Sacred Dance and Imaginal Cells

I recently joined a women’s dance class with a friend of mine. We learn and perform sacred circle dances from many different cultures, Celtic included. Prior to joining this class, I had not engaged in any form of real dance since my childhood ballet lessons. (NOTE: I am not counting the dancing-at-clubs scene, since for me that is a very different story.) Part of my Bardic grade journey with OBOD was an emphasis on dance as a form of creative expression that engages the elements: the earth because your feet touch her with every step, the water because of the fluidity of motion, the air because it is the medium through which every dancer moves, and the fire because dance is fueled by passion.

These classes have benefited me already on many levels; my body needs the prolonged activity [especially since suffering chronic fatigue syndrome, from which I am still recovering], my mind engages with my muscles in directing the specific series of movements, and my heart rejoices in active expression of deep spiritual and emotional concepts not easily verbalized.

I am humbled in attending these classes, but not in a negative sense. I was very clumsy for the first half of the first lesson, almost unable to coordinate my limbs at all. The other members of the class encouraged me that it would pass, and my muscles would begin to remember how to dance; they were correct. The second half of the first class was invigorating, as if a part of me long comatose was at last awakening to a new phase of life. My posture began to change, to straighten and become more supple. These improvements continue with each class, and my body is remembering things like poise and grace. It feels unbelievably good.

This is not simply a dance class, however; we have profound discussion between dances, usually starting with whatever theme our dances are aimed at expressing.

The conversation that grew out of the last class I attended nearly brought me to tears – not only because it was so apt for the circumstances I was struggling with that day, but because it addressed an underlying theme I have felt for years; not only as a vibrant strand of the melody of my own spiritual life, but as a strong harmony humming through the groups I became part of, or touched even briefly. I had simply never articulated it.

We talked about the catastrophic struggle of the caterpillar as it transforms into a butterfly within the confines of its chrysalis. This is a familiar metaphor, used by many religious traditions to describe intense changes within the soul as it journeys here. Yet the familiarity was tempered by knowledge that was very new to me:

There is not a single butterfly cell in the body of a caterpillar as it eats its way through that stage of its life. Caterpillars provide a classic image of a life devoted to consumption; it lives to eat. This corresponds to our society here and now quite well; we are devoted to consuming everything we can. We consume entire forests, for instance, to build luxurious homes for ourselves that cater to our wants and can hold our massive amounts of possessions. [One popular line of construction vehicles is even named Caterpillar, as one of my classmates pointed out with a half-smile.] Multi-billion dollar industries are devoted to appealing to our appetites, encouraging our consumption craze for their own benefit.

Eventually, however, things begin to change. A new kind of cell emerges, called the ‘imaginal cell’. These cells contain the potential for life as a butterfly; just the idea, as it were. These imaginal cells are perceived by the caterpillar’s immune system as a threat – not inaccurately, since the transformation into this new creature will mean the end of the old way of life entirely. The immune system destroys the imaginal cells, but soon more and more of them arise, and overwhelm the immune system’s ability to respond.

And the process begins in earnest within the chrysalis the caterpillar cannot help but spin for itself. The old caterpillar cells are liquefied, transformed into a nutritious soup for the new cells, the butterfly cells, to feed upon as they grow and build an entirely new creature from the ruins of the old one.

The imaginal cells multiply so rapidly that soon they are able to form groups with particular intentions, to realize the potential for specific functions, to differentiate and multiply further in separate yet unified groups, all devoted to building this new and strange creation. They operate independently, yet in complete harmony; the caterpillar is vanquished by its own metamorphosis. The consumer is consumed by the new creature, who when wholly formed undergoes its own struggle to emerge from the confining chrysalis into the open air.

The struggle of a new butterfly to escape its chrysalis is not so different from death throes; yet it is vital to the new life that it go through this death-like struggle. If a newborn butterfly receives well-meant help from a human, for instance, who helps it break free of the chrysalis without having to struggle, the muscles and circulatory tissues in the new wings are never developed. The butterfly who did not struggle into its new life is born a crippled thing, its wings withered and useless; it dies quickly, without ever knowing the freedom of flight.

Like every good metaphor, this has many applications – broad-spectrum as well as deeply personal. Each of us goes through at least one transformative experience, and some of us even learn to fly. But on a different level, our society can be seen as in the midst of some developmental crisis, very much akin to the caterpillar whose immune system is vainly trying to smother the new life, to destroy the imaginal cells that keep coming in exponentially increasing numbers.

Do you dream of a new life for our society, one that is sustainable, that lives in harmony rather than devoting itself purely to selfish consumption? Have you glimpsed something that seems unattainable in light of our society’s current structure? Do you feel hostility toward your ideals coming from those who wish to preserve the status quo? Then congratulations and take heart; you are an Imaginal Cell. You are a part of developing an entirely new life. We will get there one day; it will be unimaginably hard, and nearly unbearably painful – but we will get there, and we will learn to ride the wind, to dance in the currents of the breezes and nourish even as we are nourished; we will do all this and more – after the struggle.

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