The first time I heard the term ‘wilis’ I was sitting in my black-and-white uniform amongst leotard-and-pink-tights clad dancemates watching Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in a 1962 recording of Giselle. Our teacher droned on about the dresses and steps while we marveled at the white-clad wilies luring a fickle suiter to dance himself to death. Our teacher revelled in gossip about Fonteyn and Nureyev; her students learned little about the story and nothing about where these ghostly girls came from. Later, when I performed in Swan Lake, I watched from the wings as transformed maidens shed their feathers and danced in human form. Quite suddenly, the memory of my first Giselle came flooding back. I wondered at the power of wilies to capture not just worthless men but also the imagination of audiences worldwide, and I mourned the paucity of cultural history in my dance education. Who were these creatures in white? The dancing goddesses: folklore, archaeology, and the origins of European dance answers my question by way of documenting the origins of dance in regions ranging from Crete through the Balkans to the Baltic. Wayland Barber is the influential author of important books, like Women’s Work (1995), on the roles of women in prehistory, ancient history, and contemporary societies. Professor Emerita of archaeology and linguistics at Occidental College in the U.S., Wayland Barber is also a long-time, dedicated folk dancer. She founded the college’s Folk and Historical Dance Troupe in the 1970s and has been directing and teaching for the troupe alongside her academic career ever since. In this light, it is perhaps unsurprising to readers of this journal that the underlying assumption of Dancing Goddesses is that dance is not simply an art form but the “essence of life itself.” The basic thesis is that dance in agrarian communities marked ritual time and space and mediated daily existence via “… an ancient European tradition of beliefs that sought to influence the flow of life by means of dance” (italics in the original). Though hardly a novel idea, Wayland Barber brings her extensive knowledge of folklore, folk imagery, classics, and archaeology to bear on the question of the origins and meaning of the images of the Dancing Goddesses in ways that connect ancient systems of belief to the evolution of dance in eastern European regions. Along the way, she shows how so-called ‘perishable’ customs and beliefs “can survive for millennia.” In the immortal words of my gossipy dance teacher, “no small feet sic, that.”The book is divided into four parts. Part I, “Dancing the Year: The Ritual Cycle of Fertility,” consists of nine chapters that examine the functional origins of dance, describing Greek, Balkan, and Russian agrarian rituals, cycles of fertility, and dance customs. (The last chapter in this section connects these rituals to current European customs at Christmas, Carnival, Easter, and other holidays.) Most important among these ancient rituals is the appeasement of ancestral spirits. Wayland Barber begins with images she calls ‘willies,’ though various Slavic groups call the dancing spirit rusalka, samovila, vila, among others: these are the volatile spirits of maidens who died before giving birth. They are the ghosts of virgin girls were said to reside in rivers and streams and to love dancing. Wayland Barber describes traditional cultures in which young girls frequently gathered to dance out-of-doors in the spring, and she asserts that nonliterate farmers believed that girls who can give birth but have not done so could spread their fertility on the ground as they danced. Because willies maintain their fertile potency after death, or so the reasoning goes, they could transfer their latent fertility to the earth if invited to do so. However alluring willies may be, they are capricious and often hostile towards human beings. As Wayland Barber says, “their dancing created life, their wrath could destroy it.” How does one cajole, entice, or lead these Dancing Goddesses into a cultivated area to insure a bountiful crop come springtime? Do what they do: dance. Honor and communicate with them by dancing for them. The main argument of this section?in chapters such as “Marking Time,” “To Bring the Spring,” “Midsummer Rusalii”?is that dance uniquely affirms the bonds of community that are so important to survival particularly in agrarian societies. The author writes exceptionally detailed accounts of the rituals, using materials such as wood carvings, paintings, bowls, staged performances, music, textiles, amulets, instruments, folktales, and songs to make her case.Part II, “Bride-Dancing for Fertility: The Frog Princess” employs the literary device of a Russian folk tale, explored one segment at a time, to reveal the role of dance and “women’s arts” in early societies. “The Frog Princess” is a tale about finding a potential bride for a potential groom and then testing them to prove they are worthy of marriage. Once they pass the tests, they can achieve marital bliss and live happily ever after. To be a true folk tale, a story must have its origins in an oral tradition. Wayland Barber does a fine job of showing how, along the way, it may have had things added or subtracted as each storyteller made it his or her own. But her main argument emphasizes the paramount role of fecundity, underscoring the need in agrarian cultures to prove a bride’s fitness for marriage and likely fertility. Extra hands meant extra labor. Marriage often took place only after the bride proved fertile by pregnancy. Ultimately, this story harkens back to the cosmic attributes of the union of female and male, and Wayland Barber makes the case that the “Cosmic Bride” is another form of dancing goddess.In Part III, “Dancing Back through Time,” Chapter 17, “Medieval Traces,” the author begins with a quote from Ibsen’s Peer Gynt: “You are naught but an onion. I’m going to peel you now …” It’s a bold quote, and I found myself skeptical of Wayland Barber’s promise to peel away the layers and layers of dance history as easily as an onion. Happily, I was wrong. In what I consider to be the finest section of the book, the author delivers a master class on how to write history from the discrete perspective of a compelling thesis: that small villages in Eastern Europe danced to “influence the flow of life,” augmenting their fertility?both that of their crops and population?through movement categorized as not “useful” but nonetheless experienced as essential to daily life, religious ritual, social bonding, and survival of the community itself. How many layers does one need to peel to support that claim? Or, as Wayland Barber asks, “How far back does this cluster of beliefs and customs go? Where did they come from?”The author works backwards in time over five chapters, starting with the first layer of Christianity, the second is the period of Classical Greece and Rome, the third is the Bronze Age, and finally is the earliest agrarian communities. Throughout, she traces the deep archaeological history of more recent customs using linguistic remains and material culture, such as the dancers on Neolithic potsherds described by Garfinkel (2003), ancient Greek and Roman artifacts that depict dancers wearing wing-like sleeves, and musical patterns, costumes, and postures from the Middle Ages. We find all the danced traditions in material cultural remains and, Wayland Barber proves herself again to be a fantastic guide, with portraits that clarify and highlight her purpose. By the time I reached the end of Chapter 21, she had convinced me that the movement patterns of Eastern-European dancing goddesses were performed not only by the ancient Minoans but by much earlier peoples too.Part IV “Gotta Dance” is the shortest section with two chapters that attempt to answer the question “Why dance?” Wayland Barber relies heavily on a who’s who in social and cognitive sciences, notably neurologist Oliver Sacks, historian William McNeill, and cognitive theorist Merlin Donald. Why do humans dance? Because we are hardwired for rhythm, because we feel solidarity moving together. This overly simplistic answer detracts from her central argument derived from a specific cultural meme in Slavic lore. One can imagine an editor telling her that she needed an “art meets science” chapter that includes brain research in order to reach a broader audience. It is not her strong suit. She neglects important dance theorists and researchers, like Jane Desmond and Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, and entirely excludes recent research on dance cognition. She avoids the hotly debated idea that that human evolution over the past million years has been a long tale of progress. As Jared Diamond contends, “recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence” (1987 64). The phenomenon of dance most certainly began sometime in the Palaeolithic era. The ability to synchronize movement is not only unique to humans but a necessary ingredient for “keeping together in time.” Unfortunately, odes to rhythm are not sufficient for appreciating how the harsh realities of early hominid life put evolutionary pressure on our ancestors to expand their cognitive, affective, and social capacities to enable them to cooperate and compete for survival before, during, and after the adoption of agriculture. For instance, a social bonding hypothesis of dance can be only part of the story since it tells us little about how one’s group survival fitness interests overlap with the fitness interests of other groups. The most potent cause of social cohesion, as countless studies have shown, is an external threat to the group. Humans are unique among the primates in their ability to form cooperative alliances between groups in the absence of blood ties. The breakthrough in human social organization is intergroup affinity. The evolution of cooperation among non-kin may have depended critically on music and dance, which solved at least one crucial problem of intergroup cooperation: the credible signaling of the very existence of a coalition and its quality. How does one determine that large numbers of individuals are willing and able to coordinate their actions to achieve mutually beneficial goals, such as survival against crop failure (famine) or attack (warfare). A mere aggregation of individuals is not, in itself, a coalition. Groups that are willing to spend long hours learning and practicing music and dance, which was an important part of social life in traditional societies, demonstrated an ability to cooperate, creating meaningful relationships between groups. It is this kind of analysis that would more fully support the author’s evolutionary claim that humans have always “sought to influence the flow of life by means of dance.”Overall, this book does an excellent job of showing how dance was a vehicle of analogy in ancient societies, providing potentially insightful connections to contemporary dance practices. As Wayland Barber notes, analogy is the backbone of most mythical and magical thinking, and dance served as part of the rituals that marked time, often as sympathetic magic, inducing the earth to perform in various ways mimicking or responding to the actions of the dancers. Dancing willies is a fantastic example. To make her argument, Wayland Barber includes many primary sources and uses them judiciously. Though unschooled in archaeological or linguistic methods, I recognize rigorous and systematic investigation when I see it. I admit to some confusion about the relative chronology of these sources, but I admire her ability to find and connect evidence across seemingly disparate fields of inquiry, from archaeological materials and ancient mythologies to folktales, rituals, and dance practices. The downside is that, at times, Wayland Barber’s scholarly inclinations left me flat footed. For example, in the first section, she not only documents every danced event throughout the calendar year but also attempts to explain auxiliary topics like the origin of the calendar. Throughout the book, I found the author’s detailed descriptions could be either tedious or engrossing, depending on my interest in the numerous iterations of various cultural practices and folktales. Wayland Barber is at her best when she tracks down the Dancing Goddesses motif across time and space, tracing it back through the Middle Ages, to Roman and Greek times, and then to the Bronze and Neolithic Ages. Her systemic approach offers deep insight into the history of folk dances in this region even as it illuminates the powerful metaphor of the dancing goddesses in the art of dance today. This well-researched book is a major work that is an eminently readable, though primarily scholarly treatment. Though the author focuses her discussion at the level of mythology and folklore, and does not directly address issues of women’s social power and agency, I highly recommend the book (especially Part III) to dance educators who wish to ground their students in the matriarchal, perhaps even feminist, origins of dance. I for one will make the book required reading for Dance Studies courses. The willies should not, after all, be ignored as they were when I was young.ReferencesBarber, E.W. 1995. Women’s Work: The first 20,000 years Women, cloth, and society in early times. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.Diamond, J. 1987. “The Worst Mistake in Human History,” Discover Magazine, May 1, pp. 64-66.Garfinkel, Y. 2010. Dancing at the Dawn of Agriculture. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
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