American Ethical Union
Belly dance, which we now know as a mildly titillating pastime to be viewed
from restaurant tables, had its beginnings as a religious celebration
of womanhood's stages of life - childbirth in particular. Stewart began
her extensive study of women's dance traditions when she established her
own troupe called WomanDance and performed for audiences at libraries,
art fairs and women's groups. Her goal was twofold: to promote an expressive
art for American women, and to explain its history and meaning, as a long-ignored
remnant of women's religion.
Ethical Culture Review
By Phyllis Ehrenfeld
For Iris Stewart, the eroticism of what is now sometimes called Oriental
dance, is only a part of an "intricate, complex synchronicity between
women, giving birth, dance and the Divine." Stewart has quoted an
eyewitness account of an actual birth and delivery that took place in
1967 in the form of a ritual dance in a village three and one-half days'
travel from Marrakesh. The eyewitness, who posed as a mute Moroccan servant,
saw a pregnant woman dressed in a caftan squatting over a small hollow
that had been dug in the center of a tent. Women had formed a series of
circles around the future mother. They were singing softly and undulating
their abdomens, then sharply pulling them in several times. The mother
would get up and do the movements in place for a few minutes, and then
squat for a few minutes and bear down. "About an hour later, she
gave a gasp, and we heard a soft thud. She lifted her caftan, and there
was a baby in the hollow. She held up her hand: it wasn't over yet. Fifteen
minutes later, another gasp and another soft thud. It was twin boys."
Stewart quotes sources as varied as a feminist rabbi, an Armenian dancer
from the Caucasus, the teachers of dancers from the Middle East, countries
as far apart as Morocco and Saudi Arabia, telling of the ritualistic origins
of the movements of the abdominal muscles stemming from the oldest religious
Ancient religions have been much more accepting of the role of women and
dance than religious in recent times. Stewart's own mother was called
before the elders of her church and told she must not dance. She told
them she apologized for breaking the rules of her church, even though
she had not known that there was such a rule. She refused to apologize
for dancing, however, and was expelled from church membership.
In an act of poetic justice, Stewart is reclaiming her mother's legacy.
She has pursued clues from oral history to affirm women's roles in religious
life as expressed through dance. Times have changed, and as Stewart reports,
many church denominations in the United States embrace dance in some form
as part of worship. Religions the world over have begun to recognize that
music, movement in ritual, and even improvisational sacred dance have
a role in the development of spiritual experience.
This book is to be dipped into and savored for its nuggets of historical
detail and many colorful photographs from an eclectic variety of sources,
ancient and modern, from the Zuni basket dance, the sacred circle dance
at Findhorn in Scotland, to a snake circle dance in a clay sculpture,
circa 1400 BCE Crete. The richness and variety of the research turns this
physically beautiful book into an unpretentious and engaging argument
for dance as joy and spiritual experience that could entice even the most
leaden footed to jump into the circle.