With hindsight I can see that I have always been attracted to the fragments of this old world view. They are all around. In my first dance class I danced among Grecian columns at the Temple of the Wings with flowers in my hair. (I still can hardly believe this place was real but here are some pretty pictures.) My early love of Swan Lake sparked my imagination with the shape shifting winged woman. When I was at Bryn Mawr College, we left offerings for the statue of Athena, the patron goddess of the college, and sang in Greek to praise Sophia. Two of my ancestors also attended that school, and I can imagine them following these traditions as well. In a strange way, these small connections to old European wisdom have been passed down to me all along. Often the symbol is there with no meaning. But with the decoder ring I can now tap into this great lineage of wisdom that still moves among us.
My dance training with Laura Shannon taught me life skills beyond the dance steps and one of the most powerful is the discipline of honoring lineages. I began to notice many areas in my life where I needed to develop my sense of rootedness. This grounding work has been deeply entwined with Wisdom Dances.
Honoring the stories in the land.
I am blessed to live in a place that the Dakota people hold sacred. In the last ten years I have devoted a lot of attention to learning the stories of this land: the Dakota place names, the history of the Dakota way of life, and how it changed as European settlement poured into the area, including the darkest hour of the Dakota internment camp just miles from my home. I’ve also delved into the natural history of this landscape so that I can help people feel the connection between the land and the story of the planet, of the entire universe.
Even before the pandemic made teaching outside normal I taught in Lake Hiawatha Park and along the Mississippi River. My intent is to make this landscape become intimately alive for people through repeated visits to specific places over many seasons and years.
Connecting with the Ancestors
Every November we dance in honor of our ancestors. This tradition has inspired me and many of my long-time students to dive deeper into our family stories. Family research has been a constant personal undercurrent this past decade and it continues to sharpen my sense of the gifts and responsibilities I inherited from my family. I have a chance to transform some of their painful or unjust legacies.
Rooting Out White Supremacy Culture
Dancing helps me root out my unwanted lineage of white supremacy culture. Dance emphasizes the power of learning through the body, community over individuality, the importance of right timing and the harmonization of opposites. These qualities are direct antidotes to the poison of individualism, urgency, either/or thinking, and “if it’s not written it doesn’t exist,” some of the key characteristics of white supremacy culture as described by Tema Okun. People are talking a lot more than they did ten years ago about how the body intersects with anti-racism work. There is more I can do to help articulate the connection between dancing with liberation.
Returning to my Christian Lineage
I have been surprised to discover that one of the most dynamic places for me to teach is with feminist, Christian contemplative groups who are hungry to tap into the wisdom of the body. I’ve received invitations to be part of many wonderful conferences and as a result have had my own homecoming in my direct ancestral spiritual tradition. I had drifted away from the Church for quite a while because the Wisdom path within Christianity has been greatly obscured. But it is there! Even though it is nurtured on the edge of the institutional church, Wisdom is at the core of the tradition. I now see myself as part of the movement to recover the Wisdom tradition as it flows through Christianity so it can be a blessing for the future.
Roots and Kinship
What if every person felt connected to the streams of Indigenous wisdom within their ancestral lineages? Could these roots be the key to awakening a new sense of kinship among all people, among all of life? What would this look like? Wisdom Dances created a prototype of this vision in 2019.
I had been electrified by an article titled “Reclaiming our Indigenous European Roots” by Lyla June Johnson. Lyla has a very interesting perspective as someone with both Diné and European roots. I reached out to her and invited her to collaborate. We created a gathering titled Roots and Kinship featuring music and dance. For the final song, my group of dancers created a instrumental version of her techno song “Time Traveler.” Together we sang:
….A product of ancestral love,
I’m here because my elders
Danced in the sun.
They would give it all up for us
And from day one it was
Practiced like religion
To prepare for the ones to come.
We are here
To give all of our love
To the ones unborn
….It’s not about you.
It’s about the song that is
It travels through time.
Singers will die
But the song lives on
Through matrilineal lines…..
These lyrics resonate so deeply in me. Because of both my personal ancestry work and experience dancing women’s traditional dances, I feel how I am the ‘product of ancestral love.’ I am an ephemeral carrier of songs and dances that are meant to live on beyond me.
Passing it Forward
The word tradition means something that is passed on, often through custom or example without being written down. Carrying forward a tradition is a profound responsibility. It bears a much larger sense of time and connection to humanity than the more personal joy of seeing my daughter and her cousins grow up. It taps into a sense of what my highest human purpose is as part of this evolving universe.
Every day I think about how I carry a tradition from a culture different than my own, thousands of miles from its place of origin. Caring for a tradition requires both guarding its integrity and also allowing it to live and grow. Some degree of creative evolution is inevitable in my context and the challenge is to allow that to happen consciously and in a way that preserves the wisdom thread within it.
I’ve certainly felt like an imposter. I hope I never stop asking myself questions about cultural appropriation. Yet as I’ve strengthened my sense of connection with the dance linage, I’ve grown in confidence. Traveling to studying with Laura Shannon on the island of Lesvos, Greece, in 2016 helped me connect more deeply with the wisdom teachings within the dance and made my teaching more comprehensive.
I am grateful to all the village grandmothers in Greece and the Balkans who have been willing to share their dance, song, and ritual traditions with Laura. Laura tells a moving story about the women in one particular village, where she made many visits over many years to learn their dances. At first they asked her to keep certain songs and customs strictly secret. But in recent years, seeing their wisdom traditions in danger of disappearing, they started asking her to share everything, to keep the essence of their ritual dances alive.
The grandmothers want the songs and dances to live. The deeper I get into Wisdom Dances, the more I wonder if my work really isn’t about me, my dreams, or my hunt for roots. Maybe Wisdom Dances is simply a response to an impulse initiated by the dances themselves. They want to move forward and I am a willing vessel.
I feel awe at the habitat that I’ve been able to provide these dance traditions. We have live music thanks to the serendipity that connected us to the talented and kindred bouzoukist/guitarist/vocalist Greg Herriges. Even my childhood sewing has found purpose as I’ve made many costumes.
I am so grateful. It is an honor and a privilege to dance very week. Carrying these dances forward is one of the most meaningful endeavors of my life.
Thanks for reading all the way through!
Let’s move together soon,
Wisdom Dances 10 Year Anniversary Party and Mid-Summer Celebration
Sunday, July 17, 2022, 4-9 PM at Crosby Farm Park, Saint Paul
We will celebrate the height of summer with an evening of dancing, live music, feasting and working with plants. This year’s celebration will have extra zest as we also celebrate the ten year anniversary of Wisdom Dances. There will be special treats, a special program, additional musicians and merriment. The Mid-Summer Celebration is a relaxed, joyful day open to all who want to participate or bask in the glow as an observer. Check out event schedule and details.