By Tannis Hugill
All Life is Movement
All Movement is Dance
All Life is Sacred
All Life is Sacred Dance
Ancient peoples worldwide honored life as a harmonious dancing whole. The proliferating complexity of modern western culture has drifted away from this knowledge for reasons too many to name, or even understand, contributing to the crises of survival that faces us today.
In spite of the challenges that surround us, I perceive an infinitely creative life force causing profound changes that have begun to sweep the earth, bringing forth the possibility of a major shift in consciousness.
One manifestation of this shift is the creation of two Interspiritual Sacred Dance Festivals, occurring in Vancouver on November 7, 2009 and November 20, 2010. These festivals had representations from the wealth of major spiritual traditions available in the Vancouver area, including First nations, Hindu, Sufi, Christian, Jewish, Daoist, Hawaiian Hula and African.
The seed for this project appeared when I attended the first Chant Fest in spring of 2006. The Chant Fest was a fundraiser for the Interspiritual Centre, an organization whose mission is to create a centre of worship that will embrace the expression of many faiths. Moved to tears by the open-hearted energy that filled the day, I thought, “wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a Sacred Dance Fest.”
The opportunity for people to share their faith expression from the depths of their entire bodies can only open our hearts, minds and spirits to the shared beauty alive in all humanity. I believe such sharing is vital for community, and the global transformation necessary for this time in our collective history.
To my knowledge, nothing has ever been done like this before. The Sacred Dance Guild, founded in 1958, is an international, multi-cultural interfaith organization whose mission is to promote and explore the many aspects of sacred dance through events and conferences. However, they appeal to a specialized audience. Our festivals are Vancouver community events, which celebrates sacred dance as it is practiced in the cultural communities that make their home on the Lower Mainland. We have been honored to be partnered by the Interspiritual Centre, the Roundhouse, St Paul’s Labyrinth, Rhodes Wellness College and the Dance Centre.
Movement, dance, voice, and breathing techniques were integral components of early ritual and healing, along with theatre, music and the visual arts. The gods dance the cosmos alive in many cultures’ creation stories. Images of humans dancing appear in the first emergence of human culture. Cliff and rock paintings as old as 29,000 years are found in Africa and Europe with images of what is considered ritual dance.
Other examples of dance as spiritual practice include Dionysian ecstatic dances of the Greeks, Tibetan Buddhist dances celebrating the New Year, East Indian dances of Hindu epics and First Nations’ Sundances. Shamans danced to mediate energies of spirit for healing humans and our relationship to the earth. Communities danced to pray, to celebrate, to mourn, prepare for war, to hunt, prepare to plant, ensure a harvest.
Unfortunately the body became discounted, even maligned in European and North American culture. Dance and all the arts have become secularized since the Renaissance. Though we have been cut off from our ancestral legacy, today there is a growing hunger to explore our relationship to our bodies.
Art, spirituality and the body are central to my life as an artist and a person. As a young artist in New York City, I was riveted by Native American art and aspired to make theatre that achieved the same resonance as the Northwest Coast ceremonies I was able to watch in the early 20th century movies of Edward Curtis. These moved me because everything was alive with spirit and the non-material world interacted fully with our reality in a way that instructed, inspired and brought greater meaning to my own life.
Eventually I became a dance and drama therapist and re-discovered the healing and spiritual power of art. Now in addition to making ritual theatre, I am passionate about creating contexts for others to experience spirit moving through their bodies in community through Authentic Movement, Ecstatic Body Posture and Moving Prayer workshops.
Many dance artists believe their work is spiritual expression. Merce Cunningham said, “Dance for the dancer is a spiritual adventure in time and space.” In Vancouver I have witnessed several performances with spiritual themes. But the context of these presentations is not one of explicit shared spiritual exploration in a dedicated sacred space. The audience comes to be entertained, moved, instructed, but not knowingly to participate with a mutually understood and accepted sacred invocation.
Sacred dance uses all the vocabulary available to any dance form: the body’s relation to itself, to others, to space, rhythm, time, flow, weight, shape, emotional expression, story. In these festivals we directly experienced the differences and similarities between the use of space in a Sufi Zikr and Eurhythmy. We sensed our bodies’ response to African and First Nations rhythms. We learned how story is told by Hawaiian Hula and Bharata Natyam.
Our presenters have honed their practices through years of devotion and are committed to teach what they have cultivated. Masters of physical eloquence, they write evocatively from their tradition’s perspective of sacred dance.
Performer and teacher of the classical East Indian form Bharata Natyam, Anusha Fernando says:
Sacred Dance forms recognize that the body is a vehicle for transformation and that working with the body can brighten and clarify the mind. Sacred dance forms make movement an offering, an act of gratitude. By connecting our small life with the sacred, we expand our experience, our responsibilities and understand the value of devotion and awe in the face of human experience. Sacred dance forms teach one how to stand firmly planted on the ground and how to be infinitely transcendent.
Senior Universal Tao instructor and Chant Dancer Minke de Vos says:
When the wind of the Divine blows through the instrument of my body, I feel connected to the creative energy of the universe, earth and humanity. This sacred connection is a communion, a communication of our unity, grace and soulful expression. Sacred Dance is a vital stream of my spiritual practice. The Tao manifests in many forms through the formless, breathing and moving between dimensions. I feel that I am following my bliss when I offer my dance to the Spirit in the moment, for the love of all beings.
Métis grandmother, Pipe Carrier and Sundancer Aline LaFlamme says:
Sacred Dance is our way of entering and honouring the Great Mystery within which we all live. Sacred Dance elevates us, lifts our vision above the mundane, and through the Body, carries us into deep connection with our Spirits. This provides deep and necessary nourishment to our souls and to all of Creation. Through Sacred Dance, we express our reverence for the gift of life. Sacred Dance helps us simultaneously celebrate our unique individuality while acknowledging our complete oneness with all things.
Multidisciplinary, intercultural movement/artist Byron Chief-Moon, describes the source of his work in this way:
My elder Alexander… has inspired and collaborated with me on my dance creations which have a deep connection to my ancestral landscape of the Blood Tribe, members of the Blackfoot Confederacy of southern Alberta and northern Montana; ‘recognizing the dancer and dances as powerful messages that awaken and inspire…’
Raqib Brian Burke, student and teacher of Whirling in the Rifa’I Marufi Sufi Tradition says:
Dance is the expression when words are incapable of describing what we are feeling. Dance becomes sacred when we are aware that what is dancing is not us. Turning for me is an ecstatic cleansing shower that removes the burden of my ego for a blessed while. Sacred dance is nothing unless the yearning of the witnesses brings it into life. A famous Sufi prayer begs our Universe/Creator ‘Oh Lord, increase my yearning’.
For me, the purpose of sacred dance is to commune with sacred presence for healing, devotion, and the collaborative creation of beauty. I gain a felt sense of participation in all Being. The wealth and intensity of its’ gifts are enhanced exponentially when done with others. My body becomes a vessel opening to divine love.
The Interspiritual Sacred Dance Festivals offered a stream of gratitude, devotion, awe, and transformation. Participants came to connect and commune, honoring themselves as part of the great mystery, as they were awakened, and inspired to participate in the dance of immanent transcendence that unites all life on earth.