One night in 1993, Maureen Atkins attended her first Sacred Circle Dance event. As the meditative music began, a roomful of strangers linked hands. First popularized at Scotland's experimental Findhorn Community in the 1970s, Sacred Circle Dance combines classic folk-dance steps from various cultures, choreographed to accompany all kinds of music — from ancient chants to modern songs.
"The minute I got there, I fell in love with this idea that everybody in a community can dance together, and that every dance is taught first, so that no one needs any prior experience," said Atkins, who had spent years dancing her heart out at Grateful Dead concerts. "One of the organizers looked at me and said, 'I can tell you've found something here.' It must have been written all over my face."
Atkins spent the next two years dancing with the Bay Area Circle Dancers in Berkeley, then formed a new group near her San Leandro home. These days, she leads circles at events such as the All Saints Episcopal Church (911 Dowling Blvd., San Leandro) Holiday Concert on Friday, December 10, where local harp/guitar duo Margaret & Kristoph will perform medieval, Renaissance, Celtic, and other carols.
The exuberantly inclusive movement to which she belongs is a bit divided on its own name. While some call it Sacred Circle Dance, some skip the "Sacred."
"Some people don't like 'sacred,' because they think it sounds like a religious cult," Atkins said. Even among those who embrace it, "sacred" means different things to different people. A dance that symbolizes the rising moon to a neopagan might represent, to a Christian, the ascent of Christ. The tripudium — three steps forward, one step back — "was performed by early Christians as they walked the labyrinths." But dancers of any faith — or no faith — "could see it as representing human frailty, where you go forward and falter, then go forward."
At every session, "I weave in contemplative things," she said. "I present dances that offer spiritual paths. If the dancers want to go down those paths, they can. Those who care to chant can chant whichever chant they want — from Shanti, shanti to Om mani padme hum to Gloria in excelsis Deo."
Sacred Circle Dances take place around decorated centerpieces: "If you're feeling shy, it's soothing."
Among the planned festivities at All Saints is a simplified version of the Abbotts Bromley Horn Dance. "I like to do a journey with my dances," Atkins said. "I take it very seriously: setting the tone with the first dance, raising the energy, then lowering it with gentler dances, then journeying back out into the world of coffee and chairs.
"There's a lot of lonely people out there, and human beings need to have contact with other human beings in a place where we can laugh and sing. The holiday season is a trigger time for many people," said Atkins, who is studying to become a psychotherapist. "If they can have one positive experience during this season, that can make all the difference." 7:30 p.m., $10 suggested donation. SaintsAlive.net