My changing relationships with dance and paganism

So I haven’t posted in a while. And there are a lot of reasons for that. One of those reasons is that I’ve been super busy. I haven’t had a normal weekend in over a month–not that I’m complaining. I’ve had two long-term friends come to visit, gone to Jamaica to visit another one for a week, gone back to my college to see another one, and had a weekend that included three different performances that were all kick-ass and a photoshoot in a creek. So I’ve been really busy, but in a good way.

The other main reason I haven’t been posting, really, is that I’ve been thinking more about what it means to be a dancer who happens to be a pagan more than what it means to be a pagan who happens to be a dancer, if that makes any sense. I feel like, in general, this blog has been a platform for me to share what dancing has for paganism, but very little for what paganism has for dancing. I feel my posts on paganism are much better received than my posts that focus more on dance, if only because the bulk of my readership are pagans (with the exception of my post “A Modern and Indigenous Dance,” which apparently shows up when people google “indigenous dance.” And in the last few years since I graduated college, my relationship with both dancing and paganism have evolved.

In college, I was really focused on my paganism, and that paganism helped my dancing considerably. I was in a beautiful and inspiring place, doing beautiful, inspiring, and challenging things with my time, and paganism was a huge part of that. I was thinking about my religion for a large part of every day, and that directly affected my dancing and choreography.

But now that I’ve graduated and have a boring pay-the-bills kind of job that I find completely unsatisfying, dance maybe three or four days a week only for a few hours, and finally (OH YES FINALLY-I still feel this way a year after he moved in) have My Gent to come home to, paganism has a bit fallen to the wayside. My thoughts focus more on my family and my dancing. My choreography is still inspired by my relationship with the earth, but it’s much more subtle of a thing–I have a new relationship with the earth that has colored who I am to the extent that my art couldn’t avoid being influenced by it. In the past, I was purposefully making art with a pagan theme.

So it’s different. I think about dance now far more often than I think about paganism. I think I’ve integrated the paganism into my selfhood, and I’m not meant to be pagan clergy or anything. I’m a dancer who happens to be a pagan, and I’m much closer to pagan laity than anything else.

Last weekend at my first rehearsal for my piece about water, in a sort of getting-to-know-you way, I asked my dancers each to share a story about a time when they had an important experience with water. I talked about the time when the raindrops wrote me a letter about loneliness on the road’s pavement when I was alone. Two of them told stories about their baptism, and it was disconcerting and surprising to me. I hadn’t thought about the fact that for most people, and especially most city people, the main experiences with water would be in a planned sort of way, and I certainly hadn’t really expected that Christianity, with it’s fake and distanced relationship to the earth, would come up in a discussion of one of the four elements. (And yes, I am aware that I just made a really loaded assertion about Christians and the earth, and that it will piss people off, but it’s something that has been bothering my very Christian boyfriend for quite some time now, and which was the main reason I left Christianity in the first place). That experience–of having a Christian ritual bear itself into my choreographic process, my pagan ritual to the creativity of the universe and of water and our bodies which are sacks of water–got me to thinking about what it means to be a dancer who happens to be a pagan. I’ve been thinking a lot about the way that we can’t insulate ourselves against people who disagree with us the way Christians can. There aren’t enough of us to surround ourselves only with those who agree (and besides, there aren’t any of us who agree on anything in the first place). We are, by social necessity and by polytheology, required to interact with people who don’t share our viewpoints. Which is good, even if it is occasionally jarring and surprising.

I think I’m going to make an effort to post more about dance without feeling like I have to make it about paganism. Because I am a pagan, and so my thoughts on dance will be pagan even if not explicitly so. My relationship with dance has changed because of paganism.

Here are a couple examples:

1) Since becoming pagan, my relationship with dance has become more embodied. If that sounds weird, considering that dance is an embodied art form, remember please that ballet was originally an art form designed to transcend the confines of the body,  to lift ourselves above our baser natures, to be released from gravity and fat and all the kinds of things that make it so living is possible. I was trained originally in ballet, and didn’t even try another dance form until I was 16 or so. Dance was never about my body when I was young–it was about perfecting the steps, wearing pointe shoes and tutus, and getting to perform in front of people. Now, I see that dance is about the body, not about using the body as a tool to get outside of it. I see that our bodies are ourselves and that by changing our relationship with our body by using and accepting its expressive language, we can change the way we feel about ourselves.

2. I see that dance is an experiential art form, not a performative one. This one has been really difficult for me to come to terms with as a professional performer. A small part of me has always felt annoyed with the fact that, on a certain level, I never thought dance was important. I loved dancing, but I saw people trying to argue that dance performances will change the world, and in a way I never really believed that, partially because of how much bad dance there is out there meaning that so few people actually see dance that is thought-provoking or paradigm-shifting, and partially because so few people ever get to see dance performed anyway. Outside of music videos, dance audiences are pretty much limited to wealthy philanthropists and friends and families of dancers and choreographers. But I see now that that’s not really why I felt that way. I don’t think dance performances will change the world because I believe dancing itself will change the world. Dancing changes us because the act of dancing is important to our psyches and our emotional well-being. The only people who are passionate about dance are the dancers whose own lives and relationships with their bodies have been changed by the act of dancing. And that is because dance is, at its core, an experiential art form.

With these two changes in mind, I think I might have figured out what I want to do with my life. This is probably a bit early to be making this statement, since I only discovered it the day before yesterday. But in some sense, I feel as sure about this as I did about finding paganism. I want to go to school do become a dance/movement therapist. Fortunately, one of the six programs in the US in this field is in Philadelphia. But the two reasons above are largely why I want to do it.

First, a little mini explanation of what it is. Dance therapy is a psychotherapeutic technique in which people use their own expressive movement to heal their psychological issues, ranging from autism to bad self-esteem to dementia.

The prerequisites for the program were my three favorite types of classes in college-anatomy, psychology, and dance. As I’ve gone through the past several years thinking about what I could do to make a living (professional dancing is so far from a living that it pisses me off now how much of an industry there is around training people to be professional dancers) besides the crappy secretarial work that’s supposedly all I’m qualified for, I’ve thought of several different kinds of therapy: the regular talking kind, physical therapy, massage therapy. All of them are wrong for some reason or another, mainly boiling down to my problems with Cartesian mind/body dualism. Massage therapy gets the closest to breaking it down, but regular psychotherapy focuses on the mind instead of the body, and physical therapy and massage therapy in general focus on fixing the body so the mind can get back to its work. Dance therapy, on the other hand, does exactly what my paganism and my dance training have taught me: that the body and the mind are inseparable, and that we can change our minds by changing our bodies. Even when I was teaching dance, there were elements of this in my class–I was helping my students work with their own anatomy instead of against it, which I could tell helped with their self-esteem.

Anyway, this dance therapy thing is something I’m going to continue exploring and looking into in the future, so I can decide if I want to go back to school for it. But I’m sure I would be good at it, and I’m sure that it would make me feel like I was doing something useful, productive, and challenging with my life.

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2 thoughts on “My changing relationships with dance and paganism

  1. Just thought I’d let you know that I thought this was beautiful. It’s amazing how our spirituality can meld and teach us things about our passions. And I wouldn’t mind reading more posts about dance that aren’t explicitly pagan 🙂

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