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

thinking.' "

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

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,, 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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