WIT welcomes Emily Wright as a guest poster. Emily has both a MFA and PhD in Dance, and she is the author of the forthcoming book, Dancing to Transform: How Concert Dance Becomes Religious in American Christianity (Intellect Press). Her current research focuses on the role of embodiment in community formation and the intersections of art, ecology, and spirituality. Learn more at www.emilywrightdance.com.
As I step off the path, the soft ground gently yields to my weight. The smell of muddy earth rises to meet me. A dog barks in the distance, and the sounds of children’s voices, elevated in play, mingle with the rattle of bare branches in the wind. The stream burbles softly. Further along, it slows almost to a standstill, its outlet clogged by fallen leaves. My dog noses the grass, scenting small animals burrowing under our feet. This place invites me to move slowly, testing my footing before allowing my steps to sink into the earth. I extend my arms to either side to support my balance. As I do, I feel the sense of expansiveness this movement invites. I reach my arms further, stretching toward the warm blue sky. I turn toward the sound of crunching gravel, the footfalls of a passing hiker. As we exchange greetings, I return his bemused glance with a small smile. I feel no need to offer an explanation as I resume my streamside dance…
This spring, I will participate in the National Water Dance project, an artist-driven collective of dancers and community members who create and perform simultaneous, site-specific movement choirs to bring attention to critical water issues. (To learn more about the National Water Dance project and how you can get involved, visit www.nwdprojects.org.) On April 18, 2020, at 4 pm EST, groups from 32 states and Puerto Rico will dance together as an expression of our shared commitment to and interdependence with our aquatic ecosystems.
I have always been drawn to creative practices of bodily movement. My earliest experiences with dancing conveyed a sense of its unique capacity to impart serious – even sacred – ideas in ways that other forms of communication did not. At the same time, my Christian religious up-bringing seemed to ignore or denigrate the role of embodiment almost entirely. Eventually, as I write about in my forthcoming book Dancing to Transform, the twin streams of dance and Christianity converged in my life into a river of such turbulent force that it carved a trajectory that continues to influence my adulthood, both personally and professionally.
Yet, in my work as a dance artist and scholar, I continue to hear variations on the question, “Why dance?” What relevance does dance outside of the aesthetic realm? What significance does it have for Christianity – or any religious or philosophical tradition, for that matter? And when it comes to pressing issues like climate crisis, what does dances offer us that scientists, climate activists, and politicians do not?
These questions stem from a dualistic perspective deeply imbedded in western culture that conceives of bodies and minds as separate entities. In this configuration, minds do the essential work of discerning truth, developing ideas, and determining right actions, while bodies are merely vehicles to actualize these processes. This same dualism has been used to justify the subjugation of women and nature, entities also commonly associated with the body in western culture.
The nascent field of ecotheology combines the disciplines of ecology (the study of dynamically interacting systems of living organisms and their environments) and theology (the study of Christian belief and practice). Ecotheologians often employ metaphors of embodiment to generate more robust theological justifications for environmentalism that reimagine the relationships between matter and spirit, bodies and minds, women and men, creation and humanity. For example, in The Body of God, Sallie McFague writes
As we are inspirited bodies – living, loving, thinking, bodies – so, imagining God in our image (for how else can we model God?), we speak of her as the inspirited body of the entire universe, the animating, living spirit that produces, guides, and saves all that is.Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Fortress Press, 1993), 20
Yet, in keeping embodiment in the realm of metaphor, ecotheologians miss an opportunity to contend with the embodied knowledges that lived experiences can produce.
The field of dance studies offers alternative perspectives that perceive our bodily selves as the generative conditions from which all thinking, feeling, and acting arise. In other words, from our earliest moments of conception, as Kimerer LaMothe writes, “the movements we make make us” (Kimerer LaMothe, Why We Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming (Columbia University Press, 2015)). As a way to attend to these dynamics, somatic movement practices emerged as a means to cultivate awareness of, and conscious interaction with, habitual ways of moving.* Somatic movement practices are a range of modalities – including Pilates, Feldenkrais and Alexander techniques, Body-Mind Centering, and contact improvisation, among others – that invite practitioners to attend to bodily sensations while moving slowly and gently in order to find the most efficient and enjoyable ways of moving.
As a more recent extension of these disciplines, the field of eco-somatics cultivates an attention to the movement patterns of our own bodily selves in relationship to the bodies of other living beings and the natural world enables us to discern more effective, efficient and enjoyable ways of being in and with the world. Yet, somatics in general tends to prioritize the physical and immediate over the spiritual and durable. Thus, neither ecotheology nor eco-somatics adequately addresses the complex web of relations between ecology, belief, practice, and embodiment.
This returns us to the initial question – why dance? And, perhaps more specifically, can we dance in ways that open our sensory awareness to our inter-connectedness to ourselves, to each other, to God, to the world? How might the lived experience of interconnection inspire new opportunities to move in ways that support mutually life-enabling relationships between all living beings? To do so, I suggest, would be to enact an eco-somatic theology that acknowledges our common embodiment as the foundation for meaningful change.
I bend down to touch the earth. As I return to standing, I press my hand to my chest and then my eyes. I reach my hands over my head and stretch them out to either side, palms out, as if to push away my complacency. I stoop forward again; this time reaching to dip my fingertips in the stream. As I skim the surface a spray of droplets sparkles the air. To my left and right, a line of others does the same. There is laughter and music. My fluid body (at least 60% of me is water) within mirrors the fluid body without. Water is life.
*Thomas Hanna is credited with coining the term somatics, (drawn from the wholistic notion of embodiment expressed in Greek concept of the soma) in the 1970s to refer to a range of practices that focused on the subjective experience, or felt-sense, of one’s own body. See Martha Eddy, “A Brief History of Somatic Practices and Dance: Historical Development of the Field of Somatic Education and Its Relationship to Dance,” Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices 1, no. 1 (2009): 5-27.