By Arjuna da Silva
I met Michelle Dionne in the late 1990s when she and her partner, Jason Stiers, helped a neighbor develop his rural homesite from the ground up. Years later, when Jason and Michelle became “the Dionnes,” they moved near us and began their own from-the-ground-up adventure, making a family, building a home, becoming rooted in the earth and their community.
I’d seen Michelle dance in those early years—she had the attitude and moves of authentic African dancers and she made dancing seem elegant and natural. I may have rotated my hips with her once or twice, but mostly I enjoyed watching and knowing her dance muse would someday be a big blessing for others.
Michelle has been teaching healing dance locally for the last fifteen years. She has a soothing, graceful and encouraging way of speaking that invites us to come closer, to find out more about what she knows, to get into the aura of her warmth and the mystery of her smile.
You’ve been sharing healing dance in WNC for more than a decade, while birthing and bringing up your own two daughters. What are some highlights from those experiences? Were there any clear “healings” you know about?
There have been many highlights. I think some of my favorite dances have happened recently, now that people are coming to dance on our land. Jason and I created an outdoor ceremonial dance ground that is gently carved into the mountainside. It provides a safe space nestled into the mountain and hidden from sight, yet with this spectacular view, under the stars, dancing with the trees and the wind. The space has allowed people to open up in a way they could never do indoors. We did a ceremonial dance there for the Harvest Moon last year that was so powerful—the winds were howling so much, we couldn’t have a fire or use candles. It was just dancers and drummers in the moonlight and it was beautiful to see everyone overcome the freezing cold and find tremendous joy and heat in the passion of sacred dance.
Other highlights have been in my work with women and healing belly dance. Since birthing my daughters while belly dancing, I have come into a much, much deeper place in my personal belly dance practice. I am awed by the power of these ancient movements and so grateful to be teaching them and witnessing women in their personal healing.
I’ve witnessed many healings, both great and small. I’ve seen people with chronic numbness and an inability to move certain parts of their bodies suddenly able to feel and move again. I helped a woman cure herself naturally of cancer. I have helped people dance themselves into such an altered state that they began re-experiencing a past life. Moving together through traumas they remembered brought peace to their psyches. Most commonly, I dance with people with tears streaming down their faces and then watch them burst into rolls of uncontrollable laughter!
What traditions are your healing dance programs rooted in? What part does your experience in Africa play?
The dances that I have learned and incorporate into my teachings are from West Africa, North Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, Native America and Hawaii. Spirit guides have also come to me in dreams and teach me dances.
My experiences in Africa were a confirmation for me that sacred and healing dance was my path. I was studying traditional dances with a woman in an artisan community in Ghana. We would dance on the beach every sunrise. As the days went by, we noticed more and more people come from the artisan community to watch my lessons. Then people from the neighboring village started to come to watch. They started to call me “Spirit Dancer,” which is what they call their traditional medicine people—people who have the ability to dance themselves into trance and bring healing for the community. They recognized that I had this gift and they told the local Spirit Dancer about me. He offered me teachings that opened huge portals inside of me. He was the first person I ever knew that could dance with me into the trance state and guide me to go deeper. I will always be grateful to him and his community, because their gift of recognition has enabled me to help many others.
You talk about five elements of healing dance. What actually are they?
Approaching dance through the five healing elements lets us imitate the natural world through dance. People have been using this approach to heal and pray, probably for as long as people have been dancing and praying! The five elements I use (which I learned from Charmaine Lee of Synergy Dance in Washington, DC) are water, earth, fire, air and ether (or spirit). Our bodies are literally made from these elements and, therefore, these elements are also reflected in our emotions, our behavior and our thought patterns.
I teach people how the elements correspond to different body parts, emotions and behaviors. Then I guide them through dances for each element, either from various world dances or with free form movements. Tuning in deeply to both our bodies and our thoughts while dancing through the elements, we can learn which ones are easy for us and where we have blockages. These insights lead to revelations about our daily patterns and behaviors. We can then use the dance movements to clear blockages, both physically and energetically, and create a better elemental balance for ourselves. By dancing through a cycle of all five elements, we are awakening all of the elements within us and creating a very balanced, blissful practice of self-healing.
What would be an example of a correlation of a body part and dance rhythm or style?
For example, the knees are part of the earth element—we have to bend our knees to get down on the earth. The rhythm is staccato or like the heartbeat. And belly dance is tremendous for strengthening the knees because they are always bent while dancing in that style. Practicing the belly dance posture helps people be more grounded in their daily lives.
Another example is the solar plexus, or “primal heart” as I call it. It is the passionate heart that you cannot control, like a parent’s love for their child, and it correlates to the fire element. I usually use West African dance for the fire element because it is so primal and because it incorporates a lot of pumping movements of the solar plexus area.
These movements help people give and receive love more easily as well as tune into their primal natures.
Do men often attend your workshops?
Occasionally, they do. I hope to see more as the years go by—it is just as important for men to get into their bodies as it is for women. We all need to cultivate our feminine principle right now in order to bring about a more harmonious world, and we find that in our bodies.
From your work with pregnant women, do you have the impression that their deliveries are easier?
Almost every mother I have worked with has told me that the dancing helped her labor—helped her ease the pain of contractions, helped her feel empowered in her body, helped her relax and focus. And the mothers who were really devoted to their dance practice have so far all had very easy and quick labors. Some of them had babies before without the dancing and said it was much easier with the dancing.
I’m thinking about some body extremes people deal with: obesity, skinniness, asymmetries and imbalances of all kinds. Body image being such an obsession in our culture, how can people with these kinds of body manifestations become comfortable dancing, especially in a group?
Helping people cultivate self-love and a healthy body image through dance is one of my greatest passions. In the last few years I’ve begun doing special dances and ceremonies focused on body image. I use a lot of cross-cultural references from my travels to show how the Western construct of the perfect body is just a cultural myth. I use photos showing images of celebrities before and after they are photo-shopped for the magazines. These stories and images really stir people and get them thinking about how their own thought patterns about their bodies have been shaped. And how, just like any thought patterns, we have the power within ourselves to change them.
In dance, we have the opportunity to experience great pleasure and bliss in our bodies no matter what their shape or ability level. When we do this work in a group, we create a supportive space together where everyone agrees verbally to respect each other and praise each other’s unique beauty. It is incredible to watch people, when they are cheered on by a group, cast off inhibitions and allow themselves to really shine and shake their booties! When you have some experiences like that in a supportive environment, you can discover how pleasurable it is to be in your body and dance. That pleasure heals us of shame. People begin to care less about what others think and start to choose instead to simply experience the sweetness in dancing.
Do you dance with your daughters? What would you say to all mothers about dance and their children?
I dance with my girls just about every day—from a few minutes to a full-blown dance party with dress-up and Daddy. I hope that all parents will make time to dance with their children. Our culture is so focused on the mind right now—computers, cell phones, cars, school. Young people are expected to learn everything with their minds, yet their true power lies in their bodies! Dance is such a great way to get little people in touch with their bodies, to maintain their open sensitivity, which will enhance their intuition as they grow older. Being in tune with their bodily sensations, they learn to perceive guidance about how to walk through life.
And, of course, it is just so much fun to dance with your loved ones in your living room—to get all silly, to not worry about what time it is or how productive the day has been. That joy, that love, is the truth of life. We have these bodies for a reason—through them we experience our lives. Dance can help us live from our bodies and our hearts, and create lives that are deeply pleasing.
More info on Michelle’s work can be found at www.yellowsunfarm.blogspot.com.
Arjuna da Silva teaches about the Enneagram of Conscious Being, and is a founding member of Earthaven Ecovillage outside Black Mountain, NC. She also focalizes The Natural Building School at Earthaven, where workshops and internships in traditional and innovative construction methods bring people closer to the shelter of Earth. She is working on several books and essays on life, community and creativity, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.