Patterns in costumes worn for dancing offer valuable clues to understanding the wisdom encoded in traditional circle dance. Key motifs recur in folk art, songs, and myths, dance patterns, and archaeological finds, showing their longevity and the intention behind their transmission. Similar symbols are found over a wide geographical region, including the main areas in which circle dance is still extant today. Common motifs reveal historical and cultural links between different places and peoples. The Berber or Amazigh culture of North Africa, for instance, which strongly influenced the culture of archaic Greece, can thus offer insight into the ancient origins of traditional circle dance.
My article 'The Taroudant Embroidery Adventures' in the Autumn 2016 issue of Grapevine described my encounters with Goddess embroideries on my first visit to La Maison Anglaise. You can read that article, and how Jane Bayley and I were inspired to set up a women's embroidery project there, at https://cecu.co.uk/projects/.
The principal motif found in southern Morocco is a classic triangular pattern incorporating ancient symbols of the Mountain Goddess, Winged Goddess and Birth Goddess, Tree of Life, zigzag, and signs of life. The Berber women call it Lkbab or Lbrouj, and believe it bestows health, wealth, fertility, prosperity and all good things. This ancient Neolithic motif appears in carpets, pottery, jewellery, leatherwork, and henna tattoos, and in women's embroidered aprons, baby-carrying cloths and sheets for the wedding bed.
Why the Mountain Goddess? Mountains bring rain. They catch the clouds and wick moisture down through streams and rivers to give life to the land. The 'life signs' radiating from the embroidered figures portray the mountain as a source of life, personified as female because females are also the source of life.
This is reflected in the women's dancing. Dounia and Latifa at La Maison Anglaise explain, ‘Moroccan women dance at feasts and weddings, as a celebration of life and tradition. Women's belly dance is a spiritual connection between mind and body, expressing joy, well-being, and freedom. Most importantly, dance is a celebration of the feminine soul and inner spirit through movement.’
The women in the Berber and Sufi bands who come regularly to play for visitors at La Maison Anglaise are themselves like mountains of power and calm. Their red headscarves are embellished with long red fringes connoting rain and fertility. These women radiate an astonishing aura of contentment and relaxed authority. Through music and dance, they bring joy, affirm the solidarity of the group, and strengthen the community. In my opinion, the impressive aura of power and presence these women convey is due at least in part to three essential elements: the survival of pre-Islamic ancient Berber culture with its egalitarian matriarchal roots; the influence of numerous Sufi tariqas in southern Morocco, which offer a path to the divine through opening the heart; and the fact that female genital mutilation is not practiced in southern Morocco, so girls and women grow up strong and unafraid.
What does the Mountain Goddess have to do with dancing? Her upright, symmetrical stance, with hands raised in blessing, is the quintessential posture of power; it also depicts the dancing woman, with hands raised to join the dance. The embroidered hem of a 19th-C apron from Razgrad, Bulgaria, shows similar figures connected in a dance line, radiating 'life signs' and holding Trees of Life.
Goddess embroideries such as these provide a visual template reflecting dancers' embodied experience of power and presence in the dance. Ritual dance and festive dress help lift us out of our personal limitations and connect us to a transpersonal state, where we know ourselves to be part of something larger, stronger, older and wiser than we are. Dance frees us for a time from the burden of daily concerns, then helps us face them with freshly renewed feelings of vitality, connection, and joy which are the gifts of the dance.
When we understand better where the gestures, patterns and symbols of traditional dances come from, we understand better what it means to stand upright in the circle, connected to earth and sky, ourselves and each other. Knowing what we do and why we do it helps us to dance in a more mindful way, and to consciously and deliberately invoke the life-giving powers of blessing, healing, empowerment, and joy which traditional circle dances have embodied since the beginning. Insight into the ancient roots and common features of traditional dance reveals our connections with people of other times, other places, other cultures and other religions. The universality of these enduring motifs teach that we are all brothers and sisters in the human family, and this knowledge is the foundation on which circle dance can help build a new culture of peace.
There are a couple of places available on Laura's next Women's Ritual Dance and Culture Tours to southern Morocco: October 3-15, 2019 and April 28-May 9, 2020 for women who have danced with Laura before, and April 18-28, 2020 for women who have done one of Laura's 2-year trainings. Many other dance teachers also offer holidays at La Maison Anglaise. Visit www.laurashannon.net or www.cecu.co.uk.