WICKFORD, R.I. — A few basics before we dive into our tale of the dancing witches of Wickford who kicked open the broom closet door and haven’t looked back since. They’ve won over this seaside village’s hearts with their choreography, and now these enchantresses hope their newfound popularity can also win over minds and educate people about witchcraft.
Let’s address the stereotypes first. Ditch the green face paint and poisoned apples. The witches say it’s offensive and hurtful. Disney has done them no favors. Pointy hats and brooms are OK, and “crone” is considered a compliment. Please remember that witches don’t fall into a single category. Some identify as clairvoyant. Some are herbalists, some connect with the sea or the earth, some identify as Christian or pagan, and others are empaths.
That’s a very abbreviated Whitman’s Sampler of witches.
“Let’s be honest, everyone’s a witch,” said Nancy Rafi, head witch of the Rhode Island Witches Guild. “If you go to a birthday party, make a wish, and blow out candles, that’s practicing the craft. It’s a spell-like manifestation. People do all types of things that are based in the craft that you don’t realize. Some people just tie into it a little bit more than others.”
In the spirit of “everyone’s a witch,” Rafi, 65, who had been practicing her craft in private, decided to go public and quickly found compatriots in the region. In 2021, she put the word out on social media that she was looking for other witches to join her in Wickford’s annual Horribles Parade on Halloween. Rafi had seen a video on YouTube of witches in Germany performing a choreographed dance to a reggae-punk song, and decided to replicate it for the Wickford parade. She was shocked when 147 witches and non-witches decided to join her.
‘Let’s be honest. Everyone is a witch. Some people just tie into it a little bit more than others. ’
Nancy Rafi, Rhode Island Guild of Witches
That was 2021. In 2022, the number of participants ballooned to 482 witches and their allies. They came from 12 states and Canada, all of them ready to dance to Peter Fox’s “Schüttel deinen Speck” again. In a page borrowed from the LGBTQ+ handbook, it was essentially a witch Pride march.
“Downtown Wickford had never seen that many people,” she said. “The police estimated between 3,000 and 3,500 spectators. The whole town shut down. I was surprised, not shocked, but surprised.”
Members of the Rhode Island Witches Guild don’t know what to expect this year, but they’re predicting the number of witches participating, and the crowd watching, to swell significantly. They’ve already outgrown the town’s Horribles Parade. This year the witches will have their own parade. They’ll kick off at 2 p.m. on Oct. 21 in downtown Wickford. That night they’re holding a witches ball. Tickets for the ball sold out immediately.
It’s fitting that Wickford has become a popular epicenter for witches. John Updike’s 1984 book (and the 1987 film) “The Witches of Eastwick” was set in a fictionalized version of Wickford.
During a recent outdoor rehearsal in Newport, the witches, decked out in elaborate frocks and carrying brooms that ranged from basic to bedazzled, drew a sizable crowd. They danced to “Schüttel deinen Speck,” but also rehearsed new numbers, including an exotic dance to Lana Del Ray’s cover of “Season of the Witch.” Phones were high in the air as the audience excitedly took videos and photos. It was as if the Rhode Island witches managed to find a perfect way to show the world that witches are not malevolent harpies who roam the earth looking to cast evil spells. Just like the rest of us, these witches just want to have fun.
The dancing, the parade, and the upcoming witches ball are more than recreation for these women. For participants who are practicing witches, the guild has been a way to bond and make new friends. It’s also taken away the shame that many of them felt for being witches.
Susan Clements, who owns Earth & Ocean Herbals in North Kingston, said she faced scorn for years because she practices witchcraft. She’s an herbalist who began her profession in the early 1980s. She previously owned the Herb Wyfe in Wickford, where people called her “the town witch.” They didn’t say it as a compliment.
“There were parents who were telling their kids that they couldn’t come in my store,” Clements said. “I was just doing my thing, but I happened to be earth-based in my beliefs.”
Clements, 73, was named best witch at the 2022 parade, and said she was thrilled with the title. It was as if the work she has done for decades was finally acknowledged. The story is similar among members of the guild. They say they no longer feel alone, and there is strength in numbers.
“It’s been such a blessing to find like-minded women,” said Katie-lyn Merolla, 49, of Warwick. She’s a medium and channeler who also uses crystal healing. “I mentioned I was in the guild to my family at a barbecue without even thinking about it. Immediately, my cousin looked at me and said, ‘Oh, we’re doing that now?’ There’s a lot of ignorance about what we do.”
That ignorance stretches back centuries. Long before the Salem witch trials, women were being accused of witchcraft, ostracized from their communities, murdered, or tortured. The stereotypical green face of witches can be traced back to when some women were tortured to the point that they became infected with gangrene or were beaten so badly that their faces and bodies were discolored with bruises. Burning at the stake may have been glamorized in “American Horror Story: Coven” (”Balenciaga!”) and became a symbol of the Salem Witch Trials, but it was a reality for women accused of witchcraft for hundreds of years.
Sadly, the witches of the guild are still facing scorn. Rafi said she gets emails and messages on social media with threats and slurs. Other witches in the guild say they’ve faced harassment and plenty of name-calling.
“In the 1980s, I had to make the decision: Do I make myself a public witch or do I stay in the broom closet?,” said Cheryl Solyma-Masson, a belly dance instructor, nurse, and head witch of the recently-formed Massachusetts Witches Guild, Southeast Chapter. “I decided that for my own children and future generations that I owed it to them to be a public witch. So I did put myself in a position where I would get a lot of insults and things like that, but it’s also given me a chance to educate.”
Several members of the witches guild are not witches. It’s a support group for witches, but also a social group for anyone. This year’s parade is dedicated to one member battling cancer. Anyone can participate in events (even men) as long as they come with good intentions, a kind heart, and an open mind. Susan St. Pierre of Warwick is a member of both the Providence and Southeastern Mass. guilds (there are currently six guilds), but is not a witch. She’s there for the dancing and friendship. She even helped the witches secure an outdoor performance space in Newport earlier this month.
Since the formation of the Rhode Island guild, women across the country have been contacting Rafi about starting their own chapters. At the moment she said the guild is adding three chapters per year. It’s understandable why there’s been demand. These witches and friends are all about doing good, having fun, and helping others. For the record, no evil spells have been cast on their detractors — so they say.
“I think they’re absolutely wonderful,” said 83-year-old Ellie Lupo, a former ballerina, modern dancer, and choreographer. When her husband passed away, she found a new outlet for dancing with the witches, and also made many new friends in the process. “We just have a good time and laugh a lot. I think their special power is the positivity and smiles that they bring to everyone who sees them.”
How to see the witches this October
- The Rhode Island Witches Guild rehearse the witches dance on Oct. 15 at 10 a.m. at 30 Beach St. in North Kingston. Anyone can join. Attendees are encouraged to bring a hat and broom. Immediately after the dancing, the witches are holding a “Bling up Your Broom” event.
- The witches parade takes place Oct. 21 at 2 p.m. in downtown Wickford. There will be shuttles downtown from municipal parking lots.
- For more information on events or joining a chapter, go to www.RIWitchesGuild.com.