(2016), My heart is a refugee

Dear dancing friends,

The theme of Abschied/Wandlung is one that we work with constantly in the women’s ritual dances. I would like to address one specific aspect of it now, and I am writing this piece as a personal letter to you, hoping we can speak heart to heart about a subject which is very near to all of us.

Everywhere I go in my European travels, I hear stories from dancers in my circles who are working with refugees in different places, in different ways. I also hear many others saying, wistfully, that they would like to help but are not sure what to do. This longing – which I share – is what moves me to write to you.

Our experience of dancing Kreistanz and Meditatives Tanz gives us a particularly nuanced and compassionate view of the refugee situation. Most of us in this network have danced for years to melodies, rhythms, instruments, and musical modes which are not ‘our own’, yet move us deeply. This helps us see the unity of the human family, behind apparent differences of language, ethnicity, religion, culture and political affiliation. We do this anyway, every time we open our hearts in the dance circle and join hands with people who may share our nationality but who almost certainly do not share our exact political beliefs or ways of worship. Thanks to this experience, we dancers have a special capacity (perhaps even a responsibility?) to respond in a creative and compassionate way to the many displaced people who are now having to make a new beginning.

In a way, the traditional dances in our repertoire are themselves ‘refugees’, having travelled from their place of origin to new homes in dance circles all over the world. Many of these traditional dances come from peoples with histories of exile and homecoming – Armenians, Roma, Assyrians, Kurds, Gagaouz, Jews, and other groups which have suffered persecution or been cast into shadow. This is what inspired me to work consciously with Tänze Heimatlöser Volker.

Thirty years of dancing deeply with this theme has shown me that almost all of us have some history of loss, displacement, or migration in our own family past. Everyone in Europe has been marked by the experience of the world wars, because even if you personally are not made a refugee, when it happens to those around you, you are still profoundly affected, in a way which lasts through the generations. Therefore each of us has work we can do on the inner level, dancing our way along the journey of return.

Because many traditional ritual dances mediate thresholds of transformation and change, these dances are a lovely and loving invitation to come safely back to the inner homeland of the dancing body. There are powerful dances for seasonal cycles, such as dances for spring, Easter, and the summer solstice, and for personal rites of passage including puberty, marriage, and the bride leaving her mother’s home. By dancing them with the consciousness which activates their initiatory power, we create a safe space within the dance circle which supports each of us in our wholeness, as we are.

To honour our and others’ wholeness means being honest about our feelings. The work of engaging with refugees requires great sensitivity, to ourselves and to our new friends. There are many potential pitfalls in encounters between different cultural assumptions and attitudes. It can be challenging to know what to propose, and to find the right way of respectful interaction without inadvertently closing doors. On the inner level, deep feelings are likely to arise for us personally, so good supervision and opportunities to share with others are essential. Despite the challenges, the work itself is essential, because whatever trauma remains unresolved from our own ancestral or national background, whatever collective wounds remain unhealed, will continue to affect our families, communities and societies on an unconscious level.

Can we learn to be ‘at home’ in our encounters with these stories and with the people who tell them? The people we meet have lived through unbearable loss, trauma, torture, the pain of uprooting and the apparent impossibility of beginning again in a new place where many people openly despise them and wish them harm. But ‘they’ are not so different from ‘us’. Sabir Zazai, from Afghanistan, directs the Refugee and Migrant Centre in Coventry, England, and also works with City of Sanctuary, a support network for refugees in the UK. He gently reminds us, “People need to understand that refugees are just like them, that anyone living in torment and violence will strive to get their family and children to safety.”

Since so many of us are only here because our own ancestors were helped by strangers on their own long journeys of exile and re-rooting, can we refuse to help those who now find themselves, through no fault of their own, in a similar situation?

We who have all of this experience through our life in dance are perhaps uniquely suited to bring an attitude of generosity, connection, and welcome to the refugees whom Fate has led to our neighbourhoods in search of peace and a new beginning.

Many dancers, of course, are already deeply engaged. Hanna Hohensinn and Annabel Ruth write beautifully in this issue about their experiences of dancing with refugees. Ursula Hasenburg and Irini Asbach of Milelja Inselgarten on Lesvos have been truly extraordinary in coordinating donations from their visitors to support the thousands of refugees who came through Lesvos last year. My friend Liz from England who danced with me there was then motivated to volunteer on Samos with an organization which supports refugees; Heike Lauterbach did the same on Lesvos in January of this year. Maren Lueg in Hagen has founded an ensemble with refugee musicians from Syria, playing concerts every week where refugees and German people celebrate together. The name of the group is Hamam Abbiad, which means ‘white dove’ the symbol for peace (see Maren’s article this issue). In Dießen am Ammersee, Irmela Hartenstein has been involved with refugees, as has Katharina Balle-Doerr at St-Petersberg near Dachau, which this year had a wonderful exhibition in their church pointing out that Joseph and Maria, on the eve of the Nativity, were also refugees in search of shelter.

These are just a few examples, and I have heard of many more. Those dancers who are also dance movement therapists have access to an even wider repertoire of possibilities. Precisely because it is nonverbal, dance is an invaluable way to transcend language barriers, but we don’t need to actually dance with refugees in order to be able to offer helpful support; just our experience of circle dancing can help us to open our hearts, understand their predicament and offer to help in any way we can, even it is ‘just’ sorting clothes, making sandwiches or teaching a new language.

My hope in writing this letter is to encourage others to share their experiences, ask questions, and to learn from each other. We could begin to do this either in future issues of Neue Kreise Ziehen, or via the online forum which Hanna Hohensinn has recently set up on the Choretaki website. It’s easy to join at under Forums (you can also check out Hanna’s blog about working with refugees in Vienna). If other people are networking in a similar way already, it would be wonderful to widen the web so we all are connected.

In conclusion, I would like to speak my truth to you.

My heart is a refugee, determined to flee an insane world of hatred and war. My heart longs to return home, via the time-travelling magic of the dance circle, to the original Old European values of community, belonging, partnership, and peace. The dances teach us mutual support and the beauty of community – in my view, every dance circle is a temporary community – where everyone is welcome, everyone is warm, everyone has shelter, food, and friends, and everyone’s life has value and meaning. The more we practice this in our dance events, the more we we will be able to bring it about in our daily lives, creating places of welcome and a culture of peace.

We have Kurdish friends who came as refugees to Athens years ago, with whom we dance from time to time. They tell me: ‘It doesn’t matter that we had to leave our homes, or even that we don’t have a home to go back to. Wherever we are, whenever we dance, the earth beneath our feet becomes our home.’

With love and blessings in the dance,

Laura Shannon