Dance And The Inner Mystic
Part 1: Dancing the dance of the Orixás in Rio de Janeiro
By Jocelyn Edelstein
e, humans, seek form for the formless. We are synthesizers of moments and meaning, inclined toward expression and hardwired for communion within community. We are creatures—social, complex, curious.
I write the word ‘creature’ with great intention to speak to our physical, animal nature. We use the vessel of our bodies to translate the process of our minds, our emotions, and our spirits. We do this through prayer, we do this through meditation, we do this through song, we do this through story, and we do this through the ancient act of movement.
Dance is indeed an ancient act. There’s no simpler or truer way to say it. It has manifested as a ritual and celebratory aspect of culture since humans have been humans together. The passage rites of dancing are depicted on Greek vases, on Magura cave walls, and in Indian stone temple sculptures. The ceremony of movement has always played an integral role in how we interpret and communicate with the world around us.
I happen to be the kind of human who hears the whispers of my own divine essence when I am dancing and it has been my work in the world to dance and to tell stories about dance. In this quest, I’ve encountered captivating movement styles—both folkloric and modern, rural and urban—and I’ve born witness to diverse demographics of people riveted by the power of this physical expression and its mystic properties.
Webster’s dictionary defines mysticism as: “The belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience, as intuition or insight.” Again and again I see a dancer’s devotion to their dance as a sacred understanding. It is an understanding based on insight and intuition—based on the direct experience of a bigger reality or a deeper source that they embody while they’re dancing.
Dance is mysticism that has many different manifestations—but dance is always mysticism.
In this series, I travel to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to take a closer look at three of the manifestations of dance that I consider prominent: mysticism and tradition, mysticism and community, and mysticism and the warrior. Join me as we explore three distinct dance styles—one steeped in long standing tradition, one that is the direct result of global dance dissemination, and one that represents Rio de Janeiro’s most recent revolution in urban dance.
Mysticism And Tradition
Our first journey begins with the manifestation of mysticism and tradition. We enter a world of polyrhythmic percussion and spinning bodies. Vibrant scarlet skirts, golden crowns, and invisible arrows. We begin with the folkloric, where the dynamism of Brazilian Orixas, infuses the dancer’s body with radiant myth.
The dance of the Orixas is a part of the public rituals associated with the Afro Brazilian religion of Candomblé, a heritage that stems from West Africa. As a result of the massive slave trade that took place between the 16th and 19th centuries, African deities were reorganized and integrated into the emerging diasporas of colonized countries.
In the 21st century, we see these dances outside of religious or public ritual and although they are studied as an independent art form, they maintain many aspects of their spiritual fabric. The deities, known as the Orixas, express their stories through various movement and rhythm patterns, as well as specific colors, costumes, and emblems.
There is, for example, Oxum, who is depicted in a gold dress and holds a tiny mirror. She represents love, beauty, peace, and prosperity, and is the protector of motherhood. There is Ogum, Oxumare and Xango. There is Yemanja, one of the more globally recognized Orixas, who symbolizes the blessings of the ocean, providence, luck, and fertility. And this is only the list’s beginning. The pantheon is wide, to say the least.
This brings me to Iansa. She is the Orixa of storms, tornadoes, and lightning, as well as freedom and change. She often wears a ruby-colored dress and holds a small dagger-like sword.
I was lucky to meet her in the form of Val.
Remembering Our Long History
In a crowded rehearsal room women scrape bare feet against a wood floor that’s seen better days. I fix my gaze on one woman at the back of the line, who is sweeping through the space. I can’t decide if she’s a bell chime or a bottle rocket. Val Neves seems equal parts singsong grace and equal parts lightning strike. It makes her dancing sizzle, then sway. She is, to say the least, attention grabbing.
Val, an Afro-Brazilian woman from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, has grown up in spaces where folkloric and modern expressions meet. There isn’t a dance style she hasn’t tried, be it in a class or at a party; Val can easily swivel around samba steps, strut and undulate at a funk party, and spin like the divine incarnate during a Maracatu parade. She understands that movement stokes both the fire of merry revelers and the fire of holy revelation. She has had first hand experience with both. In her dance company, Babalakina, she communes frequently with an ancient source while she’s creating.
Babalekina, which was founded by Val’s teacher and mentor, Aline Valentim, aims to empower the Afro-Brazilian identity and to remind people of the African roots that have nurtured so many aspects of Brazil’s cultural artistry. Babalakina uses Orixa dancing as a base for learning, identity, and remembrance.
Val remembers well when she first had her ‘shells shaken,’ a common method for divining which Orixa is part of your energetic and spiritual make up. The shells confirmed what she already sensed: She was the daughter of Iansa.
Storms, tornadoes, lightning. Freedom and change.
When Val dances with Babalakina, she always dances as Iansa. As I watch her perform, gold lining on her red dress catches the light. She lets out a wild yelp before she begins sweeping through the space. The drums pick up and seem to multiply. Their rhythms crisscross and sound to me like a name being spoken forwards and backwards in the language of percussion.
“I feel totally represented by Iansa and able to represent her,” Val told me. “And I can tell that other women feel represented when they see me dance.”
I look around me at the performance and dozens of women in the audience are rolling and shaking their shoulders, raising their heads up and calling back to her as she dances.
“When I’m on stage, every movement I make is a way of summoning force and positivity for all women.” Val continued. “It’s a great responsibility to represent Iansa. I don’t feel like I’m me when I dress as Iansa. She is borrowing my body to pass her message through me.”
When the performance is over I feel cleansed. I feel the mystic flow of ancient tradition streaming into modern experience. It grounds all of us in humble awe. It reminds us that we each come from something else and that history is long. It reminds us to honor the great entities that come through the spaces where we dance and to know the history of those entities so we can represent their mystic quest with truth and grace.
About The Author
Jocelyn Edelstein is a writer, filmmaker, and choreographer based in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not seeking dance communion internationally, she is sitting very still, holding her handsome cat and pretending that he’s a tiger. Her feature length documentary, Believe The Beat, tracks transformation through street dance in Rio de Janeiro and in her blog, Shameless Joy, she aims to activate the code of empathy and hunt our humanity with a tender arrow.
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