Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Sun-Moon Dance

If I said I were going to a football game later this year (I'm not btw), a firm image would come to mind even if you've never been to a live game or even if you aren't much of a fan.  There's a stadium with thousands of spectators/fans.  There's two teams wearing bright colors, and referees with whistles.  A brown, oblong-shaped ball will be kicked and thrown around for a couple hours.  You don't really need to actively think all this, it's just part of our culture.

If I said I'd be participating in a Sun-Moon Dance later this year, with a few exceptions I'm going to bet your mind will come up with nothing.  It's not part of the cultural language.  Yet this will be my fourth (nonconsecutive) year participating in one and I'd like to tell you what a Sun-Moon Dance is and why it's important to me.

First off you get a cookie if the idea of a Native American Sun Dance came to mind.  You're on the right track!  A Sun-Moon Dance is a similar concept except there's no hooks or cutting, it's open to women, and it's open to all races.  It's also not a traditional Native American ritual though it was first conceived by a modern Native American mystic named Joseph Beautiful Painted Arrow.

Feel free to check out the links throughout this post if you're interested to explore further but I did find this very lovely description of a Sun-Moon Dance and I wanted to quote the whole thing here because it does give a wonderful description of what a Sun-Moon Dance is:

"The Sun-Moon Dance was brought forth from the vision of a Native American, Joseph Rael- Beautiful Painted Arrow. Joseph is a visionary and mystic of Southern Ute and Picaris Pueblo heritage. It is important to understand that it is not a Native American Dance.

The Sun Moon dance is open to all people who seek the inspiration to live a life of greater spiritual awareness and who are willing to invest the effort. It provides the special condition necessary for a direct experience of Spirit and of spiritual realms.

The four days of the dance bring many teachings. The form of the dance itself is a metaphor for prayer. Sacred dancing teaches us about the power of putting all aspects of ourselves into our prayers – physically, mentally and emotionally. The fasting observed in the dance brings us mental clarity, appreciation for food and clean water, and teaches us how strong we really are. Movement teaches us about the importance of dancing for a vision, and then dancing the vision so that it may be embodied and realized. It also teaches us that manifesting what we truly desire requires commitment, effort and surrender.

On a personal level, Dancers experience personal breakthrough and transformation, deep insights and visions, and a spiritual acceleration that lasts throughout the year. The commitment to dance a full cycle of four dances is important as it brings about healing on mental, emotional, physical and spiritual levels. Since each of us is a microcosm of the planet, the healing we bring to ourselves also brings healing to the earth. For these reasons alone, the dance is a powerful gift that you give to yourself and to those you love.

On a planetary level, the dance works with the energy and spirits of the land. The dance arbor is the sacred Medicine Wheel, and represents the world and the life it contains and nurtures. In the dance, we work to bring in the directional energies of the east, south, west, north, up above, and down below. The web of energy created by the dancers transfers into the land, and permeates the world to bring healing. The dance and the drum release new spiritual energy from deep within the earth to be used for peace.

Those who are called to it come to make important changes in their personal lives, as well as to assist in the grand work of planetary healing and the promotion of global peace."

I Dance at The House of Mica Peace Chamber near Albany, NY.  They conduct their Sun-Moon Dance in July or August of each year.  You can read about the Dance on their land here.

Okay, so that's the overview, let's hit on some of the details.


I'm not exaggerating in saying the Sun-Moon Dance is an intense, life-altering experience.  It's not something a person should enter into lightly.  Though some people have been known to decide to participate within a day or two of the Dance, the sooner one makes the decision to participate the better. Some people need to scale back on caffeine and/or nicotine beforehand.  Others need to make sure they're healthy enough for the physical aspect of it.  Some people need mental prep time.

Apart from all that, Dancers are asked to make a certain number of prayer ties before the Dance.  This can number in the hundreds some years.  You don't have to make them if you really don't want to, but the time set aside to do them does help get one in the mindset of gratitude and connection with Spirit.

The prayer ties are hung over your sleeping area during the Dance as a constant reminder of the hopes and prayers you consciously created for the event.  At the end of the Dance, the prayer ties are burned, releasing the prayers to Divinity.

Time Frame

The Dance is described as taking place over the course of four days.  This is true, though I prefer to think of it as closer to two and a half days.  Things get started on Friday morning.  In no particular order (mostly because I don't particularly remember the exact order) there's a sweat lodge for all Dancers and Helpers.  If a new tree is to be harvested that year, then that is tended to on this day.  And the arbor needs to be constructed.  Lastly there's a potluck feast (kind of a Last Supper if you will).

The Dance itself starts that evening around sundown.
Once the Dance starts the Dancers abstain from food, drink and speaking for the remainder of the Dance.  During the Dance they stay in the arbor area (meaning they sleep there too) and leave only to greet the sun each morning and for using the composting toilets located near the arbor area.  There's exceptions to which I'll get into in a bit*.
Whenever Dancers leave the arbor area they wrap themselves in a sheet or blanket to "hold in" the energy of the Dance area.

The Dance "ends" Monday morning.  Usually there's the morning sun greeting and then at least one round of Dancing (but there may be more rounds depending on conditions and such).  There's a water ceremony and the fast is broken with watermelon.
Then its up to the house for a feast and a debrief of everyone involved afterwards. 

*Those exceptions I mentioned above are as follows: once the day of Dancing is done on both Saturday and Sunday evenings, each Dancer is given about eight ounces of body temperature-warm tea (non-caffeinated).  That's all the sustenance one gets during the Dance (drink it sloooowly!)
On really hot days sprigs of mint that have been soaked in cold water are distributed as well.  You're welcome to lick the water off the mint leaves and even nibble or suck on them as you like.
As for speaking: if a Dancer is having a problem, they can of course voice it to one of the Helpers; or if a Helper thinks a Dancer is in distress, they'll quietly speak with them to check in.  This isn't an endurance race.  If there's an issue it needs to be addressed quickly.
Once in a while the Dancers are also instructed to leave the arbor to dance around or in the Peace Chamber that's on the property.  This isn't done every time though.

The Arbor

The Dance arbor is a temporary, open air, round structure built with wooden poles around the outer part of the circle.  They're spaced about five to six feet apart.  Longer poles lean up against them from the outside and tarps are tied across these poles to form lean-to's about seven to eight feet deep that the Dancers stay in during the Dance.

The arbor is oriented to the four cardinal points.  Once it's built, the only way in or out is through an opening directly facing East.  A fire is built inline with this opening that burns throughout the entire Dance.

A tree is cut down from the surrounding area and carefully prepared and "replanted" in the center of the arbor.  This is the anchor point for the whole Dance. 
The same tree is typically used for two years and remains in place even after the arbor has been taken down again for the year.  Some Dance arbors feature a living tree in the center.

The drummers are set up in the lean-to to the immediate left of the door.  A bench is placed in the space to the immediate right where Helpers sit during the Dance.  Other than these spaces, Dancers can choose any other lean-to around the circle.

The lean-to's directly oriented to the South, North and West are marked with colored ribbons and choosing those spaces sometimes entails taking on added responsibilities during the Dance.

Dancers must store everything in their 7' x 6'-ish space that they'll need during the Dance for their comfort - namely a sleeping bag and pillow.  Changes of clothes and additional tarps for ground cover and added weather protection are also brought.  Most people hang a bug net over their sleeping bag to keep insects out.  White sheets are hung up for privacy and to wrap oneself when leaving the arbor area.  Some people bring rain gear.  Scentless sunscreen and bug spray are also encouraged.

The Helpers

Not everyone who participates in a Sun-Moon Dance is a Dancer.  There are Helpers present too who "hold the space" and keep a watchful eye on the Dancers.  Helpers don't fast during the Dance, in fact they're well-fed during the event.  They are also not bound to be silent, but voices are kept quiet near the arbor or Dancers.  Though encouraged to sleep in tents and use the composting toilets located farther away from the arbor area to take some of the strain off the house, they don't sleep out in the open like the Dancers do.

Apart from Rick and Elisa who conduct the Dance and interact directly with the Dancers, Helpers typically stay outside the arbor area and rarely have direct contact with the Dancers.  They're watchers and facilitators who make the Dance as safe and comfortable for the Dancers as possible.  They make sure the outhouses are clean and fully stocked.  Shielded candles are kept going inside the outhouses at night for light.  They smudge the area outside the arbor multiple times a day to keep the energies clean.  Anyone who enters or leaves the arbor area is smudged as well.
Night or day there's always at least one Helper near the arbor to tend the fire and in case a Dancer needs assistance.

Only when a Dancer falls (more on that later) do Helpers enter the arbor and even then it's in a very organized, calm and ritualistic manner.

Though they don't fast or Dance (per say), Helpers can often have experiences just as moving and profound as the Dancers.

The Dance

Once the arbor is constructed, the Dancers choose a space around the circle where they'll "live" during the dance.  Once their space is chosen they'll spend most of their time during the Dance either sitting or resting within that space or moving between their space and the tree in the center of the arbor.

During each round of Dancing a large drum is beat and the drummers sing in the Native American style.  The beat of the drum is what wakes the Dancers in the morning and calls them to Dance for each round.  When the drum is going, you're Dancing; when it stops, you're done Dancing for that round.
"Dancing" entails moving from one's space to the tree and back.  There's no choreography or specific way to do this.  You simply walk or move however you like to the beat of the drum.  Back and forth, back and forth.  Everyone moves at their own pace, fast, slow, running, walking, shuffling, however you are moved to move.  There's no right or wrong way so long as you don't cross another dancer's path.

While Dancing, the Dancers blow a little bone whistle that's given to them the first day of their first Dance.  Unless it breaks or they lose it, this is the whistle they'll use for every Dance thereafter.  Blowing the whistle makes the Dancer focus on their breath while Dancing.  It's the only noise Dancers are encouraged to make during the Dance.

A round of Dancing can be anywhere from a few minutes to a half hour (perhaps longer, but I'm pretty sure not).  Each round is followed by a few minutes to a few hours of rest.  There can be as few as three to as many as seven or eight rounds of Dancing in a given day.  This depends a lot on the weather and how hot it is.  Again the safety of the Dancers is always taken into account.

During times when they're not Dancing, Dancers are encouraged to lay in their area and meditate, rest or sleep.  Since there's nowhere to go and you're not eating, talking, reading (or even journaling), sleep is really the only thing to do when not Dancing.
Dancing only goes on during daylight hours.  Dancers get to sleep at night.

Though Dancers tend to develop a certain rapport with each other during the Dance, they don't really directly interact with each other.  Sure, you need to pay attention to your neighbors when you get near the tree since the paths get close together there; but a Dancer's existence pretty much revolves around their whistle, their sleeping space, the tree, the path between the two, the drum and themselves.

Dancers are not obligated to Dance every round, though one does have to Dance at least one round each day.  If you're tired or weak or too hot or want to meditate or sleep or just chill, you can stay in your area during Dancing.

Dress Code

"Modest" clothing is the order of the day.  This means shoulders and chests must be covered (no tank tops, sports bras or shirtless men).  Legs must be covered to at least the knee.  I think even midriffs must be covered, but I'm not 100% certain on that one.

Skirts must be worn - even by the guys.  The symbolism here is the round skirt hem is synonymous with the round Earth.  It's open for energies to "rise up" through the feet.  I'm assuming since the skirt is also associated with the more "passive" sex, it puts in place the psychological mindset to be open and receptive to the powerful energies of the Universe.  You're welcome to draw whatever analogies you like.

Fortunately you're not forbidden to wear anything under the skirt.
Guys typically wear shorts with a sarong tied around their waist.  It works just as well.  Some ladies do this too.

Other than those few points, anything goes.  Colors, materials, layers and styles are at the Dancer's discretion.  One is encouraged to dress for the weather: hot days, cool nights, possible rain, possible intense sun.

You can be barefoot or wear shoes/sandals as you like.
Jewelry is fine.
Hats and other head-coverings are fine.  Since there's no bathing during the Dance, most people cover their hair by the end.


The Dance can dredge up a lot of emotional baggage for people.  Sometimes people crumple under the weight of what bubbles up.  Some people deliberately charge at the tree multiple times until they bounce off and land flat on their back.  Other people slip into a state where Vision happens and drift to the ground.  Whatever the reason, if a Dancer falls down or collapses during a round of Dancing the drummers immediately quiet the beat without stopping the rhythm.  This is an indication to the Dancers (who may not have noticed the fall yet) to stop where they are in their circuit.  Usually they'll continue blowing their whistles, just quietly.

The Helpers, led by one of the facilitators will enter the arbor with a large sheet.
The facilitator will assess what state the fallen Dancer is in and this will determine how long they'll lay where they fell.  Unless the facilitator needs to intervene for the health or safety of the Dancer, the fallen Dancer is touched as little as possible.

Once it's determined it's okay to move them, the Dancer is gently rolled onto the sheet and carried by the Helpers to their sleeping area.  Once they're lifted off the ground, all the other Dancers blow their whistles loudly to show their support for the fallen Dancer.  Depending on the reason for their fall someone may sit with them for a while.

Usually Dancing resumes once the Helpers have again left the arbor.
The fallen Dancer will always at least sit out the rest of that round of Dancing.

Four Days, Four Years

Four tends to pop up frequently in Native American ritual.  Apart from the four days of the Dance, Dancers are also asked to commit to participating for four years.  There's different reasons for this and different people will give you different answers.
A short, sweet and easy answer is partly because the Dance is such an alien concept within our Western culture, the four year commitment gives the Dancer the opportunity to have a full and well-rounded experience.

The first year can be a bit overwhelming since the new Dancer may not really know what's going on or what to expect.
Year two offers the Dancer a little less sensory overload so they can deepen into their Dance with less worry and more understanding.
By year three one has a much better idea of what to expect and you can "let go and let God" much easier.
Year four is a culmination of what one has learned throughout the previous Dances and the door is opened for gratitude and an ever deepening connection to Spirit/God/Divinity.

So why do all this?

People Dance for many reasons and I won't try to speculate much on them.
My own reasons are rather nebulous even to myself but it's something I'm always honored to do.
I Dance as a willing sacrifice for the greater whole. 
I Dance to open myself more to Divinity.
I Dance to find my own strength.

Relatively speaking we live in a very safe world full of guardrails and safety labels.  I think to a certain degree this sheltered, pillowed existence numbs the spirit.  The "adrenaline junkie" tries to break out of that cushioned bubble by doing things that are daring and dangerous.  Nothing makes one feel more alive than coming face to face with how tenuous life can be.

I kind of see the Sun-Moon Dance as something like that, just with more meaning placed upon it.  Like what was stated before though, it'd not an endurance race.  You don't do it to see how hard you can push your body.  You do it to see how much you can live.

It is inherently dangerous though.  Dancers are watched very carefully and will get pulled from the Dance if they're in genuine distress.  Fasting isn't fun, especially in our well-fed society.  You do get hungry.  You do get thirsty.  Some people even experience physical pain from fasting.
But you survive.

My body doesn't do well when overtaxed and every time I choose to Dance (this year will in theory be the last), I need to take a hard and honest look at where I'm at to see if my body can handle it that year.  I don't Dance on years where I have something big planned near the Dance.  It needs all your focus and attention and it takes a lot out of you.

It gives you a lot back though.  The inner strength one gains from completing a Dance is pretty hard to beat.  It can completely dissolve one's fear of death and also one's fear of life.

It's difficult and terrifying but it's also life-affirming and amazing.

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