind of results you get. Then you will know, and you will keep on doing the things that work best for you. If only one of my suggestions appeals to you or works for you, you now have enlarged your circle techniques and allow yourself one more route by which you can get results. No doubt, some of you may have also been wondering what sort of dances people used to do in circle. Sometimes we just have to decipher the obvious clues.
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