By Banafsheh Sayyad (Photos by Mehri Sahihi)
Many of us are terrified of embodiment. We can’t face our broken hearts, the chaos in our minds or the pain in our bodies. We yearn instead for transcendental bliss. Every chance we get, we go off into the beautiful light instead of choosing to face the continually unnerving yet miraculous experience of living that light in our bodies. In this way we continue to separate the realm of the soul from the body.
As far back as I remember, I had two great passions—one for the Divine and one for dance. My whole life has been a search in how to bring these two into direct sacred marriage. The road to this marriage has been long, fierce and difficult yet very rewarding - a road in which I immersed myself in different styles of dance and mystical teachings in my search for this unity of soul and body, spirit and matter, through which I have come to create the style that I perform and teach today, called Dance of Oneness.
I began dancing at a very young age but didn’t receive any formal training growing up. Even though I come from a long lineage of famous performing artists, my parents didn’t consider training me as a dancer because dance is looked down upon in my culture. I grew up in Iran, where religiosity and specifically Islam are responsible for the denigration of dance. Sharia or Islamic law interprets dance as a sinful temptation.
This view has shaped the way the majority of Iranians have regarded dance for centuries, and has engendered a great sense of shame. Shame has long been the established weapon of institutionalized religion to disempower and weaken people in order to dominate and influence them. First, I had to face this shame in myself and exorcise it before I could feel empowered enough to spread the message of dance in the world, and it was flamenco that initiated this exorcism.
My formal training in dance began with flamenco. In this form I found the expression of the lioness of the Divine on fire with wild dignity—passionate and sensual yet strong, noble, unapologetic and unashamed of her own power and beauty. I went from being a full-fledged Flamenca to its polar opposite— Tai Chi. I turned inward and touched the undifferentiated oneness from which all movement arises. The proud lioness of the Divine now facelessly merged into oneness with all that is. I began to understand that all movement needs to grow from this primal peace.
I immersed myself in the teachings of the Tao and Chinese Medicine, the Sufi path, and Gurdjieff Work through which I learned sacred movements designed to bring mind, body and heart into balance. My interpretation of Persian dance was born from a fusion of the ferocity of flamenco, the gentleness of Tai Chi and the exact objectiveness of Gurdjieff Movements, and as an expression of the Divine Feminine.
Whirling is the central practice that brings all my training and experience together. It simply flowered in me without guidance from anyone. As a child, I turned, as many do—but I never stopped. As my main form of meditation, whirling is how I commune with the Divine. When I whirl, the “I” that I know completely vanishes into the unknown and reemerges as the messenger of the unknown in the known.
My dance is shaped by all these forms, flamenco, Tai Chi, Persian dance, Gurdjieff Movements, trance, whirling, Modern dance, Sufi teachings, Chinese Medicine, Goddess Wisdom and Christ consciousness, yet it wasn’t until I was totally broken from the sorrow and the darkness that lives inside me and in the world, that I was able to do the work I do today. Sorrow brought me down to my knees, begging to find a way to express what is needed amidst the chaos and the horror of how we treat ourselves, each other and the Earth. I asked to be given the grace to be a vessel for light and love in the world and to serve the greater, guiding people into wholeness and liberation through their bodies. You cannot dance into wholeness without facing the horror and the heartbreak of reality and you cannot truly embody yourself without an ongoing integration of the shadow on all levels.
Sacred dance is a way to alchemize the shadow. Our body is already doing the miraculous work of this alchemy if we just tune in. So much of what we are looking for as the meaning of life is happening all the time inside us. Can we just listen, feel and learn? When we surrender to the alchemy of the dance, we become a crucible in which the shadow can be continually processed, continually invited into the sacred dance and continually yielding its treasures of humility and compassion.
Sacred dance is not just about feeling blissed out and flying into transcendent light though it certainly has that dimension. It is about doing the real work of radical embodiment, where you feel yourself as the marriage of spirit and matter, the marriage of the unknown with the known—your divine self and your shadow, all at once, simply, nakedly, presently, right here right now. Now why would anyone settle for just one part of this equation?!
The Founder of Dance of Oneness®, Banafsheh Sayyad is a Persian sacred dancer, transformational teacher and practitioner of Chinese Medicine. Awarded for her innovative movement, she is one of the few bearers of authentic Persian dance in the world, an innovator of Sufi dance previously only performed by men, and one of the few dance artists who has mastered a fusion of high level dance technique with spiritual embodiment. Her modality, Dance of Oneness® is a way of living our fullest potential through loving our body, our Self, and living as a lover. It is a fusion of the art of dance: rigorous technique and self-expression; healing; and spiritual embodiment. Based in LA, Banafsheh performs and teaches internationally, initiating thousands into the wisdom of their body and inspiring people to live the sacred in everyday life. With an MFA in Dance and an MA in Chinese Medicine, she is dedicated to individual and collective healing through conscious movement. Her dance film In the Fire of Grace with Andrew Harvey traces Rumi's journey of the Soul in dance. Her book, Radical Embodiment will be out later this year. To learn more about Banafsheh, click here.
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This article appears in:
2016 Catalyst, Issue 3: Valentine's Day & Body Intelligence