In researching the roots of traditional circle dances, patterns in the costumes worn for dancing offer valuable clues to understanding the wisdom encoded in the dance. Goddess embroideries of Eastern Europe provide a visual template reflecting dancers' embodied experience of transpersonal power and presence in the dance. Key patterns in textiles and other forms of folk art also appear in the dances and in archaeological finds, indicating a continuity of symbol which hints at the possible antiquity of the dances.
It is difficult to concisely say what a symbol 'means', since, as Marija Gimbutas explains, symbols in the art of the Goddess-reverent civilisation of Old Europe were polyvalent, carrying multiple meanings simultaneously. However, as their careful preservation and transmission over a period of thousands of years attests, these motifs certainly did (and do) have meaning. Similar patterns are found over a wide geographical region, including the main areas in which circle dance is still extant today. Common motifs in myth and legend, textiles and dance reveal historical and cultural links between different places and peoples. The Berber or Amazigh culture of North Africa, for instance, over 8,000 years old, strongly influenced the culture of archaic Greece where traditional circle dances are partly rooted. Surviving aspects of Berber tradition can offer valuable insight into the origins of dance.
The ancient motifs of the Mountain Goddess, the Winged Goddess and Birth Goddess are particularly significant for women's traditional dance. Sheila Paine spent years researching triangular amulets identified with the Goddess, travelling from Afghanistan to Africa, through Russia, Turkey, and Greece. According to Sheila, the typical amulet is a triangle (the body of the Goddess) adorned with three hanging tassels, representing the Great Mother's legs and the baby's head emerging in between. Having encountered this Goddess pattern in many places on my own travels in connection with the dance, I was delighted to discover it in southern Morocco as well.
The classic triangular amulet with three pendants can be found in many forms, with abundant examples in jewelry, leatherwork, carpets, pottery and other items throughout Taroudant's labyrinthine souk. Berber women carry their babies in Goddess-embroidered wraps, and wear Goddess-embroidered aprons.
The principal motif is a classic triangular pattern, incorporating ancient symbols of the Goddess, mountain, mother and daughter, Tree of Life, zigzag, and signs of life. The Berber women call it Lakbab (Lbrouj for a smaller version), and believe it bestows health, wealth, fertility, prosperity and all good things. It is a favourite design in henna tattoos, and is also found on early archaeological artefacts from Neolithic times.
In the Berber market I looked for those aprons and baby wraps, but everywhere the answer was the same: nobody embroiders by hand anymore; women no longer have time and nobody can afford to buy it. Only crude machine-made versions were available.
Still, even these invariably used the traditional colours of dark red, dark blue, hot pink or green, and always featured the traditional Goddess pattern. The women assured me that the luck-bringing patterns ‘still work’ whether they are made by hand or by machine! Eventually, with help from the wonderful women staff at La Maison Anglaise, I purchased an exquisite set of hand-embroidered sheets and pillow slips for a wedding bed.
But we were deeply dismayed at the apparently imminent disappearance of this traditional art. Jane Bayley, the owner of La Maison Anglaise, has set up numerous sustainable ecological projects in the area, so a women's embroidery project seemed the obvious solution. Now village women embroider small items with traditional patterns to sell to visitors, keeping their skills alive and passing them on to younger women. The artisans receive a decent wage for their work, and this in turn increases women's self-esteem and status in the family and the community. You can read more about the embroidery project (and place orders) at https://cecu.co.uk/projects/.
Why the Mountain Goddess? Mountains bring rain. They catch the clouds and wick the 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 also 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.’
Moroccan dance is often oriented towards transpersonal experience, for instance in the women's trance dance known as the Guedra. Over the years, my groups in Morocco have had the extraordinary privilege of experiencing traditional music and healing dance with Gnaoua, Ahwash, Berber and Sufi bands.
The Berber women in the band who come regularly to play and dance for us in La Maison Anglaise are themselves like mountains of power and calm. Their ceremonial dresses feature two extra panels of fabric in front, which the women hold in their hands as they dance so it looks like they have wings. Their red headscarves are embellished with long red fringes; Elizabeth Wayland Barber names the red fringe as the most ancient item of women’s clothing known, dating back more than 20,000 years, and connoting rain and fertility.
These women radiate astonishing qualities of power, contentment, connection, and relaxed authority. Through music and dance, they affirm the solidarity of the group and strengthen the community. These are all qualities of the ancient Goddess culture as articulated by Marija Gimbutas, Riane Eisler, Carol P. Christ and others. Whenever they gather in a protected space, the women reveal the joy and beauty of their togetherness. I am convinced that the impressive aura of power and presence in these women 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 teach that every religion is 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? The upright, symmetrical stance of the Mountain Goddess is the quintessential posture of power; the triangular Goddess, with hands raised in blessing, is also the dancing woman, with hands raised to join the dance. The embroidered hem of a 19th-C apron from Razgrad, Bulgaria, shows Mountain Goddess figures connected in a dance line, radiating life-signs or energy waves and holding Trees of Life.
Aprons like this were not for daily wear but were an essential part of the festive costume which transforms a woman's state from a personal to a transpersonal one. Since antiquity, dress, dance and song have been the ritual elements that lift us out of our personal limitations and connect us to something larger, stronger, older and wiser than we are. We are able to free ourselves for a time from the burden of daily concerns, and return to face them with the freshly renewed feeling of personal power and transpersonal connection which dancing gives us.
When we understand better where the postures and gestures, patterns and symbols of our traditional dances come from, we can also understand better what it means to stand upright in the circle, connected to earth, sky, ourselves and each other. Knowing what we do and why we do it, with insight into the ancient roots of what we do, helps us to dance in a more mindful way. This enables us to consciously and deliberately invoke the life-giving powers of blessing, healing, empowerment and transformation, not to mention joy, which traditional circle dances have embodied since the beginning. To understand the universality of the patterns, experiences and feelings at the heart of women's dance is to see our connection with women of other times, other places, other cultures and other religions. These universal embroidery motifs teach
that we are all daughters of the Goddess and sisters in the human family. and this knowledge is the foundation on which we can build a culture of peace.
Laura's next Women's Ritual Dance and Culture Tours to southern Morocco will take place on April 18-28, 2020, and April 28-May 9, 2020, for women who have danced with Laura before. There is a waiting list for these tours. www.laurashannon.net