The Goddess is Dancing
I have a vision. In my vision I am seeing how the belly dancers of the world (i.e., those of us engaged in the dances of the East) are the co-creators of a new sisterhood which is (re)forming all over our planet and which is building bridges across the continents and into our future. Regardless of what level we are participating in the art and the sharing of belly dance we all seem to be part and participant in something which is very large, a grand design which is bringing us together perhaps for purposes we are not entirely aware of. And the goal in this vision is nothing less than the integration or harmonizing of the male and female aspects within the human psyche and an evolutionary step in our way of being in life.
The belly dance styles in all its varieties and permutations resulting from the creative process gives us an opening, a path leading into the depths of ourselves. There is rich opportunity for exploring the light and dark places of the psyche, and especially for healing the physical, mental, emotional and psychic wounding which has become 'imprinted' into the beingness of women for the last several millennia.
Whether or not we are consciously aware of this healing, transformative process taking place through our embracing of the dance - it is occurring - for the physical movement alters our energy in subtle ways within us. In my own experience belly dance has helped me to release, to ground down into the earth a great deal of pain and invalidation about being female which I have carried around my entire life and which I know I have been burdened with for many lifetimes. This has been an incredibly freeing experience to say the least and I sense over time will have the effect of allowing others in my life more freedom to be who they are as well. Healing such old wounds has also made it possible to find an internal balance between the inner male and female qualities and my sense of deep trust and connection in/with my "higher self."
For several years now I have been struck and awed with the perception that there is this phenomenon occurring in the world: that there are hundreds and thousands of women in every corner of the earth who have been drawn into this circle of creative power and healing forming on the physical plane out of a mutual need, love and respect for this divinely feminine dance.
For me initiation into this journey began soon after giving birth to my second child, also an entrance into the caves of the dark feminine. Rather than being prepared by the rituals of the belly dance for birth I was prepared by birth for entry into my destiny as an artist/healer and the transforming power of Belly Dance. It feels like a call which I am impelled to follow, and it is certainly not a call that only women hear. The few men who open themselves to belly dance seem to be a special breed and are powerfully called.
It appears to me that more people are being drawn into our circle everyday. Men and women from countries around the world: from Finland to Japan, Egypt to Turkey, to Australia, Brazil, the United States, Canada and everywhere between are sharing in a passion for belly dance and we are belly dancing together. The significance of this is that women belly dancing in community was and could again be a fundamental activity of expression and connection with our spiritual life.
We are also talking and sharing culture and growing together as we belly dance. Tribal groups of Native Americans and others came together for dancing, feasting and games. This served a peacekeeping function for these people. Certainly, our coming together to dance is once again serving the need for (world) peace, connecting us more fully with our earth, our bodies and each other.
If you will stop and think about it for a moment - this occurrence - people around the world dancing together holds a certain power. It is a quiet revolution with an energy of its own which is just beginning to build. I believe the transformations that we personally and collectively experience will emanate out from us and through our dancing with more and more strength leaving no one around us untouched or unaffected. I don't think this sort of exchange and gathering of feminine power has occurred on our planet in such a grand way for many millennia. While there are many who deeply fear and resist this unbounding of the feminine, women taking definitive steps to heal themselves will ultimately be healing for all.
It may seem that such a vision could only be seen by a person wearing rose colored glasses but I am not trying to be romantically idealistic in this outlook. Rather I think it is time for us to take stock in who we are and fully acknowledge our creative power in the world. Many of us (in the West at least) have grown up with the message that what women think, say and do is less important and that we have to fight or work hard our whole lives to make any impact. It is very easy to become cynical and resigned.
In my own life I have felt surrounded and sometimes discouraged by those close to me who do not share my passion for belly dance (or dance in any form)! do not understand it and have expressed prejudice of various sorts toward it. Among dancing peers I sometimes see the effects of the negative attitudes and environment which we find ourselves subjected to often. There is a cynicism and bitterness that can cloud our vision which comes out of feeling unappreciated, unacknowledged, misunderstood and/or is appointed regarding the avenues available for expressing our creative potential. Whoever said the journey would be a stroll in the park?
I have talked with teachers from different areas who say that they see no general increase in interest or participation in belly dance over the last 20, 30 or more years. This seems to be a rather biased evaluation which may well be based on that particular teachers' assessment of her own classes.
Although I wasn't personally involved in the belly dance field twenty years ago I have been observing it keenly as an insider for the last eight years while taking in as much historical information as possible. In considering fairly the ever expanding growth of our circle we have only to look at the bigger picture for evidence. We could look at the growth and evolution of Habibi magazine and the Rakassah Festival since their inception. Habibi has become an international publication with more advertisers and contributing writers offering a broad scope of ideas and information. In the last several years Rakassah Festival has filled two stages with continuous performing artists for more than two days. There is an ever expanding number of events - camps, festivals, concerts, seminars, contests, retreats and tours put on by and for dancers. Every time I receive a new issue of Habibi I am astounded by the amount and variety of activities being created in so many places.
From Germany we hear about the outrageous proliferation of teachers - this may well be a "problem" - but it speaks to the existence of a trend which is that many who are drawn into the dance develop a passionate relationship with it and a strong desire to share it on some level. This dance form as well as other dance forms and disciplines like Yoga hold the potential of expanding and deepening our spiritual growth and development in a way that traditional meditation and religious practices cannot. This is so because it acknowledges and is inclusive of the body as the only vehicle of the spirit's expression.
In their pioneering work transpersonal psychotherapists Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks have observed that deep healing and connection with one's own essence comes out of paying very close attention to the body, presencing the sensations and emotions of the body with utmost respect. For many women, including myself it validates our blossoming earthy yet cosmic spirituality much more than the dogmas of any religion, or any spiritual group. I have come to think of our dance - Raks Sharki - as Matriarchal Yoga for the body/mind and spirit.
Belly dance used as a spiritual discipline becomes a tool, a meditation upon the present and can teach us much about how we as a being (spirit) live inside, interact with and grow through our body - our temple. Eastern spiritual traditions have taught us that to experience enlightenment, to attain the sense of oneness with all life or the Tao we must "Be Here Now," we must live in the present. But for us this does not mean living the life of an ascetic, denying and renouncing the body. The body is not our obstacle to the realization of our spiritual self and spiritual truth but the key. Only through the body can we come to know ourselves, our essence, and our connection to all life. As we dance, we learn to love our own bodies and are thus brought into intimate contact with a sense of oneness in ourselves and the life that flows through us. We begin to know that god/goddess is with us and within us.
I believe a major reason that Western women have been increasingly drawn to Belly Dance is because it helps us to heal, befriend and re-own our femininity. Raks Sharki more than any other form of dance is able to give women this deep sense of respect, trust and reverence for the female body and the divine creative energy which we have been given a special capacity to channel. It is also helping us to restore to ourselves a "right relationship" with the body which was taken from us and programmed out over the centuries of persecution from patriarchal religious institutions which taught us that as beings in bodies we have fallen from the grace of God. Patriarchal religious thought has imposed upon us an artificial separation of body and mind, body and spirit causing us to become from within a house divided. What is within always has an outer expression and so we have also been a humanity divided against itself. Taking steps to heal ourselves is one very powerful way to begin to change this situation.
Exploration into the ancient roots of human culture show us that this wasn't always so. Archaeologic findings in this century along with modern dating and classification methods have revealed a great deal about the life and spiritual practices of our Paleolithic and Neolithic ancestors around the world. The Neolithic period began around ten thousand years ago with the beginning stages of agricultural food production. The Paleolithic period of human cultural evolution dates back at least thirty-thousand years documented through archaeological excavations from the Balkans in eastern Europe to Siberia and down into France. Through the extensive work and writings of the Archeologist Marija Gimbutas and a few others, new understanding of this time in our development has been put forth.
Over the long Paleolithic period a complex, matristic (feminine honoring), nonhierarchical social structure evolved in which the spiritual/religious orientation was centered around the earth, all its life forms and the feminine power of creation, thus the prolific evidence and findings in both these periods of the worship and reverence of the feminine force in the universe - the Goddess or Great Cosmic Mother. In the Introduction to the Woman's' Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets Barbara Walker points out that there is a need for a thorough study of the process of transition from the female-oriented to the male-oriented religions in Western civilization. She also notes it is not generally appreciated that the spiritual life of western man, and especially western woman was severely impoverished by the violent suppression of Goddess worship. Two relatively recent and in-depth works on our ancient historical heritage are the books: The Chalice and The Blade by Riane Eisler, and The Great Cosmic Mother - Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth by Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor; (expanded American edition published in 1987). From The Chalice and The Blade, I quote:
The Great Goddess, whose worship was once the ideological core of a more peaceful and equalitarian society, has not completely vanished. Though she is no longer the supreme principle governing the world, she is still a force to be reckoned with - a force that in even the European Middle Ages is revered as the Mother of God. Despite centuries of prophetic prohibitions and priestly prohibitions, her worship has not been wholly stamped out.
Now, thousands of years later, when we are nearing the possibility of a second social transformation - this time a shift from a dominator society to a more advanced version of a partnership society - we need to understand everything we can about this astonishing piece of our lost past. For at stake at this second evolutionary crossroads, when we possess the technologies of total destruction once attributed only to God, may be nothing less than the survival of our species. Yet even when confronted with the authority of new research, with new archaeology, and the corroboration from social science, this truly huge block of new knowledge about millennia of human history so contradicts all we have been taught that its hold on our minds is like a message written in sand. The new knowledge may linger there for a day, or even a week. But relentlessly the force of the teaching of centuries works to undermine it, until what is left is merely a fleeting impression of a time of great excitement and hope. Only through reinforcement from other sources - both familiar and unfamiliar - can we hope to retain this knowledge long enough to make it our own.
In our belly dance community we are in a unique position to draw out and nurture this ancient knowledge, reactivating memories of it that lie deep within the cells of our bodies. I believe that in this time belly dancers are here and being drawn together, whether man or woman, to embody, embrace and channel the essence of the Goddess - the divine feminine force. It is our task to bring forth and mirror her qualities in the cultures which we live and to restore her power to it rightful place within ourselves and the cultures of humanity regardless of the cost or difficulty. Respect for belly dance as an art form will manifest as a result of our willingness to persist in this process.
My own entrance and "initiation" into belly dance has helped me come into alignment with my spiritual path in this life and a deeper realization and ownership of the feminine power within. It has given me a way to express this power and love and joy. It has given me a sense of connection to my most ancient heritage and birthright as a spirit in a female body - helping me to restore my respect for it. And it has led me into a quest for knowledge and understanding of my spiritual roots in the "Religion of the Earth". I have experienced feelings of having ancient memories coming to life within me, of gaining insight into things I did not understand about myself before as I have explored this path and my own freedom of expression through my body. No other form of expression has given me this.
Through these experiences and my association with other belly dancers my vision has been nurtured and given life. Intuition and clairvoyant perception tells me that all of us who are drawn to this expressive art have some role to play in rekindling ancient spiritual truth, in restoring wholeness to ourselves and helping humanity prepare for an evolutionary shift into a new, more harmonious way of life. The power that we now hold as a community is in our growing numbers, in our nurturing of ourselves, giving support to one another and holding fast to our visions of a more peaceful, loving world.
The duality and division we see all around us, the struggle and competition between the sexes and the races is a manifestation, a mirror of the split that exists within us each individually. As belly dancers we are on the path - whether we know it yet or not - to heal this split inside ourselves between the male and female aspects of the psyche, body and mind, body and spirit.
The belly dance is our vehicle and our tonic providing us a form for our creativity which gives us much room to explore and draws so much from us which we do not normally have access to in our daily lives. It offers an incredible opportunity to explore the feminine, including the "dark feminine" - the part of ourselves which has been relegated an outcast in society, "immoral" and destructive. The majority of us in the West have been drawn in to the belly dance by the promise of these riches, not for its lucrativeness as a profession.
The creative process itself is not easy but it is an essential component of our growth. It is a doorway, a portal leading deep into ourselves where we encounter challenges which we might not have the courage or tenacity to face were there not also some immediate soul satisfaction. Something which belly dance provides every time we hear the music and feel it penetrate our being or find ourselves amid the support and companionship of others on the journey with us. In belly dance the creative process brings us in contact not only with the limits of our bodies but also the mental and emotional blocks which we must transform and transmute. This is the raw material of our creations. Working intimately with our bodies will teach us the inseparability of body/mind and the mindfulness which helps us to focus the huge energy of our being-ness fully in the body. Thus the creative process and the healing process are one and the same. The more we are willing to go through this evolution the more capable we become at expressing, channeling authentically our essential selves.
As women fight for and claim their right to have their freedom of expression and female power, to own and control their own bodies, the competition and battle for control of this by others is heightened. Obvious examples of this struggle are the violent opposition we see to abortion rights and the controlling rules of fundamental Islam exerting its power over women in the Middle East.
In our own belly dance community there are manifestations of our inner struggle to become whole, and to redefine ourselves from the inside out into our artistic work. Even amongst ourselves there is as yet no universally accepted name for ourselves as belly dancers. While in Europe the term 'belly dancer' may be the most commonly used and understood term; in the United States I find that using this term still creates confusion. To most Americans the Orient is the Far East and there is hardly any awareness of dances from those parts. On the other hand is seems that many dancers are uncomfortable with or find the term "belly dancer" distasteful these days - it may sound cheap and derogatory as it can conjure up negative stereotypes. However, if we could transcend these negative connotations which reflect the negative views generated about the female body, if we could truly and proudly revere the (female) body's natural creative functions, knowing that we reveal our bellies proudly and reverently as the cradle of human life we might feel better about calling ourselves Belly Dancers. (For men ownership of this title might signify acknowledgment and respect for the female energy within and around him.)
There are other things which divide our dance community into opposing camps. "Professionals" with the desire and intent to elevate the art of Belly Dance to its highest standard may feel at odds with those who study and perform with other purposes and intents. This creates competition and dissension and the sense that we are working against one another or at cross purposes. Professionals who have devoted their lives to Belly Dance and make a livelihood doing so may feel threatened by or concerned about those dancers who seem to exhibit less commitment or who have a different sort of commitment to it. Feelings of having to compete or competitiveness from others may show up in other arenas also.
For the most part our belly dance community exhibits more cooperation, and support, less cut-throat competitiveness than any other dance scene I have been around. This is something we can be very proud of for it shows that as a group we have been dealing with this apparently human tendency, and have been successful to a large degree in learning to transcend it - to become bigger than it. Feelings of competitiveness often arise out of fear and call for us to love ourselves and our uniqueness more and then to bring that into our interactions with others. This too is a lesson along our evolutionary path. We always have the choice to create sisterhood or to create separation.
If we are concerned only with the presentation of belly dance and the public opinion or acceptance of it we may lose sight of its extraordinary personal value. As we strive to master the elements of belly dance moves we are all growing and developing in many ways and it is important to recognize this in those we teach, and to continue to provide forums which support this holistic process. Overall our dance community has risen to this challenge and demonstrated a great generosity of spirit. Nevertheless when competition arises (possibly taking the form of non constructive criticalness, for example) as it is bound to at times in the process of our working together, we must become conscious of it and willing to work through this whether it occurs on a personal or a collective level. As we do this we gain access to healing feelings of powerlessness which are buried deep within us.
In their book At the Speed of Life - A New Approach to Personal Change Through Body Centered Therapy, transpersonal psychotherapists Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks have coined the word "presencing" to describe the key healing strategy in their work. In chapter Five - The Presencing Principle: The Starting Point of Mind/Body Healing - they tell us:
"Everything we do either enhances or interferes with our ability to be with what is going on in ourselves. The act that initiates healing is a moment of nonjudgmental attention. Our term for this moment is a verb that is not yet in the dictionary: to presence. Problems persist to the extent that we fail to be present with them and the feelings associated with them. When we can simply be with an issue (rather than judging it or trying to change it), the issue has room to transform in the desired direction."
We have at our fingertips tremendous power, individually and as a group to set ourselves and others free from constraints which we will one day be leaving behind, and a great power to heal our relationship to the body. By applying our ability to be present with ourselves - to witness our process - as we dance, into all the moments of our lives, by learning to refine and own our expression and articulate our experience of this we heal ourselves and we affect everyone around us. It is time for us to recognize and acknowledge that as a group of people involved in the dances of the East we have become a large international and cross cultural community. And we are - individually and collectively - a force to be reckoned with. Though there is much diversity among us we are all dancers of the heart, teachers, healers, seekers, and perpetual students (of some sort) who share a passion for this dance. With attention, care, self love, and the dance as our tool and ally we can work through the issues that arise within us and our community, we can claim our wholeness and unity.
The dances from the Middle East are a glorious gift to all the world which have thankfully been kept alive, passed from generation to generation like a beloved story and held close to the hearts of women despite adversity. I know that many women feel the belly dance is in truth the birthright of all women (and men who choose to claim it) for it reflects our inner depth, strength and wholeness like nothing else can. While it is important to learn and preserve these various dances it is also valid for us to embrace what we learn as our own and let it live through us as a personal creation. It is after all the nature of art and belly dance to evolve along with us, and it will in turn reflect our growth in its own way. As is being discovered in other art forms, dance is a path of self revelation which can benefit many. Let us continue to share it generously in our own special ways for the empowerment and healing of all who seek it. The Great Cosmic Mother is with us, dancing through us, and wishes for us to succeed.
Barbara G. Walker, The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Harper San Francisco, 1983.
Riane Eisler, The Chalice and The Blade, HarperCollins Publishers Inc. 1987, pp. 1-15, 59, 102 and 248-250.
Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor, The Great Cosmic Mother - Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth, HarperCollins Publishers 1987, 1991.
Marija Gimbutas, Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982.
Gay Hendricks Ph.D. and Kathlyn Hendricks Ph.D., At the Speed of Life - A New Approach to Personal Change Through Body Centered Therapy, Bantam Books 1993, pg. 103.
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