The Golden Circle - An Interview with Laura Shannon (1998)

Translation of El Circulo Dorado, an interview with Laura Shannon which appeared in Uno Mísmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina, vol. 184 October 1998.
Interview and translation by María Márta Suarez.

Laura Shannon, born in the United States, first encountered Sacred Circle Dance at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland in 1984. She had already majored in Intercultural Studies at university, drawn by a strong attraction to the artistic traditions of other peoples.
Later, at Findhorn,she completed a teacher training at Findhorn with Anna Barton. On the training course she met Andy Bettis, one of the first Sacred Circle Dance teachers in Britain; they married and in 1988 began to teach the dances together. Now Laura travels to more than 15 countries worldwide to share the spirit of the sacred circle. This is what she will be doing in South America from mid-November 1998, in a tour which will take her to Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Rosario, Bariloche and Jujuy.
The following interview took place via e-mail, thanks to María Marta Suárez, based on a questionnaire developed by Felisa Chalcoff's advanced dance group in Buenos Aires.

What do you experience when you dance?
I experience a timeless quality, a sense of dancing in the footsteps of my ancestors. I feel connected to myself and to my neighbours, and I feel a lot of joy and gratitude at simply being part of the circle. The steps serve as a kind of mantra, absorbing the mind's chatter and providing a focus, so that even fast dances can facilitate a state of peace and meditation.

What do you feel the group experiences?
The beauty of circle dance is that each dancer's experience may be different, and everyone can be welcomed as they are. Nobody is required to change in order to be accepted. Circle dance is social, but not hierarchical: once the teacher has taught the dance, she or he blends in to the circle and the circle `leads' itself. Circle dance can be spiritual, without being religious; philosophical, without being dogmatic; emotional, without being overly indulgent or overly analytical. By simply holding hands with one another, we create a practice space for human society in which we tolerate each other's differences.
Of course, when people share movement synchrony their brain waves also tend to synchronise. This gives people a sense of unity with their fellow dancers, which is an essential antidote to the isolation many people feel in modern society. In this safe space many emotions can come into the group, and this is the basis for what I call the inherently therapeutic aspects of circle dance.
In my training as a dance/movement therapist, I focused on the history of Sacred Circle Dance, which has very ancient roots. These dances go directly back to our ancestors' first worship of the natural cycles of the year and the earth, the source of life. People used to dance to mark significant life events, and to affirm the identity of their community and their own place in it. Taken from their original contexts, the dances inevitably serve a slightly different purpose, but we still use them in Sacred Circle Dance to help us bond with one another, and to celebrate essential life events - birthdays, births, weddings, funerals and festivals of the year - as well as more modern rites of passage such as leaving a job, returning to university, letting grown-up children leave home, or going through a divorce.

What elements unify and differentiate the different dances?
The basic forms tend to be the same: we dance in a circle or open circle; people hold hands in one way or another; the dance itself is a sequence of steps which repeats over and over. The simpler dances are easiest to grasp, and dancers can more quickly integrate the steps and open to the experience of being held and rocked in the circle.
The essential difference lies in which steps we do and how we do them, because each dance from each place has its own particular style: we can dance fast or slow, our feet soft or stamping on the ground, with exuberance or with quietness, and so on. This range of styles differentiates the dances and enables us to access a vast range of emotion, from joy and grief to fierceness, celebration, sensuality and prayer.

What actually happens when you visit a remote place while carrying out research work?

I would say that there are three types of `remote places' where my research takes place. First, the places I go to learn the dances; second, the places I go to teach the dances; third, the remote parts inside ourselves that can be touched and healed by the dances.
When I go to learn in places like Bulgaria or Greece, where dance traditions still exist, I am careful not to intrude too much into the events I am observing, because I don't want my presence to change their own celebrations. This discretion has enabled me to witness some extraordinary events. For instance, the earthy, acrobatic dancing of teenage boys on the island of Crete, where dance is considered to be very masculine and macho. These young men have the somewhat disconcerting habit of firing their fathers' antique revolvers out the door of the taverna while they're dancing! Then they practice a centuries-old tradition of improvising rhymed couplets to the mandolin, while strolling through their town in the middle of the night, singing eloquently of their love, their longing and their pain. Obviously, I wouldn't teach this folklore to my groups, but the passion which fuels these boys' dancing and singing illuminates my understanding of the dances I do teach.
The work of learning and collecting dances can also take place in diaspora communities, for instance the Armenian community in London, where I sometimes help teach dance to the children. These people are already making a bridge between the `old country' and a new environment, which makes the dances easier for me to relate to and participate in.
Each place I teach in provides a new context for deepening my experience of the dance. For instance, I am frequently asked to teach Jewish and Gypsy dances in Germany. You can imagine what a loaded issue that is! It is challenging work, and yet I have been incredibly touched by the willingness of German dancers of all ages to consciously strive towards reconciliation and atonement, through choosing to dance Jewish dances on German soil. It is almost as if words can only go so far, when dealing with past events which are truly unspeakable, but the dances and music seem more able to hold and soothe the emotions that arise in the circle.

The most interesting frontier of my research is the inner work of seeking to understand the gifts each dance has to offer. For me, this comes only through dancing it many times and letting myself be touched by it. By paying attention to the remote places inside, new feelings and insights are revealed. Everyone can do this inner work, even the very first time they set foot in the circle, if the teacher invites them to. And everyone's experience is equally valid, so the meaning we can find in the circle is not dependent on anyone else's interpretation.
This inner research is especially rewarding when it comes to women's dances. We women of Western cultures have grown up feeling so much shame around our bodies, that the study of dance as a healing art is like the exploration of a vast unknown dark area - for many modern women, unexplored territory. It can be frightening to reclaim the sensuality, grace and beauty which is our birthright, and it is wonderful to have the comfort of the dances as our guides and companions. Our grandmothers in the human family have bequeathed us specific dances to help us understand our energy, how to harness it, increase it, contain it, release it. The dancers of the distant past knew some things that we have mostly forgotten. They cared about the generations to come, and wanted us to have some help going through the difficulties of our lives.

What are your expectations of your visit to Argentina?
I am absolutely thrilled to be coming to Argentina. I have a profound feeling for the rocks and soil of the Americas, because part of my origins are deep in that land. The other part of my heritage comes from Europe, as also for many Argentinians, so the questions of exile, exodus, diaspora and lost homeland which are so central to these dances, are alive for Argentinians as well as for myself. I look forward to exploring these perennial human themes from a Latin American perspective, and I am sure I will learn very much from the Argentine people. Each circle that dances is unique, a link in a golden chain that stretches back hundreds and thousands of years through time and space, and connects us to all those who have ever danced in a circle. My only expectation in Argentina is that together we will forge some new links for this precious chain, and remember that we are all sisters and brothers in the human family.



An Experience with Laura

by Cielo Damis

In Brittany, France, in a dance hall surrounded by woodlands, along with fifteen other people, I shared three days of profound communion with the dance in Laura's guiding presence, feeling the pleasure she teaches us to discover. Personally, I was struck by the way she let the music and movement empower her and inhabit her, to the point where suddenly everyone was inspired to join in. This created a ritual atmosphere throughout the day, an expectant silence preceding her work, which spontaneously enabled group harmony.

In the first stage of learning, Laura worked - with an acute and patient gaze - to invoke authenticity in our movements, repeating the steps while she spoke of the feeling inside the dance, of its connection to the history of the people who dance it, their culture and geography. She treats each dance with particular attention, as if referring to someone very dear, revealing its qualities and pointing out places where we must pay attention so as not to compromise its integrity. After a day and a half of taking in facts, we focused on enjoyment: listening to the music, learning the name of each dance. Laura adds details of style which embellish and intensify the dances. Furthermore, in this stage we discover the moments in each dance which invite personal expression or improvisation, elements which are much valued within their proper context. And if you have the opportunity to ask her sincere questions about your dancing style, Laura will respond lovingly, indicating key points in your path to total communion with the dance.

At the end of our gathering, each person drew two angel cards from a little bag in the centre of the circle. Two angels, two unique qualities which each one of us brings to the group and to our own identity.