Folk Dance- Born of Pagan Roots

Most people are not familiar with the origins of what we would now refer to as folk dance. In fact, many dance professionals today struggle with this term and exactly what it means and the type of dance it represents. When I first began my research on the topic to present it in my dance history and appreciation classes I was rather surprised and fascinated with the origins of European folk dances. I think the history may be of interest to most of us, as you will soon discover that the dances are completely Pagan in origin. So, for my Pagan Blog Project post this week I want to share a selection from my book that explains the Pagan roots of European folk dance.

As you’re reading please keep in mind this is an excerpt from a text book for college freshman so it is a bit dry at times and it makes reference to material from other parts of the book, although I think the content is still clear. I have also found that most of my students are completely unfamiliar with Paganism and have no understanding of it, so some of those descriptions are very rudimentary and not geared for an audience that is well versed in the practice of Paganism. You may also note my subtle touch in introducing students to Paganism, which we all know can be very misunderstood 🙂 I definitely relish the opportunity to not only teach students about dance but also about other subjects, such as alternative religious practices.

…After the fall of the Roman Empire, Christianity did not spread overnight. Rather, converting people to Christianity was a process that took hundreds of years. At first people simply continued with the religious practices they were familiar with. Their religions and beliefs were similar to those discussed in chapter two, in that they practiced what is essentially an earth-centered form of worship. They had gods and goddesses, which they communed with in the hopes of affecting their lives, and their holidays centered on the cycles of nature and the seasons.

It is this earth centered religious practice to which the Christians give the name Paganism. To this day many people are confused by what this religion is and what the word means. Because the early Christians painted it in a negative light all sorts of mistaken connotations have grown up around the term Pagan. In reality Paganism is simply an earth-centered form of religious belief and practice. Pagans are not Satan worshipers, and there are a number of practicing Pagans throughout the world today.

You can recall that the first forms of Christianity in Western Europe were struggling with the separation of spirit and body, and were having trouble figuring out where dancing fit into religious practice. Meanwhile all the old religions included dance as a major focus for worship and communication. As Christianity grew and spread religious leaders were interested in banning dancing altogether, but you can imagine this would be a hard sell to people who have been dancing as a means of religious expression since the dawn of mankind.

At first Christian leaders attempted to stamp out dancing entirely, but this caused some problems. For one, the Pagans were afraid they would anger their Gods by not performing their dances. Also, life in the Middle Ages was pretty rough and people did not experience many fun times. Dancing together in a community celebration was certainly seen as a joyous time, and people were loath to give up what few good times they had. Christian religious leaders soon realized that it would be easier to convert the Pagans if they kept some of the holy days, festivals, and religious items in place.

Thus the Christian religious leaders decided to “borrow” from the Pagans. The Christians identified the Pagan holy days and lay Christian holidays on top of them. Easter and Christmas are both examples of Pagan holidays that became Christian. In the Pagan world Ostara was the holy day to celebrate the rebirth of spring, the lengthening of days, and the welcoming of light. Ostara becomes Christian Easter, which has the undertones of rebirth as seen in the resurrection of Jesus. Christmas replaced Yule, a time for families to come together and prepare for the cold and the darkness. Christianity again centered this holiday around Jesus by making it a celebration of his birth. In an attempt to further purify the Pagan celebrations Pope Gregory the Great in the seventh century decided to settle on set times each year for the festival days. These early festival dates are what will eventually become the holidays in which we Westerners are familiar.

In addition to festival days, many Pagan symbols and religious items were borrowed as well. Remember that fire was a main element of pre-historic dance forms, and this fire symbol retains its importance through candles and fires in the hearth that families gather around. Elements such as bells, incense, and singing were also borrowed from Paganism. These borrowed items not only aided in the conversion process, but made Christianity more fun and appealing to the Pagans they were trying to convert. It also allowed the religious leaders a chance to “purify” and make holy (in a Christian sense) the Pagan festivals they saw as being wild frenzies totally out of line with the Christian belief in separation of body and spirit.

But try as they might, the Christian leaders were never able to completely stamp out dancing in the peasant communities. The peasants continued to dance for communication and celebration, and to gain a sense of socialization and community. These dances were able to continue because they happened out in the countryside, away from the prying eyes of Christian religious leaders. As time went on these dances began to take the shape of the community performing them through costuming, use of rhythm and pattern, and mood and intent. The various conquering and traveling peoples who came into contact with the peasants also influenced these dances. It is in this process that Pagan dance becomes folk dance. The Pagan dances loose their meaning as religious dances communicating with the gods in celebration of seasonal and life events and become dances that celebrate national identity and heritage.

In modern times a folk dance is properly defined as a traditional dance originating among the common people of a nation or region. The term is often misused to describe any dance that is not a theatrical or concert form, or any dance that comes from outside the western world. Sometimes people use the term ethnic to refer to these dances, but that is particularly misleading. Ethnic refers to any group of people who share common linguistic, genetic, and cultural ties, and place special emphasis in cultural tradition. It makes no distinction between east and west, as any group sharing linguistic, genetic, and cultural ties is ethnic. Under this definition the Western world is producing ethnic dances, making ballet an ethnic dance, as well as court dance, folk dance, and dances from any number of nations.

In regards to Western Europe, folk dances refer to the genre of dance performed by the common people to represent heritage, national pride, and identity. Their origin can be stripped down to one simple definition. Folk dances are Pagan dances whose religious intent has been replaced by feelings of National identity and pride…

I must confess, I love sneaking a little lesson in religious history in there, and I always find it a bit disturbing with how lacking the students are with any knowledge of Paganism or what it means. If they have even heard the term most associate it with Satan worship. I can only imagine what they’d say if I announced to the entire class that I am a practicing Pagan….which leads me to the closeted discussion….why do I feel I have to hide my religious beliefs because they are “unconventional”? I would never preach to my students, but I would feel comfortable telling them I was Christian if that was the case. Why do I hide the fact that I am Pagan from my students? I openly share that information with the rest of the world, so what is my hang up with sharing in the classroom? But that is an issue for a different time…

I have a lot more written about dance in the middle ages, which is actually a very curious and barren time for dance in Europe. If anyone is really interested let me know and I’ll be more than happy to share. I’m a total dance history nut and can answer a lot of dance questions, so if you’ve got ’em, ask ’em!

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Fire- A dancer’s perspective

As many can relate, I have always been drawn to the element of fire. It’s warmth, light, and dancing orange flames instantly create magic. It is a strong and passionate element, and it can go from gentle heat and flickering flame to intense, blazing inferno in mere moments. When one is working with fire she must stay focused and keep it in check at all times because fire can quickly get out of control. On that note, I am very careful in working with fire energy and spirits. Rarely will I summon them or ask for their help around my house because it can quickly go haywire. If to much fire energy comes your way then you could find yourself in a heap of trouble. I also don’t want fire spirits drawn to my house because I feel I am just waiting for something to burst into flames.

A duet with fingers and staff.

A duet with fingers and staff.

I love to build fires outdoors, such as during a camping trip. It’s deeply satisfying to start with nothing and slowly craft a beautiful campfire. I have noticed that not all possess this ability to build a nice fire, but it is a skill that can be learned. Once the campfire is blazing I love to tend it and watch it develop and change throughout the night. I also love gazing into it and doing a little divining in the flames.

I do a lot of work with candles, because that is a nice small, controllable flame that does a great job representing the element. But the most common way I use fire is dancing with it. I have been fire dancing for about thirteen years now, and I have had a performing company for around six.

Dancing with fire is a great way to become familiar with its intense energy. When it’s whirling around your head it feeds you energy, and it is very difficult to hear anything outside the roar of the flame. I am a fairly seasoned performer, but the first time I performed with fire was one of the most intense performance experiences I’ve ever had. I was in front of around 100 people and I was nervous because I had never performed with fire. Then the energy of the fire itself fueled that nervous energy until my heart was pounding out of my chest. At the end of my set I was really shaky and super pumped up on adrenaline. I have since experienced that through my dancers as I train them to perform with fire. They often have the same experience when I light them up for the first time, and again when they hit the stage with fire for the inaugural performance.

A little trio- they totally hated those shiny pants :)

A little trio- they totally hated those shiny pants 🙂

I have a non-fire dance company as well, and they do not all have an interest in working with fire. A few are very scared of it, and one, after performing in a number of fire shows, had to finally bow out. She just could not get a hold of her fear of the flame, and never got past the fear of getting burned. And I have to give my dancers credit, because although they are not doing poi or staff, they are performing intricate dances in tight quarters with torches or fans in their hands. They have to have extreme spacial awareness of they will burn one another. It really is a special skill, and it looks really incredible when six dancers are holding torches performing full-blown dance routines in perfect synchronicity.

There are a number of ways I call on the fire spirits before a show. There are a lot of moving pieces in the performance puzzle, and producing a good show means having everything timed out so there is always fire and the flame doesn’t go out in the middle. This is not easy. Weather, wind, and fuel types effect burn times and heat levels, and it does not look good if a dancer has to throw down her fire toy in the middle because it gets to hot. And it really sucks if the torches burn out to early before the dance is over. That pretty much ruins a good grand finale. So I’m always back there, praying to the fire spirits, hoping to be in their good graces to pull off a flawless show.

Yours truly working the poi.

Yours truly working the poi.

People always ask me if I get burned. Of course I get burned and I’ve been burned a lot. You always work with fire safety, but it is still fire and it does burn. I always stick to the old saying, if you’re playing with fire, you’re going to get burned. However, you can keep burnings to a minimum, and I am especially careful with my dancers to assure they very seldom get burned. With them I have only had a couple minor burns, with myself it is a different story. When I first started working with fire I was anally careful. Now when I am alone I can be bad and really have to keep myself in check. I have lost a lot of that instinctual fear of the flames over the years, but always try and remind myself to not become complacent because that is when bad things happen. But for shows I’m all about safety for everyone, the dancers, the audience, and the venue. It would be pretty bad to burn a dancer or audience member, and I’d be in a heap of trouble if I burned down a venue.

So I have a fairly close relationship with my fire spirit friends. I believe we have worked it out so they are with me during dance rehearsals and performances, but do not follow me back to the house. Fire dancing has given me a lot of interesting opportunities and performance experiences, and I can’t explain how amazing it feels to have those flaming poi flying around my head and know I am in control of where they go. Fire has a very special magic, but it must be approached with extreme caution as it can both create and destroy.

When the Creative Process won’t process

Here I am at the computer to write about creativity, but I’m not feeling particularly creative. But really that is the point of this post. Creativity doesn’t always just come, sometimes we have to activate it. It’s great when you get a creative burst and use that to work on a craft, or write, or paint, or do whatever the creative muse calls you to do. However, when your life is in the arts there are many, many times that you have to force creativity, or find the creative inspiration fast.

I believe this topic is relevant because in my mind people who identify with being Pagan tend to be very creative. We use that creativity in a number of ways and many of us would consider ourselves to be artists. There is definitely an art to crafting a spell or developing a ritual. My guess is that if you are the leader of an active spiritual group or coven you have to spend a lot of time working out rituals and gatherings, and sometimes that can be hard to do. Particularly if you’re under a deadline, such as a holiday is in a few days and you have no choice but to decide what to do for the ritual. You can’t wait and hope that creativity will come along and smack you in the face.

Here is where the creative process comes in. There are ways to nudge the muse and hopefully get the creative ball rolling. Now I’m not great at spell crafting, but I’d like to be better. That is an area I’m working on. I am however, a dance professional. I’m the artistic director of a professional company and I co-direct a college dance program. The college also has a dance company, and I direct that as well. I was also given an awesome honor and named one of Houston’s 100 Creatives of 2013…that should prove it, right ? J So I find it appropriate to speak from the perspective of having to create dance whether I want to or not.

When students take choreography class with me they often come in with the mindset that they will be hit in the head with creative inspiration and that alone will guide them in creating a dance. They are usually a bit frustrated when they discover this is not the case. Working artists have to create to meet deadlines. They have to create to fulfill assignments. I’m not waiting around all semester until they feel inspired.

Side note….as I write this the student company is working with a guest artist and there have been a steady stream of students in my office all morning with problems! One doesn’t like the dance, another started pulling a thread on her pants and it just kept pulling and pulling until she had a hole. She came to see if I could fix the hole. And on it goes. Just as I get into my creative writing process I hear another soft rapping at my office door and then a student’s face coyly appears in the doorway. So here I go again trying to activate my creative writing skills….how long can I go until another one appears? We’ll see…

Where were we? I think I was going to discuss what I do to get the creative juices flowing. When I am under the gun in regards to choreography I have a number of movement games I play with myself to develop new material. You tend to get stuck in the same patterns of movement and I have to have ways to get out of those in order to develop new material to teach the dancers. As I have been creating dances for about 20 years I have a decent idea about how my creative process works. I know I am better with many short bursts of development rather than a few long sessions. I also know what times of the day are better for me, and what spaces are the best to create in. I actually have a room in my house that is the choreography parlor. All the music instruments are in there, but there is very little furniture because I need as much floor space as possible. The room is set up just the way I like it and just going in there and lighting a candle and a little incense usually helps get my creative juices flowing.

Sometimes I get lucky and creativity does come along and smack me in the face. When that happens I will do whatever I can to drop everything and set a movement phrase. And of course the creativity muse visits at strange times when it is difficult to dance. She likes to visit when I am in a meeting, or driving, or grocery shopping. I think the very act of having your mind on something else allows the creativity to flow. That energy gets blocked when you try to force it, and that’s why we have to nudge it out when we are ready to create.

ACK! Another interruption! Contractors need into a room to replace ceiling tiles. And the guest artist needs a pen and paper. 90% of my Friday mornings with the guest artist are quiet, beautiful times for writing. What is going on today? Part of my known creative process, I write better in the morning, but I am only up early if I have to be somewhere. I love when guest artists are in on Friday mornings because I can do some good writing, but not today.

Ok, Ok….back at it. One more thought then it’s probably time to just go ahead and throw in the towel.

It’s great when I can let a creative thought incubate for a while. This really happens when I develop a full-length show. I’ll get some wild idea and then it just stews for weeks, sometimes months. Then I’ll start to see in my mind how the idea can materialize through movement and costumes. I’ll journal and keep notebooks, make inspirational Pinterest boards and gather research. I’ll start putting movement on the dancers, and somewhere in there the project takes on a life of it’s own. Two to three months ahead of opening night the project becomes all consuming and takes over my life. I basically eat, sleep, and breathe it until the show is over. Once it is over I have to take a big break to recover my creative energies. And at these times I’ll indulge in very uncreative activities like watching a lot of TV and doing jigsaw puzzles.

Creativity and the creative process is both a very easy and very difficult topic for me to write about. I almost wrote about it for the 2012 project, but at the last minute I shied away from it. This post seems rambly to me, but I’m still going to put it out in the world. I think taking this step of writing about creativity will help me to further define my process and make discoveries about it.

For the reader, I think all Pagans have a strong creative spirit and that is going to manifest in many ways. Please think about your own creativity and how it works. What makes you feel creative? What gives you inspiration? How can you get creative when you’re just not feeling it?

Knocking…..skinned knee, AKA, marley burn. Band-aid and Neosporin needed.

Yes, I do recognize the irony of writing about the creative process while my process today is very halted. I think it’s time I just go out there and watch their dance. I’m ready to see what the creativity of the guest artist and students have produced. I always love to just sit back and watch the creative fruits of others and not have to worry about my own.

Meet the Wilis

In the ballet Giselle there is a fantasy creature that I have never encountered outside of the ballet world, so I decided to go on a search. This creature is the elusive Wili. In Giselle, the Wilis are the spirits of betrothed women who were betrayed and died before their wedding day. At night they rise from their graves and lure men into their haunted forest where they proceed to dance them to death. The catch is, the Wilis can only come out at night, so if the man can make it to daybreak he survives to tell the tale. Nice revenge, but I’m not sure how this sits in the feminist camps.

I’ve seen Giselle a million times, and these Wili characters have always held a fascination with me. But I must admit, I have not researched these creatures outside of the ballet until now.

Turns out there are Wilis in Slavic folklore. They are a female vampire of sorts, and like Giselle, they are the spirits of girls who died before their wedding day. In a poem by Heinrich Heine that was allegedly based on Slavic legend, he describes the Wilis as being unable to rest in their graves because they had to satisfy their passion for dancing naked, in particular, dancing naked in the town square. Now I’m not sure how dying before your wedding day causes you to yearn to dance naked in the town square, but who am I to question folklore. Also according to Heine’s poem, the Wilis like to gather on the road at midnight with the purpose of luring in young men so they can dance them to death.

And yes, Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges did use this poem as inspiration for the Giselle libretto.

Among the Slavic cultures the Wili appears in a few different varieties. In Serbia they are unfortunate maidens cursed by God, in Bulgaria they are girls who died before being baptized, and in Poland they are beautiful female spirits in atonement for frivolous past lives.

One of my personal favorites and best known are the Rusalki from Russian lore. The Rusalki are fish women who live at the bottom of rivers and lakes. These spirits come out of the water sometime around midnight and dance in the meadow. If a handsome man happens to pass by the meadow at this time the Rusalki will mesmerize him with their dancing and lure him to the river to drown.

Interesting…. I think I feel a dance piece coming on…

So there you go- the Wilis, betrayed maidens forever doomed to haunt the forest looking for young men to dance to death. A happy tale.  And yes, these spirits are behind the phrase, “it gives me the wilis.”

I love when these lesser know mythical creatures appear in ballets, and they appear somewhat frequently, especially in the Romantic period. It’s interesting to me that choreographers and librettists used these myths and tales to create ballets. This demonstrates to me that these creators were more in touch with their Pagan roots than they may have cared to admit.

Performance Ritual

Preparing one’s self to perform can be an involved process. Most performers have a particular ritual they go through to ready the body both mentally and physically. I’ve found that these little rituals vary greatly from person to person and range from being minor things to very elaborate routines. Some people have to eat certain things or have certain little charms with them. And of course there are those that have lucky clothing. Being in the dance world I’ve run into plenty of people with lucky leotards. Although dance costumes are often a little skimpy, so it’s hard to incorporate wearing a lucky piece of clothing and not have it be seen from the stage.

I myself have different performance rituals I do depending on the performance. I prepare quite differently if I’m doing a major dancing role, have a small part, am not dancing but acting, or if I’m the artistic director/choreographer.

If I’m dancing a particularly challenging role then I have to spend some time preparing. This starts with the warm-up, where you get your body physically ready to dance. For a big performance this usually happens in a big group onstage or in the studio. Although most dancers also have certain exercises and stretches they add so they personally address the particular warm-up needs of their bodies. Immediately after warm-up I run through the dance (or dances) on stage, but without music.

Weaving alongside the warm-up is the make-up and hair transformation. I usually do my hair before warm-up but have to wait on the make-up. I’m a sweater, so I’ll mess up my face in warm-up if I do it beforehand.

Doing hair and make-up are an important part of the mental preparation and play a major role in the ritual. Make-up, hair, and costume are key to the performance magic as they provide the most visible transformation from your everyday self to your performance persona.

I have found there are two general schools of thought on the make-up/dressing room. Some people like to play loud music and get their energy pumped up. Others like it to be calm and quiet and are quite particular on what, if any, music is playing. For me it depends on what I’m dancing. If I’m about to go out there and perform a Martha Graham piece I keep it pretty somber backstage. If the material is more upbeat and calls for high energy I’ll take the loud music.

My dance company tends to like the more upbeat scene. We actually had a laugh at a dance festival we did awhile ago. In the dressing room and before the performance the dancers were happy, active, giggly, and dancing around to hip-hop. But in a matter of minutes they transformed and did a very still, solemn piece where they portray animals through the whole thing. We laughed afterward because it was so incongruous to be the most upbeat people backstage then go out and perform one of the most mellow pieces in the entire festival.

But back to me… Back in the day when I had major dance roles I had to go through my own private energy ritual. I would stand in a corner, away from everyone and breathe and light up my chakras. Then I imagined a radiant beam coming from my front, my back, and the top of my head. Once I got the beams going I told myself I’ve got it, and it’s time to rock. Then I would neurotically run the entire dance one more time in whatever little space I could find.

And if the dance was en pointe (dancing on toe) then a whole nother set of rituals was added, from how the shoes are prepared to the ritual of putting them on my feet. But that is a different story… I could write a whole blog on the ritual aspects of dancing en pointe.

I don’t really perform much anymore so I rarely go to that level of performance ritual. But I have developed rituals that I take the entire cast through before a performance. This ritual is very important to me and I think it’s critical to making the magic happen onstage. It also gives the performers a chance to be together and feel each others energy.

With my company we huddle and usually put one foot in the center of the huddle. Then I tell them how awesome they are and how much I love them and anoint them with what I call holy oil. It’s a little concoction of essential oils I blended that’s good for luck and energy clearing. Sometimes I cry…depends on the show….sometimes they add their two cents. Then we put a hand in the middle, say eat ’em up Kats (most of us met at Sam Houston State University and that’s a school slogan, and it’s also fitting since we are ChinaCat Dance) raise our hands in the air and hiss as we claw the air bringing our hand down. If possible they get sage smudged. We have to be able to go outside to do that, and I have to remember to bring the sage.

I make the student company also go through a similar ritual where we stand in a circle and I tell them how awesome they are. For that one, after going through a semester with the students in the company, I usually cry. We go through a lot together, and I really do love those students. But those circles usually end with wild dancing.

Recently I’ve been doing a duet with one of the ChinaCats. I don’t dance, instead I play an acting role. It’s a comedic role and the costume, make-up, and hair provide a pretty instant transformation. I play a child’s beauty pageant director, and an adult dancer plays the kid. She wears the full cupcake pageant dress complete with glitz hair and make-up so she can’t get dressed alone. To prepare for that piece we just start vamping on the characters as we’re get ready. It’s pretty fun for us but woe to whoever we’re sharing the dressing room with.

I think every company and individual performer has their own particular performance ritual. I’ve been involved with them since my first performance as a child and they all share some aspects while taking on their own unique qualities. Performers almost always do something together in a circle and more often than not do the exercise where you hold hands and pass the squeeze along.

I love that this basically Pagan ritual exists in the performance world. But it makes sense. Performers know that performing is all about energy and magic. A good show should transport the audience and take them on a journey. To do that the performers have to get in a particular head space. The most magical performances happen when everything comes together. That is, the performers have just the right energy and they are feeling the right energy from the audience. And when everything clicks like that the feeling you get is incredible. It’s that feeling that performers live for.

But before I leave, here’s one last performer tidbit. Most people know that dancers and actors never say good luck before a performance. I believe actors say break a leg, or a phrase particular to their group. And what do dancers say? Merde- which means shit in French.

Kurtain Time

Alright, yes, I’m cheating a little on this one, but I have to write on this topic, as I will explain.

So, I have this little contemporary dance company, ChinaCat Dance. In November we received an Artist-in-Residency with FrenetiCore Theater. Tonight (6/1/12) is opening night for our show.

And how is this Pagan? Because it’s all about spirit, love, and a little magick.

We received the residency in November, but due to other performance commitments we really began working on this concert in January. From my perspective, it’s been pretty much all consuming since then.

I am no stranger to performances. I direct a dance company through my job and ChinaCat performs very regularly throughout the year. But there has been only one other time that we did an entire show that was all ChinaCat, so that makes this performance very special.

Just so the reader knows a little about what we’re presenting, our show is called “Glow”. The first half happens all in black light and features a variety of glowing characters. I kind of think of it as a space garden full of alien flowers, bugs, and little glowing critters. The second half happens outside in a courtyard because it is all fire dancing. I see fire as a much more primal light, and I love the juxtaposition of this very alien, futuristic light versus the ancient light of fire. If you’re curious, here’s the press release-http://www.dancesourcehouston.org/dnn/Press/ChinaCatDancePresentsGlow.aspx

Producing a show takes extreme dedication and commitment, and it also takes a little magick. There are a lot of moving parts and components that need sorting out and you can have all the organization in the world, but without that magick spark it all comes crumbling down.

I also make myself very vulnerable in the process. Essentially I am sharing an artistic vision with the world, and this world is going to judge it. People could love it or hate it, and I have to face the music either way. Artists are sensitive, and although I may seem tough, I am no exception. I have poured time, sweat, and large sums of money into this all with the simple hopes that people will enjoy this performance and feel the joy and love in it. When that is met with negativity it becomes a bitter pill to swallow. But so far so good…..no negativity at this point…..so onward we go.

At the heart of all of this are the dancers themselves. For my company it’s not just about being an amazing dancer. My dancers all have to have a particular spirit to become a ChinaCat. We are a close group who love to be together. There is no way I could have this company without these particular ladies. They show unbelievable dedication and commitment to this company. They spend uncountable hours in rehearsal, they help sew costumes, they help prepare the performance space, and they always dance with joy. They put up with wearing crazy costumes and allow themselves to be made into various animals, creatures, and other crazy creations. They make ChinaCat, ChinaCat and I love them more than words can say.

People ask me if I audition dancers, and so far I have not. To be a ChinaCat you have to fit into the group dynamic and I can’t get that from an audition. My dancers tend to find us. Either they are someone we already know and have worked with at some point, or it’s someone I get a certain feeling from. New people come into the company as kittens, and if it works out they grow into Cats.

We’re a pretty raucous group, and I don’t think we fit into the normal modern/contemporary dance world. I tend to blend dance with theatrics and costuming to create a unique look. I want to please audiences and I want people who don’t usually go to dance concerts to come to a ChinaCat show and leave thinking dance is really cool. I want to entertain people, and I’ve actually been slammed for this. I’ve been told by hoity-toity modern dance people that I think about the audience too much and my work is too entertaining. Well, forgive me for wanting a wide variety of people to enjoy my work and have fun in the process of viewing it. If the audience has a positive experience at a dance concert and enjoys it, they are much more likely to go to another one. But I digress…..

So, sorry for this little cheat, but I just could not wrap my mind around any other topic at this particular moment.

And here we go….in just a few hours it’s curtain time. I will present this concert to the public and open myself to everyone. There are always things I want to change, but really we are ready for opening night, and I am ready to share this particular artistic vision with an audience.

I am ready to share the magick…..

Jazz Dance…..yes, Jazz Dance

Did I peak anyone’s curiosity about how I’m going to write a pagan blog about jazz dance? Yes, I did it with ballet, but many of you know that jazz dance is a lot different than ballet. Jazz is about rhythm, syncopation, style, big jumps, snazzy turns, and of course, jazz hands. I must admit, even I would be pressed to relate the typical jazz dance class to pagan practices, but I’m not going to discuss jazz class in it’s entirety. Instead I want to share an experience I had in one particular jazz class that I feel is very pagan in nature, as it centers around energy.

As some of you know, I am a dance professor. Every year my colleague and I take students to the American College Dance Festival. I have actually attended this festival ten different times and I’ve gone as an undergraduate student, a graduate student, and now as a faculty representative. ACDF is an amazing festival held in regional locations throughout the U.S. every spring. It is an intense week of various dance classes all day long, mixed with adjudicated and informal dance concerts of student and faculty choreography.

So it’s day two. My dance piece had adjudicated the previous day, which is an extremely stressful, emotional experience (just FYI, my group adjudicated really well, which was a huge relief as in the past I have had my ass handed to me…). My dear friend from grad school happened to be teaching an 8:00 am ballet class. I love her classes so I managed to get up crazy early after getting very little sleep and drag myself and one student/friend to the class with me. Now, I teach ballet, but taking a whole class is a whole ‘nother beast. Especially when you are no longer a fresh 20 something year-old. And I’ll point out that my student/friend is an untraditional student (returning to school after a professional dance career) so she is also not a 20 something.

Class was fun, but it kicked my butt.

Student/friend and I took a little break afterward and sat outside talking for a bit while the second session of classes began. I was pretty drained and we decided to go our separate ways to different classes. Since I also teach jazz I thought I’d go observe a jazz class taught by someone I had met at the festival the year before. She had amazing energy around her and I had clicked with her a year ago so I was very curious to see what her classes were like.

I arrived late, which is acceptable since I was just observing. I quietly entered the room and found a little spot in the corner to sit and watch.

Well, her class was amazing. Even though I was exhausted I could absolutely not resist joining in. I put my jazz shoes on and hit the floor. Now, let me point out, this is very rude behavior in the dance world. To come into a class late, watch for awhile, then join the class is very frowned upon. But I had to! I was absolutely called to take that class. I figured I’d just do it then apologize to the teacher later.

I’m so glad I did it because I can barely describe what happened to me in the class. Her final combination was so beautiful that it grabbed my heart. It was a sincere, emotional piece that was unbelievably touching.

Keep in mind, I’ve been dancing for 30 years. I’ve taken thousands of classes and learned hundreds of combinations and dances. Never has one touched my soul in the way this class did.

At the end the teacher had us all stand in a circle. We put our hands on various parts of our bodies, like over our heart and said, “hello heart, you’re a wonderful heart, thank you for beating strong in my body”. We ended by hugging ourselves and repeating the words.

And then I realized I was going to cry. Not just a few little tears I could dab away, but I was going to openly weep. I didn’t particularly want to do that in a room full of students and strangers, so I maintained my composure and when class was over I quickly grabbed my things and left the room.

My student/friend was waiting for me outside. “How was class?” she asked. And then I burst into tears.

I can’t really explain what happened in class. The energy of the teacher just spread into all the movement and into everyone in the room. It was a beautiful, rare, sacred moment when I was able to connect with why I dance, and why I’ve devoted my entire life to the art form. Dance is so much about energy and spirit and that teacher showed me how to reconnect to that.

Later in the festival there was a faculty concert where the faculty at the festival were able to perform for the students. The jazz teacher did a piece, and once again I was deeply touched. She simply recited some of the lyrics to “Feeling Groovy” while she danced and once again her beautiful energy brought tears to my eyes.

Afterwards my student/friend told me that piece made her cry. I told her that was the teacher who taught the jazz class, and then she totally got it as well. That woman is a rare being. She has the most beautiful, pure energy, and she uses dance to share that with the world. I don’t think this woman is completely human, but has some sort of astral spirit within her.

So that is why I share this story with the Pagan Blog Project. To remind us of the beauty in the energy of dance, and to remind us of the amazing spirits out there whom we can only hope to cross paths with.

I am so thankful I went to that particular jazz class and didn’t let my laziness win out. I can’t wait for next year’s ACDF so I can see this amazing teacher again.

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