“Martha Graham said, ‘A dancer is not great because of her technique. A dancer is great because of her passion.’ Dancing lifts and carries me away to a place where my soul is free. Belly dancing is one of those dances that calls to your soul. When you answer its call, healing begins. The movements are ancient, and though they vary within cultures, the core remains like a beam of light connecting us directly with Spirit. It’s that connection of love that allows us to peel away the outside world and experience pure joy! That is why I belly dance.”
“Belly dance is my prayer, my religion, my sensuality, sexuality and power all rolled into one. Belly dance is healing, cathartic, and as necessary as breathing. Like Zorba the Greek, who cannot talk about the death of his toddler son, but can only dance in grief; I have danced on stage with tears running down my face and I have put my rage into my shimmies.”
“Belly dancing is a beautiful way to honor and celebrate the feminine as well as claim my divine power. At my best moments, the dance does not come from me, but rather comes through me. I am merely a vehicle for this ancient sacred dance.” – Lilith, sacredbellydance.com
“As I observed the way donning a skirt altered the appearance of a simple hip circle, it was as if I was having a religious experience.”
– Thea, “To Teach or Not to Teach”
“I took a belly dancing class at the Rancho La Puerta Spa several years ago. I had the most incredible sense of once knowing this dance and, somehow, having had that knowledge taken away. When I first started to do a simple veil dance, I nearly fell to the floor sobbing. It was a profound and powerful experience that I will never forget…belly dance reawakens ancient wisdom in our bodies.”
– Christiane Northrup, M.D.
“Executing my first hip circle I felt something so profound. It was as if I was a channeling vessel of energy between heaven and earth.”
– Barbra Donohue, The Dancing Spirit
I fell madly, passionately in love with belly dance in my late thirties. Quickly it became one of my most driving passions. Six years later, it has influenced every corner of my life, taking over my closets, my music collection, my tastes in home décor, my future plans, my spiritual life, and my dreams.
I have always loved to dance. I’ve been dancing since I was a youngster. I started out taking classes in jazz, ballet, and modern dance, and I performed for a very short time in a dance touring ensemble at a community college. Everyone in my family dances, and enjoys watching dance performances. My mother and stepfather, who are in their mid-seventies, still go ballroom dancing every Friday night, just as they have for the past twenty-some years. Before my father died, my parents often went square dancing together. My brother and I both spent many enjoyable nights dancing at goth clubs, techno clubs, and raves. But it was not until I found belly dance – and in particular, dark fusion or gothic belly dance – that I knew I had finally found where I belonged.
Early on I found myself attracted to the belly dance “persona,” albeit in a limited way. The first time I dressed as a belly dancer was in my teen years in the 1980s, when my then-boyfriend and I rented costumes and dressed as a sultan and a harem girl for Halloween. I remember having a fleeting thought that the belly dance costume seemed cheap and was not particularly flattering or attractive on me, but I was a typical nerd – fairly clueless about fashion – so I simply wore the costume, smiled for the photos, enjoyed the Halloween festivities, and promptly forgot all about it.
In my mid-twenties, I stumbled upon an instructional belly dance video at a bookstore. I bought it on a whim. I was completely clueless about the history of belly dance at the time, and frankly, I didn’t much care. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I think I had some vague notion that learning belly dance would give me some hot club moves, and maybe even help me get laid more often. I had no idea how much it would ultimately change my life, or how deep it would eventually take me into my own inner self and shadow side.
As I watched the video, I remember being surprised that the dancers were performing in a studio, just like aerobics or Pilates instructors would, and not in a restaurant. I liked the slinky moves I saw, and I felt a mild attraction to some of the costumes, though by that time I was very heavily involved in the goth scene and I remember wishing the costumes were black. Soon afterward I got a coin belt as a gift, and I practiced dancing in it. I considered signing up for a class.
This marked the first time it had come to my attention that belly dancing might potentially exist in any context other than a nightclub or a Middle Eastern restaurant. I had absorbed all the stereotypical misconceptions about belly dance: it’s only for exotic looking, doe-eyed model types with perfect hourglass figures and pasted-on smiles, who are willing to prance about in pink chiffon and sequins, dance scantily clad, and fend off drunken, leering frat boys trying to cop a feel as they stuffed sweaty fivers into their cleavage. That wasn’t me, not by a long shot. I had already been rudely groped by far too many drunken men in the days when I worked as a cocktail server, and wasn’t exactly eager to subject myself to that kind of harassment again, to put it mildly. Furthermore, I refused to wear anything pink, flashy, or stereotypically feminine, because it offended my fledgling aesthetic sense. I was a brooding, introverted rivethead with stompy boots, an uppity feminist attitude, and a wardrobe that was 95% black. I imagined I’d be laughed out of the belly dance class in shame if I showed up all decked out in black and hoping to dance to Skinny Puppy. So, I concluded semi-reluctantly, belly dance wasn’t for me.
I continued to dance in goth clubs, but I stopped belly dancing, and eventually got rid of the video. For ten more years I carried on this way, assuming I’d just have to stick to club dancing, because I figured black-clad freaks like me who only wanted to dance to darker music wouldn’t be accepted in the belly dance world.
Then, in early 2006, during a short-lived fascination with all things medieval and Renaissance, I picked up a copy of Renaissance Magazine. On the cover was an enchanting photo of a tattooed, tribal fusion belly dancer named Rachel Brice. I had never seen a belly dancer dressed like that, and I was irresistibly drawn in. I had to learn more. I searched for Rachel Brice online. In the course of that search, I found an article on The Gilded Serpent that introduced me to a new phenomenon called gothic belly dance. Surprised and elated, I immediately devoured every tidbit of information I could find on the topic. Fortunately for me, the first Gothic Bellydance DVD had just been released a few months prior, and thanks to the Internet, I had a copy at my door within the space of a week.
Fortunately, I happened to be home alone on the afternoon the Gothic Bellydance DVD arrived, and was free to watch it at my leisure. I squealed like a schoolgirl with a crush when I tore open the package and beheld the cover, with dark fusion dancers Tempest and Ariellah looking strong and radiant in their gothic belly dance finery. I poured myself a cup of my favourite smoky lapsang souchong tea, reclined on my fluffy pillows, and sat back to watch the DVD, practically bursting at the seams with giddy anticipation.
Right off the bat, I was hooked. Asharah was the first gothic bellydancer I had ever seen, and she was so beautiful and mesmerising that I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. Just what I’d been waiting for! Everything about her piece spoke to me deeply. The black costume with red accents, the lighting and background scenery that cast an otherworldly glow on her porcelain skin, the haunting music, the veiled intro section slowly revealing her face in a shroud of mystery, the entire aesthetic…this dance felt sacred to me in a visceral way. Somehow I knew I’d found the key to open doors in my spiritual life. I craved more, more, more!
If only I had known about this before! Why, oh why, did it take me until the age of 38 – which is ancient, at least by ballet standards – to discover this? If only I had somehow been privy to the existence of tribal dance troupes like Fat Chance Belly Dance when I had lived in the Bay Area in the mid-1990s, surely I would have known that not all belly dancers are required to wear cabaret costumes or dance to stereotypical kinds of music. If I had been exposed to them earlier in life, my life might have taken an entirely different turn.
But so be it. Perhaps this particular dance path was not to be opened before me until I was completely ready, and it took until middle age for me to get there.
After that, my obsession with gothic belly dance became all-consuming. I watched the Gothic Bellydance DVD over and over and over, until I had memorised minute details of the costuming and choreography. I watched YouTube videos, many of which were so beautiful that they moved me to tears. I joined a tribal belly dance class. I got some instructional belly dance DVDs and a full-length mirror, and practiced in my living room. I spent days on end happily ensconced in searching out and combining costume pieces, collecting hordes of inspirational photos, practicing my shimmies, and researching the various styles of belly dance and the endless controversies over fusion styles. My over-the-top excitement over the second gothic bellydance DVD (featuring one of my all-time favourite performances by Shakra) and the first Gothla US probably alienated some of my friends, because for a time I showed little interest in talking about anything else. And like many other belly dancers, I got bitten – hard! – by the costume bug. After some time, I had accumulated enough costume gear that I had to set aside an entire separate closet for it, and finally I realised that I might need to learn to sew, do beadwork, or acquire other skills in order to make the kinds of dark fusion costume pieces I envisioned and coveted.
Even after I started taking tribal belly dance classes, though, I still felt there was no place in the belly dance community for me to fit in comfortably. I loved the modern, earthy feel of American Tribal Style and tribal fusion, but the music that moved me to dance was industrial, rhythmic noise, and dark ambient; I never heard music like this in belly dance classes. And as a Pagan polytheist, I found some of the attitudes I encountered in my classes quite off-putting. I remember that one of my tribal belly dance instructors promised the class that she was a rationalist who would never do any silly New Age things like chanting or burning incense. (It’s not a good idea to burn incense in a belly dance class anyway, since many people have allergic reactions to fragrances…but the implication was clear: all that woo-woo stuff is crap). Another dancer openly mocked dancers who claimed to dance for goddesses, and told me she had no patience for such ridiculous bullshit. As it happens, I, too, think New Age stuff is crap…but nonetheless, I didn’t feel welcome as a dark Pagan polytheist. Furthermore, I often found myself impatient with the focus on sweetness, sisterhood, and light in some parts of the belly dance community. Where, I wondered, was the darker spiritual side of the dance? I knew that’s where I wanted – needed – to be. I knew I wanted to do devotional and ritual dance, but not the shiny happy kind. I knew I wanted to dance primarily to harsh, confrontational, melancholy, sorrowful, and brooding music.
I’ve been belly dancing for six years now, in classes and in the privacy of my own home, and I still feel like an amateur. I dance just for the sake of the dance. Sometimes I’m asked when I plan to perform. The answer is: “Probably never.” I didn’t get into this dance to perform. In fact, I have actively resisted it. Even after I started getting compliments on my dancing from others, along with encouragement to get myself into performance shape – or at least some version of “performance shape” that accommodates the many limitations of my middle-aged body – I still resisted. I don’t enjoy being in the spotlight; I’m a classic introvert who is happy to leave that sort of thing to the folks who thrive on it.
The dance that I prefer to do is intended not as stage entertainment, but as a ritual offering of praise, service, emotional catharsis, and devotion to the dark and earthly divine. It’s a form of meditation, and a way of opening myself to altered states of awareness mediated and grounded through the Earth. Dance is also an embodied epistemological tool – it can be a way to receive divine guidance and access deep visceral wisdom through rhythmic movement. No matter how dissociated or anesthetised we may become by life in the modern world, there is still a great source of aliveness and intelligence living in the bones and flesh of our bodies that runs much deeper than is commonly acknowledged in our culture. For me, belly dance opens the door to this intelligence more effectively than any other kind of dance.
The dark themes, settings, and music I choose for my dance allow me to work toward deeper integration of my shadow side. These things facilitate my journey as I dance through the chaos of my own “negative” emotions; they provide a door into hidden inner worlds that cannot be accessed any other way.
“As a symbolic representation of a primordial event, the dance is performed with careful attention to detail, so as to ensure the efficacy of the rite, which sets out to invoke the transcendent power and utilize its influence.”
– Maria-Gabriele Wosien, Sacred Dance: Encounter with the Gods
One of the reasons I have no desire to perform in public venues is that there is often very little opportunity to exercise complete control over the surroundings in which the performance would take place. For dark fusion ritual dance especially, I believe the setting matters, and very deeply so. Sumptuous, inviting surroundings are a key element of captivating ritual performances. Ideally, dark fusion belly dance should have a luscious, savory deliciousness and a strong emotional impact. When I envision and choreograph a dark fusion dance piece, it incorporates various costume pieces, movements, colours, musical elements, symbols, and themes – all of which are deliberately designed to work together as a unified whole, and to create an overall mood and aesthetic. Take away any one of those elements, and the performance loses something vital. The dancer could be decked out in the most beautiful costume ever, have near-perfect technical skill, top-notch choreography, and superb music…but if she’s dancing at an outdoor event where there are, let’s say, barking dogs, a cluttered stage, and uncomfortable seating for the audience, then the impact of her performance will be lessened a great deal. Careful attention to detail and setting makes for better ritual magic, and heightens impact dramatically. For me, it is a large part of what makes a performance memorable.
Of necessity my studio apartment must also function as a ritual dance space, so I have had to stretch my creativity in order to figure out ways to decorate and arrange things such that the space will serve these purposes equally well. My home décor style has been called “dark Bohemian fusion.” There are lavish arrangements of draped fabrics in rich jewel tones, an abundance of plush overstuffed pillows, beaded tassels, diaphanous silken canopies, crushed black velvet, intricate paisley designs, lurex scarves, fringed lampshades, and much more. I enjoy making my dance space into a sanctuary and a living shrine to the dark divine. The mood – when I get it right, that is – is cavelike and intimate, with inviting nooks and dark intriguing corners. I want my guests to melt into states of joyful relaxation and openness when they enter my haven of sacred dance. I want their legs to go all rubbery underneath them as they feel the worries of the mundane world slip away and a world of dark mystery draws them in. I want them to feel just as relaxed and inspired to dance as I do.
But it’s not just the way I decorate my home that has been transformed by my obsession with dark fusion belly dance. My self-image has improved as well.
One thing I adore about belly dance is the way the exact same sequence of movements can have a completely different impact when done by a different dancer. I love watching how each move “plays out” on different body types, and natural variations in emphasis are endlessly intriguing to me. Through belly dance, I have learned to see and appreciate beauty in all kinds of embodied forms. It is truly the most body-positive form of dance I have ever encountered. The love-your-body vibe is not just about attitudes, though – it’s actually something deeper. It’s something that is contained within the movements themselves. These movements can be deeply transformative. It’s hard to explain what it’s like to someone who hasn’t experienced it for themselves, but I am utterly convinced that there is something in this dance that heals body, mind and spirit in profound and unforgettable ways. This dance has taken up residence in my bones and flesh, and in doing so, it has taught me to perceive my body as correct – exactly the way it is right now. Not flawless; not conventionally beautiful; but correct in a fundamental way that has nothing to do with how much I weigh or how I compare to others on the conventional attractiveness scale. Truly, this dance is a powerful antidote to body hatred.
Belly dance has a reputation as “sexy”, in part due to the seduce-your-husband image that has been used to promote belly dance commercially. Now, I won’t deny for a moment that the dance can indeed be extremely sexy, but much of its sex appeal for me comes from its subtly veiled spiritual mystery, slow, slinky snakelike movements, power, and earthiness. Middle age has brought me to a much deeper appreciation for the value of subtlety in eroticism, and I love to watch the back-and-forth interplay of effort and surrender in this dance form. I very much enjoy the raw, urgent kind of eroticism too, and certainly this kind can be every bit as sacred as any other kind…but belly dance, in my mind – even dark fusion belly dance – is not generally an appropriate vehicle for it. In most belly dance performances, there shouldn’t be any seductive hair-grabbing, open-mouthed porn faces, or come-hither looks, unless the dancer is specifically aiming for that kind of presentation and knows that her or his audience is expecting such a performance. Otherwise, the audience should not feel as if they’ve accidentally stumbled upon a private moment (again, unless that is the dancer’s specific intent, and the context of the performance is appropriate.)
I see virtually none of the stereotypical entice-your-husband belly dance persona in dark fusion and gothic bellydance, and as a feminist, that’s one of the reasons I love it so much. It’s passionate, for sure, but it staunchly refuses to cater to the male gaze. When it’s done well, it has an intense, smoldering power in which a dancer can display a fiery, unapologetic spirit in a healthy and transformative way. (And if your partner – of whatever gender identity – happens to find that seductive, well, then, so much the better!)
Dark fusion belly dance allows me to constructively tap into and develop aspects of my shadow self that might otherwise have remained hidden. By costuming myself ritualistically and draping myself with jewels and layers of costuming that permit me to more deeply inhabit my dark dance persona and set aside the person I must be in mundane life, I find I am better able to access sources of wisdom that come through the body rather than the conscious mind. It’s also important to note that the costumes are an essential part of the mojo; they are far more than just attractive adornments. They’re ritual tools that create space for me to connect with the divine. Sometimes, when I am up against a stubborn choreography block, I find that I can break through it by putting on complete costume gear. Once I’ve done that, it’s as if the dance itself leads the way for me, and I know intuitively where to go from there.
In 2006, inspired by a vision (and, of course, by the Gothic Bellydance DVD), I started a solo devotional dark fusion dance project called Shrine of Skaði. I dance almost exclusively to dark ambient, industrial, neofolk, and Middle Eastern music with a gothic feel (e.g., Solace). I am especially inspired by the work of spiritually motivated dark Pagan dancers and musicians such as Isadora Duncan, Aepril Schaile, Andréa Nebel (a.k.a. Hagalaz Runedance, a.k.a. Nebelhexë), and Karen Halewood (a.k.a. Amodali, a.k.a. Mother Destruction). Because my vision also involves building and decorating a small temple space for dark Pagans, in recent years I have started to use the words “dark fusion temple dance” to describe the kind of dance that I prefer to do.
I feel conflicted about my use of the phrase “temple dance,” though, because I really don’t feel worthy of calling myself a temple dancer…or even a temple dancer in training, for that matter. There is a long and ancient tradition of Tantric temple dance in India (approximately 2000 years of Odissi and Bharatanatyam), and training to be a real temple dancer in these traditions is a difficult and disciplined practice that requires a lifetime of dedication and study. The original devadasi in India, as I understand it, were highly technically trained and respected in prayer, dance, music, and other arts.
But I – a Pagan of Swedish and German ancestry, born and raised in the urban USA – have no such ancient tradition or temple dance training program to follow. And as I mentioned, I decided long ago that I had no interest in becoming a professional or even semi-professional dancer.
Nonetheless, I know that some of the work I’m doing – including dance – is somehow part of the preparation for a more humble and small-scale temple keeper role. I do believe there is a need for “hobbyist” temple dance in a modern Pagan context, especially dances with darker moods and underworld themes. So I continue to work on my choreography, adornment, music selection, and arrangement of aesthetically pleasing ritual dance settings…all within the context of my devotional practice at the Hermitage.
What I do is certainly not temple dance in the classical sense, and I would not claim it as such. However, it IS devotional dance done in a modern, private Pagan setting. Because it is introspective, ritualistic, and spiritually motivated, I feel it is important to differentiate it from dance that is done primarily for stage performance, display, or entertainment. So, at least for now, “dark fusion temple dance” it shall be.
Dark fusion dance performance should be driven by passion, mysticism, and intensity. The dancer should translate into movement the deepest, purest raw emotion that the music evokes. In reference to flamenco dance, the Spanish poet Frederico Garcia Lorca used the term duende to refer to an elusive quality of dark inspiration and emotional authenticity – an Earth-force or Dionysian power that surges up spontaneously from inside (“from the soles of the feet”) and inhabits a dancer’s performance. This powerful creative force can evoke strong reactions, giving the performance a rough edge and a riveting wildness that can send chills up the spine. In the best dark fusion dance performances, the air tingles and crackles with the scent of duende.
By contrast, some dancers seem to come across in a way that is primarily athletic and externally focused, as if their performance were primarily a vehicle for showcasing their technical abilities, perfect choreography, attractive appearance, and jaw-dropping feats. Sometimes it’s as if they seem to be saying “hey, look at me, I can do a Turkish drop!” While I have no quarrel with displays of technical skill (in fact, I appreciate them very much), ultimately they are not what moves me most. Technical skill is not what draws me deepest into the dance, and it’s not what grabs my attention. What I want, as an audience member, is to be touched. I’ve often said that I’d rather watch an unskilled but passionate dancer than a technically skilled but sterile and bland one. Of course, it’s also true that the more skill a dancer develops, the more room the dancer has to allow passions to flow through the dance. So, ideally, passion and technical skill go hand in hand. But the bottom line, for me, really is about connection – connection to self, connection to one’s audience, connection to fellow dancers, connection to the Earth, and connection to the divine.
“The very best performers don’t only focus on perfect chest lifts and sharp isolations – because, you know what? Many, many belly dancers can perform those moves perfectly, fast, and with the obligatory fake-flirtatious expression. And, you know what else? I’m kind of bored of watching those performances.
These beautiful, amazing women practice like crazy, and then get up there and TA-DA! Show absolutely nothing of themselves on the stage. They only show the fact that they are wonderfully athletic and dedicated. But many, many people in this world are athletic and dedicated. However, you do have something amazing and magical inside of you that you can provide your audience – yourself. People don’t sit in your audience and want you to show off for them. They want you to connect with them in a very real way.
Connect. Connect. I’ll say it again: Connect.”
– Amy Danielson, a.k.a. Velvet Moxie of The Gypsy Kiss
I like Amy’s aforementioned philosophy of dance so much that I printed it out and put it on my wall. And here’s her equally sage advice on putting “deliciousness” (I love that!) into the dance:
“Deliciousness isn’t something that you put on, like you put on your costume. You can’t change your environment, the stage or the props, to make yourself delicious. Red lipstick and jewelry and all the practice in the world can’t make you delicious. Even originality and panache can’t make you delicious. Deliciousness is a thing that bubbles up inside of you. If your costume got ripped just before you go on stage, and your hair looks like hell…you can still be delicious.
“Of course, everyone has a spark of it inside. Yes, everyone, even if you feel ugly or unattractive. I’ve seen many, many women who would be considered unattractive by most modeling agencies – but when they got on that stage (and sometimes it didn’t even take that!) they were incredible! I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. That’s because they’re delicious, and they know it. They know they’re magnetic.
“That certain something” can be developed in all of us.”
Indeed! I wholeheartedly agree.
Go forth and be delicious, my fellow darkly inclined dancers. Connect. Dance your hearts out. Pursue your passions. Inhabit the Earthly mysteries. Find the courage to show your soul and dance from the core of who you are inside. Open yourself to duende. And always treat your bodies with the respect and reverence they deserve; no matter what they may look like, belly dance teaches you that bodies are truly vessels for divine wisdom.
Danica Swanson is a freelance writer, dark ambient music nerd, dark fusion dancer, and amateur polytheist nun. She is CEO (Creative Endarkenment Overseer) of The Black Stone Hermitage and co-founder of the Polytheist Monasticism discussion forum. Her first forays into paganism began in 1995; she has been a devotee of Skaði and other Holy Powers of Yggdrasil since 2004. She also writes under the name D. JoAnne Swanson for her other main project, The Anticareerist (formerly known as Rethinking the Job Culture; originally known as whywork.org). Her life of contemplative solitude is made possible only by a web of thriving community relationships, human and non-human. She lives by the hands of the deities and spirits in all of her endeavors.