Learning to Dance: Archetypes and Stories as Models for Life’s Journey

by Lorna Czarnota.

There are two ways to approach the challenges we face in life’s journey. We can run into them head-on and try to move them out of way or push them before us or we can learn to dance with them. When we dance with the challenges, we can look into their eyes, find their rhythm, and turn them about so we can pass by with grace.

This realization came to me as I contemplated the world of teens and, as a menopausal woman, the world of women and life changes. I began to see similarities with teenhood and cronehood. Both have changing hormones. Both gain new insights and face new challenges. The difference is perhaps the manner in which teens and crones negotiate the pitfalls, fight the demons, approach the darkness, slay the dragon.

Teens tend to exert their wills upon the enemy, thereby creating a force field that is immovable. The result of a moving object meeting an immovable object is usually the stopping of the movement, breakage or conflict. Crones, having gained much wisdom over the years and having learned the fine art of negotiation, tend to dance or act as a cushioning buffer where the challenge will either bounce off so it can be inspected before a decision is made or it will circle round so the crone can learn more about it, as she would with a lover or other willing partner.

While there is courage in youth, it is born from lack of experience. The youthful warrior will often act from naivety. If he or she is lucky, does not back down from the challenge and somehow negotiates with or slays the monster, he or she will survive. Becoming an adult is merely the event of survival of the journey from childhood through teenhood. Stories hold the secrets to coping with these challenges. But for the crone, it is not so much a matter of survival but rather of quality, of diplomacy, even of trickery; otherwise known as successful negotiation. The stories teach this art as well.

Story and the study of archetypes within story hold the answer to a better understanding of these experiences. As storytellers working with the healing community and people in need, we must be aware of the ancient, mystical, spiritual, and often immeasurable power that stories hold. I have found it most useful to realize that the story itself has much to offer to a variety of audiences, and I, as the storyteller, cannot always control the outcome. In fact, most often I don’t even know if or how an audience has been touched. This is especially true when working with transient populations such as runway and homeless teens. I must trust the stories I choose and I must choose stories that show, in my opinion, models for living.

While it is helpful to know the needs of the audience, it is not always possible. I try to choose a story that feels right for the moment and choose a theme within that story to focus on. I don’t necessarily do this with general audiences, but if I know I am working with teens who are at risk, women who are abused, an audience that is seeking a specific guidance, I will certainly do this.

One example of such a story is the story of Vasalisa. Your interpretation of this story may be quite different from mine and that in itself is what story should do. That is the way we tell stories and it is the way we listen to them. When I tell this particular story for teens, I see the doll given to Vasalisa by her mother as the embodiment of her mother, which even after her mother’s death continues to counsel, advise and guide her. For women, it is the wisdom of the ages and the woman’s elders; those who have gone before her know the way. I also view Baba Yaga in this story as being the same witch from every other story including Hansel and Gretel. She is not evil, but she is frightening. She has to be or Vasalisa, Hansel and Gretel and all the other characters would stay with her and not go on to complete their own growth. She is the culmination of a lifetime of knowledge and wisdom.

You’re thinking the witch dies in Hansel and Gretel? Well, yes and no. While she is pushed into the oven and can no longer threaten the children, cremation is just the taking on of a new form. The English stole the ashes of Joan of Arc so that the French could not get them. Even they saw the ashes as having power to insight and inspire.


What has become of the witch’s ashes? Has she risen like the Phoenix? The story doesn’t say, does it? What it does say, if you read an older version, is that the children find pearls and gems in the corner of the witch’s house. They fill their pockets and go home. I see those as the “pearls of knowledge and gems of wisdom”, the gift left for them by the witch. I’ve read that the ashes or sparks fly up the chimney. They’re just going on to the next story, as I see it. Vasalisa also receives light in the form of fire from Baba Yaga. She uses it to defeat her stepmother and stepsisters. Light is certainly an archetype for knowledge and wisdom.

The experience of working with youth at risk and women has given me a better understanding of the power of story and has led to greater insights for my own life journey. I continue to learn how to dance and, through that, I have become less stressed over everyday things and more at ease with the changes of my path, of my body and my life. Finding the truth through story is so much easier for listeners to accept than being told by the ogre (an authority figure) that they will be devoured if they cross that bridge. The story lets them actually try to cross and see what happens.

Article originally appeared in Words on the Wing: Issue 7, Spring 2002

Lorna MacDonald Czarnota is an award-winning author and storyteller and founder and president of CROSSROADS Story Center, Inc., a not-for-profit corporation using stories, music and art with youth at risk. Lorna has been presenting workshops and stories to a variety of audiences since 1985.
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