The part of our intelligence that manifests through movement is much higher than we usually give it credit for. It is well known that crows can perform complex tasks, and a plethora of video evidence shows that they use sticks as tools and jam-jar lids for toboggans, while many birds can learn to “talk”. Although these beings with much smaller brains than ours may not have the intellectual capacity for abstraction, they give us an indication of the depth and range of an intelligence founded in movement. What we might habitually classify as intellectual activity in ourselves, may in fact often originate in movement. This intelligence works through imitation and repetition.
In the spiritual tradition of the Gurdjieff teaching, sacred dances known as Movements are a key element. These complex and exquisite dances help practitioners to bypass the associative thoughts that habitually hijack our minds. Often mathematically complex, the dances involve each limb making a different, independent movement while inner exercises add a further layer of focused attention. This effectively strips away all capacity for automatic “thought” and allows us to reach further back within the Self. The dances are remarkable in their ability to inspire awe and to act as an awakening stimulus for performer and spectator alike.
Complex coordinated movements like dancing or walking originate in the cerebellum. This “little brain” at the back of the head is directly connected to the spinal cord and regulates posture, balance, coordination and speech. It governs timing and orchestration, and is a much overlooked key participant in embodied spiritual development.
The emotional state that allows us to experience something as holy, a sense of wonder, has a close relationship with posture. Standing with eyes gazing upwards and arms reaching towards the sky is a response to awe, but the posture also induces awe. There is a neurological feedback loop that can be harnessed to increase our connection with the sacred. This stimulus arising from our own organism builds a bridge with higher realities, and enhances our inherent capacity for psychospiritual growth.
In many indigenous cultures, repetitive movements and simple rhythms are valued for their ceremonial and healing capacity. Rhythmic movement is known to affect brain activity because the brain waves start to harmonize with the frequency of the beat. There are five brain-wave frequencies (beta, alpha, theta, delta and gamma), each one of which represents a range of inner states. The theta state corresponds to deep relaxation, dreaming, meditation and hypnosis, and is also where the body and mind’s natural self-healing processes are activated. Theta brainwaves can be a source of creativity, intuition and enhanced memory, and correspond to the drum-beat traditionally used in shamanic healing (four beats per second).
Repetitive, rhythmic movements can induce a trance-like state that creates space for the kind of visions and insights that sometimes come to us on the edge of sleep. In other words, neuropsychologically-determined structural laws provide us with direct access to the unconscious mind through movement. Because sacred dance allows this to occur during the waking state, these understandings can be “gathered” and integrated with other regions of the brain that promote psycho-somatic healing. The prolonged altered brain states induced in ceremonial dancing are important for achieving the lasting personality changes sought in psychospiritual growth.
Rhythmic movement helps regulate emotions and prevent mental, psycho-somatic and psycho-social illness. For example, fast dancing with tempo increases can allow the psychodramatic release of aggressive feelings, such as those acquired through traumatic experiences or as a result of prolonged stress. The ceremonial nature of the release, where a guide holds a safe space, can prevent or ameliorate depression. Shamanic dances that include shaking, rattling or sobbing provide an affective motor discharge that is akin to crying – it releases stuck emotions through movement and voice, and toxins through tears and sweat. Because of the ceremonial element, the dancer can access, express, accept and ultimately regulate their emotions by ritualizing the experience.
In indigenous cultures, many sacred dances represent a mythological re-enactment of a spirit quest, an initiatory experience of death and rebirth. With the support of a ceremonial guide, the psycho-dramatic action can be used as a therapeutic tool. Psychodrama is the essence of our dreams and our unconscious mind, where catharsis or healing at spirit level can take place. This then affects the somatic (body) level. The positive attention from the guide and other participants provides further beneficial support.
Ceremonial movement-based experiences allow the dancer to enter an altered state of consciousness without requiring the full initiatory preparation or the challenging initiatory experience itself. Sacred dance enables the participant to re-connect with the power of the full initiatory state time and time again. This reminds the dancer of their forgotten greatness, sacredness and connection with the highest part of themselves and the cosmos.
Perhaps this is why Gurdjieff, in the final analysis, wanted to be known simply as a Teacher of Dance.