Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dance, the great communicator

To watch us dance is to hear our hearts speak. ~Hopi Indian Saying

Did you know that dance is among the oldest forms of artistic expression ? Archeologists have found evidence of man’s love for dance, to express emotion, since the earliest cave paintings. I’m not surprised. Dance is innate within us. It’s among our first impulses as babies. Look at any toddler when you put on music. She’ll instantly begin to move ! I, too, love to dance. As a matter of fact, I can’t remember a time, when I didn’t dance. I can remember myself twirling and dancing when I was as young as 4. Because of this love for dance, it’s still amazing to me that I have absolutely no talent, and even less of a sense of rhythm. I am the equivalent of a tone deaf person who fancies herself a Mezzo-Soprano. But, with every love for the arts, must come patrons. I have learned that I can be a great appreciator, even if I will never be a great dancer.

My daughter, Caroline, on the other hand, is a wonderful dancer. She has been taking dance lessons since her 3rd birthday. And, unlike her beat challenged mother, she can convey rhythm, emotion, grace and skill. In addition to taking both of my children to see the Nutcracker every year, we have gone to Broadway and seen countless musical theatre productions. So, I know it’s not a mystery as to why Caroline understands the undercurrent of dance. She has not only studied, but has been exposed to everything from African dance to street hip hop and classical ballet. This is the first year, in the past 5 years, that she wasn’t in our local production of the Nutcracker Suite. I can tell that she missed being a part of it….despite long rehearsals, aching arches from hours on pointe and crowded dressing rooms, there was a piece of her performances that fed her soul. Dance can do that: it can reach into our very being and release endorphins, as well as self-expression and passion.

One of my favorite hymns in Church is “Lord of the Dance”. All reference to Michael Flatley and his Riverdance flying feet aside, it’s a beautiful song of reverence and faith. This little known hymn is perfectly sung at Christmastime. While it has never had the popularity of “Silent Night” at church services, “Lord of the Dance” should rightly be sung. It’s a beautiful hymn speaking of God’s place in the world, using dance as the medium. The first verse and chorus are as follows, and are sung to the melody of “ ‘Tis if a gift to simple”:

I danced in the morning when the world was begun
I danced in the Moon and the stars and the Sun
I came down from Heaven and I danced on the Earth
At Bethlehem I had my birth:
Dance then, wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the Dance, said He!
And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be
And I'll lead you all in the Dance, said He!

It’s a wonderful image, isn’t it ? As a traditional woman, who believes in, and loves, the power of dance, I can’t think of a love letter to God that could be more from my heart. Additionally, this hymn captures the essence of the esoteric and reverent aspect of dance. In Yoga, the Asana of “the Pose of the Dancer” is, understandably, one of my comfort poses. Not only is the pose a wonderful method for practicing disciplined balance and for stretching out one’s upper back and hips, but the asana itself invokes the spirit of the dancer within each of us.

I have a challenge for everyone this holiday season: dance. Don’t worry about what you look like. Don't worry if it's not the Tango. I seem to channel “Elaine” from the infamous Seinfeld Christmas party episode, and her jerky, frenzied motions. But, the fact is, she loved it. And, so do I. Dancing releases tension and can create an extraordinary sense of well being.
Just take my advice: don’t dance in front of your teenagers. They have the oddest habit of turning off the music just when you’re getting going. I wonder why ?

Nobody cares if you can't dance well. Just get up and dance. ~Dave Barry

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Power of a Smile

It’s Christmas time ! This means shopping, food, visiting, greeting cards, decorating, music…and my favorite, Christmas movies. I happen to be a sucker for all holiday films. It’s very close to impossible to name my favorite. I have wonderful memories associated with each one….from the original “Miracle on 34th Street” (still a great film) to the “Grinch” to “The Santa Clause”. I adore the original “Charlie Brown’s Christmas”, and can’t imagine the weeks leading up to Christmas without the jazz strains of that soundtrack playing.

But, in the most recent (and by this, I date myself) batch of Christmas movies, I have to say that Will Ferrell’s “Elf” is a new classic. I adore his character of Buddy the Elf. Buddy approaches life with a great honesty, a loving innocence and a sense of deep caring for others…not to mention a spirit of Christmas as big as New York, and passion for maple syrup on everything and anything. Buddy tries to build a relationship with his jaded father, played by James Caan, while still maintaining his true Elf identity and zest for life. There are far too many wonderful, goofy lines in the movie to quote them all, but one of my favorites is, “I like smiling ! Smiling’s the best !”

The wonderful thought behind this line is the truth of it: smiling IS the best ! Did you know that smiling can help improve your overall well being ? Study after study has shown that smiling, even when you don’t feel like it, can have a remarkable effect on your mood. Both allopathic and homeopathic doctors agree, in fact, that if you smile at another person, make eye contact and “put on a happy face”, the mood is contagious. You will feel better by smiling when you’re sad. It does like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it ? It also has a “close your eyes and think of England” element. And yet, the irresistible part of the equation is that it works. When you smile, you look happy, well grounded, and joyful. People will respond in kind. You smile, they smile back, and before you know it, you feel happy that someone has smiled at you. The results are exponential. The harried salesperson you made a kind comment to, instead of a snarky one, may well treat her next customer with great customer service, who, in turn, may feel well obliged to donate to a charity on her way out of the store. The “pay it forward” aspect of a simple smile, a kind gesture and a positive attitude, when we least feel like it, can even be returned to us when we least expect it. Additionally, smiling has been shown to increase your immune system’s resistance to illness and to lower high blood pressure.

In Yoga and the path of mindfulness, there is a wonderful tradition from extraordinary Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh. In his life changing book, “Peace is every step”, Thich Nhat Hanh discusses smiling at great lengths, and its benefits to calm the body and mind. In one seated meditation, the Master uses this mantra: “Breathing in, I calm my body.Breathing out, I smile.” I have used this technique not only in the classes I teach, but in line at a returns desk, stuck in traffic and during interminable parent conferences at school. It’s not just a gimmick. It truly works, and many cultures believe in the power of the smile. I love Mother Theresa’s thoughts on the subject, as well: “Peace begins with a smile.”

So, today, smile. It really is the best !

Let us always meet each other with smile, for the smile is the beginning of love. ~ Mother Theresa

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Passionate about food

I love food with great passion. I also love to read. My blog has expounded on both of these points ad nauseum. However, I can’t let the holidays pass without suggesting one of my favorite books: The Soprano Family cookbook. I realize that I have only reviewed and derived articles from literary novels until this point. But, this cookbook is a novel. Rather, it reads like one. As a fan of the HBO series, the Sopranos, I was thrilled when my friend, Debra, gave me the cookbook one Christmas. Since then, I’ve pulled it out every holiday, and frankly, whenever I need a good laugh. It’s hilariously funny. The characters not only give their favorite recipes, but also bits and pieces into their lives. Because I’m not Italian-American, it would be easy to let dishes like Ziti Al-Forno or Roasted Sausage and Peppers slide remain off the radar. And yet, because of this wonderful cookbook, I can make these dishes with confidence, and laugh as I’m reading the recipes because they’re written “in character”.

My favorite chapter is entitled, “If I couldn’t eat, I’d fu**ing die!”. I simply love the title. It’s Bobby Bacala’s view on food, and some fabulous recipes. But, the sentiment, in so uncertain terms, remains the same. Food, to me, is meant to be savored to point of immense joy. If you don’t love what you’re eating, why bother? My husband, a former Army Ranger, takes a different view. During times in the field, you ate what you could, even MRE’s that tasted like sawdust. I haven’t had Jeff’s experience in food deprivation, so I can’t fully appreciate his impassioned plea for Kentucky Fried Chicken the moment he was released from that part of his training. But, I could certainly see his appreciation for what he craved, those long months he was away. I’ve been incredibly blessed in my life: I’ve been surrounded by delicious food most of the time. And, if I didn’t have it immediately, I wasn’t far from it. I also am fortunate that I have a strong resolve. I rarely eat something if it’s not exactly “it”. It’s not that I have developed the most incredible discipline, I’m just a picky eater when it comes to the taste-factor. The fact is, I want to love what I eat. Otherwise, it’s simply not worth my time. Or, the places it’ll end up on my thighs.

In Yoga, there are different philosophies about eating. Many serious yogis and yoginis are vegetarians. Others believe that eating meat is sacred, as long as you appreciate the animal, for lack of a better term that you’re eating. Still others will adhere to strict diets, macrobiotic, ayurvedic or another health-conscious traditions. These movements believe in focusing on the season on the food, the combinations of foods, and the right food for your body type. Honestly, I believe in all of it. I do eat (and appreciate) meat, but I also choose many meals to be vegetarian. I enjoy the freshness of many macrobiotic meals, and love brown rice and sushi. I also understand that eating for my Ayurvedic Dosha, which happens to be “Kapha”, involves avoiding fatty foods, and focusing on light, even spicy meals, to provide balance in my system. What most yogis will encourage you to do about food is to eat healthfully, and listen to your body when you have had enough. Pasta isn’t off limits (or I really would fu***ing die), but I eat it in moderation, with fresh ingredients for balanced meals.

As the holidays are here, so many of us will make unhealthy choices. We’ll feel these in body and in spirit (the guilty conscience never rests !). Enjoy your food, make a wonderful Italian dish, have a glass of red wine and savor it. Investigate new ways to approach food that may help you feel better physically. But, always remember that taste comes first!

"To eat is a necessity, but to eat intellligently is an art". ~ La Rouchfoucauld