Ruth St. Denis, the modern dancer, once said: ‘We should realize in a vivid and revolutionary sense that we are not in our bodies but our bodies are in us.’ This assertion beautifully articulates the idea that the body is not the limit of one’s self, but only an aspect of it. This potent thought is not a mere abstraction, but one which has the power to expand horizons in dance, offering the possibility for a renewed self-awareness in movement.
In ancient times, Greek dancers possessed an inner feeling of harmony. They wore long, loose garments with veils that rippled in movement, captured so well in the sculptures and painted vases of the time.
Veils have been in human culture since antiquity, playing a major part in women’s attire. Till today, the veil is worn diversely, whether traditionally draped as a sari or wrapped into a kimono, or adorning the Western and Eastern bride alike. The veil signifies both a piece of cloth and the concept of covering oneself. Garments could also be seen, in a broader sense, as a veil.
What we wear influences the way we move, how we feel about ourselves, and the way we relate to the people around us. Wearing long garments or draped veils brings about a certain sense of presence and more substance to one’s expression, compared to restrictive clothing which accentuates the lines of the physical body. Bringing the veil back into the dance costume – as both cloth and thought – would help develop a new movement awareness, winning back an essential dimension to dance which today is increasingly being left out.
Symbol for protection of the sacred
The veil signifies protection of that which is sacred, too holy to behold. In ancient times, the Mysteries of initiation were strictly concealed from the common people and the betrayal of the secrets to those who were unprepared incurred severe punishment. The well-known story of the Greek dramatist Aeschylus tells of his prosecution for having revealed part of the Mysteries on stage.
Temples made use of veils to separate the inner chambers from the outer, marking a clear distinction between public spaces and those in which only priests may enter.
In philosophical literature, the statue of the goddess Isis bore the inscription: “I am all that has been and is and shall be; and no mortal has ever lifted my mantle.” (On Isis and Osiris, Plutarch). The sacred is pictured as the divine feminine and spirit of nature, and her words point to the existence of an everlasting world hidden from the world of human beings. It was the secrets of this higher reality that the initiates guarded.
Symbol of status and virtue
Women seem to have carried the sacred in them more, while men seemed to have more affinity for earthly affairs. They were revered when their powers were recognised, but they were also mistreated when their place on the earth was misunderstood. The head covering and long garments became society’s tool for the subordination and categorisation of women.
The ‘worldly veil’ became a status symbol, separating respectable women (who were expected to be modest), from the rest. Both were dominated and repressed, fully supported by a law and religion conditioned for a patriarchal society.
Dancing veils and self-awareness
The veil separates two worlds: one of spiritual and the other of matter. In The Birth of Venus, a painting by Botticelli, the goddess is depicted as floating naked on a shell, blown by two flying figures towards a forest shore where maidens await to receive and cover her in a cloak. It shows the passing over of Venus from the one world to the other. She was born naked there and must now cover herself here. The ‘split of worlds’ artistically depicts an experience of human beings as well as spiritual beings, involving a mysterious adjustment for those who knew both sides.
At a time when religion and dance were inextricably linked, the temple dancers of ancient greece carried out movements as part of a sacred ritual, in a mood of reverence and deep inner connection to their gods. Through the art remaining from those times, we see costumes that are rippling and flowing, much like water, as moving veils catch the air.
When we wear long garments that offer a feeling of spaciousness and extension, we come to know ourselves as beings with presence.
In the early days of modern dance, Isadora Duncan and others sought to recreate that experience of movement which the ancient dancers had known so well. To achieve this, they draped themselves with veils and flowing garments, while seeking for more natural movements, emerging from an inner soul life. It was a time of reimagining the dance, a divergence from ballet, which had already taken centre stage in Europe. These dancers’ choice of materials and styles for costume allowed for an unfolding of a new movement awareness.
What we wear informs our feelings and artistic expression. The sari, worn by classical Indian dancers, and donned by Ruth St. Denis for some of her modern dances, is a traditional Indian dress worn typically at the time of marriage. The design has a straightening effect on one’s sense of self. There arises a sense of dignity, of tallness, uprightness, and elegance. For new mothers, this reinforces a sense of responsibility. For dancers, it offers a structured and graceful form perfect for stylized poses, mime and expressive storytelling.
The kimono is made up of panels stitched together, rather than draped, and the belt distinguishes the upper and lower halves of the body. Although the kimono offers a different experience to the wearer than the sari does, both garments inspire similar feelings of dignity and grace.
When we wear long garments that offer a feeling of spaciousness and extension, we come to know ourselves as beings with presence. Covering the length of one’s body, one has the feeling of being enveloped by a sheath, similar to living inside one’s home.
The veil lifted and discarded
At the start of scientific breakthroughs in the natural world, there was an enthusiastic notion: Isis has been unveiled. Nature’s secrets were being uncovered; new experiences were had in the spheres of Art and Theosophy. The question arises: is not the nature of our inquiry a determining factor on the conclusions we draw? We may have discovered certain facts about nature – but this is not to say that, from Her point of view, we have ‘unveiled’ her. Isis could very well still affirm that ‘no mortal has lifted her veil’, even today. Or, more precisely, that not all have done so.
In what we see today in art and culture, we might believe that the veil has been lifted and cast aside. The excessive infatuation with the lines of the physical body in bare physical space has so pervaded our modern awareness of movement that the realm to which flowing veils and garments once pointed to has become unfamiliar and alien territory.
Without veiling, one’s movement inevitably falls into the angular, mechanical and pumping language, drawn from bone, muscle, limited geometrical space and purely physical laws. Movement that prods at the still and voiceless air has replaced the one which through a layered sheath, extends itself into a realm of life. Ebbing and flowing, billowing, it invisibly swirls and crackles all around us, in us, through us.
The all-embracing veil
A shift in movement awareness happens through a shift in self-awareness. The veil keeps the life-flow from fading into physical space by directing and extending it outwards into an infinite, living space.
A new art of movement, Eurythmy, was developing alongside modern dance in the early twentieth century. Founded by the spiritual philosopher and scientist, Dr. Rudolf Steiner, it arose as a gift of Anthroposophy (‘wisdom of the human being’), as the renewal of dance. Eurythmy takes as its source of movement speech and song, with their innately sculptural and living qualities. With a costume of loose silk and a draped, thin veil, the eurythmist shapes the air, her floating veil catching and revealing movements which arise from the ‘deep human-creative’.
While the veil of the past was needed to protect the spiritual mysteries from the unprepared, the veil now protects us from the declining influence of the purely physical which seeks to strip and empty us out. If, like the ancient Greek dancers we invite the embracing wings of the gods and goddesses which ray out behind us, we may well discover a new and larger self which is being forgotten with the discarding of the veil.