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where I demonstrate the Dance of Life in my Vajra Dakini Fire Circle
Monday 28 August 1995
The sound of Ivan’s flute passing behind my tent woke me. The sun was already bright on the rear wall of my canvas home. My body was all stiff from a third night of sleeping on the hard ground, and my mind drifted in and out of consciousness.
I had resolved to participate in the Dance of Life that morning. My natural inclination was to remain where I was, to return to the recesses of slumber, but I managed to override the demands of my body, sit up and prepare myself to face the day.
A few minutes later I was standing next to Anna with about forty or fifty others in a circle around the altar in the centre of the open field.
The sun shone brightly. The air still had the slight chill of early morning. The distant Malvern hills rose from the thick mist which was still pooled in the spaces between the trees and hedgerows, the grass still damp with dew beneath our feet.
Ivan was talking with a couple of folk on the other side away from me. He looked about and must have decided he had a sufficient attendance to begin. I noticed he had on a faded Grateful Dead tee-shirt of yellow, pink and blue with a spider’s web worked into the design. Taking his place in the centre he spoke.
“Thankyou everyone for joining us in the Dance of Life this morning. I see we have quite a few more than yesterday, so I shall briefly introduce you to what it is about.
“In the late nineteenth century, when it appeared that the Native American tribes would be all but wiped out by the European settlers, some elders of the Cherokee nation had a council concerning what they could do to ensure the survival of their culture and spiritual teachings. The Dance of Life was created to encapsulate the essence of these. The words or sounds which we chant have no specific translation, but performing them in the Dance is a powerful ritual which initiates one to an understanding of the core of Native American wisdom.
“The Dance itself is a balanced sequence of moves which places us at the centre of the four points of the compass, between sky and earth. This is a core understanding. You are always at the centre of the Universe.
“The moves signify respect to, and invocation of, the spirits of the six directions. In drawing the energy from each direction we pass it through our own being before sending it back out to the Universe. You can think of it as a means of purifying the energy we encounter in the world or indeed of purifying ourselves by bringing in the energy of the Universe to our hearts.
“But it is not necessary to specifically understand the interpretation of the teaching, as the Dance itself raises knowledge and awareness of its meaning. It is part performance and participation, part mantra. The chant and movements are symbolic, beyond language, and by doing them we stimulate our own latent deep inner knowledge.
“Action does indeed speak louder than words, so I shall now lead you through the form.”
For one of such immense stature, Ivan was extraordinarily graceful as he ran through the basis of the movements involved.
“Ama tikki wo-oh” he raised his right hand in a broad sweeping gesture clockwise from his heart, his right leg mirroring the action. As his hand returned to the centre of his chest, the other was moved to join it and both were raised to the sky, opening out as if in adoration and supplication to the sound of the “wo-oh”.
“Ah-ne-oh-hey.” Bringing his hands together to the Ah, he rotated them forward about each other like the paddles of a water wheel to the “ne” as he bent down and touched the earth to the “hey”, almost squatting.
“Oh-oh sha-anna.” Reversing the direction of his spinning hands to the “oh-oh” he raised himself to standing and again reached for the sky with his arms outstretched and spread wide to the sound of “sha-anna”.
“Hey-a-na, hey-a-no, hey-iyaa.” Returning to the initial rotation of his hands he lowered his arms and to the sound of “iyaa” outspread his hands in a gesture of acceptance.
This sequence was repeated with the left hand leading.
“Oh-oh hey-a-no, ha-ah-i-iya!” He leant forward, as if reaching for a rope, left hand in front of right to the “Oh-oh”, and to “hey-a-na, hey-a-no” pulled it in hand over hand, till gathering it in his Solar Plexus he turned around and let it go, as if releasing a dove, assisting it with a push and the expulsion of breath to “hey-iyaa!”
“Oh-oh hey-a-na, hey-a-no, he-ey-iyaaaah.” He gently gathered in the energy to his centre as if pulling the rope back in and was still, returning to a position a quarter turn clockwise from that he had begun with.
“The chant and movements are repeated to each of the four compass points until we return to where we started. I’ll run through it slowly - follow my movements, don’t worry if you don’t get all the detail, just try and get the feel of the rhythm.”
We followed him through the form, all arms and legs flailing but for those who had clearly done this before. There was much amusement, nervous giggles and embarrassment. I had to face a rising wave of anxiety and feeling of helplessness as we progressed through the movements. I had learnt many yoga positions and a little T’ai Chi in my time but this was alien to me. I endeavoured to mimic the moves I saw being performed, but falling behind began to contend with rising panic reminiscent of the occasion I had let myself in for a juggling workshop some years before. I told myself it would all come in time and that I should not be concerned, but seeing Anna beside me striding confidently through it all only had me feeling more of a klutz. Time for Ivan again.
“Okay, that was only a practice run. We’ll go through it now and if you don’t get the correct movements, don’t let that bother you, if you can follow the direction to face that’s good for a start, watch the others about you and just remember to turn clockwise, to your right. It’s a lot to learn, so if you’re new give yourself the space to watch. It’s not a competition, think of it as a simple morning stretch and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you might fall into it.”
We began again, somewhat more synchronised, and I assuaged my waves of panic by focussing on the moves of our conductor. Left and right got mixed up, I nearly turned the wrong way, and realised that I was far from alone in my confusion. Halfway through I was facing out from the centre and was not able to refer to Ivan even from the corner of my eyes, but then locked onto Anna’s near perfect recitation of the enchantment and almost ballet-like performance of the dance. Turning for the last quarter I was able to mirror her actions as I stood behind her. Though she was somewhat older than my own forty years I could have taken her from behind for a teenager from her slim and lithe figure as it was visible to me there. For a moment I thought I saw the hint of a native American matriarch as she let loose the energy from the final quarter in my direction and came to rest.
I felt invigorated by the exercise so early in the day, but had also been aware that energy of sorts was being passed round the circle by the movements we had engaged in.
“Well done everybody. I’m sure you’ll all be confident with it before many more days have passed. Now to finish let’s send some of that energy we’ve raised out to the rest or the camp and the world. On the count of three I’d like you to turn round and send your energy out with all the vigour you can muster.
“One, two, three….” We drew in our breath and turning round expelled it with a roar which caused heads to be turned in our direction from those pottering around the nearby campfires.
I felt much warmer than I had a few minutes before and the sun was already brighter and stronger. The discharge of our energy coupled with the relief that the session was over had a wave of chuckles rolling about those assembled and several hugs were exchanged. It was an opportunity to speak with and get to know better our companions.
I turned to Anna and said, “When I saw you doing the Dance from behind you could have been seventeen.” I felt inspired that this mature woman could dance like a teenager, and felt old and klutzy, though perhaps a decade her junior.
copyright © 2011 Claire Rae Randall