Most of us can say that we have experimented with dance at some point in our lives – perhaps as a kid growing up in a family with a deep love for ballet and jazz, or out for fun with friends at a party or wedding, or perhaps as a way to express our emotions and to release built up stress and tension. The art of dance has evolved over the centuries from what was once a sacred and devotional attempt to connect with spirit, ancestors, culture and the land, to today being choreographed, rehearsed and performed across the world.
When we look at where dance is today and how it is portrayed in modern-day western civilisation, it’s easy to view dance as more of a physical based practice than a spiritual one, but what many people don’t know is that dance is actually one of the oldest forms of prayer and intention to connect with a higher energy, which we may refer to as soul, spirit or god. The practice of dance has it’s roots in centuries of sacred ritual and was used as a form of devotion, expression and sacrifice. In India, classical dance has been used for thousands of years to express the inner experience of god. The Science of Dramatology, a treatise that explains the purpose of art amongst society, reflects the importance of dance as an art form in the words written by Bharata’s Natya Shastra, ”when the world had become steeped in greed and desire, in jealousy and anger, in pleasure and pain, Brahma the supreme one, was asked by the people to create an amusement which could be seen and heard by all, for the Scriptures being learned and ambiguous, were not enjoyed by the masses”. This very line suggests that in order to experience our true joy and spirituality, that simply reading and listening to such religious texts was not enough; the people needed to find their own direct experience of god, from an internal source within them, not from a book or scripture.
Historically, dance has been a fundamental part of community, spirituality and worship to the divine, known as Prana in the tradition of Yoga and Chi in Chinese Medicine. Women used dance as a way to experience emotions of pain and joy and to help navigate through life’s challenges. Dance was a way to celebrate life and the feminine essence. “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”.
It appears that dance became a necessary part of spiritual development, where the intention behind the practice was the key determining factor in whether the dance was a ritualistic practice to develop a sacred connection and for healing, or whether it was practiced for the physical benefits. But what is it about dance that compels us to practice? Why do we get the urge to move when we hear a pleasing rhythm of sound that ignites our senses? It’s really quite fascinating when we think about it. Although the practice of dance may look very different from what it did thousands of years ago, we can see the essence and benefits found in developing a deep connection with our movement practice, regardless of the style and context.
There truly is something so freeing about moving our bodies, getting in touch with the physical and allowing our inner world to reflect on how we move. The subtle sensations of moving can feel exhilarating, helping us to feel grounded in the present moment, where all notion of time and space seems to disappear. In the tradition of yoga, this feeling is the entire intention of the practice; to unite the mind, body and spirit in the present and to cease the fluctuations of the mind, bringing us into a state of balance, ease and harmony. Due to the nature of our highly demanding lifestyles, and with many of us working 8-hour days at a desk, we easily feel tired and energetically stagnant and we often carry a stiffness in the body as we move through our day. We become rigid in everything we do and this can result in feeling lethargic, frustrated, bitter, sad and lifeless, which causes a disruption in the flow of energy and decreases our sources of inspiration and creativity. The physical act of movement is so therapeutic to the mind-body-spirit connection, helping to stimulate the entire functioning of our bodily systems, increasing endorphins and our feel good emotions, helping to build positive self-esteem and strength and endurance in the body-mind. Subtle movement forms such as walking, dance, yoga and tai chi are particularly soothing to the psyche as they call upon energy of the feminine essence, which is often lacking in our fast-paced masculinised world. Gentle, flowing movement enables us to clear our minds and is the perfect avenue to free up the body, assisting us to let go and loosen up – it really is like a moving meditation. When we feel lighter in our body, we become more open, receptive and experimental through the practice of dance. We are able to connect with ourselves on a deeper level, where creativity, insight and clarity is much more accessible. Ever notice how hard it can be to think of an idea or problem solve when you’re glued to the computer or constantly stressed, but then a great idea comes to mind as soon as you start relaxing and moving your body? Thus the practice of fluid moments enables us to feel much more inspired and expressive in our day-to-day lives.
Just like the practice of yoga postures (asanas) has it’s place in opening the subtle energy channels of the body and assisting to release years of stored physical and emotional tension – any type of intentional and devotional movement practice has the ability to connect us with that internal source, bringing us to fully engage with the present moment and helping us to connect with our deepest, most authentic selves. Perhaps the greatest gift of a spiritual practice is simply learning to understand ourselves – to know thyself.
Any form of creative expression has it’s place in a spiritual practice. The difference is found in whether our practice stems from a desire to achieve physical outcomes or whether we have a genuine intention to practice our craft and to retain that which is eternally whole and sacred.
Osho, the famous philosopher, mystic and spiritual leader puts it beautifully:
“To be creative means to be in love with life. You can be creative only if you love life enough that you want to enhance its beauty, you want to bring a little more music to it, a little more poetry to it, a little more dance to it.”
Written by Erin Stevenson