Correction to This Article
An Oct. 7 Weekend article incorrectly identified the leaders of a continuing-education workshop at the University of Maryland. They were Peggy Heller and Judit Andai.
On the Move

Dancing for a Better World

Clockwise from lower left, Janeil Stewart, Annie Mechanic, Judit Andai, Toni Bass, Evelyn Beck and Diane Popper dip from a stream, represented by candles, during a circle dance at River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda.
Clockwise from lower left, Janeil Stewart, Annie Mechanic, Judit Andai, Toni Bass, Evelyn Beck and Diane Popper dip from a stream, represented by candles, during a circle dance at River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda. (By Timothy Jacobsen For The Washington Post)
By Mary Kay Schoen
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 7, 2005

WE HEAR A LOT about dancing for health these days -- for aerobic exercise, for weight loss -- and recently, for warding off dementia. But how about dancing for a sense of urban community? For prayer or meditation? Or just for fun -- no partner, no performance, no pressure?

In church and community halls around the Beltway -- and around the world, in fact -- small groups are gathering to pursue all of these goals, to varying degrees, through a practice known as circle dance (or sometimes sacred circle dance). Though the dances are mostly traditional, this is not the usual folk dance scene. What sets circle dance apart is its very intentional approach, advanced by German dance expert Bernard Wosien in the 1970s, to exploring dance as an ancient path to community, healing and the simple joy of living.

On a recent evening, nine dancers -- eight of them women -- gathered around a centerpiece of green leaves and candles set on the cool, bare floor of the Arlington Unitarian church hall. A large conch shell nestled in the greenery called to mind both walks on the beach and the Buddhist sacred symbol. Most of the dancers were casually dressed; two wore long, flowing skirts. They began the evening with a slow dance, reaching toward earth, sky and the four directions (and providing a lot of warm-up stretching for mostly middle-aged bodies). Then leader Judie David led the group through several traditional dances from Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey -- all variations on the pravo , an ancient dance in which, she explained, the feet trace a "tree of life" pattern. Two regulars also led dances, and two newcomers received patient, low-key guidance. During the break, members coached one another on tricky steps or shared cheese and crackers and small talk. The two-hour session concluded with "Dance to the Light," a contemporary, choreographed "mandala dance" set to a Baroque canon.

Traveling along something of a "dance underground," circle dance practice has spread via the Internet and workshops led worldwide by a handful of teachers. Groups from Germany to Argentina dance together regularly, yet the movement remains so loose it still has no official Web site, T-shirt or organization. Scotland-based dance ethnologist Laura Shannon reports that circle dance groups outnumber folk dance groups in Great Britain. The eJournal Seventh Circle lists contacts for about 60 groups in the United States; four groups meet regularly in the Washington area.

"I considered myself a non-dancer," says Ann Ulmschneider, who has been part of the Arlington group for the past four years. "Learning to do simple dances has been a joyful experience. It allows me to get out of my mind and into my body. I can relax and not think all the time." Many dancers talk about the experience of mind-body integration. Ron Willet, a member of the same group and sometimes leader, says he has enjoyed dancing all his life, "but circle dance brings together several aspects of myself: love of music, intellectual interests, higher consciousness, play."

Though folk and circle dancers may share a repertoire, the feel and intent of typical sessions are different, according to local members who do both. In keeping with the unwritten tradition of the movement, circle dance groups welcome newcomers and drop-ins. No partners are needed or expected. Dances are taught anew each time (a boon to those, like this writer, born with two left feet) and repeated frequently so that the familiar patterns are conducive to meditation. The accompanying recorded music is nothing if not eclectic and can range from an Australian Rom band to Mozart, from Gregorian chant to Indian chant in both senses -- Native American and Asian. The goal of the dancers is not performance. It's closer to prayer.

Participants are often invited to explore symbolic or personal meaning in the subtleties of the dance. "Three steps forward and one back -- what does that pattern mean to you in your life?" Shannon will ask in her circle dance workshops for leaders and aficionados. Dancers are encouraged to extend their experience into a spiritual dimension of their own choosing: celebration, meditation, prayer, reflection on their own lives or empathy with the human condition.

"For me, it's a spiritual path. I dance as if I'm meditating," says David, a psychologist and organizer of the Arlington circle and another in Burke. David often invites the regulars to dedicate their dancing to their personal celebrations or concerns. Holiday wishes, a birth or death, a promotion or layoff, or a prayer for peace in Iraq might be "put in the circle" on a given evening. Her immediate goal, she says, is to make each evening rewarding and transformative for each participant, though their interests and skills vary widely.

Romanian-born Elena Butterfield came expecting to find some of her Eastern European heritage in the dances. She found more: the village square she had not known growing up in urban Bucharest. "The same people, the same place very week -- we've become a real community," she says.

Typically, the interests of the dance circles extend beyond personal issues to the global village. The Arlington group has done a somber dance, traditionally done by Macedonian women on blood-soaked battlefields, as an expression of mourning for the dead in Iraq. A Bethesda group plans evenings around themes: peace, joy, environmental concerns and (post-Katrina) the power of water. "I think it is a good sign of the times that people are willing to enter this space," says District resident Evelyn Beck, who leads two Bethesda groups. "The nonverbal is powerful. . . . It can bring together people who may have differences yet can join in the dance."

Last October, Beck, a retired professor of women's studies at the University of Maryland, and Judit Andai, a clinical psychotherapist and former leader of the Bethesda circle, introduced professional colleagues in psychology at the university to circle dance as part of a continuing education workshop. "I'm convinced these dances have healing properties," Andai says. "It's something in the vibration and rhythm, the movement and melodies that have been used for hundreds of years."

While some dancers simply enjoy the experience and the fellowship, others are drawn to an eclectic spirituality. "Everybody does not approach the divine in same way," observes Tuppence Blackwell, a Bethesda leader. "I used to joke about Sunday night contradancing being my Sunday worship, but when I began circle dance, I felt I'd found my spiritual home."


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