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Marieke van Vugt

The meditation of dance, or the dance of meditation

A little while ago I had a radio interview with the Dutch Buddhist Broadcasting company, and one of the things I talked a lot about with the interviewer was the relation between my meditation practice and my passion for ballet. Then when I read the wonderful book Confessions of a gypsy yogini by fellow blogger Marcia Dechen Wangmo, where she wrote about her passion for dance, I decided it was time to blog about it.

So what is the relation between meditation and dance? In my world, there is quite a profound one. When I am in ballet class, mindfulness is an absolute requirement. In ballet class, the teacher will call out exercises, sequences of steps, and the students have to follow these. So if you're off onto a mind-wandering trip, you have already lost the exercise. And while you are doing the exercise, you have to concentrate on the muscles that you are using, remember the next steps, and then ideally also put some emotional expression or feeling into it. There is no place there for the mind to wander!

In addition to this aspect of mindfulness, dancing also has an aspect of awareness. This is especially crucial when you're dancing outside on uneven terrain, or dancing with a group: you have to be aware of your relation with the environment. This includes of course the people around you! Dancing is not about shutting everything out and just being concentrated. For a meditator too, the goal is to develop a quality of awareness that can persist in daily life. What differs I guess is that a dancer will actively try to make contact with an audience, which a meditator typically does not.

For me, a further connection between dance and my meditation practice relates to the role of tradition and customs. In both of these realms of my life, people treat each other with a lot of respect, typically much more than people in the street give each other. In the world of ballet, despite its harshness, the customs of the 17th century court from which it originates still apply. For example, students may bow or applaud to the teacher and the pianist at the end of the class, and dancers may walk around in rows and organized shapes. In meditation practice too, at least in its more traditional forms such as the Zen or the Tibetan tradition, people interact with well-defined protocols that show quite a bit of semblance. While those customs may seem foreign to some people, for others they can create a sense of space and safety, as well as elegance (think of the Japanese tea ceremonies!). The customs are a form of mindfulness by themselves because you have to be more aware of how you act and carry yourself.

While ballet is the art of attaining the highest form of discipline over the body, meditation is the highest form of control over your mind. And yet, although it requires tremendous discipline to pursue, it also cannot become too strenuous and tight, because then it does not work. A meditator who is too tight will become puritanical, or give himself a headache from trying to concentrate too much. A dancer who is too tight will not be fun to watch and will seem stiff. So there is a sense of balance: of learning to control, and also learning to let go at the right moment.

Most importantly, dance is to me a reminder of one of the most important metaphors: to dance your life. This means that you simply enjoy whatever happens. That is so easy to forget! If you manage to be really dancing, then nothing bad can happen to you. Any dancer can tell you stories about how they were in pain, but yet, the pain became insignificant while they were dancing. Such is the power of dancing, and of the human mind! So, I try to never forget to dance my life, both in its literal and in its metaphoric sense.


0 # ellen 2012-02-08 19:34
Thanks for this posting! As a life time dancer and a very new meditator I have been wondering at the parallels I have been experiencing and discovering. My biggest question was; is it possible that dance has trained in me mindfullness and awareness and being present, is that what they mean? Why do they seem so familiar? Then my judgemental mind asks "are you crazy?" I was shy about asking, and here you are.

I have only to walk into a studio, and the smell, the feel of the barre, the work, feeling the breath of a room of sweaty dancers is familiar and even loving, like an old friend. So I had come to the conclusion that I only need to approach my meditation much in the same way. I am a level I student, when I sit down it is like my first plie. Except I know that my understanding of dance came in years of layering countless "ah ha" moments and these will come in my meditation as well. That there is unlimited freedom within the form/technique. That it is always beautiful to be taught by a master. That those really incredible classes or rehearsals were absent of judgement and so expansively and gloriously and powerfully in the moment alive. That my cushion can become as familiar as the touch of a barre to me and a new friend becomes an old cherished one with time and care. And yes! To remember to Dance Your Life!
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0 # Marieke van Vugt 2012-02-08 21:36
thanks so much Ellen, for your beautiful comment!
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0 # Patty Krauss 2012-02-11 09:57
Dancing Vajra Sisters!

Thank you ellen and Marieke, for your lush images and parallels of dance and meditation, so beautifully intertwined! I know of which you speak....My perspective is a bit different as I tossed the point shoes and tutus in favor of the bare-footed earthiness of contemporary dance, improvisational dance, contemplative dance (also known as "authentic movement") exploring internal landscapes through a disciplined instrument: my body! the same in meditation, the same, but deeper..I am ever grateful for all dance my training. And when I came to meditation, in my 40's, it was indeed familiar. There is no anger when we dance, there is no fear, there is no judgment, and there is bliss in abundance..I remain humbled by my great good fortune to have a life rich in dance and a meditation practice that elevates my mind...Joy!
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0 # Editors 2013-08-24 22:05
Nice article!
We recently published an article on dance as meditation. Please check it out.
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