Experiential Worship

I’ve been reading some articles about “experiential worship,” and it inspired me to think about my own experience.  After graduating from college, a classmate and I decided to travel in Europe.  On New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1964,  I was in Paris with a bunch of Greek students we had met.  I went to their New Year’s Eve party.  Upstairs, people were doing ballroom dancing, but a room downstairs had been decorated to look like a taverna. Ouzo and smoked octopus were available.  And they were dancing folk dances.  I can still see/feel myself with a Greek on each side saying “Et maintenant, un … deux … trois …”  the dance was a Hasapiko and many years later I rediscovered it at a dance camp.
In the spring of 1965 we spent holy week on a tiny island in the Aegean.  We were in the village of Naoussa on the Island of Paros, and the village was so small that if you heard an internal combustion engine you knew it was either THE taxi, or THE truck.  Good Friday night we were at the house of Frankie, the rich man of the village living on $25 a month social security from having worked in America.  There was our friend Soula, and her brother Andreas who was doing a medical internship in the village.  I think we were playing cards, when we heard singing in the street and went to see.  Down the hill the priests were leading a long procession.  After them, in their robes and carrying crosses, came the flower-covered coffin of Jesus Christ, carried by six villagers, and then all the women, dressed in black, carrying candles, and singing mourning songs.  I understood immediately that this was not only the funeral of Jesus Christ, but that each woman was wailing for all her dead, that this was an opportunity to express mourning communally.
Saturday night, our friends took us up to the Church.  We were each given a candle and a red egg.  The church was crowded.  It took us a little while to realize that the men were on one side and the women on the other.  So we moved to the women’s side.  Up in front, behind a carved screen, we could hear the priests chanting in Greek.  With a shout of “Christas anastas!” (Christ is risen!) they came out from behind the screen with lighted candles, and lit the candles of the first row of people who immediately turned to light the next row.  In no time at all, the candle flames filled the church, and the people burst out the door, still shouting “Christas anastas!” past the bonfire of Judas, and down into town to sing and dance as they usually do each night.  We hadn’t realized til then that holy week had been exceptionally quiet.
The red eggs? belonged to some ancient, probably fertility, ritual.  You turned to your neighbor and banged the eggs together.  The one that didn’t break “won”, whatever that meant.  We never did find out.
My next step was when I was living in Brunswick Maine, and found out that there was a local folkdance group that met Wednesday nights.  I went and loved it.  A synchronicity happened that first night, a woman came in with a record under her arm and wanted to teach a simple dance.  We lined up shoulder to shoulder.  It was 3 steps moving to the left, arms go down, and 3 steps in place, arms come up.  The music started with bagpipes and immediately I was on a moor in Scotland with a bonfire and a full moon rising.  Dottie wound us into the tight spiral at the end.  It turned out the music was by Alan Stivell, a harpist from Brittany.  I had never heard of Brittany, but I immediately realized that this was the music and dance of my Celtic ancestors (Scots and Irish.)  I had always envied the Greeks and the Israelis their ethnic music and dance, and now I found my own ethnic heritage.  Within a very few years I traveled to Brittany and went to a number of “fest-noz”, night festivals, with a band and 300 people dancing in long lines.  A whole part of myself woke up and rejoiced.
I used to joke that I went to Wednesday folkdance the way other people went to Church.  I didn’t have the language to say that it was feeding my soul, but that was what was happening.  When I moved to Franconia New Hampshire, I took a tape of my favorite dances and started a small folkdance group.  I got very sick, and had to stop teaching dance.  As I was starting to feel better, a friend told me that there was going to be “Sacred Circle Dancing on the green in Danville Vermont, to celebrate the Fall Equinox.  “Sacred Circle Dancing, what’s that?”  So I went and found a circle of people doing a dance I already knew, around a centerpiece made of a scarf, a candle, a bowl of water, and a feather.  Well of course!  I already knew the traditional dances carried sacred energy, but here it was being acknowledged.
Needless to say, I went to the first workshops on this new/old way of dancing.  Many of the dances were traditional, but there were a lot of new choreographies too.  I’ve been teaching this dance ever since.  I also used an inheritance from my family to build a building, Neskaya Movement Arts Center, deliberately designed as sacred space for movement arts that are also spiritual practices.

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