LINCOLN, R.I. — The women gathered like approaching storm clouds at this Hollywood-haunted farmland, along the Great Road that’s older than the Salem witch trials.
Some held simple housekeeping brooms, others stylish and decorated with ribbons, and they raised them like wands in sync with the pounding music.
“Bump the bump! Bump the bump! Shake! Your! Bacon!” called Nancy Rafi, a self-identified witch from Wickford, R.I., as she led the women through the dance moves.
The women laughed and shimmied as they tried to keep up. Darlene Sunday’s red and black gown swirled around her feet. Seven-month-old Lucille Kachuk chortled as a woman tickled her feet with a small black whisk broom, while mother Danielle Bessette danced next to her stroller.
They are the “Witches of Chase Farm,” part of the new Rhode Island Witches Guild, a collective of “chapters,” not covens.
They don’t practice rituals or cast spells, and only a few of them are actually witches. Instead, they’ve come together to practice the “Witch Dance,” a sort-of witchy line dance that originated with a coven in Germany in 2016 and has since spread like dandelion seeds across the globe.
The women of the Wolfshäger Hexenbrut (which translates as The Wolf Hunter’s Coven) were performing in late April 2016 at Walpurgis, a holiday celebrating fertility, in a choreographed dance to “Schüttel deinen Speck,” aka “Shake Your Bacon,” by German reggae-pop artist Peter Fox.
A YouTube video of the Wolfshäger Hexenbrut, dressed as colorful crones wielding broomsticks and shaking their behinds, was a viral sensation, with more than 2.4 million views.
Rafi was captivated from the beginning. So, last year, when she “came out” as a witch to her Wickford Village community, she decided to organize a “Witch Dance” for the village’s Horribles Parade on Halloween.
She’s organized for other events, such as the local Quahog Festival, but wasn’t sure about the reception for witchery in this sometimes stuffy seaside community in North Kingstown, R.I., — even though it’s believed to be the setting for John Updike’s novel, “The Witches of Eastwick.”
“I put it out on social media, ‘Wouldn’t this be fun?’” Rafi said. “And [the response] was insane.”
Anyone was welcome, whether or not they were witches, whether or not they could dance. Some would also carry a banner to honor the memories of the women and men who died in the Salem witch trials — and correct the historical record about their persecution.
“When I first saw this, I thought, ‘What a good thing after two years of lockdown,’” said herbalist Susan Clements, one of the Witches of Wickford, and owner of the Earth & Ocean Herbals of North Kingstown.
Eighty-three women showed up for the costume-making get-together. When Halloween rolled around, the numbers had grown to 147, from age 7 to 82, dancing from the Town Dock to the main streets of Wickford in the Horribles Parade.
“We tapped into an energy where women were like, ‘I’m with a whole group of compatriots,’” Rafi said. “It gave us permission to be who were are, and to be embraced by our community.”
Clements took home the prize for best witch. “When I got that trophy, it was better than Miss America,” she declared. “I felt for the first time, holding that trophy, I felt validated for the work I’ve done in this village for the last 30 years.”
That parade caught the imagination of women from other communities who wanted to do it too.
And that’s how the Rhode Island Witches Guild was born.
There are now five chapters in the Guild — Providence, Warwick, Wickford, Newport, and Chase Farm in Lincoln — representing both the interest in witchery and the reality that Rhode Islanders are averse to traveling more than 20 minutes away for anything.
The chapters are planning several events. The Witches of Chase Farm are dance-marching in the Memorial Day Parade on May 30 and will perform again at the BeWitched and BeDazzled fall festival at Chase Farm on Oct. 1. The Witches of Newport are talking to Discover Newport! about flash mobs during October. The Witches of Warwick are holding their first meeting on June 8. The Witches of Providence are putting together their chapter for a big Samhain parade in late October.
And the Witches of Wickford will teach the dance to the new chapters and make their own big return at the Horribles Parade.
“I’m thrilled to see this blossoming,” Clements said. “It’s about women joining together in celebration.”
Kathy Chase Hartley saw the magic of witches when Hollywood scouted out Chase Farm, where her great-great grandfather had settled in the 1800s, as the setting for Salem Village in the movie “Hocus Pocus 2.”
When the movie set went up in the farmland, Hartley saw how thousands of people thronged on Great Road, trying to catch a glimpse of the action. At night, people crawled through the fields and sent drones hovering over the set.
Hartley, who is the founder of the Friends of Hearthside, the landmark stone mansion that’s part of the Great Road Heritage Campus at Chase Farm Park, realized then how the stardust made real history come alive for people.
So when Hearthside volunteer Kimberly Keene told her about seeing the Witches of Wickford and proposing they form their own group, Hartley was charmed.
“I don’t know if it’s the pandemic and the lockdowns, but now there’s this permission to go out and let your hair down,” Hartley said. “And everyone loves Halloween.”
“It’s contagious, this witch dance, it’s a global phenomenon,” said Keene, a descendant of a woman accused in the Salem witch trials. Her daughter, Emily, was an extra in the Hocus Pocus filming in Newport, and was joining her in the Witches of Chase Farm.
As they practiced at Chase Farm, just a few miles south there were hundreds of people marching in Providence in protest of the leaked draft from the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.
And in the leaked draft opinion by Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. were heavy references to the scholarship of 17th-century English judge Sir Matthew Hale — whose death sentence for two women accused of witchcraft later laid the framework for the Salem witch trials.
Just like that, past is present again. “Just goes to show that history isn’t quite linear,” said Rachel Christ-Doane, director of education at the Salem Witch Museum.
The museum had been noticing a surge of interest in modern-day witchcraft, especially as a religious identity, tied in with women’s issues, she said. “We saw this in the 1970s when women were addressing issues such as rape, child care, and racial inequality. These spiritual communities, you could see them doing spells or ritualized group experiences for victims ... as a tool of healing,” Christ-Doane said. “You can see now in recent weeks with people seeking community, with women’s rights under attack once more.”
Women were primarily the targets during the persecution of witches during the 17th century, Christ-Doane said. “It has a lot to due with being a woman in a patriarchal society,” she said, “so this kind of finding comfort in witchcraft as a symbol of women’s oppression, and women taking that back and finding empowerment, is something we see growing and growing.”
Amanda Milkovits can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.