Mythic Dancing

A form of expression that unites persons, community, culture and cosmos

Maya “Long Nose” dance. Dressed as the long-nosed Ek Chuah, God of merchants and patron of cacao, the dancer acts out the impregnation of Lady Xquic, daughter of a Xibalba (underworld) lord. The man on the left beats a drum. Ek Chuah has a rattle and fan, and there’s a humming bird nibbling on a plant in his headdress.The woman is apparently singing. The man on the right sounds a gourd-like instrument. In Maya art, extended heels indicate dancing. (Photo courtesy of Justin Kerr Rollout Vase Collection).

 

My wife and I have been replaying Northern Exposure, one of our favorite television programs. In Season Three, within an episode entitled Seoul Mates—where Maurice learns he has a Korean son—Marilyn Whirlwind, played by Elaine Miles, tells the Tlingit raven clan myth about how Raven brought light to the world. Toward the end of the program, she and a troup of natives in raven costumes dance the story to drums and flutes as she tells it again voice-over. Watching it, feelings of joy welled up and my eyes watered. I wondered why.

Marilyn Whirlwind: “A long time ago, the raven looked down from the sky and saw that the people of the world were living in darkness. The ball of light was kept hidden by a selfish, old chief. So, the raven turned himself into a spruce needle and floated on the river where the chief’s daughter came for water. She drank the spruce needle. She became pregnant and gave birth to a boy, which was the raven in disguise. The baby cried and cried until the chief gave him the ball of light to play with. As soon as he had the light, the raven turned back into himself and carried the light into the sky. From then on, we no longer lived in darkness.”

For one thing, cutaways showing the delight in the eyes of people in the audience made me empathize and appreciate the extent of the community’s coherence. It didn’t matter that many of them didn’t own the myth as part of their culture. And many viewers probably wondered if the natives in attendance believed the story was factual, or whether it was accurately told relative to the Tlingit oral tradition. The story I found online, Raven Steals the Light, was longer and far more detailed. But none of that mattered to me. 

The long, black-beaked bird headdresses and costumes with feathers, the many Tlingit banners with abstracted bird faces, the bodies of the dancers painted black, the dancing and bird-gestures, music, drumming and rattling held me spellbound. Those in the audience and we who watched the performance on television were one, engaged in a culture’s connection to nature, the universe and how its features came to be. It made me want to live in Cicely, Alaska, a place where diverse people shared and debated substantive ideas and everyday human concerns. Considering that there’s a Northern Exposure Facebook page and a KBHR radio station in operation today, I’m not alone.

Catherine Bell, a religious studies scholar, writes that “The performance of ritual creates a theatrical-like frame around the activities, symbols and events that shape the participant’s experience and cognitive ordering of the world, simplifying the chaos of life and imposing a more or less coherent system of categories of meaning onto it. As anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff put it, “Not only is seeing believing, doing is believing.” Doing—mythic dancing—solidifies order, belief and identity.

The earliest evidence of ritual dancing comes from 9000-year-old cave paintings in India. It became widespread by the third millennium B.C. when the Egyptians and Maya and likely others, used dance as an integral part of religious ceremonies. As different as cultures are in their personification of earth forces and otherworld deities, it’s the quest for order and meaning that gave them an identity distinct from all others. Likewise in the modern world, we’re Christians and Buddhists, Americans, Italians and Japanese because of the stories we cherish. 

It’s relatively easy to find dance performances that celebrate folk traditions and notable historic personages such as Alexander Hamilton, but these aren’t rituals. Anthropologists Emily Shultz and Robert Lavenda, writing in A Perspective on the Human Condition, say a ritual must fit four criteria. It must be a repetitive social practice, be different from the routines of daily living, follow a ritual plan and be encoded in myth. Merrian-Webster defines “myth” as “A usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the worldview of a people or explain a practice, belief or natural phenomenon.” Mythic dancing then, tells how something of cosmic significance happened. 

Curiously missing from the long list of creation myths, are those of the modern era. We certainly have many myths to tell—Adam and Eve, Moses and the tablets, Jesus changing water into wine. Why aren’t we dancing them? Turns out, there are many mythic stories in the history of Western Civilization beginning with the Greeks. But with few exceptions, we’re not seeing them danced or even celebrated. There seems to be good reason why. Old and New Testament writers regarded the physical body as “profane,” “corrupted.” Dance was considered an invitation to sin. One’s attention was more properly placed on the Soul or Spirit.

“For the desire of the flesh is against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another.” (Galatians 5:17).

“The concern of the flesh is death, but the concern of the spirit is life and peace. (Romans 8:5-6).

“For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, nothing good dwells.” (Romans 7:18)

Later on, the “Church Fathers” took it to extremes in dogma. Regarding dance, a Catholic site, Tradition in Action, provides some history. The Jews incorporated dance as a means to express piety. King David danced before the Ark of the Covenant and some women danced to celebrate military victories, but men and women never danced together. “Dance largely degenerated under the influence of the Roman and Hellenic cultures. Later, in early Christendom, the bad leaven of pagan heathen dance led the Church to condemn dancing as unfit for Christians… The Council of Laodicea (363 AD) forbade Catholics to join in wedding dances. The Third Council of Toledo (589 AD) condemned dancing at the commemorations on the eve of Saints’ feast days and repeated the warning for Catholics to avoid participating at weddings where love was the subject of songs or dances. The Council of Trullo (692 AD) excommunicated any layman who participated in theatrical dancing; it also deposed any cleric who did so.” Continuing the trend, missionaries put a stop to the mythic (“pagan”) dancing of indigenous people everywhere. 

So the separation of body from Spirit largely blocked many cultures from dancing their myths. Yet the Western world has many myths. Jewish & Christian Mythology lists some of them with descriptions. Throughout Central and South America, dancing is a prominent feature among Catholics today, but these dances mainly occur in the context of ceremonies and celebrations rather than mythic storytelling.  After considerable research, I only found two cultures where mythic events are regularly danced today. Among several Native American tribes, there’s the Jingle Dress Dance,” the “Grass Dance” and the “Hoop Dance.” And the Aborigines have a ceremony called corroboree, where they meet and dance stories that depict the creation of human beings, animals, customs, law, lands, plants and sacred places. 

Watching the Tlingit television reenactment of Raven bringing light to the world, I felt, as I often do reading about indigenous ways and wisdom, that we’ve lost something precious, a form of expression that unites us in a way that mass and social media can’t. I was touched. Literally, a connection was made between the dancers, the narrator, those in attendance, me and the cosmos. That’s why the tears of appreciation and joy.

The first function of mythology is to waken and maintain in the individual a sense of wonder and participation in the mystery of this finally inscrutable universe. — Joseph Campbell

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2 thoughts on “Mythic Dancing

  1. Another thoughtful and somewhat nostalgic contemplation. Growing up a Methodist we never celebrated with dances nor alcohol. Kids signed pledges to never drink and some churches condemned any dance as sinful. When, as a teen I attended a few Catholic weddings with polkas and drinking (even we kids), I experienced the joy and togetherness those ritual events create. I seems we have lost so much that tie us to the universe and each other.

    I appreciate your articles looking back so I can look forward. If you have never read the book “The Old Way: a story of the first people” it has many insights for our contemplation. Where a digging stick is more important than an iPhone.
    Thanks

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  2. Great post David. Thank you for sharing. I too, am a great fan of Northern Exposure and the diverse and often deep themes explored in the show.

    One to add to the list of Native American dances with a mythological origins is the Jingle Dress Dance, which is a healing dance based on a story of a daughter saving her father from illness by constructing a dress that jingles as she moves, thus calling the spirits to come heal her father.

    I wonder if the old biblical texts could be interpreted differently with regard to the meaning of “flesh.” Maybe instead of seeing it literally, the flesh could be seen as a representation of the physical realm. Although the bible quote, “as above, so is below,” seems to contradict that.

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