In 1992, six years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Joanna Macy, ecofeminist healer and environmental activist, traveled to many towns in the former Soviet Union, now Ukraine, offering workshops to people living in the areas contaminated by nuclear fallout from the disaster. The focus of her workshops was to offer tools for coping with the effects of massive collective trauma.
At every town she and her team would eventually invite the people to dance The Elm Dance. The last town was Novozybkov (no-VO-zis-cove), a city of 50,000, about 100 miles from Chernobyl. When the burning reactor blew, a cloud of radioactive poison was heading directly to Moscow. To save the millions in the metropolitan area, authorities quickly decided to seed the clouds and cause them to precipitate before they reached Moscow. In an unusually heavy April rain, intense concentrations of radioactive poisons rained down upon the towns, fields, and forests of the Bryansk (bre-ansk) region. After the rains, the highest Geiger counter readings were in and around the city of Novozybkov (no-VO-zis-cove).
They were not told what had happened for about six months. When the people of the town told authorities of the lingering illnesses, the government would not admit the cause of their afflictions. By the time Joanna came, these stoic people had endured many mysterious illnesses and deaths in the community. They knew they could not go into their beloved woods because the trees had absorbed so much radiation, they were dangerous.
Joanna explained the nature and purpose of her work. The people listened intently but did not speak. They were accustomed to holding in their feelings and fears. They referred to the Chernobyl meltdown simply as “the event” and did not talk about their suffering. Then she turned on the music and invited them to move with the simple steps. In Novozybkov (no-VO-zis-cove) they asked her to play the music again and again. Amazingly, the music and the movements touched them deeply and opened their hearts to share their stories. Joanna promised that whenever she used the Elm Dance, she would tell their story so the world would know what happened to them.