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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.