Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance:
Awakening Spirituality Through Movement and Ritual
A Book by Iris J. Stewart

Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance
By Iris J. Stewart, reviewed by Griselda Steiner

Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2001.
246 pgs. Softcover. $29.95

Our ancestors danced as an expression of their relationship with the divine. Dance today is not an integral part of our community worship, family or daily life. Instead, we have come to experience it as entertainment, and if we want to dance, we must search for the opportunity. In this stunningly illustrated book, Iris J. Stewart explores the history of women in ritual dance—from ancient to modern. Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance is a comprehensive study that reveals how dance can be brought back into our spiritual practice.

Searching for an accurate history of sacred dance, Stewart came up against obstacles that many scholars confront when trying to trace the path back to women's religious culture. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Goddess religions (referred to as "fertility cults") were suppressed, disguised and extinguished. One way Stewart found Goddess heritage was through the root derivation of words and their changing meanings throughout time. History in ancient Rome meant dancer, from which derived minister, and later, minstrel. The Egyptian Goddess of music, Hathor, was referred to as Hor. Women of the Greek goddess Aphrodite were called Horae, and the word for a Hebrew dance is Hora, which means "circle." This root word evolved to the contemporary "whore," with its profane connotations.

In Part One, "In the Beginning was the Dance," Stewart explains how worship of the Goddess was a fundamental part of dance. In the old religions of the Middle East, India, China, Japan, Africa and Greece, the Goddess herself may have been a dancer. In India, Sarasvasti, Goddess of Learning and Wisdom, is depicted with a lute. In Hawaii, Pele, Goddess of Volcanoes, is patron of the dance.

In the ancient world, images represented women as dancers, instrumentalists and singers. Priestesses played a unique role. As nurses, oracles and midwives, they worked with song and rhythmic dance to heal and transform. For festivals they wore special costumes, jewelry, amulets, veils, girdles and headdresses to embody greater powers. Over time, the priestly castes became the keepers of ceremony, and women's devotional dances were relegated to provocative spectacle.

By the time of the early Christian era, much of women's ritual and women's ways had eroded, yet the dance itself remained. Perhaps the most well known group to dance was the Gnostics in Greece, Asia Minor and Rome who traveled throughout Europe. In Gnostic Acts I, handmaidens are described dancing a ring dance before Sophia, Daughter of Light. They sang the "Hymn of Jesus." "To the Universes belong the dancer — Amen. / He who does not dance does not know what happens – Amen." As time passed, the church focused more on subduing matters of the flesh, the spoken word took precedence and women's rituals were condemned.

In Part Two, "Modern Sacred Dance Today," Stewart explores the legacy of the founders of modern dance, Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham, as well as the legendary Mata Hara and Ruth St. Denis. She quotes Martha Graham: " has always seemed to me that, even as a child, I have been aware of unseen things around me, a certain sense of movement. I don't know what to call them, sense beings perhaps or spirits or a kind of energy that stimulates the globe."

Stewart portrays dances known in many cultures for release, communication with the divine and curing illness; i.e., the Andalusian Gypsy Baile Flamenco, the Sufi Arabic Zar Circle, the Brazilian Macumba and the Guedra dance of the Berber tribe of Morocco. She also describes various forms of dancing inspired by sacred shapes—circles, labyrinths, mirrors and serpents—as well as dances to the elements: earth, air, fire and water. Originally the dance was performed at the bedside of women in childbirth. The mother would join dancers circling her bed and then return to bear down.

Although the subject is vast and embraces cultures throughout millennia, Stewart has created an enticing portrait, as well as a journey into spiritual feminism and sacred truths. By reclaiming dance's sacred dimension, women can find the joy of spiritual connection. Sacred dance now enjoys a revival in Methodist, Lutheran, Catholic, Unitarian and Mennonite churches, and many Jewish synagogues include dance in some form of worship. (The book provides a resource guide to locate sacred dance in your community.)

Every woman has her own dance, a celebration of her life, sensuality and experiences of pain and joy. If you want to find your way back to the dance, reading this book is a way to begin.

—Griselda Steiner

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Copyright © 2000 Iris Stewart (All Rights Reserved)