May I Have This Dance?

by Karen Wallace

For a period of time, I have struggled with the term “journey” as it relates to one’s spiritual life.  As I sat with my discomfort, I began to uncover it was connected to my legalistic theological training.  The pressing on to the mark, measuring  “spiritual victories’ and picking the right companions for the journey were coming to the surface with a negative feel.  A journey seemed to be walking or running ahead with caution given to choosing the correct companions and admonishment as to what is appropriate to DO (service and lifestyle).  The path could be winding, have various elevations or there might even be right and wrong paths to choose. There seemed to be a looking into the future and a focus of the past.  The endpoint (accomplishment) was the main focus.

Dancing, a totally foreign concept to me, was the term which would swirl in my mind. It seemed dancing was a more present moment experience.  Several steps ahead, to the side, or backwards were all considered valuable to the dance.  There was not a focus of when the dance would end or what had happened previously during the dance.    I have struggled with this concept due to my upbringing.  There is faint delightful memory of my uncle singing and dancing with me as a very young child.  Dancing was forbidden on religious grounds.  I remember the guilt associated with learning a folk dance in gym class.  Dancing was not a part of my married life, even when some of the legalistic teachings were abandoned.

During my training as a sandtray worldplay therapist, movement was used to “open ourselves up for inner transformation.”  Our facilitator invited us to welcome each body part to move in any manner.  This was a group experience and done with music.  Truly, this was an incredible stretching (physically, emotionally and spiritually) time for me.  There was a gradual abandoning of the fear relating to what will others think.  There was the letting go of gender stereotypes.  Men were as tentative as I and yet we remained engaged in this deeply personal experience.

Later, I was taught contemplative prayer by a Benedict nun, who was a Zen master.  Prior to morning contemplation, we would have movement prayers, which appeared to be a combination of yoga, t’ai chi, and Pilates.  She would always remind us that “God was in the stretch.”  Movement was also an element of the Jubilee Spiritual direction program.

The concept of movement (dance) as embodied worship was being germinated in my being without my knowing.  Although I believe that there can be unhealthy dancing which includes manipulation in community and self abuse, this paper will address the healthy side of this metaphor.

This is an attempt to put words to the concept of dancing as my “rule” by which I live contemplatively.

Dance affects the breath and breath affects the dance.  Breath is a gift from God which was given at the moment of my birth.  I may have received my physical body from my birth parents, but God breathed into my lungs when I was delivered!  Someday, I will inhale in this world and exhale in eternity….just one breath.  As I breathe the air around me, I am actually breathing in breath from others of God’s creation – human, animal and plant.  To breathe is to be in community. To breathe is to know that another has the gift of God’s breath.

Breathing is an automatic response; it takes no initiative from me.  As an individual, I can manipulate my breath, but my creator installed a biochemical mechanism by which my breathing is restored.  It seems very similar to the internal sparks which continues to energize me when I don’t think I “can take another painful encounter.”

Dancing alone.  This summer, at King’s fold, I purposed to dance the labyrinth each day.  At first, I would use my Mp3 player, but I found I enjoyed dancing to the music in my core.    I found that dancing alone involved meditating, guarding my own space while respecting the space of others. All of this can be done without eye contact, facial expression, and especially without touching. For me the learning how to maintain my own pace of movement and direction of movement regardless of where others are going, and how fast, is part of finding my internal center of balance and “groundedness”.  Recently, I watched a portion of a document on Sufi twirling.  Wow! What a visual expression of this concept.

Dancing in community.  In these days of increasing physical isolation and withdrawal, there is a need to restore the rituals of belonging and worship, the dance of community. When I think of dancing in community, “Fiddler on the roof” comes to mind.  The rich heritage of Jewish folk and worship dancing done in lines and circles, causes me to reflect on “Who is community?”  and “How does that impact my dancing?”  There are times when I open my home to another.  These individuals can’t hear the divine music and are struggling to move.  My solitary dance is transformed as I learn to listen with them for the rhythm of the divine.  Then there is an awkward learning to dance together.  The challenges are many. How do I keep space on my dance card? How to I know which dancers to join, either their invitations or mine?  Should I sit this one out?”

Dancing with my lover (God). There is something mystical as I watch two lovers dance.  There is a knowing as their bodies move in unison.  The attending to the subtle movements  as they anticipate  the change is breath taking.  In a true lover relationship, there is a mutuality of desiring (longing for) and knowing they are desired.  There is delight, not envy or jealousy, as one lover watches the partner dance with another.  Oh!, to have that deep core knowing of how much my beloved God desires me as I watch as the Divine dances with another.  A wonderful picture of spiritual direction as the director witnesses the Divine and the directee kissing.  Dancing with the Beloved can be playful and energetic.  Cherished spoken and written words are reflected upon.  The experience can be frustrating, chaotic, or painful as new dance steps are practiced.  There can be times of sexual arousal.  Awe, to be dancing cheek to cheek, hearing each other’s heart beat, exchanging breathe, embracing, my heartbeat synchronized with the other, tuned in to the nuances of the Holy One’s movement aware of the subtle changes in direction.  Maybe that is the dancing definition of discernment.

Dancing with spectators.  Recently, I was an overnight guest of an elderly woman.  Our chatting was interrupted by her desire to watch a TV program, “Dancing with the Stars.”  Thus, I was reminded that my daily dance is witnessed by a “cloud of witnesses.”

Sacred space for dancing.  Each day I am challenged to be a wise consumer of natural resources; to make choices about the use of water, transportation, paper and plastics. I am more aware that I am to manage my consumptive desires and treat the Earth responsibly, so I may continue to dance.  Embodied worship opens interior space and expands my capacity to dance with more passion and be more curious about the variety of music in the divine’s repertoire.  Another aspect of space, is challenging the boundaries of my experience to seek a greater vision for my life that includes others?  Social justice, ecology, and spiritual direction are topics which mesh here.

Physical body for dancing.  When I take my physical body for granted and ignore the signals, I invite disease.  The dance metaphor provides for times of physical rest, for physical exercise, for attention to feasting and fasting.  Although dancing is a physical workout, there is an element of relaxation.  Although I don’t understand the concept, there is balance between relaxation and energy.  There is a physiological bridge (conduit) between the physical and the spiritual and emotional.  I need to treat my body and all of God’s creation with compassion and mercy. Somehow, dancing shifts the perspective of time and space.  There is a balancing which promotes spiritual, physical and emotional health.

To breathe is to dance.  To dance is to pray. To dance, then, is to pray, to meditate, to enter in communion with the larger dance, which is the universe. And because the universe dances, my “rule” is to learn to dance each moment, whether alone, with another, in community or with my Holy Beloved.  May my dancing express joy, thanksgiving, mourning, ritual worship, confession/petition, praise, feasting, fasting.  May I move with awe, curiosity, childlike delight, surprise, spontaneity, wonder, passion, and courage.



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