I always want to get to the root of things. Without getting to the root every effort feels as futile as trimming back the same trees along the foundation of my house. When pruned back those pesky trees keep growing even longer and abundant branches. I only succeeded in removing them when I get out my shovel, dig deep, and pull out their roots.

The transformation I seek goes all the way to the root level. If my daughter keeps struggling in the same places I don’t want to become a broken record correcting her; I want to figure out the underlying problem. My quest to get at the root of my health challenges led me to qigong. I’m always interested in discovering the misunderstanding or disconnect at the root of every conflict.  

photo by Emma Gossett

In high school I was on fire to root out everything that stops feminine power from creating in partnership with masculine power. I started with policy, drafting the sexual harassment policy for my school district. But I quickly became frustrated with the limits of policy – we can’t legislate people’s behaviors and attitudes. What would get to the root of creating a culture of respect among people and with nature?

It took me a long time to realize that my desire to get at the root of things is also a quest to get to my own roots. Roots are what connect us to nutrients and support, to Mother Earth, and to our place in the Universe.

photo by Jennifer Larson

I fell in love with women’s traditional ritual dances from the Balkans, Greece, and Asia Minor because I could sense they had deep roots, roots long and strong enough to bring life and sustenance to some of the deepest and most wounded parts of my soul.

Tending roots and lineage has been a core theme throughout my teaching these past ten years. As a continuation of this ten year anniversary blog series, I offer this reflection on how the pursuit of matrifocal, Indigenous European roots led to the creation of Wisdom Dances. Cultivating deep roots is ongoing, multi-dimensional work. I often write about different facets of this topic but today, in much longer form, I weave it all together.

Searching for European Indigenous Roots

Most of my ancestors have been in North America since the late 1600s, long enough to have lost a sense of coming from somewhere specific in Europe (mainly Great Britain). I have no sense of homeland, nor was I taught by my family and culture how to be a relative to the land. I grew up worrying about the many droughts we experienced in California and have been anticipating climate change since childhood. I have been haunted by an existential sense of loss – lost connection to the land and lost connection to a regenerative culture.

I’ve wondered: Do we have the human capacity to live better? Indigenous voices, particularly from Turtle Island/North America, make so much sense to me. I’ve longed to connect with the European Indigenous voices. What happened to them? Could I ever get over the grief of losing connection to them?

Sometimes I rage at Western civilization. But my people are from the West, and just like family, it is complex. My direct ancestors participated in the best and worst of our history, from the underground railroad to promoting education to “civilize” Indians. Some of the women in my family were artists and scientists and others (at least two) were persecuted as witches.

I know that my ancestors want me to understand they were trying their best. They made the most of what they had for themselves and for their family. There was honor and decency in all of them. My family is Western civilization and I am formed by their love and dreams.

I believe humanity has always had the impulse to love and live in harmony with each other and within our cultures. Sometimes this impulse has even been allowed to bloom in beautiful egalitarian cultures. There might not have been a perfect golden age. But I am inspired by the research by Marija Gimbutas which points to a time in the Neolithic archeological record when everyone got enough to eat and people were buried with the tools for craft rather than weapons.

I am confident there is a golden impulse. Sometimes it flourishes. Sometimes it is hidden. As I’ve studied the mystical tradition within Christianity I notice a similar pattern. The lives of the mystics shine from direct encounter with the Sacred, sometimes creating mini-renaissances of prayer, art, and healing (Saint Hildegarde, for example). The flaring forth of mysticism has also always been disruptive to and targeted by rigid, power hoarding, religious institutions. No matter how tightly any tradition might try to control doctrine – Wisdom can’t help but periodically assert itself. Similarly, no mater how segregated and stratified we have become as a civilization, the impulse to know our mutuality and care for one another is also there and wanting to break through. How could I help this impulse towards sustainability and community thrive in my life and the world?

Enter Women’s Traditional Ritual Dances

Unexpectedly, in my late 20s I found myself falling in love with a form of dance that opened me up to a world of wholeness. I began deep study with Laura Shannon and her pioneering approach to women’s ritual dances from the Balkans, Greece, and Asia Minor. These simple circle dances taught me how to manage my energy and to connect with earth. It was balm for my soul!

I’d found the holy grail. The dances contain everything. They were the container, the glue that has held communities together for thousands of years. Laura’s research brings forward how the dances encode an ancient world view that embodies sustainability, community, and reverence for the earth.

She has written extensively about how the dances represent a living inheritance of indigenous European wisdom with direct roots in early egalitarian matriarchal cultures of Neolithic Europe, for instance in her articles ‘Women’s Ritual Dances and the Nine Touchstones of Goddess Spirituality‘ and ‘Generosity and Community: the Alternative Worldview of Women’s Ritual Dance

The methodology Laura developed through her original research is based on her observation that dance, music, embroidery, and folk tales all speak in symbols which are interconnected. Studying with Laura was like being given a decoder ring for an encoded symbolic language. Understanding the symbols opens the door to connecting with what she calls a dance-based women’s mystery school. 

I stand taller with this connection to Indigenous European wisdom. The European wisdom for creating regenerative culture is not all lost! There is evidence that the symbolic language encoded in the dances, songs, and textiles was once widespread throughout Europe (see, for instance, the work of archaeologist Marija Gimbutas and textile researchers Mary Kelly, two of Laura’s key teachers). As Laura explains, this ‘language’ survived better in Eastern Europe partly because the Eastern Orthodox Church did not ban dancing and had no organized witch burnings (although women were oppressed in other ways). I’m grateful my Eastern European cousins help me connect to our very deep shared roots.

this post continues at Searching for European Indigenous Roots: A Dance with the Past and Future (Part II)

Wisdom Dances 10 Year Anniversary Party and Mid-Summer Celebration

Sunday, July 17, 2022, 4-9 PM at Crosby Farm Park, Saint Paul
We will celebrate the height of summer with an evening of dancing, live music, feasting and working with plants. This year’s celebration will have extra zest as we also celebrate the ten year anniversary of Wisdom Dances. There will be special treats, a special program, additional musicians and merriment. The Mid-Summer Celebration is a relaxed, joyful day open to all who want to participate or bask in the glow as an observer. Check out event schedule and details.

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