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Sunday, January 08, 2012

In the Shallow Waters - The "Real" Origins of Oriental Dance!

We Learned to Dance as We Learned to Swim: The Real Origins of Oriental Dance

At the end of this month, Delilah will be hosting her famous wintertime dance retreat in Hawai'i. What a perfect escape from the mid-winter blues and blahs!

There's a special reason to join Delilah this year. In fact, there are TWO special reasons.

First, she's actually holding two back-to-back retreats. The first, from Jan 29th thru Feb. 3rd, features Special Guest Teacher Fahtiem, and gives participants to learn Fahtiem's exquisitely beautiful style. The second, from Feb. 4th through Feb. 9th, features Special Guest Teacher Jennifer Earle, and introduces the womenly self-defense art of Nia. What a fabulous way to combine both strength and beauty! And in the most luscious setting possible.

There's a second - really important - reason to get to one of Delilah's Hawai'i retreats. She actually gets her dancers out into the water! And there's something special - something almost magical - that happens when we do Oriental dance (belly dance) in the water. Our bodies return to - they viscerally re-member - how it is that our art came about.

While much can be said of how Oriental dance grew out of ancient folk dances from the Mid-East, and there can even be a claim for dances in earliest recorded human times, I'd like to suggest that we - as humans - learned to dance even earlier. Our dance is a natural response to spending time in the water.

In her groundbreaking book, The Descent of Women, author Elaine Morgan makes the significant claim that humans evolved through a series of two major progressions; one where we went into the water (in the heat of the Pliocene era. Essentially, she says, we "went to the beach." We spent a lot of time out in tidal bays and lagoons. In these soft, gentle, shallow water, we withstood the Pliocene heat waves.

Now, I'm going to suggest - based on my personal research in "unveiling" movement patterns intrinsic to our bodies - that our art form began when we were in the water, and our bodies naturally adapted to the gentle pull of tides and waves. When we went ashore in the evening, and built campfires, some of us made music on drums and other simple instruments. Others of us - danced! We did, on smooth beaches around a driftwood campfire, what our bodies had done all day in the water. We did undulations, figure eights, and snake arms.

And that, dear friends, is what I believe to be the true story of the origins of the dance. Various "courtship gestures" became incorporated later. We evolved other patterns as well. But the fundamentals? The ones that are deeply ingrained in our bodies - so that we really only have to remember them? They come from our origin as a species. From a time when we went to the beach, played in the water during the day, and danced on the beach in the evenings.

I've always wanted to recreate this experience, and last summer I had the chance - my dear friend Nicole Cutts, Founder of Vision Quest Retreats for women - invited me to teach a private group. We did "belly dance" in the pool! You can see the YouTube link on her Facebook page.

Some Insights from Elaine Morgan's Descent of Woman

The following are a few selected quotes from the Descent of Woman. I heartily recommend that you get the book and enjoy the read! It had a profound impact on me when it first came out in the 1970's, and will probably influence how you think also!

Long long ago, then, back in the mild Miocene, there was a generalized vegetarian prehomind hairy ape. She had not yet developed the high-powered brain which today distinguishes woman from all other species. (p. 16)

[Alay'nya's note: The Pliocene heat wave started, drying up the woods in which we had lived. Pre-humans were forced into grasslands.]

She also couldn’t digest grass; she also had a greedy and hectoring mate; she also lacked fighting canines; she also was hampered by a clinging infant; and she also was chased by a carnivore and found there was no tree she could run up to escape. However, in front of her there was a large sheet of water. With piercing squeals of terror she ran straight into the sea. The carnivore was a species of cat and didn’t like wetting his feet; and moreover, though he had twice her body weight, she was accustomed like most tree-dwellers to adopting an upright posture, even though she used four legs for locomotion. She was thus able to go farther into the water than he could without drowning. She went right in up to her neck and waited there clutching her baby until the cat got fed up with waiting and went back to the grasslands. (pp. 20-21)

She switched easily, almost without noticing it, from eating small scuttling insects to eating small scuttling shrimps and baby crabs. There were thousands of seabirds nesting on the cliffs, and as she had a firm handgrip and a good head for heights she filled another empty ecological niche as an egg collector. (p. 21)

Whenever anything alarming happened on the landward side – or sometimes just because it was getting so hot – she would go back into the water, up to her waist, or even up to her neck.” (pp. 21-22)

She spent so much time in the water that her fur became nothing but a nuisance to her. (p. 23) (Alay'nya's note: As a result, she lost her body fur and kept the long fur on her head – which grew even longer, so her infant could grab it and get back to Mommy.)

In short, we evolved. We went from tree-dwellers to grassland-dwellers to beach-dwellers. And we stayed on the beaches for a long, long time. In the water – in the safe, calm waters of gentle bays and lagoons – we became human. We learned to walk upright. We developed a new set of facial gestures and expressions. We learned to use speech. (Sound carries very well over water – even when sunlight is glinting off the waves and it is difficult to see someone who is further away.)

And guess what? It was most likely within this soft, gentle, safe environment that we developed the fine art of belly dance.

Our bodies swayed with the seaweed when we were in the water. We naturally – and instinctively – developed our “undulations.”

Our hands and arms rested naturally and gracefully on the water’s surface. And we naturally – and instinctively – developed our “snake arms.”

And then, when the sun went down, and we went ashore, and made fires from driftwood and cooked the shellfish and eggs that we’d collected during the day, we danced around the fire. Simply because it was fun, and we had nothing else to do. We did it to play!

The end effect? Our human intelligence, our playfulness, and our happiness are all tied up with that wonderful time in our evolutionary history when we all collectively took a beach vacation. A “vacation” that lasted several million years.

This year – let’s take a beach vacation again, and join Delilah with guest teachers Fahtiem (Jan 29 – Feb 3rd) and Jennifer Earle (Feb 4th – 9th). Visit Sign up today!

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