Wednesday, December 24, 2008

On Faith and Dance, by Aynsley Vandenbroucke

Overwhelmed by possibility, I begin this personal writing task with an impersonal (and overused) technique, the New World Dictionary definition:

Faith (n)
1. Unquestioning belief that does not require proof or evidence
2. Unquestioning belief in God, religious tenets etc
3. A religion or a system of religious beliefs
4. Anything believed
5. Complete trust, confidence, or reliance
6. Allegiance to some person or thing; loyalty

I will look at the relationship between New World's definition and my own experience as a practicing (sometimes more fully than others) Zen Buddhist and choreographer. These are beginning thoughts, full of contradiction and sure to change.

1. "Unquestioning belief that does not require proof or evidence"
I grew up in an agnostic/atheist household. We were encouraged to ask questions of everything. The dinner table was full of warm debate. Looking for science and proof, my eventually-to-become-physicist brother did gravity experiments (don't ask) on my cat.

I responded immediately to Zen Buddhism because the teachers encouraged, in fact required, me to ask questions of myself and of them. They emphasized Zen as a practice that needs to be experienced for oneself, not read about or believed. Through Zen and choreographic practice, I question and explore life's mysteries. I find deeper ways to engage with the world.

Zen teachers talk about three important aspects of practice: "Great Faith, Great Doubt, and Great Determination." I continue to learn what these are but the acknowledged/seeming contradiction helps me trust the practice. It's like a checks-and-balances system: faith balanced by a healthy dose of cynicism and human effort.

My choreographic practice thrives with these aspects. I leap into a new project, performance, rehearsal room with faith that something can come of nothing. I doubt that it will work, that a particular section is right, that all of the elements will come together. This inspires me to work harder. Like a character in a Beckett play, I go on despite the doubt. With determination (or pig-headedness) I continue to rehearse and to dig deeper into mystery after mystery.

2. "Unquestioning belief in God, religious tenets, etc"
See response to #1

3. "A religion or a system of religious beliefs"
Zen Buddhism is a practice, but it is also a religion. I think of religion as a structure within which people come together to look at the biggest and most mysterious aspects of life: birth, sickness, pain, joy, death.

Religious structure includes ritual; in Zen these rituals include bowing, chanting, even particular, and choreographed, ways of eating. I love ritual. My first bow at a Zen monastery felt like the easing of a deep body-ache. I had been instinctively, unknowingly making dances with bowing movements, so I was delighted to find them within a formal religious practice. It was profoundly satisfying to bow among seventy other people, in unison.

While others scoff at the perceived lack of control (and perhaps necessity of faith) involved with ritual, I revel in it. It is dance. Daily dance class, yoga, mediation, bowing. Performance. These are rituals that invite us into our bodies, into communal spaces and experiences that are a little bigger and more connected than our sometimes solitary thoughts and lives.

4. "Anything believed"
I believe in the power of art to bring communities together and profoundly enrich the lives of individuals. Sometimes I need to cry because I believe this so strongly and find myself in a conversation with someone else who does not.

These are my beliefs, but there is also quite a bit of proof and evidence that these beliefs are true. Economies grow, we learn new perspectives, people from many backgrounds share space and time because of art.

5. "Complete trust, confidence, or reliance"
Rehearsal, and creation, is built on trust. I need to trust myself, my collaborators, our process. This is not easy. There are many obstacles to confidence. I stare at wonderful, open faces in rehearsal and I am terrified. Sometimes I doubt it all. And yet I step forward, again and again. In creating, and specifically in dancing, we strengthen our capacity for trust. We learn how much our feet and breath and core can support.

6. "Allegiance to some person or thing; loyalty"
Making dance teaches me to commit. I am "faithful". I take a step forward. I set a schedule. I mail a press release. I connect deeply with a performer.

I learn not only to question, but also to listen to other people and the world.

Aynsley Vandenbroucke is a choregrapher and Laban Movement Analyst who divides her time between New York City and the Catskill Mountains. Information on her company can be found at She writes on dance at


marci rubin said...

As a yoga practitioner and as someone who does not prescribe to a specific religion, the element of ritual plays an important role in my practice of yoga. Thinking about the extensive history of the yoga tradition and the thousands and thousands of yogis who have repeatedly performed the postures before I, I am connecting with a long lineage of practitioners, an ever-evolving community of yogis. It feels very powerful to partake in such an old system of simple breathing and body movements, experiencing the re-membering of my own integration of body, mind, and spirit just as many people have done before me and will continue to do so after me.

And even when I don't feel like practicing, wanting instead to watch a movie, or just do something else, the faith that the practice IS essential for my well-being, that it IS a necessary, helpful part of my life keeps me on my mat, keeps me coming back again and again to the same sacred poses and breathing practices, trusting that all I have to do is practice them with attention and with gentleness, and the rest will take care of itself.

Aynsley Vandenbroucke said...

Hi Marci,

Thanks so much for your thoughts. I can really relate to your experience with yoga practice. And I'm interested in how to strengthen that listening to the faith that says that practice is essential and necessary. Sometimes I feel like that voice is so faint--it's there but it's quieter and deeper than the competing voices screaming for movies and tv and computer...

marci rubin said...

i know what you mean Aynsley, the strength of my own faith in the practice definitely has its periods of waxing and waning, but the rememberance of the feeling that i have when i practice- slipping into a quiet, centered place is often enough to get me on the mat, if only for a few minutes. and sometimes, i think that's all you need.