Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance:
Awakening Spirituality Through Movement and Ritual
A Book by Iris J. Stewart
Invitation to the dance
By Katie Watts, Argus-Courier Staff 1/03/01, Petaluma, CA
Today we primarily think of dance as a form of entertainment or a way to exercise or socialize. There was a time, however, when dance was used to commune with the divine, celebrating the seasons and rhythms of the year and the rhythms of our lives.
"I didn't start out in the sense of writing a book - thinking of a subject and
writing," said Iris Stewart, the author of the newly published Sacred
Woman, Sacred Dance.
"For several years I gave talks about the history of women and religions
and at some point I began to see the two histories, women's history of
religion, and dance as a spiritual expression, had a parallel history in that
they both were expelled from religious expression at about the same
"Or," Stewart continued, "I could say dance as an expression of
spirituality was eliminated at about the same time as women's
Stewart's journey began when a friend asked her to go to a belly dancing
class with her. "She told me she felt she should learn the dance because
she was from the Middle East," Stewart writes. "Her statement seemed
rather curious to me at the time, but later I understood it when I began
unearthing the many rituals and spiritual practices of our female
Stewart had developed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. "I dragged myself to
dance class because I had pre-paid, but when I came out I noticed I
wasn't depressed or tired any longer. I began to see the special power of
dance and I got hooked on Arabic rhythms."
Eventually she led a troupe of belly dancers, "I didn't like the night club
attitude, but I wanted to perform." She was also intellectually curious.
Her research on the history of belly dance piqued her curiosity.
"I found it was a dance by women, for women and for women's purposes
in the traditional society of the Middle East, in preparation for and during
childbirth. But when it's put into another setting, for the entertainment of
princes and men, then it takes on another connotation.
"I wanted to know why you can't go to the library and look up women,
dance, religious expression. You won't find anything. I had to learn to
look with what Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in her book Women Who Run
With the Wolves, terms the "acrostic eye' - a way of looking at things a
little differently, with a skewed eyesight.
"I also had to look at words, words used about women and what they
might have meant at one time. Quite often they meant just the opposite
of what they mean now, especially as applied to women and dance."
For example, Stewart explained, lewd. "In Old English lewd meant the
same as lay, or non-clerical, as in lay preacher. Before there was an
organized priesthood, lay (lewd) people participated in the church
services. "So you had lewd people dancing as participation in church.
"Most people don't know that dance was included in religious expression
in the churches down to the 15th century, the time of the Spanish
Inquisition, when it was finally eradicated.
"Throughout the centuries," Stewart writes, "clergy and people wound
sacred dance around the sober core of Christian orthodoxy. . . . As time
passed, however, the church grew more and more ambivalent about
dance. . . . Theologians, feelings that dancing was distracting and too
often suggestive of impious and worldly ideas, began to root it out of holy
ritual. Christianity focused more and more on repentance and the
subduing of the flesh, which many viewed as opposed to the spirit."
For a long time, Stewart said, she didn't see her research as a book. "It
was just my research. I got a computer and started organizing
"Then a woman I knew came to spend the weekend with me. I went
away to a workshop and when I came home, all my papers were
scattered over the living room floor. She had called a man, an agent, she
used to know and said, "You should look at this material, it's original
When he agreed, Stewart put it all together and sent it to him, "and two
or three months later, I had a publisher."
Stewart says she sees the book as being around for a long time. "This is
the first book that has been written on this subject. I looked and looked
That she did. Her bibliography and notes are extensive. In addition, she
doesn't leave hanging the reader who wants to learn more about, or
participate in sacred dance, but offers several pages of resources. As
well, the book is not only a history of women and dance, but a textbook
for performing sacred dances.
Praise for the book has been flooding Stewart's web page,
www.sacreddancer.com, she said, and she is now giving book talks. In
addition, next summer she will offer a presentation at the yearly festival
of the Sacred Dance Guild in Hawaii.
"I give a lot of credit to the early modern dancers - Isadora Duncan, Ruth
St. Denis, Martha Graham - for going back and trying to find women's
expression of dance," Stewart said. One of St. Denis' students, Margaret
Taylor-Doane, developed the Sacred Dance Guild, she said, "which has
brought dance as a spiritual expression back to the churches.
"Dancers are telling me they're so grateful I wrote this. It gives them
historical background, the foundation for what they already know and
have already experienced through dance."
However, Stewart said, "This is available to everyone. You don't have to
be a dancer."
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Copyright © 2000 Iris Stewart (All Rights Reserved)