The Sacred Dance has nothing to do with a specific dance style or with particular bodily techniques. The dancer moves in a way that unites his mind, body, and spirit with superior spiritual energy. It does not matter if we call this energy “God”, “The Creator”, “The Great Spirit”, “Nature”, “The Cosmos” or anything else. The important thing is that this results in the dancer feeling spiritually elevated and full of joy.
Dance is clearly one of the first forms of worship. Rock art from prehistoric times onwards testifies to the power of dance. Such paintings and prints occur all over the world. In the western part of Arnhem Land in Australia, a cave painting shows two men playing instruments to accompany the dance. A rock shelter in Cogul near Lenda in Catolonia, Spain portrays a group of nine women. They wear knee-length skirts and dance around a small nude male figure. The Madhya Pradash state in India has abundant rock art depicting dancers and musicians. The caves in Tassili Algeria have paintings of dancers and the Etruscans in 500 BC. C. represented dancing in frescoes on the walls.
Certain dances mimic animals or are aimed at ensuring that something happens. For example, ancient hunters are shown in cave paintings dancing with animal skins and masks. We can safely assume that this was to ensure a good hunt. Dances that mimic the gathering of the harvest must also be of ancient origin. Over time, these dances have become folk dances rather than holy dances.
The Sacred Dance is usually preceded by elaborate secret preparations, such as bathing, avoiding certain foods and drinks, and having sex. There may be periods of intense prayer and ingestion of trance-inducing substances.
One of the best documented European sacred dances is the one related to the cult of the Greek god Dionysus. Rituals in his honor included orgies, animal sacrifice, excessive wine drinking, and trance dancing that continued until the dancers collapsed from exhaustion.
Judaism had no problem where dance was related to worship. Psalm 150 for example: – “Praise the Lord … Praise him with tambourine and dance.” It is said that King David turned before the Ark of the Covenant. In the Talmud, dance is described as the main 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 that are reintroducing dance sometimes in a very self-conscious style.
Sacred Dance can be therapeutic in itself.
The Shakers, who were a branch of the Quakers, were brought to America from England in 1774 by Ann Lee. A vision had told him that sexual intercourse was the source of humanity’s problems. She established a gated community that practiced self-reliance and communal ownership of all possessions. The Shakers had a deep understanding of the aesthetics of simplicity that was displayed in all aspects of their lives.
Shaker dances were held at night. Men and women entered the room separately. They tiptoed and formed two rows facing each other about five feet apart. The Chief Elder stood in the middle and gave a five-minute speech. He concluded by saying: “Go ahead, old men, young men and maidens, worship God with all your might in dance.” Men and women did not mix. There were pauses to see if anyone had received “a gift.” Then two of the sisters would start spinning like tops with their eyes closed. They continued to spin for about 15 minutes when they suddenly stopped and sat down again.
There are no longer viable Shaker communities and therefore the dances are extinct. However, some of his hymns are still sung in other churches.
An ancient tradition of Sacred Dance continues to this day in Turkey, the Middle East, and North Africa. Sufis (who represent the mystical side of Islam) have spinning dances. In Turkey, the tradition dates back to Celaleddin Mevlana Rumi, who died in 1273. His son organized his followers into the whirling dervish brotherhood now known as Mevlevi.
When Ataturk gained political power in the early years of the 20th century, he abolished the dervish orders and turned monasteries into museums. They were revived in 1957.
The meaning of the dervish dance is related to the sun, the moon and the rotating stars. Worshipers wear clothing that has symbolic meaning. The tall conical felt hats signify the tombstones and thus the death of the dancers’ egos. The white dresses represent the shrouds around their egos. The flowing black cloaks symbolize dancers trapped in worldly graves. At the beginning of the ceremony, the robes are removed to symbolize the liberation of the worshipers from the worries and attachments of this world.
The dance is accompanied by a reed flute. After a series of rituals, the worshipers reach a point where they all turn simultaneously with the right hand palm up to receive the blessings of heaven. They keep the palm of the left hand facing down to transfer the blessings to the earth.
Although non-participants can see the ceremony, the dances remain true Sacred Dances for those who participate and for many of those who watch. Dervish music should never be used for secular purposes, especially not to accompany oriental dance. The chants are prayers and must be respected as such.
Today Africa is still rich in the area of traditional Sacred Dance. The Yoruba of western Nigeria have many traditions of dancing deities. 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) on how he could acquire permanent wealth. Orunmila’s advice was that Sango acquire a splendid outfit in which she should sew as many quarters as possible. Cowries were once used as currency and are therefore a sign of wealth. People who saw Sango so splendidly dressed would assume that he was rich. Orunmila told Sango that she should dance in this outfit. The result was that dancing and begging Sango became very rich. Sango priests carry axes when in company or on parade. Sango priests wear feminine hairstyles, beads around their necks, and earrings on festive occasions. Sango’s dances are very fast and athletic. All deities have their associated dances. Not being able to dance is not being able to worship properly.
In Ghana, I have seen young people dancing in a trance and cutting themselves with razor-sharp cutlasses. The fierce cut never broke the skin or even left a mark. I have also witnessed Holy Dances to the deities of the Thunder Pantheon. Here, the older women of the cult wandered through the crowd making suggestive gestures with a wooden phallus. The performance was supposed to be fun and it was. There were also conjurers who exchanged sand for powdered white chalk. Anyone could come to see the dances if they showed due respect to the deity. This meant that both men and women had to be bareheaded. Men had to tie their clothes around the waist so that they were bare-chested and women had to tie their clothes under the armpits.
The Sacred Dances of West Africa tend to be danced outdoors often at night. The dancers enter the circular dance zone and leave it as they see fit. They may all be dancing the same steps, but each dancer expresses them in their own way. They all dance in a group but have their own “space” within it. The dancer and the choreographer are the same person.
Africa is in grave danger of losing its Holy Dances due to the decline in the number of people who adhere to traditional religions. Only members of the cult can dance the Holy Dances. It is no wonder that members of Christian churches and followers of Islam have always been expressly prohibited from participating in the Holy Dances and the number of converts is increasing. Some Christian churches allow a certain amount of drumming and dancing during services. Both drums and dancing have little “life force” or visual and auditory interest. Musicians are beginning to create new genuinely African sacred songs for the church. If anyone knows of choreographers working to create authentic contemporary African Sacred Dance, I’d love to hear from you.
Cults need younger members. If they do not materialize, the Sacred Dances will not evolve within their true context. The dances will die out or become shadows of themselves as social dances danced by one and all simply for pleasure.
In fact, I have written very little about music that is of equal importance to dance. Music is a theme unto itself. If you are interested in African rhythms, I suggest you try to get “An Approach to African Rhythm” by Dr. Seth Cudjoe, published by the Institute for African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon.
The Sacred Dances of Bali, Indonesia, are a beautiful prayer that manifests itself. The Wali are Sacred Dances essential connected with the 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 Sacred Dances. I witnessed Sanghyang Dedari in which two girls danced in a trance reflecting the movements of the other. Their eyes were wide open but they were said to see nothing. At the end of the dance, a white-robed priest brought them out of their trance and sprinkled holy water on them.
Sanghyang Jaran is a very spectacular dance in which a young man wears a belt with a horse’s head woven from coconut leaves. This young man was put into a trance by a priest. Then he ran, leaping like a horse towards a coconut shell fire. The third time he did this, he sat on the coals and rolled. At some crucial moment, unidentifiable to those watching, the young dancer was snapped out of his trance and helped out.
The Balinese are devout Hindus and the tradition of the Sacred Dance is treasured, appreciated and still a part of everyone’s life.
Let’s hope that in the parts of the world where there is still genuine Sacred Dance it doesn’t degenerate into a show where we intend to influence the audience rather than the Spirit World.
If you have any comments or questions, I will be happy to hear from you. You can contact me through my website.