As we play together

by Morwen Two Feathers

As we play together, locked in and riding the energy wave created by years of practice, I feel the familiar surge of joy and I know. This is my purpose in this lifetime, my cells sing. My body continues in the well-worn groove shaped by repeated rambles through polyrhythm together with the faces, hands and bodies of my companions. My consciousness zooms up for a bird’s eye view of the circle. Swirling movement surges around the bright glowing center of fire; reflected light glitters from shining costumes and instruments, and sparkles in the eyes of the multitude. The Fire Circle is in full swing. Soon the exuberant rhythm wave will peak, and slow, and a delicious silence will open, welcoming the entry of a chant or personal testimony that will weave us together into another rhythm, another ramp-up to ecstasy. And so it continues through the night, until the rising of the sun.

In the early 1990s, EarthSpirit’s Rites of Spring was the birthplace of a particular form of Fire Circle ritual that has become the inspiration for events and rituals across the U.S. and around the world. As a drummer and one of the midwives of this tradition, I have witnessed both the original formation of its basic elements and many of the reiterations of these in new settings where, like all living cultural traditions, it has changed and taken a myriad of forms. It has been a fascinating journey, observing how different communities and different event organizers interpret what I take as the “basic elements” of the Fire Circle, and how the flavors and purposes of the ritual change from place to place and time to time.

In those early years of the Rites of Spring Fire Circle, the magic was wrought by a small group of individuals who came together around the drum. The insight that rhythm itself is a vehicle to altered consciousness and transformation provided the ritual impetus. This group of drummers became a “well-oiled self-facilitated rhythm machine” around the fire (in the words of Arthur Hull, who witnessed a Fire Circle run by this group in 2000), and over the years took many people on many ecstatic journeys to the heights of the Universe and the depths of themselves.

The passion and joy of these rituals engendered a desire to replicate them, with changes. Individual members of the original group developed idiosyncratic visions of new and different ways to structure the basic ritual, and “hived off” new Fire Circle events. People who participated in Fire Circles took their experiences home and reproduced what they understood as the basic elements, adding and subtracting and creating their own home-grown rituals. Some chose to de-emphasize the drumming and focus on chanting, instrumental music, or art. Some chose to elaborate on the symbolic and ceremonial elements of the ritual, while others stripped the fire circle of structured ritual in favor of “go with the flow” sensibilities and/or invocations to Chaos. Some specialized in bringing together groups of previously unrelated individuals from the “general public” to experience the Fire Circle – a strategy that relies upon either extensive orientation and training, or a small group of performance-oriented ritual leaders, or both.

And over the past ten years as these diverse forms of the Fire Circle proliferated across the U.S. and abroad, some say that the Fire Circle at Rites of Spring has lost some of its magic. In recent years it is not unusual to walk to the Bear Rock fire circle late at night and find a struggling rhythm, a few people working hard to fill the night with song, and a ring of spectators chatting. There have been attempts to address this, with physical changes to the space (and the space is beautiful and lovingly tended), publishing written guidelines, appeals to individuals to show up at the circle early, workshops and discussion groups on drumming or the fire circle itself. But what has been missing is a core group of people drumming and working and playing together all year round, and coming together at Rites of Spring to lead the community on a rhythm journey through the night.

For drummers at the fire circle, it is regular practice that enables a group to read each other’s energy without overt facilitation, to know when (and how) to make space for songs, chants, or spoken word, to know when (and how) to speed up together, to carry the dancers to heights of ecstasy, and when (and how) to slow down, to bring the dancers down gently, and even down to silence. A group of practiced drummers with good communication skills can easily integrate newcomers and beginners, giving them a foundational rhythm to hang their hands on. And when people with a commitment to each other come together to practice this form of community ritual on a regular basis, not only the drummers but the dancers, chanters, healers, and witnesses form a team, working together to bring the entire community along when the Mothership takes off for the ecstatic realm.

I believe that a Fire Circle container strong enough to hold people’s truth, their joy, their pain and anger and rage, their hope, their willingness to walk through the gates of their own growth in witness of each other… is best created and sustained by stable groups of people working the magic together. At Rites of Spring there is a strong and stable community, a solid foundation upon which to build such a container. The nurturing of a drummers’ affinity group at the gathering and all year round would help bring a transformational focus back to the RoS fire circle.

Over the years, traditions that developed around the Rites of Spring fire circle have become codified, a set of tools that can be applied to bring any group of people together around a fire and create a fabulous experience. All over the world, gatherings and festivals are doing just that, in an endless variety of forms elaborating on the basic structure, entertaining and engaging people and inspiring them to create even more fire circle events. Having been to many such events, and in my primary role as a drummer, I can say this: It is possible to create conditions where a random group of drummers can play together well enough to carry a ritual and have a good time. But when groups of drummers work together regularly, learn rhythms together, jam together, and council often to reflect on what works and where they want to go – then real magic happens at the Fire Circle.

(photo by Jimi Two Feathers)

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4 thoughts on “As we play together

  1. As a drummer, I agree with what you're saying. The counterbalance to this concept is for the drummers to not only lead, but to be led as well. It is just as important for a group of drummers, no matter how tight knit and skilled, to read the energy of the group as a whole and act accordingly. To put it simply, the most important skill a drummer can hone is the ability to listen.

  2. Some people like magic of the mind. Some people prefer magic of the heart. The gold for some, is the union of heart and mind, and in embracing the balance of our darkness and light, so we can move through the circle and love all of what we are. And to lead people in ritual, to lead by example in this way, is very challenging.
    This can be especially challenging when a sacred space has built casual expectations over the years.
    I believe we have to be willing to take risks.
    Thanks for sharing your article, it was very informative. It sounds like the drumming isn't the issue though.

  3. The drumming isn't the whole issue, but developing a team of drummers who know how to work together and, yes, listen will go a long way towards a making a powerful ritual experience for everyone, imo.

  4. I would like to add that, even as certain basic elements of the Fire Circle ritual as we know it now were being developed at Rites of Spring (for example, having a smudge gate, having the drummers arrange themselves “orchestra-style” on one side of the fire rather than in a circle around the fire, etc), there were other groups of people in other places developing their own fire circle traditions. In some cases the Rites of Spring group met people from these other places and wonderful synergy ensued. This article was written specifically about Rites of Spring and does not address many other threads of this worldwide Fire Circle web.

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