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Sacred dance: a glimpse around the world.

WHAT MAKES DANCE SACRED? A simple answer is difficult to come by--even in twentieth-century America. For example, pioneers of American modern dance, such as Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, drew inspiration from cultures in which dancing plays an integral role in religious life. Guided by the example of ancient Greek art, Duncan demanded that Western dance regain its status as a "high religious art" and thereby serve to "renew religion," Christianity in particular. St. Denis, inspired by the traditions of India, Asia, and the Middle East, proclaimed dance a "mighty ritual of Beauty." While dancing, her aim was to become a "rhythmic and impersonal instrument of spiritual revelation." Both Duncan and St. Denis, the mothers of secular modern dance, went so far as to claim that their dancing was religious and not just an entertaining distraction.

The idea wasn't a new one. Cultures around the world use rhythmic bodily movement as an integral part of spiritual practice. People dance to demonstrate their devotion and commitment; to invoke the presence of goddesses and gods; to communicate their grievances and receive divine counsel; to attain mystical experience; or to share the wisdom within a community. People dance spontaneously to express their emotions; they dance as part of a ritual or discipline aimed at transforming the one who dances. The movements involved in such actions may be formal or improvised, practiced alone, in a group, or for an audience.

While a complete catalogue of dance in the world's religions is beyond the scope of this article, four examples selected from Islamic, Hindu, African, and Christian traditions indicate a range of forms sacred dance can take.


The thirteenth-century poet Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi wrote, "Many roads lead to God. I have chosen that of music and dance." Honoring Rumi as their founder, the Mevlevis, or whirling dervishes (one of the Sufi, or mystical orders, within Islam), practice dance as the distinctive feature of their devotional life. All Sufis share the practice of sama, or "listening to music," as a way to intensify their powers of concentration, enter a heightened state of consciousness, and attain release from the sensible world. Their aim is wajd, or finding--they aim to find God in an experience of spiritual union by freeing themselves from the pull of the nafs, or lower soul.

Rumi practiced sama by dancing spontaneously, whirling and spinning to express his overwhelming love for God and his intense desire to merge with God. His followers developed this into a formal ritual. In the present day, the dervishes enter the dancing space wearing long black gowns and high felt caps. They walk in a circle counterclockwise, three times, receiving greetings and blessings from the shaykh, or teacher. Completing their rotations, they cast off their black cloaks, revealing white floor-length gowns beneath. They begin to whirl counterclockwise, with the right foot stepping across the left, and the left coming around to meet the right. The right hand is turned up to heaven, receiving, while the left hand points down to the earth, giving. As the dervishes spin, their gowns open and swell into the shape of bells.

While dancing for God, Rumi claimed to taste the wajd he would know completely after death. Correlatively, the Mevlevis teach that as a dervish whirls with arms outstretched, his or her soul remembers its descent into the material world, reawakens to its divinity, and reunites with the Divine Essence from which it emerged at the moment of creation. In so doing, the dervish serves as a medium for God in the world.


On the Indian subcontinent, one of many forms of dance involves the devadasis, or temple dancers, who dance in the context of temple rituals. At the temple of Jagannatha in the town of Puri in Orissa, for example, the

devadasis dance at the midday meal offering. This temple is one of several hundred large temples that serve as sites of pilgrimage for thousands of Hindus. The meal feeds the deities and up to 5,000 pilgrims.

At midday, pilgrims gather inside the temple's dance hall. The devadasis enter, dressed as the Goddess in her aspect as bridal consort to Lord Vishnu, the maintainer of the universe. Their hair is bound; their jewels and dress regal. Lord Vishnu is present in the form of a golden staff held by the temple priests, which represents both Vishnu and his living incarnation, the King of Puri. The devadasis' movements are carefully choreographed; precise gestures of hands and face are punctuated by deep bends in the ankles, knees, and hips, and strong pounding footwork.

The dancing of the devadasis is itself an offering, an offering of maithuma, or sexual union. The dance invokes the presence of the Goddess, who infuses Lord Vishnu and his earthly form with vitality. Through their dancing, the devadasis transform the temple meal offerings into food that will nourish both pilgrims and deities and ensure that the food offerings will yield blessings for the people, adequate rains for the crops, and freedom from pestilence and disease.


Like India, the African continent has nourished myriad dance forms. Some survived the migration across the Atlantic with the Africans sold into slavery in the New World. In Haiti, for example, enslaved Africans blended elements of their own traditions with others drawn from the Catholicism imposed upon them by their captors. In so doing, they developed a nexus of dance ceremonies--known as vodoun. In dances they communicate with the lwa, or spirits, who impede and enable human action.

In the Dahomey region of West Africa (now Benin), vodoun means "spirit" or "god." Although many Haitians believe that one Bondye, or "Good God," rules over all, this God, like African high gods, does not intervene in human affairs. Beneath Bondye is an evolving pantheon of lwa, lesser spirits who rule various dimensions of human life. Each lwa has both an African name and the name of a Catholic saint; he or she is also associated with dance movements and rhythms that express his or her personality. The priestess (mambo) or priest (hougan), leads initiates in performing these movements and in calling upon a particular lwa depending on the reason for the ceremony--an illness or concern, communal celebration, or individual rite of passage.

As the dancing of the participants heats up, the movements concentrate their attention on the given lwa and purify their bodies, preparing them to receive the lwa. The spirit enters the community by possessing one or more of the dancers. The lwa takes the place of the person's gro bonanj or "big guardian spirit" (akin to "consciousness" or "personality"), and rides her like a horse. In this state, the dancer's movements express the presence of the lwa; she is the spirit and addresses those who have called on her for aid.

In vodoun, the dancing is a catalyst for healing within the community. As initiates publicly dance their concerns, as they submit to being ridden by the spirits, their dancing provides a medium for negotiating relations among themselves and relations between humans and the forces that govern their lives.


Another case where dance appears in the context of religion surfaced on American soil in a Christian context at the end of the eighteenth century: the American Shakers. Over an eighty-year period, from 1774 to the 1850s, the Shakers developed a repertoire of dances ranging from spontaneous skipping, shouting, falling, and turning dances to ordered patterns of lines, squares, and circles, performed with precise, unison hand gestures. Older forms gave way to new dances as the Shakers experienced ongoing bursts of revival.

As recounted in their Summary View of the Millennial Church (1823), the Shakers believe that Divine Revelation led them "to go forth and worship in the dance." Convinced that their founder, "Mother" Ann Lee, was the second incarnation of Jesus Christ predicted in the Bible, they took a passage from Jeremiah to heart: "Then shall the virgin rejoice in the dance." Shakers believe dancing is the manner of worship "in which true followers of Christ-were to be called to worship God and manifest joy in the latter days."

Moreover, for the Shakers, who practice celibacy, dancing not only manifests joy, it is also effective in "shaking out" the evils of carnal desire or mind and helping a person live a "virgin" life, pure in heart and soul. In their words: "Dance is the greatest gift that ever was made for the purification of the soul." God created dancing as a human talent, and called them to devote all of their vital powers to His service. Thus, regardless of how humans under the influence of carnal mind have perverted this talent, Shakers contended, a faith lived in heart and mind alone is only "feebly engaged." Dancing enables a "unity of exercise," which binds participants as members of the Body of Christ.

For the Shakers, dancing enacts the imminent resurrection. To dance is to know God, to know Ann Lee as Christ incarnate, to know one's soul as free in God. As a Shaker hymn reports: "Awake my soul, arise and shake / No time to ever ponder ... No earthly tie shall fetter me / I'll be a good believer."

AS THESE CASES FROM ACROSS TIME and place suggest, there is no single meaning or function that identifies a dance as sacred. At most, what these forms share is some sense that the act of making rhythmic bodily movements contributes to the formation and fulfillment of human life, however the nature, goals, and purposes of that life are defined. The act of dancing transforms the people who dance and the people who watch.

Dancer and scholar Kimerer L. LaMothe teaches courses in religion, philosophy, and the arts for the Committee on the Study of Religion, Harvard University.
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Title Annotation:religious ritual
Author:LaMothe, Kimerer L.
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2001
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