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Gesserit Spice dance troupe honors generations of women
Tomorrow night, the Gesserit Spice dance troupe presents an evening of belly dance inspired by and honoring goddess archetypes from cultures around the world. "Faces of the Goddess" is at Barking Legs Theater at 8 p.m.
"I call this ritual belly dance, because I pull from elements of ancient temple dances and from the old ways before organized religion came about, the old ways of the earth and honoring matriarchy," said the troupe's founder Eliza Luminara.
This performance is also the debut of the troupe, whose name comes from the “Dune” science-fiction series by Frank Herbert. The Bene Gesserit is the spiritual matriarchy of wise women in the “Dune” world, and a drug known as “spice” is the currency of that world. The currency of Luminara's troupe is dance, which they use to honor the generations of women that have preceded them and the goddesses that have shaped the cultures of the world.
The roots of this performance go back a year to Luminara's recovery from a car wreck. After six years as a dancer, she suffered a severe back injury and couldn't dance for months. As she recovered enough to resume dancing, she found that her motivations had changed.
"Once I was well enough to start dancing again, my dance was helping to heal spiritually and physically, and at the same time my spirituality was feeding me in my dance," she said.
After dancing mostly in private, she stuck a toe into the deep waters of public performance by singing at Wide Open Floor last September. Buoyed by the supportive community of artists she found, she performed tribal fusion belly dance with mentor Lauryn Elise last November at "The Floor" and has been a regular ever since.
Eventually, she had a long list of dances influenced by different goddesses, but not enough time to perform them all in monthly Wide Open Floor shows. Marcus Ellsworth, the emcee-impresario of the series, suggested she produce a show with herself and other dancers.
"That's where it really started," she said. "As it grew, I realized I wanted to go into the roots of what belly dance is. It was originally by women and for women. It was danced in women's circles. It was danced in the temples to honor other women and mother goddesses and mother earth, to be in tune with nature and each other."
Friday's show begins in India, with an opening dance honoring Ganesh, the elephant-headed god who helps with beginnings and overcoming obstacles, and Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, music, art and culture.
Members of the Gesserit Spice troupe—Luminara, Katie Jones and Meghan Von Zur Muehlen—will perform dances for the Indian goddesses Kali and Durga. With other dancers and musician Robin Burk, they will continue with dances for goddesses from cultures around the world: the Egyptian goddess we know by the Greek name of Isis; Oshun, an African goddess of the rivers that sustain life, danced by Jessica Kitchens; the Slavic Zorya goddesses, which are similar to the Greek Fates, who choose the time to cut the thread of an individual life; the Norse goddess Freya, by Lauryn Elise; and the Celtic mother goddess Danu.
The Emerald Hips student troupe of the Movement Arts Collective will celebrate the contemporary practice of goddess spirituality with a more modern piece that honors "the feminine divine within all women." In the finale, dancers will shift from facing the audience to facing each other in a circle dance so the audience can see how women's circles "uphold each other and uplift each other," said Luminara.
This spiritual approach to dance is an artistic departure for her. Once she began recovering from her injuries enough to dance again, emotion and spirituality became central to her dance. She started looking past performing for its own sake and began doing it for more spiritual reasons.
"That's when the tide really turned and my dance changed," she said. "That's when I realized that I wanted to dance not just to share my movement with other people but also for them to think about the older ways, to think about their ancestors."
Still, when she began dancing at Wide Open Floor, she worried about how people might react to her up-front spirituality. At that first performance last November, Marcus Ellsworth saw that she was holding back and encouraged her to "just let it loose," and she did.
Is her dance art or worship?
"At times that line can be very thin," she said.
Despite the spiritual content and context of her dance, Luminara isn't dancing making a religious or political statement.
"We're saying 'thank you' to the women before us, our ancestors, who would do these dances," she said. "They were herbalists and midwives, and they passed these things down through generations to their daughters and granddaughters. We're telling them thank you. It's living on through us. It's not being forgotten."