(2011), Healing and Homecoming: Roma Dances as a Pathway to Joy

[NB: This article introduces my 2011 booklet of dance descriptions to accompany the Xenos CD Tutti Frutti, a compilation of 40 traditional Roma dances; both CD and booklet can be ordered from this website.]

It is my hope that this collection of dances will enable dancers to look beyond the steps and connect with the source of energy and joy contained in Balkan and Roma music and dance.

I believe these dances are part of the collective inheritance of everyone in the human family, and that the simpler, older ones in particular – such as those presented here – contain hidden wisdom which is greatly needed in our world today. We can access this wisdom simply by bringing a deep inner attention to our experience of the dances and our own inner process as we dance them. As I wrote in my 1996 article, Simple Dances: Three Measure Dances and the Tree of Life:

“Each detail of style, step, movement and music elicits a new and unique experience in the dancers, and imparts a different message about being in the body, being on the earth, being in community and being with the divine. For me, the particular characteristics of each dance are like a secret code containing essential truths. Deciphering the code is a slow practice, and the required habit of inner listening can come only through repetition with awareness: dancing and dancing and dancing. All of these dances are made for that.

“We all have come across the hunger to always learn new dances, to move on, not to repeat. But we cannot receive all there is in a traditional dance by dancing it just once or twice or even ten times. In the Balkan villages where these dances have their origins, people might dance a half a dozen or so dances throughout their entire lives, and those usually in their simplest form. So when I teach, I encourage repetition with awareness, so that we can go deeper. Occasionally people may say they feel bored repeating dances they have already ‘done’, but it really pays to free ourselves from the grip of ambition and simply be present in what we are doing. There are treasures hidden inside this practice. The intention is to enable each dancer to cultivate her or his own relationship to the dance: in this way, whatever message might lie within can be transmitted directly from dance to dancer.”

One of the treasures that came to me as I danced these Roma dances faithfully, with patient attention, was my insight connecting three-measure dance patterns with the ancient symbol of the Tree of Life. That was in 1991, and all my research and experience since then has only confirmed my belief in this correlation. Most Balkan Roma circle dances (from Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania, S. Serbia and N. Greece) are variations on the simple three-measure sequence (step, step, step, lift, step, lift) which is by far the most popular dance form throughout Eastern Europe and the Near East, wherever circle dances are still alive. It has many names and forms, as these dance notes show, and is particularly common on ritual occasions. I have come to call these three-measure dances ‘Tree of Life dances’. In my original interpretation, the three measures of the dance pattern correspond to the three elements of the Tree of Life: the two steps going forward are equivalent to the central trunk of the Tree, growing upwards, and the two steps mirrored to either side resemble the two symmetrical branches of the Tree.*  

The Tree of Life motif is prominent in folk arts including embroidery, jewellery, woodcarving, ritual foods and Easter eggs, while the archaeological record provides many examples depicted on ancient goddess figures and other artifacts found throughout the area of Old Europe and the Near East, as far as India where the Roma have their origins.  When the Roma migrated into Europe beginning in the 11th century, they brought with them the word trushul (lit. three prongs); originally describing the trident of the god Shiva, trushul came to mean ‘cross’ once the Roma encountered Christianity. Both Shiva’s trident and the Christian cross share the basic Tree of Life motif and both symbolise the powers of creation and destruction, transformation and resurrection. These are also the powers of the ancient Goddess, who was worshipped for thousands of years in the earliest indigenous European civilisations, in the same geographical area where the three-measure dances are most commonly found.

The Goddess was for thousands of years the divine representative of the sacred life force, creative energy, and fertility. When women in the Balkans (both Roma and non-Roma) dance these dances in a ritual context, they are invoking exactly this life force as a blessing on those present and for the entire community. Through dancing with conscious awareness, these healing, transformational and therapeutic qualities are precisely the ones that can be accessed as we dance these dances today. Over the past twenty-five years, the method I have developed in working with these dances is to inspire people – men too, but particularly women – to pay attention to the gifts the dances can bring us, and to learn how they can help us channel our own life energy and creativity and bring it safely and fruitfully into the world. I call this creative energy the ‘inner fire’, and in hundreds of workshops all over the world I have encouraged women to use these dances consciously as a means to cultivate their inner fire and learn to express it in their dancing and in their lives. In this way the dances reveal the meaning and significance they can have for everyone, whatever their own ethnic affiliation. I speak of this process in my 1993 article, Gypsy Dance & Women’s Empowerment:

“The Roma women’s dance style is not about wild abandon or losing control. The sense of power is thoroughly grounded, and the passionate love of life and self is contained in the body and the circle, rather than thrown away or offered for others to use. The solo dancing, especially, helps us to connect with our own strength and grace, but it is when we come together as a group that the blossoming of our personal power is witnessed, acknowledged and affirmed by the safe container of the circle. These are critical lessons for us as women, who are seeking now to create community that transcends national, religious, social and political boundaries, and supports us each in our empowerment. Gypsy dances seem especially able to facilitate this creativity, for women collectively as well as individually.”

In 2000 in Germany, I offered my first year-long intensive training in traditional women’s Roma, Armenian & Balkan dances and my method of working with them as a spiritual practice. One of my students on that first training, Piry Krakow, describes beautifully the restrained quality of Roma women’s dances:

“The more I am centered, the smaller my outer movements become in a dialogue with the music, in contrast to the inner movement that becomes more and more fiery. This being awake causes moments of presence in every fibre of my being, and with that a growing beyond myself, beyond my physical limitations, connecting with the unlimited...however we may call it, a level of magic, unavoidable and intense.” (from an article in Neue Kreise Ziehen, 2010)

When we learn to reclaim this powerful, contained, sensual, creative life energy and allow it to fill our dancing bodies, it is as if the water of life is suddenly flowing freely again into a desert wasteland. For many women growing up under patriarchy, the female body has been made a place of exile or loss. The Roma dances, particularly, carry a resonance with historical themes of exile, persecution and dispossession, and so can help bring healing specifically to these kinds of feelings and experiences. With every step and movement they affirm joy. They celebrate the triumph of the life force, undimmed and undiminished by hardship or suffering. In this way, the creative power channeled by the dances leads us gently and lovingly back to the inner homeland of the dancing body, so that we can reclaim it as our birthright and our blessing, and bring our own treasures safely into the world.

Laura Shannon © 2011


*My theories about the relationships between three-measure dances and the Tree of Life are explored in greater detail in many of my articles including ‘Simple Dances: Where do they come from, where do they lead?’ in The Dancing Circle vol. 3. ,ed. Judy King (Sarsen Press, 2001) and ‘Dances of the Great Mother: Three-Measure Dances and the Tree of Life’, (1999), available on my website, and in my chapter ‘Women’s Ritual Dances: An Ancient Source of Healing in Our Times’ in Dancing on the Earth: Women’s Stories of Healing Through Dance, eds. Johanna Leseho and Sandra McMaster (Findhorn Press, 2011)