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Whosoever Knoweth the Power of the Dance, Dwelleth in God

Sacred Dance is not about a specific dance style or specific body techniques. The dancer moves in a way that unites his mind, body and spirit with a higher spiritual energy. It does not matter whether we call this energy “God,” “Creator,” “The Great Spirit,” “Nature,” “The World,” or whatever. What is important is that this results in the dancer feeling spiritually uplifted and full of joy.

Dancing is clearly one of the earliest forms of worship. Cave art from early prehistoric times onwards testifies to the power of dance. Such paintings and engravings appear worldwide. In the western part of 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 depicts a group of nine women. They wear knee-length skirts and dance around a small naked male figure. Madhya Pradash State in India has plenty of rock art depicting dancers and musicians. The caves at Tassili, Algeria have paintings of female dancers and the Etruscans in 500 BC. depicted dancing in frescoes.

Some dances imitate animals or are intended to ensure that something happens. For example, hunters in ancient times are depicted in cave paintings dancing wearing animal skins and masks. We can safely assume that this was done to ensure good hunting. The dances imitating the gathering of the harvest must also be of ancient origin. As time goes by such dances have become a folk rather than a sacred dance.

The Sacred Dance is often preceded by elaborate secret preparations such as bathing, avoiding certain foods and drinks, and sexual intercourse. There may be periods of intense prayer and taking ecstasy-inducing substances.

One of the best documented European sacred dances is that associated with the worship of the Greek god Dionysus. Rituals in his honor included orgies, animal sacrifices, excessive drinking of wine, and ecstatic dancing that continued until the dancers collapsed from exhaustion.

Judaism had no problem with dance being associated with worship. Psalm 150 for example: – “Praise the Lord…Praise him with timbrel and dance.” King David is said to have writhed before the Ark of the Covenant. In the Talmud dancing is described as the main function of angels.

Dancing was part of the liturgy in the early Christian church. It was held in the choir and presided over by the bishop. Today there are Christian churches that bring back the dance sometimes in a very conscious style.

The Sacred Dance itself can be healing.

The Shakers, who were an offshoot of the Quakers, were brought to America from England in 1774 by Ann Lee. A vision had told her that intercourse was the source of mankind’s problems. He established a closed community that practiced self-sufficiency and communal ownership of all property. The Shakers had a deep understanding of the aesthetics of simplicity that was evident in all aspects of their lives.

In the evening there were shaker dances. Men and women entered the hall separately. They entered toe-to-toe and formed two rows facing each other, about five feet apart. Men were on the right and women on the left. The Archpriest stood in the middle and gave a five-minute speech. He concluded by saying “Go, 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 sat down again.

There are no longer viable Shaker communities and therefore the dances have died out. A number of their hymns, however, continue to be sung in various other churches.

An ancient tradition of Sacred Dance continues to this day in Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa. Sufis (representing the mystical side of Islam) have whirling dances. In Turkey the tradition goes 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 associated with the sun, moon and revolving stars. Worshipers wear clothes that have symbolic meaning. The tall conical felt hats suggest the tombstones and therefore the death of the dancers’ egos. The white robes represent the shrouds around their ego. The flowing black cloaks symbolize the dancers trapped in worldly tombs. At the beginning of the ceremony the cloaks are removed to symbolize the release of the worshipers from the cares and attachments of this world.

The dance is accompanied by a reed flute. After a series of rituals, the devotees reach a point where they all simultaneously swirl with their right hand holding the palm up to receive the blessings of heaven. They hold their left hands palm down to convey blessings to the earth.

Although non-participants are allowed to view the ceremony, the dances remain true 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 dance. Chants are prayers and should be respected as such.

Today Africa remains rich in the field of traditional Sacred Dance. The Yoruba of Western Nigeria have many traditions of dancing deities. Some are said to be able to dance on one leg. Sango (associated with thunder) consulted Orunmila (associated with divination and wisdom) on how he could gain permanent wealth. Orunmila’s advice was for Sango to get a wonderful outfit onto which he should sew as many quaries as he could. Cauris were once used as currency and are therefore a sign of wealth. People seeing Sango so magnificently dressed would assume he was rich. Orunmila told Sango that he should dance wearing this outfit. The result was that Sango became very rich through dancing and begging her for alms. Sango priests carry axes when in company or on parade. Sango priests wear feminine hairstyles, neck beads and earrings on festive occasions. Dances 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 men dancing in ecstasy and stabbing each other with razors. The savage blow never broke the skin, or even left a mark. I have also seen Sacred Dances in the Thunder Pantheon deities. Here older female members of the cult wandered through the crowds making suggestive gestures with a wooden phallus. The show was supposed to be fun and it was. There were also scientists who turned sand into white chalk powder. Anyone could come and watch the dances if they showed proper respect to the deity. This meant that both men and women had to be bareheaded. Men had to tie their cloths around the waist so that they were naked and women had to tie their cloths under the armpits.

West African Sacred Dances tend to be danced outdoors often at night. Dancers enter and leave the circular dance floor as they please. They may all dance the same steps, but each dancer expresses them in their own way. Everyone dances as a group but has their own “space” inside. The dancer and the choreographer are one and the same person.

Africa is in serious danger of losing its Sacred Dances due to the declining number of people joining traditional religions. Only members of the cult may dance the Sacred Dances. Members of Christian churches and followers of Islam have not always been expressly prohibited from taking part 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 begin to create new authentic African Sacred Songs for the church. If anyone knows of choreographers working to create authentic African contemporary Sacred Dance, I would love to hear about them.

Cults need younger members. If they fail to materialize, then the Sacred Dances will not evolve into their true context. Dances will either die out or become shadows of themselves as social dances that are danced by all and sundry simply for pleasure.

Indeed, I have written little about music which is as important as dancing. Music is a subject in itself. 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 prayer manifesting. Wali are Sacred Dances that are inevitably associated with rituals of the same name. They take place on the first day of a ritual, in the inner courtyard of the temple.

Sangyang Dedari and Sangyang Jaran are both Sacred Dances. I was watching Sangyang Dedari in which two little girls danced ecstatically mirroring each other’s movements. Their eyes were wide open but they said they couldn’t see anything. At the end of the dance, they were brought out of their trance by a white-robed priest who sprinkled them with holy water.

Sangyang Jaran is a very spectacular dance in which a young man wears a belt attached to a horse’s head woven from coconut leaves. This young man was put into a trance by a priest. He then galloped like a horse into a fire of coconut husks. After that he stood still for a while before jumping around. The third time he did this, he sat on the embers and rolled over. At some critical point, unrecognizable to onlookers, the young dancer was pulled clean and helped out of the trance.

The Balinese are devout Hindus and the tradition of the Sacred Dance is precious, valued and still a part of everyone’s life.

Let us hope that in the parts of the world where genuine Sacred Dance still exists it will not degenerate into a spectacle where we aim to influence an audience rather than the Spirit World.

If you have any comments or questions, I’d love to hear from you. You can contact me through my website.

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