I will be teaching two sections of “Ancient Circle Dances” witNordic Danceh Carol Sersland at this year’s Nisswastämmen, a long running and large gathering of Nordic folk musicians and dancers in Northern Minnesota. The following is my personal work and research into the Ancient Circle Dances a part of my Nordic Roots Dance and Movement curriculum.

Ancient Circle Dance

Kari Tauring – 2014

“Dance is a feature of every significant occasion and event
crucial to tribal existence as part of ritual. The first thing to emphasize is that
early dance exists as a ritual element.
It does not stand alone as a separate activity or profession.”

Joan Cass, Dancing Through History, 1993

Dance is the movement of the spirit through the body. Culturally specific dances are a movement of cultural spirit through the body and a way to preserve and share that culture. Ballad dance combines story, song, language and movement, a complete spiritual cultural expression.

I have been studying the runes, the most ancient alphabetic symbols of Scandinavian cultural heritage, the Elder Futhark (circa 100 ACE), since 1989. Many of these symbols can be made with the body, some require two persons to create, and some require a “birds eye view” to recognize in folk dance forms. The two symbols that create all runes, < and 1, are runes in themselves, Ken and Isa respectively. They can be seen in ski tracks and textiles, on petroglyphs and cave sculpture, and within the branches of any tree. In the later Viking era (circa 750 – 950 ACE), the 24 rune symbols were consolidated into 16 runes, the Younger Futhark, which can call be made by one person.

When I began studying Nordic dance in 2006 with David Kaminsky, it became apparent to me that rune symbols are embedded in the the dance forms and their meanings are carried through the dance figures and music. A 2011 Folk Art Grant allowed me to study this connection with the help of Telemark tradition bearer, Carol Sersland. In my quest to find the most ancient dances within my Norwegian heritage, I made a visit to the RFF Center (Rådet for folkemusikk og folkedans) at the University in Trondheim (2011). I spoke with head of the dance department Siri Mæland and professional dancer and choreographer, Mads Bøhle as well as Ivar Mogestad, head of the music department and video archive director. We discussed the possibilities of what might have been original to Norway as the most ancient forms of dance.

The environment for dance

In “modern” folk dance performance, the dance floor itself plays a significant role, how the floor springs under foot. Foot ware, dress, and dance space all inform the possible expression of dance, along with the music.

Viking age foot ware, dress and dance spaces would have informed a very different type of dance movement potential. Turning dances such as in pols and springar would have been impossible given the constraints of the floor and the cumbersome dress. This pre-fiddle era would have counted on vocalized music, willow flute, bone flute, mouth harp, and possibly string harp and bag pipe.

The purpose for dance

Sacred Movement There is evidence of pantomime play and procession with masks from the Viking era and possibly earlier, and such “dances” are preserved in mummers plays and ritual enactments. The type of music making available in this era lends itself to stately processions or group circle dances such as those preserved in the Faroe Islands. Komme Alle (Tauring 2003) is an example of a ritual invocation rune chant developed into Runedans by Carol Sersland (2011). Participants create runes with their bodies as they sing/chant them, bringing the participants together in a closed circle to create a chain of the rune Mannaz, meaning community.

Ritual dance – Mads Bøhle offered me an article by dance scholar and performer Martin Myhr about the oldest known ritual dance in Norway. “Bjønndansen- Ein Rituell Dans I Trysil” (The Bear Dance, a ritual dance in Trysil) was part of a larger bear hunting ceremony. The song is in pols rhythm, the dance figures resemble Hallingdans moves, and the performance concludes with ritual drink and a sharing of the bear meat in the community. The theme of the dance is to show power and athleticism. Dancers receive power from the bear carcass in the center of the circle and honor the bear through their displays. This tune and dance form has been found elsewhere in Norway relating to Reindeer hunt. Ivar Mogestad who is in charge of the video/film resources at the RFF center showed me several old films, one of this ritual dance and a raven dance from the Sami area.

Charms – An example of part ritual, part game, part chant, part song, part mimicry and part dance is the charm. Charms have a purpose (to protect, purify, or attract luck/love etc). The poetry of the charm is often very specific, using word and number magic such as alliteration, kennings, counting and sometimes repeated runes.

Bronze Age dance (Circa 2000 – 750 BCE) – I discussed string skirts (they had not heard of this, though there are examples in the museums) and women’s athletic and ceremonial dance as depicted in figurines and on petroglyphs. Mads Bøhle talked about his work tying Hallingdans to Bronze Age Petroglyphs. The moves painted on the stones are still done today. The addition of a women’s sacred dance aspect was exciting to him as outreach to women within the Hallingdans community, giving this “traditionally” male dance an ancient root for women.

Couples dance – We shared the idea that couples dance such as springar and pols are very recent in the context of human historical dancing, though there may be precedence for it in wedding rituals depicted in Viking art. Strict gender roles developed within paired dances that are now being questioned in modern times (as with Hallingdans). Modern Swedish and Norwegian dance pedagogy now use the terms “leader and follower” (“impulse and balance” via David Kaminsky in 2006) rather than “boy and girl.” Both couple parts are taught to all genders. This is having an interesting affect on pols/polska which has generally been a highly sexualized dance.

Couples dances for professional performance and competition has, in Mæland’s opinion, diminished the intention of these dances in a folk setting. Moves have lost their “laus og ledig” (loose and free) style and have become crisp, formulaic and in her words “un-inventive.” Stringent rules for dance in competition do not allow dancers to make choices on impulse or invent new figures.

Norwegian Songdans has its origins in Norway’s National Romantic Period (circa 1860 – 1910). Klara Semb and Hulda Garborg combed the countryside looking for folk songs and dances which could be called quintessentially Norwegian. They reconstructed, or as Arna Rennan put it “cleaned up,” the country dances to represent Norwegian culture to the intellectual elite in Oslo and on the continent. They choreographed group dances to the folk songs and began presenting them in a theatrical setting. Songdans is considered by scholars to be an intentionally created “tradition” and is often excluded from the definition of traditional folk dance in Norway.

They were, however, seriously interested in the question, “What came before?” The occupation of Norway by the Danes (referred to as the “400 year night” by Norwegians, including Mæland) is a sort of Dark Ages of Norwegian identity. Norway was, in Rennan’s words, “basically an under-developed colony of Denmark.” As the country was gaining independence, Semb, Garborg, and their contemporaries were actively defining what it meant to be authentically Norwegian. The two women visited the Faroe Islands where community circle dances were, and are still, being done in community halls and social settings. It has been speculated that these dances and the ballads sung for their performance date to at least the Middle Ages if not the Viking Era. Some of these ballads became part of the new tradition of Songdans.

Faeroese Stordance (Big Dance) is part of the living tradition of Nordic dance (as opposed to Songdance). The RFF Center had an extensive collection of films showing three basic variants of Stordans.

Vanl I gurWorked in Four Count – this is the most common or “ordinary” of the dances with two steps right, one step left (ie. Kråkvisa)

Gamla ketachain dances or dancing games in a ring with two figures, Kristian Blak, 1996 (ie. Jeg gikk meg over sjø og land called songleik in Norwegian. I learned the Icelandic form in 2005 from Ken Sherman, Icelandic born Fiddle player with my earlier music groups).

Sandoyar Dance – walking then couples turn (ie. Hans og Hånån – from Semb)

Svikt, Tyngde and Kraft – Weight, Wave and Power – These three terms summarize Nordic movement whether it be dancing, skiing, or walking. Mæland stressed that tyngde is the most important part of community dances. It is the “binding” term, how we wave together as a group. According to Mæland, learning the waves in the body and hands is the key and what happens with the feet is less important.

Singing together for these dances creates further “binding” as we share stories (history) and language, sound vibration and breath. This leads to a new level of organic tyngde that creates a heightened sense of unity and wholeness felt by the entire community. The result is community kraft (spiritual power).

Ancient/Modern Concepts: Stav, Giving and Receiving, Binding Runes

I offer these three terms as primary elements of Ancient Circle Dance in a Scandinavian cultural context. First is the concept of spine as stav, or staff. This staff represents the world tree. The three roots of the world tree create a “three-legged stool” in the body with one root coming from the left foot, one from the right, and one down the spine and out the perineum. These roots allow the stav to remain “plumb” to the earth and are essential for keeping one’s balance. Svikt can only be achieved if the spine is stav. The rune of stav is Isa, the straight line, ice, as an icicle hangs from the eaves so we hang from the heavens into the earth.

Svikt is the absorption of the body’s weight into the Earth (or floor board). It is the giving of energy to the earth and the receiving of the tyngde or wave of earth energy that creates kraft (power) within the dance. It is the motion of the icicle dropping from the eaves and plunging into the snow bank sending circles of energy waving through the snow. The rune for giving and receiving in balance is Gifu, the x rune.

Binding runes occur when two or more bodies join together in the dance, creating a rune that would not be achievable with one body alone. Examples of this are Manaz (the rune meaning community made when two people stand side by side with arms around one another’s waist) and Ingwaz (the rune of fertility made while turning). Jera (the rune for harvest) is seen from above in a chain dance, mimicking the shape of the rune with clasping arms and the motion of the rune by the movement of bodies opposing circle.

In Vanl I Gur, participants hold the left palm up in a receiving motion and the right palm down in a giving motion. This coincides with the natural electrical current of the body. Hands are clasped together in a circle and thumbs cross one another creating small Gifu, x shapes, reinforcing the giving and receiving circuit. Dancers arms are tucked into one another, almost cradled. The motion is a slow sun-wise circle with two steps left and one step right.

Songs and Dances we will learn:

Komme Alle (Runes in the Body)

Kråkvisa (Vanl i gur)

Villeman og Magnhild (Sersland choreography)

Hyi Hyi (Finnish charm with dance play choreographed by Kari Tauring)


Bakka, Egil, Bøhle, Mads and Mæland, Siri. – conversations with the author 2011

Cass, Joan. Dancing Through History. Prentice Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1993

Kaminsky, David. Gender and Sexuality in the Polska: Swedish Couple Dancing and theChallenge of Egalitarian Flirtation, Ethnomuciology Forum, August 2011

Peck, Jane. Ancient Dances of Brittany, workshop and conversations with the author 2013.

Rennan, Arna. – Norwegian Romanticism. Talk at Mindekirke Tuesday Open House Series, 2013.

Sersland, Carol. – conversations and experimentations 2010 – 2014

Sorensen, Allisa. Dance in the Northern Tradition. http://www.friggasweb.org/dancetxt.html 1998

Tauring, Kari. Volva Stav Manual (runes in the body) 2010

Tauring, Kari. Nordic Movement. http://karitauring.com/nordicrootsdance


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