FEATURES|COLUMNS|Creativity and Contemplation

Why I Dance

By Sarah C. Beasley
Buddhistdoor Global | 2018-12-11 |
© Kerry Diana Manley, 2018. From untamablewoman.com© Kerry Diana Manley, 2018. From untamablewoman.com

As a wet brush is drawn over paper, so my body propels through space, leaving no ink behind to mark the passage…

Of all the fulfilling experiences in my life — foreign travel, making art and music in a community, crossing glaciers to scale high mountains, welding and bronze casting, helping raise and teach children, and spending years in mountain meditation retreat — a golden thread runs through it all: dance. Using my body, this original instrument, to explore, enjoy, push past, and draw toward the pure joy (and pain!) of movement. 

One dark night when I was 25, I was headed north from Santa Fe to my ranch cabin in rural Nambe, New Mexico. I saw close headlights coming straight at me from the blackness, and was nearly killed in a head-on collision, though our two cars never struck. In that split second as I swerved mightily, one word screamed in my mind: Dance! The thing I was most passionate about, yet wasn’t currently doing. Not dancing leaves my life less colorful, less flavorful, less whole. Once this truth rocketed at me from space, I could never again deny what I know brings me the sheer pleasure of aliveness. That moment recurs to me often as a stark reminder of life’s tenuousness, and my need to continually reassess my priorities to include dancing.

© Kerry Diana Manley, 2018. From untamablewoman.com© Kerry Diana Manley, 2018. From untamablewoman.com

My dance history is long, starting in childhood with eurythmics, and into the teen years slam dancing at live punk shows in Boston and New York City. I’ve covered a lot of ground: salsa in tiny clubs on the San Francisco piers, samba in the streets and old dance halls of Rio de Janeiro, west African and Haitian in college, contact, hip hop, ballroom, waltz, Tibetan folk and religious dances, and free-form intuitive modes including 5Rhythms and ecstatic dance.

Ayre fusion style (which includes hip hop, funk, r&b, ballet, bhangra, salsa, disco, and swing), is my current mode of dance addiction. It is designed and led by Juliet Seskind in Boulder, Colorado. Ayre provides a space for relating with myself, with the other dancers as a celebratory tribe, and with the space we are in, with all our thoughts and emotions flowing through. We don’t cling to what arises but move it through our bodies. Ayre is mostly choreographed, but leaves room for individual expression. It’s a rapid, delicious, and therapeutic way to communicate and heal. Dancing as a community is a necessary weekly activity for me, a unique form of belonging. 

© Thomas AE 2018. From unsplash.com© Thomas AE 2018. From unsplash.com

Partner dancing is one of my favorite forms of nonverbal communication. I can learn so much about a person by dancing with them, in just the first thirty seconds. Posture, gesture, proximity, fluidity (or lack thereof), a sense of space between, and so much more, are incredibly intimate and informative, for both partners. I find immense joy and curiosity in this primary way of relating, as well as relief from small talk. I have danced salsa and ballroom, forró (a Brazilian folk dance like polka, pronounced fo-HO) in the open air in rural Campo Grande, Mato Grosso do Sul state, Brazil, contra dancing in rural California barns, and samba da roda. Even unstructured club dance provides an opportunity for nonverbal intimacy and communication between strangers.

Dance is a way to offer praise — whether to deities, ancestors, nature, or to our basic aliveness — through shared presence, celebration, expression, prayer, communing. I dance as a lifeline, both to myself and to others. We have so many more faculties than just words with which to communicate. What can we say and learn through our skin, skeleton, musculature, sounds, breath, warmth, eye contact, receiving weight and pressure? Dance makes abundant room for consensual, nonsexual, sensual relating. 

© Kerry Diana Manley, 2018. From untamablewoman.com

At age fourteen I traveled through Kenya, meeting regional Kenyans through their music, dance, and song. These were as integral to traditional life as shared child-rearing and living in harmony with nature. It's been decades since I was in Kenya, but I still remember the celebratory air as we taught each other our favorite songs and dances as a method of communication. Those visceral memories are vivid for me, even though all my photographs were lost.

At its very best, dance lends itself to a sensation of flying, literally and metaphorically. Dance can also be a way to heal injury — if done gently — just as yoga can. And through the neuroscience magic of mirror neurons, which produce the effects of others’ movement in our own brains, even observation and our own micro movements can be a form of therapy that brings new vitality and joy.* 

Another amazing form I have tried is vertical dancing, with pioneering group Bandaloop, who perform on skyscrapers, cliff sides, and midair, all with the aid of technical rope gear. It is one of the most freeing, joyful (and strenuous!) movement experiences I have ever had.

Flying off the Trampoline Wall, Bandaloop Workshop, Oakland CA 2013. Image courtesy of authorFlying off the Trampoline Wall, Bandaloop Workshop, Oakland CA 2013. Image courtesy of author

During three years of dance/movement therapy training, I researched and wrote about rites of passage for at-risk youth based in dance. I developed and taught a middle school World Dance curriculum because I feel it is so vital for youth to enjoy moving, and to expand their social interaction through movement, as well as their knowledge of global cultures. I now advise graduate students in Somatic Counseling who will use dance/movement interventions with clients along with traditional verbal therapy.

© Kerry Diana Manley, 2018. From untamablewoman.com© Kerry Diana Manley, 2018. From untamablewoman.com

As long as my limbs are mobile, I want to deeply enjoy the primal joy of movement, energy, and lifeforce. I often dance at home to antidote rumination or distraction. In the 3-year retreat, we sometimes practiced meditation for 12 hours a day. After a few months, I found I needed to move more, so I spent short breaks furiously dancing samba with headphones on, in the privacy of my cabin. It turned out to be the perfect counterpoint to seated, one-pointed attention. Both body and mind need refreshment!

Dance has saved me ten thousand times from the numb crush of anxiety, grief, confusion, rage, heartbreak, or loneliness by providing a way to ground, express, and move through. Dancing metabolizes and harmonizes my disjointed or abandoned pieces back into one sweaty cohesive whole; wordlessly, without concepts or judgments or figuring-it-all-out. There is no ultimate figuring out this human journey. As long as we live in a body, we are creatures of soma, psyche, spirit, emotion, and physiology, all roaring to be integrated, or at least better acquainted, with one another. Dance is my favorite meditation in motion.

Flying Free, Boulder CO © Peggy Mansfield, 2018

Bound between gravity and levity 
This vessel breathes in and out 
Moving through space 
The moment can’t be captured.
Only this now, and then the next
Fresh present moment – alive!

* See: Neuroscience Meets Dance/Movement Therapy: Mirror Neurons, The Therapeutic Process and Empathy     

Sarah C. Beasley (Sera Kunzang Lhamo), a Nyingma practitioner since 2000, is an experienced teacher, writer, editor, and artist. She has a degree in Studio Art and a Graduate Certificate in Education. Sarah spent close to seven years in retreat under the guidance of Lama Tharchin Rinpoche and Thinley Norbu Rinpoche. She offers a workshop, Meditations for Death, Dying & Living, which includes an Expressive Arts component. With a lifelong passion for wilderness, she has summited Mt. Kenya and Mt. Baker, among other peaks. Her work can be seen at Moondrop Meditation.

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An Eye, a Lens, a Dance
Bringing Awareness Practice from Retreat into the World
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