I have a magician friend who refers to the spirit of the arts as a daimon, hearkening back to the ancient Greek term for 'spirit,' with no other particular qualifier. I tend to agree, and the daimon of dance is exquisitely beautiful, terrifyingly addictive, and completely, horrifyingly brutal to those it holds in thrall. It will lure you in, use you as much as it can, suck every drop of passion and creative expression out of you and, when you are beyond any further use, cast you away broken, or destroy you utterly. I have had people ask me over the years, if belonging to Odin as I now do, I wish I had a gentler Master. It's all I can do not to laugh. You see, Odin is the gentler Master. Think on that a moment, my Heathen readers. It's something I find tremendously ironic.
The thing that helped me to come to terms with both my broken body (I have severe chronic pain, limited mobility--which is the worst, actually given the range of movement I once had-- and a number of injuries from my years as a dancer) and my failed dream of a ballet career was my Muspelheim ordeal.(1) In fact, I firmly believe that it was my training as a ballet dancer, a training which hones the mind and outlook as much as the body, which best prepared me and perhaps even made me an ordeal master. I suppose in reality it's a question of what came first: chicken or the egg. Did I thrive in the discipline of ballet because of my calling to ordeal, or was I patterned for ordeal because of my years in ballet? Who knows. Either way it is a thing that has served me well. That particular Muspelheim ordeal involved fire, exhaustion, pain and movement. I'm not going to dwell on the particulars. Interested readers can journey on over to my "Dancing the Ordeal" page, scroll down, and read that for themselves. Suffice it to say, that I was forced to push myself in ways that forced me to access my dance training again. Oh, make no mistake, I’ll never, ever dance as I did but through my willingness to confront that pain and through my work within the context of that particular ordeal I was able to reclaim (or perhaps I was gifted with) a measure of … hmm, there really isn't a word for it in English: power-in-movement is what I’m looking for, a sense of rhythm, of embodying rhythm, of moving power through the body through movement, of the tremendous freedom of movement, and escaping the body's restraints in order to create. Everything fell into place.
I began to see that my draw toward the performing arts in general and ballet in particular was no accident. It was as much a part and parcel of my spiritual make-up as my military orientation (and the two things in attitude aren't that different believe it or not).(2) I was shunted there by my ancestors, my Gods for very specific purposes and in order to learn very specific lessons. You see, ballet was my first truly engaged form of spiritual expression. It was my first exposure to devotional practice. To those of you who haven't danced, this may sound rather strange, but I suspect some of the dancers reading this will understand. It was my first and perhaps my purest (if rather unfocused) form of prayer. That training prepared me for devotional work, for spirit-work and ultimately gave me those essential skills and attitudes that I would need to not only survive as a shaman but thrive.
Firstly, immersing myself in ballet discipline at such a formative stage of my life (we start young and while I started later than most at age ten, that's still an important age for developing and determining character formation) taught me how to be in my skin, how to experience the world through my body. That may sound strange because, of course, we all experience the world through our bodies but I’ve noticed to my shock that a staggering percentage of people don't really live in their bodies. I have met people who have never, ever stretched before. I've come to accept it now as a matter of course, but it was a huge shock for me when I first realized this. There are people who never experience pushing their bodies to the limits of physicality and beyond. There are people who never, ever learn of what they are capable. There are people who never, ever take joy in pure movement. I find that….very sad. Anyway, because of my kinetic preference for learning, it really gave me an edge on moving and dealing with energy. I experience energy work as a full-body phenomenon. I engage with it and found it incredibly easy to learn to move and channel energy. It wasn't that different from moving through the music, and allowing it to be expressed through my body when I danced, after all. Moreover, I understood space and how to be in it, own it, move energy around it, and change it. In fact, I intimately grasped very quickly the nature of space and how to maintain it. For a magus, shaman, spiritworker, or energy-worker of any stripe, that is fundamental. I also understood my own limits. There's a difference between good pain and bad pain i.e. the pain that comes from working hard and pushing yourself to your limits and building strength versus the pain that comes from damaging the body or courting injury. Most people, again to my shock, never learned the difference. Pain held no charge for me. Effort held no charge. These things were part and parcel of my upbringing as a dancer. Pain is inevitable to a ballet dancer, so much so that it doesn't bear mentioning. It simply is and thus, irrelevant. It is neither a reason to do a thing nor to avoid doing a thing. Sometimes it is simply the ground one must walk through in order to reach to a goal. That too has proven crucial to my work. I never expected excellence or even competent levels of skill to be easy.
This brings me to the second gift my dance background gave me: a love of discipline, an understanding of how invaluable it is to any undertaking and the ability to do my god-damned duty regardless of how I might "feel" or what “trauma” I might have at any given moment. When you intend a career in ballet, every single day, regardless of how you feel or what you would rather be doing, you get yourself up and you practice. You run through barre exercises, you give yourself (or take) a full class, you practice those steps that are giving you trouble, and you do whatever physical therapy exercises you have to do to keep yourself in working condition. This is not something of note. It's what is done as a matter of course within the profession because if you don't, you know it. The body doesn't lie. You know it and it comes out in your dancing. Laziness and self-indulgence lead to sloppy technique, mistakes, and ultimately injury. The body doesn't lie; nor will it hide your character flaws for you either. How you "feel" about that has absolutely no bearing on the necessity of what must be done. You have a goal and if you want to consistently meet it well, you bow to the discipline of the art. Discipline, as any dancer learns quickly enough, is a gift that we give ourselves. It's a treasure, a blessing, and something to be keenly cultivated.
Moreover, there's an awareness in ballet that one is part of a lineage. "Tradition" and memory are passed down through the body, through sequences of steps and rituals conveyed quite physically from teacher to student to teacher to student. There is an awareness of one's duty to the preceding generations, to one's lineage, and to those who come after. More than any other field in which I have since worked, that sense of being one pearl in a string of pearls stretching back to the beginning of one's line and onward into the future was palpable. So was the sense of being a caretaker of a tradition. Even the names of these steps contain within them a sense of history and continuity. The sequence of exercises in a regular class is something that links us to every dance that came before us all the way back to the early 18th century when the Sun King's delight in theatre led to the development of ballet. When a ballet dancer stands at the barre in first position and the music starts and he or she makes that first demi-plie, that person is embodying the lineage, he or she is doing exactly what was done by every dancer who came before and what will be done by every one who comes after. Through that discipline of the art and the lineage, tremendous creativity and freedom is allowed to blossom. The discipline and comprehension of a duty that extends beyond the self provides the structure of support that has the potential to sustain it. It was good training for ancestor work.
That being said, let me give you an example from my own history. When I was performing, I once had a season that involved several weekends where we did a matinee and then an evening show. There would be a couple hours in between where the dancers could relax and eat, but for the most part it was a pretty busy day. The company was small to begin with and at that time, there was, I believe (it was long ago) a flu bug going around. The upshot of this is that my understudy was out sick. There was no one to fill in for me should I become ill or injured. As it was, I broke two metatarsals in my right foot during the first performance. (Thankfully they were fractures, not full breaks and thankfully on the third and fourth toes, not the first). I soaked my foot in ice water during the break, and performed the evening show, which of course, involved dancing en pointe.. There is nothing laudable about this. It was expected. It was not considered unusual behavior. There was duty and obligation and the small matter of manning up and doing it. That attitude has enhanced my work today probably more than anything else. Of course, one need not be a dancer to learn about discipline and duty; military life will do it, so will studying a martial art or a musical instrument seriously. The key word there is seriously. Anything that requires sustained and ongoing discipline will suffice. There was a say I always treasured as a dancer (though I first learned it in studying a foreign language): repetition is the mother of learning. Yes, it absolutely is. Are there areas of my life where I lack discipline? Most assuredly, but my work is never, ever one of them.
Thirdly, years and years of dance training instilled in me a sense of integrity and aesthetics. The body does not lie. That is yet another truism that it took me years to accept. The body does not lie. There's no getting around that. For all that dance, like other arts, is one in which performers create a make-believe world into which the audience can lose themselves for the duration of the performance, dancers must confront a brutal truth every single day of their working lives. It is part and parcel of the necessity of the art. Every day, whether one feels good or ill, whether one has overeaten the night before, whether one might be injured or not, one must go into the practice room--a room lined with mirrors from floor to ceiling--wearing only leotard and tights and confront the realities of the body. As a consequence, many of us develop a keen sense of what is real and authentic. We might be able to put on a good face, a good glamour but we know when we're bullshitting. A sense of aesthetics, an understanding of what is true and not true and how to create momentary 'truth,' how to move in the spaces between the two and moreover, within the bounds of one's own skin, how to ferret out that which lacks integrity is crucial to the profession--at least I found it so. We have a keen sense of authenticity because again, the body does not lie and any lack of authenticity is immediately recognizable. That has certainly carried over into my priest-craft as well as my counseling work. I started out being honed by Sekhmet and one of the things She insisted on was a bone-deep sensitivity to what was "in Ma'at" and "out of Ma'at"…in other words, what was authentic and true and what wasn't. I learned to hone this sense of "truth" as a working tool through Her auspices, but its seed was first planted and nourished through ballet. My ballet training gave me gifts that made me useful to my Gods.
Now it was only recently, after my Muspelheim ordeal that I was able to recognize and honor these connections. It wasn't until twenty years after I stopped dancing that it all fell into place. Ballet taught me one final thing too: devotion, how to throw oneself fully, passionately, unrestrainedly into loving something (now, serving a Deity) without fear of losing oneself. I did that every day that I danced and I was still me, I still had my sense of personhood, self-hood. I understood how to move in that space, how to engage with the depth of that fire. Ballet taught me how to do devotion well. It taught me how to hold nothing back from my Gods, and how and when to be uncompromising in my efforts. It taught me the necessity and sacredness of sacrifice, and the true nature of devotion. For that, I am grateful, tremendously so, though I'll admit it was over a decade after I stopped dancing before I could watch a ballet and I still ache for it almost every day. Having been a ballet dancer, taught me how to love and serve my Gods well.
Now, I’m often asked by parents if I think they're children should study ballet. I also quite often get consulted around the time a girl is getting ready to go en pointe (about twelve or after three years of solid, several times a week training). The answer is…maybe. For girls, that transition of going en pointe is usually the time when I would suggest to students that if they are not serious about it, if they don't love it with all their hearts, if they don't want to be professional dancers, that they stop or at least do not go en pointe. Ballet is brutal in many ways. It marked my body and my health irreparably for good and for ill. At its higher levels it involves a culture of discipline that I have only seen rivaled by elite military forces. If one approaches those levels, the training leaves its mark -- again for both good and ill. Mostly though, I don't see the point of the suffering if one doesn't want to be good, really good and if one isn't willing to sacrifice everything including one's health to achieve that. It's all or nothing for me, and that too is the legacy of my training.
In closing, I leave you with a quote from my colleague Sannion. He belongs to Dionysus but I find the sentiments expressed in this passage to apply equally well to spiritwork and devotional work (the two are very different things, by the way, the former a specialty, the latter accessible to everyone) across the board. It also reflects what my dance background gave me (the following emphases are mine):
"I must proclaim that the gods and spirits are real, that they cannot be reduced to this vague concept of the universal divine. That we feel them and talk to them and sometimes they take hold of us and drive us insane. That the greatest gifts of the gods often come about as a result of that madness. That our gods are earthy and sensual and wild and dangerous. That we dance and feast and shout and bleed and cry and fuck and get intoxicated for them, and that this is right and necessary and the essence of true worship as we Dionysians understand it. That we must pursue liberation and wholeness with everything in our power, no matter what sacrifices it requires, what painful things must be endured or how the pursuit deforms and damages us along the way. And if that scares people and makes them uncomfortable, so be it." --Sannion
- An account of my Muspelheim ordeal: http://krasskova.weebly.com/4/post/2011/03/my-muspelheim-ordeal.html
- Nor was I permitted to join the military. I tried, coming from a military family but that would have been counterproductive to the Work I was put here to do. This also annoyed me for a time. LOL.
"Transparente" with (and I believe choreographed by) Ronald Savkovic. I love this dancer. he did *the* best Alberich in "Giselle" that i have ever seen. I love his presence and really wish he'd come to NY! His performance in "Giselle' with Polina Semionova is one that will stay with me for a very long time. Here you go: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdiZ_6mw1oM