Belly Dancing With Nature
Note: This article draws upon a previously published article entitled Dancing in Nature which I wrote for Habibi Magazine, Fall 93 issue; my unpublished notes from field research; and findings I've been accumulating for the past 12 years on the subject of dancing in nature. Field locations include Northwestern old growth forests, tropical volcanic islands of Hawaii, deserts of California, rain forests of Costa Rica, the environs of the Eastern Seaboard. In this work the wilds of the Earth become the classroom, the stage venue, a sanctuary and even a temple for the dance and the dancer.
As I have followed the path that bellydance has opened before me, I have come to realize the fundamental connection between this dance and our lives as women, and the connection between our bodies and the Earth, the Mother from which we all spring. I have discovered that performing this dance in a primal natural environment, unadorned by human development, can create a deep connection between the dancer, the Earth, and the cosmos. In this talk, I will try to trace a path linking our bodies with the body of the Earth, and linking our dance with our lives, with the lives of all women, and ultimately with the constant creative unfolding that is the dance of the Earth.
The bellydance is older than any culture known today. The steps, the music used, the politics it's been subjected to, the language spoken, the religions of its practitioners; none of these have remained the same over the great span of time during which this dance has been practiced. One thing has remained the same, however: the expression, through the dance, of the feminine experience. Throughout time, the common denominator of the bellydance has been women. It's women who love this dance and in the end, will keep it alive. In this day and age this is a dance done by, for, and about women all over the world. It is the embodiment of the universal feminine archetype, an expression of the universal, collective experience of all women in all times and cultures on this planet. I believe that maybe locked inside our bodies, in the information in our cells, lies the herstory of the collective unconscious of women, stories that are not in books for they cannot be told in words; and that it is these stories that want to be told through the bellydance.
Although there is a popular image of "bellydancing for the sultan," in reality the dance has historically been done as a pastime for women, behind closed doors and out of view of male observation. Look at the subscription lists of the bellydance magazines in America; they are overwhelmingly supported by women. It's been my experience that women have always been my best audience. They are the ones who bring the husband into the club to see the bellydance show. Bellydancing is done at bridal showers weddings, graduations and christenings.
One of the greatest bonds of experience among women is the birthing process. The bellydance (aptly named, I believe) centers around the source of physical creation in women. But the creative center of the feminine is not just the physical birthing process, any more than the bellydance is just the physical execution of steps and movement phrases. Both the feminine experience and this dance are bound to the inquiry into the mysteries of life and creation. The word "nature" comes from the word natura which means birth. All life comes from the womb of the Great Mother, the Earth, and returns to Her. Imagine for a moment the last ecstatic bellydance performance you witnessed; is there any doubt in your mind that this dance is about women's experience of nature flowing through them?
During most of history, mankind has thought of Nature as alive, as the Great Mother. Not so long ago, in the 17th century, Descartes, Locke, Bacon and Newton, among others, brought mechanistic thinking into the scientific and philosophical centers of the so-called civilized world. They spoke of Nature as an inanimate machine, created but not creative. All living things, from our physical bodies to the heavenly bodies, were machines awaiting the dictates of the Master Inventor. Spirit was removed from matter. Mankind was handed a dictate to wield power and control over the natural world with his intellect. In dance at this time, ballet entered the picture, displaying power, control and extreme discipline over the body from an external choreographed source, with a primary emphasis on mechanistic technique.
Since that time, the body has been envisioned as a machine with a little workman located in the head, who pulls gears and levers to make the body do this or that. Dance has been approached from this same view, intellectually and gracefully carving the shapes out of dancers bodies, identifying muscle groups and mechanically calling them into action, fitting into stereotypic forms and ideals, yet without any necessary inner connection to authentic expression. We praise the hard work, discipline and sacrifice required of ballerinas, but what price is paid? Have our values followed the course of manipulation and control? Has the word "ballet" become a synonym for the word dance? Have we as a society put ballet on too high a pedestal when we weed out children's ballet classes by defining a certain height, age, and body type as ideal, and saying that one must meet this ideal if one is to dance? By so doing have we lost access to a means of satisfying some of our most fundamental needs as human beings? Have we put dance out of our reach?
Today, scientific hypotheses (such as James Lovelock's Gaia principal) are returning to the view that the Earth is alive, a living organism that may be inherently creative. We are realizing once again that our bodies' intelligence is not solely in the brain, but is functioning on other levels as well. And we bellydancers are remembering that dance is not just a gymnastic exercise, but is a unique and personal expression of knowledge and life experience that is held within the vessel of our bodies. Understanding this personal relationship to the dance opens the door to a direct experience of the creative processes, a powerful experience of our link with the process of Life itself.
Dance is a metaphor for life. As we are born, we are destined to move in life through time and space. As we learn to dance, we are also learning to move through time and space. Thus, the process of learning to dance can also bring us information about living our lives, if we allow it to teach us. We can learn how to move/dance through our lives with fearless autonomy, grace and spirit; how to flow with the melody line, be in the stillness or ride the chaos; how to overcome the fear that puts us on the side lines, afraid to participate because there's a voice in our heads saying, "I can't dance." I feel strongly that bellydance can be a tool for personal growth.
I have been doing this dance for as long as I can remember; I told my Mother in second grade that I was going to be a bellydancer when I grew up. That vision has always been with me, so when I say that bellydance is a vessel for personal growth, I speak from first-hand experience. This dance has grown with me; as I grew to be a young woman; as I learned to dance; as I learned to perform; to live my life; to teach others to dance; as I birthed my babies and raised my family; as I created my dance; the path of my life and my dance have been inseparable. My body has been a vessel for my dance and my dance has been a vessel for my life. It contains my unfolding story.
As an artist and a spiritual being, I recognize my contribution to this art comes through me but from a place beyond my understanding. This knowledge has caused me to search for the deeper meaning behind the dance; and that search has led me back to nature. Nature has become my greatest teacher.
So here I would like to move from the theoretical to the practical, to my real experience dancing with nature. It has been through experience that the realizations I've been speaking of have been recognized, validated, and, most importantly, embodied. It's when I am out there experimenting, doing it, dancing in the wild, that I feel these truths in my body.
That experience is not philosophical or intellectual theorizing. That experience engages the part of our intelligence and awareness that is other than our brain, and we find we are living these realizations, not thinking or reading about them. It's the difference between talking about a dance and doing it. They are entirely different experiences.
I began about 12 years ago incorporating natural and found sounds into my performances. This naturally led to my taking the dance outdoors. At the time I was also working on "Dance to the Great Mother", the dance I created while pregnant with my second daughter. Something in that dance seemed to want to be out in Nature. First I experimented alone, but eventually I set up field expeditions and lead musicians, students, and dance colleagues on field trips to explore and experiment with their expressions in the natural world. We did not just dance in nature but we danced WITH nature. We utilized the wind, waterfalls, ocean surf, forests, rivers, fire, mud, rain, leaves, rocks, mists, grasses, hillsides, trees, birds, insects, caves, lakes. The diversity of stimulus in nature is unending. But in miraculous ways, it all seemed to fit so well with the vocabulary of bellydance.
While on a trip to Costa Rica with a band of dancers, musician, poets and general wild persons, we were blessed with a young woman naturalist guide whose knowledge of the forest was astonishing; she knew every plant, every animal, all the systems, how things worked together, how they all were birthed, nourished, lived, died. She could spot a small green lizard on a green leaf at 100 yards. At one point we asked her, with all your knowledge of the specifics of these forests, is there anything you can say about the whole, what it is that's going on here? She instantly answered, of course, it's all music here. The forest is full of rhythm, melody, harmony, counterpoint, dance. It's all music. It was wonderful having this confirmed by a scientist in the field.
We notated our discoveries and insights and documented our experiences on video. We also experimented widely with our approach, since it's all new frontier as dance medium, and we didn't really know what we were doing! We had to rely on our own wits, creativity, and intuition. Sometimes the sounds of nature were our musical accompaniment: wind, cicadas, or surf. Other times musicians relied on their acoustic instruments. The PVC ney, with it's beautiful sound, light weight, and indestructibility, is a perfect instrument to take into the wild. Armando of Sirocco is a master at fashioning instruments from materials found in nature.
We always wore costumes as a part of the ritual. However the materials used became more diverse. We mixed coins and jewels with gauze, fleece knit, leather, rope, bones, beads and bug repellent!
Briefly here are some of the categories of experience we've forged:
- Communion with nature: subtle movement meditation; provides profound and personal interactions and spiritual connections. Poetry becomes a useful tool.
- Awareness enhancement: exercises to improve artistic skills useful in every area of the art of life. Increased awareness of daily environmental issues.
- Theatrical Fun: a virtual playground for the dancer; a new staging arena for dramatic and creative expression. Video camera becomes a useful tool.
- Stress reduction therapy: there is a new field emerging called ecopsychology, where connection with the natural world is used as a tool in psychological healing. The process of dancing with nature forces you to slow down, breathe, stop the clock and rekindle your roots as an interconnected human being on the planet. This may be one of the work's most important aspects in today's accelerated modern world.
The process of dancing with nature has brought us many expanded insights that have crossed over directly to our professional stage use. The medium of nature is universal, timeless and nondenominational.
Here are some of my own observations: As I found myself in the midst of a dance in the surf of the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by the tug and pull of the watery elements of the natural world, amazing insights came to me. I realized that this was the perfect venue for the bellydance; that the ocean is the primal womb for all life on this planet as the belly is the womb for human life; that the ocean's movements, its dance, have remarkable correspondence to the moves of the bellydance; that the ancient women's story being told by the bellydance is the same as the constantly recycling story being told by the sea and the sky and the wind and the trees: creation, being, joy, sorrow, love, birth, death.
I also saw that I had come to think of my club work as dancing in the unnatural world. But as I moved in the moment with the sand and surf, there were many more similarities to the cabaret than I had expected. The skills required were the same: strength, agility, grace, intuition, timing, daring, trusting in myself. I was the same dancer, and yet somehow here in the sea I had expected the dance to be more real.
This was because I had subconsciously been thinking that I was somehow apart from nature, that when I entered the club, nature stayed outside. But here I was, a part of nature, just as I was when dancing in the club, or walking down the street, or doing the dishes. The energy that pulses through my body as I dance, walk or sit is none other than nature. Dancing with nature gave me the awareness that any separation we feel is an illusion.
Another important insight was that, up until a certain point in time, I had been using Nature as a backdrop rather than turning my conscious attention toward Her. This is the most challenging part! This was like dancers who dance at the music instead of with the music. As my dance became attuned to the dance of the sea or the forest, I began to feel a shared expression, a unity between the music of the planet and the bit of harmony I was adding. I began to learn how to dance with the rhythm of nature! It was like making love. I can't tell you in how many ways this has enhanced my life! I absolutely love this universe!
This is the jewel in the center of the experience: that whether you're dancing in the primordial ocean, in the deep forest, in the vast desert, or in a smoky night club, your environment becomes a giant mirror. When you're in nature, you feel so much creative potential is inside of you, pouring out through your dance, with nature's creations all around you, your audience, your dance partner, your orchestra; sparkling, vibrating, radiating, flowing, pulsing, singingly alive; so colorful, soft, tender, ominous, ferocious, awesome. There you stand, feet rooted in fertile earth, with all that previously ignored primal and sensual vitality spiraling and twining inside your belly for all of time. You cannot escape it, suddenly you feel so in place, so connected with the world, as you dance in the seat of creation, generating life force and seeing life force reflected back at you in the mirror of existence. You are the dance!
And the beautiful truth is that when we perform in civilization, when we put on our costume, don our mystique, stand on the stage, and the stage lights hit us, and we are in our power in that moment, it's the same thing, the same life force flowing through, the same universal and personal and grand and delicately poignant stories to tell; the same natural world flowing through us and through every member of our audience. That is the beauty we seek!
Matthew Fox says the ancient meaning of the word "cathedral" is "place where the Goddess sits." That's why all the cathedrals in Europe are dedicated to Mother Mary. Dancing in nature puts you in the middle of that cathedral, in active communion with the Goddess, Nature, Life.
"To the universe belongs the dancer; whoever does not dance does not know what happens!" These are words from Jesus from the Gnostic Gospels, Acts of John. It may be that in this moment in time, we possess an infantile understanding of the true power, meaning and potentiality within all dance.
Woman = body = vessel = world. Within the feminine aspect are profound mysteries of the creative capabilities of the universe. We are all made of star dust; every atom in your dancing body was once part of a star, so scientists now tell us. Within the feminine experience lies a cosmology to ponder and to inspire us. It is through direct experience that the bellydance can become a mode for comprehension. The language of the body contains the wisdom of the world, and bellydancing in nature enables us to both speak and at the same time feel and hear these truths.
Woman = body = vessel = world. I think it is an important exercise to envision our bodies as Earth, and dancing in nature allows us to do this. It is a way of mending our broken feminine identity with organic alliance. It is no accident that women's issues and environmental issues are coming to our awareness at the same time. I think the the Goddess is just another name for Nature, for the body of the Earth. If we see our power and connections clearly I believe that we as bellydancers can be priestesses to this goddess once again and station ourselves to maintain her temple. A view that the Earth is alive allows Her to be an equal partner in the dance. Through this magic, the dance can act as a healing salve both for the individual, and for mankind's wounded relationship with the Earth.
Dance with Nature.
Delilah is an internationally recognized performer and instructor of bellydance. She is a partner in Visionary Dance Productions, which has produced her series of instructional and performance video tapes. Delilah holds an annual bellydance retreat in Maui, where all aspects of bellydancing, including dancing in nature, are studied and experienced. For information write Visionary Dance Productions, PO Box 30797, Seattle, WA 98103
This paper was partially read at the first International Conference for Middle Eastern Dance at Orange Coast College in CA in May of 1997 and awaits publication.
Delilah, Dancing in Nature; Habibi Magazine, Vol. 12, No.4,
Mathew Fox, Exploring The Cosmic Christ Archeype; Audio Lecture, 1993.
Hazrat Inyat Khan, Nature Meditations; Omega Publications, 1980.
James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia; W.W. Horton & Co., 1988
Elaine H. Pagel, To the Universe Belongs the Dancer; Parabola Magazine, Sacred Dance Volume IV No. 2,1979.
Rupert Sheldrake, The Rebirth of Nature the Greening of Science and God; Bantam Books, 1991.
Laurie Tarkan, Nurtured by Nature; Shape Magazine, March 1997.