Women, Nature and the Body
by Barbara Sellers-Young PhD
posted January 17, 2011
Dance is a metaphor for life. As we are born, we are destined to move in life through time and space. As we learn to dance, we are also learning to move through time and space. Thus, the process of learning to dance can bring us information about living our lives, if we allow it to. We can learn how to move through our lives with fearless autonomy, grace and spirit; to flow with the melody line, be in the stillness or ride the chaos; to overcome the fear that puts us on the sidelines. We can listen to the voice in our head that says, I CAN DANCE!
– Delilah 2008
Gathered in a circle, thirty women define hips and torsos as they move in a counter clockwise circle as the drum keeps up a steady rhythm. Shaking their shoulders, they gather into the center of the circle and back out again returning once more to the movements of hip and torso. Within the room there is a deep concentration and quiet dignity in the bodies of the dancers as Delilah’s choreography for ‘Birthing and Reclaiming Dance’ is repeated again and again. The dancers have come to the big island of Hawaii, to the quiet of the 120 acre Kalani retreat to be guided by Delilah in a communion with each other and with nature. The dance retreat is, for Delilah, an eighteen-year commitment to bringing women to an environment away from the distractions of their daily lives that allows them to investigate their relationship to their personal natures through an environment set in nature. This dedication to dance in nature is an extension of a philosophy of the feminine evolved from years of personal study which has included such authors as Joseph Campbell, Marjita Gimbutas and Barbara Walker while living in the Pacific Northwest city of Seattle, a city in which she is a teacher, performer and political activist.
Delilah’s initial introduction to belly dance took place while working her way through college as a hair dresser. In 1972, one of her clients told her about a class that was being offered at Grossmont Junior College and helped her enroll for the course taught by Scheherazade. It was a movement vocabulary that came easy to her and she was soon being asked by a group of Lebanese musicians based in San Diego to perform with them as entertainment for family gatherings such as birthdays and weddings. Soon she was also approached by a group of Greek musicians to perform with them at a San Diego restaurant. Like other dancers who started performing in the 1960s and 70s, she learned by doing. She had the opportunity to gather new vocabulary from the different dancers who were performing with her. After performing in venues throughout the United States, she permanently settled in Seattle in the 1980s.
Delilah’s involvement with belly dance is a celebration of the Earth. She is involved in environmental activism and in 1993, she entered and won the National Public Radio broadcast on the environment; more recently, she sent letters to the mayor of Seattle and the governor of the state of Washington with a suggestion of how to solve the increasing energy crisis. Her definition of the earth’s consciousness is not narrow but expansive. Recently, in an interview, I asked her whether or not she ever did site specific industrial performances. I anticipated a negative response. Instead, she replied “there is nothing on the planet that is not an extension of Gaia consciousness. This includes contrivances some might consider aberrant. To celebrate earth and the goddess is to celebrate her in all her aspects.”1
Energy through the Legs and Torso
Archeologist Marija Gimbutas writes in The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe (1982) that “The teaching of Western civilization starts with the Greeks and rarely do people ask themselves what forces lay behind these beginnings”. One of the goals of Gimbutas’ research into the myths and related artistry of old Europe was to consider what aspects of the old were still extant in the modern world.
Delilah’s project is a similar reclamation in a desire to reconnect the body of the dancer with the primal belief in a relationship between the body as body and body as an ‘extension of’ and an ‘at oneness with’ the earth and its forces. This belief in the force of the earth is central to Delilah’s approach to teaching belly dance.
In Delilah’s approach, the power of the earth moves from the feet into the pelvis and from this place of creativity throughout the upper torso, arms and head. As she phrases it, the energy moves as “if water were gushing through the body connecting you from your kinesthetic awareness to the great web of life and related creativity.”3 The basic stance to create this movement of energy comes from acknowledging the center line of the body that penetrates the head, torso and pelvis. This central core she illustrates by using a pole to demonstrate this vertical dimension.
The pelvis is engaged around this core through a release of the knees and the movement of the coccyx which allows for what she refers to as slack in the area between the knees and the rib cage. The slack created by this position allow the hips and pelvis to move fluidly in a variety of directions that she suggests emerges from an internal mapping of the individual’s creative forces.
The circles, spirals, twists, lifts, shimmies are an expression of the complex muscle system that integrates the pelvic floor with the spine and provides the strength for women to hold and give forth life. Delilah guides the students through what she refers to as ‘mapping the internal realms of the body,’ a process that unites the individual consciousness with a kinesthetic experience in an enhancement of a dancer’s felt presence.
These internal dimensions of consciousness are not new in Delilah’s conception of the female body. They are expressions of the ontology of the female principle in history as expressed through the body and reminiscent of ancient symbols archeologist Marija Gimbutas brought to public attention in her books on the goddess cults of Europe.4 Using examples of symbolic shapes of spirals, triangles, circles, and double spirals borrowed from the illustrations provided by Gimbutas’ writing, Delilah helps the dancer to traverse these ancient internal pathways within the spaces of her body. The culmination of this deep, internal, kinesthetic awareness of the energies within the pelvis and hips is a journey through the labyrinth.
Although most often associated with the Cretan myth of King Minos and Minotaur, the elaborate design of the labyrinth was symbolically etched on the walls of caves as well as incorporated into the designs of ancient and contemporary pottery. Historically, labyrinths were used to trap malevolent spirits, define a path for a ritual dance or in medieval times symbolize a path to God.
The average medieval person could not afford to travel to holy sites and lands, so labyrinths and prayer substituted for such travel. Labyrinths are used by modern mystics to help achieve a contemplative state of transcendence. Walking among the turnings, one loses track of direction and of the outside world, and thus focuses the internal energy. This is the state that Delilah, through the labyrinth exploration, guides the dancer. Yet, it is also her goal for the dancer to experience a revelatory awareness of the labyrinth as a representation of the complex interweaving of the energy body, which is a corporeal version of the labyrinth.
She expands the dancer’s internal mapping of consciousness by borrowing from nineteenth century French movement theorist François Delsarte’s system of connecting the inner emotional experience of the dancer with the various parts of the body in order to give ‘voice to the body’. Within this system, the body is initially divided up first by the head as the origination of the intellectual, spiritual and mystical, the torso as the emotive and personal, and the legs as the vital relationship to the earth. There are further divisions of the torso into upper torso intellectual, middle torso emotive and lower torso vital. This organization is reversed in the legs and feet, as the upper leg is the vital, the calf and knees the emotive and the feet reflecting an intelligent relationship to the earth. The arm is in a similar correspondence as the legs, with the vital connection in the upper arm and its attachment to the torso, the emotive in the forearm and the intelligence represented by the hands and fingers. The head is also divided into three areas with the forehead and the eyes as the place of intelligence, the cheeks as emotive and the chin and neck with its connection to the torso as vital.
Delilah teaches dancers to engage these different areas by guiding them through an ongoing improvisation that begins with the hips and pelvis and moves up and out through the head, arms and hands. As the dancers improvise, she encourages them to explore the various energetic pathways of their body. She reminds them to appreciate the support and balance provided by the legs and how the placement of the feet impacts the alignment of the pelvis, hips and torso. She asks them to feel the emotions coming from their central torso, supported by the upper arm and acknowledged by the forearm before the hands add the final communicative touch. She also points out “that where the eyes go has a lot to do with commanding the body.”5 She expands on this advice by noting that the direction and gaze of the eyes communicate a relationship between a dancer and their body and the dancer and the audience. As she guides them through a deeper relationship, she never critiques their personal method of exploration. Delilah’s goal for the dancer is to bring them to a conscious realization of a deep internal knowing that ultimately empowers them and allows them to creatively express their unique individuality in dance and in life.
To many, there is a rich feminine antiquity associated with its image, one that projects world heritage and a long lost esoteric past. These powers are due to be returned to us. The simple truth is that this is a beautiful dance art honoring life and the feminine experience….. When women get the wisdom of this truth then a whole world opens up to them. Woman = Body = Vessel = World. -Delilah 6
Empowering others is a central theme of Delilah’s approach to teaching belly dance. It is an extension of her liberal upbringing in which she was taught to be inquisitive and investigate the possibilities inherent in any idea. For example, she comments, “We read the Bible, but not as absolute truth, but as one way of knowing.”7 In her frame of reference, there are many ways of experiencing life and her goal is to help those who study with her to discover their personal potential.
Initially, she acts as a guide for the dancers in their individual discovery, but she enlarges their experience of empowerment in group explorations that commune with nature and ultimately in celebrations that bring the ethos of her teaching to the community of Seattle and beyond.
The group explorations require that the dancers take responsibility for the bodies of one another. One example is an exploration she refers to as ‘veil therapy.’ It is one she discovered while teaching a class for children in which her youngest daughter was participating. Delilah needed to find away of attending to her daughter without disturbing the flow of the class. Her solution was to have her daughter lie down in the middle of the floor while the other children carefully draped and removed large pieces of light fabric, referred to as veils. When the last veil was removed, her daughter sat up saying she was all better. It is now an exploration that she includes in her classes, retreats and workshops both in Seattle and in international venues.
The kinesthetic awareness the dancer has learned in mapping the internal dimension of the self is shared with the recipient of the veil therapy, as individuals or groups of two or more carefully lift three foot long pieces of light fabric and place the fabric across the body of the fellow dancer lying on their back on the floor. They then slowly pull the fabric over the dancer’s body. The fabric may cover the entire body or only sections. The different arrangements of the fabric provide a varied kinesthetic experience for the dancer on the floor. The dancers focus throughout the exercise is one of empathetic intensity as they silently respond to each other. This same focus is brought to other ensemble work in which the dancers are required to stay physically connected to each other while they improvise to music. Dancers learn to extend an internal focus outward from self to other and ultimately to nature.
Dance and Nature
We must remember the chemical connections between ourselves and the stars, between the beginning and now. We must remember and reactivate the primal consciousness of oneness between all living things. Barbara Mor. 8
Delilah’s approach to nature lies within the framework of one branch of eco-feminism in its exploration of women’s relationship to nature. Thus, one of the primary places to discover the potential of the self is in nature and for this reason Delilah organizes opportunities for women from around the world to dance in and with nature. As she phrases it:
"The process of dancing in nature is to be in-tune with the natural world around you, to invite nature in to inspire your dance. The student learns there is a difference between dancing with nature and dancing in front of nature. The more experience one develops, the closer one is able to come to the earth. The illusionary barrier that separates humankind from nature thins, and the realization of our sacred inter-connectedness with absolutely everything takes over".9
Within the dance and nature retreats she organizes, the above is realized in sunrise rituals as well as dances in the sea, gardens and forests. The dancers are in each instance taking the deep, internal, kinesthetic experience of nature imagery provided in the studio–the hips as earth revolving around the body’s sun core or the positioning of the arms as hugging a redwood tree–to an interaction with nature. Their quest is to allow a personal correspondence between the movements of their body and that of the tides and waves of the ocean or in relationship to the grass, trees, and other plant life. In the process of dancing in nature, they discover, as Delilah phrases it, the ‘sacred-interconnectedness’ between self and the environment. She believes this realization can lead to a transformation of consciousness that empowers the life of the dancer as it increases their appreciation for their place within the earth’s scheme. At the same time this expanded sense of self enlarges their sense of empathetic response to the earth and its fragility.
Delilah’s political activism is not limited to providing an experience for dancers within studio and natural environments. Her philosophy of the ‘self in the world’ extends to dancers being politically active in the world.
In a recent gathering of dancers in Hawaii, Delilah asked if anyone knew just how many belly dancers there were in the world and speculated on what a political force they could be if they all united in common cause. What would happen she asked if instead of signing peace and environmental agreements on a piece of paper, governments were required to sign them over the belly of a pregnant woman? She added, “The symbolism of the belly and the consequences to the future generation would not get lost as it sometimes does.”10
Delilah makes this image of the belly public in her involvement with events such as the Fremont Summer Solstice Parade at Street Faire in Seattle. The Summer Solstice Parade and Pageant is an annual event sponsored and produced by the Fremont Arts Council (FAC), an organization that supports the arts and artists in the Fremont neighborhood where Delilah has her studio. Started in 1989 by Barbara Luecke and Peter Toms, the parade quickly grew to over 80,000 participants. This local event with an international reputation is held the Saturday prior to summer solstice and culminates in the two-day Fremont Fair, a benefit for the Fremont Public Association. The event is distinguished by a sense of freedom in which anything goes, with the exception of no printed words or logos, animals (except guide animals), motorized vehicles, weapons or advertisements.
Delilah’s contribution has been to participate with other dancers from Seattle and elsewhere in theme based performances that are integrated into the parade. More recently, she has been referring to their performance as the ‘Billion Belly March’ as the number of dancers has increased to over 200 plus participants. Each year is a different theme. In 1999, it was the color blue and within this focus the dancers acknowledged the ‘Tuareg’of North Africa in deep blue costumes, in 2004 the dancers dressed in red as the symbol of women’s power. Delilah’s message to the dancers that year was:
"We are living in perilous times. They could very well be some of the last days. We cannot keep running things in the ways of the past. We need new energy, we need new ideas and creativity. We need women to be more present. We need the Mother energy. It is time for women to step up and take their turn. It isn’t even a choice anymore, it is a responsibility….. Start talking to each other about politics more. Don’t be afraid to voice your opinion and to influence women around you. We all have power! We all have opportunities for influence. What is your power? Define it for yourself! Use it! I am using my power by influencing you now. I say, ‘Make sure you are a registered voter!’ I’m not saying how to vote. I’m saying USE YOUR POWER!"11
A symbol of this power was the 2007 project to build a model of an ancient Egyptian temple which could be set up and taken down as the parade moved through the streets of Seattle. Over 200 dancers from across the United States participated. Some of these dancers received a DVD prior to the event that taught the choreography to be used in the dance. All of the dancers converged in Seattle prior to the Fremont parade to rehearse and to participate in a ten-day combination of workshops and classes. Delilah is planning an even larger events for the future such as the 2008 event dedicated to Peace in support of the woman’s organization Code Pink and using the color hot fuschia pink. Dancers will come from a variety of styles within the belly dance community from tribal to ethnic to cabaret. As with earlier projects, Delilah’s goal is to revise the vision of women as incapable of taking on the issues of the day, and replace it with but an image of a woman who like in Delilah’s image of Aphrodite is “pleasant, feminine, and charming,” but is also “powerful.”12
Controlling the Image
The powerful images on TV, in movies and magazines can throw us into obsessions and insecurities about our looks, age, weight, and economic or professional status. Ignored are real values such as nourishing our creative spirits, practicing compassion and care-taking of our families, communities, and our earth.
Delilah communicates with the global belly dance community through her website titled Visionary Dance Productions. She created the website and associated production company in order to promote the image of her philosophy and her approach to the dance. An image that is resistant to mainstream television. For example, Delilah was able to perform and record “The Dance to the Great Mother,” a piece she performed at concerts in the Seattle area in 1985 when she was pregnant with her second child. In conversations, she notes it was not a project that would have been supported by the average production company as it does not reflect the media image of the seductive belly dancer. The video performance does, however, represent Delilah’s aesthetic philosophy of the magnificence of the female body and its ability to be creative whether in giving birth or in devising solutions to social problems. Besides which, twenty-five percent of the profits are designated to support women’s causes through ‘Birth and Life’ women’s shelters and the March of Dimes.
Beyond allowing her to promote video and digital projects about which she is passionate, the website also provides opportunities for correspondence between Delilah and the dancers from across the globe in blogs and in a large interactive group of essays referred to as Alexandra’s Library, a reference to the famous library of Egypt. The essays in the collection are by Delilah and other dancers. They incorporate personal reflections of individual dancers’ experiences of dancing in nature, the role of the dance in empowering their lives, references to dancing and pregnancy, dancing and body image, and health in general. The site is also where those interested in the Fremont Parade and ‘Billion Belly March’ stay in contact with each other.
The extensive web and production services also include a series of DVD’s that offer different levels of instruction and performances by Delilah as well as CD’s by musicians based in North Africa and the Middle East (Hakim Yaho) and renditions by American musicians (Sirocco, House of Tarab, Brothers of the Baladi), some which fall into the global beat category such as Necmi Cavli. She also sells belly dance accessories–costumes, veils, etc. Income generated from web sales is a fundamental supplement to the classes and workshops she teaches in Seattle and elsewhere.
Stay flexible in body, mind and spirit
Each stage of a woman’s life brings something unique: The strength and agile beauty of youth, to the zophtic, sensual nurturance and wealth of experience in mid-life, to the wise woman cultivated by charisma and maturity, and much more.
One afternoon as the dancers in the Hawaii workshop were sharing their stories about the significance of dance in their lives, Delilah suggested that a flexible body helps evolve a flexible mind and spirit. A flexible stance is necessary to understanding the complex interrelationship between earth, wind, water, plants, and animals and, therefore, provides an opportunity for individuals to explore the possibilities of the flexible integration of their body, mind and spirit. This is a ‘state of being’ Delilah brings to her performance as dancer, teacher, artist, and political activist. She has not limited herself to specific stages or venues or styles. Instead, she has performed in the restaurants, on stages in choreographed pieces, created movement rituals, and performed in other venues that allow an expression of the joy and power within of female body. In this variety of performance modes, she serves to remind the dancers who work with her not only to stay flexible, but that they are the embodiment of earth’s consciousness.
1, 2- Personal Communication, September 1998.
3. Personal Statement from Absolute Beginning Bellydance
4. The Books by Marija Gimbutas The Living Goddesses, The Language of the Goddess, and The Goddesses and the Gods of Old Europe inspired many women during the second wave of feminism.
5. Delilah’s observation in retreat class, January 2008.
6. Delilah, http://www.visionarydance.com/revivingophelia.html, 2008
7. Delilah’s observation in retreat class, January 2008.
8. The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth, New York, Harper and Row, 1987.
9. Personal Communication, September 1998.
10. Delilah’s observation in retreat class, January 2008.
11, 12, 13, 14 Delilah. http://www.visionarydance.com various pages
Gold Costumed photo is by Jennifer Richard
Trouphy Photo is by Joe Butts
Under Water photo by Steven Flynn
In the HOH Rain Forest by Steven Flynn
Parade Photo is by Jerry Johnson
China Syndrome is a Stock Photo
Ready for more?
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Serene Blake was born in the Bronx on Aug. 8, 1933 into a Vaudeville family of performers called Blake & Blake. Her mother sang and her father played the banjo. Her childhood and adolescent years intersected with the Vaudeville stage, on which she often appeared with her parents in the 1930s.
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