Dancing with Fire: Circle Dance at the Woodford Folk Festival, Australia (2002)

Andy and I have just returned from our third visit to Australia, where we worked again with our friends Rob Bester, Philip Griffin, and Anne & Lee Hildyard of the Balkan Gypsy band Xenos, at the Woodford Folk Festival in Queensland. Woodford is a huge event, with over 80,000 people attending over the course of the week, yet mysteriously the atmosphere is one of village-like intimacy. There are hundreds of performances, workshops and happenings in music, dance, art, film, storytelling, and street theatre, and great respect for Aboriginal culture and Australia’s multicultural communities. Above all, the Festival consciously invokes a culture of peace in a positive and nonviolent way, creating beauty and celebrating life rather than magnifying feelings of anxiety and despair. With Australia itself deeply disturbed by the looming spectre of war – very much against the will of the people, there as elsewhere – it was profoundly moving to feel part of such a heartfelt community invocation of peace, and very inspiring to bring circle dance into this large-scale public event.

Andy and I gave four afternoon workshops of Balkan, Rom, Armenian and Sacred Dance, to the exuberant live accompaniment of Xenos. We always love dancing to their music, which combines traditional Balkan acoustic instruments with the vibrant electric sound of guitar, bass, and saxophone that has become the true folk tradition of the Macedonian Roma. This year the sound was especially thrilling, as Xenos were joined by Fuat Sazimanoski, the greatest Rom percussionist in Australia, and Gazi Yalçin from Turkey, a master of the zurna, ney, baglama, saz and many other instruments. What joyful spirals, with our musician friends keeping pace at the head of the line, winding the circle ever deeper inwards, while the tempo picks up and the energy builds. The music fills every cell of our bodies, and every corner of our minds, erasing all anxiety and showering our souls with the sheer pleasure of being alive in the joy of the dance.

Our Rom (Gypsy) dance workshop was the wildest and largest, with over 250 dancers packed tightly into several concentric circles, spiralling the chochek around and around until the dancers poured with sweat and shouted with desire. For contrast, we appreciated having a relatively small and intimate group (only about 60!) for the Armenian dance workshop. To our delight, virtuoso multi-instrumentalist Linsey Pollak and world percussion master Tunji Beier joined Gazi, Philip and Fuat and me in playing several dances from our Gorani CD. I especially loved singing Mairam Govand together with Philip. This exquisite women’s initiation dance, invoking the presence of Mother Mary as well as the pre-Christian Goddess whose image Mary replaced, has become one of my all-time favourites since Shakeh Avanessian and I collected it in Armenia 2 years ago, and was perfect to dance on the threshhold of the New Year.

In the other workshops, we danced several versions of the most ancient and widespread of all circle dance patterns, the three-measure pravo. Its symmetrical steps to either side acknowledge the natural balance of all pairs of opposites, while the overall forward progression affirms that despite everything, life goes on, and all is well. This invaluable and timely message comes to us from many diverse cultures of Europe and the Near East, all of whom have survived countless periods of war and upheaval. Also representing the universal symbol of the Tree of Life, as well as the great mother Goddess once openly associated with the sacred tree, this dance transmits a precious affirmation of life and hope from our ancestors in the human family.

Our main task at Woodford was to integrate folk dance into the Fire Event, Neil Cameron’s visionary theatre ritual which is the climax of the entire Festival. This extraordinary ceremony works with fire as a symbol of transformation, involving large puppets, parades, lanterns, acrobats, music, dance, fireworks, an enormous fire sculpture and a cast of over a thousand people. It was a tremendous honour to be invited to work again on this epic scale with Neil and his brilliant team. This year, Xenos directed the Fire Event music, and Philip directed the choir, so we had the added pleasure and support of collaborating closely with our trusted friends.

The first time we came to Woodford, at the end of 2001, the world was still reeling from the shock of September 11 and its repercussions. The Fire Event theme that year was The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a conscious invocation of qualities evidently missing from public leadership. Compassion, Respect, Forgiveness, Good Judgement, Kindness, Learning, Faithfulness, and Positivity were personified by seven stunning 9-metre-high pillars, lovingly constructed of bamboo, wicker and lantern paper, illuminated from within by hundreds of candles. These incredible presences formed a circle around a central bonfire, which in turn was surrounded by a huge circle of 400 dancers at the climax of the ceremony. We danced Jeni Jol and the Alevy Semah, breaking into seven spirals to dance between the pillars, finally returning to one circle at the end.

We thought that might be a tough act to follow, but this year, the Fire Event told another timely story, depicting leadership degenerated into misrule, and the need to return a reign of justice, peace and balance to the land. Rather than recreating the black-or-white, with-us-or-against-us polarity that seems to dominate current political thinking, Neil’s vision bravely included compassion for our inner demons, and an understanding of the holistic and cyclical nature of dark and light. To prepare for our part, we rehearsed several hundred festival-goers for an hour every day during the week. We were blessed to have some experienced dancers and teachers join in, but most had never danced before. Luckily, thanks to the lighthearted atmosphere and excellent technical support, everyone mastered the dances and the various entrances and exits quite quickly.

On January 1st, when the big night came, perfect weather brought the largest Fire Event audience ever: more than 20,000 people crammed together to fill the gentle slopes of a natural amphitheatre in the rainforest valley. Dozens of musicians from diverse traditions waited on stage, while hundreds of singers and dancers packed the space in front. We wore white clothes, and all exposed skin was dramatically smeared with white clay, both as a ritual mask and as protection against the sometimes intense heat of the torches, bonfires and fireworks that were part of the ceremony.

The Fire Event always opens with an Aboriginal elder making fire in the traditional way, using a long drill stick and a bundle of grass tinder as his people have done for 40,000 years. This year, in the lucky position of sitting at his feet for this ritual, I was completely awed by the power and concentration of his movements. It was a perfect dance, focusing the energies of earth and sky, wood and air, into the blessing of fire. Three spins of the drill and the tinder was smouldering: he held the flaming grasses in his two hands, and from it Neil lit the torch which was to be the source of all the fire in the whole ceremony. Then Philip’s powerful voice, unamplified, began to sing: ‘Be still and know that day and night / be still and know that dark and light / are one holy circle...’ Lighting torches and joining in this beautiful round, 400 singers walked in concentric circles to create the image of a moving dot painting, in honour of the original custodians of the dance ground, sacred to the Carpet Python. I felt an overwhelming gratitude towards Barbara Swetina, who taught me this chant originally, and an intense surge of energy connecting us with Findhorn and with all the other circles where this song has been sung.

The Fire Event passed in a wondrous enchantment of mythical images: queens, clowns, inner demons, warrior women, children and angels, telling timeless stories of life and death, transformation and resurrection, all in the service of invoking peace in our precarious world. The final bonfire burned to the choir’s chanting: ‘Fire, fire, fire, fire, fire of life, fire of life / It changes everything it touches, and everything it touches changes / We are the power in everyone, we are the dance of the moon and the sun / We are the hope that will not hide, we are the turning of the tide...’ In twenty years of singing those words, I had never felt them to be so hopeful and so true. Thousands upon thousands of handwritten prayer flags went up in the flames and into the starlight, sending their messages to the cosmos. Once again I felt a strong sense of connection with Findhorn, so much so that I began to suspect that someone from home must be in the audience.

And then the dancers came on! A long stream of couples wound around the burning volcano, dancing the ancient Armenian women’s Tamzara, the blessing and invocation of the four directions. Having Gazi, a Turk, so willingly playing this Armenian music onstage felt like a significant contribution to our invocation of world peace. Andy and I then led the group into two mirroring spirals with the wild and wonderful Romska Gajda, and finally we danced back into one circle to bring the Fire Event and festival to its completion. As the wild cheering and applause died away, the sweet strains of Celtic guitarist Tony McManus, playing Shalom Aleichem, led us gently home. And sure enough, a neighbour from Findhorn turned up at the end for a hug. We didn’t even know he was in Australia!

Now that we are back home, we’re still basking in gratitude for having been part of the joyous collective creativity of Woodford. I am convinced that our dance circles do have a positive effect in creating a culture of peace in this world, and I hope that every dancer in this planetary dance network will continue to offer her or his contribution, in myriad circles both little and large. Now is the time

P.S. Sadly, I just heard that Neil Cameron is retiring, so the Woodford Fire Event will be no more. The festival is still worth a visit, though: check it out at