Anna Barton was a phenomenon, if that does not make her sound too outlandish. She was, like Eileen Caddy, a humble person. In many ways very ordinary and yet it was Anna who was chosen to spread Sacred Dance around the world in a way that no-one else was given that task. Many have followed but she was the pioneer who, working at Findhorn, shared with people all over the world the wonderful gift that her teacher Bernhard Wosien had shared with the community. From these encounters, whether in Experience week or the longer workshops the invitations began to come for Anna to travel abroad and teach the dances in distant countries. To allow herself to do this she had to leave the Findhorn Foundation and strike out on her own.
I want to share here some of the unique teaching skills that Anna shared with us. For Anna the dance was something to be shared. It was not a thing to do alone, but in lines or in a circle, or in couples to share with something more than ourselves a celebration of life. To do this she incorporated the attunement which was commonly used at Findhorn. We would stand as a group holding hands in a circle while Anna spoke some suitable words, often invoking the muse of the dance Terpsichore and acknowledging the vertical axis and the horizontal axis, linking us to Heaven and Earth and to each other. She would invite us to leave all our problems and worries, our baggage, at the door, knowing we could pick it up later if we chose to do so, and in this way she would bring us into the present.
Having established group unity Anna would invite each of us to say our names, another Findhorn convention, if it was the first time a group had been together. She made a habit of learning the names of everyone in the circle. She knew from personal experience what it was like to be overlooked and used this simple exercise to help others affirm their presence in the group. Often during the morning and first dances she would return to this and ask us to repeat our names – at least twice during a first encounter. Depending on the circumstances and time available she might invite each person to choose an angel to dance with them. As this was a lengthy process it would only be used in the longer workshops, but if people already had angels as, for example, in Experience week, then she might ask them to repeat the angel name, or to say which country they had come from, or which programme they were attending. Sometimes an attunement would include a simple check in, particularly towards the middle of the week in a longer course, making sure that everyone felt held and secure.
Having created a sense of group unity Anna might briefly tell of the history of Sacred Dance and mention Bernhard’s role in bringing it to us. Her own teaching method was quite different from that of Bernhard. She would introduce a simple dance ‘to get us moving’ usually, at the time I was with her, starting with the Kos, a dance in ¾ time which consists of the simplest steps, in with left, together and bounce, and bounce again; out right, bounce bounce, side right bounce bounce. With the arms held loosely folded over the chest (right over left) as we moved in and out the motion of the arms worked on the heart to open the heart, while allowing us to feel securely held behind the crossed arms.
Anna would often follow the order of the tape called Sacred Dance 1979 which begins with the Kos, Nebesko, a child’s dance from Yugoslavia, Tai Tai, a children’s dance from Greece and the King of the Fairies, a most popular dance choreographed by Bernhard Wosien.
Since the Nebesko kolo is a very simple dance moving to the side and back and then simply changing feet pointing to the centre, it would not require a lot of teaching. But the pure simplicity of the dance would allow those new to dance to pick up the steps quickly and to loosen up the body as they jumped back and forth changing steps in the pointing.
The Tai Tai was a different story however as it is in the ‘daktylos’ rhythm, long, short, shorter, 7/8, so familiar to many Greek dances. Anna explained how it reflected the joints of the fingers and was not a regular long short short, but that the last one was shorter still. Sometimes she would walk the rhythm into the group without looking at the pattern of the steps, just the rhythm long short shorter until she was happy that the dancers could feel the rhythm. It then became much easier to teach the pattern while maintaining that rhythm.
Anna would teach through using different ways of describing the steps. Sometimes she would describe the placement of the feet, Side Right, lift left, forward left, and so on. Usually prefacing with the direction in which the dance was moving – in the line of dance, facing right, moving forwards begin Right left right, Left right left. She would then use a different technique using the length of the steps, long, short short, and so on, or slow quick quick. At other times she would count the steps, 1,23, 4,5 6 7. In this way she gave dancers a chance to learn in a way that was easiest for them to pick up the rhythm and pattern of the steps.
At the same time she would demonstrate the steps so the dancers could see the pattern inaction and allow the words to support the visual impression. Anna always said ‘The body has its own memory’.
When those across the circle would mirror her movement she would gently remind them that they must not get the mirror of her movements but might check the people beside them as they move left while their neighbours all moved right.
If a pattern was particularly difficult for some she would either change her place to stand beside them, carefully choosing to stand right or left according to the main direction the dance was moving in, or she would send one of her experienced dancers to do this. In this way she maintained the interest of the group and the wholeness of the circle. It is often the case that where one person stumbles they create confusion in a neighbour and suddenly there is a block in the energy flowing through the circle as two people now stumble over steps becoming more and more self-conscious all the time.
It was not something that Anna spoke about but the circle has a single mindset, a whole energy, which pervades us all and contains us all. If dancers become self-conscious they begin to become noisy in their thoughts and disturb the calm waters of the lake wherein we all are swimming. In the main Anna would keep the chatter to a minimum during the dances but allow laughter and comments when the dance had ended. This tended to stop a common practice of one dancer trying to teach another having difficulties by telling them what to do. While the competent dancer may be familiar with the steps they do not realise that by speaking to the dancer having problems they are detracting from the focus of the group – the whole of the circle – and form a second point of attention for the focus of the stumbling dancer increasing embarrassment and frustration while detracting from awareness. Now the dancer has to deal with what the teacher is saying, what they understand and are trying to apply to their bodies, and what a third person beside them is saying. This is all too much for anyone. It breaks the circle and creates self-consciousness. Many times being placed in such a position a dancer will give up. Anna would not allow that to happen but would encourage the interfering member to allow the dancer beside them to find their feet.
This was important to Anna, that we draw the dance down to the very feet of the body, by-passing the mind. It was in this circumstance she would remind us that ‘the body has its own memory’. Many of the blocks that life has put upon us are held in the body and it is through dance that these can be broken out of us again, without the need to confront the circumstance where that injury occurred for us. In this way it is very different from psycho-analysis which seeks to discover the origin of a pattern of behaviour or thought and through identifying it to eradicate it. In some cases this only serves to amplify the incident out of all proportion. Through dance we need not even acknowledge a block in the body but unconsciously break it through stepping sideways in a grapevine, or moving in an unaccustomed manner.
A further point with Anna’s teaching was that she would start and stop several times in teaching a dance, before going to the music. In this way people had the chance to learn the steps again before actually having to try and keep up with the music. It was in these circumstances she would present the dance in a different way. Often people not experienced in the healing quality of the dances say ‘let’s put the music on, it is always easier with music.’ I have never found this to be the case. It is often useful to hear a snippet of the music before learning the dance, but never to try to dance before the steps have been learned.
By generating a ‘high’ energy in the group before coming to the meditation dance to close Anna would lead people into a state of release and exuberance that allowed them then to go deeper in the meditation than otherwise. This was done though a carefully chosen program of dances, balanced between higher energy dances, couples dances and more introspective dances. Couples dances are important to incorporate as they bring an intimacy to the dance that does not appear in the circle. I find they are much under-rated by many teachers who focus upon precise positioning of the foot or hand, rather than upon the inner life of the dance which is carried in the pattern of the steps more than the exact height above the ground.
This inner life is held by maintaining inner silence so that the group can move into the pool of communal awareness, and by maintaining hand holding after the end of the dance. Too often groups will complete a dance and drop hands as if they wanted to throw their neighbours hand away from themselves. It spoils the energy and awareness of the energy. Of course sometimes a partner has held one’s hand tightly and it is necessary to release the hand to restore the comfort in one’s own hand, but there is no reason not to take the partner’s hand again having let go of the frozen energy inherited from them. Besides this it is also easy during the dance to break the clasp of another through subtle movement of the fingers or thumb. Many squeeze the hand of their partners, not realising they are doing so. They are so nervous inwardly they are not aware of their hands, let alone their feet. They feel insecure and this causes them to clutch at the partner. For this reason always ensure the group is comfortable. It is possible to watch the ease of the group without necessarily being obvious about this. If one can see a blockage somewhere then release that either through stopping the dance, and starting the teaching again, to see if this helps the lame one find their place, or by placing oneself or another beside them or otherwise interrupt their tortured mental struggle. If one has not ever suffered from such a struggle it is perhaps hard to know what it is like for another who is conquering their inner demons and wrestling to overcome a pattern that has been with them since childhood. Anna was aware of these things and helped us to become aware of them also.
Ending with a meditation dance often members of the group were brought to tears through the transformative effect of dancing. For many years in some cases they were told they could not do these things, and suddenly they found that they could and were able to cast off the weight of judgement others had put on them. Anna was not judgemental. She was nurturing and supportive, ever aware of the needs of the group and of the individuals that made up that group. She remained ever grateful for this gift and it was this gratitude she offered to the Divine Presence.
At one time in the early days she chose the angels of Healing and Wholeness as the qualities to overlight her dancing. It was ever so. I came to her one morning and said to her, quite innocently, ‘You haven’t got a middle name have you?’ She burst into tears. When she had recovered herself she said ‘I have chosen one myself this morning. It is Grace’. Graceful and beautiful she indeed was. We will always be thankful to her for giving so much of herself for us all.