Spiritual Art expressed as Dance

Diane Butler calls it sharing ‘Awakening Art’.  But what does that mean?

I googled ‘Awakening Art’ and found, unsurprisingly, a range of sites about painting.  They mainly focused upon artwork of a spiritual nature and some of them sprinkled yoga or music into the mix.

But Diane is a dancer at heart and so she uses embodied movement to express and share her art.  It’s a term that other dancers may be familiar with, but I’m not a dancer, or am I?

Goa Gajah - elephant cave

Goa Gajah – Elephant Cave

We met by the lotus pond in the garden of ‘Goa Gajah’ (the Elephant Cave) in Bedulu Village, not far from my home in Ubud.  The surroundings of this atmospheric temple go back to circa 9th century and it is thought to have been two hermitages where Hindu and Buddhist monks had resided side by side.

A small group of us sat on the ground wearing our sarongs.  We introduced ourselves under dappled sunlight while the rest of the jungle spread itself down to the river below.

At this point, I was too focused on our conversation to hear the birds sing.

On the other side of the pond we could see a niche in the cliff above.  This small, bare, south-facing ascetic’s hollow is where meditators from ancient times would do their practice and here we were, in 2013, to engage in own practice right in front of this holy place.

An ascetic or monk, probably lived in that small cave for months or even years, whereas we stayed for just three hours.  Their form of meditation would have been very different and the results, after such long periods, would have been significantly more intense too.

Perfect place for meditation

Perfect place for meditation

I wanted to drink from the same natural spring that these spiritual Balinese ancestors would have used, and I did.  Well, it was right there, convenient for us and those monks of ancient times.  What’s more, it was, ‘Banyu Pinaruh’, a special day in Bali for purifying yourself with water – perfect!

Our surroundings were stunning but we were not tourists.

We were there to use our bodies as moving art, to share, flow, express, learn, be at peace and become one with ourselves, each other and nature.  We were there to utilise energy, to embody movement, to embrace space and to ‘be’ Awakening Art.

Diane, an American movement artist living in Bedulu for the past 12 years, had brought us Balinese canang.  We were to use these offerings of small baskets made of coconut leaves containing coloured flowers and incense, while moving. 

I reached into the bag to take a canang and noticed that it was less perfect than the others.  I could have exchanged it, as there were spare ones available, but I decided to keep it.  It reminded me that everything is perfectly imperfect.

This one is a pretty perfect canang

This one is a pretty perfect canang

Nothing happens until something moves – Albert Einstein

We moved.

In the garden down there in the valley, below the temple, beneath the meditation niche and below the constant supply of fresh and holy water, we moved.

Some more skilled, confident or more graceful than others, not that it mattered.  At first I was very conscious of being looked at by sightseers who didn’t have a clue what we were doing, or why.  Initially I felt embarrassed, but when I overcame that anxiety and gave myself to the moment, and to the movement, it felt liberating.

Sometimes we held the canang, other times the incense was used and its aromatic smoke wafted along the side of the lotus pond.

At one point I held the canang up high.  It remained in my hand, yet to my eye it appeared to take centre stage of a coconut tree.  It was as if the branches of that giant tree were emanating out of this small offering perched on my finger tips.  Slivers of bright blue sky shone through the leaves of both the tree and the canang.  I would never have seen this view without this opportunity to share Awakening Art through embodied movement.

Lowering my arm I moved my hand around to my back where it met my other hand.  I transferred the canang and watched as it appeared from the left side of my body.  It moved fluidly through the air in my hand, now to the left and downwards, now curving back upwards in a slow spiral.

Both the canang and my hand moved through Diane’s outstretched arms and towards someone’s shoulder.  Although we were aware of each other and moved through and past one another, there was no eye contact and only occasional, random, physical contact.  We just kept moving.

Sometimes Diane asked one of us to tap a small piece of tile with a shard while someone else hummed.  All through this ‘musical’ accompaniment participants flowed and embodied movement.  The back of my hand briefly met someone’s upper arm.  Moments later I smelt the incense as a hand moved past my face.

I couldn’t help thinking about how few adults ever get the chance to move in this unfettered way.  Usually the nearest you would get to relative strangers is by accidentally bumping into them on a crowded bus or jostling for position in a queue.

I imagined how professional dancers must practice… let go of their inhibitions about movement, shed their concerns about daily life, purely move where their breath, heart and desires take them.  But I suppose that’s incorrect, as ‘formal dance’ requires set moves and what we were doing was the opposite.  This was open to possibilities of different artistic expression through movement.  It was free of rules, constraints and expectations.  It was even free of charge.

Not only could you place your right elbow on your left shin and leave it there for a moment.  But you could contemplate the relationship between these two points of your body which, quite probably, have never made contact before.  You could see and feel things from new angles, different perspectives.

Me, Diana and Brandon in front of the meditation niche

Me, Diana and Brandon in front of the meditation niche

We sat back down on the ground and, following a conversation about time, Diane advised that some elder Balinese people still know what the time is by the sound of particular birds.  As soon as she said this, I heard them.  The jungle was full of bird song.  But to be so close to nature that you know the time because a certain bird sings, or because of the silence when it stops, well, that’s really something.

She also explained that generally people in the east perceive ‘mind’ as being located in the heart-centre, more than the head.  It made me question my own thinking about the word.  I would have said it has to do with the head… and yet, when I say, ‘I don’t mind’, that comes from my heart, doesn’t it?

This reminded me of my own maxim about, ‘Learning how to unlearn’ (i.e. unlearn all those old ‘truths’ that no longer stack up).

The mosquitoes were getting the better of us, so we decided to move from the peaceful pond to the running river, fed by small waterfalls that spring out of a cliff.

Long ago a huge stupa fell here and its moss-covered relics interrupt the flow of the river.  You can walk around these massive boulders with your feet ankle deep in the clear water, and we did, still carrying the canang, still moving.

As sunset was approaching, we stopped and sat chatting about how we felt.

I felt awake, uplifted, happy and grateful that, just maybe, I am a dancer after all.

Leave a comment


  1. Kuatarina Mount

     /  09/10/2013

    I felt I was there dancing with you Julie x

  2. Poetically written. Thank you for giving us a peek into your experience.

    • Thanks. This morning’s session was rewarding too… we had a fiber artist, studying indigo, and a ‘wisdom body’ teacher as well.


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