I once witnessed a ceremony in which a woman of Indigenous heritage, who was uncomfortable with taking a speaking role, expressed her contribution in dance. The moment had a profound impact on those present, and showed that there is far more to a ceremony than just the words we speak.
In Western ceremonies dance plays its part, although perhaps on a subtle level. At a wedding reception the bride may dance with her father, the groom with his mother, the bride and groom dance together. These are considered ‘traditional’, but why? The simple answer is that these dances symbolise the transition of the bride and groom from their own families to the new one they create together. One of the most touching ‘first/last’ dances I ever witnessed was bride who began the tradition by dancing with her father, and after a while he with a gentle twirl handed her to her groom who had quietly stepped onto the floor to continue the dance. I doubt there was a dry eye in the house, because all which that moment symbolised was evident in that twirl.
It must be said that even those dance floor favourites which seem to be obligatory at every wedding reception – the Nutbush, the Macarena, the TimeWarp, and nowadays attempts to recreate the Uptown Funk video – are in their way ceremonial and symbolic too. They are touchstones which everyone relates to and remembers, tiny rituals which bring groups of people together and say “this is how we celebrate this aspect of life”.
From a religious perspective, dances that honour deity or ancestors are common particularly in Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. For some the dance is a ceremony in itself – each movement may express an aspect of a God, an emotion or posture of worship, or part of a myth or parable. Dancers often train from childhood, practicing to perfect each and every pose and facial expression, and spend hours or even days preparing for the ceremony. Performance of a dance is an act of spiritual practice in itself, and becomes a way of life.
This video share is of a Shinto music and dance performance, honouring nature. At times it may seem that very little is happening, but if you watch carefully the posture, facial expressions and gestures of the performers there is a deep meditation at work which embraces the surroundings.
There is so much more to the topic of dance (and music) in ceremony, so I’ll be writing more about it in the future.