Many have acknowledged that humans originated from the region we call Egypt, Earth’s Motherland. Today, we reach into a time period five thousand years before the Common Era, so that we can know how connected we are to the ancient use of spiritual forms of dance. During this time period, dance was an art form included in worship, which was considered a private relationship between Spirit and Self. The Ancient Egyptians believed that we were composed of a physical body, and a multifaceted spiritual being. Part of Spirit Being was the Shadow, Life Force, Soul, and one’s Divine Name. Most important was the belief that human knowledge and emotion originated from the Heart, and not the mind. We learn from the Egyptians that Spirit was weighted more heavily than body, and so was the Heart. Connected to this complicated view of our relationship to the cosmos, the Egyptians had several forms of dance. The dances were done for many rituals and celebrations and were directed towards the Heavens and the gods. And moving further in time, in Jesus’ Gnostic Round Dance, he said, “The Whole on High has part in our dancing, Amen. Whoso danceth not, knoweth not what cometh to pass. Amen.”[i]
What is Dance?
Anthropologists tell us that people have always danced in every time and in every location. To explain what I mean when I say dance, it’s best to start with dance that is choreographed and dance which is not, and take as the given that choreographed dance and non choreographed dance inform each other, and moreover, dance is what we recognize when we see it. By doing this I can abstract away traps waiting for us when talking about good or bad dance. This conceptualization includes concert dance that is choreographed versus dance that is done at social occasions or for rituals. I take the position that choreographed and non-choreographed dance in their own right inform an experience function that impacts viewers and participants and their quest for mystical experiences. For example Isadora Duncan believed that deep levels of mystical connection were associated with dance practices. However, this kind of connection is not limited to a Duncanian choreographic experience. It can be felt deeply within the dance experience in a nightclub, or with events that are held in order to assist another person financially, such as the dance party held in African cultures.[ii]
An example of this quest was shown in the popular sit-com, Everybody Loves Raymond,[iii] when Debra and Robert decided to go out disco dancing regularly so that they could connect back to this remembered feeling generated by the practice of dancing. Debra and Robert generated a connection, a bond, and a shared memory, because disco dancing negated the dreariness of their everyday routine. They were able to recall the past connections they had with other people and times, and looked forward to more of them in the future.
Through dance like this we can glimpse what it means to live at the height of a mystical capability as opposed to the worldly organized and empty routine life.[iv] Why? Because dance provides a celebratory, ritualistic, and spiritual escape and commentary on and from life,[v] and this connection with mystical experiences as it happens with social dance.[vi]
Let’s Talk Mystical
Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience participating in or watching dance where there was electricity, meditation, and a transcendent feeling that bound you to the experience. In other words, you get a feeling even when you aren’t there, even when you don’t know you’re after it, just thinking about it. The desire for this feeling is very deeply rooted in the psyche. This is what people seek when they dance or watch dance, a mystical dance experience. It is a feeling, awareness, a connection, love for people and the world—a desire to change something.
Moreover, mystical dance experiences are themselves non articulable in the true sense of the term silence.”[vii] Many of us know this, regardless of our spiritual or religious practices and beliefs or lack thereof, by the aims of attainment of Nirvana, Christ Consciousness, Ein Sof, freedom from the Wheel of Reincarnation, a sense of awe, and so on. Long after Jesus made his proclamation, Jane van Lawick-Goodall told us that beings danced “… to express a religion, an expression of awe and the natural forces … for a moment they forget their normal routine of their daily lives to look up and bind their smaller world back up with the larger world of nature … of Creation.”[viii] I use this to point to the mystical connection of dance, its long relationship between the act itself and consciousness. Dance in the contexts in which we live in today is experienced in different and additional manners, such as through technology, but still, when it’s seen it fulfills higher level needs by way of being in proximity to our consciousness, and often unknown to us.
Consuming Mystical Dance in Popular Culture for Transcendence
Consumption in the popular culture has become a metaphor derived from the need to eat, having evolved from the concept of something being destroyed or destructive. Nowadays, the idea of consumption has grown to include everything that is associated with, buying, using, giving, and disposing of goods, services, and ideas. If you have encountered advertisements within the last twenty years, you know you deserve the best of everything and much of it, and most product advertisements promise to instantly soothe your concerns, wash away your stains, make life easier, cast your worries aside, and make you feel brand new. Products ranging from computers to house building make these kinds of assertions, and over the years many of them have used dance to deliver these assertions, messages, and meanings directly to you silently. True, messages often focus on a consumer’s cost savings, such as when we’re told that a particular store has the lowest prices everyday, a viewpoint that emphasizes the money we will save if we use a brand or shop at a location, either because it is cheaper or better than the competitor’s brands, or because we will save time or money on something else as a result. Watch carefully next time you see an ad with dance.
In short, consumption in popular culture is what we do when we are not sleeping or working,[ix] and consumption in humans in western society is tacitly connected to self-actualization. By consuming, people seek meaning, connection, emotional transcendence, and feelings, and they do this through buying stuff so that consumption itself has become a spiritual practice. In meaning, we want to understand the world we are in, where it is going and why. For connection, we are looking for mystical relationships based on caring with other people and higher beings, and ourselves. In terms of transcendence, it is a desire that we are calm, peaceful, fulfilled. In this last category of emotional transcendence, it is not only tranquility we seek, but also safety and security. The thing is that mystical dance experiences come to us in different ways, such as through consuming what is called secular spirituality.[x] In this kind of relationship we have the mystical in relation to consumption of something else, in flow that looks like this:
As researchers tell us, and the Egyptians knew, dance and music are intertwined, often really inseparable from each other. Importantly, it seems at first glance that popular music has been removed from any direct mystical context and is consumed globally. But even so, people recognize unconsciously or consciously the way in which music supplies mystical fulfillment and transcendence, and this is why we buy it! What’s more, consumers allow mystical experiences to reach them in popular dance and music because they don’t want to invest a lot of time in religion or its associated structured practices. When they download music, they are downloading the mystical experiences they seek.
I find a very deep connection between dance, and the mystical, and the current explosive nature of dance experiences emerging in our global society. What I’m getting at is that in doing social dance consumers also form these consumptive and personal linkages, formulating an unspoken mystical dance experience. It is this proximity to mystical dance practice, either in reality or in our minds, that leads us to feeling fulfilled and all right with the world driving one to feel a sense of Absolute Unitary Being.[xi]
* Carla Stalling Walter, PhD writes on dance, and mystical experiences. She earned her doctorate in Dance History and Theory, from the University of California, Riverside. She has written and published books, journal articles, chapters, and proceedings, publications that span the dance, economics, advertising, and consumption fields. In addition she has extensive choreographic experience in creating works and reconstructing them from a spiritual perspective, combining technology in the service of dance dissemination. Carla has practiced, performed, and taught dance for more than twenty years, is a long-term member of the Society of Dance History Scholars, the UNESCO Worldwide Dance Congress, and she has led arts, music, and dance company boards, and successfully directed and founded a professional ballet company. twitter: @CStallingWalter; blog: Dance, Consumption and Mystical Experiences Website: http://www.cswalter.org/
i. Thompson, William Irwin. The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light: Mythology, Sexuality and the Origins of Culture 2nd Edition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996.
ii. Castaldi, Fracesca. Choreographies of African Identities: Negritude, Dance and the National Ballet of Senegal. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
iii. Everybody Loves Raymond. Season 3, Episode 24 first broadcast 10 May 1999, directed and written by Philip Rosenthal. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGrCVGsAypk
iv. Dyer, Richard “In Defense of Disco,” Gay Left, 8, Summer, (1979): 20–23.
v. Hanna, Judith Lynne. To Dance is Human; A theory of nonverbal communication. Chicago: University Press, 1987.
vi. Huntington, Carla Stalling. Black Social Dance in Television Advertising; An Analytical History. Jefferson NC: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2011.
vii. Sklar, Deidre. ” All the dances have a meaning to that apparition: Felt knowledge and the Danzantes of Tortugas, New Mexico.” Dance Research Journal. 31, no. 2. (1999): 14 – 33.
vii. Thompson, 1996, 65
ix. Graeber, David. “Consumption.” Current Anthropology, 52, no. 4, (August) 2011, 489 – 511.
x. du Toit, Cornel W. “Secular spirituality versus secular dualism: Towards postsecular holism as model for a natural theology.” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies, 62, no. 4 (2006): 1251 – 1268.
xi. d’Aquili, Eugene G. and Andrew B. Newbert. “The Neuropsychology of Aesthetic, Spiritual and Mystical States,” Zygon Journal of Religious Science. 2000, 35, no. 1, 39 – 51.