Belly Dance and The Goddess - Rediscovering Sacred Dance
'We come spinning out of nothingness, scattering stars...the stars form a circle and in the centre we dance' - Rumi, 13th Century
Dance as a sacred act is as old as the stars. Before our ancestors documented their lives with the written word, or even with a fully formed spoken language, they danced in ritual as an expression of devotion and of themselves.
As we look back through history and myth, before patriarchal society attempted to marginalise, or rather eradicate, beliefs of a powerful Goddess , She was revered all over the world. The Goddess has countless names, faces and attributes: Isis, Kali, Aphrodite, Morrigan, Hekate, Persephone, Artemis, Freya, Hera, Demeter and Kuan Yin are some of Her more well known names, but the list is endless, and includes Goddesses of love, birth, marriage, death, battle, forgiveness, joy, rebirth, and of the land and home.These Goddesses were (and still are) powerful forces to be reckoned with, respected and worshipped all over the globe.
Worship of these Goddesses took many different forms, which included offerings, devotional songs, processions and prayer. However, one of the most powerful and common ways of celebrating and worshipping a Goddess was through ecstatic dance.
The Phygrian Mother goddess Kybele (later the Romanized Cybele) was one such Goddess whose rites involved drumming and dance. She is often depicted riding in a carriage drawn by lions and panthers, accompanied by apparently 'frenzied' dancers.
In Greece, the sacred celebrations held annually at Eleusis, known as the Eleusinian mysteries, honoured Demeter and her daughter Persephone, with a dancing procession of priestesses. Dancing processions took place in the spring to greet Persephone from the Underworld, where she ruled in the winter months as Queen, alongside her husband Hades.
From researching what is documented about Goddess worship in ancient times, what becomes clear is that priestess's danced! They danced themselves into a state of ecstasy, and through this ecstasy they had 'revelations', as well as feeling a union with the divine. I feel it's important to look at the meaning of the word 'ecstasy'. Although a state of ecstasy is described as one of extreme joy, it is also a state of emotion so intense; it carries us beyond the rational, and beyond self control. A trance, rapture or a prophetic exaltation can also be the result of being in a state of ecstasy. Dance or movement to reach an ecstatic or meditative state has been used by the Sufi Dervishes for centuries. In Christianity, Jesus is referred to as the 'Lord of the Dance', whilst dancing one's self into a trance has been a tool employed by Shamans for time immemorial.
So where are the dancing priestesses now? What happened to the ecstatic rites? Since worship of the Goddess was pushed to the edge of society, the priestesses and the sacred dance followed. Over the centuries the art of dance fell from grace. What once was sacred and divine became lewd and obscene.
A note on wording here, there are quite a few derogatory words in British slang which are linked to dance. The author Iris J Stewart remarks in her book 'Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance' that the word 'Hussy' originates from the Huzza dancers. Male dancers were called 'Huzzars', whilst female dancers were called 'Hussies'... I could list many more words with similar stories, but I'd be here all day!
Of all the early cultures involved in Goddess worship, some of the best known and organised were the highly developed agricultural civilisations of the Middle East - especially early Egypt and Mesopotamia. Interestingly enough these are the same areas where belly dance is understood to have originated.
The precise origins of belly dance are uncertain and, like the dance itself, shrouded in mystery and folklore. Evidence suggests belly dance was present some 6000 years ago, but many experts believe it to be much older than that, perhaps even the oldest form of dance in the world! Since women's work and activities were rarely documented in the age of literacy, most of the historical information gathered about belly dance is fragmented and speculative.
However, what we can say is that the sensual movements, isolations, serpentine undulations and rhythms of this unique dance are very old indeed, and it is my opinion that these movements were at some point linked to Goddess worship. An important myth to banish regarding belly dance, also known as Raqs Sharqi (oriental dance), is that belly dance is merely titillation for men. Experts say that the ritualized form of belly dance was mainly danced by, and for women in fertility rites, as it was meant to help in the preparation for child birth.
A belly dance would also be performed to prepare a woman for marriage; this tradition is still practiced today, with belly dancers regularly dancing at weddings. Some of the intrinsic moves in belly dance are also based in antiquity. The 'figure of 8', where we trace a figure of 8 with our hips, is evidently based on the infinity symbol. 'Infinity' in mathematics and philosophy represents a quantity that can't be measured, but it precedes mathematics in Buddhist and Indian philosophy. As our hips move through right to left, clockwise to anti clockwise, we also switch from right brain to left, creating a state of calm and apparently improving our intelligence!
I have found repeating the figure of 8 with my hips to be quite trance like and relaxing, alike to yoga or meditation. The figure of 8 is also associated with the 'waggle dance' of the honey bee, which is the 'infinity' shaped dance in which the bee shares information to fellow hive mates. The rhythmic use of serpentine arms in dancing pays homage to the magical and regenerative powers of the snake.
There are also many Goddesses linked to snakes including the Egyptian Goddesses Wadjet and Renenutet. Numerous, now famous figurines of a mystical snake goddess were discovered in a Minoan archaeological excavation in Crete. The figure's exposed breasts hint to her being a deity of fertility. In the late 1800's belly dance enjoyed a revival in the west, and over the 20th and 21st Centuries interest in this enigmatic, exciting and fun dance has spread like wild fire!
In America, a fusion of many different ethnic styles has birthed what is known as Tribal Style belly dance or American Tribal Style, which focuses on hard core muscle isolation and locks, and has opened a gateway for people to create their own fusions, techniques and choreographies. In recent years Gothic belly dance has captured the darker heart of belly dance.
This freedom for creative expression and spirituality, whilst also exercising and toning is continually attracting newcomer s to this ancient and sacred dance. When I began belly dance lessons with the wonderful teacher Fleur Estelle, I was inspired, not only by her skill by but by her passion to promote women's self esteem through dance.
I think it's so important to remember that belly dance is more than simple entertainment, it is a beautiful and timeless way to access and celebrate the divine dancing Goddess who resides in each and every one of us. At last! The return of the dancing priestesses... Copyright Laura Daligan April 2010
Published in The Magical Times 2010.