Treading the Path of Memory
This Yule, one of my best friends gave me a book about ballet: Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life” by Gavin Larsen. The author had been a principle dancer for close to 18 years with various companies, she even danced in Suzanne Farrell’s company – a respectable career for any dancer. The book was very, very good and in fact described the physical realities of being a professional dancer better than anything I have thus far read. It opened with a discussion of what it’s like upon first awakening in the morning, how the first thing—while still lying mostly in bed— one does is carefully test every muscle, unkinking the back, stretching the Achilles, opening up the body gently and carefully before even setting foot on the ground. Every breathing moment is a test, determining the state of one’s body and how one is going to physically work later in the day. That careful evaluation is something I do even now, because the alternative is pain, sometimes crippling pain, and further injury. The book details the process from first opening one’s eyes, to daily [ballet] class, to rehearsals and post-performance care. I became tremendously emotional reading it, because my body remembered both the good and the bad of that life. Shortly on the heels of reading this book, I watched a movie, “White Crow” about the defection of Rudolf Nureyev and again, it brought me back emotionally into the middle of the world that shaped me: ballet.
There is a saying in the ballet world: “A dancer dies twice.” The first time is when he or she has to stop dancing and the second is actual, physical death. This is truth. It took me at least a decade to recover emotionally and mentally from my retirement (I retired in my early twenties), and I still carry injuries and chronic pain from my career. Somehow, in some strange way, perhaps through a desperate clutching at the memory of being able to create, through the sweat, blood, and pain of my body, a beauty that elevates the soul, perhaps through the desperate longing (to touch the Gods?) that drove me into dance and didn’t leave me even after I was spat out by the daimon of that art, a bridge was crafted that spanned the fractured, abyssal space between my life as a dancer and becoming a devotee of the Gods, a priest, and finally a spirit worker. One led directly to the other and without the first, I would not have survived the transformation into the second.
Long ago, I learned that there were two paths to becoming what many might term a ‘shaman’(1): madness road or death road. The idea is that you are cast down from your world, shattered and in the process of rebuilding and restoration, one comes back stronger and more resilient than before. There is a third way though, and that is the road of art. What is that? It is living a life where you are fully given over to the daimon of an art – in my case dance. Every inch of your identity, everything inside and out by which you exist and define yourself as a human being, centers around, relies upon, and is defined by one’s art. Then…usually at a terrible and critical juncture, that is stripped away and the result is a psychic shattering of the self. You rebuild (or not, but “not” involves consequences that are a luxury for a spirit worker. “Not” involves destruction, devolution, sometimes madness, drug addiction, and death). You claw your way back into some semblance of existence. You learn to live again and eventually, if you’re lucky, to find some measure of joy. If this is part of a spirit-worker’s journey, then this is when the Gods begin the process of direct formation. (In the end, I think every spirit worker or shaman ends up traipsing painfully down every one of the roads at some point in their life as we are remade again and again in service to our Gods. It is the way of things – formation never ends). The easiest and most productive thing to do is to embrace the process.
There are so many things that I brought with me out of the crucible of ballet training that helped me when I became Odin’s, that helped me center myself as a priest, that helped me embrace my formation as a spirit worker. I am so immensely grateful that I was allowed to foster under that terrible and hungry daimon of the arts. Ballet prepared me for spirit work, but also for regular devotion and I cherish the lessons that I learned as though they were jewels poured into my hands. Some of these things are contained in words that young people today find very difficult to swallow, triggering if you will, but they are utterly essential to the Work.
The first is discipline. In ballet, there is the understanding that discipline brings freedom. It was ingrained in us from the beginning of our training. This isn’t discipline that someone is forcing onto us, but a process that we enter into willingly. The discipline comes from within, must be summoned from within, and it is a gift we give first and foremost to ourselves. We train and train, submitting to a series of exercises that have been done by ballet dancers from beginner to professional, in largely the same order, the same way, all across the world for at least four hundred years. The moment we place our hands on the barre and will our bodies into position, we enter into a lineage that began in the mime and theatre of the ancient world, and that came to fruition as ballet specifically in the court of the Sun King, and then reached its perfection in 19th century Russia (2). We stand with our ancestors within that lineage, moving as they did, putting our bodies into the same steps and rhythms that they honed and passed down, dancer to dancer, body to body – because that is the way that memories are passed in this art—and in so doing, we ourselves are shaped in accordance with the dictates the tradition requires. It is a beautiful yet terrible thing. The discipline required in ballet is brutal. One engages in a constant battle against nature. With that discipline comes a tremendous endurance to pain, a knowledge that one can persevere, and a potent resiliency in the face of physical pain and even failure. Those things all transfer well, not just to spirit work but pretty much to any other field.
The second jewel in that hoard this art gave me is that of obedience. I think this is perhaps THE most difficult idea to accept. It comes into play more often in devotion than one might think though. We learn to willingly curb our will so that we might learn the necessary techniques, and so that we might develop the aforementioned discipline. In devotion, the idea of obedience to one’s Holy Powers isn’t so much a matter of unthinking, blind obedience but of choosing to trust when we may not have all the information or answers. This obedience is a personal choice, not something imposed to destroy one’s autonomy, but rather something one consciously chooses each and every day in order to help in one’s spiritual formation. It helps us to better develop as devotionally pious people of iron strong faith, and it helps us to carry more fully and well the Mysteries of our Holy Ones that we are meant to carry. Ultimately, it brings freedom. There’s a lovely saying by Seneca that comes to mind as I write this: deo parere libertus est. To serve a God is freedom.
Finally, if one is very focused and very lucky, ballet brings with it an awareness, palpable and almost physical, of the Holy. I don’t know how to explain this to someone who hasn’t experienced it in this particular way, but ballet opened me up to a sense of the sacred, to the Presence, to Numen. It was how I first learned to pray. It was my first direct experience with the Holy Powers. In Larsen’s book, toward the end (p. 224), she quotes Choura, (3) the autobiography of Alexandra Danilova.
Danilova, who trained at the Maryinsky, was a ballerina with the Ballet Russe, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and also both professionally and personally involved with George Balanchine. She also taught at the School of American Ballet, shaping a whole generation of professional dancers. In her autobiography, she writes about the tradition of bowing (female dancers curtsey) at the end of each performance. Like the respect shown at the beginning and end of each ballet class, this is a ritualized act, and an acknowledgement of one’s place in the lineage and hierarchy of the art itself. Danilova writes, “In Russia, we were taught never to touch our knees to the floor when taking a bow unless there was royalty in the house; we were to go to our knees only to royalty or to God. (Larsen, 224)” It’s a lesson many polytheists in general and spirit -workers in particular would do well to take to heart. The humility and respect, bound together like the circling chains of our DNA, that this awareness engenders, an awareness deeply embedded in the body on a visceral, almost primal level, cannot be under-estimated. It is one of the greatest gifts my ballet career left me, and in all ways, it prepared me for encountering the Gods later in my life.
Recently, one of my undergrad students asked how I went from being a ballet dancer to a theologian. The answer is painfully, but doggedly and the line from one to the other is straighter than one might think. I am grateful, deeply, deeply grateful for each of the many teachers I have had in my life on the way. (I was thinking of this today when I was doing the dishes. My assistant made her first cake the other day and I was washing up one of the cake pans. Whenever we bake in our home, the first piece is given to our house spirits and domovoi. I learned that from another Heathen woman. I visited her once, many years ago in NC for what turned into an incredibly fruitful weekend of hearth cultus and spirit work and though we’ve long fallen out of touch (she was Theodish and I left Theodism behind close to twenty years ago), I am grateful for what I learned in the moment we baked together in her kitchen. There are Teachers from whom one consciously studies and by whom one enters into a tradition, and teachers who often inadvertently open us up to greater understanding of our Gods. I am grateful for them all. Every teacher is a treasure to be cherished, respected, and their lessons honed and passed on.
This brings me to the conclusion of this rather rambling meditation on my life and work: gratitude. Last year, instead of making any New Year’s resolutions, I chose a word that was going to be my touchstone throughout the year. That word was devotion, and it was certainly a tremendously fruitful year devotionally, often in graceful and unexpected ways. This year, my touchstone is gratitude.
- I have no issue with using the term “shaman.” The difference between a “shaman” and a “spiritworker” is that death (or madness, or art induced psychic shattering). I’ve found, however, that for myself over the years, the word “shaman” fits less and less for what I do. There are Norse terms I prefer, particularly vitki, because it aligns me in mind and heart more fully with Odin as Gangleri and Galdrafaðr. Ever and always, the work remains much the same though. Spirit worker is an umbrella term for a specialist who works with or for spirits and the Holy Powers. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but for the purposes of this article, that definition will do. Likewise, I use the word “daimon” in the classical sense, that is as a divinely connected and powerful spirit.
- I have opinions on this. While ballet obviously continues across the world, I think the artistry and glory of the imperial ballet is yet to be equaled.
- This is a female nickname for Alexandra. It’s spelled шурa. The other common nickname, used for either Alexandra or Alexander, is Sasha.
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