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Spirituality of Dance


Growing up a good Seventh-day Adventist girl, the closest I got to dancing was twirling around the house on Friday afternoons with the dust rag to “Kitten on the Keys.” The jazz piano solo was the perfect background for Sabbath preparations and made the chores go twice as fast. I never wished for more, beyond daydreaming of being Clara in the Nutcracker Suite.

Twenty years later, somewhat more grown, but somehow still that little girl, I’m realizing how disconnected I am from my body. So I’m experimenting with dance as a way to re-member my body-brain.

My husband grew up in New Jersey and Maine where contra dancing was the favored entertainment, socializing, and aerobic activity of the week. When he first took me to a contra dance, he let me know he’d be dancing with lots of other women. I was hurt, picturing the dancing I’d been warned of—cheek-to-cheek, hand on waist but dangerously close to lower regions, sensual and provocative, leading to you know what. When we arrived at the dance hall and I saw that most of the women were gray-haired, my fears subsided. When the string band broke into the first reel, my feet and arms let go of all inhibition. An experienced gent led me through each move as a caller named them—balance and swing, allamande, half-hey, do-si-do. With each dance we changed partners, lightly holding hands with folks of every gender, age, size, and skill. No one looked askance when I stumbled in the wrong direction. No one balked when there weren’t enough men to go around and a woman took the traditional gent’s role. We shared intimate touch and smiles, looking into another’s eyes through each rotation of a “gypsy.” Yet there was nothing dirty about it, just good old-fashioned fun and a whole lot of what I imagine church should offer—welcome, whole being engagement, joy, beauty, community.

An ecstatic dance gathering even calls itself church. An offering is collected to help maintain the sprung wooden floor and rent the space. We dance as the spirit moves us. Music in five rhythms—flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical, stillness—calls out deep, subconscious reactions, now embodied and made visible. No dance looks alike. Each individual’s movements are creative, unique, perhaps never to be repeated. We move around each other mostly alone, yet surrounded by such presence and pure intention that there is no feeling of loneliness. At first I was worried what others might think of my silly, childlike moves. But the longer I danced the more it didn’t matter, and my body just took over. Our dance is for the sole purpose of being present to life, to the deepest and truest things we can find in ourselves, which are always God’s grace and gift. The dance is an encounter with God closer than my own skin, more powerful and passionate than my own longings. At the end, my calves and my heart are spent, and I am finally ready to fully surrender to the reality of my God-breathed humanness.

I attend an African dance class some Friday nights as a way to welcome Sabbath, to “shake off” the stress of the work week as Taylor Swift advises in her new single (with accompanying video—watch it and don’t dance, I dare you!). Stream of consciousness: Drumming so loud I can’t hear myself think. Clumsy. Hurts to watch gorgeous women express soul in powerful, lithe movement. Flash of recognition when my own body and the rhythm are one and my feet punctuate the downbeat, arms flailing in tandem, hips free and doing what hips do. Plant. Harvest. Fling abundance. Bless sun and rain and earth. Raising hands I notice sore shoulders. Recall yesterday’s dance with pick-axe in the clay-floored garden bed. Swing, slide, lift. Legs spread. Back undulating in cadence with heavy breath. Wet. Woman. Weary and aware of my weakness, yet so strong and full of a life that is not my own, that is more than my own.

Occasionally I pull out neglected violin to resurrect dusty melodies. Fingers dance, fumbling. And yet in places playing without thinking, like riding a bike, unforgettable. Body knows. And doesn’t. My swimming instructor said I did the butterfly best. But if you saw my other strokes, you’d know that’s not saying much. Though when I do the butterfly I’m there. Really and fully. In my body. Carried by its flow, flown as simply as on practiced wings. I don’t practice. I pretend. No discipline. I tried yoga every day and it happened more like every month. I slip into those familiar poses readily enough and move through vinyasa sure. Confident without arrogance. Natural. Balanced tree, roots solid, branches reaching. Claiming my body’s identity of cells and muscles taught over decades. Taut. Tension of what is and what I wish. I have a perfect body, as Regina Spektor lilts: “But sometimes I forget. I have a perfect body, cuz my eyelashes catch my sweat. Yes they do, they doooooooooo.” Blink those perfect eyelashes. Feel the tremor tickle through neurons and synapses down to my toes.

We spend too much time in our heads, it seems—looking at glowing screens, talking about this or that fact, reading newspapers and books and blogs and this article (as wonderful as it is!). Our minds forget that they have bodies, that they are part of a body that can dance. Yes, you too. And even God.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Word became blood and bones and muscle and movement. I see Jesus dancing at the wedding at Cana, swaying to the cantor’s song at Temple, swinging his whole body with hammer strokes or sweep of saw.

In the words of Kid President (from his inspirational pep talk): “This is life, people. You’ve got air coming through your nose. You’ve got a heartbeat. That means it’s time to do something…. It’s everybody’s duty to give the world a reason to dance. So get to it!”


Image: Snowdance, Rick Dikeman derivative work, Hekerui via Wikimedia Commons

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