I’m certainly not new to dancing, nor am I new to drumming and chanting. That said, I experienced a powerful ritual recently that merges exercise, expression, empowerment, psychology and spiritual worship all under one roof. (or the stars in some cases).
Imagine an event/ritual with this combination: the fun and creativity of Burning Man expression (face and body painting if that’s what you want to do), the humanist element of spiritual worship (regardless of your religion — gratitude and love is what holds court, not God), psychology (because your schtuff can all come out through movement not sitting on a couch talking to a PhD — I’m not condemning this btw, just suggesting there are other ways for healing and growth), exercise and physical movement (to keep toxicity where it belongs, moving through you and not staying stagnant inside you), and lastly, empowerment through chants and language that elevates not reduces you.
I have chosen not to mention the place or name of this event for confidentiality purposes and to respect the space attendees consider sacred and private. Respecting the privacy of what comes up at these events is an essential part of what makes it all work, or purr as I like to say when something is really working.
A lot of preparation goes into the event itself, such as learning the guidelines of what certain words or noises mean, how to know when silence is more powerful than sharing something, or how to pay attention to the beautiful relationship between the drummers and the dancers. In most cases, you’ll do both, so it’s important to know what to ‘give’ the dancers when you’re drumming and vice versa, in order to make the experience purr.
Once cleansed, you line up in two lines and face each other, and then slowly you fold into the middle of the circle and move up the middle to re-enter the building, almost in a wedding-like receiving line fashion.
There are some aspects to the early part of the ritual (the quiet, meditative part at the beginning) that is very similar in experience to the Labyrinth Walk, a non-denominational ritual that involves movement on a spiritual journey – towards and always in motion. Some of the earliest forms of labyrinths are found in Greece, dating back to 2500-2000 B.C.E. and early Christian labyrinths date back to 4th century, a basilica in Algeria.
With the fire circle ritual, there is often a fire in the middle of the circle and a border to the circle around it, where movement takes place inside the circle. In our case, since it was inside and there were fire regulations, we had a massive metal bowl propped up on an iron stand, filled with water and floating candles.
The circle itself was closed in by a glowing white chord that lit up in the dark, roughly an inch or so thick. When inside the circle, you are walking into your ‘foundation’ which is an area of focus.
It could be unconditional love, peace, or frankly, anything you choose. Outside the circle, you prepare yourself for that place so that when you walk into it, you are in that place, feeling it, breathing it, being your authentic self, whatever that is.
Movement felt forced to me in the beginning although over time, once I got out of my head, nothing but natural flowing energy moved me to do whatever I did inside the circle. Some people skip, others move in stride — slowly, quickly, flowingly, energetically, happily, spiritually, all depending on where they are at any given time. Some people just walk. The key is to keep moving since movement is a symbol of life and how we live life. Have you ever noticed that how people do anything is how they do everything?
This is why constant movement inside the circle is so important just as it is inside any vortex. The ritual’s guidelines/rules keeps you in motion even when you feel like you want to stop. When you stay in motion even when you’re feeling stuck, things begin to open up and get clearer – both in your head and your heart.
We explored the energy of vortexes, where we looked into the early work of Viktor Schauberger, who was an inventor of what he called “implosion technology.” Schauberger developed his own theories based on fluidic vortices and movement in nature. He coined Observe Nature and then Copy Nature and was known for observing fish and their behavior in rivers. In his work with vortexes, he realized that everything is affected by the ‘vortex’ and believed that all life IS a vortex.
The circle we moved in and around was a vortex just like tornadoes and water are vortexes as is our inner ear. When you change the pattern and direction of a vortex, interesting things happen. Sure, there’s turbulence, but there is also an inner calm that occurs as has been evidenced by objects, such as a birthday cake, being swept up in a tornado and then being spit out unharmed and untouched.
Tornados breath everything in its track IN and then spits everything OUT. Refer to a great book called Sensitive Chaos, which explains the simple flowing phenomena of water and air, and how we can use that understanding to “read” the living meaning of water.
All of this comes back to the importance of keeping things moving inside the vortex, in this case, the humanity “fire” circle where the attendees’ job was to keep everything flowing: our hearts, our minds and our bodies.
There are two directions you can move in the fire circle and you can choose what each direction means for you. For example, moving counterclockwise towards the inside rim of the circle could mean holding on whereas walking clockwise in the inner part of the circle could mean letting go and releasing.
Dynamics of the group participating inside the circle change frequently, but it happens with respect for what others want to experience. Being in touch, listening and allowing silence creates the space to understand that dynamic.
You could be moving to a mid-tempo beat, then the drum energy may simmer down and someone may start to recite a piece from Shakespeare or Eckhart Tolle. Later, it may move into a chant or a silly song. Ultimately, this means that the entire fire circle is organic and its energy depends on the players in the circle at any given time.
When someone starts to sing a song, people often chime in. If someone begins a poem, people may just listen and respond to it through dance or movement, and a chant often takes on a life of its own. Example: I am the power and I honor you and I empower you to be who you are. The energy is almost always positive and from a place of love and gratitude.
Gratitude is a big part of the ritual. Whether you go into the process wanting to give gratitude or think about it or not, you can’t help but leave the circle feeling grateful for the people around you and most importantly, for yourself.
Isn’t self love, or rather lack thereof, a known factor, that holds us back from becoming our full potential? (by full potential, I don’t mean becoming a CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a professional athlete), I mean stepping into your ‘true’ self, rather than holding back that gift and trying to replicate the “sameness” around us). Sometimes I think Sesame Street said it best. (aka, the most important person in the whole wide world is ……)
That brings me to other senses and modalities. In addition to verbal mantras and reinforcements, there’s a visual component. Women typically dress in flowing clothes, often with clothes and hats, sometimes with decadent jewelry and face paint. There were other visual expression props you could add to your persona for the ritual such as angel’s wings, funky and romantic hats and shawls. Some men dressed up in cultural clothing from other countries (Egypt, China, Japan, etc), others wore robes, and some just wore loose clothing.
The altar to the west is dedicated to image and reflection and on that altar were mirrors and candles. Remember that in ancient times, mirrors were believed to hold your reflection and if a mirror was shattered, it was said that your soul would be shattered. (that’s where the 7 years of bad luck came from). Reflections represent why you ‘showed up,’ what you want to accomplish, what direction do you want to go and what is your intention along the way?
There are four altars in total and everyone pays respect to each — north, south, east and west — at the very beginning of the ritual. Typically two people say a few words about it and more candles are lit along the way.
The altar to the south is about experimentation and considered a laboratory of sorts. In this particular fire circle, laboratory coats were hung on a coat stand to symbolize exploration and experimentation in life.
The altar to the east is about play and there, hung hats, scarves, coats and shawls. Play sister play. Women tended to use the props here more than the men although all the men in my group had an aspect of play to their personalities. (note: our group was roughly 50 in size although fire circles can range from 20 to over 1,000 in size).
There was also a hoola hoop in this area which some used to play on their own while others used it as a prop in which to dance and play together.
And lastly, the altar to the east is about connection. This altar was the most cluttered of all and included flowers, candles, one tangerine, bones and necklaces. If you felt a particular connection to someone throughout the process, you could let them know by hanging one of the necklaces around their neck to symbolize that you shared something “kindrid” and meaningful with them.
The coolest part for me was the dynamic between the drummers and the dancers, and the mutual sharing of expression that came from a place of true authenticity and vulnerability. Even at Burning Man, albeit authentic and fabulous, it’s more about art, expression and experience than it is about being vulnerable and showing your true interior — sans drugs — which could change by the moment, by the hour or simply not at all.
It’s also about becoming more and more okay with silence but not having to do it through some form of formal or informal meditation, so it’s great for people who are not naturals at meditation.
Lastly, the drumming circle itself. Dancing to it while respecting the organic nature of what is being created on the fly is as magical as drumming for the dancers is, with an intention of creating a magical experience for them along the way.
Since the drumming circle is lined up as an arch, there is a circular area in front of the drummers where a dancer can come in and show gratitude by dancing wildly or softly (typically there’s more energy than less) in front of them. And this, my friends, is a very very cool experience, as a drummer and as a dancer.
A few links and resources to check out more information on fire dances and circles for those interested in learning more.
- Phoenix Fire – the West Coast’s largest fire-circle gathering happens every August under the redwood trees in the Santa Cruz mountains
- Winter’s Flame – weekend events held in the San Francisco Bay Area.
- Fire Tribe Hawaii – circles every solstice and equinox on the island of Oahu
- Forestdance – circles in Massachusetts every August
- Vegas Vortex – hosts Mysterium, May Fire, and Fall Fest in and around Las Vegas
- Spirit Fire – circles in July in upstate New York
- Fires Rising – features a fire circle at this event every May in Pennsylvania
- Rites of Spring – a week long pagan festival with fire circle in every May in western Massachusetts
Photo credits: BoulderssResort, FireFamily, InventorSpot, FreeExtras, DrinkingDiaires, Celebratewomantoday, and VortexHouse.