Sid Hetzler wrote:
> Norm, please email me a copy of your talk. May I put it on my web page?
I would be flattered. Attached, probably in-line, is a Web formatted
version for you of some of the service. I do definitely consider it still a
work in progress, hence the comment at the top. In addition, I would love
to mail you a copy of the Order of Service and the Sermon reprint, both of
which used your print on the cover. Also, we used three dance related
pieces of music, two UU Hymns and a Choral Anthem, in addition to actual
Contra dance music (piano and fiddle) and sit-down square dancing in the
service. People loved it.
(What follows are excerpts from a Worship Service led by Norm Stewart at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Monterey Peninsula on the Vernal Equinox, 1999. Norm expects that this service and sermon will be continually evolving and that he will probably do it somewhere about every two years for the rest of my life.) We hope he does it at Split Tree soon.
(adapted from Michael Leunig)
I offer this prayer to a Spirit which I believe is greater than all of us and yet present in each and every one of us. I pray that today, we will be open to other ways of being, other ways of knowing.
Across the difficult terrain of our existence we have attempted to build a highway and in so doing have lost our footpath. Lead us to our footpath: Lead us there where in simplicity we may move at the speed of natural creatures and feel the earth's love beneath our feet.
Lead us there where step-by-step we may feel the movement of creation in our hearts. And lead us there where side-by-side we may feel the embrace of the common soul. Nothing can be loved at speed. Lead us to the slow path; to the joyous insights of the pilgrim; another way of knowing: another way of being. Blessed be -- Amen -- Asche
In preparing for this morning, I thought a little historical background appropriate. I wanted to share a few items that I feel are useful for putting my personal reflection into some religious context.
A connection between dancing, religion and spirituality is certainly not an original concept on my part. Liturgical dancing as a form of religious worship is "depicted in Stone Age cave paintings [and] it is still a feature of the observances of most of the world's major religions. The Jewish Hasidim dance . . . ; the Whirling Dervishes . . . ; Hindu temple dancing . . . ; [dancing] can [also] be witnessed at Buddhist and Shinto shrines . . . ."
While Christian history is quite ambivalent about dancing, both inside and outside of the church, there are numerous references in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament that support dance as a form of worship. In both Psalm 149 and 150 there are clear instructions to praise God with dancing and in Ecclesiastes we are told that "for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven" and that includes "a time to dance."
The Shakers who gave us the song, Simple Gifts, and it's tune, which was used for today's choral anthem were certainly a curious bunch. During "the late 18th and early 19th centuries [they had worship] services [which consisted] entirely of dancing and [they] put forth a series of arguments in its defence . . . ." On the other hand, the same dancing Shakers thought total abstinence in sexual matters was the godly way to go and in so doing self-selected their own extinction.
While the Shakers were dancing their way out of existence, the early American Unitarians were nurturing a much more intellectual, less carnal approach to religion and matters of the spirit.
The Shakers certainly appear to have been more that a little schizophrenic about their bodies. That schizophrenia seems to encompass in one small sect, the broad spectrum of confusion concerning our bodies that most of us have inherited from our Judaeo-Christian heritage. Individually and societally, I suspect we still have a ways to go before we reach what might be considered a "right relationship" between our minds and our bodies.
I am not really here today to discuss either the Shakers, our early Unitarian
forebears, or liturgical dancing. I did however want to place worshipful dance in some
historical context and simultaneously point out the generally long-held suspicion of
things bodily as some how inferior to activities of the mind or spirit.
All of that said, I know that some of you will also be very happy to know that I am not here to propose that we include any form of dancing in our worship services here on a regular basis.
Hopefully, some of you will be able to relax a little bit now.
As announced in the Nuusletter, I am here today to briefly look at how dance might be a spiritual practice. More specifically, how one particular form of dancing, Contra Dancing, which is increasingly also becoming known as Community Dancing, has, I believe become a form of spiritual practice for myself and others I know..
I have intentionally limited myself to talking about Contra Dancing. I know that we have many people in this congregation who regularly participate in and enjoy many other types of dancing. From ballet and ballroom to various international dance forms and probably others that I may not be aware of yet. My guess is that for some of those people, dancing may also be spiritual practice. Hopefully, I will soon assemble a poster that has the names of contacts for the many different types of dance this church community enjoys. For today though, I will limit my remarks to Contra Dancing, which I will explain a little more about in a few minutes.
First however, I would imagine that some of you might be asking yourself, "what exactly does this guy Norm mean by spiritual practice?" For many Unitarian Universalists, spiritual and practice, especially when used together in the same sentence are not exactly household words. When I went to the dictionary and looked up spiritual, the various definitions were clear about one thing it seemed. Spiritual was about "the spirit or the soul as distinguished from the body or material matters." Spiritual is not about things carnal . . . , corporeal . . . , the corpus, the flesh, the body. It is about things ethereal which by definition are neither physical . . . nor rational.
Dancing, on the other hand is clearly about things bodily, physical, material, and carnal.
Practice in the sense that I am using it here means to do something regularly to become more comfortable and skillful at it. This sense of the word practice is not all that different from practicing to play the piano. Where this gets a little tricky for many of us rational Unitarian Universalists is how do we practice doing something that isn't physical, material or rational?
Is it possible then for something as embodied as dancing to connect us to something as disembodied as the spirit?
For purposes of discussion and expediency, at this point, I am going to suggest that, at least for the next several minutes, that you consider using my current definition of spiritual practice. For me, spiritual practice is simply something that brings me either closer to, or in greater awareness of: the highest and best in myself, in others, and in the cosmic community, in all of it's glorious expansiveness.
Now if you have been paying any attention over the last 25 or 30 years, you have no doubt at least heard about and perhaps personally explored, some of the many different opportunities that abound for spiritual practice. Within this building we either offer or have offered in the past many different such practices from which to choose. The Mindfulness Meditation group, the Kundilini Yoga group and the Course in Miracles study group are just a few examples that come to mind.
George Williams, my teacher of World Religions at Starr King School for the Ministry gave us a list of 25-30 excellent suggestions for spiritual practice if you haven't found something that appeals to you yet. Copies of that list are available in the foyer.
The choices are many. No where before, however, have I come across any one suggesting Contra Dancing as spiritual practice.
So what exactly is Contra Dancing?
If you were single and I was trying to entice you to come Contra Dancing, I would probably tell you that Contra Dancing is walking and flirting to music with an occasional square dance move thrown in. And, I would tell you that we always dance to wonderful, real, live music. Music that is mostly made by local people who we eventually get to know as members of the dance community. People like our accompanist, Pauline Thomas Troia, who Kathryn and I first saw at a dance on a Saturday night before my first visit to this church a year-and-a-half ago. We saw her again the next morning accompanying our choir. And music that is made by people like Peter Hicks, our very talented guest fiddler this morning.
The more-or-less official definition of Contra Dancing is "community dancing for groups of couples." As background I would add that . . . it is dancing in the country dance tradition of the British Isles and that it came into this country by way of New England.
Community dancing means that when you come to one of these dances the etiquette is that you will dance with different partners most every dance even if you came with your significant other. Kathryn and I usually dance the first and last dance of an evening together. The other 8-10 dances in a typical evening we dance with 8-10 other members of the dancing community.
The word "groups" in the definition means that the dances are done in circles, squares or long lines. Because these are couple dances, you are always dancing with a partner who is typically, but not always, a member of the opposite sex. Within the groups of circles, squares or lines, you and your current partner are usually dancing with at least one other couple for each cycle through the dance. As a couple, you then move on to another couple for the next cycle and the dance repeats. This progression from couple to couple repeats every 30 seconds or so, just as regularly as spring follows winter, until hopefully you have danced with everyone in your group.
Almost every dance is taught first and then prompted by a caller until, after several cycles through it, people have learned the dance. And then it is just the music . . . and the flow of the dance . . . and the dancers moving in rhythmic kaleidoscopic patterns. And the circles they go round and round . . .
The actual footwork is merely walking. The figures are very simple, basic and few in number. Most people can learn the basics in 4-6 evenings. As a matter of fact, it is so simple, that if you were to approach it from a purely analytical perspective, you might find it simplistic and maybe even boring. However, while the dance is fairly simple, the variety of the dancers and the randomness with which they inter connect in each dance makes each dance unique and joyful for me.
Erik Hoffman, a dancer and caller who lives in Oakland believes that there are three types of dancers. (As I thought about this I saw some parallels to spiritual seekers in his dancer types. So, from here on if you are not interested in dancing pretend that I am talking about life.) Erik identifies the first type as the beginner . . . those people who are just starting to dance. Almost everyone is a beginner for awhile. The dance community has an ethic of trying to be gently supportive and kind with beginning dancers. As in other areas of life, those of us who are more familiar with the dance, don't always do as well embracing the stranger as perhaps we could or would like to think we do.
The second type of dancer is what Erik calls the "hot-shot." They've learned all of the basic stuff and perhaps a few extra slick flourishes and they want everyone to know that they know what's happening. It is at this stage that some dancers begin to figure that they know-it-all, get bored and decide to take up some other activity.
The third type of dancer is what Erik calls community dancers. These people have acquired some skills, may actually even be a pretty good dancer, but more importantly they have come to realize that this really isn't about dancing. It is about relationships. It is about community and our connection to that community.
How does that connection happen?
For one thing, the connection tends to happens slowly. As we cycle through the dances with our dancing partners and neighbors we begin to get to know them. We begin to show up on a regular basis. We begin to realize that it is in fact, as Sydney Carter said in our earlier reading, "playing the game," that really does matter. And slowly, we begin to make friends and connections to this community. Kathryn and I became friends slowly, over a period of 4-5 years before we eventually became life partners. The dance community made that slowness possible.
And in a very real sense, the connection is also physical. Sam Keen, in his book, To a Dancing God, asked a very poignant question. "Is it really possible to be in touch without touching, to be moved without moving?" In the dance we are almost always touching and moving and connected to others.
When Kathryn and I got married (29 months ago next week for those of you who are keeping up with it), we wrote our own wedding service and vows. Mostly with stuff we stole from other sources who in turn had apparently pirated it from still others. In researching today's sermon, I came across material that we had used in our service without knowing the original source of it. The author it turns out was Anne Morrow Lindbergh. In Gift From the Sea, she wrote,
A good relationship has a pattern like a dance and is built on some of the same rules. The partners do not need to hold on tightly, because they move confidently in the same pattern . . . like a country dance . . . . To touch heavily would be to arrest the pattern and freeze the movement, to check the endlessly changing beauty of its unfolding. There is no place here for the possessive clutch, the clinging arm, the heavy hand; only the barest touch in passing. Now arm in arm, now face to face, now back to back--it does not matter which. Because they know they are partners moving to the same rhythm, creating a pattern together, and being invisibly nourished by it. The joy of such a pattern is not only the joy of creation or the joy of participation, it is also the joy of living in the moment. Lightness of touch and living in the moment are intertwined.
It is this living in the moment, intimately connected ever so briefly in a good relationship with my partner and my neighbors. In touch . . . touching . . . moving together, but not clinging to one another . . . , it is here that the dance becomes spiritual for me. In that moment, I can not be thinking of anything but the dance. Not what I have to do tomorrow. Not how poorly I may have done something yesterday. Or not how many bills are still waiting to be paid. In that moment I am totally absorbed in the dance.
In those moments I begin to get in touch with the highest and best in myself, my current partner, the other couple we are dancing with, the group we are dancing with, and the whole room with whom we are dancing. I realize that I and all of us are a part of something that we have both co-created with each other and what at least in that moment feels like a much greater dance.
And I am aware that in the dance of life we are all still beginners. And I realize that this is not about dancing. And I am aware that the seasons of life will come and go whether I choose to dance or not.
Let it be a dance we do.
READING -- a poem by Wendell Berry
Within the circles of our lives
we dance the circles of the years,
the circles of the seasons
within the circles of the years,
the cycles of the moon
within the circles of the seasons,
the circles or our reasons
within the cycles of the moon.
Again, again we come and go,
changed, changing. Hands
join, unjoin in love and fear,
grief and joy. The circles turn,
each giving into each, into all.
Only music keeps us here,
each by all the others held.
In the hold of hands and eyes
we turn in pairs, that joining
joining each to all again.
And then we turn aside, alone,
out of the sunlight gone
into the darker circles of return.