Opening the Gates
Middle Eastern Dance from a Tantric Perspective
by Amy Hubert
Encoded within the movements of Middle Eastern dance is the potential for spiritual awakening. The serious Middle Eastern dancer has the potential to function as a self-initiated priestess within the community. A priestess actively develops her energy body, cultivates self-awareness, and acts as a conduit for higher spiritual forces in the community. The priestess connects people to each other by providing a focal point for ritual celebrations where she consciously accesses creative and unitive energies. In contrast to a time when sacred dance happened in temples, today we call these rituals performances.
We will look at the elements in Middle Eastern dance that contribute to spiritual awakening from a Tantric perspective. Although an understanding of the view of traditional Tantra is essential to Tantric spiritual practice, it is well beyond the scope of this article. Credit for much of the language and concepts presented here goes to my spiritual teacher, Lar Short. He has made it possible for me to explain “how it works.”
Traditional Tantra is a system of spiritual development that works with everything as energy moving in space. The Tantric learns to digest and refine all experience as energy that can be used to build an independent soul and spiritual body. Tantra is a science of the mind that provides maps for spiritual growth embracing both the body and spirit. The traditional accomplished Tantric perceives the elemental energies moving as physical forms in space.
Dance, at it’s most exquisite, is energy moving through form dancing in the vastness of space expressing essence. In a truly soulful performance the dancer opens and connects very deep parts of herself with the audience. The dancer reveals her human passion beyond technique or choreography. Witnessing this type of performance is very intimate. We say a dancer is “graceful” or “exquisite.” We sense something beyond the obvious physical dance that touches us inside. The dancer’s awareness and our awareness meet. In this meeting magic happens.
Magic is our contact with the creative, unitive and/or grace energies. The creative is when something new happens on the spot. The unitive is when we feel deeply connected to all the people in the room. Grace is when we connect with higher conscious awakened spiritual energies and “coincidences” occur. We are touched in a soulful way and directly experience being alive. Dancers use various types of language to describe this kind of magic, such as opening “gates,” going into “trance” or going on a “journey.” Once a “gate” is open, a dancer can invite in qualities and then radiate them to the audience. A dancer calls from deep within herself to the quality she wishes to project and share. The more deeply she asks within herself the more potent the quality that she radiates tends to be. Some examples of qualities are joy, love, gratitude and equanimity.
Archetypes are symbols that can be used as tools to help dancers access particular energies and qualities. The essence of an archetype is the quality that radiates from the dancer. For example, Tantric Buddhism uses visualizations of deities that represent embodied qualities. Sometimes dancers imagine that they are the deity and radiate the deity’s qualities. This increases the dancer’s ability to radiate these qualities in daily life. Archetypes from other cultures can suggest new possibilities. Kali, for example, is a wrathful feminine form from India that offers a quality of fierce compassion we don’t often see modeled by women in Western culture.
Simple shapes such as lines, circles, waves, infinity symbols and spirals are basic archetypes that form the foundation of Middle Eastern dance. These simple symbols describe all the possible ways energy can move both in physics and when using your body, breath and attention. Most spiritual traditions train students to learn how to deliberately link their attention to the movement of energy. The spiritual aspirant systematically trains his or her attention to be able to move energy at will in the variety of ways described by these simple shapes. This effectively becomes the “energy alphabet.”
In Middle Eastern dance, one learns to move the body in all manner of circles, spirals, figure eights, and waves (undulations). These movements can be used as maps to open “gates” in specific parts of the body, inviting and projecting qualities from the belly, chest or hips, for example. Over time the qualities encoded in the basic movements deepen and become more subtle.
The key to using these movements as spiritual practice is making the movements conscious within awareness of the whole space. The dancer must be aware of her inner state and the outer conditions of the room at the same time. This is called “split attention” or “witness” consciousness. Split attention can have foreground and background attention. For example, you see another dancer on stage. Behind the dancer is the audience. When you look at the dancer directly, the dancer is in the foreground and the audience is in the background. If you look at the audience directly, the audience is in the foreground and the dancer is in the background. It is possible to have one attention in the foreground, and another in the background and not completely lose either.
Meditation practice helps immensely in stabilizing witness consciousness. Staying aware of your inner state (yourself) and the outer room (the world) allows you to perceive more energy by having a reference point that is not completely identified with either the individual self or the world. Split attention, or witness consciousness, is a requirement for spiritual growth.
This is an example of the difference between moving consciously and unconsciously. When learning to drive a car, at first you are aware of every movement you make to get the car to go where you want it to. You are aware of your hands on the steering wheel and your foot moving to the brake and the accelerator. You are self-consciously making each movement. Later, when you have been driving for some time, you can be talking, eating and thinking about the show you are going to as you drive. You are now making unconscious automatic movements that you have programmed yourself to do through practice.
Even though a dancer performs a routine with flawless technical perfection, if it is done without awareness, it comes across as “uninspired” or “lifeless.” This is similar to playing a piano like a mechanical typewriter. The soulful quality is missing. Dancing automatically does not develop the spiritual aspect of the dance no matter how technically proficient a dancer is. To develop the spiritual aspect of the dance, a dancer must bring self awareness to each tiny nuance of movement in the body while continuing to be aware of the room as a whole. A tall order for any dancer! This is the use of split attention or witness consciousness, and is more difficult than it sounds. However, the rewards you receive from making the effort are worth all the trouble!
Holding multiple attentions is an integral part of Middle Eastern dance training. Dancers learn isolations, layered isolations, breathing techniques, choreography, listen for cues in the music, project emotions, connect with the audience, and work with veils or zills, all at the same time. This “layered” learning is very helpful in the development and training in split attention. The key to spiritual growth is to keep some consciousness in the different layers of movements. It is possible to have one attention in the foreground, and another in the background and not completely lose either. As you become skilled with staying conscious in your movements they will become habitually automatic. At that time you must make a new effort to add conscious attention to another layer of your performance.
If you take a Westernized Neo-Tantra course that focuses on sensuality and sexuality in the form of “the love-making arts,” you will be surprised how many movements will be familiar to you as basic belly dance movements. Authentic Middle Eastern dance requires more precise isolations than Tantra classes usually teach. This is because Neo-Tantra and traditional Tantra classes use movement practices to open, clear and develop the channels in the energy body.
Channels are invisible pathways in the energy body. We can think of channels as the plumbing of the subtle body and energy as the water going through the pipes. Clogged places in the pipes represent the physical, mental, emotional and psychic tensions we are carrying. Moving energy through the channels clears the tensions and increases the size of the pipes so more energy can freely flow through them. Spiritual practitioners develop the energy body because it provides the fuel for the spiritual body.
To get a sense of the energy that runs through the pipes (channels), rub the palms of your hands together vigorously for one minute. Stop and place your hands about six inches apart, palms facing each other. Notice any sensations you feel as you move your hands very slowly together and apart. You may feel tingling, heat, or as if you are pulling taffy between your palms. This exercise creates a reference for the energy that flows through the channels.
Energy follows the imagination and breath. Spiritual practitioners learn to link their breath with a visualization of moving energy. Practitioners often visualize energy flowing down the front and up the back. This is one type of energy circuit. You train yourself first by imagining the energy moving as you breathe and then at some point you feel it as sensations. You can use your hands to trace the energy circuit to increase your awareness. Movements commonly taught in Neo-Tantra classes to open channels are: pelvic rocking, shaking, hip circles, and full body undulations (also called the dolphin wave). These movements are usually taught in conjunction with deep breathing.
We have greater and more subtle orgasmic potential than most of us are aware of. Breathing deeply into full body undulations is a means to learn how to have full body energy orgasms. These differ from genital orgasms in that they involve the whole physical and energetic body like a valley orgasm does. The orgasmic sensations can become very subtle. It is possible to learn how to trigger orgasmic waves by using subtle vibrations or by even just thinking about them. Eventually, it is possible to trigger orgasmic waves in different parts of your body at will, such as in your organs, bones, skin, uterus, and belly. Then the subtle orgasmic bliss waves become a state of being you can access and use as a tool. Breathing techniques, visualizations, conscious energy movements and subtle state changes can be incorporated into Middle Eastern dance. All this may sound fantastic at first, however, it is quite attainable through persistent practice over two to three years.
Should you decide to seriously pursue any regular energy or breath practice, including the full body orgasm, you may experience the side effects of the channels clearing. This is a normal part of the process and to be expected. The body stores different types of memories and tensions in its muscles and tissues that will surface and clear as you practice. For example, feeling distracted, scattered and spacey are symptoms of the navel center being closed. As the navel center clears, these symptoms may intensify before the energy can flow freely. When it clears you will feel a centered and balanced sense of personal power. In the process many different types of emotional states may come and go proceeding experiencing pleasurable waves of orgasmic energy. In my experience, this period of purification lasts from a year and a half to three years depending on one’s condition and what has been done previously.
Another important spiritual component of Middle Eastern dance is relating to the vertical axis of energy moving between heaven and earth. The more a dancer can ground her energy, the higher she can go spiritually. Relating to the earth and sky is integrated into the movements of Middle Eastern dance through the use of a chest lift, bent knees, strong thighs and a tucked tail position. This position is similar to the basic Tai Chi stance. The soles of the feet open as if to grab or push down into the earth. The bottom half of the body moves downward toward the earth. The top half of the body is buoyant as if floating above the grounded lower half. This position facilitates help from gravity to ground the dancer, aligning the core of her energy body with gravity. Alignment of the central axis of the body with gravity tends to open and activate the core channel. The core channel runs from the top of the head through the central axis of the body down to the perineum. Holding conscious awareness of the energy movements toward heaven and earth simultaneously (without loosing awareness of the room as whole) is another split attention to practice while dancing.
In a performance, working with the dynamic tension between inner and outer awareness creates a kind of energy choreography. Inner self-awareness includes awareness of how you are moving and the quality of movement. Inner awareness also means consciousness of your state of being and the qualities you are inviting or invoking from beyond what you can physically perceive. You can invite qualities out of the audience as well. In this way the viewers participate as much as the dancer does. As you are dancing imagine that you are receiving a gift.
Outer awareness means being aware of the room as a whole and where you are in it. You want to be aware of what qualities and states you are radiating into the space from different parts of your body. For example, you can visualize your core channel expanding to include the entire room inside your field of perception. You can make a conscious connection with each person in the room. You can experiment with using your back to feel the wall behind you to increase your awareness of where you are spatially. As you are dancing imagine that you are giving a gift.
In order for this energy choreography to be of a spiritual nature the dancer must use split attention. The dancer needs to remain aware of her inner state as she moves outward into the territory of the room. Connecting with each person individually creates a resonance between the dancer and the audience as a whole. Resonance is when an opera singer sings a note at just the right frequency to make the water in a glass spontaneously move. Once you have resonance with the audience and space of the room as a whole, you can change your inner state and the room will tend to change its state to match yours. You can work the room by moving back and forth between having outer and then inner awareness in the foreground as you maintain your background attention. This is one way the dancer as priestess can invoke the magic that happens when her inner state and the outer space of the room meet. As the priestess, she can open “gates” to access higher spiritual forces for the community as a whole.
The spiritual dancer is responsible for making and maintaining the bridge between her inner state of being and the audience. If the dancer focuses singularly on her inner experience, she will not be providing the necessary reference points to help the audience connect with her. She will not be able to move the audience with her when she changes state. If the dancer focuses singularly on connecting with the outer room, while the audience will be able to observe her, they will have no inner “felt sense” of her performance. She will not be able to move the audience from inside. To have the dance be a living expression of essence, which moves both the dancer and the audience, the dancer must hold both attentions simultaneously.
You could think of the dancer as a gyroscope spinning in space, suspended between inner and outer vastness. When a gyroscope is spinning, if you knock it down, its momentum will bring it back to the vertical axis. This is similar to the dancer suspended between heaven and earth, consciously inviting and radiating qualities and states of being into the space around her. The spiritual dancer moves energy through and around the three dimensional “map” of her energy body using the basic patterns of up and down, in and out, circles, spirals, waves, and lines while keeping an awareness of the room as one energetic fabric. The dancer as a priestess is asking to reach beyond what she can perceive with her five senses and open to the unknown. Ultimately, the accomplished priestess is sharing higher unitive spiritual forces and states of grace with her community.
Amy Hubert has studied Tibetan Buddhism for twenty years, and Neo-Tantra for seven. She is a graphic designer and web site designer, and is currently illustrating a series of spiritual texts. Amy is on staff of Tantra: The Magazine as a writer, graphic designer, and illustrator.
Amy (a.k.a. Ananda Dakini) began Middle Eastern dance as an awareness practice in her Tantric studies, and is currently dancing with Rajaz, a Middle Eastern ensemble of musicians and dancers performing in Northern New Mexico.