Dance, in all of its myriad forms, has long held spiritual significance in the world's cultures. From Sufi whirling dervishes to modern Christian liturgical dance, religious communities the world over have and continue to explore the spiritual undertones of dance. In the United States, sacred dance takes a variety of forms, including ballet, jazz, and ethnic folk dances. A recent survey indicates churches in more than 23 denominations embrace dance as a form of worship, including Methodist, Lutheran, Catholic, Unitarian, Mennonite, Russian Orthodox, as well as some Jewish synagogues. The Sacred Dance Guild, an interfaith organization committed to dance as a catalyst for spiritual growth, sponsors events and workshops offering various dance forms from a unique blend of religious, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.
To all appearances, American dance forms share little in common with their ancient ancestors. However, beneath the surface, there are many similarities. Dance as a spiritual practice has roots in the Paleolithic era. Ancient paintings and sculptures from the areas now known as Greece, Spain, India, Egypt, and a variety of other countries depict women dancing. Many scholars interpret these women as dancing priestesses.
The religious use of dance likely began as sympathetic mimicry of birth. Priestesses and midwives gathered around the birthing woman, miming her movements in an effort to support her and lend their energy to a successful birth. From these beginnings, early peoples set these movements to rhythms for use as a form of sympathetic magic for a variety of religious purposes.
In Ancient Egypt, for example, everyone danced, whether slave or king. While there were many nonreligious festival dances, the most prevalent dances were for religious purposes. The Ancient Egyptians danced in celebration of the gods, such as Hathor and Bastet, they offered harvest and fertility dances, and they danced at funerals to usher the spirit of the dead to the afterlife.
Cultures all over the world continue to use dance as a spiritual tool. In Morocco, dancers perform the Guedra as a ritual of blessing. The zar is another ritual dance used for emotional healing on behalf of someone who has been possessed. Hadra, which is part of a ceremony performed by the Sufi brotherhood called the Aissawa, is another exorcism ritual. Finally, the Mevlevi and Jerahi sects of Islam use whirling as a spiritual tool. Religious and spiritual dance rituals such as these are often used as intentional tools to promote healthy development. Many dance styles and practices have a particular appeal to young people and should be considered in attempts to better understand how religious and spiritual practices can impact healthy development in childhood and adolescence.
BELLY DANCE: CONNECTING THE SPIRITUAL DANCE WITH HEALTHY DEVELOPMENT
Belly dance, an Americanized synthesis of several different Middle Eastern dance forms, is growing in popularity as a spiritual practice. Once an underground phenomenon, belly dance has moved into the American mainstream due to its health benefits and use in popular music videos. These same videos have increased interest in learning the dance among adolescent girls. Like their adult counterparts, girls are finding that belly dance provides a moving spiritual outlet. Although many believe belly dance to be Egyptian in origin, other theories suggest that traveling dancers brought the style to Egypt. Modern belly dance has many movements in common with the traditional dances of the Ghawazi of Egypt and the Ouled Nail of Algeria. Both groups have mysterious origins, but historical artifacts suggest that neither group originated in the country with which they are now associated. American belly dancers derive movements from these and many other forms of Middle Eastern dance.
Though there are dozens of varied folk forms, belly dance isolates those movements that highlight the abdomen as the center of human creation or strength. Belly dance came to America through the efforts of Sol Bloom at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. He brought together Middle Eastern folk dancers from several different countries, including Algeria and Tunisia, as "cultural expositions" for the fair. Unfortunately, the commercial burlesque stage soon picked up the movements of the dances, where they were twisted and vulgarized. American strippers and prostitutes adopted the costumes and movements of the dance for their own use. This adaptation gave belly dance the stigma it still bears today. However, rather than dehumanized sexuality, this dance should be considered an erotic celebration of life and the body. Those who shy away from the idea of the spirituality within belly dancing fail to appreciate the possibility of spiritual eroticism and refuse to acknowledge that eroticism and the celebration of the female body can be valid paths to spiritual growth.