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Whosoever Knoweth the Power of the Dance, Dwelleth in God
Sacred Dance is not about a particular dance style or body techniques. The dancer moves in a way that unites his or her mind, body, and spirit with a higher spiritual energy. It doesn’t matter if we call this energy “God”, “Creator”, “Great Spirit”, “Nature”, “Cosmos” or anything else. What is important is that this results in the dancer feeling spiritually uplifted and filled with joy.
Dancing is undoubtedly one of the earliest forms of worship. Cave art from early prehistoric times onward testifies to the power of dance. Such paintings and carvings occur all over the world. In western Arnhem Land in Australia, a cave painting shows two men playing instruments to accompany the dance. A rock shelter at Cogul near Lenda in Catalonia, Spain portrays a group of nine women. They are wearing knee-length skirts and are dancing around a small naked male figure. The state of Madhya Pradash in India has abundant rock art depicting dancers and musicians. The caves in Tassili Algeria have paintings of female dancers and the Etruscans in 500 BC depicted dancing in mural frescoes.
Some dances imitate animals or are intended to make something happen. For example, hunters in ancient times appear in cave paintings dancing wearing animal skins and masks. We can safely assume that this was to ensure good hunting. Dances imitating harvest must also be of ancient origin. Over time such dances have turned into folk dances rather than sacred dances.
The Sacred Dance is often preceded by elaborate secret preparations such as washing, avoiding certain foods and drinks, and sexual intercourse. There may be periods of intense prayer and taking substances that cause ecstasy.
One of the most well-documented European sacred dances is that associated with the cult of the Greek god Dionysus. Rituals in his honor included orgies, animal sacrifice, excessive drinking of wine, and ecstatic dancing, which continued until the dancers collapsed from exhaustion.
Judaism had no problem with dancing being associated with worship. Psalm 150 for example:- “Praise the Lord… Praise him with tambourine and dance”. King David is said to have rolled in front of the Ark of the Covenant. In the Talmud, dancing is described as the main function of angels.
Dancing was part of the service in the early Christian church. It developed into a choir and was directed by the bishop. Today there are Christian churches that are bringing back the dance sometimes in a very conscious style.
The Sacred Dance itself can be therapeutic.
The Shakers, who were a branch of the Quakers, were brought to America from England in 1774 by Ann Lee. A vision had told her that sexual relations were the source of mankind’s troubles. It created a closed community which practiced self-sufficiency and common ownership of all possessions. The Shakers had a deep understanding of the aesthetics of simplicity, which appeared in all aspects of their lives.
Shaker dances were held in the evening. Men and women entered the hall separately. They marched on tiptoe and formed two lines facing each other about five meters apart. Men were on the right and women on the left. The chief elder stood in the middle and gave a five-minute speech. He concluded by saying, “Come out, old men, young men and women, and worship God with all your might in the dance.” Men and women did not mix. There were pauses to see if anyone had received “a gift.” Then two of the sisters would start spinning like tops with their eyes closed. They continued to spin for about 15 minutes when they suddenly stopped and landed again.
There is no longer any viable Shaker community and therefore the dances have died out. However, a certain number of their hymns continue to be sung in various churches.
An ancient tradition of sacred dance continues to this day in Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa. Sufis (who represent the mystical side of Islam) have spinning dances. In Turkey, the tradition dates back to Celaleddin Mevlana Rumi, who died in 1273. His son organized his followers into the brotherhood of whirling dervishes now known as the Mevlevi.
When Atatürk gained political power in the early years of the twentieth century he abolished the dervish orders and turned the monasteries into museums. They were revived in 1957.
The significance of the dervish dance is related to the sun, moon and revolving stars. Worshipers wear clothing that has symbolic meaning. The tall conical felt hats signify tombstones and therefore the death of the dancers’ egos. The white garments represent the shrouds around their ego. The flowing black cloaks symbolize the dancers who are trapped in the graves of this world. At the beginning of the ceremony the cloaks are removed to symbolize the liberation of the worshipers from the cares and bonds of this world.
The dance is accompanied by a reed flute. After a series of rituals, the worshipers reach a point where they all simultaneously rotate with their right hands raised palm up to receive the blessings of heaven. They hold their left hands palm down to transfer blessings to the earth.
Although non-participants are allowed to view the ceremony, the dances remain truly sacred dances for those who participate and for many who watch. Dervish music should never be used for secular purposes, especially not to accompany oriental dancing. Songs are prayers and should be respected as such.
Today Africa remains rich in the field of traditional sacred dance. The Yorubas of Western Nigeria have many traditions of dancing deities. Some are said to be able to hop on one foot. Sango (who is associated with thunder) consulted Orunmila (who is associated with divination and wisdom) on how he could gain permanent wealth. Orunmila’s advice was for Sango to get a wonderful garment on which he should sew as much quari as he could. Cowris were once used as currency and are therefore a sign of wealth. People seeing Sango dressed so brilliantly would assume he was rich. Orunmila told Sango that he should dance around in this outfit. The result was that through dancing and begging Sango became very rich. Sango priests carry axes when in company or on parade. Sango priests wear feminine hairstyles, beads around the neck and earrings on festive occasions. Jumps for Sango are very fast and athletic. All deities have their associated dances. Not being able to dance means not being able to worship properly.
In Ghana I have seen young boys dancing in ecstasy and cutting themselves with razor cuts. The savage cut never broke the skin or left a mark. I have also witnessed the Sacred Dances for the deities of the Thunder Pantheon. Here, older female cult members wandered through the crowds making suggestive gestures with a wooden phallus. The performance was supposed to be fun and it was. There were also wizards on hand who changed sand into powdered white chalk. Anyone could come and watch the dances if they showed proper respect to the deity. This meant that both men and women had to keep their heads bare. Men had to tie their cloths around their waists so that they were naked and women had to tie their cloths under their armpits.
West African sacred dances tend to be danced outdoors often at night. Dancers come to the circular dance area and leave it as they see fit. They may all dance the same steps, but each dancer expresses them in his or her own way. Everyone dances as a group, but has their own “space” within it. The dancer and the choreographer are the same person.
Africa is in great danger of losing its sacred dances due to the decrease in the number of people who adhere to traditional religions. Only cult members can dance the Holy Dances. Members of Christian churches and followers of Islam have not always been expressly prohibited from participating in any sacred dance, and the number of converts is increasing. Some Christian churches allow a certain amount of drumming and dancing during services. Both drumming and dancing have little “life force” or visual and auditory interest. Musicians are beginning to create new truly African sacred songs for the church. If anyone knows of choreographers working to create contemporary African sacred dance, I would love to hear about it.
Cults need younger members. If they fail to materialize, then the Sacred Dances will not evolve within their true context. Dances will either die out or become shadows of themselves as social dances danced by all and sundry simply for pleasure.
I have really written very little about music that is as important as dancing. Music is a separate topic. If you are interested in African Rhythms, I suggest you try and get “An Approach to African Rhythm” by Dr Seth Cudjoe, published by the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon.
The Sacred Dances of Bali, Indonesia are a beautiful manifested prayer. Vali are sacred dances inextricably linked to the rituals of the same name. They take place on the first day of a ritual, in the inner courtyard of the temple.
Sanghyang Dedari and Sangyang Jaran are both sacred dances. I watched Sangyang Dedari in which two little girls danced ecstatically, mirroring each other’s movements. Their eyes were open, but they were said to see nothing. At the end of the dance they were brought out of trance by a white-robed priest who sprinkled holy water on them.
Sanghyang Jaran is a very spectacular dance in which a young man carries a belt tied to which is a horse’s head woven from coconut leaves. This young man was put into a trance by a priest. Then he ran bucking like a horse into a fire of coconut husks. After that he stood still for a while before jumping around He then left the fire and the burnt husks gathered together before the young man jumped back into the fire. The third time he did this, he actually sat on the embers and rolled over. At a crucial moment, unidentifiable to onlookers, the young dancer was pulled back and helped out of the trance.
The Balinese are devout Hindus and the tradition of sacred dance is valued, appreciated and still very much a part of everyone’s life.
Let us hope that in the parts of the world where there is still real sacred dancing, it will not degenerate into a spectacle where we aim to affect an audience rather than the spiritual world.
If you have any comments or questions, I will be happy to hear from you. You can contact me through my website.
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