Sacred Dance has nothing to do with a specific dance style or with particular body techniques. The dancer moves in a way that unities his or her Mind, Body and Spirit with a Higher Spiritual Energy. It is not of importance whether we call this energy “God”, “The Creator”, “The Great Spirit”, “Nature”, “The Cosmos” or anything else. What is important is that this results in the dancer feeling spiritually uplifted and filled with joy.
Dance is clearly one of the earliest forms of worship. Cave art from early prehistoric times onwards bears witness to the power of the dance. Such paintings and engravings occur worldwide. In the western part of Arnhem Land in Australia a cave painting shows two men playing instruments to accompany the dance. A rock shelter at Cogul near Lenda in Catolonia, Spain portrays a group of nine women. They are wearing knee length skirts and are dancing round a small naked male figure. The State of Madhya Pradash in India has abundant rock art depicting dancers and musicians. The caves in Tassili Algeria have paintings of female dancers and the Etruscans in 500 BC depicted dancing in wall frescoes.
Certain dances mimic animals or are aimed to ensure that something happens. For example hunters in ancient times are shown in cave paintings dancing wearing animal skins and masks. We can safely assume that this was to ensure good hunting. Dances miming the gathering of the harvest must also be of ancient origin. As time has passed such dances have become folk dance rather than sacred dance.
Sacred Dance is often preceded by elaborate secret preparations such as bathing, avoidance of certain foods and drinks and from sexual intercourse. There may be periods of intense prayer and the taking of trance inducing substances.
One of the best documented European sacred dances is that connected to the cult of the Greek god Dionysus. The rituals in his honor included orgies, the sacrifice of animals, excessive wine-drinking and trance dancing which continued until the dancers collapsed with exhaustion.
Judaism had no problem with dance being connected to worship. Psalm 150 for example:- “Praise ye the Lord… Praise him with the timbrel and dance”. King David is said to have whirled before the Ark of the Covenant. In the Talmud dancing is described as being the principal function of angels.
Dance was part of the service in the early Christian church. It took place in the choir and was led by the bishop. Today there are Christian churches who are reintroducing dance sometimes in a very self-conscious style.
Sacred Dance can in itself be therapeutic.
The Shakers, who were an offshoot of the Quakers were brought to America from England in 1774 by Ann Lee. A vision had told her that sexual intercourse was the source of mankinds’s troubles. She established a closed community which practised self-sufficiency and communal ownership of all possessions. The Shakers had a deep understanding of the aesthetic of simplicity which showed itself in all aspects of their lives.
Shaker dances were held in the evening. Men and women entered the hall separately. They marched in on tip-toe and formed two rows facing each other about five feet apart.Men were on the right with the women on the left. The Chief Elder stood in the middle and gave a five minute address. He concluded by saying “Go forth, old men, young men and maidens and worship God with all your might in the dance”. Men and women did not intermingle. There were pauses to see if anyone had received “a gift”. Then two of the sisters would start whirling like tops with their eyes shut. They continued whirling for about 15 minutes when they stopped suddenly and sat down again.
There are no longer any viable Shaker communities and the dances have therefore died out. A certain number of their hymns, however, continue to be sung in various other churches.
An ancient Sacred Dance tradition continues to this day in Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa. The Sufis (who represent the mystical side of Islam) have whirling dances. In Turkey the tradition traces back to Celaleddin Mevlana Rumi who died in 1273. His son organized his followers into the brotherhood of whirling dervishes now known as the Mevlevi.
When Ataturk gained political power in the early years of the twentieth century he abolished the dervish orders and turned the monasteries into museums. They were revived in 1957.
The significance of the dervish dance is connected to the sun, the moon and the revolving stars. The worshippers wear clothing which has symbolic meaning. The tall conical felt hats signify the tombstones and therefore the death of the dancers egos. The white robes represent the shrouds around their egos. The flowing black cloaks symbolize the dancers being trapped in worldly tombs.At the beginning of the ceremony the cloaks are removed to symbolize the worshippers deliverance from the cares and attachments of this world.
The dance is accompanied by a reed flute. After a series of rituals the worshippers reach a point where they are all simultaneously whirling with their right hands held palm up to receive the blessings of heaven. They hold their left hands palm down to transfer the blessings to earth.
Although non-participants are allowed to view the ceremony the dances remain true Sacred Dances for those taking part and for many of those watching. Dervish music should never be used for secular purposes, especially not to accompany oriental dance. The chants are prayers and should be respected as such.
Today Africa remains rich in the area of traditional Sacred Dance. The Yoruba of Western Nigeria have many traditions of deities dancing. Some are said to be able to dance on one leg. Sango (who is associated with thunder) consulted Orunmila (who is associated with divination and wisdom) as to how he could acquire permanent wealth. Orunmila’s advice was for Sango to acquire a splendid outfit onto which he should sew as many cuaris as he possibly could. Cauris were once used as currency and are thus a sign of wealth. People seeing Sango so splendidly dressed would assume that he was wealthy. Orunmila told Sango that he should dance around wearing this outfit. The outcome was that through dancing and asking for alms Sango became very rich. Sango priests carry axes when in company or on parade. Sango priests wear feminine hairstyles, beads around the neck and earrings on festive occasions. The dances for Sango are very fast and athletic. All the deities have their associated dances. To be unable to dance is to be unable to worship properly.
In Ghana I have seen young men dancing in trance and slashing at themselves with razor sharp cutlasses. The ferocious slashing never broke the skin or even left a mark. I have also witnessed Sacred Dances to the deities of the Thunder Pantheon. Here older female cult members wandered among the crowds making suggestive gestures with a wooden phallus. The performance was supposed to be amusing and it was. There were also conjurers on hand changing sand to powdered white chalk. Anyone could come and watch the dances if they showed the proper respect to the deity. This meant that both men and women had to be bareheaded. The men had to tie their cloths around the waist so that they were bare-chested and women had to tie their cloths under the armpits.
West African Sacred Dances tend to be danced outdoors often at night. The dancers come onto the circular dance area and leave it as they see fit. They may all be dancing the same steps but each dancer expresses them in his or her own way. Everyone dances as a group but has their own “space” within it. The dancer and the choreographer are one and the same person.
Africa stands in grave danger of losing its Sacred Dances due to the dwindling number of people adhering to the traditional religions. Only cult members may dance the Sacred Dances. Members of Christian churches and Followers of Islam have always not unsurprisingly been expressly forbidden to take part in any Sacred Dances and the number of converts is increasing. Some Christian churches allow a certain amount of drumming and dancing during services. Both the drumming and dancing have little “life force” or visual and aural interest. Musicians are beginning to create new genuinely african Sacred Songs for the church. If anyone knows of choreographers working to create authentic african contemporary Sacred Dance I would love to hear about it.
The cults need younger members. If they fail to materialize then the Sacred Dances will not evolve within their true context. The dances will either die out or become shadows of themselves as social dances danced by all and sundry simply for pleasure.
I have written very little indeed about the music which is of equal importance to the dance. The music is a subject in itself. If you are interested in African Rhythms I suggest that you try and get hold of “An Approach to African Rhythm” by Dr Seth Cudjoe published by the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon.
The Sacred Dances of Bali, Indonesia are a beautiful prayer made manifest. Wali are Sacred Dances indispensably connected with rituals of the same name. They take place on the first day of a ritual, in the inner courtyard of the temple.
Sanghyang Dedari and Sanghyang Jaran are both Sacred Dances. I witnessed Sanghyang Dedari in which two little girls danced in a trance mirroring each others movements. Their eyes were wide open but they were said to see nothing. At the conclusion of the dance they were brought out of trance by a white-clad priest who sprinkled holy water on them.
Sanghyang Jaran is a very spectacular dance in which A young man wears a belt attached to which is a horse’s head woven from coconut fronds. This young man was put into trance by a priest. He then ran prancing like a horse into a fire of coconut husks.After which he stood still for a while before jumping around Next he moved out of the fire and the burning husks were raked together before once again the young man danced into the fire. The third time he did this he actually sat in the embers and rolled around. At some crucial point, not identifiable to those watching, the young dancer was pulled clear and helped out of his trance.
The Balinese are devout Hindus and the Sacred Dance tradition is treasured, appreciated and is still very much a part of every ones lives.
Let us hope, that in the parts of the world where there is still genuine Sacred Dance it will not degenerate into a spectacle where we are aiming to influence an audience rather than the Spiritual World.
If you have any comments or questions I shall be delighted to hear from you. You can contact me via my website.