32nd Annual Spiral Dance

November 1, 2011 in Events, Pagan Groups, Politics by gregharder

On Saturday, October 29th the Reclaiming Collective put on the 32nd. annual Spiral Dance.  It is and has been one of the largest public Samhain rituals in the country – regularly attracting over 1000 people in attendance.  The ritual is complex and involved  with a complete musical score, a band, a chorus, and many dancers and ritualists. Well over 100 participants are part of the performance each year.  It is a monumental effort to put on such an event year after year. Reclaiming has done this well now 32 times.  Another big part of the Spiral Dance are the many community altars which are always provocative and inspiring. The proceeds from this ritual fund most of Reclaiming’s community work for the rest of the year.

Each Spiral Dance is a complex and time consuming endeavor.  Planning for the next year’s Spiral Dance begins almost immediately after the previous ritual is over.  There are many community meetings and rehearsals through out the year that make each performance happen.  It takes more than a “village.” I would say that it takes a city to do this. With that introduction let me give my personal thoughts on this year’s performance.  I felt that the overall tone of the ritual was a bit more somber than in years past.  Starhawk gave two presentations, and in each her tone was serious.  She talked about the Occupy movement and the difficult times people are facing. Then later she discussed  the controversy involved in invoking the Fey.  They can be tricksters that can cause disruption and havoc. She stated that we may need a bit of this to shake up the status quo.There are always somber parts of the ritual such as reading the long list of each year’s dead.  Other parts have a celebratory almost carnival atmosphere.  This year the celebration seemed toned down.  In previous years there have been aerialists and trapeze performers, extremely elaborate costumes, and elemental invocations involving 50 people or more.  This year there seemed to be less of all of that.  Some of the invocation performances were very well done such as this year’s invocation of mothers and babies. Others had fewer participants and were not quite as well conceived. 

The chorus sang a new upbeat version of the “Isis, Astarte. Diana, Hecate…” song, but they were in the bleachers  in the dark at the back of the room, and all the lighting was on the circle in the center without much going on there.  People were looking around to try and see the musicians.  I think it would have been better to bring the chorus out to the center to sing the new song.  I am aware that could be an additional audio tech problem, but it would have been worth it.

The Spiral Dance has always been an edgy ritual involving controversial themes, nudity, cross dressing and provocative costuming.  This years performance had no nudity that I saw, and seemed to be rated PG in its presentation.  I miss the old “Pagan in your face” attitude of previous year’s performances.  Community participation was also somewhat muted. In past years it seemed that the Spiral Dance was a good reason for everyone to dress in costume, paint faces and bodies, and be obviously Pagan for the night.  This year as I went around the room I saw mostly dark colored street clothing on attendees.  I hope that this is not a trend that will continue. The Spiral Dance is a participatory ritual in which everyone plays an important part. If people are going to come and just watch some of that community magic goes away.

The community altars were interesting and provocative as always, but I found that I missed the themes of previous years alters as well.  First, there was no alter to the military dead as there has been for the past few years.  I know that Reclaiming is a peace oriented group that opposes US policy, but not remembering the thousands of young people killed is an omission that is troubling. There were fewer ethnic altars such as a “Dia de los Muertos” altar, or an African themed alter, or Native American themed presentation.  All of these things have been well done in the past but were missing this year. 

Some of the alter presentations I am not sure what the creators were trying to say.  There was no written program handed out this year, and some alters had no titles.  One alter had a group of knives and swords stuck in it with a violin and a musical score on display.  Was this about music and aggression?  I am not quite sure.  The North altar is always the largest and most elaborate.  The late Judy Foster of Reclaiming and NROOGD, and Beki Filipello of NROOGD always worked on this altar in the past.  When they were alive they made sure the altar had many photos and personal items from  members of the community who passed.  The whole purpose was to present pictures and displays of the people we have lost – “what is remembered lives.”  I saw one picture of Judy, none of Beki, and very few others.  People in the community should step up and honor those of us who have passed better than this.  We should all bring pictures and stories to help revive this tradition of the North alter in the future.A good example of how this should be done was this year’s alter to the memory of Beth Saunders Stanford  - a founding member of Reclaiming who died in Feburary. It was very well conceived, and I believe her son and husband put it  together with the help of  M. Macha NightMare.I would have thought there would have been an alter on the subject of Permaculture.  This is and has been one of Starhawk’s most important causes to which she is dedicated, yet there was no presentation of this at all.  The only nature or food related theme that I observed was excellent altar dedicated to bees.I hope that some of the trendsseen in this years ritual were just aberations, and do not reflect a loosing of intrest in Pagan consiousness and creative expression.  Because the Spiral Dance is such a large community event,  it  can reflects the pulse, so to speak, of the overall community. I hope that that pulse is not skipping a beat.   Samhain is a timeof looking to the future and new beginnings.  Let us see ourselves as re-energised and working to build a stronger and inclusive Pagan culture.  As they say in the Spiral Dance – “Let it begin now!”To see more photos of Spiral Dance 2011 - please go to my flickr page.

Greg Harder for PNC Bay Area