In my recent post ‘Forty Days After Childbirth, Mary Returns to the World,’ I wrote that ‘the woman’s power to bless and protect, as well as to create, is shown in the symbol of her hand.’ We see expressions of this power in the Orthodox Christian icon of the Three-Handed Madonna, whose third hand is over her womb, and the Hamsa, the hand-shaped talisman common to Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. Also known as the Hand of Fatima, Miriam, or Mary, the Hamsa often incorporates eye or vulva motifs, which also offer protection.
Hand, womb, and eye all signify female creative power, personified in the image of Goddess and revered in Neolithic Old Europe. This life-giving principle is expressed in many ways apart from childbearing: as Carol Christ affirms, early technologies of spinning, weaving, pottery, and agriculture, along with Neolithic religion, were most likely invented by women.
Moderator’s Note: Margot reads each of her poems aloud. They can be heard through the links in the titles.
“And what then is poetry?” We ask this time and time and time again. And poetry HERself answers. SHE needs no descriptor. Mimetic sagacity spells HER clarity. ~~~ Dreams be Fed I am a body that remembers
The joys of falling into hues of
Brilliant blues and greens.
I am a soul that trades in Cinnamon and spices.
Elevating chance. Caressing mystery. I am a will that conceives fat Ebullient Moon as Golden Goddess. Divine.
There have been a few intriguing posts recently on creating new narratives (by Carolyn Lee Boyd, whose ‘dollops of mud’ inspired the title of this post), and reinterpreting existing ones that are deeply embedded in the fabric of our cultures (such as Moses and Rambo by Janet Rudolph). I distinguish re-creating personal and collective narratives as two aspects of this fascinating task.
The first aspect addresses our capacity to rewrite our personal narrative. What story do we tell about our lives? One of my teachers, Ya’Acov Darling Khan, says ‘we humans are story tellers by nature, so we better tell a good one!’ This doesn’t mean ‘making up’ a story, embellishing the facts, or putting sugar over shit, but exploring our own hero/ine’s journey, overcoming obstacles with courage, seeking help from allies, daring to go into the darkness and emerging with new insights, and most of all, what I call the skill to ‘harvest the wisdom gifts’ of life’s experiences. I look forward to writing more about this another time.
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.
The process of fitting in and learning what is required to participate in society teaches us many useful skills such as math and language. All too often, this happens at the expense of developing expressive and intuitive abilities and trust in our unique contributions and points of view, or what I call the ‘Wild Soul’. This represents our original blueprint or essential spark that makes us into who we are.
Drawing on the well-known metaphor of the acorn that already carries the majestic fullness of the oak tree inside it, I distinguish three characteristics in the process of acorn becoming oak:
In Part One of this article, I described dancing Jewish, Romani, and Armenian dances for forgiveness and reconciliation with groups in Germany and all over the world. I also offered danced rituals of remembrance at former concentration camps and other places scarred by the atrocities of war.
I went to camps including Dachau and Auschwitz, to genocide memorials and sites of massacre throughout Eastern Europe, in Australia, and the Americas. At first, my prayers were private: I brought flowers, lit candles, danced my grief, and spent time in meditation. I tried to visualise the prisoners in those places, sending them my deep sorrow and regret back through time. I wanted to let them know that they are remembered and mourned by people from their future. My prayers contained a fervent apology as well as a soul commitment to do my part in this lifetime to overcome prejudice and stand for peace.
In time I invited others to dance with me for healing and peace. We danced at former camps in Germany, including Bad Gandersheim, a subcamp of Buchenwald, and on many occasions in Steyerberg, a former prison camp and forced-labour munitions factory which is now the site of an intentional community called Lebensgarten (‘Garden of Life’), a centre for permaculture, non-violent communication, and other ecologically and spiritually oriented ways of living.
This morning I went up to the village plaza in Abiquiu to watch the dancers parade around the church with their saint who is also honored at this village festival held every year at the end of November.
This is one of the two Native American festivals that is honored each year by the genizaros who are mixed Spanish and American Indian people who embrace and practice the Catholicism that was once forced upon them.
This eclectic community is made up of descendants of Native American slaves. Those captured in warfare were brought here, converted to Catholicism, taught Spanish and held in servitude by New Mexican families. The young women and female children endured the usual atrocities perpetuated on captive females including rape at the hands of their captors. Some New Mexican male genizaros gained their freedom by serving as soldiers to defend frontier villages like Abiquiu from Indian raids. By the late 1700s, genizaros comprised one-third of the population of New Mexico. Ultimately these non – tribal peoples were assimilated into New Mexican culture.
The dances are beautiful to witness with the smallest female children dressed in predominantly white regalia some wearing a rainbow of ribbons, the young girls were dressed in red and white and had red circles of war paint inscribed on their cheeks, some of the older women also wore red, many carried turkey or eagle feathers in their hands. Most wore face paint.
Starhawk describes the work of her Reclaiming collective as the creation of ‘spaces of refuge from a harsh and often hostile world, safe places where people can heal and regenerate, renew our energies and learn new skills.’[i] These words also apply to the women’s traditional dances. One participant on my courses expresses it thus: ‘In the circle no-one is left out, no-one is ignored, all are held and included, all have their place, all are connected.’[ii]
My life’s work with traditional women’s circle dances of Eastern Europe and the Near East has been a natural interweaving of feminism, activism and Goddess spirituality. In more than thirty years of experience, my students and I have gained valuable insight into their potential as tools for healing and transformation.
These simple and ancient dances connect us with women’s ritual practices from the past which are rooted in a Goddess-reverent paradigm honouring the earth, the body and the female face of the divine. In the present day, the practice of mindfully dancing traditional circle dances which embody this worldview can help us imagine and create a more equitable society in the future.
In Rebirth of the Goddess, Carol P Christ offered Nine Touchstones of Goddess Spirituality as an alternative to the Ten Commandments. The Nine Touchstones are intended to inform all our relationships, whether personal, communal, social, or political. In this four-part blog (here are parts 1-3 Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) I am exploring ways in which these Nine Touchstones are inherently embodied in traditional women’s ritual dances of the Balkans, which has been my spiritual practice for over thirty years.
Carol’s Fourth Touchstone is: ‘Speak the truth about conflict, pain, and suffering.’ Many women’s dance songs which allow the women to speak and sing their grief and pain. When we bring that pain into the healing container of the circle, sharing simple steps, Dancers in the circle simultaneously give and receive support for their own and others’ sorrow. Ultimately, the sense of community and solidarity in the circle transforms our grief so that the burden becomes manageable. Many historical songs, too, tell stories of women being abducted or abused, and how they fought back or got away – or not – so that they are remembered and honoured by future generations.
In Rebirth of the Goddess, Carol P Christ offered Nine Touchstones of Goddess Spirituality as an alternative to the Ten Commandments. The Nine Touchstones are intended to inform all our relationships, whether personal, communal, social, or political. In this series of blogs I am exploring ways in which these Nine Touchstones are embodied in the traditional women’s ritual dances of the Balkans, which I have studied as a spiritual practice for more than thirty years.
Carol P Christ’s Second Touchstone is: ‘Walk in love and beauty.’ As she says, ‘love and beauty are the great gifts of bounteous earth’. Dancing women of the Balkans walk in love and beauty each time they put on their festive dress to dance together in the courtyard or the village square. Their ceremonial costumes are created from the bounty of the earth – just a couple of generations ago, this was literally the case, as the women tended the sheep, prepared and spun the wool, wove, sewed, embroidered and ornamented their garments with the work of their own hands. Even now, the cloth they buy is purchased with money they have earned from working and harvesting the land.
In the first part of this article, I looked at how Carol P Christ’s Nine Touchstones of Goddess Spirituality from Rebirth of the Goddess are related to traditional women’s ritual dances of the Balkans. After more than thirty years of researching and teaching these dances and the way that they pass on information in encoded symbolic ways, I have come to see them as an educational system, a women’s mystery school. The main message which the dances convey is an ethic of community, partnership, mutual support, and other life-enhancing values aligned with the Nine Touchstones, which can be directly experienced in the dance.
We know from the research of Marija Gimbutas that these values were central to the Old European civilizations which honoured the Goddess, while Yosef Garfinkel and Elizabeth Wayland Barber show that circle dances have their roots in these same early Neolithic cultures of Eastern Europe and the Near East. This leads me to suggest that Balkan women’s circle dances surviving today may have their origin in early egalitarian matriarchal cultures of Neolithic Europe. The Nine Touchstones of Goddess Spirituality provide an perfect template through which to explore the ethics of women’s ritual dances.
In her incisive analysis of the ethics of Goddess religion, Christ argues that Goddess spirituality can offer the ‘ethical guidance that we need to combat the forces of evil in our world’, and that this ethic is not imposed from a set of rational principles nor from a transcendent God known through the prophetic traditions of the Bible, as suggested by Rosemary Radford Ruether. Rather, the ethics of Goddess spirituality are discerned through intuition and reflection on the world of which human beings are a part.
Following up on my recent blogs on the roles of women in the Neolithic revolution and on “egalitarian matriarchy,” I have been re-reading Peggy Reeves Sanday’s ground-breaking book, Women at the Center, about the survival of the “adat matriarchaat” (the principles of matriarchy) among the more than four million Minangkabau people of Indonesia.
According to Sanday, the customs of the matriarchaat (the Dutch word has been adopted by the Minangkabau people)—including matrilineal descent, matrilocal marriage, and ownership of the land by the mother clan—have survived accommodation with Islam. This is in no small part due to the fact that one of the principle values of the matriachaat is to conjugate (to come together) rather than to dominate. Rather than viewing Islam as an opposing force, the Minangkabau emphasize the aspects of Islam–such as love and compassion for the weak–that are compatible with their traditional worldview. Through this clever maneuver, the Minangkabau manage to practice Islam while maintaining their traditional egalitarian matriarchy. Continue reading “A Question about “Egalitarian Matriarchy” in West Sumatra by Carol P. Christ”
Today, April 24, is the worldwide day of remembrance for the Armenian genocide of 1915. On this day three years ago, marking the centenary of the genocide, I wrote about dance as an expression of solidarity with the Armenians people, and with all victims of genocide throughout history and throughout the world. You can find that piece here.
Now as then, I am encouraging my students to dance Armenian dances with their groups this week, or even simply to light a candle, listen to Armenian music (some recommendations are listed at the end of this post), with an open heart. How better to heal the wounds of history than with such tiny and intimate acts of compassion?
The root of the word ‘compassion’ essentially means ‘to suffer with’, and I think that one of the gifts of our own suffering might be that we can begin to have sympathy for those who have suffered like us.
Through compassion, our own heartbreak helps our hearts to be broken open. Although suffering can cause us to feel terribly isolated and utterly alone, at the same time, our pain opens our hearts in sympathy for the pain that others feel. To paraphrase Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa, this enables us to ‘reach out to help others… to discover a greater universe and a fuller and fuller broken heart. This is not something to feel bad about; it is a cause for rejoicing.’
In these challenging times, one of the hardest things to do is to keep our hearts open. Grief and despair tend to shut them down. And even among close friends, colleagues, family members, and people with whom we share worship, when we clash over differing political opinions, trust can swiftly erode. These kinds of losses and sorrows can make us just want to close the doors to our hearts.
Yet hardened hearts and minds are not going to help us overcome conflicts and affirm connections. Only if we can open our hearts to one another, holding the fullness of our (and others’) feelings in a compassionate way, can we weather the storms which threaten to divide us further. And only if we are united can we find our way together through those storms.
One of the best ways I know to connect with others and to open my heart is through the joyful experience of traditional circle dance, particularly Armenian dances. I have written previously on this blog (The Dance of Memory, The Wishing Tree) about Armenian dances and their ancient roots, their links to the pre-Christian Goddess, and how they affirm survival throughout the traumas of history. I have also written about my friend and colleague Shakeh Major Tchilingirian and her inspiring Circle of Life project, which brings Armenians, Turks, Kurds, Assyrians, and other survivors of atrocities and genocide to dance together for reconciliation.
If you don’t know how to flirt, you shouldn’t be having sex with anyone.
I admit it… I used to love flirting. It can be incredibly fun. I flirted outrageously with guys I had no intention of dating, and guys flirted with me who weren’t interested in dating me. It wasn’t about sex, either. It was just awesomely fun. The only time I minded was if it turned out they were married/in a committed relationship.
Flirting is like dancing. Both people have to agree to participate. It involves a lot of asking the other person what s/he is comfortable with. Sometimes it is kind of sexual, sometimes it is beautifully spiritual or exciting intellectually. Sometimes it’s tequila body shots, sometimes it’s holding a gaze just a little longer than normal, sometimes it’s making witty but not cruel jokes at the other person’s expense. But it has to be fun, it has to be happy. Like sexual intimacy. If at any point, one party becomes uncomfortable, the other party has to back up and figure out why, and what is needed now.
Samhain is past, and we in the northern hemisphere are once again entering the final outbreath of the solar year. At the winter solstice, light will be reborn. Until then, it is important to embrace the time of rest and renewal which is the great gift of this season. Like the falling leaves and the drying seeds, we too can relax and release old burdens. This is the best way, perhaps the only way, to draw new strength for the next active phase in the ever-changing cycles of our lives.
Many of us no longer follow the rhythms of the year and consequently subsist in an ongoing state of near-exhaustion. But rather than letting our energies get too depleted, we can learn to thrive within the limits of our available resources. As well as vastly improving the quality of our lives, this may lead to solutions for sustainable living in the long term – perhaps the most important skill humanity needs to develop now. Continue reading “Rest and Renewal: Gifts of Women’s Ritual Dance by Laura Shannon”
A topic that continually perplexes me, both personally and professionally, concerns the connection, or harmonization if you will, between our cognitive capacities and our physical expression and comfort, between thinking and feeling. Yoga, dance, working out, meditating, and other modalities which explicitly bring body and mind together often achieve their goal at the point of practice, and while these disciplines have residual effects, how do they have staying power?
For instance, how do we maintain rootedness in the body when we are caught off guard – for instance, by traumatic affect? When we are faced with information about reality that disturbs us – the truth about a relationship or a physical illness – how do we stay physically present? Or when we (I) spend an inordinate amount of time immersed in activities that are essentially not embodied despite the efforts at theorizing such embodiment – reading, researching and writing – what happens to the body?
Sustaining a mind/body (and spirit) connection is a little tricky. Some psychologists would call this connection a kind of attunement (between a dyad) that fosters a form of affective regulation. This means that subjective experiences, correlating thoughts, physiological responses, and the bodily expressions these provoke come into alignment but not in the manner of repression or suppression, rather as a form of accord or modulation that brings us to our best adult selves and enables decision making that supports our most core self. Capable of achieving this? I think it’s an art. Continue reading “Beginning Conversations about the Body at Ease by Stephanie Arel”
Christmas morning. I don’t usually have Sundays free and our family holiday celebrations lean nontraditional, so I’d come to a special ecstatic dance celebration and brought my 9-year-old daughter with me. As the music started and people all around us began to flow and move, I reached out to touch her hand. As if she’d been doing it for years, she shifted into a beautiful contact improv flow with me, rolling her arm down and across mine as she beamed love and radiance right into my heart.
This child brings up so many feelings in me as I watch her grow.
On many occasions at ecstatic dance, I’ve looked around the room and been overwhelmed by the beauty of the dancers and their joyful embodiment. When delight, peace, and ease are conditioned out of many of our bodily relationships through past traumas, body issues, or simply living in a disembodied or misembodied culture, feeling comfortable in our own skins is simultaneously an intentional act of cultural resistance and a profound act of self-care and self-love. Being present in the ecstatic dance space with lovely people moving confidently in fluid, sensual, emphatic, and silly ways fills my heart to overflowing on any given dance day.
Being present in that space with my daughter, looking around the room and imagining what it must look like through the eyes of a 9-year-old girl, gave it a whole new hue of meaning. People danced alone or with partners, men danced with men and women with women, all without shame over their bodies or feelings. The occasional dancer who slipped off to sit on the periphery, nursing tears that flow in the way holidays bring for some, was joined, held, hugged, cried with. My little girl danced with joyful abandon surrounded by men and women of all ages and shapes, present in their bodies and feelings, moving in ways that felt good, glowing with presence and the freedom of acceptance. Continue reading “Present in Our Bodies: Sensuality, Movement, Feelings, and Joy by Chris Ash”
Over the past 20 years, I’ve been blessed with many moments in which fully aware or embodied presence has intersected spiritual transformation, both in my own life and in the lives of others. In my work on a crisis hotline, I’ve held space for strangers to open up and speak freely about pain, grief, and despair. In my work as a minister, I’ve held a couple’s hands as I blessed their marriage, and I’ve held space with the dying and their loved ones.
In my work as a doula, I’ve supported women draped over my arms as they pushed new life into being; I’ve also held crying fathers in hospital hallways while their lovers were being prepped for emergency surgeries. In my rape crisis work, I’ve held the hands of women in hospitals through fear and sorrow, and I’ve facilitated support groups for survivors to reconnect with their own embodied sexuality and the fullness of its complexity as they worked toward greater compassion for themselves and their processes.
I’ve worked to build a practice of presence and compassion in my life that extends beyond my family, even beyond people. Last spring, I was late to a party because I’d stopped to help a stumbling fawn out of the highway. Seeing that it was unable to move, I sat with it at the edge of the woods and sang it to its sleep.
When I first moved to Greece I spoke of being attracted to a culture in which people express their emotions easily and do not hold on to anger. In the part of American culture I know, the opposite is often the case: people do not express their emotions easily and hold onto their anger. When I joined a therapy group in Greece, my therapist said that I made the right decision to move to Greece. “You needed to learn to live from here,” she said touching her belly, “and this is where Greeks live.”
During the first years I lived in Greece, I often said that I wanted to become Greek. Like others had done before me, I romanticized Greece and the Greeks. Then one winter I learned that family violence is as prevalent in Greece as it is in every other country. The cultural ability to express emotion does not stop Greek men from beating their wives or Greek women from hitting children. Indeed the more expressive nature of the Greek culture may make it easier for Greeks to resort to physical violence. On the other hand, violence stemming from withheld feelings can be cruel and unpredictable. Continue reading “When I Dance I Am I Greek by Carol P. Christ”
We celebrate the Spring Equinox as a reflection of the birthing time of the year. We have made it through the winter’s cold and ice, experienced the warming of the Earth and the flood waters that prepared for the birth of all that is new. Seeds are germinating and beginning to sprout. We see that around us, depending on where we live. Here in Texas the red buds are in bloom and some of the trees have their fresh green leaves opening up at the tips. Just seeing these indicators, brings an internal feeling of birth. My heart expands in joy when I see my first red bud tree in bloom – the first buttercup opening to the sun!
This is the time that the Goddess makes herself known by birthing all into existence. She first creates day and night and on this day they are equal, only to rise and fall as the year changes. Then She creates the stars, the heavens, the green things upon the earth, the animals and us – all Her children. All of us glistening in Her birth waters, ready to dance in Her rhythms.
I see the creation of day and night in equal portions coming first, as a lesson for all that follows; balance, a moment of equilibrium, manifesting everything else. We attempt to have that place of balance in our lives, but know from experience it never stays exactly in the center. All we can do is hope to bring it back as we move between states. It is like the pendulum, swinging back and forth from one side to the center then to the other side, but always seeking center.Continue reading “Spring by Deanne Quarrie”
Years of patriarchy and masculine domination, rapid technological advances, exclusivist religious dogma, separation from nature, materialistic attitudes and the daily course of our busy lives have left women (and men) largely disconnected from their essential primal feminine energies. We get so caught up in all these “doings” that we fail to tend, nurture or even recognize the primal part of our self that is essential to our being. Women from all walks of life are seeking ways and means to connect back to their core, primal feminine self. But who is she really? Moreover, how do we connect to, or awaken her? Continue reading “Creativity as our Primal Instinct”
We are your subtlest instruments: no music branches to your breast that does not sound in us, no music dies away from you, that in us lives not, and even in your absence your cadence journeys…
Allen Mandelbaum, Chelmaxioms
The path to freedom is often muddy. Water sloshes through your sandals and the soles of your shoes stick, clinging to the past, weighing down the future. No one said dancing in wet sand was easy. But it is very holy. Just ask the brave prophetess who celebrated liberation by dancing on the shores of a reedy sea.
Often relegated to the submissive role of sister, the character of Miriam is typically overshadowed by the triumphs of her younger brother. Like many of her canonical contemporaries, Miriam receives little attention in scripture. Her name is only mentioned twice and the story of her song is left unsung by the writers of Exodus. Yet she is there, her song hidden in the crevices of the canon, her dance demanding that we notice the ritual event of liberation, her courageous voice prophesying, leaving a legacy for all the dancing women who will follow in her intrepid food steps. Continue reading “Painting Miriam by Angela Yarber”
A dancing woman stands center stage, her arms outstretched in natural, free, and unbound movement, as her heart cries out to us…
In May of 1877 a dancing, feminist, revolutionary was born. She was not constrained by the corsets, morals, or traditions of her time. Barefoot, clad in flowing garments, with a diaphanous scarf in hand, she stepped onto the stage and rocked the world: the world of dance, the world of women, and the world of religion.
Born in San Francisco as Dora Angela Duncan and known to us as Isadora Duncan, or Holy Isadora. This wild woman rejected the rigidity of ballet, conventional roles for women, and traditional religion. After feeling constrained by the pointe shoes, corsets, and unyielding technique of American ballet, Duncan left for Europe, intent on revolutionizing the world through dance. She claimed, “I have come to bring about a great renaissance of religion through the dance, to bring the knowledge of the beauty and holiness of the human body … (Duncan quoted by Terry Walter in Isadora Duncan).” Continue reading “Painting Isadora Duncan By Angela Yarber”
The prophetess Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, while all the women went out after her with tambourines, dancing; and she led them in the refrain: Sing to the LORD, for he is gloriously triumphant; horse and chariot he has cast into the sea.”(NAB, Exodus 15:20-21)
The Song of Miriam is not a story of death and destruction, but rather liberation. It is a poetic celebration of God’s liberation of the Israelites from the oppressive Egyptians, which, according to Bernhard W. Anderson in “The Song of Miriam Poetically and Theologically Considered,” marks the beginning of the Israelite tradition (292). Phyllis Trible in “Bringing Miriam out of the Shadows” states that this act marks the end of the Exodus, which was started by Miriam, not Moses (169, 172). The act of liberation reveals God’s action in humanity. Gerald Janzen in Exodus believes this act also moved the Israelites “to fear the LORD and believe in the LORD and in his servant Moses” (109). The uniqueness of this passage is that the most unlikely person leads – this person is not a man but rather a woman.
This brief passage in the Hebrew Scriptures is revelatory – Miriam is revealed for the first time. She is a prophetess, Aaron’s sister, and the role of leader of the victory dance to honor the Divine Warrior.