Spiral Dance Features
Articles and Interviews about Reclaiming's annual San Francisco Samhain ritual, first celebrated in 1979
Origins of the Spiral Dance - an interview with Starhawk
The Music of the Spiral Dance - Starhawk
The Spiral Dance: A Beginning - by Gede Parma
Spiral Dance Archives - scripts, flyers, music, and more!
An Interview with Starhawk
Origins of the Spiral Dance
2017, as we post this interview, marks the 38th anniversary of the San Francisco Spiral Dance ritual.
The first ritual was organized in 1979 as a book-release event for "The Spiral Dance" by Starhawk.
As part of our "Anniversary Archives" work, RQ talked with Starhawk about what led her to organize the first ritual, and the eventual decision to make it an annual event.
RQ: How did you first come to Witchcraft and the Goddess?
The first time I met witches was when I was reading tarot cards at a Renaissance Faire when I was around 15, in Los Angeles. There was a booth of witches next to us. I didn’t know what they were about, but they were selling herbs and potions and stuff.
When I was at UCLA in 1967, my friend Patty and I did an anthropology project looking into witches, and eventually we met up with these same people. They were from the American Celtic tradition, their names were Fred and Martha. They talked about the Old Religion and the Goddess.
This was the first time I had ever heard of the Goddess in that kind of context. I had never thought of seeing spirit as female. My images of spirit had always been in terms of nature and sexuality. These witches said this was the Old Religion, that nature and sexuality are sacred.
I said, "Wow, that’s what I’ve always believed." And from that time on I was hooked.
RQ: What were your first steps?
We started training with these people, although that didn’t last long. We had a little coven going, but we didn’t really know what we were doing, we were just experimenting.
I was like 17 or 18 at the time. There were a lot of other things going on, and I kind of drifted away from spirituality.
Several years later, in the early 70s, I got involved with a women’s consciousness-raising group, around ’72-73. We met for a number of years, and got very close. A couple of times we got together and did rituals.
But in the feminist movement at that time, there was sort of an anti-spiritual bias – I always thought there was a connection between feminism and spirituality, but it seemed like no one else did.
Then one day I was driving through L.A. and I saw a shop called Feminist Wicca. I immediately stopped and went in. There was Z Budapest. She had a shop and a coven in her Dianic Tradition.
I got very excited, and went to one of her rituals – she was having big rituals, with 75-100 women.
RQ: So this got you started with organizing rituals?
No. Right after that my relationship ended, I dropped out of school, and I left L.A. and went traveling around on a bicycle.
I ended up spending a winter in New York. I went there to be a writer, but New York wasn’t right for me. I decided to come back to the west coast and move to Northern California. This was around ’75. I imagined living in Bolinas and reading fortunes and writing books. But I wound up in San Francisco.
RQ: What were your hopes and dreams at that time?
When I moved here, I wanted to be a writer. I really wanted to write fiction. I’d written some novels that I wasn’t able to get published. An agent I talked with suggested nonfiction was a lot easier to get published.
I started to write about my spiritual quest and what I saw as a new approach to spirituality. Gradually this focused on the Goddess tradition and turned into The Spiral Dance.
So I wanted to write that book and get it published – and I wanted to make a living as a writer.
I didn’t foresee that this would lead to public organizing. I was teaching and reading at psychic fairs as a way to develop material for the book. But I didn’t see myself as an organizer.
In the 60s, I had been politically active. I would show up at demonstrations and get chased around campus by the police. But I didn’t see myself as a leader.
Way back in nursery school, my lowest mark was in leadership quality. I guess I’ve been overcompensating ever since.
I am by nature shy and quiet. If I were naturally outgoing and extroverted, my whole life might have been different.
RQ: Let’s talk about your early involvement in activism. You mentioned Vietnam-era protests, which I remember you wrote about in Walking to Mercury. Where did your connection and commitment to activism come from?
Partly from my family background. My father was an activist and communist in the 1930s. He died when I was five, so I didn’t really know him directly. But I heard stories about him and his activism.
It also came from living in the Bay Area. There has always been a strong activist community in San Francisco. Groups of witches got involved in rituals at Take Back the Night marches, anti-nuclear marches, and other events.
And I had my own sense of connection to the Earth and the Goddess. It seemed to me that this was part of the work of creating liberation for women and men – shifting our perception of the sacred.
RQ: Was this a common view at the time?
No — at the beginning it seemed totally nuts to a lot of people. As I mentioned, a lot of feminists were anti-religion. There were a few people like Z Budapest who were doing feminist Wicca, but it was a very small group who was saying "all this political stuff has a bearing on feminism" — that creating our own rituals and exploring our own spiritual nature can be part of our political work.
RQ: Had you helped organize public rituals prior to the 1979 Spiral Dance?
Not really. I had been to some public rituals of NROOGD (the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn). And I mentioned doing rituals connected to Take Back the Night marches that were politically focused.
The 1979 book-release for The Spiral Dance was the first big public event.
Really, the book release was the excuse for doing a big ritual. It was more like an aesthetic experiment – I had friends, different artists, poets, musicians, and we wanted to create a big spectacle and see what happened.
I was thinking about how to bring together music, dance, art – the way art and music are brought together in other traditions. I said, "Let’s start our own and see where we can take this."
RQ: How did the first Spiral Dance ritual originate?
I had been writing The Spiral Dance pretty much from the time I arrived in San Francisco in 1975, writing early drafts and getting a lot of rejection notices.
I helped start a coven called Compost Coven, women and men. A mixed coven was not unusual at the time. What was unusual was a mixed coven with an explicitly feminist point of view — feminist covens were typically women-only.
During this time we started an all-women’s circle called Raving – that circle, including myself, Kevyn Lutton, Susan Stern, Lauren Liebling, and Diane Baker – this group formed the core of the first Spiral Dance ritual.
When Harper decided to publish The Spiral Dance in 1979, they gave us money for a book party. We decided to use it to organize a ritual. We invited friends who were artists, dancers, poets and more, to create this amazing ritual.
That first ritual was two nights – the first included the media and photographers, the second was more private. It was free, since Harper put up money. It was held at Fort Mason, in a space that no longer exists. The second night, there were 500 people. It was so packed that we turned people away.
RQ: Let’s talk about a few details from the early days. I’ve always wondered about the source of the spiral dance itself — the dance, not the ritual.
To be honest, I don’t know the source. I would guess as a form that it goes way back, although not necessarily as a continuous, unbroken tradition. Many different cultures have versions of it. And the spiral as a symbol goes way back, to cave art.
In 1975, when I moved up to San Francisco, I saw NROOGD do a version of the dance. They had everyone start facing outward. They spiraled out, made one turn, then spiraled in to finish.
At a 1975 Women’s Summer Solstice at one of the rivers in Northern California, other organizers seemed to be dropping out. I felt like if we said we were going to do something, we should make it happen. I have a hard time letting go of that sense of responsibility. Others were laying around saying, "Whatever happens, happens." I was saying, "Let’s make things happen."
One of those things was a spiral dance. At that ritual, I started the dance facing in, and spiraled inward to start. I don’t remember how I knew it. It just seemed right.
RQ: Did you see the Spiral Dance as an ongoing event?
No, we didn’t imagine we would ever do it again. We thought it was a one-time thing we were doing. But we hoped that it might open some other doors. We wanted to push the intersection of ritual and art, push it to an edge and see what came out of it.
At that time there weren’t a lot of people doing public rituals. There was very little that was "out" or public about Wicca. So the big ritual was unusual.
In 1980, Gwydion Pendderwen, who was part of NROOGD, organized a Witches’ Ball. He asked us to do another Spiral Dance ritual in conjunction with the Witches’ Ball. It was not quite as elaborate as the first, but it included the chorus.
In 1981, a lot of us were down at Diablo Canyon (construction site for a nuclear power plant in southern California) most of September. Macha NightMare and others stepped up and organized the ritual, the first at the Women’s Building (a multi-use building in the Mission District of San Francisco), where it was held until the tenth anniversary in 1989.
The Women’s Building was not that large (it held about 300 people when packed), so there was a limit on tickets. People were always pressuring us to get in, that part of the organizing was a living hell.
In 1989 (the tenth anniversary of The Spiral Dance and the first ritual), I wanted to do a ritual for 1000 people...
To Be Continued...
See below for Starhawk on the "Music of the Spiral Dance." Visit Starhawk.org for writings, resources, classes and retreats, etc.
This interview and the next about Reclaiming music conducted in Fall 2009 by George Franklin ©2009 by RQ.
Music from the Spiral Dance ritual
Where did the songs come from - an Interview with Starhawk
While talking with Starhawk about the history of the Spiral Dance (see preceding pages), we asked about the music for the ritual, which has evolved steadily over the years.
RQ: Where did the music for the Spiral Dance come from? Which of the songs on Let It Begin Now are from the first few Samhain rituals?
The "Let It Begin Now" litany, the earliest version, is from the first Spiral Dance. Some of us had gone to a poetry reading by Diane Di Prima, and she read a long poem with the refrain "May It Continue," a very Buddhist feel. That gave me the idea for the refrain "Let It Begin Now."
In the original version, there were four spoken litanies: one for people we knew who had died; one for endangered or extinct species; one for heroes and heroines; and one for victims of violence.
We ended by remembering the witches who had been killed.
The ritual circle would spiral slowly inward to these litanies, and then spiral out to more positive litanies. Of course, it never worked exactly right.
As I recall, we used "The Gates," with music by Bonnie Barnett, and the refrain "What is remembered lives." The spoken litanies were done over this.
It wasn’t until 1989, for the tenth anniversary, that I wrote the Quatrain ("Let it begin with each step we take / Let it begin with each change we make / Let it begin with each chain we break / Let it begin every time we awake"). The song was still changing at that time.
In the mid-80s, we also added the first version of the "Goddess Song." People also wanted a new God song, because they felt "Honor to the Untamed God" didn’t have enough energy.
I went out in the back yard at Black Cat house and asked: "What do you want us to say?" From there I came up with the words, and Michael Charnes added the music. (All of these songs are on the Let It Begin Now CD.)
In the 1990s, Deborah Hamouris wrote a new version of the "Goddess Song" (which incorporates much of the older song — available on Reclaiming’s Witches Brew CD).
RQ: It seems like the early Reclaiming days were a very rich time for pagan chants. Tell us where some of yours came from.
A lot of people were writing new chants and songs at that time. I remember writing "Demeter’s Song (I Am the Wealthy One)" at a time when I was really broke, and singing, "There is no end to my abundance, no end."Ó I wrote it and forgot about it, but someone found the words and liked it. Eventually, we included it in the Spiral Dance.
"Weave and Spin" was written for the multi-cultural ritual in 1992, at the County Fair Building. We had altars to different traditions and ancestors. The idea was that people would take a strip of colored cloth from each of the altars, then weave them into a big basket – "Weave and Spin" was written for that working.
The "strand by strand" descant came from a song some of us wrote at BC (British Columbia) Witchcamp called "Powerful Song," and we noticed it worked with "Weave and Spin" too.
"Weaver, Weaver" is written to the tune of an old lament to Bonnie Prince Charlie. The Chieftans recorded it on an album one year when we were doing SpiralHeart Witchcamp in West Virginia. We were working with different pentacles. For the Pentacle of Death night we needed a song. I loved the music from the Chieftans, so I wrote new words to it.
"We Are the Power in Everyone" is from the Livermore 1982 anti-nuclear protest, held on Summer Solstice. It was also a full moon, so that’s the part about the "dance of the moon and sun."
Visit Starhawk.org for writings, resources, classes and retreats, etc.
The Spiral Dance: A Beginning
by Gede Parma
And so we enter the holy space…that place trembling with the anticipation of Other…that place we of the Wise know so well. Descending by aid of Graces, we are made blessed again – renewed – with each droplet of water infused into our breathing skin. I bow to the sovereignty of that touch, of that embrace by invisible hands that take on silver hues as I walk deeper into that place between.
I bow to each Altar…I bow to the youth, who in their hour of need fell, but will be reborn to Love…I bow to the wounded Yemaya, the Great Black Mother whose blackening by oil has desecrated the light that shines forth from her brilliant sheen evoked forth by the kiss of the Lady Moon…I bow to the other nations – to those of the fur, the feather, the scale and the fin – I pray for their salvation…And I bow to the Directions – the South and the Fire and the Phoenix ushering forth impassioned pleas for life, the West and the Water and the healing rivers that run deep, the North and Earth and the harvest we all gather in. I come last to East and Air, where the Eagle crests the dawning sun.
I sit, not to wait, but to breathe and live in the space; to become acquainted with the holy ground that we shall chant, sing, love, and dance upon. I watch as a sacred circle is traced by the death-walkers as they read the names of our Beloved Dead, those that have passed over the Sunless Sea and alighted upon the Holy Isle of Apples…I hear their sacred litany and can only chant back – What is remembered lives.
Music…a symphony is struck…suddenly a cacophany of child-like shrieks…I listen and I heed the intent. We banish. Widdershins they streak in chaos and the besom becomes the focus for a communal spell of “be gone all that is profane.” Lest we paint the dangerous dichotomy, it must be remembered that what is profane is the thought that profanity is possible. We let go of this human folly and we surrender to the Abyss…which is filled with the Circle!
By the Earth that is Her Body and the Grove that is His Home,
By the Air that is Her Breath and the Wind that is His Song,
By the Fire of Her Bright Spirit and the Heat that is His Passion,
By the Waters of Her Living Womb and the Dew of His Tears,
The Circle is cast.
I relax, and then the chorus begins…heavenly, and yet filled with an intensity unmatched by the calamities of mortality. I yearn to join them – the dancers, as they weave tales of the essences of Life, of the Elements coming together to make the Hidden Quality we long for, yet know intimately is ours. I watch as yellow becomes red becomes blue becomes a forest of nymphs…I rejoice as the Feathered Twins make love held by our silent reverence, as the Goddess is honoured in Her faces as Transgendered, Maiden, Mother, Crone and Activist! I weep as I watch children of manifold families and clans hold heralds of justice, sovereignty, empowerment, and equality. My face becomes streaked in the signs that I am home. I am Reclaiming…
And oh, the Lust in the Air as we breathe in the dark of the moist Earth and the Light of Heaven’s splendour…more tears roll down my coffee-coloured skin – I think of my colouring in that moment, something I take for granted. I cherish the ancestors who gave me this beauty, this skin to keep safe the spirit within. I look around and see shining everywhere. The beauty that surrounds me. I re-member…I am here…I am now.
We whisper and weave stories of our Dead…the Mighty…the Beloved…the Ancestors…and those who have come and will come new-born from the Cauldron of Immortality. The babes are blessed in the name of renewal – for in death there is life.
I stand now. I stand proud and tall, and the rhythms of magick move my pulsating flesh, as I follow a humble voice of priestess, of shifter, of changer, of poet, of Witch, and I am brought from the shores of this world to the Other. I come to the Land of Youth that I know so well, and I smell the red flesh of apples and taste their sweetness on the breeze. I come to the Well and I perceive Blue Flame, only to kneel before the Mother of the World, of Mercy, Healing and Compassion to have her say, Be Free – You are Alive, You are ever your own forgiveness. It rains, the heavens heave and tremble as the cascades of pure water saturate my being…I drink in the depths upturned and I too am shining. The voice leads me back to the Circle of Life…and the Dance that we call Spiral begins.
Let it begin with each step we take,
Let it begin with each change we make,
Let it begin with each chain we break,
And let it begin every time we awake!
Our song of power ebbs and flows as our serpent enlivens itself and uncoils. I pound the Earth with my feet saying “Mother, can you hear me, I am free, and I unshackle you!” I look deeply into the shining pools of soul that dance past me and I swim in succour I have barely tasted until now. I am free and this sacred truth is tearing my skin away in strips. I am blood, bone, muscle, and marrow and I am spirit, soul, mind, and heart…And I am ever a part of the Goddess, the Living Mystery. I love everything and everyone. I am reconciled beyond the need for reconciliation. I am awake! I no longer value perception…I am in my Deep Core. I have found the Grace, and the dance my feet take me on is a dance that can only be woven by the thousandfold feet of the Many who are One.
Release! Breathe in and hum to the Earth – for this year we renew Her. Oh, to be her son, oh to be her lover and her guardian. These relationships are precious beyond understanding. I am relinquished of the sorrow of ignorance, I am simply given into the keeping of the Secret That Bears No Name and is Ever-Revealed. I am looking now, I am listening and as I journey back upon the moon-boat, across the sunless sea, to the shores of this time and place, I can only breathe in Magick.
We unravel and embrace. The drum never stops its pounding, and the blood can only call back in hysteria!
I pause and look inward. I see the mirror and the Goddess has no words, only that look that seems to mean the three words with any semblance of meaning, of truth:
I love you.
Gede Parma is a Witch, initiated priest and teacher of the WildWood Tradition. He weaves threads of Feri, Reclaiming, Stregheria, WildWood, Greek Paganism, British Traditional Witchcraft and ancestral traditions into his personal syncretic and shamanic path.
Samhain Through Children’s Eyes
Maya and Julian, now age 5, have participated in many Reclaiming rituals in San Francisco and the North Bay, including several Spiral Dances. RQ interviewed them following last year’s Samhain ritual.
RQ: How did you like the Spiral Dance?
J: I liked all of it. I liked that they were singing, and I liked that they sang the songs we have on our tape (Let It Begin Now).
M: I liked the spiral.
RQ: Did you like the altars?
M: Just the Water altar.
J: I liked all the altars. The Water altar was my favorite.
M: Mine, too.
RQ: What else can you tell us about the Spiral Dance?
J: I liked that we drove our car in (into the huge building to unload altar supplies). I liked the little secret place where we put our things (behind the South altar).
M: I was a little scared.
RQ: What was scary to you?
M: The people on stilts.
RQ: What invocations did you like?
M: I liked the Fire and Water invocations.
J: I liked that our mom waved a big blue cloth (as part of the Water invocation). I liked the whole Spiral Dance.
— Interview by Ewa
Before the Spiral is Danced
Behind the scenes at the Spiral Dance
by Ariel and Elle
Spiral Dance 2001 was my first experience being a part of the Spiral Dance Cell. I had planned rituals before, as a member of the Marin Ritual Planning Cell. But I had no idea how much more went into the planning and execution of a ritual extravaganza the size of the San Francisco Spiral Dance.
In fact, there were so many opportunities available to me that I was a little overwhelmed by it. I also felt inexperienced, as many people had already been doing this for some years. I wondered what exactly I might have to offer?
In the business world, I do administrative office work, and have highly developed organizational skills. It occurred to me that there might be a use for my skills. One thing led to another, and I was offered the opportunity to take on the job of Volunteer Coordinator. Unbeknownst to me, I had just changed the course of my life, and catapulted myself into the center of Reclaiming’s most intricate ritual.
So, what does the Volunteer Coordinator do, anyway? Well, before I answer that, let me tell you about the 200 to 250 people who work on the Spiral Dance, the ones who make it all happen. Most of these people are volunteers, and many of them offer their time and energies not only on the day of the event, but for months ahead of time as well.
For instance, there are people who spend the entire year gathering and compiling names of people who have died and of babies born during the year. These names are read aloud during the ritual. In this way we fulfill the sacred intention of the ritual to honor our beloved dead as well as newly-born babies, thereby honoring the cycles of all life.
The Spiral Dance choir holds auditions just after Lammas (early August) and starts rehearsing on a weekly basis in early September. Anyone with a desire to sing the traditional and beautiful liturgies of this ritual are invited to join the choir.
People may wish to volunteer as Dragons (the security people for the event), or as Graces (loosely defined as "ushers," although their duties are varied and depend upon whatever needs arise.) Other magical volunteers are Anchors, people who witness the energy of the ritual. Anchors are in a deep trance for about an hour or so at a time. Last year the students from an anchoring class volunteered to anchor in several shifts throughout the evening.
Teams of people create not only the large-scale directional altars but also the additional altars. In 2001, additional altars honored the victims of September 11th, the forests, children, and the fey. In years past, there have also been altars built to honor animals, social activism, and more. A lot of love, time, and creativity go into the construction of these altars and ritual-goers come into the venue early to walk
around and see the altars.
On the day of the ritual, the unsung heroes are the set-up and the break-down volunteers. Work begins at 8:00 a.m. the day of the event and doesn’t end until sometime in the wee hours the following morning. These are the people who put together the stage and risers and all the other physical details that provide the foundation for everything else that follows. Other people decorate the house by hanging layers of veils off the ceiling, or masks and artwork on the walls. The break-down volunteers are a patient bunch who are willing to stay after the ritual to tear everything down, and then clean up and leave the space just like we found it.
A couple of volunteers also come in and set up a children’s area, out of harm’s way, where kids can play with toys or nap. Mid-afternoon there is a run-through of the ritual so everyone involved can coordinate their parts, especially with the sound and lighting crew.
The invocations to the elements, goddess, god, ancestors, fey, etc, require that groups of priests and priestesses coalesce, often months in advance, to work on a common vision, discuss logistics, and practice. There needs to be a house manager who oversees everything that goes on and people to sell and tear tickets at the door. And not incidentally, there are volunteers who coordinate tickets sales a few months in advance at local bookstores and magical supply shops. Also, a few media savvy volunteers publicize the event as widely as possible in print and radio. People are also needed to take fliers and hang them up all around the Bay Area. And there is a usually a wonderful group of people who come in and feed all the volunteers during the late afternoon.
There are individual coordinators in charge of each one of these tasks, and specific numbers of people required to do each job. The Volunteer Coordinator’s job is to work with each of these people, making sure that they all jobs are staffed. This involves a combination of phone calls and emails, taking contact information from people who respond to either the website or a voicemail phone number, and matching people to tasks.
As it gets closer to the event itself, the job also entails active recruiting to ensure that all the coordinators have enough people to perform all the miscellaneous jobs.
Who holds all the pieces together? The dedicated group of Spiral Dance Cell members, who commit months to the creative process of making it happen. Every detail is submitted to consensus process, and cell members take on the various responsibilities. The Spiral Dance cell is open by invitation, and members of the community who are interested in joining are encouraged to speak to a current cell member.
By the time someone with strong lungs blows the conch shell to signal the start of the ritual, with the altars beautifully lit around us, we are ready once again to do the important magic of honoring our dead during this time of the year when the veil is thinnest.
Spiral Dance Replaced by New Broadway Musical
"My Faerie Lady" opens at Samhain
In a move aimed at revitalizing its annual Samhain blockbuster, Reclaiming has replaced this year’s Spiral Dance ritual with a new Broadway musical.
"My Faerie Lady" features a dozen original compositions by the renowned songwriting team of Bacchus and Apollostein, including sure-fire hits such as "I Could Have Tranced All Night" and "Get Me to the Grove on Time."
The musical involves a Reclaiming teacher who wagers that she can take a lowly Witchcamper and transform her into a High Priestess in time for Winter Solstice. Naturally, the two fall in love, and in a tragic twist are thrown out of Reclaiming for having an illicit teacher/student affair. Just when all seems lost, the Faerie Queen reveals that the lowly Witchcamper was in fact the Teacher's initiatrix in a prior lifetime, so the ethical transgressions cancel out, and all live happily ever after.
From the Revolutionary Pagan Workers Vanguard - visit ReclaimingQuarterly.org/web/rpwv
Spiral Dance Archives & More
Spiral Dance Archives - scripts, flyers, music, and more!