The Philadelphia-based Kun-Yang Lin and his dance artists (KYL/D) have embarked on a new creative endeavor called The Faith Project. A primary goal of this project is to explore the relationship between religion and dance, and in particular the ability of dancing to facilitate communication and empathy across religious differences. Through a series of “Story Circles,” which bring the KYL/D dance artists together with small groups of religious practitioners who work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, Kun Yang and his company hope to gather resources and inspiration for creating their next concert piece.
I am delighted to be helping KYL/D with this project and these Story Circles. I deeply believe that when it comes to the relationship between religion and dance, it is not enough to think about it and write about it; it is also necessary to work it out, dance it out, pray it out, and make it real. Throughout human history, the particular shape of this relationship is nowhere given once and for all; it is always being created and recreated, for it lives in the movements that make up our bodily selves.
Further, when it comes to the modern west, this relationship is worthy of particular care and attention. It bears repeating that the conceptual and in large part practical distinction between “dance” and “religion” that dominates modern western art, religion, and scholarship represents one way in which the forces of colonialism continue to circulate.
In so far as this distinction is taken for granted as common sense, even by those who are working to bring the two together, then the disciplinary efforts of major European powers go unchecked. For over four centuries around the world with few exceptions, imperial agents sought to curtail, devalue, and otherwise eradicate dance traditions, and then point to that destruction as proof of white, male, Christian political and intellectual supremacy -- as proof that dance is not religion.
Given this history, contemporary conversations about whether and how dance is religious often unwittingly reinforce the very devaluation of dance they purport to reject. Dance remains something that must be qualified so that, in certain settings and situations, performed with certain content or intent, it can acquire legitimacy as “religion.”
However, it is also true that a raft of dancers and scholars – including members of the the KYL/D company – are calling upon dance as a mode of expressing, experiencing, manifesting, and even defining “religion.” The Faith Project is timely and important.
In our first Story Circle, my goal was to put the distinction between dance and religion in play – to find ways of crossing between the two that revealed their interdependence – and then to invite dance artists and faith practitioners to reflect on that play from their own perspectives.
I asked participants to pick a card identifying one of five natural phenomena, and to form a group with others who had picked the the same: river, tree, mountain, wind, sun. I asked participants to consider each phenomenon not as a thing but as an invitation to move.
I asked: what kinds of movement does this phenomenon invite you to do? Inspire you to do? Require you to do? What is your experience of it – in movement? I asked participants to identify three such movements and string them together into a sequence.
In this exercise, I wanted faith practitioners to experience themselves as movement makers. I wanted the dance artists to experience their movement apart from a particular technique. I wanted to shift all participants out of a verbal mode of conversing about religion and dance.
Even more, I wanted to test a theory -- the idea that patterns of bodily movement, rather than beliefs and rituals, comprise the generative core of human religion.
The natural phenomena I chose, as far as I know, appear in every religious tradition as bearing some relationship – whether historical, narrative, or symbolic -- to a sense or source of notable power. Early phenomenologists of religion treated such phenomena as material objects to which humans assign supernatural power. Their work funded the evolutionary theories of religion that justified colonial destruction of dance traditions – theories that equated progress with an ability to distinguish natural from supernatural power – and dance from religion. Thus, a reconsideration of these “objects” seemed like the perfect place to begin.
What if we consider such natural phenomenon as invitations to move? What if the movements that such objects inspire become the kinetic, sensory templates through which persons sense and respond to the divine? What would such explorations help us learn about dance and about religion?
For example, take a mountain. A mountain invites me to move in particular patterns. It invites me to draw near to it; to walk around it; to look up at it; to climb it – and to doubt my ability to do so. It invites me to persevere to the peak, to endure hardships along the way, and to receive the incredible blast of spaciousness that a view at the top provides.
Whatever movement patterns I make in relation to a mountain – the movement patterns it invites me to make – change me. They orient my senses, teaching me to perceive the appearances and sensations that my movement patterns enable -- the struggle, the pitch, the height, the breaking out. It is not just that "I" have an experience of "the mountain," as if our relationship were a subject-object binary. Rather, the movements the mountain calls forth in me make me -- they become the patterns of sensing and responding that guide my thinking, feeling, and acting when I am not on the mountain.
Maybe, then, the question to ask a given faith tradition is not whether the mountain, river, or tree is really sacred, but, how the movements that this phenomenon invites a person to make help that person learn to think and feel and know what something “holy” is?
So too, maybe the question to ask about dancing is not whether its movements are actually performed by a god/dess or possessing spirit, but how the particular movement patterns people are making cultivate in them an ability to sense and respond to what those movement patterns allow them to perceive as real.
To make the movements in relation to natural phenomena that the phenomena invite is to become someone who can appreciate these phenomena as sources of power – sources of the power to create a person into who she is and can be.
In a second task, I gave each group an ordinary cultural object that has similarly been used to signify notable power. I invited them to do the same exercise, this time as a group, creating one dance together. Again, I wanted to offer them an opportunity to experience objects as invitations to move – chair, door, tower, room, table.
To end our movement explorations, I took a leap and asked all participants to come up with one answer that would serve as the answer to three different questions. What do you most love? What do you most fear? What is the source of your greatest strength? I asked them to think about this answer too as an invitation to move.
My questions were, of course, inspired by accounts of the sacred that note its paradoxical qualities (as in Rudolf Otto’s classic mysterium tremendum) – joy and horror, love and fear. My hope was that the experiences of approaching natural and cultural phenomena as invitations to move would provide participants with an opportunity to feel new impulses to move in relation to something complex that mattered to them in an immediate and personal way.
What amazed me was how quickly everyone seemed to understand what I was asking. Everyone came up with an answer. A concrete answer, that by its very nature, was more of a question, a conundrum, a reality rife with paradox. Everyone started improvising, making their own dances. From my perspective, the energy in the room shifted. The intensity and focus deepened. People were engaging dance as a resource for expanding and manifesting their lived relationship to the paradoxes of living.
My experience of the first Story Circle has helped sharpen my own questions.
What difference would it make to perceive religion, both conceptually and bodily, as a dynamic, generative collection of movement patterns, inspired over millennia by a range of natural and cultural phenomena?
Would it be possible to invite people of different traditions to move in response to one another as aa way to extend the sensory patterns that bind our mental understanding?
Is there something to be gained by mirroring each other’s movements, or by moving in relation to phenomena that are appearing to others, and thus extending our own repertoire of perception?
Do dance artists in the modern west who have studied the ostensibly secular forms of modern dance and ballet have a particular role to play in this kind of mediation?
The Faith Project promises more opportunities to explore and extend these reflections. It is on track to advance our understanding of how movement patterns –and practices of dancing – are at work shaping the realms we assume to be the most cerebral and spiritual. And vice versa.
Dance may well be the medium through which diverging senses of what matters converge in a shared commitment to the earth that sustains us all.
Stay tuned for the second Story Circle.
Kimerer LaMothe, PhD, is the author of Why We Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming (Columbia, 2015).