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The Story of the Elm Dance

There is a circle dance we do in every workshop and class I teach, whether it's on systems theory, Buddhism, or deep ecology. ElmDance2We do it to open our minds to the wider world we live in and strengthen our intention to take part in its healing. Each time we put on the music and link hands, I think of Novozybkov in the fall of 1992.

Our team of four, Fran and I and two Russians, had been traveling from one town to another in Byelorussia and Ukraine, offering workshops to people living in areas contaminated by the Chernobyldisaster. Now we had come to this final town in Novozybkov, an agricultural and light industrial city of 50,000 a hundred miles east of Chernobyl, in the Bryansk region of Russia.

Drawing on what we learned from years of leading despair work, we came to offer, as we put it to the authorities, "psychological tools for coping with the effects of massive, collective trauma." We had entitled the workshops Building a Strong Post-Chernobyl Culture. The name had a nice Soviet ring to it, but I soon realized that the word "post" was in error. "It suggests that the disaster is over," I said to Fran, "but it has become obvious to us that it isn't over. It compounds itself through time in vicious circles, in positive feedback loops." The radioactivity was still spreading silently through wind, water, food, creating new toxins as it mixed with industrial pollution, and sickening bodies already weakened from previous exposures. Our workshops, we soon realized, were meant not to help people recover from a catastrophe, so much as to live with an ongoing one.

It was Harasch who insisted that we come to Novozybkov. A Russian psychologist practicing in Moscow, he had flown to Chernobyl within hours of the accident, to give support to the operators of the doomed reactor. In the six years that followed, he traveled to towns throughout the region to help the survivors, and none had touched his heart more deeply than this city and its fate.

On the train, as we headed East from Minsk toward the Russian border, he pulled out the map and told us the story once more. The burning reactor was a volcano of radioactivity when the winds shifted to the Northeast, carrying the clouds of poisoned smoke in the direction of Moscow. To save the millions in the metropolitan area, a fast decision was taken to seed the clouds and cause them to precipitate. An unusually heavy late April rain, bearing intense concentrations of radioactive iodine, strontium, cesium, and particles of plutonium, drenched the towns and fields and forests of the Bryansk region, just across the Russian border from Chernobyl. The highest Geiger counter readings were measured, as they still are, in and around the agricultural and light-industrial city of Novozybkov. "The people there were not informed of their government's choice, who wants to tell people they're disposable? By now it's common knowledge that the clouds were seeded, but it is rarely mentioned. And that silence, too, is part of the tragedy for the people of Novozybkov."


In a big open room of a school for special education, fifty people of Novozybkov, mostly teachers and parents, women predominating, were seated in a large circle. Carefully, almost formally dressed, they sat upright, eyes riveted on the speaker, and stood up when they spoke, the way their children stand in school when called to recite.

As I explained the nature and purpose of the work we'd come to do, I was glad for Yuri's swift and cogent translations. A young physician and social activist, he had used my books extensively in Moscow, and had his own things to say about how people can overcome feelings of isolation and powerlessness, and reconnect to take charge of their lives. To interpret from Russian to English for me, without delaying things, Fran murmured in my ear. By mid-morning there had been so many words. I was glad for a respite from them, when I put on the tape of the Elm Dance and showed the simple steps. Then we all just joined hands and moved together to the music.

The fifty four of us in the room were too many to dance in one circle, so we formed concentric rings. The movements are easy to learn, and soon the rings were slowly orbiting to the music, and each time we stepped toward the middle, raising our linked hands high, we looked like a giant sunflower, or a many-petaled lotus.

As we danced I wondered what the mayor of Novozybkov would think to see us. Our team had called on him upon our arrival the previous day to explain what we'd come to do. The handsome, heavyset man of about forty listened guardedly. "It is good of you to come to undertake psychological rehabilitation," he said.

That was the term now in vogue: psychological rehabilitation. I was glad that the emotional toll of the disaster was at last acknowledged by the authorities, especially since, in the three years following the accident, doctors were ordered by the Ministry of Health to dismiss its effects. When people insisted that their sickness and exhaustion, their cancers, miscarriages, and deformed babies, had something to do with Chernobyl, they were diagnosed as afflicted with "radiophobia," an irrational fear of radiation. Still the phrase "psychological rehabilitation" irked me; I considered it an affront to the people of Chernobyl. It reduced their suffering to a pathology, as if it were something to be corrected.

How could we convey to the mayor the basic difference in our assumptions? "Mr. Mayor, we do not imagine that we can take away the suffering of your people," I said. "That would be presumptuous on our part. But what we can do it look together at two main ways we respond to collective suffering. The suffering of a people can bring forth from them new strengths and solidarity. Or it can breed isolation and conflict, turning them against each other. There is always a choice."

At that the mayor's demeanor totally changed. Leaning back in his chair, he spread his hands on the table and said, "There is not a single day, nor a single encounter in this office, that does not reveal the anger that stirs just under the surface. Whatever the matter at hand, there is this anger that is barely contained, ready to explode." Then, after a pause, "Tell me if there is anything I can do to support your work here."

It became clear, however, on that first day of the workshop, that these people had little desire to talk about Chernobyl and its ongoing presence in their lives. They referred to it in passing as "the event," and went on to speak of other things. People in less contaminated towns than this had told us in detail of the exhaustion, the chronic infections, the emerging patterns of cancers and birth defects. Now I'd come to the most toxic place of all, to be with these people in their suffering, and they didn't want to talk about it. Even when a married couple took turns leaving in morning and afternoon, they said no word about their little girl in the hospital, to whose bedside they hurried.

The group's silence seemed to say, "This we don't need to talk about. We have to deal with this nightmare all the rest of our time. Here, at last, we can think about something else. We can look together at how we can achieve some sanity and harmony in family life." On that last, they were explicit. They wanted to know how to deal with defiant children, sullen, absent spouses, backbiting neighbors.

Harasch leaned over to me. "It's all the same thing, Chernobyl. On the conscious level, Chernobyl becomes tension and strife in family relations."

Okay, we'll focus on family life. It was lively, as people took partners to enact encounters between parents and children, switching roles, practicing how to listen to each other. This led them to remember their own childhoods—not only the adolescent frustrations that could help them empathize with their own offspring, but the good times, too. They shared reminiscences of harvest seasons with the grandparents, and sleigh parties, and fishing outings to the Dneiper. It all felt so restorative, as if we were partaking together of an excellent and wholesome meal, that Fran structured more exercises where people could remember together the old sources of joy.

Why did this feel so important? "We're strengthening our cultural immune system," I thought to myself, then said aloud. Just as radiation attacks the integrity of the body, so does it assault our society, eroding its sense of wholeness and continuity. To bolster our cultural immune system, we need to remember who we are and the sources of our strength; memories help us do that, don't they?


Evening now, and before disbanding to go home, we are circling once more to the music. It is of guitar and a woman singing. She sings in Latvian in honor of the elm and in hope of its healing, for that tree ails in the Baltics as in my own country. Her words, I'm told, disguise other meanings as well, a call for freedom from Soviet occupation, and for the will to endure and resist. It doesn't matter that we don't know Latvian; it's the lilt of her voice that we dance to, and the haunting melody, stately and filled with yearning.

By now the simple steps are so familiar that some people are dancing with eyes closed. Their faces grow still, as if listening for something almost out of reach. Once they had their own folk dances. When did those old traditions die away, relegated to a useless past? Was it under Lenin, Stalin?


Our hosts, Fran's and mine, live in a fourth-floor apartment in a cement housing block. Covering one wall of their parlor is a beautiful woodland scene: sunlight flickers through birch trees into a grassy glade. In the room crowded with overstuffed furniture, that wallpaper vista provides a refreshing sense of space and natural beauty. I commented on it that evening, as I took tea with Vladimir Ilyich, our host's father and the Novozybkov school superintendent. Sitting there with his ten-year old grandson, he was showing me the large Geiger counter he carries in his car; it shows him where the poison has newly appeared, and where to tell the children not to play.

Following my eyes, Vladimir Ilyich said, "That is where the children may not go, or any of us, for that matter. You see, the trees stay radioactive a long time. Our ancestors were of the forest. During the Nazi occupation, our partisans fought from the forest. Even in the hardest times under Stalin, we went into the woodlands every holiday, every weekend, walking, picnicking, mushrooming. Yes, we were always people of the forest." Quietly he repeated, "people of the forest."

I asked him, "When will you be able to go back into the forest?" With a tired little smile he shrugged. "Not in my lifetime," he said, and looking at his grandson, he added, "and not in his lifetime either." Then he gestured to the wallpaper. "This is our forest now."


It is the second morning of our three days together, and the people entering the school assembly room take each other's hands and, before any words are spoken, move into the Elm Dance. Every fourth measure, between moving right or left, forwards or backwards, we pause for four beats, gently swaying. To my eyes this morning, we could be trees, slender trunks swaying from firm roots, and our arms, as we raise them, look like branches meeting, interlacing. Do we dance for the forests we can no longer enter?

As I circle in step with all the others, I recall the connections that brought me this dance, how it came to me from Hannelore, my friend in Germany, who received it from Anastasia, her German friend, who created it from the Latvian song. The dance is not only for the healing of the elm, said Anastasia to Hannelore to me. It is for intention. It is to strengthen our capacity to choose a purpose, and to follow through on the resolve our hearts have made.

I hear again in my mind Khamtrul Rinpoche?s teaching about the supreme importance of motivation, bodhicitta. I remember Ocean of Wisdom, too, the blazing intention that he embodied, as he walked out smiling into poverty and danger. And I think: this is a bodhisattva dance.


That afternoon the grief broke open.

It happened unexpectedly, at the close of a guided journey in which I invited these people of Novozybkov to connect with their ancestors and harvest their strengths. Standing and moving through the room, as on a vast wheel turning, they moved backwards in time through all preceding generations. Yuri's voice guiding them enriched my words. Then they moved forward through time, retracing their steps in order to gather, for their own present use, the gifts of the ancestors. But on that return trip, when we reached the year of 1986, they balked. They did not want to come any further into the present. They refused to accept the horror of what happened to them then, and that very refusal compelled them to speak of it.

Talk exploded, releasing memories of that unacceptable spring, the searing hot wind from the southwest, the white ash that fell from a clear sky, the children running and playing in it, the drenching rain that followed, the rumors, the fear. Remember how it was? Remember, remember? Our team had laid out paper and colored pencils for people to use to draw the gifts they'd harvested from the ancestors, but now there was one theme only. A number of the drawings featured trees, and a road to the trees, and across the road a barrier, or large X, blocking the way.

When we finally reassembled in the large circle, the good feelings that had grown since the workshop began shattered in anger, directed at me. "Why have you done this to us?" a woman cried out. "What good does it do? I would be willing to feel the sorrow, all the sorrow in the world, if it could save my daughters from cancer. Each time I look at them I wonder if tumors will grow in their little bodies. Can my tears protect them? What good are my tears if they can't?"

Angry, puzzled statements came from others, as well. Our time together had been so good until now, so welcome a respite from what their lives had become; why had I spoiled it?

Listening to them all, I felt deeply chastened and silently blamed myself for my insensitivity. What, now, could I possibly say? To discourse on the value of despair work would be obscene. When I finally broke the silence that followed the long outburst, I was surprised that the words that came were not about them or their suffering under Chernobyl, but about the people of Hannelore and Anastasia.

"I have no wisdom with which to meet your grief. But I can share this with you: After the war which almost destroyed their country, the German people determined that they would do anything to spare their children the suffering they had known. They worked hard to provide them a safe, rich life. They created an economic miracle. They gave their children everything, except for one thing. They did not give them their broken hearts. And their children have never forgiven them."


The next morning, as we took our seats after the Elm Dance, I was relieved to see that all fifty were still there. Behind us, still taped to the walls, hung the drawings of the pervious afternoon, the sketches of the trees and the slashing X's that barred the way to the trees. "It was hard yesterday," I said. "How is it with you now?"

The first to rise was the woman who had expressed the greatest anger, the mother of the two daughters. "I hardly slept. It feels like my heart is breaking open. Maybe it will keep breaking again and again every day, I don't know. But somehow, I can't explain, it feels right. This breaking connects me to everything and everyone, as if we were all branches of the same tree."

Of the others who spoke after her that last morning, the one I recall most clearly was the man I recognized as the father who regularly stepped out to visit his little girl in the hospital. This was the first time he had addressed the whole group, and his bearing was as stolid, his face as expressionless, as ever. "Yes, it was hard yesterday," he said. "Hard to look at the pain, hard to feel it, hard to speak it. But the way it feels today, it is like being clean, for the first time in a long time." Chisti, the word he used for clean, also means uncontaminated.

At my turn, I spoke of the meeting I would attend the following week in Austria, the World Uranium Hearing, where native peoples from around the world would testify to their experiences of nuclear contamination. Navajo and Namibian miners would come, Marshall Islanders, Kazakhs, Western Shoshone downwinders from testing sites, and many others to speak out about the disease and death that follow in the wake of nuclear power and weapons production. I wanted them to know they are not alone in their suffering, but part of a vast web of brothers and sisters who are determined to use their painful experience to help restore the health of our world. "At the hearing, I will speak of you in Novozybkov, and I will tell your story to my own people back home. I promise you."

I made that vow because I loved them now, and especially because I knew they felt forgotten by the outside world, which prefers to think that the disaster of Chernobyl is over. As the years pass since that fateful April of 1986, the catastrophe can be wiped from our consciousness as easily as the bulldozers raze the wooden dwellings of Novozybkov, with their carved painted doors and windows, because, as Vladimir Ilyich said, "wood holds the radioactivity." And now, as their own government proceeds to build more reactors, it can seem to these families that nothing has been learned from all the suffering. And that may be the hardest thing of all.


I have kept the promise I made to my friends in Novozybkov. I spoke of them at the World Uranium Hearing, and then to every group I met. Soon I was sharing their story by sharing the Elm Dance they loved. In Boston and London, Bonn, Vancouver, in Tokyo and Sydney and everywhere else I led workshops, I asked people to imagine they are dancing with the men and women of Novozybkov and that the hands they hold are the hands of Vladimir, Elena, Olga, Igor, Misha. I have wanted them to feel, more strongly than they can through words alone, how their lives are interlaced with the people of Chernobyl.

In the process, the Elm Dance seems to have become a teacher in its own right, with its own momentum. Being a dance of intention, it helps us strengthen our resolve, not only for the well-being of those around Chernobyl, but for wider healings, as well. And the custom has arisen, in the last half of the dance, to call out spontaneously the names of those whose healing we desire, salmon, redwoods, topsoil, the schools, the prisons, Bosnia, the Amazon. Entering the dance then is like entering a sort of neural web in which we can experience our interconnected-ness with all beings. Or it's like a sonic Indra's Net, letting us feel our mutual belonging and how it can sustain us.

We don't need to say this, though. The dance says it for us, as we stop talking and circle up, moving in steps that seem to remember themselves. Afterwards, more copies of the tape are made and taken out to other people, other places, classrooms, churches, meeting halls. Even to beaches, to be boomed out from pick-up trucks.

"They don't arrest us while we're dancing," say our friends in Australia, who have taken the Elm Dance into their direct actions to protect the last stands of old growth forest and block construction of more uranium mines. But they don't dance to delay arrest, so much as to stay connected with each other and steady in their intention, "it helps us remember why we're doing what we're doing." The southwest forests where they camp, and the wet jungle of northern Kakadu, offer no hookups for tape players, and none are needed, for the Latvian melody sings out through their open throats. Under ancient Karri trees, the tallest and most beautiful of the eucalypts, I have seen them stop a bulldozer by encircling it as they dance. And in downtown Sydney, amidst tall office buildings, I danced with them. At a demonstration against their government?s support for the bombing of Iraq, I listened to the earnest, strident speakers at the mike and added my own words, too; but when my friends drifted into the adjoining plaza, put down their placards, and joined hands in the Elm Dance, I saw what happened to the whole event. In the surrounding crowd, as in me, I felt a deepening and quieting of attention. The television cameramen, who had begun drifting away, hurried back, even crawled between us, forty of us by now, to film from below the patterns we made as we circled about and raised our linked hands. So the day's newscasts, between bulletins on the war, announced and showed how "people are dancing for peace."

Aboriginal Australians had something more memorable to say about the Elm Dance. It was when some of our friends from Perth made a pilgrimage to their ancestral lands to protest a proposed uranium mine. As traditional owners of the sites to be excavated, the native elders have been mightily wooed by the mining industry and its colleagues in government. The offers of jobs and money, with promises of more to come, have confused them as to what was best for their people; even the warnings from anti-nuclear activists seemed like so many words. But when the pilgrims from Perth arrived, and the old ones saw them circle up and move into the Elm Dance, they smiled. "You white fellas must know something real, if you dancin'."