Without being body-conscious, I’ve been thinking about my body and what being an embodied soul really means. It’s a marvelous thought really, considering my Body separate from Me. Most of the time (always!) my body is me. I am this white freckled short girl-woman. But yesterday as I was in kirtan with Vish, Jai Uttal, and Gaura, I thought about how my body is really my house. Wherever I go, my inner being is sheltered by this physical form. This thought was prompted by the fact that I didn’t know where we were sleeping that night. It’s usually somewhere nice or decent, but I don’t always know where it’s gonna be. That’s how it is on the road, a different bed every few nights. This can drive you a little crazy after a while. The thing that really hit me though was that my upbringing set me up for and really prepared me for this traveling lifestyle.
I grew up as a temple-kid, which in my case meant that we never had a house. My mother and I lived in different places throughout the temple property, a room here and there, never our own kitchen or bathroom. My mom’s least favorite living situation was this yellow wood trailer/cabin thingy that was planted in the middle of the cow pasture. We had no electricity or water and had to walk down to another building to shower. In the summers the electric fence kept the cows inside the pasture and got my mom electrocuted quite a few times. I personally never understood the austerity of our situation until about 20 years later when I compare it to the comforts of my life now, our own bathroom, A/C, beautiful furniture and plush pillows.
Still, if I look at my life in terms of lessons I’m meant to learn, I feel like a major one is this: not to be attached to my surroundings (because I am!), not to depend on external markers of safety for security (because I do!), not to wrap my identity into my belongings. Really, even my body is a belonging that won’t always be with me. Somewhere inside my body is this eternal being that is going to continue living, loving, and learning always. And I feel a new gratitude towards the body that I have now, the unique body I live in for this life. If we believe in karma and the inner workings of the laws that make the world go round, then we must begin to see how the bodies we have are designed just for us, to serve our life and our life-purpose. In the ultimate sense, the body is our host in our journey through lifetimes. Far out idea.
Seeing the body as a house gives me a little glimpse into how the mystics and self-realized sages of India would happily sleep anywhere, under a tree, outside, on the ground. It struck me as an extreme form of renunciation, and I can’t say I ever related to it before. Now I sort-off get it. If you see your body as your house, then an actual house made of wood, bricks, or glass would be superfluous.
Well now this white girl body is going to stop philosophizing and give her soul a rest by sleeping on a new bed which happens to be very soft and inviting 🙂
I remember the first time I saw Gangi dance Odissi. I was stunned. Star-struck. And at that time, I was a ruthless critic, quick to focus on the weakness of a performer and swift to judge their ability as a dancer. I know most dancers do this. And I do think that there is a way to look at someone’s dance and make an immediate assessment. Over the past few years, however, I’ve softened. Now I prefer to notice the beauty a person creates, their sincerity, their love for the art. Dance for me is about much more than being good or excellent; it goes deeper than that. The value it can create in a persons life is unrelated to his/her actual skill-level. So I’m much less interested in critical assessments of dancers. I want to encourage those who love dance to dance.
When I first saw Gangi dance Odissi though, I was not in this softened place. It was indeed with a real critical eye that I concluded that she’s got real talent. I was fascinated by the way Odissi flowed through her so gracefully, so much more so than Bharata Natyam which she’d also studied.
This assessment of mine was in 2008. Since then Gangi has pursued Odissi in many ways. She went to Bhubaneswar in India to study with Sujata Mohapatra, and now she’s preparing for her Manch Pravesh – the official solo Odissi debut – under the guidance of Swathi Mahalakshmi. And the date for her Manch Pravesh is finally finalized for December 1, 2012. After much back and forth, we settled on doing it close to home at the Hippodrome in Gainesville, FL instead of India. All of us in her family are super excited about this day, and we are supporting her in different ways. Her brother and sister, for example, are using their skills to accompany her with live instrumentation.
Here is a sneak-peak into her “classroom”:
A small sample of her dancing:
Feeling like the Voice of Reason has built huge structures within me and is shooting down beauty, spirituality, and grace. I can’t imagine connecting to devotion because I’m running, looking for shelter. But there is no shelter within because my land has been occupied.
This is what the Voice of Reason is telling me:
Dance is not important. Doesn’t change the world. It’s extracurricular. It’s selfish, being there on stage seeking everyone’s attention.
Bharata Natyam is not relevant. It’s outdated. You have nothing to contribute. Your desire to dance is a foolish dream. Wake up to reality.
All I can say in response to the Voice of Reason is that “I don’t like you!” Because the Voice of Reason speaks with authority and finality, it’s hard to ignore. But maybe I should rename it the Voice of Smashing Down, the Dreams Terminator, the Hater and Subjugator. When and how did I allow this Voice to take over so much of my territory? This is how I think of it. That Voice is not me. I’m in a constant battle against it. Yet isn’t that it’s victory, that I engage in the fight at all!
Considering my inner battlefield, no wonder it’s a struggle to find an incentive to dance. The spiritual feeling, the deep devotion, the soothing rhythms, the bone-deep exhaustion, all feel like a distant far-off dream. Another lifetime.
Part of the problem, I think, is that dance has been so merged with performing that the two have become synonymous. The goal of Bharata Natyam is to perform. To share in front of others. I’m contemplating the difference between professional dancing and devotional dancing. If dance was a ritual dance done for the pleasure of the Lord, where has that aspect of it gone? Yes, I do believe God is present everywhere and able to look trough the eyes of the audience. Still, dancing on a stage for people is no longer the simple act of devotion that dance may have once been. Of course, I’m not sure what it was in the past. It’s all too easy to glorify and deify a “golden past” and dismiss the complexity that was present even then, when the Temple girls danced in the rituals of worship. Truly, I’m not one to have nostalgia for a glorious past; life on earth has always been complicated (just read a few pages of Ramayana or Mahabharata!). Nevertheless, I wonder: what does it mean to dance for God, for the Divine, to use dance as a form of worship?
It could just be me (or the Voice of Reason!), but I feel that a stage-performance isn’t simply worship; it’s also a spectacle, a show, a performance. Yes, I have been deeply moved by stage-performances, and they can be incredibly deep and powerful. Still I wonder where the line is, if there is a line, between being a professional dancer and a dancing servant of the Lord?
I don’t know if my question is clear, or if I’m entirely sure what I’m even asking here. But I remember recently, Anapayini, a dancer I love a lot, enacting a prayer to Nrishingadev at the Alachua Krishna temple. Somehow it was in between other activities and there was a lot of chaos in the temple-room with people standing around and talking. I myself walked in about half-way through but was immediately captivated. Unmindful of the chaos around her, Ani’s focus was on the altar, on offering her dance to Nrishingadev. She chose not to let peoples’ talking disrupt her dance-prayer. She wasn’t dancing for any of us, but for the Lord. It was incredibly sweet and beautiful. I felt like I was privy to an intimate prayer which wasn’t really meant for my eyes but that I got to see anyway. That, to me, was an example of dancing for God alone, an aspect of dance that is otherwise absent.
Hm, how did I go from my battle with the Voice of Reason to philosophizing on dance? From one type of reasoning to another!
I better just get out of my head and get up and DANCE right now! As one of my friends used to say, just shut up and DANCE!
I imagine that I’m looking across this pond and dancing to the sunrise, just me, nature and the rising sun.
You can’t reduce me to words, to gestures, to symbols.
“I’m sad” is a small container for the vast rolling emotions that bring symptoms of sadness to the surface. The small drops of salty water rolling down my cheeks only point to the oceanic depth of my being. “Sadness” itself is a symbol then for a concept that is so much larger. And this is really what dance is. We are harnessing expansive truths and using a few gestures to convey large concepts, pointing back towards something that truly can’t be seen only felt. A few movements that mean so much. Which instead have come to mean so little. Is Truth one-shaded? One-dimensional or even 3-dimensional?
I’ve been thinking about how imperfect the body is as a tool for expressing the tremendous journey that our soul is constantly on. The body is a tool, like words, like movement, that we use to express where we are at. Our actions channel the workings of an often mysterious inner being, our own self. Yet I am not my expression, I’m the expressor.
Never reduce me to a word, an idea, or a symbol. You can’t catch my soul in your net of words, your concepts. I expand beyond them, as I expand far beyond my body even now. Can you see my thoughts? Didn’t think so.
My body can express facets of my emotional experience: laughing, crying, shaking, sighing, reddening. Still my laugh is not my happiness, only a small expression of it. Sometimes it’s so deep I cannot laugh. You see me silent but I’m not silence.
Ours is a world of words, labels, and divisions that we embrace and struggle against. I am none of these things, yet you may know me through them. As long as I’m a traveler on this Earth, I have a form that demands definition.
Be an artist in your life and give shape and shade to words and ideas, creating nuances, so that when I am trapped in one, at least it’s a beautiful trap, reflecting part of my truth.
But I’m not confined or defined by this experience. I’m full of consciousness and energy: you cannot catch me as I transcend all boundaries.