Dance as an expression of universal laws

Dance as an expression of universal laws

Not only the famous teachers and philosophers of “pagan” antiquity – Socrates, Plato and Pythagoras – used to perform ritual dances with their students.

According the so-called “dance hymn“ in the apocryphal Acts of John, Jesus danced with his disciples at the Last Supper. Their individual experience expanded into a communal and transcendent experience, to a revelation of universal laws.

Our whole life is rhythm and sound. Rhythm and sound weave through the universe and determine our existence on earth in many ways. “… when holy feet of perfect dancers raised dust, the earth came into being…”, says the Rigveda, the most ancient sacred scripture of India.

The Vedas report that the world emerged from a primordial sound and that all matter vibrates in certain rhythms. According to the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, the world was created from chaos through sound, through harmony. He put the relationships of the planets to each other in proportion to the musical intervals. Each celestial body emits its own tone and thus contributes to the harmony of the spheres.

Human beings, as microcosms, are placed in these cosmic laws. Cosmic laws are reflected right down to the proportions of the human body. Like the planets, every human being also emits his or her own archetypal sound. Philosophers of earlier ages compared the human being to a monochord, a musical instrument with a single string that stretches from the earth to the extreme end of the zodiac.

Therefore, people can – more or less consciously – gain access to certain realms of the spiritual world in which they experience impressions and inspirations of spiritual laws and harmonies. They can express what they have perceived there not only by means of music, but also through corresponding forms of movement in the material world. The human body proves to be a wonderful instrument for this. What Ludwig van Beethoven said in his reflections on music addressed to Goethe applies equally to the art of dance: “It takes the rhythm of the spirit to grasp music in its essence; it conveys an inkling, an inspiration of  celestial sciences, and what the spirit experiences from it through the senses is the embodiment of spiritual knowledge.”

Dance performances, like music, can have a powerful effect on the human being. In today’s western world, we tend to forget that dance is not only for entertainment and sensual pleasure, but can also serve to uplift the spirit and refine the senses. This archaic knowledge has been used for ritual purposes by various cultures and religions throughout human history. Dance can express and bring about pure joy of life, can gain access to hardened and disappointed hearts, comfort the pain-stricken soul and bring the idea of a higher plan for life and the world.

An intuitive penetration into the secrets of the world

Beyond its ever-changing subjective states, the human body reflects cosmograms and archetypal structures. In sacred dance, the dancer depicts geometric figures and the order and harmony of the cosmos. Such figures are, for example, circles related to a centre point, various cross shapes or the spiral. Cosmic laws, however, are not merely depicted, but the dance forms become living symbols of spiritual potential. They not only allow us a more intuitive penetration into the secrets of the world and human nature, but they can – in the dancer as well as in the viewer – kindle a profound process of inner transformation.

Probably the best known representation of a sacred dance action shows the Indian deity Shiva as a cosmic dancer. The figure of the dancer is placed in a circling wheel. The wheel symbolises the underlying laws of our natural order: the constant change of becoming and passing away, of successive reincarnations.[1] The aura of Lord Shiva is surrounded by a powerful circle of fire. His dance shows the way of overcoming space and time. It is the death dance of the lower nature, a dance of transformation towards the light of divine nature. It is an expression of the ancient spiritual truth that the lower nature, the ego in its ego-centricity, must die before the divine human being can arise in full glory. Shiva’s right foot is placed on the demon of bondage and unconsciousness and shows the overcoming of maya, the power of delusion that imprisons the soul in the transient world of appearances. Shiva himself is shown as an overcomer, at the level of his head there are wings or rays of light – symbol of the soul enlightened by the spirit.

Shiva is untouched by the constant interplay of birth and death. His dance of destruction serves to save and renew the world. In two of his four hands Shiva Nataraja (= Shiva, the king of the dance) holds symbolic objects such as an hourglass-like drum (its twofold sound creates the world of opposites) and a flame (symbolising the power of creative expression ignited by the spirit). The third hand is directed towards the sky, the fourth hand points downwards to the raised left foot, which shows the way out of captivity in the cycle of transience. In Indian mythology, Krishna, too, is a dancing and music-making deity.

The Indians as well as the ancient Greeks believed that the gods invented dancing and taught humans to dance. Dances were performed in their honour. In the Orphic Mysteries, worship was a sacred act performed through music and dance. While watching the dance, the audience inwardly experienced the presence of the deity.[2] Unlike what we know from the Christian tradition, the Greeks believed that the divine became most accessible to people by turning away from suffering, turning to joy, music and festive dance rituals. In this way people can connect with the world of the divine and with the God who is inherent in them. Cosmic energies and vibrations can be transformed into human forms of movement.

Even the most beautiful and sublime art is never a perfect expression of the divine. But it can bring about an opening in the human being for divine forces.

From the Sufi mystic Rumi the following words have come down to us:

If one day it should be possible for me
to be with you for a moment, O my Lord,
and I have the world under my feet,
I shall begin to dance with enthusiasm.

The aim of the revolving dance of the dervishes is purity of heart and union with God. It is performed in a counterclockwise rotation around one‘s own axis. The arms, which are initially crossed, unfold sideways, with the right open palm facing upwards and receiving the forces of heaven, which are passed through the heart and the fingers of the downward pointing left hand to the earth. The long black cloaks, which symbolise the darkness of the transient world are thrown off at the beginning of the dance, white robes (the colour of the divine light) emerge from underneath. According to the Sufis, the sacred acts of dance are a profound inner experience, for the dancer as well as for the viewer and listener of the accompanying music. After the ritual performance, the participants leave the consecrated place purified and transformed and carry what they have received into the world.

The Christian churches in the past centuries had little sense for the spiritual potential of ritual dance. They usually reacted with rejection and with prohibitions. While among the Israelites and in the early Christian communities under the influence of Asia Minor cults, sacred dances were quite common, the church later wanted to distance itself from pagan customs and from the “heretics”, the Gnostic Christians, who practised cultic dance according to the ancient model. Dancing performances or pictorial representations of dance scenes remained the exception rather than the rule in the Christian West.

Jesus also danced with his disciples

But not only the famous teachers and philosophers of “pagan” antiquity – Socrates, Plato and Pythagoras – used to perform ritual dances with their students. According the so-called “dance hymn“ in the apocryphal Acts of John, Jesus danced with his disciples at the Last Supper. He asked them to form a circle, stepped into their midst and began to sing a hymn:

The grace dances.
I will play the flute,
dance, all of you. – Amen.
I will raise a lament,
all of you perform
the gesture of mourning. – Amen.

(The) one eight
sings praise with us. – Amen.
The twelfth number
dances up above. – Amen.

It befits the universe
to dance up above. – Amen.

He who does not dance, does not recognise
what is happening. – Amen.

But if you follow
my round dance, see yourself
in me, the speaker,
And when you’ve seen what I do
be silent about my mysteries.
You who is dancing know
what I do, for yours is
this suffering of man,
that I must suffer. […]

And at the end of the dance ceremony:

I leapt,
but it is for you to understand the whole,
And when you have understood, say:
Glory be to you, Father! – Amen.

After Jesus had danced with the disciples, he left them.

The ritual dance action is shown here as a way to bring universal truths and sublime mysteries to those following the way of the Christ, so that they can recognize and experience them according to their respective state of being and consciousness, without profaning the divine mystery or depriving it of its ultimate inscrutability. During the process of crucifixion Jesus reveals himself – according to the Acts of John – to John on the Mount of Olives in the inner vision of a cross of light and tells him:

None of the things, therefore, which they will say I have suffered, but also that suffering which I have shown to you and to the others as we were dancing, I want to be called a mystery. For what you are, you see, I have shown you. But what I am, I alone know, no one else.

Through the dance action the disciples can ultimately only experience the truth of their own lived spiritual path and possibly inspire others to have a similar experience. In this sung and danced hymn, the disciples move in circles around Christ as their centre. They follow the melody of his flute and his instructions for movement. Their individual experience expands into a communal and transcendent experience, to a revelation of universal laws. For “grace” and “the eight” (a symbol of eternity) dance, and “the twelve” (a symbol for the cosmic zodiac) dances above with them. Only those who dance and unite themselves with the Christ in the middle become partakers of this revelation of the divine mystery. The validity of this transformative experience is affirmed by the disciples, as they repeatedly chant “Amen” in unison: So be it.

The ritual dance action is, of course, a parable. It is the representation of a secret of salvation, of a process of transformation within the soul – a stimulant, but not this process itself. Thus John exhorts his brothers after telling them about his vision on the Mount of Olives: Since, brothers, we have thus beheld the grace of the Lord and his love for us, let us, who have received mercy from him, worship him, not with our fingers and mouths nor with our tongues, nor with any bodily organ at all, but with the attitude of the soul. […] [3]

A revival of an age-old tradition

The knowledge of forms of spiritual music and traditions of sacred dance increasingly fell into oblivion. Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, esoteric teachers attempted to take up archaic ritual dance traditions. Through eurythmy Rudolf Steiner, for example, sought a “renewal of the ancient temple dance art through a new art of spatial movement”, in order to “introduce something into the world which is taken from the spiritual, from the spiritual laws of world existence itself”. (R. Steiner in a lecture given on the occasion of a eurythmic performance in 1918). Gurdjieff strove with his Sacred Dances [4] for new ways to convey certain cosmic and spiritual truths through appropriate physical forms of expression. Peter Deunov developed the dance form of Paneurhythmy in Bulgaria between 1934 and 1942, which aimed at bringing the human being into harmony with nature, the universe and God through specially composed music and rhythmic movements. Human beings should be guided, through the unfolding of their inner powers and their consciousness, from the

material world into the spiritual world. In the cycle “Pentagram“ the dancers form the symbol of the “cosmic man”.

At a time when the original connection between science, religion and art had been largely lost, an intensive search began about 100 years ago for contemporary ways to restore the unity of these three areas. If art was seen in earlier epochs as the direct expression of the operation of eternal, divine laws in nature, the fathoming and experiencing of which filled the artist with profound gratitude and humility, art is, according to today’s understanding and practice, primarily the outflow of the subjective state of the artist as a solitary individual, who is confronted with a world made up of myriads of separate, fragmentary manifestations and informational content, which he or she often experiences as meaningless and threatening.

Contemporary dance performances that do not go beyond presenting the human being as a soulless, machine-like being surrounded by a cold, anonymous collective, whose movements are driven by a mechanical or digitally controlled machinery, can only show a very limited aspect of reality and are unlikely to open up liberating and regenerative paths for humanity. [5]

We are at the beginning of a new age. Old certainties of belief, centuries-old ideologies and social institutions, as well as aesthetic ideals, are crumbling and are becoming less and less in line with the requirements of the modern era. In the fields of art, science and religion, there is a feverish search for new insights and forms of expression that correspond to the consciousness, the sensibility and the physical needs of modern human beings. In the course of these efforts, ancient spiritual teachings and healing techniques as well as archaic art forms are being rediscovered and re-evaluated.

Our time is characterised, on the one hand, by blind intoxication with life and pleasure, an excessive cult of the body, self-centredness and a great fear of existence. Out of their discomfort with modern life, many people take refuge in extreme views and behaviour. Viewed in this light, it may seem questionable whether people living in today’s western world, whose consciousness is to a great extent identified with their physicality, can grasp the ancient idea of sacred dance as an expression of true spiritual life in the service of the divine principle inherent in them. On the other hand, there is also very serious interest in holistic forms of life and spirituality in which the physical body does not remain separated and excluded, but can be harmoniously integrated. At the same time, a turning away from passive endurance and from uncritical acceptance of dogmatic systems of teaching, a growing need for individual, creative engagement and participation can be observed.

Dancing, making music and various forms of creative design can be seen as an expression of insights and experiences on a spiritual path and can certainly lead to more joie de vivre, authenticity as well as to a revitalisation of experiences in a community. What is essential, however, are not the creative forms we can experiment with, which can be proven or discarded. What is essential is the unfolding of the new soul that can be stimulated by such forms.

Literature reference:

Hemenway, Priya: Der geheime Code. Die rätselhafte Formel, die Kunst, Natur und

Wissenschaft bestimmt (The Secret Code. The Enigmatic Formula that Determines Art, Nature and  Science), Cologne 2008

Lander, H.M. and Zohner, M.-R.: Meditatives Tanzen (Meditative Dancing), Stuttgart 1987

Steiner, Rudolf: Eurythmie. Die neue Bewegungskunst der Gegenwart (Eurythmy. The New Contemporary Art of Movement), Dornach 1986

Wosien, Maria-Gabriele: Tanzsymbole in Bewegung (Dance Symbols in Movement), Linz 1994

[1]The human being as a microcosm is surrounded by an aura in which the essence of all experiences of previous earthly lives is recorded, and in which all the bonds and desires still existing in the present life exert a strong magnetic effect on human beings, so that their aura is often coloured and darkened by a multitude of passions.

[2]Interestingly, the Greek word “enthusiasm” – far removed from its present-day usage – originally meant experiencing God inside.

[3]In the Christian initiation mystery, the “lower body” is transformed through the work of the power of Christ in us, so that it becomes “like his transfigured body”. (Epistle of Paul to the Philippians) In the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul expresses this as follows: “Behold, I tell you a mystery: …we shall all be transformed…, for the corruptible must put on incorruption, and mortal must put on immortality.” (1 Cor. 15:51ff.)

[4]An ancient knowledge and practice that the Armenian learned from an occult brotherhood in Asia Minor and brought to the West.

[5]The questionable idealisation of transhumanism, the creation of a new type of human being with superhuman abilities, which is a caricature and perversion of the spirit-soul human guided by divine powers, will at any rate not prove to be a viable path for those who strive for a true connection with the spiritual world and its universal laws.

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Date: June 22, 2024
Author: Isabel Lehnen (Germany)
Photo: dervish-svklimkin-auf-Pixabay-CCO

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