Spirit Centers - The Spirit of Dance
by Cynthia Winton-Henry
India changed me. More accurately, Indians who dance changed me. I didn’t come to be changed. Only one thing drew me to Mumbai, a Jesuit priest named Prashant. He and I met in a California class on dance and religion. I had invited participants to find a partner, and bring their palm to their partner’s palm. Prashant was right there. Our palms joined, the music played and we were carried to a place we hadn’t been to before.
I was used to things like this happening. In 1989, Phil Porter and I created InterPlay because we understood the powerful ways that dance and stories restore body wisdom, personal freedom, and intercultural connection. Over 19 years, we had found easy, elegant steps to help every kind of person move, breathe, tell their story, and be still. Adding in a few key ideas, like ‘the physicality of grace’ helped people recuperating from serious illnesses, therapists, religious professionals, scientists, and even prison inmates feel a sense of relief. I wasn’t surprised. I felt it all around the US and with people in Africa, Thailand, and Australia.
Dozens of hand dances and stories later, Prashant shared his dream for global exchange between people in India and the US. Knowing the power of InterPlay, he playfully encouraged me to come to Mumbai. My spirit was willing, but my travel instinct hadn’t extended to this great land. I was ignorant about all things Indian. On the other hand, I knew that if I could InterPlay with people in Vasai, Talasari and Mumbai that would quickly change.
I was not only welcomed, I was overwhelmed with the spontaneous responsiveness of my new friends. Arriving with four other InterPlay leaders – an Australian, a South Korean American, and two Californians – we joined with Prashant to play with AIDs orphans, school kids, women in a slum, tribal youth in Talasari, Jesuits, nuns, organisational consultants, social activists, and health care workers. It was magical. InterPlay had created powerfully strong communities in over 50 cities but here I was in a context where I knew next to nothing of the language, religion, cultural history, and food palate. I was making friends.
In the United States, I apply myself every day to the task of reminding people to dance their lives. I believe that the American work ethic and prevailing religious beliefs pushed our common dance and drum into the background. We lost the body’s social glue. In my opinion, the result has been epidemic depression, and a pervasive struggle for heartfelt connection. On top of that, we exported some of our worst behaviours. Words in the hidden text, The Hymn of Jesus, quote Jesus as saying, “Who does not dance, does not know what comes to pass.” Apparently, Jesus sang these words to his disciples while doing a circle dance the night he was arrested. I often wish people in the US could hear these words.
Maybe that is why India changed me. The first night in Vasai, I found a stream of living people ready and willing to move. Men and women offered us their dances. Children offered dances. Visiting Warli tribals in Talasari, I saw the spiral dance in every single painting and witnessed the powerful dancing of seven men in a fire-lit home as women sang in prayer. I couldn’t understand the words, but I knew that the heart of it had to do with their connection to the earth and their unifying bond. People all over the developed world are looking for what they have. I am grateful to share similar body knowledge.
All of this moved me deeply, but it was in the heart of Mumbai where I was profoundly touched and changed. After playing with children orphaned by AIDS, we travelled to a slum area. I was tired and very nervous. Slums are one of the few things that people back in the US hear about. Driving to the top of the hill away from Mumbai’s hectic traffic, I was surprised at the neat paths, the trees and the open courtyard with orange flags flying. A wall was painted with the words “Welcome 2008.”
I entered a tidy room. Rugs were laid down. Thirty women who work as animators in their community expected someone to lead yoga. Instead, after 40 minutes of fake circle dances, following and leading, doing palm to palm dances and improvisational singing, they said, “I got a little bread to eat and ran over to this meeting already tired. But now I feel so much better!” Another woman said, “I thought this was going to be yoga. Yoga is difficult. This is so easy! Anyone could do it!” They were remembering joy. Their minds cleared. They felt renewed. Me too!
Then Prashant, the other InterPlayers and I danced and sang on their behalf. We did simple, improvisational shapes and stillness from our heart. The women watched with eyes wide open. They had never imagined that Americans could want peace. When the group organiser asked if any of them would like to become InterPlay leaders, 30 hands shot up. If InterPlay could provide this much relief, it could go far. Maybe re-introducing full-bodied play as a source of health for everyone is not such a crazy idea after all.
That’s when I felt a life-changing burst of hope. It was a physical, bright bubble in my chest bigger than my heart. I realised that my hopes had always been based on intellectual optimism, and the privileged dreams of being a well-fed, well-housed American. This was hope beyond that hope. Today I humbly carry it with me. Thanks to the beautiful women and men in India, Prashant and many others that hope has not diminished.
Through InterPlay, I keep learning that it is possible to increase the happiness quotient in groups of diverse people. InterPlay isn’t rooted in a single culture, but in universally shared abilities of the body. It provides one of the quickest ways to access familiar joys usually found in our home cultures. In a world on the move, in an immigrating, mixing it up world, more and more of us are farther and farther from home. I would love more InterPlay and the chance to create more happy, life-changing encounters. Intuition tells me not to worry, it’s destiny.
(To participate in IEGP 2009 contact Prashant Olalekar firstname.lastname@example.org at Pasayadaan, Nalasopara PO, Thane Dt., 401203 or Cynthia at
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