A Modern and Indigenous Dance

It’s been a while since I’ve made a post directly related to both dance and heathenry, and I think it’s time for another one.

I read an article a few weeks ago from the Washington Post about the future of Modern Dance. It can be found here. There is one part in particular that I haven’t been able to get out of my head, and that has me thinking again about what kind of a place dance could have in heathenry. “Look at this indigenous but fragile American art form, and you see a fundamental change. There has been a downsizing, a redefining, a splintering into countless small niches. As a result, the future feels very precarious.”

It’s almost as if that sentence is simultaneously talking about the two major movements I participate in, and it makes me fear a bit for the stability of my future. Will I ever be able to “make it big” as a dancer? What does making it big even mean these days? As the article says, there is no longer the funding or the place for modern dance to have a major audience. Will my career consist almost entirely of performances to an audience of fifty?

But the same kinds of questions can be asked of heathenry. Our numbers are probably growing, or at least that’s the sense that I get, but with it, there’s an increased individualization of the movement. It’s moving more out of kindreds and into individuals. There are the Asatruar, the Vanatruar, the mystics, the anti-mystics. There are those who consider the movement to be primarily a reconstruction as closely as possible to the ancient ways of doing things, and those that would prefer to capture as closely as possible what seems to be the spirit of the ancient ways of doing things. But if we keep breaking down into smaller and smaller groups, will our religions ever consist of anything greater than an audience of fifty?

Of course, these problems don’t only relate to modern dance and heathenry. All over the place, Americans are splintering into increasingly specific subcultures. And when the internet gets as involved in the supporting of these minor subcultures inhabited by people who live hundreds of miles apart, subcultures can become pretty lonely.

Not that I’m looking for us to be a major world movement or anything. But heathenry is a lonely religion these days. And so is modern dance.

A couple months ago, I was at a dance rehearsal in a large cafeteria style room. At the other end was a Baptist group having an after-Church food reception. At that very moment, I felt a nostalgia for my Christian days, when religion was a source of community for me, when it gave the the friends to drink sodas and visit twice a week. When I could have a sacred activity shared with other people. And then I laughed at myself because I realized that I was thinking all that at my weekly dance rehearsal, which I consider a community-driven, sacred experience.

It’s a common and well-known point of contention in heathenry that some people want to resurrect the past and some people want to focus more on bringing the gods into the twenty-first century. For what it’s worth, I tend to fall more into the latter group, seeking to find a place for the gods in an environmentalist vision of today’s future. Religion, I think, has utopian undertones, and I don’t want to go back to the ancient ways of doing everything. As much as I love the land, I would prefer not to have to make every single thing I own from scratch.

But, as that section from the article I quoted above reminded me, we don’t worship anachronisms, we worship the indigenous. The Parliament of the World’s Religions this year discussed renaming and redefining “paganism” to “European Indigenous Traditions.” While the name change would be problematic for many reason, including the ones that Jason from the Wild Hunt numbers in the linked post, it does make some sense for Heathens. Many of us purposefully distance ourselves from “paganism.” I don’t, personally, because I feel that us mostly-polytheists have common political aims that can best be achieved through banding together. Besides that, what we do isn’t indigenous. But I think that a distinction among heathens between the more-indigenous interested and the more new religious movements types.

But that begs the question of my own that lead to this post: what is indigenous? I have to agree with Sarah Kaufman and her Washington Post article that modern dance is an indigenous American art form. So is jazz. And America has indigenous religions. But if a religion grew out of the American spirit in the same way that modern dance and jazz music have, would that not be an American Indigenous religion? Does a religion have to be practiced for thousands of years before it can truly be considered indigenous?

Conservative Asatru, I would say, it more an indigenous American religion than an indigenous European one. So is the religion of every heathen who has lived their entire lives in America. Those practicing Forn Sed in Iceland, the heathens from Europe,they practice an indigenous European religion. And my version of heathenry–grown in the life of a woman who has never been to Europe and who identifies so strongly with modern dance, the dance that is the heart of my religion–is it an indigenous European religion? I would certainly think not. My religion has grown out of the land in America as I discussed in my last post. Despite taking a particular interest in a mythology that grew on another continent, is it unAmerican? If the influence of other continents and their histories, their ancient ideologies and folk tales in unAmerican, then this entire country, with its identification as a melting pot is unAmerican. My religion is not an indigenous European religion. I live in America, a country founded on Enlightenment ideas that were founded on Renaissance ideas that were founded on Ancient Greek and Roman ideas. The part of the country I live in was originally populated (I speak of immigrants here, not the Natives) by the Dutch and Germans. My neighborhood was founded by the Irish. The books I have read are European, African, Asian, American. There is nothing more American, more indigenous to this country, than taking ideas from many different places and throwing them together. That’s what modern dance is, and that is what my religion is.

Our heathen ancestors did not worship anachronism. They worshiped the gods and the lands as they were, they danced in the style that made sense to them. And so I imagine that a future heathen dance form would be less of an intentional reconstruction of European folk religion, and more an indigenous art. To me, to dance is to dance Modern Dance. To me, do dance is to dance Ballet. To many these days, to dance is to dance Hip Hop or to sway your hips in a club. The jumpy, footsy European folk dance does not feel natural to the American dancer, and so it should not be our dance of worship.

Our dance of worship in this indigenous religion should be our indigenous dance. So let’s sway our hips and contract our torsos. Let’s dance into the ground in the African styles that have informed our ideas of dance. Let’s jump and tap our feet in the Irish style that has informed our ideas of dance. Let’s love the ground and then leave her like ballet. Let’s dance how we feel, how it is natural for us to dance, in our own indigenous manner. Let us make a New American Indigenous religion that worships the gods of our ancestors, to bring the old ways from far away into a new land in a new way, just as our ancestors would have, just as our ancestors did.

On a different note entirely, I will be offline for the next week or so, as I take an annual internet fast for seven days leading up to Walpurgisnacht, so there won’t be any posts at least until May Day.

Images from Wikipedia Commons

Land and its Spirits

I have noticed, in heathenry, particularly among the more strict reconstructionists, a tendency to tell newbies asking about gods to look first to the land spirits and the ancestors because they are closer, more easily accessible, perhaps less busy.

I find it a little irritating, mostly because I think people should approach the three major groups of our worship (those being ancestors, landwights, and gods) in whatever order or proportion makes the most sense to them. I, for one, would never have found heathenry were it not for the gods who came calling. Through them, I have found a wonderful connection with the land and am finding some kind of peace and reverence for my own ancestors.

Not everyone comes to heathenry in the same manner as I did. Many come to it seeking a connection to their ancestors first, and find the land and the gods after. Or they come to it for the land and then find the gods and the ancestors. I can’t think of anyone from the last category though, except for the vast numbers of us who came to heathenry via Wicca and it’s earth-based philosophy.

However you cut it, the landwights seemingly tend to be the last found and least discussed of the major spirit groups. And that tendency, for me at least, to forget the landwights came with a problem of expectations.

I find that expectations are dangerous in religious experience. I have found that when I go into ritual or meditation or trance with an expectation of what I am to achieve or see, I am always disappointed. My expectations color what I see, keeping me from seeing what is really there. Either my visions are clouded, or my dance doesn’t feel as fulfilling. Or I will meet a spirit expecting a different one and come out confused.

This was my problem with the landwights. I was, for some reason, expecting to go outside and commune with the landwights and see, at least in my inner vision, some kind of gnome-like vaguely anthropomorphic being. This never happened, and so for the longest time, I thought I wasn’t meeting the landwights. That I couldn’t see them.

That’s not the issue. Perhaps it’s just me, but the landwights don’t look anthropomorphic. They don’t even look like spirits. They are there, right before us in the land, unhidden. They are the beetles and the squirrels. The birds. The tree bark and the grass. The sunset. The houses and buildings and mountains and the culture of the people who live there. Which is not to say that the purely spirit kind don’t exist either. But I found that spirit by looking at the land just as it is before me.

I found myself expecting everything in religion to be esoteric, to be the realm of the unseen, and I was missing the fundamentals of earth-worship. That I am worshiping the Earth in her natural, real, tangible glory.

I have lived in three places since I converted to heathenry nearly three years ago (I was a college student. I moved a lot). I’m going to talk a little about the wights of each of these places and how the land has affected my religious experiences.

Birmingham, Alabama and the surrounding countryside

In many ways, Birmingham is my childhood home. We moved there when I was 11 and I lived there full-time until I was 18, after which I went home for some summers and Christmases. Birmingham is in the foothills of the Appalachians, the mountain range that is home to me in a way that no other thing is.

My experiences with the landwights there were less at my parents home in the suburbs and more out in the country. Gent lives out in the country on forty acres with his parents, who inherited it from his grandparents. We fell in love on that land, and the spirits there have called to us, to let us know that our home is there, our ancestral property. We expect that one far-off day we will inherit that land and finally be home.

There are three lakes there, and two houses—a new built by Gent’s parents out of cedar from the property, and the old house where his father lived as a child.

The trees there are mostly pines and cedars. There are weeds, but also agriculture. There is a little garden, and the neighbors run a you-pick farm. This is the only place I have lived (lived is probably too strong of a word. I didn’t live there physically, but my soul has lived on that land) that has fed its inhabitants. There is something very strong about that that I have been missing everywhere else. When I go over there, we sit by the fire and eat dinner and have tea after and talk about spiritual things.

Once, when the landwights were most strongly calling to Gent and I, to let us know that this was our home, that we were to be in love and live there, we were sitting on a hillside that used to house a town, watching the sunset. Any time we tried to kiss, his dogs would run up to steal them. And then we heard a splashing in the pond, where we discovered a beaver flapping his tail.

That land is the only place I have seen a beaver. Or a hummingbird. Or a porch covered in ladybugs. You can see the ridges of Birmingham and the Appalachians in the distance, the broad fields and the forests. The people with their thick southern accents.

When I live in Birmingham, I want nothing more than to live on the land. I want to move out to Gent’s house and farm. I want to rebuild the broken down barn and make a dance studio so that I can dance to the land, to return to it the joy it has given me.

The Hudson Valley

I went to college in the Hudson Valley, and it is where I converted to heathenry. It was the first place I felt passionate about home. In Birmingham, I feel like slow home, like things should be the same for ever and ever, the land has an expansiveness through time about it.

The Hudson Valley is a bit different. The land there buzzes with earthly vitality. With passion and color and joy. The Hudson Valley does every season passionately. It has the most beautiful autumn—so beautiful that people travel to the towns surrounding my college in the autumns to see the beautiful leaves. The colors of autumn shine like jewels on the Catskills, and the river glitters in the sun. Winter has soft snows perfect for snowmen. But it also has fierce ice storms. I almost didn’t get to have my senior project show because an ice storm wiped out power in five counties. The springs are full of daffodils, and the summers explode with the vibrancy of thunderstorms and sunflowers.

The land is passionate about everything it is. The gods are easy to find there. All I had to do was step outside and feel the power of the earth, to see the cycles of life and death, to watch the joy in flowers and squirrels jumping and birds flying.

The spirit of the land is strong, and its wights want to be known. They press themselves into the consciousness of everyone who goes looking.

A favorite memory of the land there was how I learned about death and decay. I would take walks in the woods and look at the fallen trees in various stages of decomposition, watch the new plants take hold of life in their splintery dust. One day, I stood watching flies eat a dead squirrel for forty-five minutes, seeing them lay their eggs and feast on the death. I saw the birds flying over my head, and thought of how the birds would eat the flies and then the squirrel would be flying. And how, when I die, I too will be eaten by worms or flies or bacteria that will be eaten by other animals in the great life cycle, and I, too, will fuel a bird’s flight. I, too, will allow a bird to fly through the great blue expanses of the air, looking down at the vibrant autumn colors and the glittering land.

Philadelphia

I haven’t lived in Philadelphia as long as I have these other places—I’ve been here just under a year. But I have begun to know the land here, and am finding ways to adjust my religious expression to account for it.

The hardest transition for me has been from the country to a city and away from the mountains I love so dearly. I miss walking out my door to fields of grass and huge oak trees. For a long time, I could not find my way and lost my gods.

But they are here, just in a different way. Birmingham is a slow place, the Hudson Valley is passionate and vibrant, and Philadelphia is practical.

The whole city has a sort of patron ancestor in Benjamin Franklin. His visage is in statues and buildings and radio stations all over the city. No one appreciates practicality more than Ben Franklin, and that practicality is evident here.

It is evident in the huge numbers of Amish and Pennsylvania Dutch who live in the surrounding countryside and who sell their food at the downtown market. It is evident in that the vast majority of the architecture is useful rather than beautiful. It is evident in the people here and their way of making do. It is evident even in the artists, who have a sort of practical style of finding work. In the amount of art here that is made with found objects or reconstituted pieces. It is evident in the sort of hidden pride of the people here and the city’s place in America’s history. And it is evident in some of the ways that the city bands together as a community.

Philadelphia is a community more than anywhere else I have lived. Yes, there are crime problems and major racism problems. Yes, there is a huge amount of poverty and neighborhoods I go through regularly that make most people want to run away screaming. And yes, there are some people living here who wish that it was New York and think it’s boring because it’s not.

But there are so many people here whose families have been here for generations, who have been fans of the Phillies or the Flyers their entire lives, and who would give anything for the city. There is the respect for the land and the city that other places don’t seem to have—despite litter problems (the city really needs to put out more trash cans), we have the largest public park system of any city in America. We have the Mural Arts Program that fills the city with beautiful art. We just finished the most beautiful chunk of Spring I have ever seen in my life. The flowering trees were like the city was laughing in its own joy at delicious water ice and cheesesteaks, at the rowhouses the city is famous for, for the beginning of baseball season.

I have become much more practical since moving here. My passion for my gods has dulled a little, to my chagrin. I feared, at first, that it meant the death of my religious tendencies as long as I lived here. But it hasn’t been true. It has just lead to a different manner of expressing them. Rather than running out in the fields, laughing at hawks or crying for squirrels, I am eating barley and switching from sugar to Lancaster County honey. Rather than being surrounded by friends who fill me with so much love I am left feeling like exploding, I am settling down with my sister, cementing our bonds as family.

There is a neighborhood I will be moving to soon. It’s currently in the early stages of gentrification. Walking down the streets in this neighborhood, I feel like I am coming home. The streets are filled with artists, hippies, hipsters. The neighborhood is lined with rowhouses and the occasional deli or coffee shop. There is a street of art galleries. There are children playing, and there are the people who have lived in the neighborhood for decades who wear frayed denim jackets and have bleach-blonde hair and too-long fingernails. There are houses that are marked for destruction, and new, energy-efficient, mod-style houses being built in their place. There is a farm. In this neighborhood, I have found the cycles of life and death that I had found in the animals and plants of the Hudson Valley. I have found the steady, slowness of life of Birmingham, and the artistic passion I had in college. Watching old buildings come down and new building erected reminds me that nothing is eternal, that life and existence is a constant state of recreation, and that I can have a home in the middle of it all. Philadelphia has taught me that I can create a Revolution in my own life—that I can live in a city and still see the life and death of nature. That I can have my dream of being a professional dancer. And I can find my gods, myself, my dance again, even while the land, fatigued by human inhabitance, litter, and corruption is spreading out its tendrils of joy, reaching toward the sun and a renewing beauty.

on the flirtatiousness of plants

A few years ago, I read a book that changed my life. The book was The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era; A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry.

The book was the first time I truly opened my eyes to the beautiful vibrancy of life, to its cycles of life and death and creation and destruction and the neverending cycles of recreation. To the fine line between creation and destruction. To the way that everything becomes itself. To the fact that everything is simultaneously exactly the same and completely different. To the fact that humans do not act on everything–everything acts. The ground supports us, our food feeds us, our clothes keep us warm.

It was incredibly eye opening for me to think this way, instead of thinking that I walk on the earth or that I eat my food or wear my clothes. It reminded me to have gratitude for everything around me because everything around me is doing something to me as much as I am doing something to it.

In the book, they word this by saying that “the universe is a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects.”

A few weeks ago, I watched a video that brought this idea home for me in a concrete way that nothing else ever had.

Michael Pollan gives a plant’s-eye view

Michael Pollan, in this video, presents a radical view of plants. That plants guide their own evolution and domestication more than we do. His idea says to me, and has been showing up in this beautiful, explosive floral Philadelphia spring, that plants are flirtatious.

When the plant flowers, it is doing the same thing to us and the bees that women do preparing for a date, or that I do when preparing for ritual. They are getting dressed up, putting on their makeup and their sexy outfits, and presenting themselves to us so that we will choose them, pollinate them, let them go on with their lives.

I can’t get this idea out of my head. Now, as I am walking or driving around town and I see my favorite daffodils, or a beautiful tulip, or a lovely, lush lawn, or a grove of azaleas, I see plants that are seeking the approval of the buildings and grounds people.

It’s not that we’re picking the prettiest trees. It’s that the trees are purposefully becoming as pretty as they can so that we will want them. The difference is small, but is just another reminder to me of the agency of the world. Of the way that everything acts as the subject of its own sentence. A reminder of how relationships form the core of life. The plants need us to choose their beauty just as much as we ourselves need that beauty in our lives.

Relationships and beauty. There is Life.

On Dedication and Perseverance

I’m very dedicated to the art of dance. That should be obvious by now to my readers.

I have persisted for years through rehearsals, injuries, sore muscles, fatigue, classes, people telling me that I would never be able to be a professional dancer, people telling me that I’m not good enough at it, people treating me like I don’t matter, people telling me that dance doesn’t matter, people telling me that I’m making the wrong career choice because there is no money in it.

The only one of these things that ever made me actually want to quit was other people who made me feel like I’m unimportant or incapable. 

But there is something else that has been threatening me. And it’s not quite fear of failure.

I think often, when confronting this fear, that perhaps my problem is along the lines of this quote:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant,
gorgeous, talented, fabulous? -Marianne Williamson

But on the other hand, I don’t really think that’s it. Though it’s probably part of it.

The manifestation of this unnameable fear is currently auditioning. I am going to auditions all the time, whenever they are posted. Except auditions for really good, well-known companies. I can’t get myself to go to them.

It’s not that I don’t think I’ll get hired. I’m nearly positive I won’t. But I go to other auditions knowing I won’t get hired.

This week, I got a lecture from my boss telling me that she’s worried I’m getting too caught up in practical issues like making money and losing track of my dancing. She’s right, in a sense. But it’s not so much the practical things as this fear.

But after thinking about it, my fear is not about success or failure. It doesn’t really matter to me if I get hired or not. But I am more afraid of getting hired than not. I think the issue comes down to my perseverance. I identify more with my dedication and my perseverance than I do with my success or failure. I identify most with my dream of being a successful professional dancer. I am a professional dancer already, but I dream of dancing for better companies that pay for rehearsal instead of tiny amounts for the occasional performance.

But I am dedicated to that dream as a dream. It’s been my dream for so long that I wouldn’t know what to do if I was actually hired. I would be like Inigo Montoya after he has killed the six-fingered man, having achieved something I have worked so hard for and not knowing what to do with my life having achieved it.

I fear that my success would only bring me short-term joy, while my dreams bring me endless joy and fear–something to live for.

While it’s true I could always improve, always dance for better companies, always become a better dancer, there is something about having arrived that terrifies me.

But on the other hand, perhaps I won’t have arrived. Perhaps there are endless goals out there. Just 10 months ago I auditioned for my first professional dance company, and I was hired, and I felt for weeks as if I had arrived, as if I had achieved all of the goals I had ever set out for, and I felt disappointed to have done so at only the age of 22. And now here I am, fearing the next step, the next goal to seek, the dream of my better future.

And that’s the thing about perseverance. If you’re really dedicated, and you really persevere, you can’t really ever achieve your goals. Nothing will ever be good enough. And that’s exactly the point.

Nothing is ever good enough. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

On my relationship with Freyja

I love Freyja dearly. She is the goddess who is the closest to me, who teaches me the most, and who has been there for me the longest. So I thought I would spend a little time telling you all a bit about my relationship with her.

When I very first started up a relationship with her, I had just converted from Christianity to Witchcraft, and the books told me to pick a name for the God and Goddess. I chose Freyja and Odin. I didn’t want to pick the Greek or Roman gods because I had been taught in school that they weren’t real–not that I really thought they were any less real, it just would have been less realistic to me to worship them. And I didn’t know anything about the Norse deities, and Freyja and Odin sounded pretty cool.

From the very first time I called to her, she was there. Every time I needed her in my studies, she was there. Odin was much more of a driving force, at one point stopping me from researching other pantheons out of laziness. He made me do all the studying.

Thor, incidentally, was the reason I found heathenry. He showed up, I read an article about hard polytheism that lead to lots of research on the deities, figuring if I was going to worship them I ought to know something about them. Then I discovered that heathenry fit me significantly better than witchcraft, and now here I am.

But Freyja, with her fiery passion, was why I could never give up. Things began changing in my life the moment I let her in. My dance professors started noticing immediately after my conversion that my dancing was better–and it was because I had found the magic in life and the beauty in me. I could begin to peel away the layers of repression and begin to dance myself. She teaches me so many things through the lens of beauty. She’s forced me to look deep inside myself to find beauty even in difficult times, or to learn what kinds of things are keeping me from expressing myself fully. She taught me why I could perform in front of an audience and not in front of a mirror–because I was afraid of being forced to see myself. To dance for someone is an intimate act, and I couldn’t allow myself that intimacy with myself. She taught me how to push through that, to get to know myself better, and to be able to let the beauty out of me whenever I want to. She has taught me to love myself and never to fear my emotions or desires. She has taught me to look deeply in myself and see what it is I want and to fight for it, never ceasing. To dance with all of me.

She and I have bonded over so many things–we’re like close friends. We bond over our missing lovers–my boyfriend and I have been long-distance for 5 years, and she has given me many comforts over the years with her amber tears. We have bonded over worship and the beauty of the earth and the sunlight dancing atop the water.

We give each other gifts of flowers. In the summers, when I take walks, I pick wildflowers to put on her altar. And she gives me flowers as well. For my fifth anniversary with my boyfriend, we found a dozen roses on the way to our dinner date right after I said something about how I didn’t have any. And both of us knew immediately that they were a gift from her. Sometimes, when I am asking Freyja a question or seeking an omen from her, a particular friend of mine who is quite open to spirits, will bring me a flower, and say that she just felt like she needed to right then.

She comes to me in visions as I am falling asleep and either just lets me watch her for a while, or will teach me something I need to know. I once saw her in a library of love stories. Another time, she was swimming in a river. Other times, she has taught me things about the beauty of the world.

I find myself singing to her often. She makes me feel like exploding with happiness, like there isn’t enough world or enough me to contain all the joy I am capable of. I want to please her. I want her in my life and I want to have a big, beautiful altar to her and I want to dance for her and become a better dancer for her.

I will close my post today with a poem I wrote for her last summer.

In a dream, you have shown me a circle,

encompassed by fire,

where we danced in a field of flowers,

breathing in the warm summer air.


I thought your passion was

beautiful

as a flower,

soft and fragrant.


But passion can be fearsome–

it is a fire

that burns and blisters.

It consumes all my air

so that even in my dreams

I cannot breathe because I am full of you, Freyja.

You train me, who, like your cats,

wants to be free to do as she pleases,

to go with the flow,

to dance like rain falling

and rivers flowing.


But fire boils water,

and the fires in me can never be drowned.

They cannot be snuffed, for even

when they are denied air,

they breathe,

gasping in the

endless firedance.


And I am left, full of you and full of air

and even full of flowers.


Fair Freyja,

bring me another dream.

Teach me the wisdom of the burning flower.