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

3 thoughts on “A Modern and Indigenous Dance

  1. Nice post. I agree with a lot of it. Now, personally, I really like European folk dances, and one thing they’re great for is that a bunch of people can learn some basic steps and do them together with no major time investment or talent needed (unlike, say, ballet). So they’re still good, I think, for group ritual dancing, especially on-the-fly sorts of things.

    But I also think we should open our minds to other ways to honor the gods, ways that connect with the lives we lead now. Which is why I have no problem feeling that when I go out dancing at a goth club or rave or something like that, I can go to dance for/with Dionysos, even though obviously there were no raves in ancient Greece. To me, it fits Him very well, and when I move for Him, that’s all there is to it, it doesn’t really matter what context the music or dancing is in.

    • I agree with you about the folk dances, too. I like them, they’re just not my dance, you know? The one time I did do some–last May Day, it was fun and exhausting, and it did only take a few minutes for everyone to learn. But that’s not even really European folk dance, it’s folk dance in general, which had a much more easy social purpose, that everyone should be able to participate than higher court dances like ballet. Its the same with club dances–in fact, I would say that things like the chicken dance and the electric slide are the modern versions of those. They’re done for fun at celebrations and festivals like weddings. But then, I have a feeling that doing the chicken dance at a heathen festival wouldn’t do too much to get everyone in the mood… 😀 So yes, traditional folk dances might be the best thing for big festivals. I don’t know, I’ve only been to the one May Day thing. But if I were to say so, I would also include American folk dances like square dancing or contra dance.

      Thanks for sharing about dancing for Dionysos. It’s nice to hear about other devotees dancing for their gods. 🙂

  2. I learned to belly dance for Loki. And that isn’t even European 😉 I dance for Him too when I go to a drum-and-dance, and while these days I don’t go to nightclubs anymore, in the past I danced for Him there as well.

    I figure any construction of joy is a suitable offering for one’s beloved gods, whether it’s historically accurate or not.

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