Woman and Earth Magazine
Published in English and Russian
"It Makes You Want to Dance"
By Griselda Steiner, NYC
"Dance and ritual create community, drawing people together both
emotionally and physically in a special sense of intimacy and shared abandon.
As the community participates, no one is a stranger any longer. We become
companions on the same journey." Iris J. Stewart
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, their history
from ancient ritual to modern dance and sacred symbols. The book is a
comprehensive study that reveals how dance can be brought back into our
Searching for an accurate history of sacred dance, Iris 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 "Horae" and the Hebrew word for dance is "Hora",
the "circle". This root word evolved to the contemporary "whore"
with its profane 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, Africa and Greece, the Goddess
herself may have been a dancer. In India, Sarasvasti, Goddess of Learning
and Wisdom, is depicted with a lute. In Hawaii, Pele, Goddess of Volcanoes,
is Patron 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 provocative spectacle. As transition 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 were 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 too precedence and women's rituals were condemned.
In her 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 for women in childbirth. The mother would join
dancers circling her 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; "it 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, I.E., the Andalusian gypsy Baile Flamenco,
the Sufi Arabic Zar circle, the Brazilian Macumba and 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, Mennonite churches. Some Jewish synagogues include
dance in some form of worship. (Iris provides 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.