This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.
I grew up in Nebraska, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and a music teacher. When I was a little girl, like many of us, I took the world I grew up in for granted – unaware that my life might be different from anyone else’s. It was only as I got older, and especially after leaving home, I began to appreciate this churched, midwestern world that was my early existence. I also began to examine and understand the emphasis and sacredness on liturgy and ritual that defined my own religious upbringing.
As I started thinking about writing this post, I realized that my message was set to be released during Holy Week, on Maundy Thursday nonetheless. This felt so fitting, with the Lenten season of the church year overflowing with the sacredness of ritual. I thought about growing up celebrating Palm Sunday with the waving of cool, real palm branches, practicing the Passover Sedar, and my father’s heavy Bible slamming to signify the solemn end of the Good Friday service. And above all, I thought about communion – during Holy Week and every Sunday – with the reminder always echoing in my ears: this is my body, broken for you, do this in remembrance of me.
With the workings of the church woven into my very being, my own journey has also been one of creativity – and specifically – of dance. Pursuing my love for this art form, and in the midst of working towards my undergraduate degree in dance, my father was diagnosed with cancer. Many years later, I still don’t have the words to sufficiently describe the pain of his three year battle, of horrors that a hardly twenty something (let alone anyone) should never have to endure. Even now I struggle to grasp all that cancer stole from me, but because I didn’t know // couldn’t know how to press on without it – all throughout the chemo treatments and the surgeries and the pain pumps – I kept dancing. My own creative practice held and grounded me during that season, as it has in difficult seasons since, in a way that I came to understand only in retrospect.
Just two months after my father’s funeral, I moved to Chicago to pursue the studies in dance/movement therapy I had deferred a year prior. During this pivotal time, drowning in grief and drinking from the fire hose of graduate coursework, I realized that at some point I was going to have to integrate my journey of faith with my world as a dancer. Unfortunately, the words of John Gordon Davies (1984), rang far too true in my own life: In Western culture, relatedness, whether to God or interhuman, has been conceived and practiced in terms mainly of the spoken word. Acknowledging that we are communicating beings, stress has been laid on verbal communication. From this has stemmed an undervaluation of the bodily aspect of the dialogue.
The church, while steeped in deeply rich traditions of many kinds, hasn’t always done a great job of reminding us of the holiness of the incarnate experience – whether our own bodily and physical experiences, or God’s desire to enter the incarnate experience through Jesus’ life and death. Jesus reminds us – this is my body, broken for you – do this in remembrance of me. Once I was able to recognize and honor the sacredness of the incarnate experience (even amidst its brokenness and suffering) in my faith, I was able to fully understand how the practice of dance allows me to feel more connected to myself, to the world, and to God.
Much like the church I grew up in, the culture of dance is thick with rituals. A culture that is home to me, I forget at times that my willingness to be barefoot anywhere or my proclivity to hug or touch even strangers makes me a bit of a foreigner in the other worlds I inhabit. Yet the truth is that the marley floors of the dance studios of my life are just as much church to me as the sanctuaries where I’ve received communion. My body laid out in a giant X shape across the cool floor, I’ve surrendered my weight into the ground below me, trusting it will support me and hold me up – again and again. The ritual of dance class, of turning off the racing chatter in my brain in order to let my body take over and just be in the present moment, has reminded me repeatedly of the beauty of the incarnate experience.
I know that for me, personally, great healing happens when I enter the sacred space of the dance studio. I’ve also learned in my work as a dance/movement therapist about the uniqueness and relative nature of each of our personal journeys. Our embodied experiences and needs are vast and varied. Sometimes we don’t have the luxury to practice that which our body wants or cries out for; even knowing what that might be is in itself a luxury. Yet, a practice that sustains me, and that I hope can do the same for others, has the potential for simplicity. I’ll break it down like this:
- Know that your incarnate experience matters. Yes, your thoughts and your mind matter – but equally sacred is your bodily, felt, lived experience.
- Listen to your body. Your body is very wise. Take a minute every day to be still and to listen. Inhale and exhale slowly a few times. What do you notice in your body? When you think back to that meeting at work, that important phone call, or that argument at home – can you remember what you experienced in your body? Where you felt something? What are the messages your body is sending you right now?
- Respond to you body. Turn on your favorite song and dance it out. Take a run and pound into the pavement with every ounce of strength you can muster. Lie on the floor in a big X shape or curl up in a ball and let the tears flow as they may. Trust that the ground below is there to hold you up, and that God is too.
The beginning of the Lenten season always brings forth memories of the yearly imposition of ashes – the ritual of my father marking the ashen cross on my forehead and reminding me, you are dust, and to dust you shall return. There is great freedom in recognizing the impermanence of our broken, earthly existences – and great beauty in embracing them in the meantime – the messy, holy, incarnate experience that is being in our bodies for today. May you find the freedom to dance in the interlude.
Mariah LeFeber is a dance/movement therapist and counselor who lives in Portland, Oregon, where she has killer living room dance parties with her husband Paul and their two daughters, Adah and Junia. You can learn more about her at mariahlefeber.com or find her on Instagram @mariahdancing