Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance:
Awakening Spirituality Through Movement and Ritual
A Book by Iris J. Stewart


American Ethical Union
Ethical Culture Review
By Phyllis Ehrenfeld

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.

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 dances.

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.


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