The Dance of Exile

By Biljana Lipic

The “night sea journey” is the journey into the parts of ourselves that are split off, disavowed, unknown, unwanted, cast out, and exiled to the various subterranean worlds of consciousness… The goal of this journey is to reunite us with ourselves. Such a homecoming can be surprisingly painful, even brutal. In order to undertake it, we must first agree to exile nothing.

– Stephen Cope

Sarajevo, Old Town. By Yukof - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

I come from a country that doesn’t exist anymore. When my family and my native  Yugoslavia were broken into pieces by a brutal civil war, I was exiled from my soul.  This is the story of my healing, and how I learned that home is nowhere and everywhere because we carry it in our wild hearts.

I was born in Sarajevo, a 15th century town in a valley that long ago was at the bottom of the Pannonian Sea. Built by the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian empires, this city has long stood at the crossroads of Eastern and Western culture.  A meeting place for Christianity and Islam, it has been a place of cross-fertilization and conflict.  The shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, here in 1914, set off World War I.  During the next war, Yugoslavia was divided by the Nazis, and the army was run by the people—paving the way for a new Socialist state. 

In the 1970s, my family lived in a blandly modern neighborhood, in a functional flat with two spacious rooms.  But the old town had a different flavor, with beautifully crafted buildings, pedestrian walkways, shops and cafés, churches, and mosques.

Both my parents had known the trauma of war. A teacher and librarian,  my mother also battled cancer and lived in fear of its return.  My father, an engineer, was a creative genius who was rarely home. Over time, he turned into an alcoholic.  One day he started to build an energy-saving house for us in the countryside—a sustainable dwelling way ahead of its time—but he never finished it.

Despite their difficulties, my parents loved me, and encouraged my creativity. My mother let me paint pictures on the doors of our wardrobes and on our kitchen tiles. When my father was around, he showed me how washing machines, radios, and other appliances worked, then taught me how to develop photographs, in our small, window-less bathroom.  Following in his footsteps, I built model houses and studied physics. In school I was at the top of my class, and took part in singing and poetry competitions, But my most private world–where I existed only for myself—was dance. 

As my parents’ marriage became a battleground, I took refuge in the fields and forests above Sarajevo, walking among the horses and the grazing sheep, gathering mushrooms and wild strawberries, and watching my Grandmother make bread.  I dreamed about the Serbian Robin Hood called Novak, who was said to hide in the distant mountain caves. I had another refuge on the banks of the river Tisza, with my Crazy Aunt Mira and her family,  growing vegetables, tending goats, fishing, and hunting wild game. 

In 1992, another war appeared on the horizon. Not wanting to fight, my father went into hiding and my mother went numb with fear.   With danger in the air, it was hard for me to concentrate on my architectural studies.  Just minutes before the start of a long and bloody conflict, I left my homeland, leaping across the giant mountains that had guarded me in my youth, into the unknown.

Sarajevo ruins during the Bosnian War. By LT. STACEY WYZKOWSKI -, Public Domain,

I landed in London, where  I repressed my guilt and shame for leaving those I loved behind, and watched, powerless, as the war destroyed my country and my family.   Yet my animal instincts pushed me to survive.

After finishing my studies, I launched a successful design practice. And I was magnetically pulled back dance, becoming a pioneer of Argentine tango on this side of the ocean. I opened  a club in the dungeons of The Dome in North London,  founded an innovative theatre group, and appeared on popular TV programs and in films.  In time, I developed an incredibly rich network in the arts and set up dance groups all over the United Kingdom.   

From a shy and introverted young girl, I had transformed into a performer on the world stage, known for a visionary way of teaching.  Though I was involved in many wonderful creative projects, somewhere along the way, dance had become a drug that allowed me to forget. And, like the girl in The Red Shoes, I danced with such abandon that I lost myself.  

Juggling many different jobs, traveling the globe with tango as my passport, I had turned my daily life into a marathon.  More and more, I felt like a stateless stranger.  I was physically and emotionally exhausted,  yet the challenges kept building up.  After the traumatic death of my parents, I developed an autoimmune disease. And following a couple of unstable relationships, and an early miscarriage, I collapsed.    

My healing began as I delved deeper into spiritual disciplines,  Jungian psychology, Feldenkreis and other somatic practices.  I kept searching until I finally landed in the embrace of shamanism, exploring the sacred bee temples.  Eventually I was called to The Path of Pollen. Buried as part of an ancient ritual, I experienced a symbolic death and rebirth.  At one point, I felt that all my body cells were on fire and I became a light inside the great womb of the universe. 

With this grounding, I began to face my feelings of isolation, disembodiment, and depersonalization, dropping through layers and layers of loss, war, exile, and inter-generational trauma.  In the process, I remembered that I was love and that love was the illuminated darkness, the soul within.

Beyond the need to survive, I was carried by the pure joy of  being a part of all that is alive.  Here I was more than a dancer—I was the dance itself.  From then on, I practiced an actively receptive, sensory, imaginative and erotic way of being—Shamanic tango!—carrying these lessons from the dance floor into every aspect of my life. 

In time, I was as fully present and at home in my body as I was when was a child. And when I danced, I noticed the permeable boundary of my own skin, the place where I stop and my partner begins. In this liminal space, I was discovering a unique practice that can take us back to our wild and pristine inner nature.  To continue on this path, I left the bustle of the city for the rugged, windswept coast of Cornwall where I set up a new dance studio and began to write about this experience.

Today I live in a houseboat called Floatee on the river Helford, tangoing upon the ocean, moving with the tides, swaying to seasons and the daily shifts in weather. Here I have discovered a simplicity rarely found in the contemporary world.   Drawing on all the lessons I learned living in the Sarajevo mountains, I am sparing of resources. I know how to chop wood and make a fire in the stove. I keep a watchful eye on leaks, and air my quarters regularly—the only way to keep clothes free of mold. And when the winter cold seeps into my bones, or when storms threaten, I know these challenges are meant to strengthen me, not break me. Over time, nature has become my trusted ally, and Floatee, my sacred twin.

Floatee, the author's houseboat on the river Helford in Cornwall.

In our river community, people keep their boats in good repair, clean the plastic from the ocean, and look out for one another. My neighbor, Moni, brings me soup and wildflowers if I am ill.  Some nights, I sit by the campfire listening to the soothing voices of the water gypsies, to the musicians and storytellers among us. In the morning, I wake to the sound of the wild children running along the edge of the quay, shouting, “Beeeee, come out to play!” I have become a Crazy Aunt like the one I adored during my childhood summers on the river Tisza.

Floatee is my poetic muse and Cornwall, my healing place. If you come, dear reader, you will gain respect for the deeper, slower rhythms of life. As the tide changes and Floatee sits on the muddy river floor, you may get in touch with the endless ebb and flow of nature.  And by meditating on that which doesn’t serve you anymore, you may begin to see yourself as part of the dancing universe. You may even be able to stop time, as you did when you were a child. And in the comfort of the silence, you may also begin to see the shape of your own story–and understand its beauty.   

 Beauty, as the wonderful John O’ Donohue tells us, “isn’t all about just nice loveliness…. Beauty is about more rounded, substantial becoming… (it is) also a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of our unfolding life.”

I remember the town of Sarajevo, the blue mountains of Bosnia, the throbbing city of London, my years of dancing around the globe—and how I landed in the heart of Cornwall. By lovingly giving space to the stories that brought me here, I have slowly freed myself from their grip. Looking with compassion at our lives, we create a sense of sanctuary, then discover layer upon layer of home.

Biljana Lipic is a Serbian-born multidisciplinary artist, writer and filmmaker as well as an internationally recognized performer, teacher and choreographer of Argentine tango.  She is also the creator of  new, trauma-informed path to embodiment and self-realization

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