Shadow Dancing: an Exercise in Shifting Perspectives

The Shadow Dance is an elaboration of the memento mori ergo carpe diem mudra into a whole-body exercise. The original dance was a spontaneous creation of mine during a visit to the Rotokawau/Virginia Lake Reserve in Whanganui, New Zealand, sometime in the early 1990s. My then-girlfriend was a dancer much inspired by nature and although I had very little dance background then, I would sometimes join her with a kind of martial arts-inflected “expressive movement”. On this particular visit to Virginia Lake, I recall “dancing” the shapes of trees surrounding a clearing, and that established the basic premise of the Shadow Dance.

The current form of the dance has been inspired by multiple traditions – elements inspired by Maori haka, Indonesian dance-drama, martial arts practice, Shinto ritualism, Indiginous Australian dance and Korean charyok (“borrowed power”) shamanism have all made their way into the exercise over the years.

  1. Find a spot in nature facing a tree.
  2. Take a wide, well-braced stance (the martial arts “horse stance”, etc.).
  3. Forming both hands into the memento mori mudra, extend your arms straight out to either side.
  4. Close your eyes and count to one – that’s how long eternity feels – as you vigorously clap your hands together in front of your body.
  5. Begin a slow, steady exhale as you open your eyes and form your forefingers and thumbs into a triangular “window”, with the fingers still in the memento mori mudra. Focus your gaze on the tree through that aperture.
  6. Continuing the outbreath and keeping the thumb tips in contact, separate the forefingers and fold your hands down so that the sides and balls of the thumbs are pressed together. Trace the shape of the tree with your hands and fingers, including the shape of the roots.
  7. Still breathing out – your final breath in life will also be an exhale – return your hands to the triangular window position and focus again on the object through the aperture.
  8. Inhale deeply as you draw your hands into the carpe diem mudra.

It feels good to be able to breathe in. Now, what are you going to do with that power?

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