A Reclaiming Quarterly theme section - Issue 94, Summer 2004
Dancing Toward Evolution - interview with T. Thorn Coyle
Dances of Universal Peace - by Irish Flambeau
Drop Bass, Not Bombs - by Eric
A Dance of Empowerment, Strength, and Community - interview with Palika
Earlier this year, we sent out a call for submissions on "Sacred Dance" to the greater Reclaiming community, and the response for this topic was the strongest we’ve ever received for a theme issue — Dance and the Goddess clearly strike a chord with many of you.
Movement is a very personal exercise (if you’ll pardon the pun), and we’ve tried to showcase several different approaches to sacred dance and the ways it can intertwine with spirit, community, and political action. From belly dance to universal peace, we hope you’ll find something in this section that inspires you to move in the world.
Theme section coordinated by lily and RQ.
Dancing Toward Evolution
An Interview with T. Thorn Coyle
A Witch since the 1980s, T. Thorn Coyle holds the Black Wand of Master and Sorcerer in the Anderson Feri Tradition and has also been a priestess in the Reclaiming tradition. A musician, dancer, activist, and poet, Thorn teaches internationally.
RQ: Tell us about your spiritual upbringing and your departure from Christianity.
I was always intensely religious. My connection with Spirit was very important to me as a child. Being raised Catholic, I was infused with an appreciation of ritual, music, and prayer. Unfortunately, I was also infused with body hatred, co-dependence, and a keen sense that all of my smallest infractions were huge, punishable offenses. I’m not saying that all Christian practices reflect these distortions, but these were what my child’s mind and emotions took hold of.
As a teenager, I sought a more embodied sense of religion and spirituality. When I was 16, I dropped out of high school and started taking college classes. In a philosophy class, we discussed animism. The thought that the Divine could be in the natural world was a revelation, and made sense on the visceral level. Around that time I also met my first Witches, and I felt like I’d come home. Here was a religion that taught that the Divine flowed through all things, that the natural world was sacred. I didn’t have to transcend the things of the body in order to reach the things of the spirit. This was truly revolutionary for me.
RQ: What led you to dance as a spiritual form?
I began dancing as a child, taking ballet lessons and then studying jazz dance. I was involved in theater from the ages of 10 to 18. But I never considered dance to have a spiritual connection, nor did I ever even consider myself to be a dancer, until I hit my early 20s and found tribal-style belly dance.
Belly dance saved my life. I was a classic intellectual — very head-centered with a diminished and sometimes contemptuous sense of my emotions and my body. Studying tribal-style belly dance with Fat Chance Belly Dance brought me thoroughly into my physical self. Moving from a low center of gravity began to shift my relationship to my body and to being a creature of Earth. Belly dance gave me a sense of moving from a rooted, balanced place. I truly feel that this saved me from becoming a bitter, overly-intellectual, half-formed human being. The sensuality of belly dance opened something inside of me that no other dance form had been able to. It connected me to my primal self, to my sexual, physical, and emotional self. Belly dance, coupled with my ongoing studies in magic, taught me about the possibilities of the physicality of spiritual practice and the sacredness of the human form.
This eventually led me to study sacred dance in the contexts of Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. In my late twenties, I went to the first annual Sufism symposium in San Francisco. I’d met some Sufis through belly dance, as a few of them would come to watch Fat Chance perform, and I realized that Sufism was something I wanted to explore. Luckily, the Mevlevi Order, founded by the mystic poet Mevlana Jalalludin Rumi, was open to all seekers — you didn’t have to be a Muslim to study with them.
RQ: What specifically drew you to Sufism?
I was searching for a way to integrate the world of the body with the world of mind and spirit.
With my belly dance troupe, I wanted to more fully explore dance as spiritual practice, as prayer. But I was the only person who had that focus. With the Sufis, this was the focus of all the people. Here was a group with a common focus, bringing physical practice into spiritual practice, as a way to connect with divinity.
You can put prayer and spirituality into any form. I could have studied contact improv and made it a spiritual practice, as some people do. But not everyone who does contact improv wants to use it as a spiritual practice.
To work with a group which was specifically using movement as a spiritual practice was new to me. I studied for three years with Whirling Dervishes. It brought home to me that prayer itself could bring us back into our bodies, into the divinity held in the manifest world.
Later on, I worked a bit with a Christian liturgical dancer whom I met at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. I watched her do incredible things with small groups of dancers on the altar spaces of churches. It changed the whole energy of the crowd.
I also briefly studied devotional Hindu dance (Odissi). I actually met my Odissi teacher when she was dancing in a restaurant. She came out and did a beautiful dance for Krishna, and I said, "I have to study this!"
RQ: How did you develop your own work, Devotional Dance?
Working with Sufism, having a specific prayer practice that was fully physical, was an important step into my process of developing my own work.
When I hit my Saturn Return (around age 28), I quit Fat Chance Belly Dance. I had begun studying with the Dervishes, but I went through a year of depression around what my work really was. One day, about a year after I left Fat Chance, I put on some music, and the first of my movements came to me. I’ve always considered them a gift in that I didn’t "make them up." The movements began to move through me. Devotional Dance uses simple, repetitive movements specifically as a way to move energy. I would tinker with them to see, "If I change this, how does it affect the energy?"
Moving energy is a practice we cultivate in Witchcraft. To have a way to move and transform energy through my body, rather than just doing spellwork or trancework, was very powerful.
As my work progressed, I began to actively seek out movements keyed to the energies of the various tools we use in Feri Tradition and Reclaiming. Movements came through for all the points on the Iron and Pearl Pentacles, and also for Triple Soul and the Elements of Life.
RQ: The Elements of Life?
You know, the elements — Earth, air...
RQ: Oh, those elements. Sorry, go ahead.
Over time, working with these movements, I sensed how easy it was to work through blocks and issues, to delve more deeply into my own physical self and my psyche through movement. I realized it was a tool that might be helpful to others. If a person is having a lot of trouble working on an issue involving, say, sex or pride, they can do a specific movement that frees up the energy in their body and being. This can give them a full sense of that power and energy, and they can begin to call it back into their lives, and to unbind the knots that have choked it for many years.
Movement in general is very helpful, particularly for people who have trouble being present and being in their bodies. The Devotional Dance movements are simple enough that anyone can do them. That alone can be powerful for someone, to realize they can use their bodies and be in their bodies, let alone use that to effect spiritual integration or transformation. My movements have jokingly been called "Pagan Tai Chi." It’s not surprising, though I’ve never studied those systems, that my movements have qualities similar to other practices such as Tai Chi or Qi Gong. These systems and mine, in coupling physical movement with energy movement, end up running in patterns that feel similar to people. Also, energy does move in specific channels through our bodies, so naturally the movements in the different systems would reflect this.
RQ: How do you integrate dance into your broader work?
I generally teach Devotional Dance in the context of a larger workshop, on say, Triple Soul or Iron Pentacle. I weave the movements into the work. It becomes another piece that people can integrate into their work.
When I started teaching Devotional Dance, I taught it separately, as its own form of working. But more and more, I find it effective to teach it as part of a larger whole, giving people a context for their work. Our daily lives should not be compartmentalized, and our spiritual lives shouldn’t be, either. We can do singing, drumming, and trance work, and we can dance to free up and integrate all these energies.
RQ: You’ve organized sitting meditations at the San Francisco Federal Building in opposition to U.S. wars. How does this relate to your dance?
Yes, I also practice and teach sitting in stillness. Without an exploration of both stillness and movement, we’re missing something as Pagans. The power of stillness in the body and the power of movement in the body both reflect something that is natural in humans — the need for structure and stability as well as flow and change. If we have only one or the other, our lives are stunted and incomplete. Combining potent stillness with vital motion lends our lives health and expansion and a connection with other things in the natural world. Stillness, linked with movement, reflects our very breath — we inhale, and naturally we pause. We exhale, and naturally we pause. Things slow down in Winter and speed up in Spring and Summer. Using actual physical stillness and movement connects me fully to the world around me and to my own divinity, which is a reflection of the immanent divinity that flows through and makes up all things.
RQ: So how does it all come together?
Magic can be very cerebral, which I appreciate. I value and honor the intellect, and sometimes even wish there was more critical thinking among Pagans. But as a practitioner of a non-transcendent, embodied religion, I think there’s a real need to connect as often as possible not just to the physical world outside of us, but to our own bodies, as creatures in the physical world. Too often a Witch or a Magician will spend all their time making spells or reading books or doing trancework, and neglect their bodies, their need for good food, exercise, sleep, and sex — all those basic things that keep us healthy and connected.
I think the days of working magic like that are coming to an end. Well, I can’t really make that statement. I hope they are, because that sort of magic serves the forces of disconnection, which are very strong in our culture already. The more we strive to reconnect and build cultures of connection with each other, the better off the world will be. The more we engage our whole selves and realize our own divinity, the more balanced our lives will become. The more balanced our lives are, the better able we are to do our true work and be of service. And that’s how we dance toward evolution.
(2004 bio) A Witch for more than 20 years, T. Thorn Coyle holds the Black Wand of Master and Sorcerer in the Anderson Feri Tradition and is also a priestess in the Reclaiming Tradition. A musician, dancer, activist, and poet, Thorn teaches internationally. For more information on her workshops, writings, music CDs, or her instructional Devotional Dance DVD, please visit www.thorncoyle.com
Interview by George Franklin/RQ
Dances of Universal Peace
by Irish Flambeau
Since becoming involved with Reclaiming, I have participated in a number of demonstrations. At each of them, I have watched to see the flow of energy — where did magic seem to be happening, and where did energy seem to be falling flat? What seems to work? What is the best use of our efforts?
The activism gig can get wearing. At times it seems like an exercise in futility — banging our heads against the Wall and the Machine. For me, it is important to find a sustainable form of activism that works, that builds community, and is accessible to a broad spectrum of people.
Oftentimes when the subject of political demonstrations comes up in conversations, people tell me that they are turned off from attending by the yelling, protesting, "anti-" atmosphere that they see reported by the media. Being "against" something, I think, gives them nothing to hold on to.
I believe a more sustainable approach is to ask, "What are you for?" and bring proactive, supportive actions to the demonstrations. Even a change in language can help, such as "demonstration" (what are you for?) vs. "protest" (what are you against?). I believe that bringing something positive, uplifting and proactive to demonstrations can be a way to sustain our work and to open a space for people to join us who might not have otherwise. The Dances of Universal Peace can be such a thing; we can stand for peace.
As a dancer of the Dances of Universal Peace for over 15 years, I have long known about the transformative power of sacred dance and believe it is a valuable addition to demonstrations. The Dances of Universal Peace are simple circle dances that are taught anew each time, using sacred chants from world spiritual traditions, live music and group singing. They are a form of moving meditation that heighten awareness through looking deeply into the eyes of another, while alternately dancing alone or with a partner. The Dances were originated in the 1960s by the American Sufi Murshid Samuel L. Lewis, with inspiration by the dancer Ruth St. Denis. Lewis’ prescription for peace was: "eat, dance, and pray together." Like Reclaiming rituals, the nature of these circle dances amplifies energies, unites groups of people in the moment, and helps create community.
I first encountered the Dances while living in New Orleans. One dance, accompanied by a harmonium, stands out in my mind. The dance circle was made up of two intertwined circles, each going in opposite directions. Traveling around the circle from one partner to another, I greeted each person with an extended handclasp, first right, then left. With each handclasp, a different name for Goddess was invoked: Kali, Radhe, Sita, Parvati...while seeing each dancer as that Goddess. I believe that creating this kind of healing space is essential, because our current societal difficulties arise out of perceiving those different from us as "Other." The energy raised by such a dance is a cone or bubble that can be released into the world.
A few years ago, one of my Reclaiming mentors, Gretchen Laymon, suggested to me that I develop this skill and integrate it with Reclaiming-style priestessing. I joined the formal hierarchy of the Dances’ Mentor Training Guild, becoming a supervised dance leader and co-creating a new, public dance group in my community which is ongoing (monthly).
As part of Reclaiming priestessing, our dance leadership team of Parsley, Catwrenae and myself took the Dances into the streets, to demonstrations. The biggest ones were in 2001 and 2002 at the Y-12 nuclear bomb plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. We went the day before to the organizing group’s nonviolence trainings and led Dances for their class, thereby ensuring familiarity and willing participants to help engage the crowd.
I have also led Dances at a 9/11 street memorial, for church groups and at a boarding school as interfaith experiences (with protesting faculty members sitting out, stating that anyone participating would go to hell), for a community Wiccan group, as part of Reclaiming classes and at Witchcamp as a camper offering and as part of a camp ritual, and more recently, at the Peace Celebration in Durham, North Carolina organized by the Reclaiming group Dragon’s Cauldron. The Peace Celebration was covered by local media, the Dances were shown on television, and our spiral dance around the Green Dragon puppet was featured in the paper amidst an entire section on the war in Iraq.
I mention this list of places to show the diversity of places you can go with sacred dance and to share the power of what the image of a dance around the Green Dragon, right in the newspaper, can do. I think it is an important antidote to fear and helplessness. It is proactive. It is "can do," and people are drawn to it. The Dances are participatory. Anyone can do them. All are included, no matter their ability level. People in wheelchairs have danced, and people who can’t move are invited to the middle. As Donald Engstrom says: "All are needed in the circle."
I think the Dances of Universal Peace can be valuable to Reclaiming because of their variety. It is my personal belief that the spiral dance is somewhat of a sacred cow in Reclaiming. Can’t we do more than one dance? There is a wealth of experience in dance leadership. Reclaiming priestesses could learn about the additional dance energies that the Dances of Universal Peace have honed. In my opinion, Reclaiming ritual is really strong in the elements of Fire and Water, having lots of energy and feeling and big cones of orgasmic power. Dances of Universal Peace ritual has a strength in Earth and Air, of holding and sustaining out a meditative quality into a long, drawn out, ecstatic ahhhh. Each could learn from the other.
Bringing Dances to political actions or any kind of event also breaks up the flow. We can only listen to so many speeches! What a relief it is to get up and take hands with the people next to you, to lift voice in song and hear the guitar and drum. And the energy! We know it raises energy, and it is a quick way to get a diverse group of people raising energy together. Not just any energy...energy with a smile on your face!
Ram Dass says that going to a "peace" demonstration and yelling isn’t adding to the peace. It just adds to the anger. I think this is quite literal on the energetic plane. As Witches, we know energy is real. What energy are you adding to when you go to a demonstration? Let’s get strategic and skillful and deliberate. What are you for?
Irish Flambeau is a Peace Witch and Dances of Universal Peace leader.
Drop Bass, Not Bombs
Ruminations of a Dancing Anarchist Witch — by Eric
Dance, when you’re broken open.
Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance, when you’re perfectly free.
I have been a dancer longer than I have been a Witch, longer than I have traced pentagrams in the air, longer than I have read Aleister Crowley or Starhawk.
Before I recited the Four Noble Truths, I stumbled out of warehouses as the sun rose, covered in dirt and sweat. Before I knew that sun salutations could alter consciousness, I found pleasure in twisting my body and stomping my feet. Before I knew intellectually that dance could be worship, I found my way to the altar of bass.
I have always had a deep longing for the sacred, for the ecstatic embrace of the divine. When I was a child, I would walk slowly and purposefully up to the altar of our small Catholic Church. I would stare up at the Jesus on the wall, put the communion wafer in my mouth, and let it dissolve there – scared to even swallow lest I break the magic spell.
By my teenage years, my friends and I were deeply Christian, an instinct driving us to seek and seek more, our surroundings providing us our framework. We were also ravers and budding consciousness expanders. On Thursdays, we had bible study. On Fridays, we went dancing. On Saturdays, we ate LSD and talked about God and religion and consciousness and at-one-ment. On Sundays, we went back to church with our families. The lines between the activities began to blur, sometimes quite literally.
Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
Dance me to the end of love.
— Leonard Cohen
A few years ago I bought Gabrielle Roth’s book, Sweat Your Prayers. In it, she details a way to use movement to get back to the primal, to reconnect with the archetypes embodied in our Gods, to claim our authentic selves in a spirit of openness, mystery, and joy.
The first time I danced specifically as conscious prayer, I ran up against all my obstacles, all my boundaries. I did a purification ritual, connected with my breath, called on the four directions, and put on some music. I began to move, scared that someone walking by would be able to see me. As my dancing increased in intensity, my old patriarchal God tapes began to replay themselves in my head. "This isn’t prayer," the old man with the white beard said. "This isn’t sacred, this is silly!" I waved him away and kept dancing, kept breathing. Before I knew it, he was replaced with a fat toddler, sitting cross-legged on the floor, clapping her hands and shouting, "More! More! More!"
My fondness for dancing, in retrospect, was born out of the profoundly spiritual urge to shatter boundaries and move beyond the egoistic self. The root of my activism, the root of my struggles for freedom and justice, the reasons I practice magick, and the reason I sit in meditation staring at a wall, are intertwined. At their base is a pre-linguistic knowledge that separation is false. We are all lonely. You can see it in our eyes. On the dance floor, there’s no one else here, it’s all just us…just-us…just-ice.
The body is a sacred garment.
— Martha Graham
Dancing brings us back to ourselves. It shatters that split between body and spirit, between the sacred and profane, the fragile boundaries between me and you. Dancing is liminal worship. The vibe only exists between the lines. The flow compels us to fight through our fears: How do I look? Am I doing this right? What am I going to do next? Is that person laughing at me? Yet we can’t stop moving because the beat is still there. We can’t keep moving if we are tripping over our ego. So we must discard it. Surrender to the flow. For a second maybe? A minute? An hour? A lifetime?
The beat strips us bare. Music and movement strip away our ego. The groove has a door. To open that door, you need to leave your "self" on the porch. In the groove there is no separation, only movement. Good dancing, like any Divine whisper in our ears, leaves us madly in love with everyone we see.
Dancing returns us to the source, to that place of unnamed names, so that we can bring back new colors (ones that haven’t even been named yet). Dancing returns us to the source, that place of pregnant possibility, so that we can bring back new Gods (ones that never demand vengeance). Dancing pitches us headfirst into the void, laughing and scared, so that we can bring back a magic mirror and look into it every morning and say "I love you!"
The emphasis in house music and rave culture on physiologically compatible rhythms and this sort of thing is really the rediscovery of the art of natural magic with sound — that sound, properly understood, especially percussive sound, can actually change neurological states, and large groups of people getting together in the presence of this kind of music are creating a telepathic community of bonding that hopefully will be strong enough that it can carry the vision out into the mainstream of society. — Terrence McKenna
I haven’t eaten acid, taken communion, or been to bible study classes in years now. I can foresee that there might be a day when I no longer practice sitting meditation, or invoke gods, or practice my up-dog down-dog yoga routine. There may be a day when I stop praying entirely. A day when I stop writing entirely. But I fully expect to be dancing at my last breath.
Dancing is revolutionary. Dancing creates community. Dancing raises power. Dancing points us towards home.
So….the next time you are barefoot at a Phish show. The next time you are sweaty at a rave. The next time you go contra dancing. The next time you do a spiral dance in the middle of Grand Central Station. The next time you lose yourself in the scent of your tango partner’s hair. The next time you’re smashed up against 20 screaming bodies in the middle of the mosh pit. The next time you drag speakers into the middle of a highway and reclaim our space. The next time a turntablist forces you to gape in awe. The next time a DJ drops you to your knees. The next time the melody line drops out and you look around, exhausted, trying not to let old doubts/old stories/old myths creep back into this moment. This moment. Now. Look for me. Look at yourself. And when the melody creeps back in with all the intensity of a three-in-the-morning-full-moon-orgasm, remember (you already know this) – there is only one of us here. And She loves to dance.
Eric is a Buddhist Witch currently living in Columbus, Ohio. Also one of those scary black-bloc anarchists. Can be found at a Phish show, rave, or street demo near you. Can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Giving Birth to A Dance of Empowerment, Strength and Community
An Interview with Palika
Palika is the Artistic Director of Heavy Hips Tribal Belly Dance in Santa Cruz, California.
RQ: When and why you did you start dancing — and how you did you end up dancing and teaching a Middle Eastern style?
I started dancing when I was young. My mother put me in ballet and jazz classes when I was seven, and I pretty much stayed there until I was eighteen. I was very in my body. I thought I had a magical power where music went into my ears and in every cell of my body and I could actually spit it back out and materialize it into manifest form. I loved ballet, and I loved jazz, and I kind of did everything. Around age 19, I taught the Hustle, and worked for Arthur Murray Dance Studio and that was a blast too.
In 1977 my life took a dramatic turn. I took vows and lived in an ashram for over ten years through my 20’s. In the ashram I studied and practiced traditional Bhakti Yoga. There I was introduced to Bharatnatyam; the sacred dance of India, where every single movement is a storytelling meant to instruct spiritual values and reiterate past times of great sages or goddesses and gods. The dance is incredibly focused and meditative, and takes years to master.
This was the first time I was introduced to the tradition of Devi Dasis or temple dancers — young girls given at about seven years of age to the temple, dedicated to dance solely for the Divine. In fact, the tradition there is that you don’t dance for a secular audience. Others may see you, but only because you are dancing for the pleasure of the deities. Here the idea was planted that dance is a spiritual practice.
I left the ashram at around 30, moving to Santa Cruz in 1989, a radical feminist politically and spiritually, doggedly researching the Goddess. I read Starhawk, Merlin Stone, Charlene Spretnak, and embraced deep ecology and a spiritual practice that centered on the Goddess. In 1991 just after birthing my daughter Shyama, a sister had a party and there was a belly dancer. She was dancing, intensely zoning in on me, and I was very attracted to her. She intitiated me into the dance that night by dramatically draping her veil around my shoulders with a fixed stare. Six months later, I saw other belly dancers and it was cabaret-style, and I thought, “I love the way they move, but I cannot stand this sexy kitten, Marilyn Monroe thing.” So I gave up on it.
Three years later, someone invited me to another belly dance show. Rossah and her troupe Hand of Fatima were performing. The lights went down, the music went up, and they came out wearing tassels and caftans, a completely different look and feel, playing frame drums, zills and zaghareeting. They performed group dances primarily, as opposed to solos and I thought, “Right on! This is what it’s about, this is community and ritual, it’s not just being sexy for guys.” So I studied with Rossah for about two years, and I became a student teacher with her.
I was still very much involved with feminism and Pagan beliefs, and Rossah did a six- or seven-week series she called, “The Goddess Series,” where students would study different Goddesses like Athena, Hera, Aphrodite and Nefertiti — she was into the Egyptian and Roman pantheons. Women would circle all day and do dances and movements while meditating on the qualities of Goddess. Again I experienced dance as sacred- spiritual practice.
Later, at about 40, a friend was living in the mountains and had a women’s teepee circle going with women doing ritual and meditation together. They decided as a group to share something significant outside of their moon circles. My friend says (referring to me), -“I know this incredible woman who teaches belly dance, she says it’s a dance of birth, it’s a dance of the Goddess!”
She called and I was hesitant, but said if they gathered a group of ten women together I’d come every week. She got ten women, and the first time we met, I’m dressed in my choli, hip belt, and skirt, looking exotic. I stood up and said, “Okay, now let’s embrace the universe,” and as I lifted my arms up over my head, my top comes completely off and my breasts pop out, and I’m like, “Well, here we are!” It was very telling of the nurturing that was to come through Heavy Hips Tribal Belly Dance.
I worked with those women for a year, starting classes in Santa Cruz too, which has now become a school, presenting belly dance as a sacred dance of birth and calling a circle before each dance series began. We’re inspired by the contemporary dances of the Middle East, but acknowledge that this movement of circling bellies and spiraling hips originates from ancient ritualistic dances of women’s -prehistory. It’s the birthright of every woman and that’s where the power and the draw lie. The symbolism of circles, spirals and figure eights emanating from the female giving birth is still relevant for modern women. I get bored really fast if something is shallow, and I couldn’t sustain for long if my work didn’t have cosmic, existential experience behind it that’s real and authentic. Thus I currently teach and practice the art of Tribal Style Belly Dance.
This is how Heavy Hips Tribal Belly Dance came about — it just took a long time to get here.
RQ: How do you feel that teaching and performing, and your own daily practice of dance, relates to your spiritual practice?
In so many ways. I think we all feel helpless sometimes about making change in the world because it’s all so overwhelming. It’s easy to think there’s nothing you can do.
But I’ve seen people’s lives change radically by spending time with Heavy Hips Tribal Belly Dance — not because it’s me, but because I’m a vessel for what comes through. Some women discover a sadness in their life and they need to make a change. Some women discover for the first time, “Wow, I’m beautiful and powerful and sensual.” Some women find that they’ve been dancers all along. I encourage people to come to class when they’re depressed or something’s bothering them. That may be the best thing you can do, bring your body and be present in the circle. You’ll discover something there.
Some women come because they’re tied down with babies and children, and they don’t have time for themselves. Women come who are controlled by their husbands or partners. She’s coming to class, and I’m saying “Your life is not meant only to serve a man. Your body is not a sex object for his pleasure. What do you want to do with your body and what does your body need from you? How will it be if you can learn to move your ribcage around, if you can open this place up — what else is going to open up in your life?” That happens — you’re holding something in a certain place in your body, and then you move it. Sometimes people will cry. I try to create a safe space where it’s okay if that happens.
When you start telling women that their blood is powerful and their body is powerful and round hips are powerful, and being skinny is not all it’s cracked up to be — things happen. You know, feminism is hardly done and over. Consciousness-raising groups are not done and over, not by a long shot! I help women discover they are powerful and wise.
RQ: How do you feel that your choice of a Middle Eastern dance form, and your relation to the Goddess and the Divine, affects your activism in the world outside of dance? It’s a culture you didn’t grow up in — how do you relate to people from that part of the world, and women of other cultures in general?
Well, that’s an interesting question. I lecture the first day of my classes beginning with “Hello, the Middle East is not just Egypt! Do you know what countries are influenced by the Arabic people? What countries are influenced by Islam? What countries are we talking about here?” When we start naming them off, you get diverse cultures: North African culture, the Arabic Peninsula, and central Asian cultures. Northwest India has played a very powerful part in the mix, because DNA testing shows that the Roma gypsies originate from northwest India.
I think it’s incredibly important to understand and learn about women of those cultures. After 9/11, I was so embarrassed that I didn’t teach classes for a week. When I came back, I said, “I can’t teach this anymore, who am I to be talking about or listening to Middle Eastern music or playing around with dance that is inspired by music and dance of the Middle East? Who do I think I am?”
We circled in the classes and I got people’s input about what they needed. Many of them said they needed this more than ever, because it’s a dance that’s sacred, it’s a dance about what it was like before there was Saudi Arabia and the United States, before there was Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere — when there were just tribal people surviving and living, and women’s bodies bleeding and people believing that the divine was feminine, and a dance coming out of that about birth. That’s where it came from. So how can we go back to those roots and use them to help a situation, or at least live with the guilt about the gulf between north and south, east and west?
We women who explore Middle Eastern dance should be tithing money to support Middle Eastern women. I’ve made donations, but I think the whole belly dance industry should be tithing money to support social work and political work in these countries.
I take learning very seriously. I encourage my students to learn and understand what’s going on in the Middle East. In Middle Eastern cultures, bellydance is considered to be for prostitutes, it’s considered low class. They’re not contemplating the Goddess and feminism, or the creative power of women. I’ve had a lot of privilege to contemplate those things. I have the opportunity to go out on a full moon night and make a circle. Other people in other countries don’t. So it’s a topic I visit often.
One of the things that we talked about after 9/11 was that we are placeholding something sacred, because women in Iran, women in India, women in Afghanistan — whether or not they believe they’re repressed, can’t dance at this time. In Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and India, women are suffering. I was reading this book about RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) and I thought, I just can’t go on, I am not doing anything nearly significant enough. This dance has been an incredible tool and incredible vehicle, but it’s just not deep enough for me, it’s not politically active enough for me.
I’m not in this business just to perform and have someone look at me. It’s not about that, it’s about what happens in the classes, what happens on a day-to-day basis when people come together and we explore dance and movement and meditation. The performance is just icing on the cake. It’s a place to take the energy and the insight. When we perform, we are priestessing. When we go out and we dance we are bringing the Goddess to the people. We’re modeling women’s bodies and birthing bodies as powerful, fundamental and relevant, something that we should all pay a lot more attention to. What does it mean to be fecund and fertile and have the power of life and death inside your body?
RQ: And really that women of any shape and size and age and ability can do this sacred art form — you don’t have to be this “beautiful” 19-year-old, size 5 woman.
Right. I witness two things happening simultaneously. When I’m honing a troupe for presentation on a professional stage, the standard and intention is very different, than when you’re creating a circle for a spiritual purpose, when it really doesn’t matter how people dance. I might teach people movement we can all share together, and it doesn’t matter if they do it “right,” it’s just your body doing sacred movement, expressing spirit.
Sometimes this dichotomy hurts me. For example someone takes Level 1, then Level 2, and they’ll want to go on to Level 3. But Level 3 is highly skilled, specific movement geared towards performance standards. I’ve taught them that this dance is for everybody, that movement is sacred and the community is sacred — and then they come to this door that may not be open to them.
I have a performance group, women that I’m developing into professional dancers, where I’m fostering technical skills. That’s different from honing spiritual wisdom and spiritual peace. That’s one of the parts of my job that I find really challenging, that I’m doing both. Yet if I want to have a performance troupe that performs in the world of dance and is respected in the dance world, there are standards. I wouldn’t take the whole women’s community to dance at a performance-art venue.
What I can do, where I can cross the two over, is the performance arts group, who are reaching levels of technical skill to present publicly- — they’re all practicing the same discipline and same spiritual practice every time they come to class. They explore their divinity, their empowerment, their meditation — it’s just that in addition to that, I am honing them technically. “It’s gotta be just like this, your foot placement is here, etc.” It’s different. And that gets hard.
RQ: Do you feel at this point in your dance and teaching career that dance is your primary spiritual practice? Do you still do ritual?
Dance is not my primary spiritual practice. Life is my primary spiritual practice. No question about it. There’s no one spiritual practice. Breathing is probably the most primary practice I do. I’m into meditation, and I like the Zen point of view right now, blending it with Earth Goddess insight. I really believe that sitting still and breathing and paying attention is one of the most significant spiritual practices ever, of all times. It can be one of the most politically charged things that you do, sitting still and breathing and paying attention to the world around you. So few people do that. None of our so-called leaders do.
Dance is not my primary spiritual practice. It’s my primary way of making money while living in spirit at the same time. I’ve never been good at making money in a way that is not somehow service-oriented and isn’t somehow helping people grow into who they are, why they’re here, what’s going on — what’s important, what’s relevant, what’s authentic, what it means to be an integrous human being on the planet.
RQ: Do you think that teaching dance and performing in your troupe is in your long-term plans?
No, definitely not. I’ve already made that decision. I can’t get up on my high horse and say, “The way I interpret where belly dance came from and the spin that I put on it is the only and best way it should be.” I might think that, but I’m not going to stand in the face of some woman from Egypt with a different point of view who’s been doing cabaret belly dance her whole life and say, “What are you doing?” That would be ridiculous and ethnocentric.
The dance came to me and I came to it with who I am — a radical deep ecology feminist Buddhist problem-stirring radical bitch witch — that’s what I am. So the dance came to me and that’s what it got when it came in touch with me. When the Goddess knocks on your front door, you answer it. You don’t pretend you’re not home.
I feel like it was a gift, that it was given to me and I went with it. Now other things are stirring, other things are pushing, so my work is evolving and I’m listening.
RQ: Will dance always be a part of your life?
Oh, absolutely. Or yoga. It’s about moving your body, and yoga is a dance. And sometimes dance is meditation. Some spiritual practices have this idea that the body is bad — if you want to get the existential realization you need to get out of your body. While some of the underlying concepts are important — that you are not your body in the sense that your spirit is who you really are — I think that through the body we learn a lot of things about spirit. We learn a lot about being an embodied person, being a spirit embodied, living in this material world.
How do you do that? It’s not easy. It keeps you on your toes. A lot of people are starting to come to the realization that they can’t live without integrity of spirit and body. What you eat, what you grow, where you spend your money, your time, what kind of ideas you want to foster — a lot of people are thinking like that, and that’s good.
RQ: Do you have any words of wisdom to share with RQ readers who have not yet delved into sacred dance, or whatever art form they choose?
I would warn that there are many places that will profess to be centers of dance and spirit, but that will crush your spirit. And there are many wonderful touchstones that can free all kinds of things in you through dance. Something as simple as the right salsa dance class can be the most amazing spiritual experience, if where you are spiritually shut down is in not knowing how to have fun. You need to have that feeling in your body. Even if you are a spiritual activist or teacher, it’s not all dry work all the time — there needs to be joy, too.
My words of wisdom are to find a place and way to move. If you can’t find a teacher or a group of people you want to work with, then light some candles and put on the music that inspires you and dance in your house. Naked, or in your favorite diaphanous gown, or in your sweatpants. You can have this experience of moving your body and being one with the music and that can take you into the experience of being one with Mama Earth. And that can take you into the experience of “gosh, every person, good and evil, is in me.” And then we understand that there’s nothing left to do but be mindful and compassionate. We’re all the bad and the good, we’re all one.
I think it’s sad that so many adults don’t move their bodies. They don’t dance. They get caught up in the idea that it needs to be a certain dance and look a certain way. Sacred dance is really just you and/or your partner, or you and your friends. Light the candles, turn on music that inspires you and move, however you want to move. If something sad is happening in your life, put on the saddest music that you know of and move. If that means crawling on the ground and crying, then do that.
Expression and curiosity are important. It gets us in touch with the juice of life. We hold emotion at our cellular level, so when you move your body, you get in touch with and move emotions. If you can move your arms and your legs, you can move emotions in your body, move the way you think, even the way you live your life. You can move your heart, you can move your sense of giving, you can move your sense of service.
Contact Palika and Heavy Hips Tribal Belly Dance, www.heavyhips.net
Interview by lily/RQ.