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

The Beltane Papers
A Journal of Womenıs Mysteries
Issue # 28, Autumn, 2002

From the ancient temple dances of the priestesses of Egypt and Crete to modern liturgical dance and the Dances of Universal Peace, movement and dance have always been important elements in worship and ritual. Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance reclaims the power of dance as a channel to the Goddess. The author, a teacher and lecturer on womenıs subjects and the founder of the WomanDance troupe, became intrigued with the history of womenıs sacred dance when she began taking belly dance lessons: ³At that time I asked myself, Whatıs a nice feminist like you doing with a dance like this?ı How did this dance, which moved womenıs bodies so powerfully and sensually, come from a part of the world where women have so long been under public repression and segregation? Although at that time I had no idea how ancient it was, I knew that the version I was studying was an amalgam of several traditional dances. I wondered where the mesmerizing serpentine arm movements and that snake bracelet the dancer wears came from. What did they mean? As I went deeper into the dance and began to recognize its mystical power, other questions came from within. Why did the slow undulations, moving in synchrony with the ancient taxim of flute and oud, communicate the Grandmotherıs spirit so strongly to me? It was the serpent that led me to the Goddess, and the Goddess led me back to the dance.² (p.2)

Sacred Woman explores the history of dance as communion with the Divine, not only in ancient Goddess-honoring cultures but also within Judaism, Islam and Christianity. We encounter dance as prayer, menstruation ritual, birth ritual, community-builder, expressions of joy, sorrow and transcendent ecstasy. I was especially intrigued with the chapter on the symbolism of the dancerıs costume, and the idea of ritual transvestism: ³The power of the goddess and priestess costumes was also sought after by many male priests who adapted and absconded with them. Various explanations for the behavior of ritual transvestites have been posited. One theory says hey may be striving, consciously or unconsciously, to attain a state of androgyny, unifying the complementary aspects of male and female, thereby attaining a superior, divine or near-divine state. Another suggestion is that at one time all religious and magical knowledge belonged to women. As a result, when men first began to appropriate religious authority they dressed in the symbolic clothing set aside for the priestess so as to make themselves more acceptable to the spirits and forces of Nature.² (pp. 106 107)

Later chapters explore the state of modern sacred dance today, in places you would expect to find it (India, Egypt, Turkey) and places you might not (the Alleluia Dance Ensemble at First United Methodist church, Lake Charles, Louisiana!). Those founding mothers of modern dance Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Martha Graham are also honored. Each chapter also includes a section entitled ³Now Let Us Dance,² in which the reader is invited to explore different forms of sacred dance in an experiential way.

Chock full of gorgeous color and black-and-white photos and artwork, painstakingly researched (Stewart traveled to many archaeological sites in Europe, the Middle East and South America), and with an extensive bibliography, notes section and resource guide, Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance is sure to become the standard handbook of any woman seriously interested in honoring the Goddess through dance. I found it profoundly inspirational; I hope you do too!

Review by Marisa Young
Book Excerpts

Copyright © 2000 Iris Stewart (All Rights Reserved)