Dance and Politics (2004)

This is the original, unedited article written for the Grapevine's 20th anniversary issue, in which former editors were invited to contribute reminiscences and reflections on our custodianship of the Grapevine, controversial topics of the time, favourite articles, etc. It appeared in an edited version in the Autumn 2004 issue of The Grapevine (UK magazine for sacred/circle dance).


I have wonderful memories of our tenure as Grapevine editors (1992-1994). Both the joys and the challenges provided inspiration and many opportunities to learn.

Andy, Phyllis and I took on the custodianship of Grapevine at a moment of crisis, after an editorial opinion offered by the previous team had provoked an outcry from many readers. Some saw this painful episode as an unwelcome departure from our nice circle dance world of harmony and light, but others could accept that both light and shadow have their place in dance, along with tension and release, action and reaction and all the other pairs of opposites. The simple act of joining hands can be an invocation of psychological wholeness, as we welcome all parts of ourselves into the dancing circle. This principle can guide us in understanding both the art of movement and the heart of human nature, and it is one reason why I see an interrelation between dance and politics.

I often touched on this theme in my editorials, and I always enjoyed reading people's passionate and engaged replies. Only one person complained that there was 'too much talk in Grapevine about world peace, international affairs and politics generally', but of course, editorials are opinions and are intended to be thought-provoking (the very point missed by those who had sent the avalanche of criticism to our previous team), so we welcomed that voice of dissent also.

When the civil war in former Yugoslavia broke out, we created the Dance for Peace Initiative, to raise funds for humanitarian relief and at the same time to raise healing energy through focused dancing. Through small contributions from dance groups - often under £50 - Dance for Peace raised well over £3000, a not insignificant sum in the cash-strapped days of the early 90s. Equally valuable, I believe, were the good wishes and prayers for peace sent from our circles to our brothers and sisters in the Balkans. Again, one critical voice asked 'What is so special about former Yugoslavia?' and suggested we either focus within our own British borders or give to charities which work on a worldwide scale, not only in Yugoslavia.

My response, then and now, is that of course circle dance can work towards truly global healing; nevertheless, I feel that we in the circle dance world owe a special debt to the Balkan countries whose dances give us so much joy (and often, let us not forget, our livelihoods). It is worth bringing this up again now, since the acknowledgment which I feel we owe these countries is also a reason to respect style and detail in our teaching and transmission of traditional material.

These themes remain controversial, but I feel we should address them, and not allow a fear of controversy to silence lively dialogue. Even in the most heated discussions, Grapevine readers usually manage to debate opposing views without resorting to personal attack (the recent letter equating those who dislike dancing in cold drafts with 'smokers who aggressively insist on their freedom to pollute the air' was an unfortunate exception). Even the most passionate convictions can be argued with respect, and perhaps this is one of the skills which our circles give us a chance to model as common practice in the 'outside' world.

Still inspired by the political potential of circle dance, this autumn I am focusing my activist tendencies to try to ensure a free, fair and informed election in my native USA. I am deeply concerned with the consequences of the Bush regime's 'preemptive strike' doctrine, and the simultaneous erosion of democratic freedoms - more reminiscent of Germany 1938 than USA 2004. (This is a personal opinion, offered with all due respect.) I'll be giving a workshop in the Washington DC area on November 6-7, the weekend after our presidential 'elections,' hoping, of course, that this time they will be worthy of the name. Please join me then - in spirit and prayer - in continuing to dance for peace.

I'd like to share a few relevant quotes from some of my old editorials:

"Our whole world is living through an interesting time. Two years ago we were celebrating the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain borders everywhere. Last year at this time we were reeling from the horrors of the [first] Gulf War. Now, the civil war in Yugoslavia reminds us cruelly that freedom, if it means freedom to massacre, can go too far... It has always interested me that the Balkan States, from which the majority of dances in the Sacred / Circle Dance repertoire derive, have been historically some of the most war-torn regions on the planet...  Some believe that in embracing and taking to heart the essence (embodied in the dances) of these cultures, we are at some level working to heal the wounds of war, both in ourselves and in the world." - Spring 1992

"Personally I believe that each (dancing?) step we take as individuals towards living more as we truly want to live, and being more who we truly are, with compassion and respect for all of life, is significant. It especially touches me how much people turn to dance as a vessel and vehicle for this process of becoming."  - Summer 1992

"There is a way, through circle dance, of being together in quietness, accepting each who comes to the circle as she or he is. The whole person dances: in shyness or vivacity, in confidence or fear, in sorrow or joy, in expertise or newness. Our circles are so much the richer for allowing all that... As dancers we are in a unique position: with the dances of the world at our service, we have tools with which to serve the world. May we honour this precious opportunity by using our dances wherever we can to encourage kindness, forgiveness, understanding and compassion." -Autumn 1992

'What we are doing when we dance like this is practising. This sounds funny, since circle dance is so much about being in the present moment. But each time we share synchrony of movement with a group of people of differing backgrounds and beliefs, or allow the emotion to come up in the dance and laugh or cry, or forgive someone (ourselves, for instance!) for not learning the steps instantly, we are practising to live in the world with greater kindness, flexibility, love, and connection to others." - Winter 1992/3

'The question is: how can we remain aware of the sufferings of the human family (of which we are part) but avoid being so incapacitated by this excruciating awareness that we are unable to work for positive change? There is no simple answer, but I do think our lives are made easier by joining forces, allowing ourselves to support and be supported... We who are connected to circle dance in any way are so fortunate: we are part of a network...from which I hope each of us will always be able to derive comfort and strength in these challenging times." - Spring 1993

"The greatest human privilege of all is that we have the capacity to choose - always - whether we respond to the worlds both around us and inside us with depression, which negates what we have to offer, or with compassion,which increases it a thousandfold." - Summer 1993