This form of sacred dance has evolved in the School as a way of expressing beauty and spirituality in movement. Sue works with people of all ages and ability, both in the School and in the village where she lives.
Sue Skelcey, London
As children, a friend and I staged music and dance concerts with boundless enthusiasm – and no one to watch! Later at teacher training college, although my special subject was pottery, I loved to watch friends during their dance rehearsals and performances. My love of dance has never waned and now I run dance groups both in the School and in Alfriston, where I live.
How did it start?
Dance in the School started in Holland, with someone who had studied both ballet and Kathak Indian classical dance. She introduced simple dances and rhythmic movements as a spiritual practice. These evolved over many years, also using aspects of Indian Bharatanatyam classical dance.
The dance practised in the School is called Abhinaya, which is a form of sacred dance. Abhinaya is a Sanskrit word that means ‘to carry towards’ the onlooker. This describes the gestures and emotion conveyed in the story-telling aspect of classical Indian dance. Its aim is to arouse love in the spectator.
Spiritual texts and prayers in both Sanskrit and English form the basis of sacred dance. Some are traditional in origin. We use both spoken texts as well as music and song. There is some lovely music available. One of the favourites is George Harrison and Ravi Shankar’s setting of the Bhagavad Geeta using the original Sanskrit text. An added bonus for us is that we learn the Sanskrit chants and prayers without any effort, as we love to ‘sing along’. We are also fortunate to have a talented pianist in the group, so we have live music.
What is the dance expressing?
From the beginning, the sacredness of the dance has been emphasised. The principles of Abhinaya as laid down by the ancient sage Nandikeshvara have been followed. These were formulated as:
“The dancer sings with her mouth, expresses the meaning of the song with her hands, indicates the emotions with her eyes, and beats the rhythm with her feet.”
We sing or chant with many of the dances performed. In order to express the emotional content we use hand gestures, body movements and shapes, foot positions, rhythmic steps and facial expressions. The nine main facial expressions called ‘rasas’ portray romantic love, humour, pathos, fury, heroic, disgust, fear, wonder, astonishment and peace. Currently we are working at introducing these facial expressions more fully into our practice.
By using the various forms of expression, the dancer conveys feeling and emotion to the onlooker in a potent way.
Sometimes we mime different scenarios. One of the favourites is making a garland of flowers. In mime, we pick the imaginary flowers and delicately thread them one by one onto an imaginary thread tied from left shoulder to right toe. The hand positions for this are so beautiful and the attention so fine that one can ‘see’ the thread and flowers as the garland forms. The performance continues with each dancer placing their garland gently over the head of another dancer, or member of the audience if there is one. It is very simple, but the emotional effect is powerful.
Another important guiding principle is:
Where the hand goes, the eye should go.
Where the eyes go the mind should also go there.
Where the mind goes, the heart should be,
And where the heart is, there love arises.
What do you wear?
We normally wear brightly coloured longish full skirts to give freedom of movement and as a reflection of the traditional Indian dancer’s costume. When used to full effect, the skirts make a striking spectacle. Male dancers would wear shalwar kameez, ie loose trousers, narrow at the ankles, and a tunic top. We dance with bare feet or very soft shoes and sometimes wear traditional ankle bells. These make a beautiful sound and emphasise the rhythm as the feet make pounding movements.
What about choreography for sacred dance?
It’s important for the group as a whole to take part in choreographing a new dance as this gives the opportunity to develop creativity – we also have a lot of laughs!
Both the meaning of the words and the sound and rhythm of the music are important. We consider the meaning of the words, reflect on them for a while in order to sense the meaning more deeply, and then use hand and body gestures and facial expressions to communicate the feeling in harmony with the music. Sometimes there is no music and then the words need to be spoken in a way that reflects the meaning and rhythm.
Sacred dance as spiritual practice
What drew me to this form of dance was the grace and beauty of movement and a real opportunity to practise the teaching of the School. Moving from a point of stillness with full attention takes some practice especially when learning something new. Even with a well-known dance, mistakes can happen if the mind ‘gets in the way.’ So it is instructive, but at the same time the process itself is very rewarding.
When I dance, I feel everything is connected; music moves the body, and in harmony with others. It’s like communication with the Supreme, and also a collective experience. It’s just not the same on my own. I love the inner quietness, which is unusual when your body is in movement.
The feeling of devotion is deep; the combination of beautiful sound (or in some cases, palpable silence) and expressive movement is so nourishing and cleansing that body and mind become one. The heart opens and a feeling of unity arises. There are not many circumstances where you can express love and gratitude in this way – sacred dance gives the space for this. We have found that this form of dance also opens the hearts of the audience and gives rise to peace, stillness and love all round.
We welcome participants from different backgrounds, with differing abilities and a wide age range – from 6 yrs. to 80 plus! The dance is also a very good form of physical exercise that helps with coordination, balance and training of body and mind.
There’s a quote from the Shamanic tradition in the form of questions “to those suffering from anxiety and depression”:
When did you stop dancing?
When did you stop singing?
When did you stop being enchanted by stories?
When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence?
Abhinaya provides experience of all these – that is why I find it so fulfilling. Come and join us!
Click on the link for opportunities to join in, either on a Saturday or an extended workshop! Participate