Asian forms of meditation and movement rely on the culture of stillness. For a Japanese Noh actor or a Sufi dervish, stillness is not simply the absence of movement; it is a powerful presence, a source of power and grace which gives depth and meaning to movement. Think of a quiet lake. On the surface, it seems still, but below, currents swirl gently, life pulses. Likewise, the dancer in calm. Although physically immobile, the dancers vibrate with an inner intensity, a source of potential to be expressed. This immobility is not static; it is dynamic, on the verge of transformation.
When a Noh actor stops dancing; when the dancers bugaku stop in their ritual; when the monks of the Himalayas stop the moving mandala of bodies; when the Balinese dancers pause in their devotions, it is electrifying. Calm belongs to movement. The inner drama, the meditation, the visualization never stops. In fact, in Noh, when a character becomes overwhelmed by their spiritual burden, the dance stops, inviting the audience to enter the character's spiritual and pulsating reality, producing an energetic imprint on the space itself. In an art form where time and space are expanded and manipulated, shared silence and stillness offer a transcendence of the distinct art forms themselves.
In Buddhist meditation, we train the mind to observe the ever-changing activity of thoughts and emotions, thereby cultivating calm in the midst of an inner storm. In the same way, the dancer cultivates the stillness of the body, attenuating superfluous movements and tuning into the subtle impulses of breathing and energy flow. For a spinning dancing dervish, this still point is essential for even physics to work. For a masked Noh dancer, this inner stillness becomes the anchor, the foundation of self-identification on which the movement acquires clarity and precision.
Taoist practices such as Tai chi, baguaand Swimming Dragon qigong offer another perspective. They teach us to follow the currents of life and nature, encompassing both yin (calm) and that (movement) as part of a cyclical dance. Often imitating – or embodying – the eight basic energies of the I Ching, the martial artist who draws inspiration from this philosophy moves with fluidity and ease, each gesture harmonizing with the rhythm of breathing and the flow of energy through the body. Silence and stillness are elements of harmony. Where there are stops in gagaku music, stops and silences must be understood as part of music, even as a type of music.
When I first worked with monks in Ladakh at Lamayuru Monastery, I noticed that large mandala dances, some lasting up to an hour, stopped at certain locations: the entire circle of 24 maximum dancers stopped with precision. I later learned that these stops are part of the dance and are called “stops.”
Moving with Stillness shows how stillness manifests in actual movement. Each type of embodied stillness in action cultivates a different and necessary state of mind, usually based on the speed of movement. In slow ritual forms, a slight movement of the head, a subtle gesture infused by breathing or mudra; a break full of emotion and exposure – these can spread with powerful energy, speaking volumes even in the absence of big jumps or acrobatic feats.
Stillness becomes evident, even as empty spaces come to life. Stillness allows the dancer to focus on cultivating the mind while moving; a familiarity with the thrilling reality of stillness. Movement is linked to the intention behind each gesture, making each action deliberate and imbued with meaning. For a Japanese Noh dancer, with measured and precise movements, stillness is imbued with a quiet power. The slow speed of Noh is said to be a factor in enabling the actor to develop such complex and masterful mental techniques. In other words, maintaining connection with vibrant stillness.
Alternatively, stillness is an essential agent of mental mastery in fast, athletic, or physically complex dances. A Sufi whirling dervish; or a Himalayan monk rotating gyroscopically in a vortex – both rely on a stillness at the center of the rotation radiating outwards, also drawing the audience into their vortex of devotion. Peace of mind is the only basis for uninterrupted concentration on the mental techniques necessary for the propagation of the symbolic power of the figure.
Stillness in movement is not just about focusing inward. It also allows the dancer to be fully present in the space, in harmony with the environment and the audience. A dancer who embodies stillness attracts attention with a discreet, almost magnetic presence, whether he navigates calmly or bursts into grandiose demonstrations which disappear like all phenomena, returning to stillness.
Stillness is not the opposite of dance; it's the secret weapon. It is the fertile ground from which captivating movement flourishes, the hidden rhythm that drives the dancer’s artistic talent. My wish for all my readers, as we begin this new year 2024, is to embrace calm, cultivate it internally and let its quiet power guide your own dance to new heights of expression and grace.