Rumi, that whirling Sufi saint, says, “A spring wind moves to dance every branch that isn’t dead.”
If you think of dance as any movement repeated again and again to a rhythm, the whole universe is dancing. The tension between gravitational attraction and centrifugal force keeps a billion stars circling the galactic core, a handful of planets revolving around the sun, comets looping into and out of the orbital plane of the solar system in rhythmic cycles—a cosmic dance to the music of the spheres, punctuated by the silence of deep space, that expansive rest between all the notes.
From a terrestrial perspective, the sun and moon dance around the earth every day. The stars circle a point in the heavens, as if holding hands in the dark. The seasons cycle with the subtle tilt of the planet’s axis and its annual revolution around the local star. The tides sweep in and out, dancing with the moon. Dust devils, tornados, hurricanes turn in circles driven by the delicate friction of air and the spinning of the earth. The breath moves in and out of the body. Plants rise and fall. Animals and birds move in herds and flocks, in a communal dance with weather, with predators. Birth and death bound the cycle of life.
Among humans, communal dance originated, so far as we know, in every culture as a primal reflection—a direct imitation—of the dance of nature. We observed the turning of the heavens, the cycles of the seasons, the circle of our own lives, the wheel of fortune as the ancients called it. And we danced. In circles. We did not invent the dance. Nature did. And when we danced, we longed to tune ourselves, to align or synchronize ourselves with the mysteries of the cosmos around and within us.
The little girl dancing unselfconsciously on the Pearl Street Mall knew this. Not in her brain. But in her blood and bones. In the pulsing rhythm of her heart and lungs.
In “Where Does the Dance Begin, Where Does It End?” (Why I Wake Early, 2004), Mary Oliver invites us to reflect on the dance of nature, its meaning, and our relationship to it. She draws the image of a Sufi poet, a “jug of breath,” spinning in circles like the wind, out of sheer love for the “seed, the egg, the idea” at the center of everything. Contemplating the poem again, a week after we used it for Lectio Poetica, I wonder: What is the seed? And where, exactly, is the center of everything? Is it, as Oliver asks, without or within?
Is it the sun, a hundred times the diameter of the earth, or is it the soul, tiny as a flower opening to the sun? I have no idea.
After 58 years, I have mainly a feeling, an intuition, a sense of something sacred, something worthy of my deepest reverence, at the center of everything. It feels like something within, yet something surrounding me as well, in this great “garden of dust,” as Oliver calls it, this world we call home. Maybe what is sacred is life itself, so rare and precious as far as we know in the whole of the universe. Maybe it’s my own wild and childlike self, still spinning somewhere inside this annoyingly aging and aching body, nearly forgotten, hoping to get my attention—inviting me to rejoin the dance of nature.
In my home office after work one afternoon, I give in. I put on the flowing and pulsing music of Loreena McKennitt, and dance. I turn in circles like the little girl, like a Sufi mystic, like wind in the branches of the Tree of Life. I boogie. I get down and get funky. “Ah,” my soul sings, “I’m not dead yet!”
This is the essence of Incarnatio, the sixth movement of Lectio Poetica. For a few life-giving moments, I embody the spirit of Mary Oliver’s poem. The word becomes flesh.
- Jay E. Valusek