Sacred Dance and Spirituality

by Lynn Frances

Dance has been used over the ages as an expression of the deepest aspects of life, of the dancer's relationship with the Earth, the animal and vegetable kingdoms, and, perhaps most importantly, the connection with the Divine. In tribal societies dance is a natural means of communication: it expresses joy, sadness, love and hate; it instils power in the invading tribe; it pleads with the gods to provide food, rain, sun; it celebrates all the meaningful stages of life - birth, puberty, initiation, marriage, death.

What has happened to dance in our modern society? Over the last few decades we have seen the gradual separation of the people dancing. We have a heritage of British Folk Dance, yet few young people know any of these dances (except possibly in Scotland which seems to have retained its dancing tradition). There is occasionally a barn dance or ceilidh, which provides the opportunity for community dancing, yet it often disintegrates into a muddle of uncoordinated movement.

Ballroom dancing is a delightful means of communication, the gliding steps and the closeness of the partners giving a feeling of flowing with life. Yet how often do people dance like that these days? Even a `dinner dance' turns out to be bopping to a disco. There is no band and no dance rhythms are apparent. Disco music and the dances that accompany it are hardly likely to create a community atmosphere: much of the sound seems to be more aggressive than harmonising and the dancing is done individually with little or no contact either physically or mentally with other people.

There is a form of dance that is becoming more and more popular in this country, which recaptures some of the spirituality of dance. It is Sacred/Circle Dance. The basis of this is international folk dances from countries, such as Greece, Israel, Romania and Bulgaria, with a much greater sense of community and heritage than we have here. They are all danced in a circle holding hands, so that the intention is for everyone to do the same steps. My experience is that this brings a harmony to the people in the circle both as a group and within themselves which is rare in our present separated and selfish society. This surely is an expression of spirituality, acknowledging our inter-connectedness with each other and the Divine.

Experiencing connection

There is no separation in the circle. All participants are equal. The circle depends on the contribution of each of its members: each is important and each is necessary to the working of the whole. So, while there is connection, there is also individual movement and personal expression of the steps. The atmosphere of the dance is experienced differently by everyone. Thus we find that there is unanimity but not uniformity; we are all expressing the same dance but in our own unique way.

Similarly the goal in life is not uniformity but unanimity. In any group, to achieve a common spirit with one another and a sense of unity is a powerful experience. We have all touched the same place within us, a common place, and from each of us that flows through the coloured glass of our own personality. This is the dance of life. In Sacred Dance we experience this unanimity and know that it is possible in a more global sense. We all move towards the centre of the circle - symbolising the spiritual goal - we each approach differently but the intention is the same.

The circle gains a momentum of its own. It becomes a single entity and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The essence of Sacred Dance is felt when as individuals we can allow ourselves to be danced. The head no longer tries to remember the steps or the pattern; the memory is in the body and the dance becomes a meditation. It flows and weaves in a kaleidoscope of movement and energy. We all move together in harmony and the simplest dance becomes a powerful expression of that greater unity.

In the dance we are united, yet we retain our uniqueness, we are each a part of the integrated whole while maintaining our individual integrity. This is a direct expression in form of the nature of our association with each other on this planet and with Divinity. We are like the dancers in a circle - moving together for the common good, yet each playing our own part. We all have a role to play, and the whole is not complete unless we do it to the best of our ability. A circle that is broken is disjointed and does not flow. We have to cooperate with each other to create the correct environment in which to experience the depth and meaning of the movement.

We all attempt to dance the same steps, yet it is the flow of the movement which is so vital. It is advisable for practical reasons to all move in the same direction; on a spiritual level this is translated into the intention to work towards the same goal -- that of creating an atmosphere of peace and harmony, joy and vitality. It is as if the dance becomes a microcosm of our journey in life: if we flow with each other a feeling of well-being and connection is generated; if we resist or fight against our neighbour, disharmony and tension are in evidence.

One aspect of Sacred Dance that has always fascinated me is the mirror-image effect. When I am teaching I warn people on the opposite side of the circle that they must reverse the movements they see me make. It appears to them as though I am doing the exact opposite of what I am asking them to do! How true of life. When it seems as though someone is moving in entirely the opposite direction to you, look again and decide whether they are just `on the other side of the circle' doing the same steps and in fact moving in the identical direction. Maybe they are not in opposition to you but merely at a different point of the circle of life.

Dance and religion

Dance has been an integral part of religious life in many countries and many faiths. Yet in Britain today it seems to be largely frowned upon by the Church. David danced for joy round the Ark, apparently in a `circle dance' denoting the motion of the planets round the sun. In the Gnostic Gospels there is the image of Jesus asking his disciples to dance round him in a circle prior to his betrayal, to give him the energy to go through with what was being asked of him. So why is dance so often thought now to be sacrilege in Church?

This reminds me of the story of a Sacred Dance teacher leading a large group of people in a few dances many years ago. Some of those attending did not want to participate: of the on-lookers one was heard to say to her neighbour "I don't know what's sacred about this - they look as though they are enjoying themselves to me"! It seems as if religion, spirituality and sacredness have become synonymous with dullness, seriousness and heaviness. Yet surely there are many things to celebrate and life was not meant to be all hard toil and no joy. "Life is for living" as the saying goes and what better way to express that life than in dance.

Of course there has to be a balance between frittering our lives away in aimless frivolity and creating a drudgery from self-sacrifice. This too is expressed in Sacred Dance. There has to be a balance between the sheer joy of moving together in rhythm, and mastering the steps to the best of our ability. When the pattern becomes a part of us and there is no more toil in learning, then we can experience the full essence of the dance. The body seems to almost burst with the exhilaration of the movement, and the dance takes us to a different level of being.

Ancient symbolism

We come to the circle individually. We stand on our own in a circle. The connection with the Divine can be visualised as running from our head centre through our heart centre and down to our feet. We are each a link between `heaven and earth'. Our individual threads meet above the centre of the circle and the spiritual unity of the group is automatic.

Then we reach out to our neighbours on either side and join hands, thus making the connection one with the other and completing the circle. The thread this time runs from one hand to the other through the heart centre. The common point is found in the heart and we have a vertical and a horizontal line running through each of us forming an equal-armed cross, which represents the relationship of four equal things -- the seasons, the kingdoms, the poles...

In this way we create the powerful ancient symbol of the circle and the cross, which seems to represent so many different aspects of life, including the manifest within the unmanifest, and polarity within the wholeness. The fascinating thing is that there is another, or rather many other, such patterns. We make connections all round the circle from our own heart centre to that on the opposite side. There is a myriad of circle and cross symbols all round the group, overlapping and interweaving. The vertical cross and horizontal circle pass through the individual heart centre. The horizontal cross and circle have a common point at the centre of the circle - the heart centre of the group.

Energy of the circle

In the circle we hold hands with one palm up and the other down. This allows the energy to flow right round the circle from person to person. We are continually exchanging energy and there have been many instances of the healing effect of this. There is no intentional healing taking place: it is a natural consequence of the joining of hands and the resulting flow of energy.

There is tremendous energy created at the centre of a circle. The American Indians knew this. They viewed their whole world in terms of circles. Their houses were circular and were grouped in circles. They danced in circles and saw the circularity and cyclical nature of all things. Many other cultures have recognised the power of the circle and used it for healing, celebration and spiritual expression.

So with Sacred Dance we create an energy at the centre merely by holding hands. When we move in unison, this is magnified many times over. At the end of a session of Sacred Dance we acknowledge this by consciously directing the light of the candle round which we have danced to bring healing and comfort to a particular person or place. The blowing out of the candle symbolises the sending of the energy from the centre out to the world. This is an important function of the dance: on a global level it helps to bring light down to Earth; on a personal level it reconnects us with our own environment after the uplifting experience of the dance. We are `earthed' again.

There is no doubt in my mind that Sacred/Circle Dance is a spiritual expression. Yet in common with other such experiences, it is impossible to describe: there are not the words to do so and it is different for each person. I rarely talk of spirituality when I am teaching because it is important that everyone finds what the dance is for them without being influenced by another's view. I hope in this short article to have whetted a few appetites and that some of you will find out about your local group and discover for yourself the benefits of this form of dance. One word of warning - prepare to become addicted!

This Article was first published in two parts in 'The Review'.

Lynn Frances has been teaching Sacred/Circle Dance since 1983. She has regular groups in Guildford and Milford, Surrey for which no experience is necessary. She runs day and weekend workshops with special emphasis on using dance to express other aspects of life, such as the seasons, the Celtic festivals, or even to illustrate various elements of a folk tale. Lynn is currently running the 'Self Awareness in Dance' series of workshops, and has co-authored The Sevenfold Circle: Self Awareness in Dance. She can be contacted at or Tel/Fax +44 (0)1420 474881

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