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DANCING THE DANCE

By Gordon "the Toad" McLellan

Published Imbolc 1996

The first snow of winter leaves me with body curves and sharp elbow-angles, the blowing wind, the warm decline of slush. I feel, see and express the changing seasons through the dance that, for me, lies at the heart of things and is often the most profound recognition of the turning wheel that I have. In dance, you become the thing that you dance.

Wlof danceThere is one of those useful, maybe apocryphal, probably misquoted, Sufi sayings: "At the still centre of things, there the Dance is". For me, "The Dance" is the deepest core of my expression of paganism. It is a moving meditation, a ritual that spills across the worlds. Whether physically danced or not, the Dance lies in the heart of things and we meet it in our own hearts: in the stillness and silence, at the still centre of being, there we can still feel our hearts dancing. The question lies, always unanswered: when does the dance end and where? When we dance, do we create the dances we dance or are we simply the Dance giving itself shape?

And what is it anyway: "The Dance"? We all dance, we call all dance. What is so special about that? Dancing is part of our culture. All cultures. Figures process along walls in painted caves, children play circle games whose origins dance back across the centuries, we may glide through ballroom, and dinner dances or simply go wild at raves ... and this is not the place for some long exposition on the origins or cultural significance of dance ... Magically, when we dance we reach out to the Great Dance. In Malawi in central Africa, the masked members of the Nyau society dance "Gule we m'Kulu" - the great dance: the dance of life, the thread that links them to their ancestors, to the spiritual origins of their tribe and across the present, to the monkeys who raid the corn, to the buck they hunt, to the Mzungu, the whites who have changed the world, to the Galimoto spirits: the spiritual presence of automobiles. "The Dance" is one expression of the bonds of life that are woven through the worlds, bringing us, holding us, binding us all together: the living, the dead, the non-living, here, then and maybe.

The Dance lies in the heart of things: next to the drummer and the singer, the dancer gives shape to the energy of life; to the changing patterns of the Web of Life, of Wyrd. In magical terms, dancing on the Web allows change, allows energy to flow into new patterns, at different speeds: perhaps through the discipline and intention of ritual. Or perhaps your dance allows you to become the vehicle through which the Web can realign itself. The Dance starts with the rhythm of our breathing and our hearts and with the steps we take so lightly, or so heavily, on the earth.

Dance is movement with rhythm. We can all dance, we do all dance: do not accept anyone else, or yourself, saing "you can't dance": we do not all dance in the same way to the same turn, but we can all dance and can all become, are already, a part of the Great Dance.

Going for a walk can become a dance if you find the rhythm in your footsteps, in the swing of your arms, in the connection of breath to movement and let it grow. Find yourself lifting, turning, bouncing, skipping along the path - to the further enjoyment of your walk, and the consternation of others walking the path in less dancing ways!

In a magical context, it does not really matter that I could ramble on about "the ancients", "our ancestors" and "sacred dance" and wave pictures of processional dances from the walls of Knossos: what should matter is that dance is relevant to us, in our lives, our pagan lives and our magic, now. And it is! To dance, in time, is to set yourself free, to step still further from the bonds of sensibility and convention and accepted behaviour (and if your life as a pagan, magician or whatever, is not already helping you see and challenge those sort of limitations, look at it again) and can move you on into a space of flowing glory where the webs of live can dance with you ...

But, of course, the British (I would not like to particularly point at "the English") can be rather reserved when it comes to movement as expression. To one who works in systems that are often physically wild and free-ranging, even some familiar rituals simply ache for more bodily awareness, grace and physical confidence to lift them up and outwards ...

Dance is movement with rhythm.

To dance, all you need to start to do is move. Not to plan, or discuss, or deliberate, but to move. Close the door, put on some nice music and use it to stretch and turn .... Dance here should not be competitive: go as far as you can and are physically and personally comfortable with. There is no need to aim for the High Priest's Nureyev leaps that keep hitting the ceiling. Use your own body - to spin and turn, to stretch, enfold, reach, retreat, freeze. Even if you move only a finger, a foot, your head: the important target is your own limit: work towards your own edge and you will find it keeps moving outwards.

The disciplined patterns of folk dance can add a lot to ritual work, as well as bringing new life to celebrations. We are often rather reticent about communal dances and have lost many or our own larger dances but drawing upon dances from other countries can bring new energy and purpose to that "circle dance to raise the cone of power" line in a ritual notebook. Traditional dances can also bring with them their lineage, that may connect your work with older veins.

The widely established network of Sacred/Circle dance teachers and classes can open up wide avenues of delight for the dancing magician. Here, traditional folk and newly choreographed dances are taught as much for the energy they carry and their sense of community as for the precision of their footwork. They are group dances for the most part: circles and spirals predominate with steps ranging from the very simple to intricate twiddly bits were one's feet never quite seem to catch up with the music.

It is a learning process and it takes time, so do not be discouraged - enjoy the dance and listen, learn, buy the music. Maybe even learn to play it. In the Sacred Dance repetoire, there is a wealth of dances that reflect the seasons - planting and harvesting dances for example, domestic events: marriage and funeral dances are there, and dances that directly, or indirectly, reflect the elements and other living things and still more dances whose story may be irrelevant but which are so delightful they leave you breathless.

Before using traditional dances in ceremonial work, you may want to ask yourself, or your group, or some passing stranger at a bus-stop, some questions. Just because you like a dance and can do it, does not necessarily mean that you should automatically use it:

  • is our reason for dancing this dance contrary to the story of the dance? - are we using a funeral dance at a naming, a male dance in a women's ritual?
  • is our reason for dancing this dance foreign to its roots? - would the people from whom the dance came understand, appreciate or approve of how we are using it?
  • is this a new dance to traditional music and do both "stories" coincide with our intentions?
  • in dancing this dance, do we tacitly or magically give support to something we would otherwise disapprove of? - during the Bosnian/Serbian war there was often discussion about using Serbian dances, and whether this gave spiritual support to apparent oppressors.

In answer to the last, I would say that it is important to question what we do: especially in ritual settings, everyone involved should be clear about the reasons for including different elements in an event.

Whatever you decide, keep it simple to begin with. Work with dances that everyone can learn reasonably quickly. Dances were you soon forget about having to count and watch but where the movement becomes almost automatic and your mind can slip along the flow of the dance and the ritual.

After that you can move on to the wilder dances, or the longer ones where a simple dance repeated and repeated over a half or a whole hour can contain all the form that a ceremony needs. That is perhaps when planned communal dance becomes most powerful, when a whole group is moving together and in the shared movement each individual can find their own peace and move within the pulse created by the group, supported by it, contributing to it and reaching beyond it for their own view of the infinite.

Then, too, there is the less structured site of things and the wildness, or the curling waves of calm, that can be free dance. To plan a free dance session may seem a contradiction, and people do say," Oh, I can dance... disco...rock...pop...rave...that's free dance". But to develop and take both the dance and yourself further, planning and discipline are still needed. The things to reach for remain the same:

  • reach inwards to your own still centre
  • reach outwards to the limits of your own movement
  • use the dynamic of inward awareness and envi-ronmental inspiration to shape the dance.

It is often easier, and less embarrassing, to start alone. Choose your own music to work with: you may not want to use recorded music, but it often helps - it gives you a rhythm to start from and can help pace your dance. When working alone, I chose music that suits my mood: it can be anything from synthesiser strangeness to traditional Sami singing to Siouxie and the Banshees in full cry. I reach for the energy and the passion in the music more that definite images or clear stories.

In a group, it can be harder to find music that everyone will respond to, and often people will usually all find different things in the same music. A good drummer may here give you all the shape you need to build your dance upon, or I use music with strong rhythms and were there are vocals, tend to choose those which art not in English, so that the singing becomes part of the whole experience rather than a clear set of images or experiences that may dictate the dance. That then, of course, can turn on its head if the group finds a song that comes from the place they are trying to reach.

Easier to stop or not to start at all, not to step beyond good intentions.

So try starting with a breath. Breathe to fill your lungs, breathe to lift your arms, to turn slightly. Breathe out to lower arms and curl your body downwards. Like a living spring, inhal to lift up and out, breathe out to withdraw again. Build this up until your inhalation carries you a full furn and bring your feet into it all. Set off.

Try bending. Forget watching yourself. Or being watched. Or seeing anyone else and what they are up to. Enjoy it. If you are working with others, touch your friends. Pour past them: part of your living, dancing landscape, a dancing world to interact with.

Dance defies words. But dance transforms. Feel your body open, over time, your heart warm. Rejoice. Grieve. Weep. Laugh. Prowl. Swim. Snarl. Fly. Let it all go.

Somewhere along the path find yourself dancing, feet falling, touching the earth of many worlds at once. Find yourself dancing and the curves of your body, the wake of your movement come from the ripples of the Web around you. Dance to the heartbeat drum. Dance the Dance.

"Ah, but they could dance! Nobody danced like the tigers, nobody could even think of such dances as they did. Moon dances, shadow dances, silence dances and dances for the starlight and the glimmers on the river. Even the child tigers among them danced the most complex patterns and difficult rhythms in the bending grasses and the shadows of the jungle under the hissing and humming of the moon, under the racing clouds, under the teeming rain." Hoban and Gentleman - The Dancing Tigers.

Places to go, things to do

  • Sacred/Circle Dance classes may be advertised in your local "alternative" magazines - including in the Wotsons in WHITE DRAGON.
  • Five Rhythms or Wave classes by teachers trained in Gabrielle Roth techniques can introduce people to dance as personal development and transformation and become a good grounding for individual free dance work.
  • Let the Animals Dance and other workshops run by Gordon the Toad - listed in WD as and when.
  • Musical starting points (these are some of my personal favourites but if you want somewhere to begin, you might as well start beside me!)
  • Mari Boine: Gula Gula [Realworld]*, Leahkastin (Unfolding) [Verve World]
  • Goaskinviellja (Eagle Brother) [Verve World]
  • Hedningarna: Tra [Silence]
  • Dead Can Dance: A Passage in Time [4AD]
  • Gabrielle Roth and the Mirrors: Totem, Initiation, Bones
  • Dougie MacLean: The Search [Dunkeld]*

* - specially recommended

Books

  • Roth, G: Maps to Ecstasy, Crucible 1989
  • Woisien, G: Sacred Dance, Avon 1974
  • MacLellan, G: Talking to the Earth, Capall Bann 1995 (contains a chapter of simple dance exercises)
  • MacLellan, G: Sacred Animals: due out in 1997 and will contain a much stronger dance element