Shrine of Skaði devotional dance

In 2006, Skaði came to me in a vision, and inspired me to start a devotional dance project for Her.

The experience opened up a whole new sphere of inquiry. I wondered: Do modern Heathens practice sacred dance? Do they ever do devotional dance as an offering for the deities and spirits they venerate? And if so, is there any information about sacred dance being part of pre-Christian religion and culture? Anything that might help me contextualize this vision of devotional dance in a way that links it with my own Swedish and German ancestry?

I didn’t find anything like that. Nonetheless, I had fallen in love with dark fusion dance – a thoroughly modern art form that was known in those days as gothic bellydance – and I knew right away that the intensity of this newfound passion was somehow connected to the vision I received. Dark fusion dance was the kind of dance I would do for Skaði.

I started taking American Tribal Style bellydance classes and reading about the history of bellydance, Orientalism, and the Middle East, including issues with colonialism, the male gaze, cultural appropriation, and the importance of challenging assumptions of Orientalist fantasy. A few years later I read Tina Frühof’s article Raqs Gothique: Decolonizing Bellydance, which helped me better understand my attraction to this art form as a feminist who was interested in decolonizing my spiritual practice (and my life in general).

I found an immediate and visceral sense of rightness in this dance form – something I had never found through years of ballet, jazz, and modern dance. It was much more than a hobby or a form of entertainment for me. It quickly became part of my devotional practice as an offering to Skaði. I started dancing with veils, and noticed that this deepened my spiritual practice as well, as if I had put on a prayer shawl. I didn’t understand any of it, and I didn’t find any historical references that helped me make sense of it in a modern context. I just knew that I had to do it.

Ten years later, I’m still doing it. Though a musculo-skeletal injury forced me to stop dancing for most of 2016 – just after the photos above were taken – it has now been treated with corrective footwear, and slowly but surely I’m reviving my dance projects. With luck, I’ll be able to complete some of my unfinished choreographies and video projects in the coming years.

Iris J. Stewart writes in her book Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance:

“Today we primarily think of dance as a form of entertainment or as a way to exercise or socialize. There was a time, however, when dance was considered the way to commune with the divine, a part of life’s journey, celebrating the seasons and rhythms of the year and the rhythms of our lives. Dance is a language that reunites the body, mind, and soul…dance was once an integral part of religious ritual and ceremonial expression in cultures all over the world, including Judaism and Christianity.”

Dance has certainly become an integral part of my contemplative and devotional practice. Like Salena Glassburn, who makes a great Case for a Dancing Heathenry, I would like to see more devotional dance in Heathenry. Salena – who was also interviewed in 2017 for the Sheathenry podcast – writes:

“I propose that all of our secular acts and art forms should have sacred corollaries, and nowhere do I see this as more notably absent in Heathenry than with dance. We eat, and we have sacred feasts. We speak, and we have sacred words in the form of prayer (assuming you are a heathen who doesn’t dismiss prayer, of which I am one). We sing, and we have sacred songs. We promise, and we have sacred oaths. Our modern world has secular dancing—mostly done in nightclubs and bars. But where, these days, is the sacred dance? Some Christian sects have liturgical dancing, but most groups reject dance as too worldly. The Sufis have their dance. Some New Age and Neopagan groups dance. Why not us?”

Why, indeed?

Since there is no established tradition of Heathen sacred dance for me to practice, ideas for my Shrine of Skaði project are often inspired by depictions of sacred dance in other religious traditions.

The photo below is the Della Robbia Eurythmic Dance Ritual, c. 1923–32, from St. Mark’s Church. Martha Graham and Ruth St. Denis danced at this church, and Isadora Duncan almost did as well; the New York Times described St. Denis’ work as “exotic religious dances.”

For me, it stirs up visions of the possibilities for Heathen sacred dance. I’d like to see artistic interpretations of Heathen gods prominently displayed, and a group of dancers gathered around them in worship and prayer. If I had the means, I’d design and decorate a space for it myself.

The Della Robbia Eurythmic Dance Ritual, c. 1923–32, from St. Mark’s Church Archives

I also take inspiration from other dark fusion dancers. Here are some of my favorite dark fusion dance performances on video – all of which have ritual and stylistic elements that would seem to lend themselves well to developing modern Heathen forms of sacred dance.

Semra – Le Serpent Rouge
Ma’isah of Elysium – solo dark fusion dance 2010
Ma’isah dances to Arcana at a monastery
Ariellah & Sena – Dance Macabre III (contact improv!)
Ego Umbra at Shadowdance 2012
Raqs Fusion Factory performs at Fusion at the Opera Viareggio 2012
Sera Solstice solo at Tribal Fest 2009
Desert Sin presents “Mermaids” (this is just a short clip, not the full performance – I’ve got the DVD at the Hermitage if you’d like to see the full piece!)
Baraka – I Want My Innocence Back
Aepril Schaile – Snow Queen and Babalon performances
Nyx Asteria – ritual belly dance
Tempest – “Incense” from DecoDance DVD

There’s also artistic inspiration on the walls of the Hermitage. This is my all-time favorite bellydance art poster. I especially love her closed eyes and the sumptuous surroundings.

I have been unable to find the name of the artist; if you happen to know, please contact me – so I can give proper credit, and buy another copy of this poster if it’s still available.

Photo credit for collage of dance photos in costume: J. Buffington