Today we are celebrating International Women’s Day, and I can’t help but think about this passage I recently read in a book that I am currently reading, Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance: Awakening Spirituality Through Movement and Ritual by Iris J. Stewart. In it, the passage asked, “Was Mary a Dancing Priestess?”.
Can you say MIND-BLOWING?!
After the initial shock at the question, I delved into the passage further. According to the apocryphal Gospel, the Protoevangelium of James, the presentation of Mary was depicted as such, “the priest ‘placed her on the third step of the altar, and the Lord God put grace upon the child, and she dance for joy with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her'” (Stewart 37). Sounds adorable doesn’t it? Unfortunately, all that cuteness and wonder and awe at a young girl dancing for God wore out by the time she was 12, only a few years before the Annunciation, and the Levites asked her to stop dancing in the temple. The story was accepted in Eastern Orthodoxy but was initially rejected by the Roman Catholic Church until later in the Renaissance. There had been artwork depicting Mary’s role as a dancing priestess including a manuscript drawing, “Mary and the Hebrew Maidens Dancing,” found in the Vatican Library. According to Stewart, “The word maiden here can be seen as a synonym for role of the priestess” (37).
This blew me away. At the same time, it made absolute sense. I began researching sacred dance two years ago and learned about the history of movement as spiritual practice across a number of different cultures and religions, including and especially within Judaism. Jewish women danced so is it no surprise that Mary danced? So why is this somewhat “shocking?” Maybe it’s because it’s a part of hidden herstory.
Let it be known- the Bible was written by men. I know because the priest at Saturday evening Mass explicitly said that! Just kidding! But no, he did say that, and all jokes aside, the Bible is heavily influenced by the patriarchal, monotheistic culture within the community at that time. Also the Bible at some point was written to counter the culture of the Greek and Roman states occupying the land as well as the pagans in neighboring lands. Given the male-centric focus of the times, a lot of history of women, or rather herstory, got lost and has been very difficult to recover. Whatever herstory we do find is somewhat exciting. And for me personally, any story on dancing women is particularly revelatory.
My introduction to sacred dance happened somewhat organically, without real study. “Can you make a dance about the Joyful Mysteries for our youth group’s Christmas party?” my mother asked. “Okay,” eight-year-old me said. The next thing you know I was dancing at every youth group and Filipino prayer group party I knew. Most of the time I was dancing to the latest pop song, but occasionally a biblical story snuck its way into my repertoire. It wasn’t until I was 15 years old did I ever see someone else do sacred dance and call it by name. Since then, it has always been a part of my life.
However, it wasn’t until 2015 when I was interested in reading about sacred dance, and that for me was a life-changing experience. In fact, any time I read about sacred dance, any time I read about dancing women, any time I learned more about the different cultures and the mythology and the theology behind sacred dance, it’s as if I discovered an entirely new world. Okay, maybe not in a Christopher Columbus kind of discovery, but a whole world hidden away from me (and most of society for that matter) has been revealed.
It’s similar to that scene in Moana where she discovers the boats of her village hidden in a cave and realizes that she is a descendant of voyagers. I get that same feeling when I learn about sacred dance.
Moana [Walt Disney Animation Studios]
(Seriously a great scene)
I feel as if I’ve walked and stumbled into a dark cave with nothing but a simple torch. The more I learn, the more the flame grows and the walls reveal ancient paintings depicting a long, hidden herstory. The more I see videos, especially when I first saw Dancing Church Around the World by Thomas Kane, CSP, the greater this light grows. And as I read, watch, learn, interact, and meet new people, it’s as if the souls of my ancestors and the dancing women that came before me reveal themselves to me, allowing themselves to guide me toward .. well, everything! I realize this world is nothing new, but something that is deep within me and has been within me long before I even existed. And if it has existed for so long, then it must come from the One Source. (And let’s face it, there are some folks who get nervous at the idea of dancing women being so connected to God. Don’t forget that that story about Mary at the Temple was rejected by the Western Church!)
I don’t know if anyone would have a strong reaction to learning about sacred dance as much as I did. But going back to the idea of hidden herstory … Every time a new piece of information is revealed, it is a small awakening for me. I was long told that the history of wars is written by the winners, and if that’s the case, then men have long been the winners. To be able to write and pass down history depicts importance, meaning, truth, and existence. Learning about hidden herstory is then a small victory for women. And learning about the hidden herstory of dancing women is certainly a victory for me. It means I’m not just some crazy woman claiming to dance for God. I am real, sacred dancers are real, sacred dancing women are real. And this is nothing new, I come from a long herstory of dancing women, and I choose to honor that today on International Women’s Day and everyday.