Flow Arts as Spiritual Community

Several years ago, my disillusionment with the spiritual communities available locally bubbled over. Nothing felt like a good fit for me theologically or culturally, and yet I yearned for intentional connection with similarly seeking and passionate people. I needed a community.

My embodied understanding of divinity and search for a non-theological, non-hierarchical, quasi-spiritual community eventually led me to the discovery of flow arts after seeing Beth Lavinder hooping at a public event, recognizing that there was something powerfully transformative happening in her in her hoop practice, and talking to her about how she learned to hoop and what it meant to her. That year, in 2009, I began to take hoop classes with Ann Humphreys, now of Line and Circle. Over time, I worked in a few classes with Baxter from Hoop Path. I became friends with people who spun poi and did aerial silks and worked with fire and felt out the boundaries of the body —  how it moves through its connections with other objects and through space.

What I found in the flow arts community was a shared sense of meaning. The meaning itself wasn’t shared, exactly; just the shared and passionate realization that each of our lives had meaning beyond the minutiae of everyday living, and that this meaning could be explored through the metaphors of how we move through and interact with our tools, how we discipline our bodies to respond to our tools, and how they become extensions of our body once we reach a state called “flow.” In the act of community-based hooping, I found acceptance (of each of us with all our varying levels, ages, and bodies) and cheering of our current skills and encouragement as we learned new, more difficult skills. In the hooping itself, I found new ways of understanding my body, greater patience for myself as I made mistakes on the path of learning, and those cherished moments of bliss in which my body disappeared into the hoop and it into me.

In the hooping community, I found a model for seeking out and creating heart-based community in which people are invited to bring their authentic, whole selves to their work as well as their play. There were hoop classes and hoop jams, but there were also fire festivals and potlucks and social events at which people were able to share who they were, how they were facing challenges, and what they were learning about themselves and their lives. The social was spiritual, in the sense of acknowledging a deep sense of purpose and offering fertile soil for meaning to be sowed and co-nurtured among similarly-impassioned (if not like-minded) people.

While my schedule left me in the periphery of the hooping world for a few years, I returned to a similar community in early 2016 when I finally started attending ecstatic dance. What initially drew me to it was feeling tired of being out of community and anxious socially, and wanting a place in my life in which I could explore interpersonal relationships and communication in a safe space, with safe people. Ecstatic dance, at least in our community, is a 90 minute “dance wave” of music that starts with slow, meditative sounds, works its way up to a high-energy, upbeat middle, and then gradually expands back into a mellow close. Some people come and dance alone for the entire dance each week; others prefer partner dancing. Many make plenty of time for both solo and partner dance. There is no talking on the dance floor; consent is essential, emphasized, and negotiated nonverbally, though just like in everyday friendships, a comfort level emerges with those who dance together regularly and consent becomes less mechanical. Anyone can decline any offer to partner dance gracefully, with no hurt feelings. Gender becomes part of the play, and many who attend consciously break up gender norms in their dress, behavior, and approach – men dance with men, women with women, women with men, and a host of gender-nonconforming folks with everyone, with no expectation that one will lead and the other will follow. Instead, the focus is on paying close attention to your partner’s nonverbal communication and allowing your bodies to match movements, falling into a dance that is comfortable and fun for both of you.

Sometimes this means partner dances are quite intimate – I’ve danced with my body entwined with another, have been part of the swirling 20-person multi-partner dances that sometimes spontaneously occur (I call this phenomenon “the amoeba”), and have ended more than one ecstatic dance wave lying on the floor in the pile of people we like to call the “cuddle puddle,” eyes closed, absorbed in shared bliss, unsure who was holding my hand or whose limb was thrown over my shoulder (or whether it was an arm or a leg). I once spent an entire song with a partner/friend and I holding each other, barely moving except to match the rhythm of our breaths. (The number of people with whom I share this level of intimacy on the dance floor, remains small and controlled – all within my comfort zone.)

Ecstatic Dance at The Flowjo
Ecstatic Dance at The Flowjo

Other times, partner dances are silly and fun, interspersed with childlike humor, games of peek-a-boo, laughter, and make believe. Sometimes, someone does something playful – starts marching around, or honks like a goose, or takes a friend’s hand and begins a chain of people that weaves in on itself – and others join in, welcoming the chance to play. In our ecstatic dance community, there are performers, singers, voice teachers, artists, and dancers. There are counselors, therapists, psychiatrists, and yoga teachers. There are accountants, architects, teachers, developers, researchers, and web designers. There are people in their early twenties, “senior citizens,” and people of all sizes and body types. Each dance flow feels like a lesson — a classroom in which social anxiety, interpersonal skills, jealousy, fear, friendship, and love can all be examined through the lens of dance metaphor.

In this community and the open, safe space it has provided, I have found much of what I had been missing in terms of spiritual community, even as much of my personal theology expresses as solitary activity and I’ve only in recent weeks even attempted to begin to articulate some of my personal beliefs to others. There are no dogmatic rules in ecstatic dance, although non-judgment, freedom of expression, and consent are key ideals. We don’t discuss theology or religious worldviews at dance as a routine, though a sense of gratitude and wonder about the universe, the shared ecstatic bliss of the dance space, and universal and personal growth patterns are regularly discussed as part of our closing circle. In social events outside of official dance spaces, we take opportunities to discuss how we are working these ideals into our larger communities and how they affect our lives. For those who aren’t huggers, none are expected. For those who enjoy touch, long hugs and leaning on friends are the norm.

There’s a lot of crossover between the hooping, ecstatic dance, and other flow arts communities, and many of the friends I’ve made in one of those circles are also involved in others. Talking to them, I know that they also see the connection between flow arts, dance, and the embodied spiritual traditions. If Spirit expresses into the world through us, our words, and our bodies, then conscious exploration of movement and sound, of mindful focus and unthinking ecstasy, and of where self and other meet in communion become ritual acts of growth and devotion to a manifest Love and embodied Divine. Shared in a community without dogma or hierarchy? Just what I needed.

Leaving the Bubble, Privilege, and Safety

mountainview

Last month, I took a dear friend on a trip to the North Carolina mountains. For months, I’d been telling him about the spiritual impact the Appalachian landscape has on me – about how my heart opens when the skyline first comes into view, with its arches pushing skyward from the horizon, sculpted curves rising up from streams that wash through valleys. He’d heard me talk about my favorite spaces – the river whose water wraps me in tiny galaxies of dazzling mica on brisk, soul-awakening swims, the rock by the river where I sit to meditate, and the wooded paths and bamboo forests who’ve been watered by my tears when my heart was heavy. He confessed that while he’d visited the mountains a few times, he’d never had the opportunity to dive into the lush beauty of North Carolina’s mountain forests and stunning views, and we planned a quick trip for before his mid-July move to Canada.

The county where we live is a tiny area of North Carolina whose deep blue always stands out in votes-by-county maps after elections. We voted strongly against NC’s marriage amendment a few years ago, and have numerous churches – even Baptist churches – that are welcoming congregations. After HB2 was passed in March – the controversial “bathroom bill” that prevented trans people from using the restrooms that correspond to their identities – dozens of new restrooms showed up in online databases of safe bathrooms, and after the Pulse nightclub massacre, our city governments put up rainbow flags, as well as trans, agender, asexual, and bisexual flags. Even in our progressive bubble, though, transphobic people found themselves empowered by legislative support to speak louder and more harshly to gender nonconforming people – not just in the context of protests and counter-protests, but as they were going about their everyday lives.

My trans friends have told me of being mocked while out around town and misgendered intentionally in the workplace, in addition to experiencing the kinds of abuses I won’t break confidence to divulge, and these abuses being on top of the ever-present stresses of being unintentionally misgendered, asked intrusive questions by acquaintances and coworkers, and frustrated at the kinds of support sometimes received from well-meaning friends and family. Even in a reasonably well-protected bubble, things are not ideal. Leaving that bubble for two days of rural travel with a trans friend provided a thread of tension that followed us throughout much of our trip, as every glance, every bathroom break, every interaction with strangers, and every meal stop had the potential to become upsetting at a minimum, and possibly frightening.

linvillefallsOur trip turned out to be lovely – we swam through the sparkle-clouds of the Swannanoa River, discovered dens of garter snakes along parkway overlooks with awe-inspiring views, and hiked trails by waterfalls. As relaxing as so much of the trip was, throughout it all we were sharply aware that the predominant culture in those parts of our state made rural NC a not entirely safe place for my friend. Restroom choices varied over the course of the trip based on where we were, and glares from strangers reminded me that HB2 has made trans people more visible, more acknowledged (for better or worse) than they were before. When we arrived at the motel near Linville for the night, my friend sized up the look of the place and the people heading in and out, and told me he’d let me do the talking. Disappearing into a display of rocks in the lobby gift shop, he watched as I transformed into a hardcore southerner with a thick country accent, trash-talking with the innkeeper as he teased and joked. While I live in one of the more progressive areas of the Southeast, am college-educated, and hold some intensely leftist political and social views, I come from a long line of poor Southern farmers and that accent was my natural one until I was a teenager and realized the stigma in academic circles against Southern accents. I still slip into it unintentionally when talking to my family who live in rural areas, and had slipped into it without conscious thought in my interactions with the innkeeper.

Whether we’ll admit it or not, there’s a certain prejudice in the South against anyone perceived to be an outsider. “You ain’t from around these parts” is not usually considered high praise, and those of us who are from “these parts” but live a little differently know that rule number one of avoiding conflict in deeply Southern, rural areas is not to stand out. This is where my privilege becomes obvious – as a white, Southern, cis woman, I can easily blend in if I choose to. I’ve never really thought about the ways in which I code-switch when around other Southerners; for the most part, it just happens around my family thoughtlessly and without pretense. On this trip, however, I became more aware of the ways in which I do it as a protective measure around other Southerners with whom I am attempting to establish rapport, smooth out awkwardness, or defuse conflict. The underlying intent, subconscious though it may be, is to be accepted as “one of the crowd” so as not to be on the receiving end of any of white Southern culture’s negative tendencies. And when it comes to passing as “one of us,” I can usually succeed, because as long as nobody pays attention to the bumper stickers on my car, I visibly look like a white, cis woman and can readily sound like a Southerner.

The window of the Switzerland Cafe in Little Switzerland, NC, where we ate lunch one day.
The window of the Switzerland Cafe in Little Switzerland, NC, where we ate lunch one day.

Not everybody has that option. Not every person who does chooses to take it in every circumstance, and I can guarantee that had anyone been aggressive, unkind, or violent to my sweet friend while we were on this trip, I would easily have thrown out any chance of passing for mountain folk in order to stand by, support, and defend him. Any obstacle he encountered on this trip, he wouldn’t have encountered alone, and while my role isn’t to speak or fight for him, I definitely call out transphobic bullshit when I see it and would have encouraged people to respect and listen to him. I’d speak and fight with him against those who would harm him. I don’t have any idea what it is like to be trans. I’m an ally, a friend. But I’m a friend who tries to listen carefully when people tell me about their experiences. I’m a friend who knows what it’s like to see an interaction unfold from several meters away, listening to hushed tones of voice for frustration or stress, narrowed eyes watching body language and facial expressions. I’ve done it enough times with different people in different situations – friends and family who are vulnerable for one reason or another – that I can feel my energy transform when I go from relaxed to alert, can feel the way my eyelids tighten and eyebrows shift. My way of looking changes as I try to assess any need for me to step up, to stand behind my loved ones, or to put myself between them and harm. On this trip, I spent a lot of time alert. I spent a lot of time paying attention.

And I spent a lot of time learning.

illgowithyouAnyone who’s read an article or seen memes about privilege knows that one of the key concepts is that just because something isn’t a problem for you personally doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. Just because bathroom bills don’t affect you personally doesn’t mean they don’t harm people – good people, wonderful people, loving people who have already experienced too much discrimination, abuse, and violence. Just because they don’t make you feel unsafe doesn’t mean they don’t make others far less safe than they would be otherwise. Just because you can travel your state feeling relatively safe in its small towns and rural areas doesn’t mean others feel safe in the midst of conservative, evangelical, Christian culture, or that they feel welcome, or that they feel loved. Hospitality extended to those we think are like us is easy; hospitality extended to all people – hospitality that includes compassion, acceptance of differences, and genuine respect – that’s harder. We have a lot of work to do. Let’s join with those who are already doing it for their own communities, adding our voices, our strength, and our power to theirs.

 

On the need for interfaith worship

dukebelltowerRecently, I was catching up on past episodes of Interfaith Voices and heard their discussion about the Muslim call to prayer that was planned, and then canceled, by Duke University. Many of the speakers shared thoughtful dialogue about the value of interfaith acceptance, ways in which we interpret calls to prayer from various faith traditions, and why the situation at Duke University unfolded as it did. Speakers clarified that the call to prayer was initiated by the Duke Chapel staff, who (in the wake of anti-Muslim sentiment following a high-profile terrorist act) wanted to make sure that Duke’s Muslim student population felt welcomed and safe. They clarified that the “amplification” would be minimal, enough so that you likely wouldn’t even hear it if you were walking right by while wearing headphones. They clarified that the decision wasn’t requested or demanded by Muslim students, that the vast majority of the student body supported it, and that the primary pressures to reverse the decision came from outsiders, not from the current Duke community.

Amidst the voices that seemed comfortable with a pluralist society, there was one voice advocating against having the call to prayer at Duke’s bell tower. Repeatedly, she affirmed that Christians do not share worship space with non-Christians, that Muslims do not worship the same God as Christians, and that the call to prayer should not be done from the bell tower of Duke Chapel due to its Christian nature, even though it was the staff of Duke Chapel who initiated the public call to prayer in the first place.

There are many good points to be made that either add complexity to or refute some of the claims against a public Muslim call to prayer in a large campus with a pluralist community, and I won’t repeat them here, because many of them were addressed in this episode of Interfaith Voices (link). I will simply say that many Christians do share worship space with those of other religions (one local example being a time when the Chapel Hill-based Episcopal Church of the Advocate leased worship space from Kehillah Synagogue while searching for a permanent home).  “Allah” is simply the Arabic name for God, therefore “There is not God but Allah” simply means that believers in God give their worship to God. If it is offensive or contradictory to other traditions, it might be so to polytheistic or atheist philosophies, but does not contradict any monotheist stances. As for the adhan being performed from the bell tower, it is good to remember that Duke Chapel is there to minister and serve as a welcoming presence for the students of Duke University. If Duke wants to serve a student body that includes non-Christians, then it is wise for the university to be truly pluralist in its structure.

These discussions make me reflect on the need for interfaith worship, the purpose of interfaith worship, and the factors underlying resistance to interfaith worship. I don’t at all claim to have the answers, but I hope to explore these issues in more detail over the coming months. Given that three of our community’s brightest young people were murdered in an apparent act of anti-Muslim rage just weeks after Duke caved to public pressure to cancel the call to prayer, this is a discussion that bears having.

For now, I found a peripherally relevant quote from Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy that I wanted to share. I believe it has profound significance for understanding both resistance to pluralism as well as a desire to create structures to publicly legitimize pluralism.

“The problem [of legitimizing human-created structures] would best be solved by applying the following recipe: Let the institutional order be so interpreted as to hide, as much as possible, its constructed character. Let that which has been stamped out of the ground ex nihilo appear as the manifestation of something that has been existent from the beginning of time, or at least from the beginning of this group. Let the people forget that this order was established by [people] and continues to be dependent upon the consent of [people]. Let them believe that, in acting out the institutional programs that have been imposed upon them, they are but realizing the deepest aspirations of their own being and putting themselves in harmony with the fundamental order of the universe.”

Let them believe that they cannot share worship space with each other, ever, not even under specified parameters, and that to do so – to engage in interfaith worship or allow interfaith use of worship spaces – would sully the souls of those who participate, or profane the holy nature of the space for one group in its use by another. These rules are not set in stone; they are cultural, and culture is ever-growing, ever-shifting, and ever in the hands of those who are members of a particular community. I hope the Duke community maintains safe space for its own, all of them. I also hope that over time, awareness will grow about interfaith worship, what it means, and how it can benefit those who enter into it with an open mind. There is too much that could be gained by those who are willing.