Artist, educator, and activist Michael J. Morris, shares their thoughts on leading Dancing Body Magic workshops and co-creating livable futures.
On Wednesday, May 8, 2019, Dr. Kelly Klein and I had the immense pleasure of returning to The Ohio State University—where we both completed our PhDs in Dance Studies—to facilitate a three-hour workshop entitled Dancing Body Magic: Co-Creating Livable Futures.
This workshop was developed from our ongoing collaboration focused on bringing together, synthesizing, and sharing a range of practices and knowledge traditions that we’ve been practicing for many years and that have been intrinsic to how we make our own lives meaningful, including: ritual, magic, witchcraft, astrology, yoga, tarot, and improvisational movement practices. Our starting point was a series of questions:
What are possible structures for co-creating livable futures?
What are the rituals and practices we need in order to support us in the ongoing work of co-creating worlds in the midst of accelerating complexity and heightened experiences of difference?
What can become possible when we open our perspectives and creative processes to include more-than-human allies and kin, when we become sensitive to intuition that is both personal and collective, and when we craft new experiences of connection that can be called art, ritual, and/or magic?
In times of climate crisis, the Sixth Great Extinction, pervasive political uncertainty, and countless other overwhelming global troubles and harmful social realities, as we face the challenges of ethical co-existence, we created this workshop as a way of investing in developing practices at the scale of individual and collective bodies that can support us in personal healing and collective liberation. This is at the heart of what the Livable Futures project invites all of us to do “to face into crisis and respond with all of our creative capacities.”
I have been a practicing witch for nearly as long as I have been a dancer and for as long as I have been practicing yoga. For many years, these practices felt separate from my academic, scholarly, and creative work. In my PhD program, I focused on developing an emergent critical framework for ecosexuality, drawing on feminist and queer theories of embodiment, ecofeminism, queer ecofeminism, queer ecological studies, new materialist and poststructuralist philosophy, along with dance and performance studies. In other words, I developed my work from a rich, promiscuously interdisciplinary lineage of academic inquiry, without ever acknowledging the deeply personal and potentially even spiritual ties this work has to the practices that have sustained me for decades: witchcraft, ritual, astrology, reading tarot cards, working with stones and plants as deeply healing intimate relationships, honoring the more-than-human world as sacred.
Over the last several years, I’ve begun to deconstruct the unnecessary silo that prevented the integration of these practices into my work. Working with Keith Hennessy and taking class with iele paloumpis in New York have been major inspirations for finding ways to bring the deep wisdom of these traditions into the generative, creative spaces of the dance studio and movement practice, and having such a gifted collaborator like Kelly has really allowed this work to thrive for both of us.
In the workshop on May 8 with Livable Futures, we began by gathering in a circle and acknowledging the Indigenous lands on which we are situated. Columbus sits most prominently on the Indigenous lands of the Miami people, and according to various historical accounts, Ohio has been host to centuries of civilizations belonging to the Shawnee, the Wyandotte, the Delaware, the Ottawa, the Kickapoo, the Seneca-Cayuga, the Iroquois, the Anishinaabe, the Haudenosaunee, the Potawatomi, the Leni-Lenape, and the people we call The Mound Builders and Adena cultures—because we do not know what they called themselves. As we live and work here on this land, we inherit violent histories of colonization and displacement, such that everything we do here is in some way a response to that history—a history that we cannot undo but to which we must nevertheless remain responsive and responsible.
Throughout the evening, we prioritized naming the ancestors, lineages, and roots of the traditions that we were bringing into the room. A significant part of the work that we aimed to do was to recognize the global, multi- and trans-cultural histories of many of the traditions in which we are trained, traditions that have come to us through centuries of careful and reverent sustained practice as well as the undeniable impact of imperialism and colonization. It may be that in order to imagine and create more livable futures in worlds that are yet to come, we must work and grapple with complex, non-innocent resources—resources that have survived through and also been commodified by colonization and capitalism, resources that have come to us through and from more than one place, countless people and many cultures, periods of flourishing and periods of challenge and repression, often at the hands of church and state. It may be that these traditions that have survived and developed through such complexities have much to teach us about surviving in these complex, troubled times.
At the start of the workshop, we gave one possible definition for magic: “Magic is the art of changing consciousness at will.” This definition was originally offered by 20th century witch Dion Fortune and then popularized by Starhawk. Working from this definition, we asked: what are the practices we turn to in order to shift consciousness? And along with that: how are practices of shifting consciousness vital and necessary resources for co-creating livable futures? Coming from our backgrounds in dance and embodied practices, part of what we know is that consciousness is embodied, and so we are particularly invested in practices that awaken our awareness to more sensation, the subtle body, and working with felt states as guides to our own intuition and creativity. We suggested that it’s possible that we do not yet know how to create livable futures, and that we won’t be able to do so without shifting, changing, and expanding our consciousness, dropping into feeling and sensation that is often ignored in a pervasive culture of denying, denigrating, and depreciating our bodies, and risking our imagination in practices that open us to possibilities we would not have considered otherwise. And we understand all of this to be magic.
One of the first traditions I brought into the room was astrology. Contrary to what we might see on Instagram or in weekly sun-sign horoscopes, astrology is not just a fad or something that only matters to young white women. Astrology—the art of looking to the sky and making meaning with a cosmos that is larger than our human lives or cultures—has been practiced in almost every civilization throughout history. The western astrological tradition is 4000 years old. It originated in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Greco-Roman empire, the Persian empires, and then eventually other parts of Europe and the Middle East. It was taught in the earliest universities in Europe, it is the basis of modern astronomy, and has somehow survived centuries of imperialism, colonization, and repression at the hands of the church and state. Some people argue that astrology is a science, but coming from the arts and humanities, I prefer to think of it as a meaning-making tradition—a story-telling tradition, even—in which the figures and agencies that are allowed to matter are so much more than human. I think of it as a way of tuning into a vast system of timing and symbolism that moves at a very different pace than our busy human lives, and invites symbolism, meaning, and inspiration into our consciousness that we inherit from thousands of years of observers, astrologers, and trans-cultural experience.
At the time of the workshop, we were just one week past Beltane, the midpoint between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. This is a season of observing and celebrating the return of light, the lengthening of days, the return to warm weather in the northern hemisphere, and the abundance of fertility as the world around us blossoms with the flowers and green of spring. I also discussed some of the important astrological features for the start of the workshop itself: at 5:30pm in Columbus, Ohio, Libra was rising over the eastern horizon, ruled by Venus in Aries, inviting us to tune into themes of harmony, balance, cooperation, and justice as well as individuation, charging ahead, blazing one’s own path, impulsiveness, and courage. I asked: how do we build connections and relationships, how do we foster love and care, when so many of our resources are oriented toward celebration of the individual, towards conflict, or even war? The Sun was in Taurus alongside Mercury conjunct Uranus in the 8th House, asking us to consider: how can we bring new, sudden illumination and insight into how we utilize shared resources, in ways that may shake the foundations of our personal or cultural value systems? How do we learn to communicate in revolutionary ways about the body, the senses, pleasure, and the earth? Finally, the Moon was a waxing crescent in Cancer in the 10th House, right at the midheaven, the highest point in the sky, inviting us to reflect on how we can bring more care, more nurturing, more sensitivity and receptivity into our work, into our politics, and into the worlds we are making. This “astrological weather report” began to invite larger personal, interpersonal, and even broader cultural themes into the space, with which we would be working throughout the following hours.
How might we perceive ourselves and our world differently if we were to consider it through the lenses of astrology, the deep time of planets and stars, the significations inherited from countless astrologers making meaning of the skies for thousands of years? How might these differences in perception allow us to respond and take action differently?
Then we began to move, using a walking meditation to begin to tune in to the body and breath in motion, to cast circle and co-create a space for holding and concentrating our work together.
Stepping between the worlds—between the world as it has been behind us and all the possible worlds to come before us.
Aligning ourselves with the pathways of planets and particles, the earth around the sun, the moon around the earth, all those who have gathered in circle before us and all those who will gather in circle in the days ahead.
Kelly led us through a yoga-based exploration of the elements of earth, water, fire, and air as they are present in our bodies, then into an asana practice bringing more of ourselves and these elements into collective motion. Yoga is an ancient philosophical tradition and system of practice that originates in India and other part of South Asia. It is around 5000 years old, and is primarily oriented toward liberation from suffering and the recognition of union, the basic spiritual truth that we are not separate. One set of practices within this tradition turns to the body and breath as guides on this part toward liberation and union. Bringing yoga into Dancing Body Magic connected us to different ancestors and gave us a structured way to begin to explore movement, our own physical capacities, the union of breath and motion, the subtle sensation of energy, and the integration of the elements into a practice of moving together.
Inhale, sweeping arms wide.
Exhale, folding forward.
Moving with the breath, connecting to the support and stability of earth, the flow and mobility of water, the expansion and contraction of air, the heat and energy of fire.
From this asana practice, we moved into a more improvisational exploration of these four elements, which have been considered sacred in Indigenous civilizations around the world. Air, fire, water, and earth have been called the basic building blocks or principles of material life on this planet. We work with them not as abstractions or as symbols, but as fully, materially instantiated with-and-as our bodies: the air of the breath, the fire of the heat generated at the heart of every cell, the 60-80% water coursing through our bodies, and the earthy minerals of our bones that we share with the bedrock of the planet. Each of these elements are present in our bodies, necessary for our lives, but they also exist beyond us and without us. So, as we tune into these elements and move with them as our bodies, we center the more-than-human parts of ourselves, allowing us to experience and access the wisdom of the more-than-human within our own bodies/selves.
Each element has its own speed, its own qualities and dynamics. We move through the light, indirectness of air into the sudden, bursting, ignition quality of fire, into the drop and flow and spirals of water, into the steadiness, the slow receptivity of earth. In each state, different parts of myself become activated. I become aware of myself in different ways, start paying attention to a wider range of what I feel and how I respond to what I feel.
The second half of the workshop focused on tarot, using tarot cards as a source for movement improvisation that generates felt states in response to both our inquiries and the imagery of the cards. These felt states can then function as resources for navigating our questions, our troubles, and our pursuits. I offered a brief history of tarot cards, describing their shared history and organization with regular playing cards, which first began to appear in Europe in the 14th century, most likely being imported from Islamic countries and Arabic cultures in Turkey and Spain. Before the printing press, playing cards were hand-painted, and thus almost entirely a commodity of the aristocracy and upper classes. Around the 1500s, wealthy Italian families commissioned artist-made decks, and the cards began to include illustrations, including portraits of people in the family and figures related to mythology. These cards were originally for playing parlor games, not for divination or fortune-telling. The game was called “tarocchi” and apparently bore some resemblance to the card game we know as Bridge. It’s not clear when exactly the cards began to be used for divination, but it is likely that it emerged out of this parlor game context: wealthy people sitting around playing card games, and eventually using the cards to tell stories, about a person, the past, or future. One tarot historian, Bill Wolf, has suggested that the pictures of the tarot cards were used in a kind of choose-your-own-adventure story-telling game, where the cards would be drawn randomly, put into a sequence, and then interpreted as a story. This could be the origins of using the cards for divination. It is in the 18th century when we see the earliest texts describing tarot as a mystical system or a tool for divination.
A major turning point in the history of tarot was the publishing of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck in 1909, which became of the most famous and ubiquitous decks in history, developed by A.E. Waite and illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith, who were both members of a mystic society called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in London. While tarot had taken on mystic and esoteric significance before this point, the publishing of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck—which continues to be the best-selling deck of all time—popularized these associations and made them widely available to the general public, one of several major moments at which tarot became less of a luxury commodity of the upper classes and a resource made more available to the broader population. Smith’s deck became the basis or model for hundreds and hundreds of new tarot decks created in the 20th and 21st centuries. So, as we engage in this system and tradition, we are engaging a practice that has no single culture of origin, but rather emerged out of cultural exchange, migration, importation, and fantasy, including countries with different majority-religions, all clustered around trade routes across the Mediterranean. This cultural hybridity, along with movement through class systems, is embedded in the history of the tarot, and as such, it might suggest itself as a useful tool for navigating our contemporary global moment.
Kelly and I laid out four decks to work with: the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, Rachel Pollack’s The Shining Tribe Tarot, Karen Vogel and Vicki Noble’s Motherpeace Tarot, and Cristy C. Road’s The Next World Tarot. Using these decks, we invited participants to find partners, to discuss personal questions, issues, or problems that they each were facing in that moment, and then to draw several cards as a tool for reflecting on their situation—mixing and matching decks, devising their own spreads, or arranging the cards in spreads that Kelly described to the group.
Rather than looking up the meanings of the cards in books or trying to interpret them cerebrally, we used the cards themselves as an impetus for movement, noticing our own felt responses to what we saw in the cards and then developing that felt response into gestures, movement explorations, and eventually some kind of repeatable score that we could move through and explore. We shared these movements with our partners in a witnessing format loosely based on the practice of Authentic Movement, developed by Mary Starks Whitehouse, among others. In talking with our partners afterwards, we reflected both on what we saw and felt, identifying and naming what we had generated and how it might be useful.
I drew cards from The Shining Tribe, which I believe was the first tarot deck created by a transgender woman, Rachel Pollack. The cards I draw invite me to spread wide and open, step into hidden places, awaken the permeable fields all around me, rise and follow the moon, lean into myself and those around me, and allow myself to be carried away in ways I cannot predict.
The last practice with which we engaged is called Political Therapy, developed by Valentina Desideri. We began by gathering once again in a circle, and spent several minutes naming immense global troubles that we are facing: climate change, white supremacy, racism, centuries of misogyny, loneliness, isolation, information overload, lack of healthcare, extinction, political divisiveness, surveillance, hunger, and so on. It was a list that could have continued indefinitely, but we gathered all of these issues in the cauldron of our circle, to name and face the crises of our times. Drawing on this collection of troubles, we then moved into Political Therapy, which is basically an improvised “fake healing” ritual for addressing large, systemic, political issues. We once again broke into pairs, and named the specific troubles—one per person—that we wanted to engage in the ritual. The intention was not that we would somehow come to solutions or resolutions through this practice, but rather, that working with these troubles at the scale of bodies engaged in a healing ritual would allow us a way to begin to feel into potential avenues of exploration and possible resources for addressing or responding to these crises. Taking turns in the roles of giving and receiving healing, and using a series of prompts developed by Desideri and her practice, we felt our ways through improvised rituals that brought us into intimate, caring connections with one another and the crises we had named. Afterward, the room was saturated with feeling, tenderness, and a kind of bonding that had been developing over the course of three hours together, crystalized in these focused practices of compassion and support. Even if it’s “fake” or made-up, its effects are real, because as Kelly reminded us, the healing is in connection: connection is healing.
My partner and I are working with the lack of healthcare and the lie of isolation. As my partner lays her hands on my body, breathing over me as I lie on the floor with my eyes closed, I am reminded that the breath is a constant teacher that we are not alone. In each moment of loneliness, each hour of feeling isolated, just breathe and remember that breathing—respiration—is always, always breathing with. Breathing with all life on the planet. We are not alone. We never were.
Just before we left, someone in the group said that they didn’t know what was going to happen when we re-entered the mundane reality of daily life in the world.
We suggested that what we had done in our time together was co-create resources and felt experiences that we each now carry with us. These were the beginnings of explorations and practices, and they were also deep wells of sensation that we can access whenever and wherever we are. I don’t believe that time is simply or only linear, and so as we move back out into the world, we remain present in these moments that we carry with us, and we can return to these experiences, whether we call that memory or time-traveling. We ended by bowing back down to the earth, grounding our energy, extending gratitude to the land, the ancestors, and one another. The circle is now open but never broken. Merry meet, merry part, and merry may we meet again.