Dancing for Peace in Ireland, August 22, 1998

On Saturday, August 15th, a terrorist bomb killed 28 people in the small market town of Omagh in Northern Ireland, shattering the ceasefire and the hope for peace. Ironically, Omagh was one of the towns in Northern Ireland where Catholics and Protestants lived side by side, intermarried, and even worshipped together in ground-breaking interdenominational services.

A week later I was teaching a dance workshop in Dublin. The whole country was reeling from the shock of the Omagh bomb, and yet galvanised by it to take action for peace. Saturday August 22nd had been declared a national day of mourning for the victims of the blast, culminating in a nationwide minute of silence at 3:10, the exact time the bomb exploded. The intention for people on both sides of the conflict was simply to stand together in grief and condemnation, asking for the violence to end. We decided to participate in these rituals of memorial through our dancing. In the workshop we were Northerners and Southerners, Protestants and Catholics, and it felt deeply meaningful for us to be able to dance together as a conscious act of reconciliation.

On Saturday morning the mood of the group felt heavy, as we attuned to the sadness and grief felt by people all over the island. There were many different suggestions as to how we could participate in the memorial, and despite lengthy discussion we could not agree on a group action that felt right to everybody. Perhaps surprisingly, nobody seemed to perceive our lack of agreement as a problem; rather, it felt important to give ourselves and each other the space to do different things and then to come together. In this way we were able to experience unity through accepting diversity, instead of through enforcing conformity. As one dancer commented, this is exactly the practice which can help us find the way from conflict to peace. In the end we decided to extend our lunch break so that each person would be free to honour the minute of silence however she or he wished, and to return to the circle afterwards for a focused dance ritual.

Some of the group, including myself, attended an ecumenical service at the Dominican priory across the road. Emotion seemed strong among the congregation. There were impassioned prayers in Irish and a few tears, but I was disappointed by the astonishing cacophony of rustling, coughing, sighing, and fidgeting which filled the church during the minute of silence. We exited the church into the summer sunshine, and walked back to the dance hall one by one in our small cocoons of silence. When we entered we found the rest of the dancers meditating in a circle, deep in the profound stillness that had been missing in church.

We came together in silence and danced for peace. I chose to use dances we had already learned in the group so that we would be familiar with the steps and better able to concentrate on our intentions. We asked our dance to focus love, compassion and support for those killed, wounded and bereaved through the bombing. We also asked the dances to help us develop our best selves as human beings in order to further peace in the world and help prevent more such tragedies in the future.

We began with the Tripudium, the simple step once danced by pilgrims through the cathedral labyrinths of Europe. Three steps forward and one step back, symbolising human progress and frailty; or the roots, branches, flowers and fruits of the Tree of Life; or the cycle of life, death and rebirth.

Then we danced the Pilgrims Dance, whose simple movements consciously connect many polarities: earth and sky, sun and moon, Christian and pre-Christian, human and angel, past and present. Choreographed by Peter Vallance to music from the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat, and consecrated to the Black Madonna of Montserrat in Spain, the dance also made a bridge between Spain and Ireland, and honoured the Spanish who lost their lives in that same bomb.

In Göç, a women's dance from Erzeroum in Eastern Turkey, the soles of our feet slowly caress the ground, saying farewell to a place we must leave behind. The soft tender steps allowed us to express the grief and fear inherent in the act of the leaving, but they also helped us practice opening to someplace new.

We moved on to Omal Mektup, a three-measure dance in the same family as Tripudium. Wrapped up in the close elbow hold expressing community solidarity, we danced together, letting our knees sink down in between the steps to bring us closer to the earth and towards the new place, the place of peace. The Arabic word Mektup translates as `it is written', a concept of destiny which teaches that our individual actions do make a difference. The Turkish lyrics speak of destiny, passion, and the roads which lead us there. The steps themselves are Pontic Greek, not by coincidence. Dimo Minkenberg chose to put Greek steps to music by the Turkish composer Livaneli, to make the dance a conscious bridge between former enemies. As we danced I remembered learning it from Dimo in Berlin shortly after the Wall came down, and dancing it to mourn him, too, when he left us.

It felt important to include both Armenian and Turkish dances as a way to affirm the universality of our search for peace, so we finished our ritual with Garabneri Bar, the Armenian women's swan dance. This exquisite dance, choreographed by Shakeh Avanessian, comes from an improvisational dance tradition with roots in the ancient shamanic dance practices of Central Asia. For me it invokes eternal love, the union of the four elements and the balance of strength and grace. The swan brought us back to the joy of the circle as our hands formed the beaks of the swans, beautiful and strong, arrayed in unison around the circle in another expression of solidarity.

Later we danced Valle E Luleve, an Albanian dance which allows us to enact a harvest of flowers, affirming life and beauty even in our awareness of mortality. This dance was particularly poignant for me because at that very moment, many innocent lives were being destroyed in the brutal fighting between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo. I had brought an antique ritual cloth from Kosovo to Dublin, beautifully embroidered with signs of the Goddess and the Tree of Life, to place on an altar dedicated for peace. As we danced our ritual, two Angel cards mysteriously appeared on the altar cloth: Courage and Surrender, two essential qualities in the search for peace.

It felt particularly important that the dances broadened our awareness to connect with other peoples and places, and to other difficult situations throughout history and throughout our world. Irish, Spanish, Armenian, Turk, Greek, German, Albanian and Serb: is there anyone in our human family who is not struggling with the simple quest for peace and dignity? Understanding that we are not alone in the struggle was one of the great gifts of the day.

Afterwards, we spoke of our experiences. Several dancers from the Republic admitted that much of the time they are simply numb to events in Northern Ireland, as a form of self-protection. For some, our focused dancing together was the first time they felt able to remain aware without feeling helpless.

One woman who had attended the church service told us how difficult she found certain aspects, such as the sexist language, the failure to include other faiths, and the absence of true silence. Another dancer observed that the priests addressed only God to `punish the wicked' and dispense peace, instead of encouraging us to work towards peace ourselves. For both of these women, the dance circle provided the tolerance and the teaching, the silence and the sharing, and the empowerment to work for change which they had found lacking in the church.

Another dancer shared through her tears that she felt she had truly experienced the softness of the divine feminine. I appreciated this comment about softness so much because in many ways, for all of us, it had been a hard day.

The appearance of the Angel cards on the Kosovo altar cloth remained a mystery, but someone observed that although Courage and Surrender may appear to contradict one another, each actually carries the other in its heart. I felt that each and every dancer present had worked to bring both of these qualities into our circle, and I was profoundly moved by the depth of the sharing we experienced during the day. I will always feel grateful for the coincidence that brought me to Dublin on that particular weekend.

After tea, we found that the energy had shifted, and we reconnected to the joy and unrestrained laughter of the dance at last. To celebrate life, we danced Gypsy dances, drawing energy up from the earth into our bodies. In reverent joy and gratitude, we offered the energy of the candle flame out to all those touched by the tragedy of Omagh, and to all those in the world today striving for a peaceful way forward from conflict.

P.S. In September the Real IRA, the terrorist group responsible for the Omagh bomb, agreed to call a ceasefire and to effectively disband, recognising that the political context in Ireland is no longer appropriate for violent struggle. This was offered as a direct response to the nationwide expression of solidarity which took place in the aftermath of the bombing, and of which our dance workshop was a part.