My first encounters with women’s traditional dance or “belly” dance was through the Western lens of spectacle art. I saw my first belly dancer in a Greek restaurant and was mesmerized by the sensuousness of the dance and the incredible poise and confidence the dancer possessed. However, it wasn’t until I was exposed to Tribal style belly dance that I became hooked and had to find a teacher!
After taking some classes, and feeling overwhelmed with powerful emotions, I became obsessed with researching the history of the dance. I was shocked to discover it is thousands of years old. The rich tradition which has been coined with the misnomer of “belly” dance has gone through many variations since it came to the West, but has long been viewed as a performance piece. In the cultures of it’s origin however, it is a practice that is done by women and for women. It wasn’t until the East and West met in the early 20th Century that this organic traditional dance, done for women’s rituals, was taken out of the home and put on the stage and has been misunderstood ever since.
One of the best books I found on this obscured and misrepresented form was a book by Iris J. Stewart called Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance.
Today we primarily think of dance as a form of entertainment or as a way to exercise or socialize. There was a time, however, when dance was considered the way to commune with the divine, as part of life’s journey, celebrating the seasons and rhythms of the year and the rhythms of our lives. Dance is a language that reunites the body, mind, and soul. While the role of women’s sacred dance was most valued in goddess-worshipping cultures where women served as priestesses and healers, dance was once an integral part of religious ritual and ceremonial expression in cultures all over the world, including Judaism and Christianity. In this book the author investigates how dance came to be excluded from worship and reveals how dance is once again being integrated into spiritual practices.
Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance is the first book to explore women’s spiritual expression–and women’s ways–through the study of dance. It describes sacred circles, birth rituals, ecstatic dances, and dances of loss and grief (in groups and individually) that allow women to integrate the movements of faith, healing, and power into their daily life. The book demostrates how dance, the highest expression of spirituality in cultures and traditions all over the world, is being integrated into the lives of women.
A wealth of research lies behind the text as Stewart explores myths, history, and symbolism from ancient forms of dance in cultures around the world. She brings this treasure of women’s ways of expressing the Divine into our own lives today by documenting how sacred dance has returned. The book is divided into two sections…
In the Beginning Was the Dance, with chapters entitled: The Goddess Danced, The Priestess Danced, Dancing Through Theology, The Dancer’s Costume: Symbolic and Glorious, and WomanDance. Her section on WomanDance was what inspired me to stop calling the tradition of Raqs Sharqi, “belly dance,” and simply call it what it is, Woman’s Dance. This form is a celebration of the feminine and life and therefore is all about Women. There are sections where Stewart covers women’s rituals from menarche, to marriage, and the birth dance that are deeply inspiring.
Modern Dance – the Sacred Dance of Eternity, Sacred Circle, the Serpent Dance, Lamentation, Universal Rhythms, Ecstatic and the Transcendental, Keys to Accessing Spirituality Through Sacred Dance, and more.
The result is a sense of continuity and of a link with our dancing grandmothers, whose stories can now be told. At the same time, it is, for me, a synthesis of my own journey in dance. Dance is essential to my life, and makes all those connections which I intuitively knew were there.
The author carefully documents her work with extensive footnotes and a bibliography. The book also has a resource section where dancers can find music, publications, schools, groups and organizations, that offer the study of sacred/liturgical dance, and more.
This is an excellent book and I highly recommend it for anyone curious about the history of women’s dance traditions.