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‘Poetry In Motion’ In the Different Worlds of Surfing and Dancing

surfer in the wave curl under spray

Surfing reminds me of a dance, a pas de deux with the ocean. I think that’s why I reacted when I read that a super modern pool with pre-programmed waves is to be built for surfers. No need to face shark attacks, possible drowning and all that endless boring waiting. Wonderful? I don’t think so. This is commodification again, truly the dominant power of modern life – and something immeasurably significant would be lost.

For twelve years I lived near a surf beach on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. Number Sixteen it was called, an appropriate no frills name for this wild part of the coast where cliffs subside without warning, where there are no lifeguards, no flags on the sand to swim between, dangerous rips and cruel underwater rocks. Surfers were the only people I ever saw actually in the water – and they were there all through the year.

surf beach with big rock in the sand

Number Sixteen Ocean Beach – the big rock is known as Lizard Head

Some of these wave riders were straggly haired schoolkids. I asked them, wasn’t it dangerous? Yes, they said, but the surf’s not that big and we know which areas to avoid. Anyway we keep an eye out for one another. Others, a few years older, drove down in their utes after work; we come whenever the wind is right, they told me.

Any dogs they brought with them sat well-behaved on the sand keeping anxious protective watch, while the surfers plunged in, intent and serious faced. They ducked out through the waves, and beyond the unpredictable peaks and troughs they waited like seals bobbing up and down in the swell. They were so patient, so mindful, fully alert and open for the moment. Suddenly one or maybe two of them would be on their knees paddling like mad on a wave as it charged shoreward. Then they stood and in the flow now, rode their boards with superb balance and grace, weaving in and out, back and forth towards the shore. No wonder surfing is often described as poetry in motion.

I watched, exhilarated. And as the spray streamed behind the wave’s head and turned into mist, in my mind’s eye I saw it rising into the sky and spreading outward, growing ever more transparent, and vanishing into an elusive realm where elemental beings tumble and dive. On wave after wave the surfers came in and how mightily the sea was working with them. Nature, the planet itself if allowed is available to commune with us. I wouldn’t say such things to those lads, but I think they would have ‘got it’ and understood the drastically limited experience a computerised wave pool could give them.

crashing waves on the shore

Into the elusive realm

Physical exercise is promoted today as the way to health and indeed it can be. Those wiry, loose limbed surfers I met exuded health. Different kinds of exercise have different outcomes, and because every part of us functions in relationship, emotional and mental outcomes are part of the story. That’s well known. Not so well-known is the invisible field, variously called the etheric, chi, prana or life force. The elusive etheric is everywhere in nature. In us it is a kind of non-physical double of the physical body, yet is not enclosed within the physical body – it flows. Something extra is happening when we run joyfully along the beach, or when we huddle with hunched shoulders. When our movement is free flowing and open, our etheric streams into the etheric all about us. When we are tense and bound we restrict that communication. And this brings about conflict and restriction within the soul.

Yoga developed in the ancient Indian culture to keep the body pliable, thus maintaining the free flow of etheric currents. T’ai chi is similar despite its origin as a martial art, and surfing by its nature moves in that flow. Dance is conscious shaping of the body and its etheric counterpart towards aesthetic ends, although there’s more going on.

I do tend to view events through the prism of the arts. And even when there is no intent ordinary things seem to be dancing – the restless tossing of dune grasses for example. The conscious activity involved in the surfer’s dance-like interaction with the ocean brings it closer to dance. Yet describing surfing as ‘dance-like’ draws attention to why it is not dance. In my book Prodigal Daughters I explore the spiritual source of the ‘art of the dynamic image’. I’ll look at dance from another angle here.

Why dancing is a different kind of ‘poetry in motion’

Unlike in surfing, danced movement emerges first from within rather than in response to an outer stimulus. A dance may be sexy, assertive or meditative, but it always begins with an inner process. Even in choreographed ‘steps’ the dance is inherently personal.

Rudolf Steiner called dance ‘sweeping ecstatic gesture’ and indeed it is, when it emerges freely to be enlivened through the invisible etheric.

a child dancing and adult female dancing both with hair flying

Children are familiar with it and so were the hippies at Woodstock, 1969 − the ecstatic freedom of dance

We express what lives in our souls through three kinds of activity – willing, thinking and feeling. Disciplined movement activity strengthens our will and helps us to become self-aware. Feeling is involved too, although in the art of dance feeling is heightened. Anthropologist and teacher Franzisca Boas explored dance in a great variety of cultures. She describes what takes place thus:

Ordinary gesture and action become dance if a transformation takes place within the person, the transformation which takes him out of the ordinary world and places him in a world of heightened sensitivity.

That’s entering a glorious world. What about when we watch people dancing; what is going on in us then? And if we come across spontaneous dancing – at the beach, a park, a city square − why do so many of us pause to watch a while? Between observer and any object a subtle interplay takes place before the mind comes in. In our experience of nature, and of the arts, the interplay occurs in a space filled with living forces. Dance is a dynamic art of flow, and our experience in this meeting has the dynamism of an ocean wave. We respond viscerally, with an inward movement impulse that engages our feeling levels. Mostly we enjoy our responses and may also experience that ‘world of heightened sensitivity’ − watching as well as doing dance, or when people are dancing together.

Sometimes in my classes we would work on ‘tuning in’ to another person's movement, not so much imitating as discovering in our movements those that will add a new dimension to the interaction. It is exciting and fun to do and it involves spontaneity and creatively ‘thinking on your feet’. It also involves responding in feeling to the other person. The crux of the interaction involves inwardly saying yes to the other, so creating room for a dance conversation to build. In communicating in this way, free of words and the calculations of the rational mind, we can relate from the finer sensitive place beyond the dense physical.

Dance is not materially different from the physical actions we undertake daily, nor is it radically different from sports. On a qualitative level, however, dance differs from other movement and it involves creating from the inner place beyond the normal experience of the senses. The real intention of the dance is not to perform marvellous physical actions or show what the body can achieve in motion. Sure, like any other human endeavour it can be, and is, commodified and turned into battles for the prize. The art of dance survives this onslaught because on a deeper level artists and dance lovers remain true to its purpose, which is that of all the arts − to create a bridge between this physical sense oriented world and the world of spirit around us and within us.

This is why dance has been used for thousands of years in spiritual and religious activities. The medicine dances of the American Indians were performed specifically to bring the spiritual healing powers down to the community. In ancient Greece, Asclepius the god of healing was invoked to be present in the temple rituals. People gathered to see the dancers, and to participate, and through the flowing motions of the dance they all sought to receive healing balm for the soul, to experience relationship with the divine. And here is Manjari Chaturvedi dancing Sufi Kathak, her innovative union of Indian classical dance with Sufi mysticism – dance for her becomes ‘a communication of the Self to the Almighty … between creation and the Creator, or soul with spirit.’ Check her out on Youtube.

two photos of Indian dancers

Dance may have moved out of the religious sphere yet the relationship still holds. In one class I led I asked the participants to seek those movements which gave them a sense of harmony and equilibrium. Choosing coloured lengths of material as their ‘props’, they moved into improvisation alone, and as they continued there was a beautiful interweaving and uniting of the etheric forces. For me as an observer it was wonderful, and unforgettable when after a while, in a magical moment they all sank quietly into stillness. Almost as one they had found their centre, that point of peace where the body is in tune with the soul and the soul is at one with the spirit.

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