We meet twice each year, mid-summer and mid-winter. We gather for three or four days each time, sometimes as many as twenty-five of us, sometimes as few as eight. Always the intention is the same: to create sacred space, and drum and dance and play and fully express who we are in sacred silence.
On a small rural property we pitch our tents in the summer, or spread our bedrolls inside in the winter. The building is specifically designed for the purpose. The main floor is the kitchen/dining/living room. The top floor is dedicated space for the dance. There are four altars, each devoted to a different direction. The altars are bay windows with a bench that is not used as a seat but as a place for sacred objects relating to that direction. At each altar above the windows is a large brightly coloured painting depicting the features and essential qualities of that direction. In the centre of the room, indicated by the pattern in the smooth wooden floor, is the place for the centre pole. Opposite the entrance is a small nook for the mother drum.
East is air, sunrise, spring, new beginnings, inspiration, fresh ideas, children and youth.
South is fire, daytime, summer, action, passion, putting plans into form, sensuality, love of life, adulthood.
West is water, sunset, autumn, harvest time, the time of reaping rewards, deep feelings, wisdom, elders.
North is earth, nighttime, winter, rest, stillness, hibernation, turning inwards, cocooning, preparing for the next cycle.
Centre is the fifth and sixth directions, above and below, the great mystery, the axis mundi: the hub of the wheel around which all revolves and from which all arises, the great creator.
The structure is flexible. We have a “standard” structure that we often fall back on although we have varied it greatly over the years.
On the first night we begin with a big potluck feast. This is followed by sitting in circle. We talk about the themes, logistics, and desires for the dance. The next morning, again sitting in circle, we hold the opening council. There will be a poem or two, and the theme of the dance reiterated, and a question asked. The talking stick is passed around and each person speaks to the question, and to what this particular dance means for them, what their intention is, what their hopes are.
Opening council is usually followed by decorating the altars with bright coloured cloths, with ribbons, with plants, with items of personal significance.
At the same time, just outside the dance space, the play clothes are spread out. We have articles for every character you can imagine – fairy wings and angel wings, fur coats, plastic swords and cardboard-headed spears, a Victorian sunbonnet and a basket of flowers, feather masks, a monk’s robe, Japanese jackets, slinky camisoles, strings and strings of coloured beads, hats for all occasions, dresses and skirts and coloured pants, belly-dancing bells and ankle bells, a leather loop with horse bells, a tinsel headband, a tinsel wand, ribbons and sashes and belts of all kinds, many wigs, old maid outfits and warrior outfits. Whatever character or archetype you want to be you will find what you need to play it out. Use of the play clothes varies greatly from person to person and from dance to dance. Every dance is different. Every journey is different.
There are rattles and shakers and rain sticks available, drums of all kinds, tubular bells and regular bells, and an assortment of acoustic rhythm instruments.
When the play clothes are spread out, and the altars decorated there will frequently be a men’s council and a women’s council. This is followed by the women returning to the dance floor and beginning a ritual chant. The men enter with the centre pole and their own chant. With an aura of ceremony and purpose, as the chanting grows louder, the centre pole is placed in the decorated base that awaits it. When the centre pole is in place we “open the directions” by calling on the spirits and guardians of each direction to be with us during the dance, so that the qualities of the direction may flow through us as needed. Then we go into verbal silence. We make and eat lunch separately and together in the kitchen in silence. Then we rest. Late afternoon, having set our intentions and created sacred space, a container for a journey of the soul, we gather to begin the dance.
The dance begins with the yang dance, all of us with arms tightly linked chanting as we take a step clockwise. Step by slow step we move around in a circle, chanting the same chant over and over. We may move through four complete rotations of the dance floor. It is a meditation. Eventually it morphs into the yin dance. We step in the opposite direction and move our hands and arms in the figure eight of infinity and sing a different, softer chant over and over as we step, again going through three or four rotations. Another meditation.
And then it begins. For the next five to seven hours we drum, dance, play, meditate, witness, connect, and fully express all that is within our hearts. It is a shamanic journey that expresses itself in a myriad of both individual and collective ways. Most of the time we move intuitively, exploring the inner world, and expressing it in the outer. Or perhaps I should say we are moved, we are danced, we are drummed. Sometimes it is wild play, sometimes it is deeply contemplative exploration. Sometimes it is simply witnessing.
There is almost always at least one person, and at most four people holding a steady rhythm on the mother drum. There are almost always skilled drummers adding syncopated rhythms on the other drums, and the soundscape is added to by bells, rattles, sometimes a recorder, sometimes a flute, the rain stick, and the hooting, hollering, toning, moaning, singing, chanting, groaning, laughing of all the dancers. For about seven hours.
There are cycles to the dance. The rhythm moves naturally from loud and raucous, to soft and silent, to deep quiet, and then suddenly the energy will pick up again and it’s back to loud and raucous foot-stamping and hollering. People disappear at random intervals to dress themselves in weird and wonderful outfits from the play clothes, and then reappear in the dance as someone different. It is, in every way and at all times, a safe place for people to face and release their demons, and an equally safe place for uninhibited silliness and play. All expressions that are respectful of others are honoured and supported. Those in pain are held. Those in joy are thoroughly enjoyed which increases the joy for others. And of course much dancing happens, from slow and flowing to wild and energetic, and everything in between. The ending always arises organically from a soft quiet contemplative atmosphere.
We complete the evening with hugs all round. We sleep, we rise, we make and eat breakfast, all still in silence, and then we meet upstairs for the closing council. Again the talking stick is passed around and we each speak about how the dance was, how the journey was, what we learned, how we played or how we cried, and what we enjoyed about each other. Most especially, every time, we give thanks for everyone in the group. It is the group energy that creates the energetic cauldron within which the dance takes place. The closing council is followed by another potluck feast. And much talking.
Don and I have been a part of this community for seventeen years now, and until we became nomadic we attended every dance. Since then we have attended two of the summer dances but have missed the winter dances. Every dance, through all the years, has been a deeply moving and healing and reenergizing experience. We are held in community by people who know us inside and out, who have witnessed us, without judgment, as we grew beyond limitations and inhibitions, just as we have witnessed them. There is a core group of about ten people, and many others who participate when they can. The community and the dance have been, and continue to be, profoundly important for us both.
I wrote this poem at the most recent dance:
A much needed homecoming
to the earth
to the land
to a place where we are
to people who welcome
and love us and know us,
know all that we are
and love anyway
a community and a place
where no explanation is needed.
The morning before the opening feast, early, walking on the land through the towering forest I come to a sacred place and in meditation ask for clarity. The thought arises “just let the love in”. How simple. A revelation. All my life I have, to a greater or lesser extent, shut love out. Don and I got together when I was forty-eight. For the first time I let myself be loved. But this is a whole new level. With the recent clearing of those old beliefs about not being enough, about always wanting and rarely giving, about having nothing to offer, I am open to a whole new experience of love. Just let the love in. How simple. I am briefly reduced to tears. Then I look around me and discover that the trees, the ferns, the entire forest is beaming love to me. I simply had to be open enough to let the love in to be able to experience it. The recognition arises that of course the forest is love. I am altered. And I know my dance will be about letting love in.
I have a bright multi-coloured layered skirt, a black camisole, and a bright pink bra, that I have chosen to wear for the beginning of the dance. Underneath I am wearing a pair of short black tight-fitting workout shorts that have a bright pink band around the waist. About a week before the dance I have a vision of going out to the play clothes area and re-entering the dance dressed only in the shorts and bra, and with the addition of a wig and the fairy wings. Who knows why? It was just there to do. And the Long Dance is a situation where there is freedom to do such things.
I come flying into the dance ground, the drums calling me, the body being danced. I am not dancing. The body is being danced without restraint by the wild drums. The drumming tells the body what to do and with eyes closed I surrender in joy. There is a reaction to my outfit – hooting and hollering and laughter. I laugh. I am thrilled by my boldness. Never have I been quite this uninhibited at a Long Dance. The feeling of freedom is intoxicating. The drumming is intoxicating. The wild free movement of the body is intoxicating.
I open my eyes and see Don dancing in my skirt and a blue wig. I howl laughing. Most of us laugh. Later he reappears in a different skirt and with a hat. He is having fun.
I have abandoned the fairy wings. One of the women suddenly appears in a pair of long tight tie-died shorts, many strings of coloured beads, a wig, the tinsel headband, and the fairy wings. With infinite presence and freedom of movement she moves gracefully and energetically around the dance floor, complete confidence in her semi-nakedness. The thought arises do that too, do that too, there’s another set of wings, do that too. I’m already wearing the shorts; I abandon the pink bra, add the angel wings, some beads, and another of the wigs and go join my counterpart on the dance floor. Dancing and dancing and dancing, twirling this way and that, dancing alone, dancing with others. Someone appears with the maiden’s basket of flowers and mimes offering flowers to us all. At some point further into the evening all the men dance together, male energy arising in grace and beauty. They move as one unit to the two big drums and pound them in reckless ecstasy. Later a wild man appears, long flowing hair, a ripped sleeveless fur jacket, a couple of tea towels refashioned as a loin cloth. His presence fills the room with permission to be big. Big powerful love.
Many of the women dance together, flowing bellies, flowing arms, and flowing skirts compelled by the rhythm of the drums. At some point during the dance someone has curled up on the mat in front of the north altar, traveling an inner journey into the shadow, into the depths of the psyche, into the truth. Several of the women tend to her, helping her through the tunnel to the freedom that comes on the other side of spent feelings. In other dances I have been the one curled up at one of the altars, or Don has. Every dance is different, and the journey each of us travels changes from dance to dance.
After several hours the energy subsides, growing soft and quiet. The end is coming. I revert back to my opening outfit, as do most of the others. Gradually we all move towards the centre pole and walk languidly around it. The mother drum slows, then stops. It is done. We form a circle and clasp hands except for two people. One of these leads us in a spiral in and in and in until we are all crowded tight around the centre pole. We tone in harmony, a natural sound expression of the quiet joy and love that fills us all. An honouring of spirit. A benediction. A song of gratitude. We unwind the spiral, we hug and say goodnight, and head to sleep, with the closing council and feast awaiting us in the morning.
With ritual and intention we create safe sacred space, an energetic cauldron that holds us and allows us to travel on a journey inwards, a journey with spirit, a container within which to express all that needs to be released, a place to scream, a place to cry, a place to express joy and love and freedom without restraint, a place to let the body be danced, a place to heal the heart, a place for each of us to come home to our Self, to find the heartbeat at the centre, to live grace in whatever way it wants to be expressed. A journey of the soul.
Every dance is a blessing. And this one particularly was much needed. Having each journeyed deep into some causes of personal suffering recently, Don and I were both ready to be reenergized, and to rediscover our joy. We are infinitely blessed and grateful to be a part of this community. Even after all these years I am frankly still astonished. I get to be a part of this? I get to be this lucky? What a huge gift.
Just let the love in.
Photos of the day: Owls and deer in the forest where we dance.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.