Toti O'Brien speaking with author Elizabeth Wayland Barber

Toti O'Brien:  A Review of “The Dancing Goddesses, Folklore, Archeology, and the Origins of European Dance” by Elizabeth Wayland Barber
W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (February 11, 2013) – Hardcover, 429 pages, $35.00

             Elizabeth Barber’s “The Dancing Goddesses” is a book about a million of things: all absolutely fascinating. This wide range of contents is typical of the author, due to her encyclopedic knowledge in fields such as anthropology, archeology, linguistics and cognitive sciences – to mention a few.

      But encyclopedic is not the right word: Barber’s notions have been acquired hands on, during a lifetime of field research, explorations and travels. Body and soul are involved as much as the mind in treating her subjects.


              The declared scope of “Dancing Goddesses” is to clarify the origins of folk dance, an activity the author has long taught and performed. Folk dance has been popular in the US since the Great Depression (as a cheap form of entertainment). When World War II left women without their male partners, couple dancing gave way to older line dances of European origins.


            After the war, line dances remained in fashion, having gained wide favor. They provide - as Barber explains - a large deal of pleasures. By means of shared rhythms, hand holds, synchronized motions and patterns, they create community bonding while giving a natural high – of a Zen quality – that relieves stress and centers the psyche.


           There’s enormous joy, of course, attached to these psycho-physiological benefits. That is why folk dance has thrived for about eight millennia: for its origins deepen into the Bronze Age, among farming societies settled in the arm of the Danube. It all started – Barber says – as a way to influence the flow of life, literary channeling female fertility into the ground.


            Life causes motion, as it is easily observed. Dance is motion for motion’s sake - unrelated to effort towards direct results. Thus it seems to summarize life’s essence - in other terms divinity. Through dance, humans mimicked gods to entice them into delivering more life, meaning first of all water, then crops, food, survival. Also health and – last but not least – babies. That’s how the tradition begins.


           Barber doesn’t theorize it. Startled by the illustration of a dancing goddess (a supernatural female figure) in a Russian fairy tale, for fifteen years she tracks similar images in Balkan, Celtic, Latin, Greek artifacts. She connects them with linguistic clues, written documentation and oral living tradition, to achieve a coherent understanding of her role and significance.




          Dancing is not a women’s only domain. Men always shared in it, with different functions and nuances. But the invoked/pleased divinities were originally female. Through a myriad cultural variations they became known as Willies, Mermaids, Nymphs, Fairies. Those over potent spirits – believed to almost perpetually dance – held the keys to abundance, generation and resurrection. They could withhold such things as well as allow them.


         Those entities were believed to be ghosts of women dead before they bore children, having not used yet their generative potential (the most magic of powers). Such treasure couldn’t be wasted. Ritual dance in the appropriate conditions and times caused it to be passed on to the living.


         Women dead before marrying and procreating… often drawn… suicidal, perhaps?… not rare an occurrence… Now forever bond to the water, haunting water - this quintessential matrix of all genus. Long haired, lose haired, the mermaids: hair like tears, like rivers, in contrast with the braided, pinned, hidden hair of wed mothers.


        But – in other traditional instances, other moments of the calendric cycle – folk dancing also honored mothers, overlapping in fact the two female statuses: maiden (archaically represented with arms up, in a w) and mother (arms down, to hold the child) were one. The Christian Virgin/Mother, Mary, belongs to the lineage.  Thus the maidens, the Willies (among a million excursuses on trance, shamanism, healing herbs, costume design, masks, calendars, festivals, pottery, poetry) constitute the motif of Barber’s first part.




      The third part of the book draws an exhaustive map of folk dance evolving through space and time. It also defines the means of its endurance, the miracle of its defying all attempts of obliteration by the Church.


      In part number two, the longest, a tribute is paid to a specific character: the Frog Princess, honored by Barber with particular devotion. Hard not to share such love, since here is a powerful figure of Russian lore - though of course the author traces her in other contexts as well, since prehistoric eras.


      She appears in ancient Indo-European and non Indo-European cultures as the “girl with the very long sleeves.” Yes: she danced in those. Complementing (and again overlapping) the fish-lady, she is the bird-girl. Hyper long sleeves pretending to be wings, motions suggesting the flight of migratory birds are pervasive elements of western folklore.


      Maidens doubling as swans, living an avian existence of freedom - until someone married them and they lost, relinquished or were stolen their feathered attire (or seal-skin: it’s the same) -populate millennia of oral telling. Traces might have spread place to place or – as the bird versus seal discrepancy suggests – they could have analogically originated in different sites.


      Such ample resonance derives from the woman status, as inherent to all archaic rural cultures. Systematically, the bride had to leave home, moving into the grooms’ family, village, region, land. Severed off her previous identity/skin, no doubt she often dreamed of recovering it –flying back to her former life, native landscape, home, friends, memories.


      Was the swan/bird/long-sleeved female dance a rite of nostalgia? Celebrating longing? Or freedom? Maybe longing for a freedom that dance temporarily allowed: through the joy of shared motions, to the rhythm of flapping fabrics - spun, woven, sewn by those same tireless arms.


Also by Elizabeth Wayland Barber: Women’s Work – The First 20,000 Years, Norton, N.Y. 1994



AN INTERVIEW WITH ELIZABETH WAYLAND BARBER                                  



 When we sat at her breakfast table - so piled up with books we had to dig a place for the microphone - I gave to Elizabeth Barber a list, asking her to pick the word or phrase that she wanted. She immediately chose: “plurality of interests."



E.B. My dad taught at Caltech and mom loved visitors, so I grew up with people from all over the world, working in all the different sciences. If you’d ask what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would name every possible discipline… Thus I thought archeology would give me an excuse to do practically everything! When I was twelve, dad received a fellowship and we moved to France. We also travelled all over Europe: papa visited laboratories while I learned how to count and say please in all of those languages. I ended up with degrees in archeology and linguistics. The linguistics has allowed me to look at an archeological problem in no matter what language the excavation report. If you are trying to follow a problem - such as ancient textiles or the development of folk dance – being able to track it across the boundaries is ideal.



T.O. Did you choose linguistics uniquely as a tool for your searches? Were you also fascinated by words for their own sake?


E.B. My first reason for taking linguistics was an interest in early scripts. I intended to write my thesis on decipherment. I specifically meant to be in Yale College, the only place in those days where a woman could major in old world archeology. Harvard or Princeton had it, but they were men’s schools: those were the late fifties! So I went to Bryn Mawr and I majored in Greek and archeology.



T.O: How did your passion for textiles start?



E.B. Mom had taught home economics and weaving. She made all of our clothes. I grew up with looms in the house and I learned how to use them when I was four… When I started studying archeology I noticed weaving patterns all over: I would mention this and scholars would say, “they could not make those things back then.”  “Well… I could when I was eight; it’s not hard.” When I finished my degree I said to my husband: “I have a little project: I’d like to demonstrate ancient textiles were far more elaborate and important than they are given credit for.” Seventeen years later a book of five hundred pages appeared! It was 1991 and there was a lot of misogyny in the field of archeology - supposedly a men’s preserve. With great glee, the copy editor (a woman) made my pen name E. J. W. Barber. She figured that if they thought some un-gendered author had written five hundred pages on the subject, from a place like Princeton Press, they would at least look at it. That’s exactly what happened, except… no one reviewed it. The book was reviewed in England and other countries, not in this one.



T.O. Do you see a connection between the archeological field been misogynist, and textiles not having been studied in depth?

E.B. Yes. In most cultures men are not taught about textiles, but if women are doing them by hand they know something about it. Since the Industrial Revolution, most people believe clothes comes off the bat, not as a result of a long chain. Both men and women don’t know much about it… but women are more likely to. If I go to the fabric store, for example, I find most entirely women. After the book came out, my husband told me: “have you noticed, when you give lectures, that all questions are about the women who made these textiles?” Representational evidence - plus the evidence from the tombs - shows that it has been women’s work until we get to late periods. I also heard complaining about a general lack of information on early women - Women Studies kind of invented a prehistory for them. That is how “Women’s work: the first twenty thousand years” was born. 


T.O. The book tackles the subject in depth… but it’s also like one of those pop-ups with lots of side-stories, all converging and making sense in the end. How can you condense so much?



E.B. I had a disability they didn’t have a word for when I grew up. I am dis-graphic: I could write only a third as fast as my classmates. When I got to senior high my English teacher said, “you are not going to make it to college at this rate. The only way you could write faster is by saying the same amount in half as many words.” I spent every free period in her office. She would give me a passage and say, “half as many words, but you can leave out neither data nor logical connections. You can only reduce the verbiage.” I learned. Later I had to unpack it a bit for publication - but because I had shrunk it to the essentials, the unpacking could come in the form of gracefulness.


T.O. It shows! Would you say something on collaboration? It is a leitmotiv through your writing.


E.B. Once our ancestors settled down – with domestic plants and animals - if they disliked a neighbor they couldn’t just move away. They had to learn how to get along, so they might enjoy it as well. Writing “Dancing Goddesses” I concentrated on dance as a means for bonding, but textiles were doing it naturally for the women. They always did their spinning while chattering, they helped each other set the looms. It was more efficient and much more fun.


T.O. Almost all of your work dives into the past: do you seek lessons that could be applied to the present?


E.B. I’m not usually lesson-oriented. If you provide lots of interesting data people draw their own lessons… I see lots, and I try to make it easy for others to see them. If they come to their own conclusion they will be more likely to remember it and to make use of it.


T.O. Was it the way you were raised?


E.B. To some extent. Dad was very supportive. If he had had a son, he might have felt competition. But having two daughters he always supported us, and it was wonderful. You have noticed I so believe in women’s potential, I don't feel it necessary to insist. I went to girls’ school from fourth grade through college. By the time I got to Yale, which was very much a male place (it was clear they didn’t mind having us as students, but they didn’t want us as colleagues), I just thought: “You don’t know what you are missing!” Once, I got two reviews on the same day: one said I was too feminist, the other I wasn’t feminist enough. I thought: “Ok, I hit the right place”… When I write about women I strictly follow the data: people then can draw their conclusions.


T.O. Let’s address the joy… there is something incredibly exuberant in your books.


E.B. As a child I wanted to be every kind of possible scientist: I find all so interesting! I just love the chase!


T.O. So the joy is the pleasure you find going from surprise to surprise?


E.B. Absolutely.


Toti O’Brien’s work has appeared in Synesthesia, Siren, Litro NY, Adanna, among other journals and anthologies.  She has contributed for a decade to various Italian magazines.

Toti O'Brien

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