Exploring Dance as Spiritual Practice by Eline Kieft

Image Credit: Ben Cole

Nature and dance are my gateways to the mystery, where I can bring my worries, exhaustion, prayers, celebrations and gratitude. These gateways open to places deep within and far beyond my perception and imagination. They create an impromptu sacred space that emerges, flexes, stretches, and nurtures, and always ‘meets’ me regardless of my emotional state.

In this post I reflect on the possibilities of danced spirituality in relation to the overarching theme of Feminism and Religion. How does dance relate to our sense of personal expression, freedom and take on life as gender-aware people, and our experience of spiritual intimacy?

Dance is a versatile practice to move through life in an empowered way and to strengthen our connection with the numinous. I truly believe that everyone can dance, and one of my roles as a ceremonial dance facilitator is to help people re-connect with the dancer inside them.

It would be misleading to categorize dance as simply physical, as it provides keys to all layers of our being: body, heart, mind, and spirit. Becoming literate in all four areas increases our capacity to be in relationship with the mystery. This also touches on the notion of spirituality as movement towards wholeness, towards and within the holy.

Although other spiritual practices also address parts of this body-heart-mind-spirit continuum, dance is one of the few that includes all of them. Therefore, dance not only contributes to spirituality but can be a spiritual practice in its own right. Indeed, many cultures express their cosmology and nurture a direct connection with the divine through dance practice. Bharatanatyam, one of the classical Indian dance forms, expresses sacred narratives through precise postures and gestures each of which carries meaning or embodies archetypes from the story. The Kalahari shamans shake to awaken the life force, transforming the body into a lightning rod that brings down spirit and enables direct transmission of cosmic consciousness. The whirling of Sufi dervishes (did you know the word itself means ‘doorway’!?) empty mind and self from distractions to access higher truths and open to divine nature. In Acts of John (94-6), Jesus hold hands with people in a circle, chanting that god partakes in our dancing, and through dancing we can understand god’s teachings. This refers to union and communion, and a deep state of knowing and transformation. There are many other examples, in which the lived physicality of our earthy, sweaty, crying, bleeding, and orgasmic bodies becomes a road to the sacred that allows us to fully participate in creation.

I see four specific benefits of dance as a spiritual practice, compared to more static forms of spirituality.

First of all, the exchange with tangible and intangible environment becomes very real through breathing, and inward and outward flowing movements. We immediately recognize ourselves as embedded in a network of relationships, possibly in a more concrete way than other forms of spirituality. Instead of restricting the body and bypassing our corporeality through for example static meditation practice, dance helps us realise that spirit and the divine always envelop and permeate us and are literally just a movement away. We can move into spirit, into god; and experience god and spirit moving in us. The body is an essential part of this equation and does not need to be ignored or overcome to encounter the sacred.

Secondly, dance is an emotionally evocative way to explore life’s challenges because it brings raw energy in motion and does not have to be verbalized. Instead of laying our worries and woes at the feet of the god(dess), spirituality becomes connected to the everyday through an embodied experience of the cycle of descent, crisis, and emergence. Equally, dancing can evoke strong positive feelings of joy, pleasure, hope, compassion, play, humour, group cohesion, belonging and solidarity. This way dance moves us through a dark night of the soul as well as stimulates happiness and wellbeing.

Thirdly, dancing is one of the widely recognized, substance-free ways to induce expanded states of consciousness. In a flow state we are fully present in the moment, at one with self, surroundings and source, and unaware of passing time. The dancing body helps us to explore fluid consciousness and move between states, for example, disconnection-re-connection, isolation-unity, duality-oneness, masculinity-femininity. We can explore tension between different groups of people or seemingly opposite qualities, without favouring one over the other. That way it supports inclusivity and celebrates diversity rather than sameness. As we move in this expanded state, we can also become an antenna for a direct experience of spirit and the sacred, undefined by sacred stories and their interpreters. Our body becomes a channel for spirit to move through us. We can directly participate in the domain of the sacred, and experience this on a visceral level. Afterwards, the energetic resonance of the teachings remain, literally ‘inspiriting’ the dancer.

Finally, coming into greater inner and outer alignment often creates a desire to share this joy by becoming actively involved in the wellbeing of others and a drive to preserve life. This induces qualities such as kindness, compassion, and care, which are (or should be!) at the heart of most religions. Dancing is a a strong catalyst for changing our perception and outlook on life. Being in motion reminds us that we already have the capacity to implement changes. When an insight arrives while we dance, we don’t have to first return from a deep meditative state and re-encounter the everyday. Instead, we can dance our insights directly into being, and follow up with concrete actions. Dance on when you put out the recycling, write that thank you letter, donate to a charity, or sign up for that motivational course. Dance with and as the divine and let the divine dance you!

Eline Kieft danced from a young age, including rigorous classical and contemporary training to become a professional dancer. She then studied anthropology, deepening her fascination with worldwide similarities between indigenous traditions regarding intangible aspects of reality and other ways of knowing, including embodied epistemologies and shamanic techniques. 

She completed her PhD in dance anthropology at Roehampton University, trained in depth with the Scandinavian Centre for Shamanic Studies and the School of Movement Medicine. Eline worked at the Centre for Dance Research (C-DaRE) at Coventry University for five years, where she created a Somatics Toolkit for Ethnographers, and pioneered soulful academic pedagogy. Her recent book Dancing in the Muddy Temple: A Moving Spirituality of Land and Body was well received as a unique blend of theory and practice and a medicine for our times.

She is now a full-time change-maker and facilitates deep transformation through coaching and courses both online and in person. Her approach The Way of the Wild Soul offers a set of embodied, creative, and spiritual tools to re-connect with inner strength and navigate life’s challenges with confidence. You can pre-register for her Embodied Spirituality Masterclasses, starting in October 2022.

Website: https://www.elinekieft.com

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4 thoughts on “Exploring Dance as Spiritual Practice by Eline Kieft”

  1. Thank you for this very interesting piece. Thank you for mentioning the whirling dervishes. Sisters join the practice, and it is wonderful to see.
    Many Muslims practice zikr, which often involves movement while chanting prayers and the 99 names of God.Now, it is done on zoom, which lacks the intimate quality.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you for this comprehensive and illuminating exploration of spirituality and dance! Often spiritual celebrations I’ve attended include dance, but I hadn’t thought of all these different aspects before nor did I know how widespread spiritual dancing us. I especially like how you connect it to compassion and care. I have noticed how dancing with others, in particular, creates bonds that encourage compassion and care. A truly wonderful way to make positive change!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Oh, I’m so glad the post resonates with you, thank you all for commenting! It’s interesting how words often touch different strings inside, isn’t it? And how we can let our bodies be a string, indeed, making music with and for others, to connect, to learn, to celebrate, to pray…

    Liked by 1 person

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