In this article, I have attempted to unearth some of the dancing legends surrounding the stone circles on Dartmoor and contrast them with the modern, by exploring how some contemporary choreographers are using Dartmoor for their inspiration. This is not about the history of how those stone circles came to be built.
There are several recorded legends, concerning stones that appear to dance, attached to some of the granite stone circles on Dartmoor. Some of the circles to be found on the moors are the remains of ancient huts. It is not these which concern us here. Those with dancing legends attached to them are said by Crossing (1909), to be ‘sepulchral’ (p403), whereas Leger-Gordon (1965) calls them ‘sacred’ circles ‘to distinguish them from the retaining type and those of hut and pound’ (p65). She says these sacred circles give us no real clues to suggest their original purpose, although some archaeologists have connected them with pagan sun worship. She thinks they most probably served several functions, namely: religious practices, ‘cremations, tribal meetings, rough courts of justice … and ritual festivities’ (ibid). In the latter category she includes ring dances. Thurlow (1993) applies the term ‘sanctuary’ circles, to distinguish them from those built for dwellings, and also makes the assumption they had ‘some religious, or other ceremonial significance – there is evidence that fires were lit within them.’ (p113). Baring-Gould (1900) confirms the areas within some of the stone circles that have been excavated show evidence of fires having been lit within them, as the remains of charcoal have been found. He posits the theory that local tribes may have danced around these fires as part of their preparations for war. Worth (1953) on the other hand, although acknowledging the evidence of fires within the stone circles, is adamant there is ‘no evidence as to the purpose of those fires’ (p248).
So we see stone circles being associated with dance from their very beginnings. With this in mind it is easy to understand how, over time, dancing legends became attached to these stones especially considering the nature of Dartmoor: the isolation and adverse weather conditions, and how the imagination fuelled by stories of pixies, hairy hands, black hounds and more, all swirled around (just like the Dartmoor mists), in the heads of locals and travellers alike; mixing with some snippets of past events to create a folk history that has survived the test of time.
Leger-Gordon maintains that wherever these circles appear, be it Dartmoor, Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, Ireland or Brittany – in other words the Celtic strongholds – we find similar legends surrounding them: young women being turned into stone for dancing on the Sabbath. Those stones are then said to dance at certain times of the year, very often at midday on May Day. Leger-Gordon makes an interesting point about a possible misinterpretation of the word ‘Sabbath’ which I think is worth noting. She cites Murray (1921) as describing the witch covens of medieval England using local landmarks as meeting places. As witchcraft was banned, these meeting places would have been in a secluded spot and what better place than an ancient stone circle on an isolated patch of moorland? They may well have felt a connection with the ancient people who originally used them. Of the four annual witch festivals, one was Beltane – now May Day, and the misinterpretation Leger-Gordon mentions surrounds these festivals being called sabbats. Therefore she suggests the legends surrounding these stone circles originate in medieval witches dancing their ritualistic dances at a sabbat on May Day; not on the Sabbath. She explains the etymology of the word as deriving from s’esbattre an old French word that means ‘to frolic’. Considering the legendary ‘ “Sabbath” breaking dancers are almost always feminine’ (p68), it would add more fuel to the argument that they were witches.
The Nine Maidens on Belstone Common (614 928), seem to be the most recorded of these sacred circles. Crossing (1909), along with many others who have recorded this circle, tells us these Maidens actually number seventeen and are apparently also referred to as the Seventeen Brothers, although he gives no explanation for a masculine legend. The story he tells is that the stones ‘were once creatures of flesh and blood – a band of merry maidens, who met here to dance upon a Sunday. For this wicked act they were turned into stone, and are compelled to dance every day at noon’ (p223).
Baring-Gould adds another snippet of information about stone circle legends in general: ‘A tradition or fancy relative to more than one of these circles is that the stones represent maidens who insisted on dancing on a Sunday, and were, for their profanity, turned into stone when the church bells rang for divine service. It is further said that on May Day or Midsummer Day they dance in a ring’ (p59).
Torr (1921) puts a more salacious slant on the Nine Maidens legend. He maintains nine maidens went to Belstone on the Beltane and danced around naked, at noon. For their sins they were turned into granite pillars and ‘Every day at noon they try to dance, and some days they go dancing round.’ (p35). Both he and Leger-Gordon offer the more scientific explanation of heat haze on a hot summers day creating the effect of movement.
Christine Franklin, in her fictional book ‘The Dancing Stones’ (1984), set on nineteenth century Dartmoor, tells of a woman who, returning to her birthplace after a life in the theatre, discovers her stepmother has had a traumatic experience at The Dancing Stones. They are described as nine, ‘irregular granite menhirs of varying shapes and dimensions’ (p17). There then follows a story of folklore which I am sure one can imagine by now: These stones are ‘said to dance at noon when the sun was at is hottest’ (ibid). Which circle this story refers to is not clear – perhaps it is not meant to represent any one circle but is a symbolic synthesis of many? Perhaps it is the Nine Maidens in particular?
Crossing and Leger-Gordon tell us that Maiden is a corruption of the British word maen, meaning stone. This perhaps shatters the legend of dancing ladies and witches and gives us a more prosaic explanation of how the stories could have started. The effects of heat haze shimmering over the inanimate stones, erected millennia ago, led to the legends. Perhaps though we have always needed more romantic overtones to explain how things came to be?
Another legendary set of dancing stones is The Eight Rocks on the northern end of Cosdon Hill, near Belstone (one wonders whether the village of Belstone was a hot spot for revellers?). Crossing (1909) is undecided whether they were a circle or a row as only the vestiges remain, thus making it difficult to determine their shape. He tantalizingly tells us these eight rocks would dance whenever the bells of South Tawton church were rung, but unfortunately not the reason why. One can only assume it was those wicked ladies dancing on the Sabbath again.
On Stall Moor, in the Erme Valley, one will find a circle known as The Dancers (635645). Again Crossing (1909) describes it but gives no explanation for its name, although one can, I think, by now make a fairly safe assumption of its origins. He does however tell us it is also known as Kiss – in – the – Ring. Perhaps it had a function as a ‘theatre’ for fun and games for locals, perhaps as part of the May Day celebrations of yesteryear. He says it is 54 feet in diameter and consists of twenty-six stones, being at the south end of a long stone row that runs for over two miles.
Whilst the very large adjacent circles of Grey Wethers (639832) near Sittaford Tor, above Fernworthy Resevoir, do not have attached to them a dancing legend, they are reputed to move. According to Leger-Gordon ‘they conform to convention in the matter of exercise, taking a short stroll each morning at sunrise.’ (p71). Their name having an ovine etymology, a wether being a castrated ram, their movement and appearance is said to be reminiscent of sheep rather than dancers. Leger-Gordon tells of the so-called practical joke that gave rise to the circle’s name. Apparently, a novice farmer was persuaded into buying two flocks of sheep at market but was told they were already out on the moor. This conveniently meant he would not have to transport them. When the unsuspecting, and rather gullible, farmer rode out to inspect his new purchases, he found … two groups of granite stones. She reminds us how deceptive shapes can be on Dartmoor, especially in the mist and mizzle. Granite boulders can look deceptively ovine and vice versa. This is most probably how they acquired their name in the first place; I suspect the practical joke legend came later. A slight perambulation from dancing stones perhaps?
Whilst not on Dartmoor, it is worth mentioning the Stanton Drew stone circle in Somerset. Its history and folklore were originally recorded in 1664 by John Aubrey. Like all good folklore there is an absence of facts, and therefore romance and imagination have filled the gaps. The most common tale surrounding this circle is that the stones are the guests and musicians of a wedding party, lured there by the Devil. As the wedding celebrations continued unwittingly into the Sabbath, the revellers were turned to stone for their wickedness. And so the ubiquitous theme of punishment by petrifaction for dancing on the Sabbath once again rears its head.
Considering the terpsichorean apparitions often seem to appear around the middle of a hot day, one can easily understand how the effects of heat haze creating a shimmering effect would make the stones appear to bow and sway, especially to those of a superstitious nature. The more romantic among you though may prefer to think they are the souls of those women who long, long ago were turned into stone for their wicked revelries. As Leger-Gordon (1965) says, the stone circles ‘have captured popular imagination gathering legends into their circumferences’ (p65).
If it is the romance of Dartmoor and its legends you wish to capture, I recommend reading Crossing (1909) and Leger-Gordon (1965). However, if it is meticulous attention to detail about the measurements of the circles and their stones and how they are placed, you may wish to read Worth (1953).
Archaeology – South West, 1: Spring 1998, 20-23
Baring-Gould, S. (1900, 2002 edn) A Book of Dartmoor. Tiverton, Devon: Halsgrove
Crossing, W. (1909, 1965 edn) Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor. Newton Abbot, Devon: David and Charles
Franklin, C. (1984) The Dancing Stones. London: Hale
Leger-Gordon, R. E. St. (1965, 1994 edn) The Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor.Newton Abbot, Devon: Peninsula Press
Thurlow, G. (1993) Thurlow’s Dartmoor. Newton Abbot, Devon: Peninsula Press
Torr, C. (1921) Small Talk at Wreyland. (2nd series) Cambridge : CUP
Worth, Hansford R. (1953,1994 edn) Worth’s Dartmoor. Newton Abbot, Devon: Peninsula Press
Helen Poynor is an independent, internationally recognised, movement artist who specialises in movement in natural environments, site-specific performance and cross art form collaborations. She is also a senior registered dance movement therapist. She works with non-stylised movements and runs the Walk Of Life workshop programme based on the Jurassic Coast on the Devon/Dorset border.
For Helen, it is definitely the landscape of Dartmoor that inspires her and the nature of its different elements: tors, rivers, streams, old woodlands and its wildness.
Helen trained with Anna Halprin in California and Suprapto Suryodarmo from Java. Their different holistic approaches to dance, with the emphasis on the relationship of the human body to the forces of nature and the environment, influenced Helen’s approach to her own work. She uses the physical environment as a kinaesthetic starting point; the imaginative content comes from the kinaesthetic. She finds the environment inspiring and says her students do as well. She chooses sites where her students have to physically engage with the environment, this makes for a different movement response than one might find in the ‘flatter’ environment of a studio because of the three dimensional nature of the sites. She believes in experiencing the physical environment of Dartmoor through the physical activity of dance.
One example of her work was based around Pew Tor (532736), near Princetown. Here there are a series of tors that get progressively bigger. She used this size differential to create a journey of life for participants to experience, through dance, the different stages in one’s life. She has also used the area around Scorhill, above Gidleigh (6587), where she worked with the North Teign river and one of the tors.
Interestingly, Helen prefers not to use the ancient stone circles for her work as she says ‘they’re already full.’ They are visited by so many people and are full of so many associations, she does not want to use a space that is heavily populated and therefore impose herself and her dancers upon a well used place.
In the 1980s, Helen choreographed and performed ‘Kore’s Song’, a dance film set on Bench Tor (692718) above the river Dart, near Holne. This site is reputed to have been a sacred site for women, which made it an apposite choice for an all – female team to create a film based on a modern interpretation of several myths that centre on women. The ancient Greek myths of Persephone and Artemis, along with the Sumerian myth of Inanna, were combined to tell a contemporary woman’s journey, recounted through movement and landscape, by drawing upon archetypal figures rather than a literal retelling of the stories.
So, myths from around the world and from different times have been used in conjunction with the physical environment of Dartmoor.
It is not only herself and her students whom Helen believes should have a physical experience of Dartmoor. Her live audiences are also expected to engage with the landscape in a kinaesthetic way. They follow the performers around the site responding to unplanned situations such as a flock of birds, grazing animals or a group of runners, accepting it as part of the performance. Above all, the life and landscape of the moors must speak and not be exploited: the work is made in partnership with the environment. This approach offers Helen, her students and her audiences an important connection with our natural environment. Helen believes this experiential approach can open the doors to a deeper encounter with the environment, fuller and freer artistic expression and also serve as a healing process.
Tanja is a movement artist whose work is deeply inspired by Dartmoor, where she lives. For her it is the wildness, the beauty and rich diversity of the landscape that inspires her movement and creative practice, which are an expression of her love of the land.
Drawing from a background in sculpture and visual arts, she often combines movement and making, and uses different mediums such as drawing/mark-making and painting. Whilst moving and working in the environment, she sometimes finds and places natural materials creating a space or installation, giving an embodied sense to the making.
She is currently exploring movement and mark-making (drawing), the drawing being an extension of the movement: an embodied response to the environment in which she is moving or as a way of recording the experience. Her deep connection to the landscape and exploring her place in it is central to her work.
She often walks from her home, in Buckland in the Moor, to where she will be working – whether high moorland or woodland valleys. Her method of working is to choose a particular site, allowing time to arrive in the space with all its different elements, wake up the body and explore the landscape through movement and the senses, seeing it more as a way of ‘being’ in relationship with her space, which is both inspiring and respectful: the creative expression comes out of this ‘being’.
Dartmoor is a rich resource and the work is an embodied response to the environment. It is more than a movement practice on the land, but a way of being in deep connection with oneself, the environment and life. It becomes a nourishing, creative resource expressed from the movement into any medium.
Tanja offers creative retreats on Dartmoor, sharing this way of working. For more details telephone Tanja Brown 01364 653805.
Interview with Tanja Brown 7.4.09
Daisy Martinez is a young actor and dance student who has worked with choreographer Rosalyn Maynard in creating non-human and in particular animal parts for MED Theatre over the last few years. She writes:
‘Movement, for me, is a very powerful and fundamental way of experiencing the animal and the elemental within Dartmoor theatre. In the last few years, under the mentorship of Ros Maynard, I have had the opportunity to move in parts such as the Wolf (Snow 2009), whose earthy, grounded floor patterns created a very different perspective and feeling from the Buzzard (Hot Air 2008), for instance, a skyward, circling observer. I love the process of immersing myself in a new way of being in each play, becoming the animal, waterfall, mountain for a rehearsal and performance period, and afterwards I always feel a deep connection and reverence for the animal or element I have attempted to portray. I am currently studying anatomy and physiology, and It is interesting for me that movement seems to the MED Theatre team to be the most coherent way of bringing the natural world into the plays. As humans we develop, as do all living organisms, through movement, andthis affirms our place in nature as living, breathing, moving beings – so it appears important for me to return to the animal form in a play via movement. I always feel honoured to play the movement parts within MED Theatre – it feels like a very special thing to do – and I sense that the animal perspective is at the heart of what MED is about.’
Source: email, April 2009
There is a linking thread with the contemporary choreographers interviewed for this article. That thread is the inspiration found in the wildness of Dartmoor, its diverse landscape and its changing moods which morph with the weather. For those of us who know and love the moors, this is not difficult to understand. They are also linked through their use of their kinaesthetic awareness of the physical landscape and a desire, not to dominate it by using a codified system of dance to describe it, but to allow the physical landscape to determine their movements.
That female movement artists are creating work on Dartmoor links the past with the present: women are still dancing on Dartmoor. However, there is a difference in that the sacred and the profane are not elements of their work. The legendary ladies who danced in the stone circles were celebrating what they saw as sacred and what others saw as profane.