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

Rich Incubation/Dreaming Goddess Awakening

Issue 14, 2001

Review by Griselda Steiner

Our ancestors danced as an expression of their relationship with the divine. Dance today is not an integral part of our community worship, family or daily life as it once was. We have come to experience dance as entertainment and if we want dance, we must search for the opportunity. In this stunningly illustrated book, Iris J. Stewart explores women in dance, the history from ancient ritual to modern dance and sacred symbols. Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance is a comprehensive study that reveals how dance can be brought back into our spiritual practice.

Searching for an accurate history of sacred dance, Iris Stewart came up against obstacles that many scholars confront when trying to trace the path back to women's religious culture. In the Judeo-Christian tradition Goddess religions, referred to as "fertility cults," were suppressed, disguised and extinguished. One way Iris found Goddess heritage was through the root derivation of words and their changing meanings throughout time. "History" in ancient Rome meant dancer, from which derived minister and later minstrel. The Egyptian Goddess of Music, Hathor, was referred to as "Hor". Women of the Greek Aphrodite were called "Horai" and the Hebrew word for dance is "Hora," the "circle." This root word evolved to the contemporary "whore" with its proafne connotations.

In Part One, "In The Beginning Was The Dance," Iris states that worship of the Goddess was a fundamental part of dance. In the old religions of the Middle East, India, China, Japan, the African continent, and Greece, the Goddess Herself may have been a dancer. In India, Sarasvasti, Goddess of Learning and Wisdom, is depicted with the vina, and Indian lute. In Hawaii, Pele, Goddess of Volcanoes, is Matron of the Dance.

In the ancient world, images represented women as dancers, instrumentalists, and singers. Priestesses played a unique role. As nurses, oracles, and midwives, they worked with song and rhythmic dance to heal and transform. For festivals they wore special costumes, jewelry, amulets, veils, girdles, and headdresses to embody greater powers. Over time, the priestly castes became the keepers of ceremony and women's devotional dances were relegated to provacative spectacle. As transitions from Mother religion to Father religion took place, sexuality was split from the natural flow of life and used as a function of belonging to the patriarchal tribe.

By the time of the early Christian era, much of women's ritual and women's ways had eroded. Yet, the dance itself remained throughout the centuries. Perhaps the most well known group to dance was the Gnostics in Greece, Asia Minor, and Rome who traveled throughout Europe. In Gnostic Acts 1, handmaidens are described dancing a ring dance before Sophia, Daughter of Light. They sang the "Hymn of Jesus":

"To the Universe belongs the dancer - Amen

He who does not dance does not know what happens - Amen"

As time passed, the church focused more on subduing matters of the flesh, the spoken word took precedence, and women's rituals were condemned.

In the chapter "WomanDance," Iris points out that the dance tradition once referred to as the exotic danse orientale was dubbed "belly dance" by the man who brought Little Egypt to the Chicago's World Fair in 1893. When Iris created her own dance troupe, she was challenged to create a repertoire that reflected the dance's primary purpose. Originally the dance was performed at the bedside of women in childbirth. The mother-to-be would join dancers circling her bed, and then return to bear down.

In Part Two, "Modern Sacred Dance Today," Iris explores the legacy of the founders of modern dance: Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham, as well as the legendary Mata Hara and Ruth St. Denis. She quotes Martha Graham, " has always seemed to me that, even as a child, I have been aware of unseen things around me, a certain sense of movement. I don't know what to call them, sense beings perhaps or spirits or a kind of energy that stimulates the globe."

In the chapter "The Ecstatic and the Transcendental," Iris portrays dances known in many cultures for release, communication with the divine, and curing illness: the Andalusian Gypsy Baile Flamenco, the Sufi Arabic Zar circle, the Brazilian Macumba, and the Guedra dance of the Berber tribe of Morocco. She also describes various forms of dancing inspired by sacred shapes - circles, labyrinths, mirrors, and serpents - as well as dances to the elements: earth, air, fire, and water.

Although the subject is vast and embraces cultures throughout millennia, Iris has created an enticing portrait. For Iris, Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance became a journey into spiritual Feminism and sacred truths. She writes, "Dance as liturgy or ritual has always been a way to honor the sacred, the mystery, turning the spiral of life and the universal, the ever-present flow of the divine force."

By reclaiming dance in the sacred dimension, women can find the joy of spiritual connection. Sacred dance now has a revival in Methodist, Lutheran, Catholic, Unitarian, and Mennonite churches. Some Jewish synagogues include dance in some forms of worship. Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance includes a resource guide to locate sacred dance in your community.

Every woman has her own dance, a celebration of her life, sensuality, and experience of pain and joy. To find your way back to the dance, reading this book is a way to begin.

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