Stepping Over The Edge: The Way A Snake Sheds Its Skin

dance shamanism Stepping over the edge

An entry from last Autumn:
A smokey Hunters Moon, the full moon that follows the Harvest Moon, is easing down behind the nights fog in the West as the first light warms the Eastern horizon. It’s been an entrancing Autumn, every dry bare branch looks to be the skeletal finger of a magical forest dweller. I turn to the concrete circle in the middle of our acre of land surrounded by a forest of Oaks. Bowing, I step across the threshold and begin to dance.

The concrete is rough and cold beneath my feet. Leaning forward I pull the energy of the East into the center in my belly, exhaling at the completion of each gesture. The ancient Celts spoke of three Cauldrons of the Soul: the Cauldron of Warming which resides in the belly, the Cauldron of Yearning in the heart, and the Cauldron of Knowledge in the head. When upright and filled these spiritual centers work in concert, enabling us to engage directly the transcendent spirit that permeates all things. I pull energy from the dark wooded horizon into each of my three Cauldrons. Pull and breathe, pull and breathe, turn to face South.

I first learned to dance leaping from chair to chair with my sister. We’d put a Boston Pops Arthur Fiedler concert on the turn table and bounce like pop-corn while our baby-sitter tried not to laugh too hard. Later I saw Fred Astaire dance with an ecstatic happiness I came to covet. My mother leveraged my interest to get me into ballet classes by the time I was ten. Over the years my body became a tool of expression, honed to perfect responsiveness.

Today I dance for the hooting barn owls and dwindling stars. Completing my work with the four directions I return to the center. Now its time to braid the edge of the circle. With each breath I reach, arch and turn, opening the circle and defining it all at once. My steps are sometimes sure, often wavering. Breathe and turn, breathe and turn. My body has endured many miles of rough road since I first leapt and screeched to Fiedler’s William Tell Overture, or tried to copy Astaires moves.

We’re born with our first Cauldron upright – that keeps us alive, our second on its side, and the third upside down. That sounds a lot like my childhood. If we’re lucky we might learn to right all cauldrons in our life. I’d like to think I first turned the Cauldron of my heart upright when I discovered dance, if only for a little while. Like shamanism, dance give us access to worlds beyond our world. Perhaps dance has always been a shamanic art, the prelude to shapeshifting, a ticket to the world of spirit.

Dance requires that you always be willing to shed you skin, to be remade anew. I often think of dance as just that and nothing else, the process of being remade. Once you’ve gotten into the habit of shedding your skin, you can’t go back – you’ve been marked as a snake. People instinctively know when they’re talking to a snake, though they may not know why they feel a little uncomfortable.
I’ve had many dance teachers since my first childhood ballet instructors. I remember each of them as if they were each a parent. Their smells, touch, the feeling of their attentions are always available to me. Though they didn’t all know it, they were snakes one way or another. Some knew exactly what they were, and made sure I didn’t shirk my skin shedding duties. Good snake parents.

I first learned to shed my skin walking to high school on cold days. A creeping case of Osgood Schlatters disease was gradually pulling my tendons away from my knees. If I glided through the snow – like I danced in class, slithering my way to school, then the pain eased a bit. Eventually a dance/walk/trance would overtake me. I lost all sense of time and space, dancing my way to school. By the time I arrived I was no longer the person who first set out.

This morning my knees ache a little, but they also feel strong. Joint pain has been my teacher and close companion for over twenty five years. I’ve learned to trust the messages pain sends me. Slow and smooth, bent but not too far, turn gently. On my 40th birthday I was still cross country running, swimming and cycling. I beat a prognosis of life with a cane into the ground by learning to move like a snake.

I have finished braiding the edge of my circle as dawn opens into sunrise. Facing East again I feel into my Cauldron of Warming and ask the light “what do I get to dance today?” An answer comes in the image of a butterfly. I’m not sure if its from within me or from the sunrise. My breathe slows and I move like a sleepy creature starting to break through its cocoon.

At a workshop on Celtic Shamanism our teacher gave us an assignment: journey to ask our Warming Cauldron what it needed from us. When I asked, the answer was surprisingly direct and simple: “rise every morning at dawn and dance.” I did so, through all the seasons and then more, breathe and turn, breathe and turn. A gift from another snake teacher, another slither along the path.

There is a myth that Saint Patrick drove all the snakes from Ireland. Some interpret this as him driving out the Druids, the shaman of the Irish. Of course you can’t drive out all the snakes. They just shapeshift into something else, returning to their native form when the time comes.

Sitting alone outside at dusk, after waking at dawn for over a year,  on my last evening at the Celtic Shamanism workshop, I realized I was sitting in a circle. Someone had arranged benches and stones amidst a grove of trees in a circle a little larger than the one I dance in at home. Tentatively I got up to dance. I reached between the day and night, slipping into the spirit body of the forest. Soon the shoes were off and I was a snake at home again. Breathe and turn, breathe and turn. Dancing, like shamanism, invites you to be at home anywhere in the world.

The heart cauldron is called the Cauldron of Yearning. This center pulls us to our spiritual path. Yearning can only be born in our hearts if we’ve experienced both joy and sorrow. To find my way into the forest I’ve needed to eat my fair share of suffering. It was not penance or some sort of offering. It was just the teacher I needed, like all the dance teachers I’ve had. Snake parents. Suffering draws me close to the earth, where all dancers need to be, where all snakes are at home. Never disconnecting, always feeling, reaching forward and breathing.

My body begins to twitch and stutter across the concrete. The gray is dissolving and my dance is becoming frenetic, I’m journeying spontaneously on my quickening breath. I twirl in a figure eight about the circle as I meet and merge with a spirit.

You never know if the journey you’re taking will completely remake you. When the drumbeat signals the beginning of a journey its an invitation to let go of yourself, give in to the snake you know yourself to be. Its only the snake within us that can survive the rough roads we must all travel.

– back to introduction
– previous chapter: Lightning Shaman
– next chapter: Into The River

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