Dance has made its way back into the collective culture through television shows like “So You Think You Can Dance,” and through video games like “Dance, Dance Revolution.” But for me these images of dance only capture the physical act. There is a spiritual side to dance that I was reminded of on a rainy Tuesday in Bangkok. Ev and I decided to access one of the mystical portals of the world at the Erawan Shrine, a place where people from all over Asia make pilgrimage to offer prayers for blessings, for forgiveness, for things that they think they want. And we were there, meeting a friend from another time, Khun Nong, whose friendship spanned many lives and years. Nong had come to help us hire the shrine dancers to dance a blessing on the many that we know are negotiating their new normal of dis ease. And this included us as well.
I should explain a little about this shrine. The actual statue is of four faces of Brahma, each facing a different direction–north, south, east and west. It is located outside the Amarin shopping complex and the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel on one of the busiest corners in Bangkok, an area now known for its blatant materialism. The shrine itself was built to try to right the bad kharma that accompanied the building of the first Erawan Hotel in the late 1950’s. For some reason, the developers ignored everything every Thai knows about how building a new building dislocates the local spirits of the place. Thais know that it is important to determine the most auspicious time for breaking the ground and finishing up these new buildings, and they expect to furnish a new home–some type of shrine–to which gifts can be brought to keep the original spirits of the place happy. The Erawan Shrine was built because at the time, workers were getting injured, and accidents were happening in a way that could not be chalked up to just careless coincidence. A shrine built under such circumstance will take on a power beyond any Grand Hyatt Hotel, capitalism, or dis ease. It attracts rich and poor, the powerful and the dispossessed, men, women and children. There is an omnipresent cloud of incense, and the sounds of traffic do not obscure its blessings. Even if people cannot take the time to stop and pray, they still find a way to make merit. We have seen people drive by, drop their hands from a motorcycle or car steering wheel, place them together, and lift them to their foreheads to offer a hasty wai of respect to the holiness of this place. Of course, the fact that they do this while in vehicular motion only increases it’s mystery.
Honestly, I don’t presume to understand the way all things work. From my Western frame of reference, it would be easy to dismiss religious beliefs as superstition, especially those of another people at a shrine in the middle of a huge Asian city. I know that I believe in the science of science, but I also recognize the presence of God, the power of beauty, the hidden planes of energy that move in and through us, and the peculiar hold that Ev has over me when she cocks her head just so and tells me she loves me. Go ahead and boil any of that down to the physiological soup of neural connections and hormonal chemicals, and I promise you, it won’t mean anything except soup. I just know that there are places in this world that are holy beyond our simple perceptions, and in spite of all the noise and commerce around it, the Erawan Shrine is one of those places.
It isn’t that the central feature of the shrine is the four faces of Brahma. It is that you are brought to the realization that each small step in life has multiple perspectives, and that its meaning comes not from the face you see but the ground from which you perceive and the direction you face.
At the Erawan Shrine, you can hire between two and eight Thai classical dancers for whatever blessing you desire. You then sit in front of the dancers, facing the shrine while they dance behind you. The music is live, the dancers are beautifully skilled, incense burns fragrant, and the numerous offerings given around the shrine make the experience uniquely powerful. The fact that you have hired eight dancers to dance a blessing on your own dis ease is not the point. It is that you are given the gift of sight and sound to realize that in the dance itself, is your own dis ease’s blessing, and that by calling forth that blessing, you can dance too, even when your legs won’t move.
Here is the blessing I received. Dear friends, former colleagues from another time, now helped us to find solace, multiple perspectives, and beautiful dance. A garland, a bunch of incense, and a small candle, a prayer of hope, and the acknowledgement that there is so much more to this world than our little dis ease were just the outward trappings of the visit. What meant more to us was that Nong met us at the shrine, that our dear friends Oie, Hui, Usa, Sue encouraged us to make our own mini-pilgrimage in a pink taxi through Bangkok traffic on a rainy July afternoon. Ultimately, the joy of old friends being together, of eating favorite foods and remembering good times, the sharing of families that are growing up and out of our reach, these were the blessings that came through the dance of friendship, of life, and of love.
I have written before about the rhythm of dis ease. That rhythm begets a life-dance that we are all given. For some of us, it is a whirling dervish, for others it is an elegant ballet. Still others may see it as a two-step. I have been privileged to witness dances from many cultures, each with its own meaning and blessing. In dance is life, and no matter how many times we repeat the patterns, each dance is a unique event, acquiring new meanings each time we put them together in the back and forth sway of life movement. Just as the dancers at the Erawan Shrine may do the same dance each time, they dance for different blessings based upon the personal needs that caused the devotee to hire the dance in the first place.
So, here on a rainy, Bangkok afternoon, sitting in front of a dance older than all of our ages put together, grace ascended. For two minutes of Thai classical dance by eight trained artists, accompanied by instruments emulating the natural sounds of the alluvial plain of Thailand, a blessing beyond the power of any one human being was lifted into the ethers.
And for a minute, I believed that I could dance—not like a video game, but definitely a dance, dance revolution.