Sacred Circles & The Modern Witch’s Guide to American Tribal Style Belly Dance

I experienced my first coven not among witches, but among dancers.

In swirling, hypnotic circles, they connected in the eyes with seemingly psychic awareness of one another. Moving smoothly and with a steady grace, they morphed from one languid, surreal movement to the next, signaling to each other with a silent language of eyes and fingertips.

Like orchids whirling weightless in a funnel cloud, they swung around their jewel-toned layer skirts in quick, light circles, snapping their hips to the syncopated tremble of brass.

Watching them, I felt myself caught in a waking trance.

Unable to resist the momentum of their collective current, I let them sweep me into the dance with them, instinctively following them from one turn of the circle to the next.

The clamoring sound of ten thousand pairs of zills clashed around me in bright explosions of light and sound.

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Several years down the path of my belly dance journey, and many years after my first steps down the path of my interfaith journey, I found myself chatting over Turkish coffee with a self-styled pagan gypsy about what she called “the art of moving meditation.” We stumbled on the subject of dance as meditation, and, in particular, our mutual affection for belly dance as an outlet for spiritual expression.

She excitedly told me about a style she recently tried in New York called American Tribal Style (ATS).

Struggling to describe what about this type of belly dance appealed to her spiritual life, she kept coming back to the words “meditative” and “sisterhood.”

Still practicing as a solitary witch with no coven, the ideas of blending meditation, dance and group empowerment intrigued me.

I decided to experiment. I wanted to see if this dance style might help me in my quest to blend dance with my spiritual life.

I agreed to go with my friend to one of these classes, but only to watch.

That night, I arrived early.

Studio lights washed over the room with electric warmth. Standing on the dark edges, I watched shyly from a quiet corner.

Breathless dancers began to buzz through the door, chased by rush hour traffic and trailing behind them long strands of windswept dark hair.  They pulled on skin-tight dance slippers, chattering like songbirds in lilting, warm voices.

But at the appointed hour, a thick stillness wound through the dancers as the room quieted.

I held my breath. I waited.  And all at once, they started to dance . . .

Many years later, during what I thought to be an unrelated fit of inspiration, I made up my mind to feature in my blog some kind of retreat.

But I wanted something not exclusively geared towards pagans—something “pagan friendly” but not something every pagan blog already features annually.

I also wanted something in a location I’d never been to before, something to open up new neural pathways and clear my mind with the fresh perspective of a new landscape.

After comparing several options (like the lantern festival in Arizona!), I tripped across a website for something called Sacred Circles, an ATS dance retreat held annually on a remote Michigan campground near the dreamy shores of Lake Huron.

It marked all the boxes on my checklist:  I’d never seen the pure wilderness of Michigan.  Plus, dancing with bunch of total strangers in the middle of the woods for an entire weekend forced me way, way outside my comfort zone.

After 18 months of the stay-at-home mom experience, outside my comfort zone was exactly where I needed to be.

I contacted the event planner, booked my plane ticket to Detroit and rented a car, pushing myself beyond the point of no return almost immediately.

In particular, I hoped to get a chance to meet some other pagans and ask them whether they also made the connection between this mysterious, ethereal dance and their experiences with covens or power raising.

To my delight, the event planner pointed out that one of the dance workshop instructors just finished priestess training.  She encouraged me to meet up with her.

On faith, I flew to Detroit.  Driving my rented car on a two hour journey through the Michigan countryside and to the edges of wilderness—-or as far as this city girl generally ventures, anyway.

In my GPS, I vested utter faith.  “”Destination, on the right.”

Making my way on winding path through the storybook thicket of evergreens, I felt quite like a naive fairy tale character about to be snatched by a wolf.

As the waning moon rose over the dusk, the little woodland cottages steeped with the giddy, anxious energy of an outdoor backstage on opening night.

My roommates came from diverse backgrounds.   I stayed with a flamenco dancer, a former arts & entertainment journalist, and an inner city librarian.   Most of them taught dance at home and had encyclopedic knowledge of their genres.  I ended up learning as much staying in the dorms as I learned in the workshops.

Initially, I dreaded the idea of sleeping on dorm mattresses and sharing a bathroom with total strangers.  I know, I’m sorry.  The hospitality industry spoiled me.  I like hotels.  I like little soap cakes and extra pillows and somewhere to get a dry martini, you dig?

Most of all, I liked privacy.

But after only a few hours of no internet access and a dead phone with no bars, I realized I hadn’t had this much privacy in years.  No texts, no social media, no television.

It was wonderful.

Also, for the first time in 20 years, I remembered the simple joy of the slumber party.  I long ago forgot the phenomenon of “instant friendship” that negotiating sleeping space with new people seems to foster.

Two nights on a campground in friendship is worth at least ten coffee dates.

Just before the rosy dusk swept over the horizon, I went for a walk to still my nerves after the long drive, a plane trip and 2 cups of coffee (the event planners wisely made it available 24 hours a day.  I not-so-wisely drank it 24 hours a day).  Swinging open my cabin door, I set out down the path, stopping short on the wood plank stairs that led down to the edge of the water.

In the commotion of dance costumes, workshops and world-renowned belly dance instructors, I wanted to stop and appreciate the simple, natural beauty of the place I found myself in.

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The lake adorns the shores of Camp Cavell  with a charming pebble beach.  As a minimalist pagan parent, I avoid bringing home typical souvenirs from tourist shops.  But I like to take back natural treasures from different parts of the world to show my child where I went.  A few of the pebbles from this beach came home with me for the altar.

(More on altars for toddlers soon!)

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Night fell.  Beneath a blackened sky streaked with starlight, I started back up the path in plenty of time for the evening show.  But I found myself rushing in at the last moment after I stopped to stare dumbfounded at something invisible to me for a very long time in my mostly urban life:  The Milky Way.

I hurried along towards the lodge.  Beneath their twirling umbrellas and bundled in a swath of jewel-tone veils, a few stray performers emerged from the woods, darting between the trees like psychedelic forest sprites.

Entering the cozy warmth of the lodge, the sweet, heady smell of cedar and autumn pine rolled over me.  I wondered about the first ancient people who thought to tie the needles in a bundle and burn it in the temple as an offering.

Something about this place felt like a temple.

Finding a seat near the middle, I listened to the host’s opening remarks and waited with everyone else for the lights to go down.

With the suddenness of a wildfire, dancers burst into the room, filling it with a raging joy that pressed against the walls.

A troupe called Twisted Gypsy emerged from behind the rafters.  As the drum beat gathered momentum, their full, layered skirts quivered.  I searched the beaded and bejeweled dancers for Jen McDonald and finally spotted her among them.

The baroque stage lights cut hard shadows across her face.

I met Jen earlier that day.  She taught a dance formation to the group that swirled in a spiral pattern.  Standing at the front of the class with supernatural, eclectic beauty, I imagined Jen emerging from the surreal blue waters of Huron like the Lady of the Lake.

As she walked the class through this interesting and unique blocking pattern, I thought about the meaning of the spiral shape in ancient European paganism and imagined the dancers (of every age group, from their early twenties to dancers in their sixties or possibly older) moving through it as a metaphor for the winding path of life.

After class, I approached Jen to interview her about perspective on dance and how it fit into her spiritual life.

In fact, everyone here seemed to have an easy way with newcomers.

Jen is a seeker.  I related to her journey.  Leading me through her years of eclectic spiritual experience, from the tutelage of indigenous American tribes to meditation-fueled visions to her recent training with a group of Isis worshipers (a modern revival of ancient Egyptian goddess devotion), she talked to me over lunch at the mess hall like we’d long been old friends.

Watching her troupe dance that night, I felt her draw energy from her mystical roots, alternately taking the lead and relinquishing it to the other members of her group.

Again, I they reminded of my first coven.

Moving as though mesmerized by each other, they broke off in circles, swirling in little whirlpools.

I felt the energy of the power they raised together hovering over the little lodge, electrifying the air with an ionized charge.

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dancer ats

By Sunday morning, the rains washed in, and prepared to return to my life of Beltway traffic and coffee shops and Etsy and Montessori mommy-and-me groups.

But Sacred Circles reminded me once again of the immeasurable joy of dance, of connecting with other women, and the power of leaving technology behind for a few days to dwell on the natural beauty of a wild country not yet lost to cell phone towers.

Blessed be.

 

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A Modern Witch’s Guide to the Magic of New Orleans

A growing interest in pagan travel inspired me to start my latest category, aptly titled Pagan Travel.

In this series, I hope to share with you my experiences in exploring local traditions around the world from my perspective as an interfaith witch.

From festivals to small, street corner shrines, my interest in local religions feels innate.  The passion, beauty and spectacular diversity of spiritual expression across cultures has left me breathless, mesmerized, and sometimes moved to insight.

My trip last month to New Orleans refreshed this sense of wonder.

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Nowhere does local religious tradition thrive more colorfully than in what has perhaps become my favorite city in the US.

Naturally, we had go on a ghost tour.  No matter how you feel about spirits, or cheesy, theatrical ghost tours, or what your thoughts are on the afterlife, no one should pass up the opportunity to follow a local around the French Quarter at dusk and listen to some classic New Orleans ghost stories.

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Our guide was . . . passionate about what he does.  LOL

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We heard all the traditional tales, like the dubious legend of Madame LaLaurie and, of course, the famous haunting of Hotel Monteleone.

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But I learned plenty of new ones.

In fact, it seems every bartender in town has a tale to tell about ghosts in the rafters, ghosts in the wine cellar, ghosts haunting every dusty, 100-year-old trap door in the closet.

Particularly, the bartender at this historical tavern regaled us with legends of drunken spooks.

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But first, a magic tonic with an infamous past.

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Notorious for driving Edgar Allen Poe further into the rabbit hole of eloquent delirium, absinthe sparkles with the mysterious allure of 17th century poets and mad painters.

I love the mythical glamour of this centuries old elixir.  It is all the things many people imagine the occult to be: dangerous, intoxicating, magnetic.

But to me, absinthe calls to mind all the magical properties of its key ingredient, wormwood; herb of seduction, dark matters of the heart, and prophetic dreams.

I asked the bartender the same question he probably gets several times a night:

“But it isn’t real absinthe, right?”

The bartender explained that the modern absinthe now legal in the US contains much lower concentrations of the key (and highly toxic) ingredient, thujone, than Victorian-era versions.  I leave it to you super nerds to argue whether or not the modern stuff is “real.”

But though you may not see swirling green fairies on your way home from Frenchmen’s Street, many people report experiencing vivid dreams after a night of drinking modern absinthe.  Given the role of wormwood in witchcraft, I found this a very interesting rumor.

No exploration of the spiritual side of New Orleans would be complete without at least touching on the subject of voodoo.  I have little to say.  Voodoo seems to be one of those occult practices that’s impossible to talk about without pissing people off on all sides, and to me, those discussions aren’t productive.  I’ll just say that I enjoy the pride with which this tradition is celebrated in New Orleans, and the open references to it, from kitschy souvenir shops to the altars of serious, dedicated practitioners.

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Finally, the eerie splendor of New Orleans’ crumbling, historic cemeteries provides a transcendent place to contemplate otherworldly matters.   Haunting and strangely beautiful, wandering between the cracking concrete monuments felt like drifting through an earthly purgatory.

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Summer Pagan Festivals: What to Bring (& What NOT to Bring)

Whether you’re packing for a day trip, or a hopping a plane across the world, there are few better ways to connect with your global pagan community than to participate in a summer festival.

To get you started on your journey, I’ve assembled a list of things to consider taking with you.  Welcome to: Packing Tips for Your Pagan Summer Festival

We’re assuming here that you have the basics of travel packing down. Hopefully, you haven’t reached this crossroads in life without knowing you need underwear, a toothbrush, clothing and your inhaler.

But there are a few things specific to pagan events that are nice to have along.

Here are six things to bring, and six to leave at home (or at least in the car!)

What to bring.

Tarot Cards. Even if you don’t read them fluently, at least 100 other people will. Tarot cards are a great way to get to know people, start conversations and generally break the ice.

A paper journal or Book of Shadows. Rediscover the lost art of handwritten journal entries.  Press flowers in them, take notes at workshops, draw whatever inspires you and write down spells and recipes you learn in your time there.

A lantern. The soft light of a lantern at night really warms up any outdoor space, encourages others to gather around you, and sets a lovely mood for spontaneous discussions.

A good bottle of red wine (and a corkscrew!). Here’s one heavier item that’s worth the weight! If you’re traveling from a far away land, bring something local from your home region to share during cakes and ale. Some people like to bring liquor because it’s less bulk, but I’m not a fan of the hard stuff. Red wine is usually served at room temp anyway, so there’s no need to keep it on ice, and you can drink it straight from the bottle like a hobo in a pinch. You will thank me for this.

A sturdy basket. I always bring a basket to carry around my random daytime stuff. You can use a backpack, but the baskets are so much more charming! Just make sure it’s high quality enough to withstand a beating. If you don’t have a good one, odds are there will be at least one artisan basket maker there, so treat yourself to a nice one.

A few of your most used tools. You can’t pack the whole sacred playground. Choose tools that are light, versatile and easy to carry.

Tea candles. Candles are infinitely useful at festivals or any pagan event. Our kind just can’t seem to function without them. But pillars and jar candles are bulky. Tea candles are lightweight. You can bring 50 without much trouble at all.

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What NOT to bring.

Your smartphone and/or tablet. Just . . . leave it. If you really, absolutely must get online for some reason, someone else will have something you can borrow. You’re here to connect with nature. In our modern world, part of this is disconnecting from the internet. The experience of this alone is its own kind of vision quest. Be present.

Excessive makeup, jewelry and other fluffery. I’m not saying you can’t get all dolled up for the nightly bonfires. But you’ll appreciate the lighter load if you can at least pair down your usual repertoire. A good rule of thumb is to take half your usual cosmetics and toiletries. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Or, try the challenge of bringing only natural personal care items like essential oils, handmade soap and sea salt scrub.

More than one book. Trust me. You won’t read them. One is more than enough, and you probably won’t read that one, either. It’s just extra weight.

Your dieting rules. With all the walking and the physical activity, you’ll really appreciate why our ancestors didn’t have to watch their weight.

Your vice. Pick something. Anything. Then aim to go without it. Kind of like a mini New Year’s resolution.  It’s easier to give up almost anything with the change of scenery and all the other over-stimulation.

Your personal limitations. Take the opportunity to challenge yourself. Go to workshops about things way outside your comfort zone.

Better yet, teach one.

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