Why a dance?

Why a dance?
owl and eagle
The Owl and Eagle make a Gate


Last Saturday we had the first performance of our Dancing the World into Being outside in a landscape overlooking both the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons.  You can see some more pics here.  The response of audience was warm; in some cases people seemed deeply affected by the dance and its music (a capella choir,squeeze-box, gongs and percussion).  One old friend said to me that she felt the dance spoke to her body and I was pleased about that, because that’s what we intended.

Every since I started teaching beginners’ T’ai Chi, I have been aware of how tense most people are, how armoured our bodies are, and how long it can take for people to relax, breathe and move without strain.  It may be that our compulsive digital activities are closing down our physical and sensory awareness – after all, so far there’s no smell, touch or taste on the internet.  We can get trapped in a world made of words and images, imprisoned by a circle of angry flaming, conflicting interpretations of reality, competing views of what reality is.  I can’t be the only one who can finish an internet session feeling tense and stirred up – not in a good way.

Thank God for music, poetry, gardening, films and novels which know how to lead us out of this trap.   And dance, I believe, both doing it and watching it, is the means par excellence of bypassing the sinister sentinels of the linear-verbal world and offering us a way to vivid, sensory and emotional experience,

Dance has a strong connection with mathematics – many folk dances weave complex knots and patterns, play with twos, threes, sixes, sevens, eights, here’s a diagram from our choreographer, Gillian’s notes.

Big Shamrock
Shamrock pattern from our dance


These can all be related to sacred geometry, which is one of the ways I discovered years ago to lift my mind up a level into a liberating (though sometimes scary) and more abstract realm.

This realm is a simpler place than our crabby catastrophising world, and it points the way to understanding how something can come from nothing (some scientists and mathematicians can take us there too, as long as their agenda is not too narrow).  If you are interested in this kind of thing, have a look at these sites – Sareoso and Singinghead.

But for me, the biggest virtues of mounting a dance performance like ours is that it hints at a real mystery – how something comes from nothing – via a creation myth buried in an ancient Welsh tale, the story ‘Math son of Mathonwy’ from the Mabinogion.  Our dance is intended to take you back into a mode of being and perceiving which our ancestors knew.  Certainly they could not afford to be cut off from their bodies and their senses.

These ancient tales are a gift from them to us, but the rub is that the stories from the Mabinogion  can’t be appreciated properly and understood by the linear-logical mind.  They need to be acted out, danced, played with, listened to in English and in Welsh.  And then, just maybe we can hear our ancestors whispering to us, dancing with us.  And I think we need to listen, we need to join in.

There’s another chance to see our dance at the Globe in Hay on Saturday October 21.  details here.

Pig deer dance


Calling for Dancers for The Dancing Floor

Calling for Dancers for The Dancing Floor


The dancing floor in our projected film

We are about to start working on the special dance which is the climax of The Dancing Floor.  This dance is crucial to the film – it embodies the mysteries which the rest of the film has been hinting at – and yet it will be performed by ordinary people, dance newbies or amateurs, who will help with devising the details, developing it and rehearsing it –on and on – until it works.  Luckily I have found a local choreographer, Gillian Hipp, to partner with on the project.

The dance includes a wild horde of children being the Four Elements, a shamanic animal dance with masks which morphs into a vigorous Morris, then there are the courtly dances of the gods and goddesses as they make the worlds and the poignant dance of the sacred couple, the Owl and the Hawk.  The symbolism is from the fourth branch of the Mabinogion (which is a creation myth).  Each phase of the dance has a completely different quality and should have a specific effect on the audience so that they go on the journey of creation and re-union with the dancers.

Horn-dancers from a while ago.

This has made me think about what sacred dance really is and does and what sacred dancing I have done in my life.  I found three main strands: Tai Chi, Gurdjieff’s dances and the whirling dances of the Mevlevi dervishes.  In each case,  watching each of these in action, I was aware of a powerful and unusual effect on me.  With Tai Chi it was a sense of weightless flow and ease which was irresistible, like hearing for the first time a language which seems familiar though you cannot speak it.  (A bit like the chattering of the swifts outside today, ‘don’t fly through that door, it is a prison and a fierce orange cat guards it, he will eat you…’)  With a certain Gurdjieff dance it was an upswelling of strong emotion, both  exquisite and painful, which had been long half-buried, and with the whirling it was, simply, a sense of being in the presence of God.  The whirling I saw at the tekke of the Halveti dervishes in Istanbul, when their sheikh was a very holy man, and I will never forget that it was this practice from mystical Islam which literally opened the gates of heaven for me.


I learnt the whirling myself in a church hall in Manchester, taught by my friend Dick who had learnt it from someone who’d learnt it from the Sufis.  We approached it with proper respect and once we had got over feeling nauseous, were able to whirl together, floating round each other as we moved, for half an hour at a time.  At the end I felt as if I had been drenched in crystal water, and had woken up a different, much enlivened being.  I also noticed, as I sipped my orange juice, that I felt very well disposed towards all present, my heart warmed up and open to the world.

Gurd dances
A Gurdjieff dance based on the enneagram

The Dancing Floor dance also springs out of a long study of sacred geometry and principle. When I first tried to get my head round this metaphysical stuff about the origin of the worlds, I would either fall asleep or get angry.  I just couldn’t get it.  It felt like trying to scale a sheer cliff with no handholds.  Then I saw that there were other ways of scaling cliffs and my mind started to take some short flights, which eventually made me realise that we can understand a lot more than we think we can – just not with the front brain.  The whole being, the whole body needs to get involved.

I realised that movements, gestures and rhythms which map or limn these abstract principles have a kind of subtle power, which tweaks and shifts your normal consciousness, takes you to different places, and this is why sacred dance can have such a strong effect.  You can see traces of these patterns in much folk dancing.  Maybe that’s why we find (some of it) so compelling?

The ‘dancing floor’ pattern we show in the film is a way of  expressing the way something comes out of nothing, which our normal rational minds cannot ‘get’.  But deeper down there is something in us all which does get it and which knows the truth – and I believe dance is one of the best ways to activate this part, whether you perform it or simply watch it.

So, if you live in south Wales or borders (I am between Hay and Brecon) and would like to get involved in working on this dance, please get in touch at dancingfloorfilm@gmail.com.



Pushing hands – why do people hate it?

pushhands1Once you have been learning T’ai Chi for a year or two, your teacher will normally suggest it is time you did some pushing hands. I teach beginners’ T’ai Chi in the Welsh town of Brecon, and I have found that a high proportion of my students don’t like pushing hands or don’t see the point of it. I wonder if this is a defence mechanism? Pushing Hands is really about intimacy and interaction and most of us are pretty scared of that, I reckon,

Pushing hands is a flowing back and forth movement which you do with a partner. Its object can be to push your partner off her centre, or simply to ‘join’ with her and move together, turning at the waist to deflect the incoming energy. It is more fun if you test each other of course, but it is true that the process can bring up some difficult stuff for people along the way. When I was first learning it, I was partnered by a chap my own age who pushed me rather too strongly for my liking. I would find tears jumping into my eyes when he ‘got’ me. I reckon I was being reminded, through my body, of childhood contests with my brother where feelings of rage on both sides ran pretty high. Fifty years later they surfaced with a gush.

If you have been bullied or abused, then your defences might be challenged by this exercise. On the other hand, it is a safe way to practise interaction and intimacy which might teach us all to do it better. That’s what Andrew Heckert suggested at a recent workshop in London. This charming, talkative Yank, who wore a tweed sports jacket throughout the session, teaches a kind of T’ai Chi where yielding is always preferred over ‘rooting’, a ‘way of weakness’ if you like. Fascinating idea!

It is not just pushy chaps who upset me. Small, wiry, insinuating women I find even worse, snaking their little hands towards my centre. I just want to thrust them away and go and have a cup of tea. What am I so afraid of? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s centuries of ancestral Glaswegian aggression which have built up a pattern of defence-attack in me which is difficult to dismantle. When I do manage not to fight back, either in pushing hands or real life, the results are often extraordinary.

I was on a walk once and hit a path which was blocked by brambles and nettles. I didn’t have a stick with me and noticed that, alongside the path was a field with a couple of horses in it. They looked calm to me, and I reasoned that the owner would not mind me nipping through the field to the gate at the end. So that’s what I did, only, as I neared the gate, I spotted a woman marching towards me from the nearby house. I put a conciliatory smile on my face and began my excuses.

“What makes me mad about people like you…” she began and ran through a litany of complaints about uppity ramblers invading her property. Every so often, when she stopped to draw breath, I would interject:
“Look, I’m your neighbour, I’m really sorry but I don’t want to fall out with you…”
For some reason that day I didn’t feel aggressive. There was something about the woman’s performance of rage which did not convince me: if I had been reviewing her, I would have said she was ‘exaggerated and over the top.’ Finally, after perhaps five minutes of her shouting and me muttering apologies, she suddenly slumped to the ground and started sobbing.
“I can’t get planning permission for my stables,” she bawled. “The bastards won’t listen and our dream is at an end…”
I listened, and, within two minutes we were sitting at her kitchen table having tea with her husband.

Our bodies hold tensions all the way from childhood and when we push hands those tensions emerge and condition the way we move, the way we sense and feel others and their energy. Which is why the lady at the stables tumbled melodramatically to the ground like a tantruming toddler when she broke through to her real pain. It is why, I guess, we fall in love when we encounter someone whose energy mysteriously and deliciously complements and enhances our own. It can be addictive!

“The secret is in relaxing” as many T’ai Chi teachers have said. But how do we learn to do that? It is a long path, but I do think pushing hands is the royal road to dropping fear and anxiety about interaction with other human beings. Therefore I plan to attend again the great pushing hands event run by Adrian Murray at Worcester University at the end of August. This is not about competition, fighting or aggression (though some people there do enjoy a bit of that) but about relaxing, joining, yielding. Sounds good to me.