Witch Trial: I Tried a Witchcraft Dance Class and It Got Weird
Iele Paloumpis carried magic in a black bag, not wands and potions, but crystals and cards. It is the equipment needed for the job of a dance artist, intuitive healer, and death doula. The magical items vary depending on the phase of the moon and the alignment of the planets. March 6 was the Pisces new moon, so Paloumpis added elements from the sea to the bag of magic before heading to the witchcraft dance class Paloumpis teaches once a week.
Witchcraft and witches have resurged as a popular culture trend among millennials in recent years. Television shows like Sabrina, American Horror Story: Coven, and Charmed have popularized a practice that used to get women killed. Big retailers like Sephora, Urban Outfitters, and Walmart have even started to sell smudge sticks, tarot cars, and healing crystals. Even more, Instagrams like @thehoodwitch, @nyxturna, and @ancient_hearts post images of pastel goths with skulls and roses to create a witchcraft aesthetic.
A witchcraft dance class sounds like something that involves chanting and rhythmically swaying around a cauldron. So I was surprised when I arrived at the class, which was in a studio across from New York City’s Tweed Courthouse. The classroom was as bland as the dated suits of the lawyers trudging up and down Chambers Street. There were no pointy hats or brooms or candles. There wasn’t even a pentagram. The only witch-related object was the altar Paloumpis set up in the middle of the room.
The base of the altar was made of a series of tie-dyed scarves arranged in a firepit-like circle. On the outskirts of the circle, Paloumpis, who prefers the pronouns “they” and “them,” arranged their magical items: a palm-sized rose quartz crystal, a mason jar of ash, a glass goblet of ocean water, and a turkey feather. In the center of the circle, Paloumpis set a stack of tarot cards surrounded by fragmented oyster shells.
To begin, Paloumpis asked everyone to sit in a circle around the altar. There were 13 of us, the perfect witching number according to Margarett A. Murray who wrote in her book The Witch-cult of Western Europe that witches in the middle East formed in groups of 12 plus one leader.
I observed everyone as we settled into the circle with our journals for note taking. On the street, I wouldn’t have guessed that any of them practice witchcraft. Most women were in their mid to late twenties. They all wore the New Yorker’s unofficial uniform color: black—black leggings and sweats with slouchy black tops. A couple of women wore brightly printed socks. I figured they were freelance artists, which would explain how they could take a two-hour long class in the middle of a workday.
“Does anyone know what these are called?” Paloumpis asked the class holding up one of the shells.
We exchanged glances with one another around the altar. The answer seemed too obvious.
Finally, someone spoke up. “Oyster shell?”
“Yes,” answered Paloumpis as they nodded their head. Their brown curls bounced off their forehead and their square, wireframed glasses cast shadows on their rosy cheeks “But it is also called Mermaids Toenails, which is weird because fish don’t have feet, yet that is the strongest point of connection for Pisces.”
We then spent the next hour talking about astrology and how the Pisces new moon will affect us in the coming weeks. Admittedly, I know nothing about astrology aside from the fact that I am a Libra because I was born between September 23 and October 22. But other people seemed really into it. Some even brought their natal charts with them. Others took detailed notes as Paloumpis explained how we can take advantage of this intention setting time even though Mercury is in retrograde. “When is it not in retrograde?” I thought. “What does ‘Mercury in retrograde’ even mean?”
Luckily, someone else asked and Paloumpis explained that when Mercury is in retrograde, the planet appears to move backward in orbit as viewed from the earth and that backward movement translates to backward steps in your life. That is why “Mercury is in retrograde” has become such a common excuse to blame misfortune on the alignment of the planets rather than the poor life choices. But Paloumpis assured us that Mercury would be out of retrograde on March 28th.
At the end of the discussion, Paloumpis informed us that we would be doing some partner work so we should find someone we feel a good connection with. I paired with the guy sitting next to me. His name was Brett. His eyes were as blue as a shallow ocean pool among the sandy dunes of his blonde hair and neatly trimmed beard. When he introduced himself to the class, he said the energy he was bringing today was sadness. I wondered if he took this class believing it would magically change his mood.
“I actually used to work the front desk here,” he told me. “I always saw this class on the schedule and wondered what it was, but I never had the time. Now I’m a bartender so my days are pretty open.”
He was a newbie like me. Good. We could look like fools together.
Paloumpis walked around with the tarot cards. Brett and I decided he would be the first one to receive a tarot reading and I would be the first one to give it. He pulled out the ace of cups. Paloumpis instructed the tarot receivers to focus on one part of the image on their card and then share it with the givers. Brett’s point of focus was where a falling stream of water met a still lake with a small splash. Paloumpis then instructed the givers to connect with the receivers through the Pisces connection point.
I knelt at Brett’s feet like a servant worshipping her king and placed one palm on each foot as we both closed our eyes to meditate on his card. What was probably five minutes, felt like five hours. At one point I opened my eyes to peek at the other pairs. One girl was giving her partner a deep tissue arch massage. Another girl was running her hands up and down the calves of her partner. I just kept my hands still on top of Brett’s foot.
When the time was up, we shared our meditations. I didn’t see any images so I fabricated one about fish swimming in a sparkling lake. Knowing that he had a rough few weeks (He told me earlier that he broke up with his boyfriend and had to move out), I told him the stream was his current life, falling out of control, and the lake was what was to come, calm and peaceful. He seemed to like that. Then it was my turn to receive a tarot reading.
I pulled a card featuring a twisting path between two castle towers. I told Brett my point of focus was the path beyond the towers. We closed our eyes as he placed his hands on my feet. After a few seconds, I could feel my body sway and my foot flexors engage. I hoped he couldn’t tell how imbalanced I was. After a few more seconds, the tops of my feet began to feel moist. Either my foot was sweating or his palms were sweating or both. Then he began to gently press his fingers into the arches of my feet. I silently begged him to stop. He must have heard my internal plea because he quickly returned his hands to the tops of my feet for the duration of the meditation.
When it was time to open our eyes and acknowledge each other again,he told me what he saw. I was lost on the path with no distinguishable landmarks, but the sky was purple which, to him, represents success in career so even though I may be lost now, I will find my way. I sure hope so.
The next part of the class was an individual exploration of movement, which was the only part of the class that could very loosely classify it as a dance class. Once again, Paloumpis instructed us to close our eyes as they walked around the room.
“Imagine yourself as a seed soaking up water from the ground so you can grow,” said Paloumpis.
As Paloumpis continued guiding whatever this was, the other students began to interpret the metaphorical instructions in their own ways by floating, stretching, and massaging their limbs. This was the longest part of the class. Though I didn’t have a watch on me, I guessed that it was about 30 minutes of moving freely through space.
Unsure of what to do, I drew on my dance background by fluidly moving from one warm-up ballet stretch to the next, occasionally peeking at other students for inspiration and reassurance that I wasn’t the only one moving around the room like a fool. While I was on the ground in a v-sit stretch the girl next to me was stomping around me with her eyes closed. I was sure I was going to get trampled, but it never happened.
Eventually, we were instructed to open our eyes as Paloumpis thanked us for joining their class. I resisted the urge to namaste bow at the end as I have done after so many yoga classes. Though most of the class felt ridiculous and very un-witchlike, I did feel the same sense of peace and calm that I feel after 30 minutes of yoga. Maybe the witchcraft part is phony, but I think it is more about connecting the mind, body, and spirit just like yoga and the witchy part is just a way for Horoscope readers to find a fitness class within their tribe of beliefs.
Still in a semi-haze from having my eyes closed for so long, I bundled myself in my coat and scarf in preparation to rejoin the concrete world of New York City where the most magical thing that happens is getting a seat on the subway after a long day.