Have you ever felt a deep connection to the universe when you move your body to the rhythm of music?
Dance has been used as a spiritual act for centuries across cultures, including West African dance traditions and rituals. In these traditions, dance is not just a form of physical movement but is considered a means of connecting with the divine and aligning oneself with the energy centres (or chakras) of the body.
While jazz dance is often associated with its technical and stylistic elements, it also has a rich spiritual dimension that is often overlooked.
For me dance is a spiritual act. It’s a moment of simultaneously connection to the material body, energetic body and the deeper source that ultimately we are all connected to.
In this blog, I will dive into the interwoven connections between jazz, the West African dance tradition, spirituality, and yogic philosophy.
Body as a carrier of all the histories of humanity
It’s amazing how much we can convey without using words, tapping into the power of movement to express ideas and emotions. In just two minutes of dance, we can embody many different characters, shades, and emotions, from a playful child who created a plan to do something naughty, to a state of carnival, to Napoleon type character – with power to conquer the space, to a spy chase, to exhausted character one who was chased, or even to a “fight club” scene. The possibilities are endless
There is so much we carry in present moment in our bodies. Our Body carries everything. It carries the whole world and the whole history of humanity. I believe every body carries all of the histories of humanity in themselves.
In many traditional healing practices, such as Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, the body is seen as a microcosm of the larger universe with physical and emotional memory stored in our bodies.
“The human body is a machine, albeit a very complicated one. The same principles that govern the movements of the stars and planets also apply to the workings of the human body. The microcosm reflects the macrocosm, and vice versa.”Leonardo Da Vinci
“Man is a microcosm, or a little world, because he is an extract from all the stars and planets of the whole firmament, from the earth and the elements; and so he is their quintessence.”— Paracelsus
I believe by listening deeply and developing sensitivity, intuition to the sound and gesture we tap in to the world beyond shape, matter, and terms.
I’d love to leave here the quote of P. Coehlo from “The Alchemist”
“…intuition is really a sudden immersion if the soul into a universal current of life, where the histories of all people are connected, and we are all able to know everything, because it’s all written there”.“The Alchemist” P. Coehlo
So let’s embrace the power of our bodies and intuition, tapping into the collective wisdom of humanity and connecting with the energy of the universe through movement.
In many spiritual traditions, there is a belief in energy centres within the body that correspond to various aspects of our physical, emotional, and spiritual selves. In Hinduism and other Eastern spiritual practices, the chakras are energy centres located along the spine that are associated with different aspects of our being and are believed to be interconnected with the universe as a whole. The concept of energy centres and their connection to the wider world is a common thread among many spiritual practices, let’s take a look:
The centre of the dance – 1 and 2nd chakra
The centre in the body in different dance traditions is defined and connected to the energetic centre of the body. This is essential to understand, and physically inhabit, to get deeply into jazz dancing.
West African dance movements are all about being grounded and earthy, with a strong emphasis on the hips and pelvis. The centre is in the pelvic area. This reflects a deep connection to the lower chakras (first and second), which are associated with the physical body and our basic survival needs. In particular, the pelvis is believed to be the source of sexual energy and creative power, making it a vital centre for dance.
The chakras are seven energy centres located along the spine that are believed to correspond to different physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of the human experience.
The first and second chakras are strongly associated with the earth, roots, ancestry, and our connection to the physical world. In the West African tradition the Earth is sacred. It’s provides home for the dead and food for the leaving. When we dance, we create vibrations, we communicate with the past and future.
West African dance is characterised by a strong connection to the earth, with movements that emphasise groundedness and rootedness. The hips and pelvis are key points of focus, with many movements originating from the lower torso and flowing outward through the limbs. This physical expression is rooted in cultural and social values that prioritise community, connection, and the power of the earth. Through dance, West Africans express a deep connection to the land and to each other, reinforcing social bonds and affirming their place within a larger cultural contextMcMahon, K. (2015). “Dance as Culture: Exploring the Significance of West African Dance in Contemporary Society.” Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles
In European dance traditions, on the other hand, the centre of the body is often located in the solar plexus, which is associated with the fourth and fifth chakras. This reflects a desire to negate gravity and to reach for the sky and elevation, striving for angelic qualities rather than earthly ones.
Mama Germaine Acogny, with whom I studied with in Senegal, opened to me the cosmology of the body in African tradition. Chest is the Sun, Bottom the Moon, Pelvis is the home of the Stars. And combined this is our Galaxy. All the elements shall always move and move in codependency and harmony.
Moving the Heart – 4th chakra
As a dance instructor, I emphasise the importance of engaging the entire body in movement, not just the feet. Even when executing specific steps such as Stomps, Suzy Q, or Tacky Annie, it’s essential to allow all parts of your instrument to move. Unfortunately, many solo jazz dancers tend to freeze their chests, which also affects their necks and backs. By doing so, they fail to ignite their Sun and Heart to themselves and to the audience.
The chest in west African tradition is a home of Sun as it was opened to me by Germaine Acogny. From a yogic vision it is the fourth chakra, called Anahata, the Heart Chakra. Both are the centre. The centre of the galaxy and our inner galaxy. As such, the cosmic spiral leads to the heart chakra. Moving it, we are moving something far bigger than just the chest.
The chest movements in West African dance are often characterised by a sense of expansion and contraction, reflecting the ebb and flow of life. This is similar to the concept of the Heart Chakra in yogic philosophy, which is associated with love, compassion, and emotional balance.
In yogic practice, the Heart Chakra is seen as the centre of spiritual awareness and the point of connection between the physical body and the higher self. It is believed that when the Heart Chakra is open and balanced, individuals are able to experience deep feelings of love and connection with others, as well as a sense of inner peace and harmony.
Awakening and moving the chest, front and the back, can be a powerful way of activating the fourth Chakra, and opening your heart. I had several students, who after a long warm up and dance focused on awakening the chest felt a wave of emotions overwhelming them. Because of this, by connecting with the energy of the sun you can tap into the feelings of love, compassion, and spiritual awareness.
The vivid life channel – From the Sky to the Earth and back
In my dance you might have noticed that I often use actions with my hands and body that can be described as pulling something down from the Sky to the ground and lifting something up from the ground to the space around or Sky.
This is how I see and feel this communication between these two parts, “separated” by the plane of our existence.
In yogic philosophy, the symbolism of the Sky and Earth represents a duality that is present within ourselves and in the wider universe. The Sky represents the transcendental, spiritual aspect of our being, while the Earth represents the immanent, physical aspect. The goal of yoga is to unite these two aspects, to bring the transcendent and immanent into harmony and balance, so that we may realize our true nature as divine beings, and experience the fullness of lifePandey, R., & Bhattacharya, S. (2018). Yoga for physical and mental health: A holistic approach. Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge, 17(1), 15-22.
The Sky is often associated with the heavens, oneness, and unity, which is a formless, non-material space that represents the infinite potentiality of existence. The Earth, on the other hand, is associated with the material world, full of shapes, and represents the finite, concrete aspect of existence.
Our body is viewed as a microcosm that contains its own version of the Sky and Earth.
The first chakra, located at the base of the spine, represents the Earth element within us. It is associated with stability, grounding, and our connection to the physical world. The seventh chakra, located at the crown of the head, represents the Sky element within us. It is associated with consciousness, enlightenment, and our connection to the spiritual world.
The spine is viewed as a bridge between the two chakras. The Shushumna nadi, which runs along the spine, is considered to be the main energy channel that connects the base of the spine to the crown of the head.
There are two streams constantly running and happening within and through our body, along the column through Shushumna nadi:
- Downward stream – from the Unity, one consciousness, oneness to material world. We pull all the ideas, visions, creativity that we pick up from the infinite world of our consciousness down.
- The upstream current allows us to have wider vision, open mind, a connection to the one conscious space.
I’d like here to propose an example from Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher, who argued that concepts such as, for instance, “the cup” have always existed in our consciousness, and that we don’t necessarily invent them, but rather “pull” or “download” them from a deeper source. Heidegger believed that our knowledge of the world and understanding of concepts such as “the cup” is not just a product of our own invention, but is also shaped by a deeper source that exists beyond our individual consciousness.
The things themselves withdraw, and do so in such a way that, as this withdrawal occurs, they enter into presencingMartin Heidegger, Being and Time, p. 69
So we are in a way plugged in to the broader context, to the space that goes beyond ourselves and our experience. We are plugged into all the experiences and the source. Are we able to recognise that? Can we allow and accept that? Those are different questions.
Specifically in the current 21 century world, where there is a fight for cultural ownership, where we place a premium on the experience of certain groups of people, that we are told can’t be understood by anyone outside of that group. The mere thought of that makes me feel that with the culture war we are only going deeper into the oblivion (separation, duality) rather than closer to the universal source discussed above (oneness, unity, consciousness). This of course is a far larger more nuanced topic, that requires a blog in itself.
So, What aspects of spirituality can we activate in our dance?
1. Develop the state of awareness
In West African dance tradition, the concept of awareness is seen as a state of consciousness that allows individuals to be fully present in the moment, to connect with their bodies and the rhythms of the music, and to be open to spiritual and emotional experiences.
Connecting to the inner self doesn’t deny connecting to the world outside and around. We are the reflection of the outside and the outside world is a reflection of our inner world. Therefore, developing the sense of connection and sharper awareness of the 360 space around is important. On the contrary, the dancer that is unaware, would as a result move sporadically in space, cut corners, bump into people and things, and in this way distort the space. Ignoring or having “a blurry” focus of the environment around denies us access to the present.
2. Pass through space and let space pass through you
According to modern physics, everything in the world, including our bodies, is made up of energy. This energy takes on different forms and densities, and what we perceive as solid matter is actually made up of more dense forms of energy.
The human body is a prime example of this idea. While it may seem solid and impenetrable, the body is actually made up of constantly moving and shifting energy. This energy flows through the body’s cells, tissues, and organs, creating a complex web of interrelated systems that govern our physical and emotional health.
I would like to share the thoughts (not quote) of a dear teacher, dance maestro David Zambrano, the creator of his unique Passing Though technique.
His teaching is that the world passes through you and you pass through the world. We eat things and many things constantly eat us. The body is dense yet not impenetrable. We shall take this idea within our dance and how we pass through people and space within it.
This understanding about the energetic world has also given rise to a deeper awareness of the interconnectedness of all things in the world. Everything from the smallest particles to the largest galaxies are made up of energy, and are connected.
I’ll go back to David Zambrano and his revolutionary idea, that the space around us is not empty. All the space is full of life and tons of elements that are invisible to our eyes. We can’t see it, yet it’s not empty. When we dance, we communicate with it, we pass though it constantly. Moving our fingers through it we are constantly in touch with little particles that are in fact making up the space in between our bodies.
Passing through space is what dance is aboutDavid Zambrano
There is a constant communication with the galaxy inside, galaxy outside and all the spaces in between.
If you want to further explore this idea of D. Zambrano, I explore it in my course Jazz arms here on secretsofsolo.com, where I talk about the movement of the fingers and hands. You can take this practical class around 4min 15 sec Finger Tricks
3. Take in the space, open external and internal sight
Focusing with your external eyes on the environment around and with your inner sight within we tune into the space and we invite the space into ourselves.
When we look outward, we open ourselves up to the world around us, taking in the shapes, colours, and movements of the environment. We allow ourselves to be influenced by the energy of the space, and be more sensitive to the atmosphere and the mood which in return can give us a chance to connect in a stronger way with the audience.
But it’s not just about looking with our physical eyes. We also need to cultivate our inner sight, our intuition, and our imagination. In many spiritual traditions, the third eye is believed to be the seat of intuition and inner vision. When we activate this centre, we can see beyond the surface of things and can connect in a deeper way with intuition and greater sensitivity.
4. Dance with entire body, bring in your back
As you move through the three-dimensional realm, remember to dance with your body in its entirety. Make sure that the back is sensing and participating in the dance. It’s not only your frontal part that is worth paying tribute to and demonstrating.
In yogic and energy healing practices, the back is often seen as a carrier of past stories, and experiences, as well as unconscious mind. In West African dance, the spine is seen as a channel for the flow of energy. The spine is believed to connect the physical body with the spiritual realm, and to be a conduit for the energies of the universe. The Spine is connected to the pelvic area, hips and the neck. These movements are codependent and correlated. Make sure to focus on those parts moving even when you are doing rhythm steps.
For this idea, you can find more practical exercises in my school Secrets of Solo here on this website in my JazzArms course: Body Awareness, Think “360”, 360 body, The Rope of the Arms, The Tree of the Upper Body
5. Use rhythm as a communication tool
Another important aspect of awareness in West African dance is the role of the drum. The drum is seen as a powerful spiritual instrument that connects the dancers to the rhythms of the universe and to the ancestors who came before them. Dancers listen to the drum with deep awareness and bring it into their feet and body.
Authentic jazz dance is considered a rhythm dance due to diverse rhythmic footwork. The way we dance with our feet on the ground is the way a musicians plays with hands on the drums. The difference is we are dancing / playing a massive drum called Mother Earth.
In African traditional belief, the Earth is considered to be alive and is seen as a source of life and fertility. In dance, the rhythmic movements of the feet and body create vibrations that connect the dancer to the Earth and to the spirits of the ancestors. Through dance, the community can communicate with the spiritual realm, ask for blessings and guidance, and express gratitude for the Earth’s gifts.Nketia, J. H. (1990). The music of Africa. W. W. Norton & Company.
With every stomp and rhythm step you are creating a constant vibration through the Earth.
6. Connect with music on a deeper level
One of the key aspects of jazz dance spirituality is the connection between the individual dancer and the music.
Music is playing an important role as a guide in jazz dance as a spiritual act. A musician is pulling and streaming ideas and energies and we can connect to his or her stream.
Music is like a spiritual world – it has no boundaries and no restrictions, and everything in it speaks to your soul. And you can connect with it, regardless of what culture you come from, what language you speak, or what beliefs you holdHerbie Hancock
There is much more in sound and movement bank memory than our brain can articulate and process. That’s why at times free improvisation can be the greatest source of ideas rather than direct choreographing or composing, since we are awakening that past and allowing it to speak.
When you’re playing with other musicians, it’s like you’re having a conversation. You listen to what they’re saying, and you respond with your own ideas. And sometimes, those ideas can come from a very deep place, a place that you didn’t even know existed until you started playingChick Corea
The question is in our sub or unconscious mind, are movement and sound already pinned to a certain meaning?
Cosmic dance and the interconnectivity of all
The universe is a complex and interconnected system with many separate and distinct, yet deeply intertwined entities. And we, humans, you and me, are a part of that big cosmic orchestra.
Just as the movements of the stars and planets are interconnected and affect one another, our own actions and choices are connected to and affect the world around us.
We are correlating and corresponding with everything, every element that’s is making our existence. Material and non material. Not a single star can just independently move … it’s movement was pre created by it’s initial impulse, and it will affect everything.
We live in a world of interdependent co-arising, where everything arises in relation to everything else. Each of us is a part of this vast interconnected web of life, and our choices and actions ripple outwards, affecting everything around usThe Hidden Connections: Integrating the Biological, Cognitive, and Social Dimensions of Life Into a Science of Sustainability by Fritjof Capra
We have a choice what we cultivate and emanate with our dance. Be it in unity, connectedness and joy or anger, hatred and division. What are you choosing to emanate?
Dance can be a powerful spiritual practice and a way to channel something bigger than us, that allows us to connect deeply with our bodies, our emotions, and the divine. West African dance traditions and rituals offer a rich and vibrant example of how dance can be used to access higher states of consciousness and promote health and well-being on all levels, and I believe the same can be said of Jazz dance, and all other dance forms. So it is clear to me through the practice of dance, we can tap into the energy centres of the body and experience a profound sense of spiritual connection and alignment, if we chose to. It is no accident that so many societies have discovered this, and I encourage you to continue on this journey
If you have enjoyed this blog, and want to learn with me, through out my school Secrets Of Solo, we will dive deeper into all of these concepts, in a practical and physical way, allowing you to connect with this energy, and Unity through your body.
Want to learn more?
Many of these concept have been learned and experienced by me in the following intensives and courses:
- Ecole Des Sables 2 – week intensive with 4 dance teachers from across the Africa “Stage des Grandes Dames des Danses d’Afrique, Senegal, Toubab Dialaw
- Flying Low & Passing Through 5 week Intensive with David Zambrano in TicTac Centre, Brussels, Belgium
- Gayatri Yoga Intensive Teacher Training 200h (I am a certified Hatha and Vinyasa Yoga Teacher), Tenerife, Spain
- GaGa 2-week dance intensive with Ohad Naharin at Batsheva Dance Company, Tel Aviv, Israel