The Joy of Dance

Yassin Sarr asked each of us to turn to someone that we don’t already know and briefly share the words that the idea of dance brings to mind.

Terra Harmatuk introduced our program with a brief history. It is believed that dance existed long before we had the power of speech, when thoughts, desires, and emotions were expressed through actions. Much of what we know of ancient dance is from archeological finds; statues, murals, and etchings on cave walls, temples, and tombs. The earliest depictions of primitive art in the recesses of ancient caves and beneath ancient cliffs show Cro-Magnon men and women in the act of dancing.

The first recorded dancing is among the ancient civilizations of the Middle East and India and among the aboriginal peoples of the Americas, Australia, and Africa. The circle, thought divine by many ancient societies, was seen as magical as it is the embodiment of perfection and symmetry and is thus in harmony with the universe. Various circle dances have been done by women since the beginning of time.

In India the earliest archaeological evidence of dance is from 6000 BCE: a statuette depicting a beautiful dancing girl. In ancient India, every major temple supported priestesses who worshiped the deities through their sacred ritual dances and elaborate language of mime and gesture. These highly educated women were known as Devadasis, a word meaning “female servants of God.” In Bharata’s Natyasastra, written in Sanskrit, there is mention of 108 types of dance

The figures in Indian sculpture and paintings were given the bodies and movements of dancers because the gods, and nature in her creative aspects, were seen in the image of a dancer who brought the whole universe into existence as the manifestation of the dance of Shiva, as Lord of the Dance. Nataraja the Supreme Dancer is portrayed as a many-armed being balanced on one leg.

Archaeologists have found reliefs showing a kind of dance or body languageof a pre-Egyptian goddess of 4000 B.C.E. and from the First Dynasty of Egypt, around 3000 B.C E. Scenes found in tombs date as far back as the New Kingdom, involving dancers at ceremonies, rituals, and celebrations.

The first images of Chinese dancers have been found on 4500-year-old pottery. The earliest forms of dance grew out of religious rituals—including dances of exorcism performed by a shaman. Drunken masked dances and courtship festivals developed into forms of entertainment patronized by the court.

As a cultural form among Jewish people, dance has been mentioned in recorded history for more than thirty-five centuries. In Exodus, Moses led the Jews across the Red Sea to freedom, then “Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron and Moses, took a timbrel in her hand and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dance.” She was a religious leader, and this was a ritual round dance, possibly learned from the priestesses of Isis in Egypt.

While the Jews lived in their homeland, dancing played an important role in social and communal festivals. Every vineyard had an area reserved for dancing and used exclusively by women. A special third Passover Seder, the Women’s Seder, a spiritual journey celebrating women, miracles, and the Prophetess Miriam, is held in many Jewish communities.

In the Americas, Australia and Africa, the aboriginal peoples danced both for spiritual reasons and for entertainment. There were dances with song and drumming to ensure, to celebrate, and to give thanks for a good hunt or a good harvest. Other dances were for healing, to vanquish the enemy, or to help the spirit cross after death.

Thus, over eons of time, dance evolved beyond sex, emotion, and survival to encompass the mystical, magical, and spiritual worlds, including those of the gods and loved ones long dead.

There have been various religious groups throughout history that have used dance to induce trance, to create an ecstatic experience, and to become closer to their gods and goddesses. Dance has been prohibited at different times, especially when the state and religion became one, but sometimes solely for religious reasons. As with any prohibition, people continued to dance in secret for both religious and secular purposes.

Dancing continues to play a significant role in the rites of many modern religions. Japanese Shinto religious dances are performed for the enjoyment of ancestors and as a means of connecting with God. The Whirling Dervishes of Sufi Islam use dance ecstasy as a major element in their religious worship. So do some Hassidic Jewish sects, whose members dance in order to increase their contact with the mystical powers of God.

Dance has always been a means of expression, and every country, spiritual path, and culture has its own forms of dance which have a rich history. Today we will experience several types of dance with ancient roots.

Terra introduced our first dancers, Rachael Thomas and Sneha Dontha. Both are high school students who have been studying classical temple dances of southern India, called Bharata Natyam, for about ten years. The girls were exquisitely dressed in vibrantly colored traditional dance costumes of blouse and full pants cut from six yards of sari fabric. The girls were adorned with temple jewelry worn only for dance performances, hair ornaments, and bands of bells on their ankles.

Rachael explained the name: Bha refers to facial expression, Ra means the melody, and Ta is rhythm; Natyam is dance. The movements are very precise and were prescribed approximately 2000 years ago. The style combines artistic expression with a sense of spirituality. Hand gestures, intricate footwork, and vivid facial expression are accentuated by theatrical makeup.

Before starting their music, Rachael explained the gestures that Sneha demonstrated: their dance would be in praise of the elephant-headed god, Ganesh, the remover of obstacles and sufferings. We all gasped in recognition as Sneha’s right arm swept out and back in imitation of a trunk. Other motions clearly represented eating, sharing, supplication, praise, and animals, such as snake, bird, lion, and cow. Then Rachael and Sneha performed to traditional music consisting of voice, strings, percussion, and flute. The audience was rapt as we watched the stories unfold, told by the girls’ arms and bodily poses and by the rhythm of their bare feet pounding on the floor and the bells shaking on their ankles. This art form attempts to raise the level of spiritual consciousness of its viewers, so they achieve the experience of joy or bliss, and the girls succeeded in bringing us to this state today. (Dear Readers, I keep telling you that reading these minutes is a poor substitute for experiencing such delightful performances yourself!)

Daryl introduced Sangita Ghimire, age 13, and Ranjana Chimariya, age 12, both of whom are Bhutanese. Sangita and Ranjana were born in refugee camps in Nepal and have been in Syracuse for 6 months and 16 months, respectively. In the camps, dancing was a form of recreation, imitated from films.

The girls wore long tunic blouses with embroidery and sequins over full trousers. They wore makeup befitting their dance, and bright toe polish. They explained that their dance would tell the romantic story of a cute girl. We enjoyed watching their fluid movements and the fun expressed in their performance. Daryl commented that we would like to be able to imitate the girls’ hip action!

Terra introduced Farha, a graduate student at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry who has been studying belly dance for four years. She currently teaches belly dance in Solvay and performs at Armory Square ’s Black Olive restaurant.

Farha explained that there are many theories concerning the origin of belly dance; it has variously been attributed to childbirth exercises, goddess worship, or sexual invitation. She briefly explained why these theories are false, and she touched on the dance’s true roots as a social dance, comparing the stage and social styles of belly dance to those of salsa. For Farha, belly dance is joy in motion, and she always enjoys sharing this celebration of life. She has seen it create confidence, probably because it teaches positive control of one’s body, allowing the dancer to express her whole self instead of reducing her to an object of sex or motherhood. As one learns to move within her own body and claim her personal space, she learns to claim her world and her life. Farha discussed several styles of belly dance, then told us that she would be doing an Egyptian social dance.

Before beginning her performance, Farha removed her robe (her “backstage curtain”) to reveal a shiny black dress bordered with large sequin bangles, and a red and green hip wrap, and red and green hair ties. As she danced, her feet, hips, and arms circled, swayed, and undulated. She explained that beginners start by isolating various muscle groups, one at a time. With experience, the dancer can combine arm, foot, and hip movements, eventually reaching a point that she can draw on a wide movement vocabulary with which to interpret the music.

In response to questions, Farha said she became interested in belly dance when a friend got a DVD. She quoted Martha Graham, who said that dance is the language of the soul. Some souls speak ballet, but Farha’s soul responds to belly dance. Farha means “joy,” and although it is not her birth name, she chose it to reflect the love she has for this dance form and her desire to make people happy through her dancing. She expands on her knowledge of the dance forms by studying with experts whenever and wherever she can. She sometimes dances with a sword or with a tray on her head.

Yassin asked us to reassemble into groups of five women based on the color of the ribbon attached to our name tags. Each of us chose one question about our experiences with dance from five that were distributed. As our enthusiasm for a wide variety of dance forms was discussed, the conversations veered off in various directions and united us through sharing of our lives and interests.

Finally, Yassin thanked everyone for coming and said that her fondest memory of this afternoon would be the knowledge that even in a refugee center, dance brings joy. She asked us to clap for ourselves, celebrating that we have so much in common that is revealed through our sharing and talking. Helen Hudson remarked that with the male world “beating her down” lately, she needed the sisterly love that was so evident in today’s gathering!