By Cynthia Winton-Henry
When I turned 60, I gathered friends to help me offer 1,000 bows to beauty. After an evening of music, dance, and stories, fifty of us got up and bowed twenty times, counting out loud. At the heart of my bows is dancing with the Holy.
I am obsessed with the Divine Dance. My dance led and moved me from childhood, into the UCLA Dance Department, through seminary and seminary teaching, into Body and Soul Dance Company, and on to cofound InterPlay with Phil Porter. InterPlay has grown as an improvisational system designed to bring body, mind, heart, and spirit together in community. Out of InterPlay arose a course I teach each year, the Art of Ensoulment Course, eight weekly online Dance Chapels, and a Hidden Monastery that I tend.
If not for the Sacred Dance Guild, where would I be? How would I have been inspired as a young leader? Where else would I have found my magical dancing Brigadoon and the creative souls who became teachers? The Guild is one of Love’s Hidden Monasteries. It rises out of nowhere and lives forever in our hearts.
I need a dancing community and long for the dancing culture where our birthrights of dancing, singing, telling stories, and being still aren’t in question. The Guild reveals that a dancing village is still possible and that when dancers assemble, we don’t just dance. We heal. We teach. We pass on wisdom. We play with abandon. We think. We share wit. We write. We organize. We innovate. We rebel. We sync up with the Divine. We transform the world.
Those who do not dance and sing in some way or another (dancing does happen when we golf!) often miss out on the ground floor curriculum for “spiritual intelligence.” The ground floor invites us to embrace our bodies.
I remember reading in Margaret Fisk Taylor’s The Art of the Rhythmic Choir about the “Hymn of Jesus,” an apocryphal text from the third century AD. It says that on the night Jesus was arrested, he gathered his disciples to dance in a circle and sing back to him in call and response. His chant invokes the dance of life. “All of creation dances with us…who does not dance does not know what comes to pass.” Jesus reminds his followers that they are part of the mystic dance. This dance undergirds the wisdom of mystics, cultures, and religions worldwide.
Losing our sacred dance may be more direr than we realize. Tribal groups function as one body to survive. Communal dance, drum, and song help people entrain to each other, the surroundings, and all the way to the stars. People sync up with each other and the gods. When someone cannot dance or sing or play, it was how ancestors knew something was wrong. Because the “arts” were part of everyday life, families, and healers could easily see it when a person stopped dancing, singing, or story-sharing. They knew when something was amiss. Loss of one’s dance, voice, words, or stillness is a symptom of soul loss. Soul loss feels like emptiness, a chest-hole, or a drop in energy (depression) after trauma.
Fortunately, the human Soul knows how to continue in safer realms. Bessel Van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score and Sandra Ingerman’s book Soul Retrieval speak to these embodied challenges of trauma and healing.
If ancient wisdom seems far-fetched, today’s brain science reveals that the human sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are hardwired for resilient connection. Ritual and creative play make a difference. Sacred dancers see this when we create together—me, too in InterPlay. We trust that we can gently summon new resources even in small spontaneous acts of movement, storytelling, voice, and stillness. If we can pivot toward the unconditional waters of play and take time to notice, shake, breathe, squirm, and return to our home repertoire, our bodies and souls rejoice! We feel whole again, connected.
As one who needs grace, I am lucky to be a dancer. Grace springs naturally from my genetic and artistic lineage. But, even with decades of dedication to dance and religion, it’s hard to find religious communities that dance. My own mainstream Anglo culture is word-driven. Although we might reference dance or speak of incarnation, there is rarely a common practice for dancing. Words swallow up all else. In Karen Armstrong’s book History of God, she unpacks the idolatry in world religions. Protestants idolize Word.
I descend from the early Puritans and loved historian Sara Vowell’s geeky, humorous take on how the American Protestant Reformers set the Wordy Way in motion in her book The Wordy Shipmates. My ancestral tree includes Anne Hutchinson. Anne was a talker. She was also a rebellious, grace-making, ecstatically praying, early feminist, healer, midwife, and theology teacher. The “familist,” equal opportunity movement of the 1600s was one of her influencers. Unfortunately, her physical experiences of grace, concern for relationships, and body understanding pitted her against the Puritan male clergy. They put her on trial, exiled her from Massachusetts, and excommunicated her from the church. Their practices won out with three-hour sermons and rules to uphold the wealth and social power of male, educated Puritan clergy and landholders. That top-down socialization continues today as white privilege. In the process, mainstream, word-centric practices continue to defame body-wise forms like dance and drum. In White, African, and Native American communities, dancing has been against the law.
We live in a time where individual and group suffering is growing.
When someone isn’t doing well, it’s up to the individual to recognize their need for treatment, ask for help, understand the support offered, and procure the help. All this is like asking a single pillar to bear the weight of a whole building. The body logic is way off. Humans are designed to borrow health from one another. Our mirror neurons are gazillions of crazy little catcher mitts in our bodies that resonate and attach us to one another, body to body. Dan Siegel’s The Neurobiology of We underscores the need for physical interconnection for health. In his “Clinical Applications of Interpersonal Neurobiology” CD course, he says, “Mirror neurons are a hardwired system designed for us to see the mindstate of another person. That means we can learn easily to dance, but also to empathize with another. They automatically and spontaneously pick up information about the intentions and feelings of those around us, creating emotional resonance and behavioral imitation as they connect our internal state with those around us, even without the participation of our conscious mind.” This is ancient wisdom. The Hebrew Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians in the Bible, said, “When one body suffers everybody suffers. When one body rejoices, we all rejoice.” Sacred Dance Guild’s patron saint, Doug Adams, reminded members that when Jesus invited folks to rejoice, the word “rejoice” in Aramaic means to leap or dance! Like a clown, Doug sprang straight up in the air and invited us to jump, too. Rejoice! Although I have to admit, getting in trouble more than once for dancing in church, it’s also true that “When one body rejoices, everybody gets irritated.”
Our body wisdom is magnificently social–one body, for better and worse. The question is, how do we create peace in all this diversity?
Sacred dancers know it helps tremendously to use forms that unify rather than individuate bodies- like movement, stillness, song! It also helps to use looser, more improvisational structures where “I” and “we” can both be present.
What relief to be in the dancing cultures of Africa, India, the Pacific Islands, and among First Nations Peoples in the United States, anywhere, I don’t have to raise the dancing world. Malidome Patrice Some understands, In The Healing Wisdom of Africa: Finding Life Purpose Through Nature, Ritual, and Community, he shares his life purpose. It is to help the West connect to ancestral body wisdom and draw health from our earliest roots, roots that go home to Africa. To honor our common ancestors brings us together as a species. I highly recommend his book if you are a spiritual leader, dancer, and artist who seeks to understand and answer your call.
As an arts educator, I serve the wider community. And, I need spaces to dance and pray where I am not educating others, spaces like the InterPlay Online Dance Chapels. This is where I dance to meditate, attune, and pray for others. Sacred Dancers anywhere in the world can visit at no cost. We light candles of intention, and after an easy warm-up/movement meditation, sacred poetry and music support our dancing. Finally, a partner dances on behalf of something we request. After dances are shared and witnessed, we close with a simple blessing. I will probably continue to dance to pray until I am no longer able. A picture of four very old aboriginal women dancing in a line comes to mind. The caption said, “Women doing the Turtle Dance.” Even when injured or hopeless, music and silence carry my spirit. Even when Mom had Alzheimer’s, we danced, and her mind connected. She was there again. Her soul was visible in the dance. That gave me hope.
Our physicality is unfathomable, mysterious, and extends to the stars, the infinite corners of reality, even to timeless, eternal realms. As an Earth person, “physicality is basic” is the starting point of my theology. I claim the abiding union of body and soul as our “ensoulment.” What joy to be ensouled no matter what I am going through, through the initiations and perils of human life. Because suffering is strenuous work, I need teachers, spiritual directors, and a companionable community every step of the way to heal the wounds and distortions in my cis-gendered, addictive, white privileged body.
One thousand bows to you, Sacred Dance Guild! Your founders endorsed the magical wisdom way of mystery and love. Because of this, I directly trace my livelihood as a spiritual director, retreat leader, teacher, writer, and artist-activist back to you! I bow to your teachers, Doug, Judith, Carla, Connie, Leah, Jane, Susan, Diane, Stella, Wendy, Karen, Phil, Sybil, Margie, and so many who support me to be a fully embodied bodyspirit. I join them as another folk dancer in the Great Spiral sharing my kinesthetic imagination and theokinetic theology! I bow to the Sacred Dance Guild for inviting me to teach and later organize events. I learned I can create a lifestyle that claims dance, song, personal stories, contemplative, passionate inquiry, and cheeky irreverence—deep bow. Finally, I bow to the next generation of emerging leaders searching for clarity of vision, balance in energy, and courage to love. I love being with the young who call for less frenetic mayhem and more communality.
You can see why I need 1,000 bows and more! I’ll be bowing forever. Please help out. Together, billions of bows will be made to beauty, our heads tilted toward Earth, Love, and the sacred that is dancing us all.
https://cynthiawinton-henry.com/dancechapels/Cynthia Winton-Henry is the cofounder of InterPlay at InterPlay.org, author of Move: What the Body Wants by Northstone Press and Dance as a Sacred Art: The Joy of Movement as a Spiritual Practice, Skylight Paths. She blogs at the Hidden Monastery cynthiawinton-henry.com and hosts the weekly Online Dance Chapels, https://cynthiawinton-henry.com/dancechapels/. She has served as faculty at Pacific School of Religion, supports a global community of leaders who apply InterPlay across disciplines, including embodied education, organizational health, the helping professions, facilitating racial equity and transformation, spiritual practice, and personal well-being. With play at the heart of her research, Cynthia asks, “what does the body want:” Body wisdom led her to create somatic curriculums for art, social change, and for gifted and sensitive bodies. Formerly ordained, she offers spiritual direction, free online dance chapels, and a year-long course in the Art of Ensoulment for Artists, Mystics, and Sensitives through The Hidden Monastery, cynthiawinton-henry.com. Her books include What the Body Wants, Dance – A Sacred Art: Discovering the Joy of Movement as Spiritual Practice; and Chasing the Dance of Life: A Faith Journey, and Grace Operatives in Phenomenologies of Grace: The Body, Embodiment and Transformative Futures. She lives in cohousing with her partner, adult children, and granddaughter Liddy and takes pleasure in making found object shrines and venturing out to see views and trees.
http://stanceondance.com/dancing-over-50/ Authored by Emmaly Wiederholt, photographs by Gregory Bartning
Lovely to read your article Cynthia. I especially appreciated the segment that spoke about how indigenous communities knew that when someone stopped participating in dance, play, song and story telling, something was wrong. One of the difficulties throughout the pandemic has been that ‘disconnect’ from the in person experience of dancing in community.
And, just a small correction, it is Bessel van der Kolk (not Bernard).
expressive arts therapist
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