Confessions of a Lapsed Catholic Dancer

Kate Branca considers the body as an instrument of faith.

Kate Branca | Longreads | May 2019 | 22 minutes (5,497 words)

 

You hear the drums before you see us, a circle of figures facing inward, our arms rigid, our feet pounding the stage in an even, rhythmic, side-stepping march. The circle bobs up and down with our forcefulness. Our costumes are geometric bodysuits, designed not to contour to our human bodies, but to transform them into something more angular, hardened, like a shell. They have V-neck fronts and stiff cap sleeves and straight pant legs that stop suddenly at the shin, transforming our bodies into great Xs of yellow, purple, and black. We wear strips of black tape on our cheeks, like war paint. Our costumes make us look like ancient Aztecs or alien warriors — beings of a past or future time.

When I am wearing that costume and bound to that ring, I am transported back nine years; suddenly I am a 19-year-old performing the choreography of Robert Battle with my college dance company — and also none of those things. It feels like I am nothing, or that we are collectively something else, emptied, but electric, maybe capable of boring a hole in space or time. During a performance, when I catch sight of something mundane among us, like a wisp of hair sprung from Brittany’s bun, or a nervous twitch in Erin’s fingers, my chest blooms with love for the moment: for the startling gift of feeling like I am many people, in many places, traversing many times all at once.

We twist and extend our arms into wide, heavenward Vs and beckon the stage lights with flicks of our hands. We tuck and splay and smack our thighs. Then the pace of the drumming quickens with a RAPAPAPAPAP! and one in our company enters the center of the circle where a spotlight appears. She spins wildly in one direction, then the other, her feet stamping the ground as fast as the mallets hitting the drums. Meanwhile, those of us around her shoot our arms into the air like crops hit by a sudden gust of wind. She rejoins the circle so that only the light remains inside the ring made up of our bodies, and now that it’s there, finally there, we are frenzied by it. Hopping, slamming, jumping, falling, flinging ourselves in patterns around its edges. With a final pound, the drums stop, leaving us standing around the light’s rim with our feet wide, arch to arch with one another, arms by our sides, chests heaving, but open to the sky, our necks craned toward whatever bulb or star gave us this brightness. We lower our chins as the stage fades to black.

***

The earliest men and women danced for every important occasion: initiations, marriages, and burials. They danced to speak with deities and ask for good harvests, for children, for permission to be in some way reunited with the dead. William Oscar Emil Oesterley wrote of these patterns in his 2002 book, Sacred Dances in the Ancient World, with the obvious upturned bias of a white Reverend and professor of early 20th century England. But Martha Graham ignored his slights. She poured over Sacred Dance as a dancer, not an onlooker, and professed in her memoir, Blood Memory, that it changed her. I imagine she read Oesterley as I did, recognizing that these people danced to confront their confusion, to make meaning out of the routine happenings of human life, and to maybe, just maybe, inch closer to answering the great pervading question of Why?

I began dancing seriously at the age of 12 when my mother knew it was likely she had cancer. She didn’t tell me, so I didn’t know, but my body still sensed the mortal danger in our house.

Oesterley wrote that ancient dancers pursued this question in one of two ways: imitation or ecstasy. The earliest were imitators, also called “animists” by some western scholars. In the wind that blew the trees, and the sun that rose and sank in the sky, they recognized the same unknown power that allowed them to breathe and walk, think and feel. Simply being alive could not teach them what it meant to live, they thought, so they investigated and imitated the living movements around them, hoping to invite the wisdom of the world into their bodies. Oesterley and his contemporaries called them “primitives” with “child minds,” but it’s clear to me that they were empiricists. Their experiments only appeared to be wild.

Ecstatic dances appeared wilder still. In some instances, they were performed in a circle around a deity, so that their jumping and stamping and spinning would act as a kind of consecration that would welcome the power of the sacred object or deity into themselves. These dances began slowly, in moderation, but they could last for hours or even days. And then, perhaps gradually, but with a sudden inspiration, the dancers would release themselves into abandon, ignoring the rhythms of any drum and allowing their movements to grow wilder and wilder beyond their body’s capability. Their whole purpose was to lose consciousness.

Ecstatic dances were often pleas for divine intervention, Oesterley concluded. If there was disease in a community or the crops were withering, ancients thought that dancing oneself very nearly to death might incite the compassion of a deity and inspire them to action. In other communities, the loss of consciousness was thought to separate the spirit from the body for a short while, so that in fainting, one offered their body as a temporary home for a hovering deity to slip inside and commune with the living for a while. To lose consciousness in these cases wasn’t reckless. Or it was, but also carefully planned. These dances were fearless proposition to the gods. They were earnest requests to peer beyond the veil, answer their questions, then return, newly awakened to their lives on earth.

***

I began dancing seriously at the age of 12 when my mother knew it was likely she had cancer. She didn’t tell me, so I didn’t know, but my body still sensed the mortal danger in our house. I awoke most mornings from nightmares that she was dying, reaching for me but unreachable under our dining room hutch, or that the afterlife was really a swallow of coffee in the very bottom of my father’s favorite mug, swinging from side to side. I grew thin, not because I wanted to, but because anxiety had taken root in my stomach and wouldn’t allow room for much else. I slipped through each day at school as if to escape notice, as if I needed to hide the fact that I’d lost myself somewhere and couldn’t beckon her back. Either emptiness or something more dangerous — was it doubt? — remained.

I didn’t tell anyone about how I felt. I knew that if I asked my parents or our priest or my Catholic school teachers what I should do that prayer would be their answer. I’d never questioned the power of prayer, but as a solution to this problem, it felt irrelevant to me, since my panic was so cerebral and not spiritual. My struggle with mortality was so clearly happening in my mind and body, not my heart or my spirit. It was not a matter of faith, but of understanding, just like my mother’s cancer. My parents were chemists. When they finally told me about my mother’s diagnosis and treatment months later, they used scientific terms. I would understand how chemotherapy and radiation would destroy her cells, the anatomy of her reconstructive surgery, and the probability of her survival, which hovered between 40 and 60%. I wanted my prayers to be answered with the same kinds of carefully reasoned metrics, predictions, and rationales. When I tried it anyway, the effort made me feel more hollow. I felt a gulf widening between my experience of reality and what I’d been taught about God.

After those long days of emptiness, I’d stride into the dance studio, take my place at the barre, and feel reassembled. The tasks at hand were clear, yet complex, each one a fractal of details: the steps, their timing, my technique. It was not enough for my mind to be focused on my body — it needed to embed in my body, work through my body. And when we left the barre for center floor, I found my spirit again. It rushed to my chest when the piano music swelled and tingled in my skin, while I attempted multiple turns. And when it was time for grande allegro, it was pure elation to have a spirit, to be alive at all. I jumped higher, farther, longer, just to hold onto that feeling, to stay in the air where I was intact and whole before I landed, exhausted. For the first time all day, I enjoyed the feeling of being empty.

Long after my mother beat her cancer, my experience of the studio didn’t change. This is common in the dance world. Iconic modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham used the studio as a meditative space to clear her head before rehearsals. The theater was the first place ballerina Suzanne Farrell went after she received the news that George Balanchine had died. In England during the first world war when the air raid sirens would sound, the Royal Ballet never stopped their performances. In a 1981 interview with Dick Cavett recorded in Mindy Aloff’s book Dance Anecdotes, choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton explained, “Oh no. The dancers never — they just went on.” He could have been saying, “Better to die dancing than doing anything else,” but he may also have meant, “Better to dance than to think of dying at all.”

***

In the fall of 2010, the beginning of my sophomore year at the University of Richmond, Robert Battle agreed to share his choreography with our company for the second year in a row. We knew this was unusual. We weren’t even a conservatory — just a club program with good funding. But none of us knew that he was only a few months away from being selected as the next director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, which would automatically categorize Battle as one of the greats.

He was too busy to come to campus, so he sent his senior company member and assistant, Erin, in his place. It seemed as if Erin had been created as a vessel for his choreography. Unlike Battle, she was female, blonde, and white, but she was all muscle, all force. I’d never met Battle in person, and I still haven’t, but after working with Erin, I felt very familiar with his ethos.

Nearly everyone was cast (some 18 dancers), which was the first indicator that the year’s piece, “Battle Suite,” would be a very large undertaking. Other Battle pieces our company had performed previously had been one section of maybe four to six minutes. This time, there would be three sections, amounting to 12 minutes of choreography, most of which involved running, jumping, or slamming. Each day during the week-long residency, Erin fed us a few more minutes of choreography, and each day, the run-throughs of the piece became more exhausting. By mid-week, Kim and Carly were ordering auxiliary inhalers, one for each side of the stage. By the time we heard the music for the third section — a heavy, militaristic slamming of drums — the whole room was buzzing with discussion. I remember Brittany smiling to a group of us, her eyes wide, and concluding, “Guys. We’re just all gonna die.”

Most choreographers create works with many movement dynamics: delicate, somber, ecstatic, fierce. A cornerstone task of the dancer is to navigate balances between these dynamics to render them artful and alluring to watch. All the while, a dancer is to conceal the effort of dancing, as if dance is not a series of actions completed by living beings, but a painting that shifts over time: an admirable, but ephemeral thing.

Battle created dynamics on stage in different ways: by creating contrasts between bodies and space, movement and stillness, silence and drumming. We weren’t responsible for creating those contrasts — that was his task as a choreographer. No, our bodies were still, or moving with every measure of quickness and strength. As a performer of his own choreography, I got the impression that Battle had never seen dance as an object. His work announced that dance was nothing if not human, and to dance was to be human in the extreme. He understood that we just wanted to move, restraint be damned. He cast balance as a virtue unworthy of our power.

Offstage, Battle is soft-spoken, deliberate, and understated in every way. He wears simple black clothing and black glasses. He keeps his hair trimmed very short, his attire culminating in a quiet confidence in himself, as a dancer, and choreographer.


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He was interviewed by PBS in September of 2018, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary year of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. By then, Battle had been Director since 2011. He was asked why he thought Ailey had survived for so long, why it tours worldwide. Battle talked about the company’s flagship work of choreography, Revelations, which closes nearly every performance. He describes it as “a suite of spirituals that expresses the experiences of African Americans in this country and how we overcame through faith.” He talked about how this piece has inspired audiences as far away as Russia to become animated in their seats.

“I wanted to be a preacher when I was a kid because the preacher so moved the crowd,” he said. “I still want to move the crowd and I still, in my own way, am preaching the gospel. It’s just a larger, a different type of church.”

Twelve-year-old me would have bristled at that kind of talk. I’d been taught that comparing any secular activity with worship was an indicator of moral decline, and confusing a physical activity with a spiritual one was an obvious sin. I know dance isn’t religion, she’d say. A person’s body can’t be their faith. I’d say it to defend my character, to prove that I was still a good person, but I wouldn’t believe it. Then I’d go quiet, thinking of those moments of elation in the studio. They didn’t happen in Church. They didn’t happen anywhere else.

***

The earliest Christians danced for worship, according to Swedish physician Eugene Louis Backman, author of Religious Dances in the Christian Church and in Popular Medicine. They danced outside and fashioned their choreography to mirror what they imagined angel dances to be. They danced in patterns of 12, one of God’s perfect numbers, and in rings to celebrate infinity and divine symmetry. Theirs was a plea for earth-heaven communion: the unity they expected a returning Christ would bring.

There has never been a place for sacred dancing in Catholic services, but there is no “dancing ban.” If a Catholic seeks to dance in a studio or at a social event, there is no doctrine to forbid them. But dancing as a spiritual practice left the Catholic Church a long time ago — before the distinction between Christian and Catholic was clear or important — and largely because of the teachings of St. Augustine, which emphasized purity and chastity over fervor. Any movement of the body that could be considered lewd or even unnecessary was, to St. Augustine, an invitation of the devil. Though doctrine allowed it, dance disappeared from Christian worship because so many Christians believed dancers were condemned.

The earliest Christians danced for worship. They danced outside and fashioned their choreography to mirror what they imagined angel dances to be.

Even so, there are records of Christians dancing in churchyards. Sometimes they danced for days, refusing to heed the priests who begged them to stop. The accounts became shrouded in mysticism and rumor.

Here, for example, is my interpretation of the story of a famous ecstatic dance in a German town called Kölbigk, imagined from Backman’s 1952 text:

On Christmas Eve of 1021, 15 men and three women refused to stop dancing outside a church dedicated to St. Magnus the Martyr. They twisted and swayed and stamped and hopped. They grinned fiercely despite the bitter cold, their breath rising in plumes above the graves.

They gripped one another’s hands and danced in circles or swung at the air with clawed hands, whipping their heads to the very limits of their necks. The most fervent would fall to the ground, stretch out in every direction, then fold together like a yanked knot. Stretching out! Into the knot! Back up! Their tunics and skirts were heavy and dark with sweat; the winter-hard and hollowed ground rattled up through their bones. And still they kept on dancing.

Inside the church, the priest heard their movements from the altar. He realized that those heavy feet were falling on the dead — that such a dance might be designed to wake them. He stormed down the aisle of the Church and out onto the porch. “What devilry is this!? I beg you come inside!” he bellowed. But the dancers turned faster in their ring, singing:

Bovo rode through the dark green forest

With him he bore the fair Mersvinden

Why do we stay? Why don’t we follow?

The priest didn’t see a ring of angels, but rather human bodies, male and female together, sweating and jostling around. He saw their clothes bunching and falling open. He caught glimpses of flesh that was a sin to see. He wasn’t celibate himself — few priests he knew were — but in public he wore the mantle of purity, and expected those in his churchyard to do the same. He watched in horror as onlookers began to cluster at the gates.

And then he saw her: his daughter among them. The priest called to his son, who was inside. “John!” he rasped, “Get your sister inside!” and fled to the altar through the pews of turned faces. Outside, the ring of dancers was turning so fast. John stood there a moment, watching the bodies blur by him in the cold. When he caught sight of her, he grabbed his sister’s arm, but she wouldn’t leave the ring, and her arm came off in his hand. He dropped the limb, shutting his eyes, expecting to be spattered with blood. But when he opened his eyes, he found that there was no blood anywhere — not on the wound or the severed arm or his coat or the sleeve of his sister’s dress. His sister hadn’t noticed. The dancers kept singing and shuttling around, so John ran inside to show his father. Out on the front stoop again, the frightened priest excommunicated the dancers and condemned them to dancing for a year.

***

It’s difficult to believe the detail about the bloodless arm is true, but Backman (a physician) presents it as fact. King Henry II had it mounted with fine workmanship in the church to honor the miracles of St. Magnus. But after the priest’s condemnations, even Backman acknowledges that the record strays into folklore. The dancers continued dancing. After six months, they’d stamped holes in the ground as deep as their knees; after a year they’d danced to their hips. Slowly, slowly, they were stamping into their own graves. But then, at the end of a year, the curse was lifted and the excommunication reversed. The story goes that the dancers slept for three days, like the dead. During this time, they were tended to. Miraculously, most recovered, but four never woke up.

There were many stories like this. Popular belief was that such events were either caused by demonic possession or organized for devil worship. It must have been more comfortable for the public to attribute these endless dances to a priest’s condemnation than to acknowledge the power of demons, or leave them unexplained. “Dance epidemics” became routine happenings of note, often associated with specific saints, like Magnus or Vitus, whose mystical influence the dancers may or may not have sought. The dancers became known as “choreomaniacs,” and certain chapels and monasteries became known for having effective spiritual remedies. Some had the right kind of anointing oil, for example, that could be used to expel demons. Others had an over-water bridge that dancers could cross to begin their purification and healing.

Many dancers died in the coma-like sleep that followed the manias, but many survived. Life, strangely, went on, with an eye towards preserving those stories, to making sense of them. There was a pervading need to understand the force that had made those dancers dance, and how that force could influence everyone else’s lives. Was it a demon? The devil? The power of God through a priest? Did this force live inside only some of us? Did it mark our souls as saved or condemned?

***

On the way home from Battle rehearsals, I’d call my parents. I’d sing the drum music into the phone and tell them that I couldn’t wait for them to see the performance in February.

“Kate, how long is this woman staying there?”

She meant Erin, and really meant to ask, “When are you going to refocus on your homework?”

“I think she leaves after our rehearsal on Sunday,” I said, “but we still have four and a half minutes of choreography to learn!”

The phone went quiet.

“Sunday? You have rehearsal on Sunday?” my mom asked. “What time?”

“Uh, I don’t know,” I said. I’ll have to check.”

I did know. I knew that rehearsal would end at 5 p.m., and why my mother was upset about it: She was afraid I’d miss Catholic Mass on campus, which was held at 5 p.m. on Sundays.

“Have you been going to Church?” she asked, as if reading my mind.

“What? Yes!” I insisted. There’s one right on campus, I walk past it every day, how could I avoid going to Church?”

She fussed for a while, but soon I reached my dorm room and I needed to finish my homework, which was the only reason my mother would let me off the phone. it was time to finish my homework. I tossed my dance bag onto my bed and rummaged through my cabinet for some peanut butter crackers and a protein bar. It would have been easier to live with my mother’s inquiries if they were merely paranoid. But she was right to worry. I was still going to Church periodically, but when a visiting artist was in town, not always. As we inched closer to the performance, I didn’t expect that I’d be going to Church.

Church felt more and more performative to me. The service was the way it always had been, with the same motions and symbols and colors and songs. But I knew too much Church history by then, and too much science. I knew that services had not always been this way because the Church had not always existed, and I knew how the wants and needs of men had changed it over time. I also knew what I didn’t know: Who or what God was, and how involved He, She, or It deigned to be in our lives. None of us knew for sure. Sitting in Church as a college student, surrounded by other reluctant, exhausted, hungover college students, I couldn’t shake the thought that we were all there because someone — not God, but a person — was watching. My mother’s mother had been convinced that God attended every Mass, which was the chief reason I was never to wear slacks to Church, but I was less certain. I didn’t know if God was watching, or if they cared what I was wearing. Even at 7 years old, I knew that Grandma’s pronouncements were hers alone. “You’re assuming the position of a higher authority,” I’d tell her, experimenting with larger words. My parents were charmed when they overheard this exchange one day and asked me who could assume that position. “No one,” I said. “Only God.”

I wasn’t ready to admit that I was Agnostic or “spiritual” in the way that I am now. But I knew at 19 that I didn’t want to shape my spirit according to laws passed down through generations of man, even if God had indeed whispered those laws first. I wanted to shape my spirit with the information I had, in a way that felt truer, from inside of me. Couldn’t I just follow the warmth that I felt while dancing, animate it in my body, and trust that wherever it came from — whatever God or life force — was watching?

***

At the very end of “Battle Suite,” soaked in sweat and heaving in our exhaustion, we spread throughout the stage and made our hands into claws, one extended straight before us, the other forming a clawed cage around our left ear. Mouths open as if we had fangs, we lurched like vipers, each attack reverberating from our pelvis through our neck. It was a terrifying gesture. Was it even dancing? Two years before, I would have said no, but now I smiled to myself at the shock of the audience. They must have been thinking, These dancers are mad! Is this really what dancing is? All of us had injuries: scrapes, strains, tears, surgeries healed over. We were mad. But Battle understood our purpose.

***

Sometimes I think about the way I threw myself into dancing, as if I were teasing the capability of my body to stay awake and alive. Long before Battle, my vision tunneled and my hearing muffled during intense rehearsals in the studio, reminding me urgently to drink more water. One year at the end of a weekend of Nutcracker performances, I went to bed at 9 p.m. on Sunday night and woke up after 2 p.m. the following day. I clamored from bed in a panic and rushed into the kitchen in my pajamas to find my mother sipping tea. “Mom! You didn’t wake me up for school!”

She laughed. “Believe me, I tried,” she said. You were dead asleep. I figured you needed it. And you did, didn’t you? You slept straight through the school day.”

***

While watching the video recording of our performance of “Battle Suite,” I was surprised to find that, despite being in peak shape, the majority of dancers in the piece looked tired. They looked like dancers who had been told to engage in a frenzied ritual. They lagged ever so slightly behind the timing. There was a softness in their shoulders and hands.

Some were different. There were five of us, maybe six. Kim was chief among them, then myself and my friend Chloe. The other two Kates in the company made the cut as well. There was something different about us. It was in our muscle tension and timing. Everything about our movements was fiercely rigid, unyielding, focused. When I first caught a close-up of my face, I had to laugh. I had the appearance of someone who was looking to hurt, as if the ritual wouldn’t be finished unless I reached my very edge.

I wasn’t ready to admit that I was Agnostic or ‘spiritual’ in the way that I am now. But I knew at 19 that I didn’t want to shape my spirit according to laws passed down through generations of man, even if God had indeed whispered those laws first.

On the Sunday evening after our final Battle rehearsal ended, my friends Kim and Chloe and I went out for a big pasta dinner. The three of us hobbled into the upscale restaurant bundled in quarter-zip fleeces over our dance clothes, still tacky with sweat, but simmering with energy. We couldn’t keep our voices down, couldn’t stay still. Kim was out of control. One minute she’d be quietly reading through the menu and the next moment, she’d be singing the Battle drums again. Of course we couldn’t help but join in, our feet finding the right positions under the table, our arms taking miniature versions of the shapes they would on stage. The restaurant full of demur couples and soft-striding waiters turned to glance at us more and more frequently. I think when Kim started banging her fists on the table, Chloe and I, both giggling, finally reached for her to stop.

I have this feeling that God was there with us at that Italian restaurant table. Of course I’d never claim to know for sure. But seeing the three of us fully alive, overcome by the joy of our capability that is, yes, our blessing, He might have shared our warmth and smiled. Maybe God sees Battle as the priest he always wanted to be, and the stage as a church. If all of that is true, our bodies could be like the words of Battle’s sermons. I think of our bodies whipping, dashing, contorting into claws — and wonder if Battle and God were in agreement on what to say.

***

In his accounts of choreomania Backman writes about the “disease” that led these choreomaniacs to the church yards. At first, I imagined sicknesses like malaise and ennui — sicknesses of the mind caused by the pent-up oppressions of the household and church. So it genuinely surprised me when I came to the moment in the text when Backman reveals that the medieval definition of “dancing” included gyrating, cramping, and tremors. He hadn’t been using “epidemic” in a psychological sense at all. Most of these dancers had been seizing; they were incredibly ill.

Bit by bit, Backman explained the mystery away. He attributed every single case to some kind of ergotism, or sickness caused by an environmental poison. The cramping and shaking of fingers and toes? Toxins. Gyrations of the whole body? Toxins. Sweating, toxins. Grimacing, toxins. Even the bloodless severed limb could be explained by toxins, which constricted the blood vessels and in advanced cases, caused the body to give up its limbs. Often it was the clean water of monastic streams that cured the afflicted, who had most likely been poisoned by tainted water and grain in their hometowns.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, dance epidemics slowed to a stop. Advances in medical research ushered people into the care of doctors, rather than the churchyards of specific saints. Those with toxin-induced seizures were no longer considered possessed by the devil or cursed. They were simply people plagued by tainted grain in their region — nothing a simple cleansing diet wouldn’t cure.

***

After the performance, I changed quickly into a dress and found my parents in the lobby of the Modlin Center. My dad had a bouquet of flowers for me, as he always had, and my mother greeted me with a kiss on the cheek.

“Nice job, lovie,” she said.

“Lots of work there, kid! Wow!” my dad echoed.

“Did you like Battle?” I asked, impatient for their response.

“Which one was that?” my mom said.

My heart sank. “The one with the crazy drumming music and all the stomping? The one where we all collapse, half-dead at the end?”

“Oh, that one was… interesting,” she replied, remembering faintly. “What kind of person is Battle to come up with that stuff?”

A priest, a genius, a dancer. I didn’t say any of these things to my mother, knowing she would sour quickly at any association between Battle and religion. She could picture a ballet audience in a Catholic church, but not a Battle audience. “I miss your ballets,” she added softly, looking into my eyes for a response. I couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t hurt her — that wouldn’t convince her that I was no longer Catholic or no longer a little girl.

“Pretty wild!” my dad said, deflecting. “So! Where should we eat?”

My mom already had a restaurant in mind and we left the theater quickly, though I didn’t want to. I’d been pulled from the euphoria so suddenly again. Climbing into my parents’ SUV felt like waking up from a long sleep, only I hadn’t slept. The shock of the mundane: my mother’s shuffling gait, my father’s worried look, the medical supplies always lingering in bags and boxes in the car. Even after so much dancing, staying put in that car on the way to the restaurant felt like physical work. My limbs tingled with a desire to move — a desire that felt more like an itch or a pain.

***

Some scholars have wondered if the churchyard dancing of the choreomaniacs was an impulse to distract themselves from their pain, like shaking a cramping hand. At first, I wanted to dismiss the theory outright. I wanted these wild dancers to be spiritual — to have greater bravery in their search for wisdom than other women and men. I wanted to believe they danced to feel their spirits well up inside of them, to feel whole again for a while, or to render themselves perfectly empty to commune at long last with the angels who could save them.

Then I imagine myself among them, thrashing, splaying, tossing our hands, and all I see are bodies. No books, no idols, no sacrifices of other living things. We never called an audience. Never heeded the summons or threats of priests. We had eaten poisoned bread and tainted water, but even these realities are less true, less fundamental than the irresistible shaking of a cramping hand. A hand, I still like to believe, created in the likeness of God.

* * *

Kate Branca is a nonfiction writer. She is currently at work on her first essay collection, which explores the intersections she has discovered between spirituality and dance.

Editor: Sari Botton