Published in Avalon Magazine, Spring 2008
Bruce Garrard joined a 5 Rhythms Dance workshop led by Dawn Morgan, at the EarthSpirit Centre in Compton Dundon, November 26-30 last year . Dawn is committed to the work of healing through movement and ceremony. (For more about Dawn Morgan and Five Rhythms Dance go to www.shapeshift.co.uk) She is one of several regular teachers at the weekly 5 Rhythms group in Glastonbury Town Hall, but this was one of a series of longer workshops each focussed on one of the elements: Fire. (Names have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the circle).
The EarthSpirit Centre in Compton Dundon is a wonderful venue for all kinds of events, a converted farm in a lovely setting between Dundon Beacon and Lollover Hill. Dance, together with a Fire ceremony, and Dawn Morgan’s inspiring leadership, provided a particularly energising combination. Two or three months later I am still noticing changes working through into my life – more fire in my being! To begin the integration process, when I got home I sat down and wrote it all out in detail …
On the Monday, the workshop participants were expected to arrive from about 5 pm; the plan was for the group to have a light supper together and then drive into Glastonbury to join the local evening class. This worked really well, I think better than if we had just had a dance session to ourselves; all of us ‘fire dancers’ wore red clothes and arrived as a big energy all at once. The result was a brilliant evening for everyone, and several of the Glastonbury group made last minute decisions to come and join us just for the Fire Walk ceremony on Thursday – which was open to the local community.
By the end of Monday evening we were back at EarthSpirit consuming hot soup and getting to know each other quite well already – altogether nearly twenty of us. We were quite a ‘United Nations’. Zofia (Czech) and her partner Narayan (Indian heritage) travelled down from Birmingham with Suzanna (Afro-Caribbean). We also had Shelley (Israeli), Tom (Canadian) and Claudine (French). Most of us had come as a result of connecting with Dawn at other workshops or local 5 rhythms groups where she teaches; also by the time we got back Jack had arrived – he would be leading the fire walk itself – and a few of the participants were connections of his. He and Claudine, who was his partner, were exhausted after much travelling and I didn’t really get to meet them till the next day. The workshop proper would be starting at 10 am on Tuesday morning.
After breakfast I went and helped arrange the sound equipment, wall hangings and an altar space. High on the wall at one end of the hall is a big painting of a dragon, with its head, front feet and part of its body in 3-D relief, so that it is emerging out of the masonry. By about 9.45 there was music playing and everyone gradually came in to warm up on the dance floor, before we gathered in a circle for the first time. Each of us had brought a sacred fire object of our own, and one by one we stepped into the circle with them, saying our names and telling the group what our object was. Then we spoke as if we were the object – “I am Bruce’s piece of rock; he put me on a sweat lodge fire and heated me up red hot. I liked that, it reminded me of when I was young and first made … one day, I shall return to the fire”. Then each object was placed on the altar. Before lunch we went into a couple of hours dance session focused on the first of the five rhythms, ‘flowing’, which is associated with the element earth – and which leads into the second rhythm, ‘staccato’, associated with fire.
After lunch we had some free time which was a chance for people to go out and explore the landscape a little, returning at 5 pm for another dance session. This time we ran through all five rhythms much as we would do on a Monday evening, through ‘chaos’ and ‘lyrical’, and as we went into ‘stillness’ each joining with two others: these groups of three were to be our support groups or ‘pod’ groups for the week, and we went off to have dinner together. I was with Jane, a lovely young woman from Norfolk who I soon got to feel very fond of, and Claudine. In fact I was with the youngest and the oldest women in the group, and both of them absolutely gorgeous in their own different ways. It was meeting Claudine which was my highlight on Tuesday. I’d guess she’s around 60, grey-haired and with a face full of wisdom and experience. She must have been stunning when she was young, now warm and graceful and with a look very much like a native American elder. Jane mentioned this, and she simply said “Yes, I am the mother of my tribe”. She lives in a community of yurt-dwellers in the Pyrenees.
After dinner we had time to hang out, appreciate each other, massage each other, enjoy the atmosphere of ‘exotic sensuality’ (as somebody put it) which seems to be there in Dawn’s workshops. Dawn smiled and said “yes, that does seem to happen”. Even in her short evening classes there is somehow more connection between people than in most others, which appears to happen spontaneously but of course it actually has a lot to do with Dawn, and with her own connection with herself. We were all gently relaxing into a comfortable love-bubble …
Wednesday morning was the ‘staccato/fire’ dance session. It was half way through this that Dawn invoked the Spirit of Fear to enter our dance, and we danced so as to show each other the shapes and sounds of our fear, knowing our fear, embracing our fear, preparing to walk through the fire. “Fear causes us to contract. Open your arms. How does it feel?” Everything starts to become a blur at this point. I remember my feet had become sore from so much dancing. I remember a day full of missions – liaising with the office to make sure we had use of the Centre’s hot tub; phoning my friend Jim, asking to borrow his fire bow for Jack to light the sacred fire with the next day. I remember an exercise on the dance floor when we were cutting each other down, as if with a sword; then, “do the same again, but go for them with compassion – you are the friend who must tell them the uncomfortable truth that they need to hear”. I remember going for another walk in the afternoon, about eight of us up on Dundon Beacon. I remember standing in a circle with our arms around each other, in the wind at the top of the hill, singing songs from each others’ countries and traditions.
Back in the hall, I remember Jack addressing the whole circle and running through what would happen tomorrow, step by step. “There is no expectation on you to walk across the fire. If only one person walks, that person does so for all of us, for all our communities. All you can do is to take yourself to the edge of the fire, and if a path seems to open up, then walk. Don’t question it. There is no place for ego. Stay in the moment.” I remember Claudine – it must have been earlier – sharing with the whole circle how hard her relationship with Jack had become, and yet how much she loved him, and how painful that was. I remember Jack going carefully and thoughtfully through all the practical arrangements. Another ten people or so were coming the next day. We had become the holding circle. Dawn asked us to approach the others in a spirit of service. There would not be time to go through all the details tomorrow; we would be holding the information which the others would need to know as the day unfolded.
More dancing, and after dinner a sharing circle: where are you at now? How is it feeling for you? I was suddenly very scared. I had done a fire walk once before, some years ago, and I had enrolled for the workshop remembering the exhilaration of having done the walk; but right now I had become lost in the terror I had felt before walking. Jack again: “What you are feeling is a primal fear. All our little fears get attached to that, and most of them are paper tigers. Tomorrow you will have the opportunity to walk across the fire and let them go”. Yes, but what do I do now? I wanted to scream and rant and shake it out; or else smoke lots of marijuana, let my fears disappear into a large cloud of smoke. How am I going to sleep tonight? Dawn: “I tried to lead you through this in the dance session this morning”. Yes, but it’s as if I was playing at feeling the fear then, now it’s real and huge. When the circle broke up I was left sitting there, contracted and still, not knowing what to do. All I could do really was just not pretend, nor try to escape. Actually I was in a very safe space with lots of lovely people, and thankfully I was able to reach out to them rather than disappearing and running away to hide. In the end Christine, Claudine and Dawn each gave me a massage, one after another. Soon after that the long-awaited hot tub was finally ready, emptied, cleaned, re-filled and heated up, and after a good soak I went off to bed feeling great.
Thursday morning. We had agreed to start the day with a dance session, to invite the newcomers into the dance. But first I had to drive off with Jack to fetch the fire bow from Jim’s in Langport. We went out to the car and one tire was flat. “I’ll change it – only five or ten minutes”. It was already nine o’clock, and we had to be back by ten. Len and Simon from the men’s group had decided to come and do the fire walk today, but Jim was expecting his partner to return from India some time Thursday or Friday, so he was staying at home awaiting a phone call. Jack and I reached Somerton, and found the road to Langport. There was a police vehicle parked across the carriageway and a policewoman directing traffic back through the town. Further down the road were flashing lights and distant signs of a major accident.
We drove back the way we had come, Jack handing me a map. We reached the junction where we had turned off into Somerton, me studying the map. “OK, if you turn right we go out onto the main road and we can get to Langport that way, but it’s a bit of a long way round. Left goes back to EarthSpirit’” Jack turned left. “That’s unusual for me” he said. “Usually I just push on to the bitter end. But we need to get back, and there are endless distractions out here. If we have to light the fire with matches, it’s not the end of the world”. When we got back I phoned Jim again. “Sorry, mission aborted. If you can make it over this afternoon it’ll be great to see you” then into the dance once again. The weather was sunny and soon got warm. The music was wild and hot. It was 10.30 in the morning and we were stomping. One by one more dancers arrived, hugs and smiles, into the dance. Mostly folks from the local group in Glastonbury, one or two from Dawn’s group in Birmingham, then Len and Simon and his partner Sarah, carrying their child in her gently expanding belly. Into the dance, never mind that they hadn’t danced the Rhythms before, they just seemed to get it straight away. The space was filled with moving bodies weaving in and out and around and around, t-shirts coming off, swirling limbs … and finally coming to a standstill.
We returned to our circle, bigger than before. The quality of welcome was much appreciated. Most people were excited and expectant. One young woman had earlier gone into a panic of anxiety but she was OK now – it seemed like someone was always ready to carry the group’s fear. Christine had returned from Glastonbury where she’d gone to fetch some things we would need for the ceremony. “I thought going shopping would be really distracting and difficult, but it was like I was still part of this circle, it went really well. On the way there, all the traffic lights were green”. Such a contrast to the trip that Jack and I had attempted. Jack gave us a briefer version of his talk from the day before. “We’re not going to be walking over flaming logs – we let it burn down to red hot embers then rake it out – a ‘tapis de bris’ – yes, it’s real fire and some people may get slightly burned – OK, I want you to choose which element, which direction you are going in, and we’ll get into four groups now”.
Christine had brought four sheets of coloured cloth, and strips of these were used to make up prayer wraps, each with a pinch of sacred tobacco inside. I made up one for my son, one for a friend, and one for a stranger who I had briefly met on Monday. For myself, I prayed that my broken sense of family could finally be repaired. Each of these prayers went into the tobacco, tied into little squares of cloth – red cloth for Earth. Len and Simon had also chosen Earth, all three of us who had regularly used the ritual space here for our sweat lodge ceremonies, together in the same group. We had not discussed it at all.
After lunch the prayer wraps were tied together into long strings and we all went out to the ritual space. We gathered in the four directions, and then went off in those directions along the roads and hedgerows and into the woods, gathering things appropriate for each of our four altars. By now dusk was approaching. Everyone was back and getting busy preparing the space. Somebody gave me a message. “Jim will be here by 4.30 with the fire bow”. I was so pleased, and realised that if we’d got to his place in the morning and borrowed it then, he probably wouldn’t be coming. The pile of ash logs was split with several axes into pieces of roughly equal diameter and built up into a circular fire with a hole in the centre and arranged so that all the pieces leaned slightly downwards into the middle – designed to get an even burn, to have as much of the wood as possible burning at once. John, another of our men’s group – who was doing maintenance work at the Centre – had got caught up in the energy by now and he was there as well. Sarah sat in the midst of us all on a tree stump covered with a sheepskin. Daylight gradually dissipated during this buzz of collective activity and then the fire was ready and Jack called across to Jim, “Time to do your thing”.
Jim arranged his bow with the string wrapped around the spindle, the bottom of the spindle slightly pointed and resting in a circular ‘hearth’ cut into a dry piece of sycamore. The top of the spindle was held by a sea shell set into a piece of wood like a handle. The bow went back and forth and smoke came out of the hearth but didn’t quite make fire. “Can someone take the other end of this bow? My arm’s getting tired.” Jane stepped forward to lend a hand. Several times the tinder nearly caught but not quite. “Of course the last thing that he needs” says Jack, quietly by my side, “is loads of people watching him.” Indeed. “Come on” says Dawn to everyone, “Let’s focus. Let’s give it our Fire Breath.” We gave it a loud out-breath with each stroke of the bow. Smoke curled up from the hearth. Tiny red coals trickled through the bottom onto the tinder. Jim gently blew. More smoke, more glowing red. Jim blew harder. John blew as well, one after the other so that the draft was constant. Everyone was gathered around, breathing, chanting. Flames! Everybody cheered! The tinder was on fire! Jim carried the burning handful to the fire-stack and Jack dropped it down the central hole, followed by a bunch of dry hay and some small bits of kindling. The fire took, nearly went out, took again. Somebody rushed to get more kindling. For a while it seemed like we might have to start all over again, but the fire caught. Half an hour later it was ablaze.
“Have you got the rake?” asked Jack. I’d found a rake and a spare rake handle in the tool shed. He tied them together with a piece of rubber inner tube stretched tight, then handed it back, with its extended handle, to me. “Let’s all stand by our altars”, which we did whilst the fire burned hotter and hotter. I held onto my rake and swayed to the heartbeat of drums, the whole circle going into a gentle dance. Jim was playing his flute. I felt proud that I’d been handed the rake, that I’d been given an important function in this ceremony. I stepped into the circle to use it to poke some pieces of unburnt wood back into the fire; the intensity of the heat was extraordinary. Zofia brought the rest of our red sheet of material, cut into strips which she was tying as headbands onto each of our group. I put down the rake on the ground whilst I tied hers for her. Jack re-appeared – “can I use that for five minutes?” and took the rake to tend the fire. He didn’t bring it back. I had to let go of my important function. “There will be no room for ego” I recalled.
The drums were getting more intense. Christine was the lead drummer. She was walking round the circle and every time she passed me the drum came close to my head and I was bathed in vibration. Others took turns to carry the other drums, the largest staying on its frame and pointing away from the nearby houses. Once the fire was burning the beat remained constant.
Thirty fire dancers in a close, moving circle. Dawn was admiring Jim’s flute, a wooden one made in the South American style, double barrelled. He told her the story of the one he had made from a swan’s wing bone. “You’ve got nice long limbs” he mentioned, as if sizing her up for his next instrument making project. His fire bow and his flute music added a lot to the Ceremony. Jack said “it’s time to take off our shoes and leave them outside the circle”. Everyone took off their shoes, returning to the dance. “Follow Jack”, as Jack set off around the circle. Everybody followed in a long curling snake until we were back where we’d begun.
“Follow Len, he is our elder” said Dawn, and everyone followed Len’s movements for a minute or two. “Follow Jane, she is our youngest”; and so on, one after another, “follow Sarah, mother carrying her child”, “follow Suzanna, beautiful black woman”, ‘”follow Narayan, brave-heart fire dancer whose family comes from India”. I wondered what she’d think of for me – nothing exotic in me, I live just down the road and I’ve lived in the area most of my life … “follow Bruce” she suddenly said, “keeper of the land”. I stepped forward into the circle with the drumbeat, stretching toward the fire, toward the heat, and everyone did the same. Back and forth, into and out of the scorching heat; just for a minute or two, then it moved on. Finally, it was Barry from Glastonbury who stepped up when Dawn had finished calling all the names and said “follow Dawn, beauty come amongst us”.
By now the fire was getting low. Jack asked if I could find a wheelbarrow or an old shovel to put a few unburnt pieces of wood into. I did that. Then he handed the rake back. He had his own long-handled fire tool and said “Follow me round. Leave the embers two or three inches deep in the middle and rake them out flat as far as they go. We’re making a big circle”. Suddenly I was right there beside the fire, heat beaming up into my face, raking the hot coals. I followed Jack round, with each circuit the circle getting wider till “That’s good”, and it was ready. We left the circle and put down the rakes, I returned to my place near the earth altar, Jack stepped forward.
“Everyone come to the edge of the fire”. And there we were. The glowing red carpet shimmering darker and brighter as a gentle breeze passed over and then disappeared. Everyone close to the fire, Christine still walking round with her drum. Suddenly she turned sharp right and walked still drumming straight across the bright red lake of heat and fiery embers, eyes fixed in front of her and never missing a beat. Others followed now, one by one, sometimes two at a time, sometimes two from different directions but never colliding. Now I was calm, waiting for the right moment, just once is all it needs – just those few short paces, reaching that moment, being right in it, walking on fire …
I reached the other side, and suddenly knew for certain that I would have to walk back again, I needed to return. When I had walked the fire before, at this point I was all but collapsed at the thought of what I’d just done. This time, I had to do it again. It made no rational sense but it was as if I had gone on a dangerous journey, and now to complete it I had to get back home. I turned around and looked at the fire again. “Oh shit”, and I walked. I got to the other side and met Claudine, held on to her shoulder briefly to steady myself. She smiled, and walked across the fire. The other side of me Narayan and Zofia were embracing. When they moved apart I asked if I could join them for a moment. We all hugged. Tom joined them too, then off they walked again, and back once more. Suzanna set off from the far side of the fire. A loud “Oh my God!” and she walked. Everyone walked. Some walked several times.
Dawn, who had been sure she wouldn’t walk at all, was strolling around in a circle. The fire seemed to wink as it cooled. The last of the walkers psyched themselves up and crossed over after all. The drums continued without a break. Jack chose his moment and then raked the embers back into a heap and Dawn led us all still barefoot back to the barn. The steady drumbeat continued. We filed back into the hall and into our seated circle. Once we were all in place, but not until then, the drums were brought to a halt and we were silent. Then Jack said a few words before reading aloud a poem which Petra had brought with her from Glastonbury: “If we are to walk through fire, we must become fire …”
And afterwards we feasted. The kitchen crew had excelled themselves and now everyone was relaxing. After dinner there was music, and more dancing. People were whirling their coloured streamers which they’d brought back from the ceremony. I danced on and on, even when I was exhausted I found it hard to stop moving. Eventually I took myself off to the hot tub with a couple of the men. I came back to say goodnight and I particularly went to thank Dawn. “And thank you” she said, “for inviting your men’s group. They’re such a lovely bunch of men”. I grinned. “It’s wonderful – now two or three of the men are thinking of joining the dance group, and two or three of the dancers are thinking of joining the men’s group”. I told her about my prayer. “I don’t need to go into the whole story, but I have this broken sense of family; it’s like I’m always on the outside, always really part of something else, never at the centre – but now they are starting to overlap and coalesce, and I can be at the centre”. She said “It’s a gift. You are building bridges”. That was my healing.
On Friday morning we began with a sharing circle. Everyone had something to say, but most knew there was much more as yet unsaid. It was going to take some time to ‘cook’, to come fully into consciousness. Claudine told us she had received an illumination that she could say ‘yes’ to life whatever it brings. “Even if it is difficult – yes! If Jack goes to India for three months – yes! If I die tomorrow – yes!” She was also, perhaps mostly, saying yes to her relationship with Jack. We continued around the circle. There were just a few people with small blisters, out of the thirty or so who walked the fire, and no other injuries.
When everyone had spoken we returned to the ritual space and completed the ceremony by taking down the altars, tidying up the wood pile, clearing away the tools, opening up the fire which after more than twelve hours was still glowing hot in the middle, and burning everything left which was combustible. Then we went back to the hall and tidied up there before going onto the floor for one last dance. We did our goodbye dances as the music took us through the five rhythms of the wave. When we reached ‘stillness’ Dawn asked us all to stand in a semicircle facing the altar, each with our sacred fire object. Then, one by one, we stepped out in front of the group and moved for a short while in connection with the object. When we were complete we cleared away the altar, the sound system, and the wall hangings, and then we went to have lunch before saying our farewells.