Dancing with Change

Movement and stillness both play powerful roles in how we interact with and understand ourselves, each other, and the world. Join us to learn how these ideas essential to both dance and Daoism can be helpful for navigating times of change.

Reading; Selection from The Daoist I Ching, by Liu YiMing

The waning and waxing of energy and matter are the movement and rest of things; rising and retiring by day and night are the movement and rest of the body. Everything, including the advance and retreat of the person, the arising and vanishing thoughts, the fortune and adversity of the world, the success and failure of tasks, is a matter of the alternating rise and fall of movement and rest.

Sermon; "Dancing with Change"; Heather Petit

Hello, again. And for those I haven’t met yet, hello the first time! It’s good to see you. How’ve you been?  We like to say good, right? But oof, that’s hard these days isn’t it? The awfulness of the world just doesn’t stop. It’s unrelenting, the bad news, illuminating more details of how humans seem endlessly able to harm the most vulnerable among us.  Horrible, heartrending, disheartening.  Week upon week, and months…  It just keeps coming. The bad news, and the worse.

I could speak a litany of news, of evil and hatred and uncontained anger and privilege and I could take up the entire time I have to speak and I would not be done.  These are times of change. Change like someone’s taking an axe to the world.  Doing the necessary work of justice and compassion in all of this chaotic pain can be hard work.  Whether doing the work of justice and compassion is new skills or old, learning to move with these changes in ways that serve our values is worthwhile.  If you are already a master of this work, blessings on you, have courage, and perhaps today I can offer you new language for the things you already do.

A few years ago, a bunch of UU seminarians decided to do some summer reading together about death. We’re like that. One of the books we chose was Making Friends with Death, by Judith Leif. The book is meant for people who are supporting those who are terminally ill, or who are themselves facing their own mortality. The author is a Buddhist, and her teaching about how to care for people who are dying is insightful, but as I have returned to this book time and again, I noticed something else. The techniques offered for staying present in dire circumstances are things I recognized from being a dancer.  That book is for me an illustration of dancing with change, and more, dancing with disastrous, painful, difficult, shattering changes.  For those of you who didn’t hear me talk about playing, using a dancing metaphor may seem a bit lighthearted compared to the depth of hurt present in the world today. But I am a lifelong dancer, and dancing is a very real and important part of how I live in the world. Even with all my disabilities, I dance.

If you were to ask someone what dancing is, they would probably start off their definition with something about movement.  Movement, obviously, is kind of important to dance.  But just movement isn’t dancing.  We could add that music is involved… except really, I can dance without any music at all, and people would still be able to tell it was dancing.    I don’t even have to keep a steady rhythm. Instead, perhaps we can say that dancing is movement in a conversation with something. With the music, with a rhythm, with an idea, with another person or a group of people, with the history of a pattern of movement, with a culture…

So dance is movement in conversation… Though you may notice that I didn’t say ‘in conversation with an audience’. That would be performance. Which is also a fine thing, and has its purposes… but it’s not what I am talking about today. Dancing, at its heart, is for yourself. I dance for me.  Not in the sense of selfishness, ego, or showing off. But dancing is a conversation we have with ourselves as much as with the larger world. If we want to really dance, it helps to stay centered in us, present in our bodies, in our being, in this moment, in who we are.  “Dancing for myself” is sustainable. Balanced. and the movement flows with my own energy. When I dance for myself, I may end up tired, but I am not utterly drained or wiped out afterwards. It is through me and also FROM me, an expression of all of me, inextricable. So dancing is: Movement, in conversation, for and from our own being.

But hmm.

If it’s all movement, that’s still missing something. Because every dance form I do has stopping in it. Stillness, or pause, freeze or lock or rest or catching your breath. There’s something glorious about being still, prepared but holding stillness, waiting for the music to call our bodies into movement. And there’s deliciousness in the startle of dropping into a lock, going from fluid to utterly still and then moving back out of stillness. Certainly, if you want to know the power of stillness in dancing, watch a tango sometime.  So now our definition of dancing is: Movement and stillness, in conversation, for and from our own being.


But also, how do we describe the process of acceleration and deceleration? That cadence and dynamics are also part of dancing. Not everything is at the same speed,  and there’s how we move from one speed to another. Acceleration from stillness into motion, deceleration either slowly or suddenly into stillness again. Moving forward and moving back into and out of different tempos. Transitions are how dance is not just a series of movements stuck together like uniform beads on a string.  Movement and stillness, embracing dynamic transitions and cadence, in conversation, for and from our own being.  Now that’s starting to feel like dancing to me.  So how does this apply to our collective problem? The world is on fire, and I’m talking about dancing.  For that, I am going to bring Chinese Philosophy back into the conversation. Daoism in particular. In a moment.

The impulse to charge in and just FIX EVERYTHING, and the impulse to retreat and hunker down until the storm passes (hopefully) are both pretty normal reactions.  They’re also culturally conditioned reactions. We’re taught to feel helpless in the face of big feelings and new situations, and we’re taught to force compliance to norms, expectations, even values.       That forcefulness of taking charge, and that retreat into hiding are both pretty solidly normed in our culture. Just take a look at social media for the reactivity and the memes. It’s not all bad. They’re delicious, aren’t they? Punching Nazis and retreating into blanket forts. Both have their appeal. Advance and withdraw are both kind of classic reactions that feel good at first, but then… what’s next and how do we move between them? Doing action all the time leads to burnout, and hiding away isn’t really an option, and sometimes we get paralyzed, stuck between the two.  Perhaps that’s in part because of how we’re taught to DO ACTION and DO REST. Hard push into advance, do and do and do, and then boneless collapse into withdrawal when we can do no more.

In the late 1700s, Liu YiMing wrote a Daoist commentary on the Yi Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes. The Yi Ching is an interpretation of the symbolic meaning of hexagrams, which are six-line patterns made up of solid and broken lines representing yin and yang. Unbroken line for yang, broken line for yin. Yang, assertiveness, strength. Yin, softness, receptivity.  In this book, there are two hexagrams that I work with a lot. Advance, and Withdrawal.  The words Advance and Withdrawal seem self explanatory. Advance is moving forward – march onward! Withdrawal is slipping back, disengaging and retreating.  Liu YiMing explains that those surface meanings don’t tell us how to do these actions. And the how matters.  Withdrawal, retreat into stillness… we might guess that is done softly. A Yin action – receptive, passive, soft. Retreating doesn’t seem very willful, active, or strong… 

But. Withdrawal in Daoism is a Yang action – decisive, willful, assertive, active transition into stillness. It is strength as stillness. Holding still for a decisive purpose, willfully moving out of the center of the action, in order to allow organic development of softer, quieter things. It’s making room for the Other.

Dance does this, too. Stillness is an active act. It’s not flump, kind of un-dancing into a lump, or dropping from exhaustion. It’s choosing to become still. When dancing collectively, it’s often used to shift attention to other dancers – one group becomes still so all attention and all energy shifts to the other group. Retreating from the center of attention, as a chosen willful action, is one of the techniques for supporting people who are dying, as well – the hospice staff is not the center of attention. The people who are facing the loss closest in are the center.

Willful stillness, strong stillness, doesn’t necessarily mean inaction, though. It means making ourselves invisible in the process – doing the dishes or taking out the trash or delivering food – so that others can be visible, centered, grow into the space they need in order to do what needs to be done. It’s how de-centering is done, right? Taking ourselves out of the limelight actively and with intent. It might mean rest, but it also might mean delivering water to the protesters instead of marching yourself.  It’s not stopping dancing. And it remains in conversation with the hurting world.  Movement and stillness, in conversation.  And then there’s the hexagram for Advance. I’m sure everyone can now guess that this is not a forceful, willful, assertive forward action.  But how do we advance receptively and softly?

Advance, in Daoism, is about allowing the light of others to lead us. It is receiving wisdom from those wiser than we are, being quiet and learning from those more experienced than we are, moving forward not as the leader but the follower of the movement.  In order to advance well, we have to have made space enough to find the light we want to follow. We have to withdraw first, be still, allow room, decenter. And then it becomes easier to perceive what direction to follow. Whose words to attend to. Which problem to address.

Right now, the world is chaotic and full of hurt and injustice.  We rage at it, throw ourselves at the newest wound, apply forceful action until we just can’t anymore and then collapse.  I see this cycle a lot among my friends and I absolutely slip into doing it, too. We rush in, get battered by the work, wipe out, retreat, feel guilty and ashamed, rush back in, get battered or scolded or disheartened again, retreat to do self-care, feel awful, get angry again, press into the work…

It doesn’t feel like dancing. It’s exhausting, and defeating. Dragging myself back to the fight because I know I cannot give up, willing myself forward, then collapsing when I cannot scrape the energy together, then willing myself forward again.  But sometimes I remember to dance.  

Willfully hold myself still, out of the center, and allow space to discover what is calling me forward, who is calling me forward. Find someone who has been shouting in the crowd of voices who maybe I have heard before but haven’t really listened to, or maybe they’re brand new … new tune and rhythm and lyrics and voices and instruments.  Then… I listen for the wisdom of experience and the clarity of expertise, let that grow brighter until I am clear enough to take the next step. Wait for the rhythm or the music of the conversation to draw me forward, attend, be receptive to what I didn’t know, allow that learning to draw me into motion.

Sometimes, that motion is a dance I’m not familiar with. Sometimes it’s wilder than I’m used to, sometimes I might feel like hmm, I might look a little foolish here with people who know these moves way better than I do. But I take a breath and keep moving. Throughout, when we are dancing this, it’s important to stay present in ourselves. We are not performing social justice – I am not showing off my values, I am just *being* me. This all comes deeply from ourselves… And our values are inextricable from our being.

 It’s also not all one speed, or run/stop, run/stop. This work is dynamic, speeding up or slowing down at different times, finding the tempo even as it changes. Following the music or the rhythm or responding to the others there in the work with us.  It’s dancing.  Movement and stillness, embracing dynamic transitions and cadence, in conversation, for and from our own being.   

This is something we can all do. And it’s not even hard, it’s just not something most of us were taught.  Be still by choice and intention.   Move receptively and responsively.

 Allow the pace and cadence to shift and change.  Participate in the conversation with a hurting world undergoing rapid change.  Be present in that, for and from ourselves.

Dancing through change is something we can do.  Dancing justice and compassion and a better world into being is who we are.   It is exactly who we are.

Keep dancing, and Blessed be.


May we all learn to move in the right time, 
And be still in the right time  
May we rest when it is time to rest, 
and act when it is time to act  
May we move to new rhythms without fear
and not care that we might look a little foolish, 
following along without knowing all the steps  
May we grow ever more confident 
In who we are
And what we believe
Creating the world we know can exist
One dancing step at a time