Donna Mejia — performer, choreographer, director — is all about movement. Personally. Collectively. Culturally. Her professional background in studying global dance traditions, and her spiritual path in studying the complex Urantia Book, has contributed to the blossoming of a woman who cares deeply about the human condition. She will be the keynote speaker at the 37th annual Women and Spirituality Conference on September 22-23 at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester, Minn.
Assistant professor of Theatre and Dance at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Donna Mejia specializes in contemporary dance, traditions of the African and Arab Diaspora, and emerging fusion traditions in Transnational Electronica. This genre provides a rich arena for the study of cultural imperialism, gender representation and electronic/digital globalization. She also is is an authorized instructor of the Brazilian Silvestre Modern Dance Technique and is a lauded representative of this esoteric study of dance after 20 years of practice.
Her research over the years has included interests in transnationalism and emerging models of global citizenship, ethics, integrity and cultural appropriation issues in dance fusion and movement transformation, movement training and specialization in yoga, and the dances of Brazil, Mexico, the Caribbean, West Africa, North Africa, Ethiopia, Northern India and American Modern Dance.
“I have known Donna as a dancer and scholar,” says Terri Allred, MTS, producer of the Women and Spirituality Conference. “She is a passionate advocate for women and a thoughtful speaker on the intersectionality of social justice, faith and personal expression. I am thrilled to have her join us this year as the keynote of the Women and Spirituality Conference.”
The Women and Spirituality Conference is a multi-faith gathering to celebrate diversity, spiritual experience and healing. It attracts women who are interested in social justice as an expression of their faith, contemplative spiritual practice and exploring different traditions. The weekend events include an opening and closing ceremony, keynote address and six workshop selections from 60 offerings. The conference also includes the following free and open to the public events: an exhibit area with more than 70 merchants, nonprofits and healers; and a Maker’s Space with opportunities to create art with Teaki Garcia.
Donna Mejia took time out of her busy schedule to converse with The Edge about her path in dance, spirituality and the soul.
How does your dance inform your spirituality and vice versa?
Donna Mejia: The practice of dance has shifted and evolved in its spiritual contributions to my life over time.
In my youth, studying dance forms from all over the globe made my world much bigger ideologically and cultivated an affection/endearment to human cultures beyond my nation-state reference point. To gain proficiency in the dances of cultures other than one’s own requires humility, thoughtfulness and nuanced observance skills. Contextualizing the movements with cultural study provided the opportunity to “try on” varying world views and value centers. That was profoundly informative for me. It disrupted my arrogance and dignified all members of the human family in my heart.
Mid-career I danced in ensembles that provided microcosm opportunities to learn about interpersonal dynamics, ego, collaboration and building enduring relationships. This proved critical in my personal development. Being part of a service-driven team cultivated high standards of excellence. That sense of labor-of-love kind of discipline has served me since.
In my early years as a soloist I experienced divorce, illness, racism and workplace toxicity that was like a tidal wave. Dance then became a therapeutic practice that shifted my perspective and provided natural pain management for my ailing body. Dance developed into a study of consciousness, defense patterns, non-verbal intelligence, personal sovereignty, self-worth and healing.
As I emerged and healed from those phases of physical illness and heartbreak, dance became a platform for storytelling and actualization of my inner self to the outer world. I discovered I am a humorist, a geek, an ambassador, an intellectualist, a humanist, a warrior, a sensualist, and a bonafide badass through my choreographic experiments. Audiences have been so incredibly generous with me, and every time I think it’s time to slow down or bow out, they inspire me to keep finding new things to explore as an artist. I’ll be 50 years old this year and never imagined I’d have patrons of all ages, nationalities, and life-paths as part of my creative and spiritual family.
At all times in my life, I observed my involvement in dance to be a methodical and organizing practice for the intellect, emotions and physical body, exponentially increasing the harmony between them with reliability.
I understand you are a Urantian scholar. Please tell us more about how your faith influences your life.
I do identify myself to be a student, researcher and interrogator of The Urantia Book. I consider myself too new to the material to qualify as a scholar, but I do utilize my training as an academic to study the material.
This 2,000+ page, compiled text intrigues me and challenges my thinking. I departed the Catholic Church in 1987 and devoted myself to non-denominational study of Source. The Urantia Book was introduced to me through the colorful writings of a brilliant free spirit: Timothy Wylie. There are many thrilling passages that make my heart and mind soar with inspiration and resonant truth. Conversely, there are a handful of segments that are cringe-worthy, incongruent and fallible/potentially corrupted as any other historical spiritual and religious text. It mirrors the complexity of our human family, and for that reason I have found it a worthy document to study.
I am fortunate to be in conversation with an outstanding study group of scholars, philosophical heavyweights and long-time investigators who also approach the text and its conflicted social history with healthy doses of critical thinking and radical honesty. The venerable Urantian scholar Merritt Horn directs the study group.
I observe that the best teachers in life give you appropriate prompts and tools to do your own problem solving, and this book does exactly that. My spirituality is primary in all that I do, think, create, practice and say. I rely on spirituality to enhance my understanding of life’s conundrums and situate my sense of self within those unfoldings. I know that I am “directed and protected” at all times.
I am exceedingly clear that all I’ve encountered in life has evolved me, and it is in my best interest to welcome all the good, bad and weirdness that comes my way with courage and directness. I am grateful to have learned that taking responsibility for the weirdness I project onto others is the most expeditious way to open healing possibilities. Most importantly, I now understand that mutuality and consent is important in both spiritual fellowship and spiritual ministry: brave and sincere choices espouse humility, actively seek paths to forgiveness, learn from life and others, and to love originates within someone’s deepest self. It is not dependent on age, traverse boundaries that divide us such as socio-economic standing, gender expression, educational endowment, or lifestyle choices.
Engaging spirituality through The Urantia Book, meditation, fellowship, dance — or any other spiritual practice — is utterly and intimately personal, an act of freewill collaboration with the Source within us. I treasure that gift of freewill as an educator, scholar and artist.
What will you be speaking about for your Keynote Address at the Women and Spirituality Conference?
I will be speaking about my adventures and bumbles as a feminist scholar, instructor and performer of movement, culture and the human condition. I’m excited to share what I researched about the role of women in public spirituality in the Neolitic era (4,000 – 7,000 B.C.E), and how that impacts our current standing in public religious life.
We’re going to be opening up the proverbial “can of worms.” I also have some very provocative discussion items to share from my studies of The Urantia Book. I’m hopeful that people will bring their curiosity and a gratuitous sense of humor to the talk!
What is the unique role of spirituality in the lives of women?
Well…I have an untested theoretical musing about that. I believe all humans receive an invitation to a spiritually insightful and enriching experience in their life, but not all respond affirmatively. I assert that women’s monthly experiences of menstruation have a curious side-benefit for many: women learn to stratify and layer their consciousness, bifurcating into at least two streams of continuous thought. We have the spotlight of consciousness focused on our social functioning in the outer world while also monitoring the sensations, menarche and related symptoms of our internal bodies. It is a rhythmic biological process that produces a monthly practice in subtle awareness. So I do believe that we have the frequent, prompted biological opportunity to practice nuanced internal awareness at a younger age than many males.
But really, I concede that I had to find some way of framing menstruation positively. It was always a painful drag for me! Through that shock and awe, I noted a heightening of my dreams and intuition during menstruation, and began to think of it as a spiritual practice to avoid the victimization and antagonistic rage against my own body that pain induced. I had to find a way to make it productive. I would be lying if as a mature, post-menopausal woman, I didn’t admit how joyous I am to have completed that phase of life! Our society truly forces women to “invisible-ize” that important part of their life by maintaining the status quo each month — and that felt unjust to me.
Ultimately, spiritual work feels very androgynous to me. The kind of work I do within my inner realms does not feel gendered. However, the ways in which it is actualized on this planet and read by others seems strongly stamped by the social coding of gender. One of my deepest yearnings is to see that biased lens deconstructed on a mass scale within my lifetime. I favor the movement to create genderless pronouns and now refuse to define attributes of personality as either masculine or feminine (i.e. strength, caring, courageousness, nurturing, etc.).
You travel around the world teaching dance. How do you think dance unites and distinguishes us?
Dance is a ubiquitous practice found amongst all human cultures (and some classes of animals, too)! There may exist legal or hegemonic practices aimed to limit the public expression of dance, but that doesn’t effectively stop people from doing it privately.
I define dance rather expansively as meaningful, patterned movement. It seems that dance has intrinsic value to the great majority of humans, and is utilized in a range of traditions throughout the globe: classical and contemporary, urban and rural, secular and transcendental, performance-based and therapeutically oriented.
If we look deeper into its social applications, we observe dance to be regarded by many global traditions as a natural emanation of human expression — no different or less important than the spoken word — crucial in work, celebration, religious observation, secular or sacred initiation, military defense, reconciliation in quarrels, rites of passage, healing for individuals and society, and direct connection to the esoteric and divine realms of existence. Dance does not necessarily need to be performed for others, or on a proscenium stage, to be a worthy endeavor and meaningful act. In this way, we are united as a human family by our connection to movement.
Dance distinguishes us from each other in how we all crave to move through the world in our own way, and for tremendously varied reasons. Personally, dance is the dominating language of my neurology and temperament. Movement is the resolving punctuation of an internal, tidal cascade of sensations, thoughts and energetic impulses. I have not found another way to process these personal variables with the same effectiveness, and would explode if I could not move!
Conversely, silence and stillness are equal in spiritual value to movement, and I’ve grown to appreciate that balance as a spiritual practice. For me, silence and stillness are not empty. They are charged with crucial information. Everything dances.
How does the process of dance connect individuals to the Universe?
There are many different perspectives/answers on that beautiful question. There are so many movement paths to explore our connection to something larger than ourselves.
In the Yoruba tradition, the ceremonial dancer builds a charge of energy until they become a virtual vortex; a doorway to parallel realities and a conveyer of counsel from other realms.
Contemplative movement traditions such as Tai Chi utilize movement like a stream, or flow of beneficial forces that we consciously step into for balance.
Repetitious movements accompanied by chants or rhythm alter and expand the consciousness of humans by synchronizing brainwaves between the hemispheres.
Electronic music dance events provide participants a sense of mutual experience, taking them out of their individuation and social isolation into a communal bond that is profoundly powerful.
Contact Improvisational Dance practitioners report a quickening of consciousness that endows the practitioner with sensorial intelligence and radical honesty; a ‘flow’ state that transcends social filters and encircuits movers in an act of intimacy that is nourishing and asexual.
Dance endures as a tool for expanded consciousness because it leverages our most looming question of being human: how do we navigate being conscious and self-aware while also negotiating embodiment? Dance provides us an arena for formulating positive association with embodiment beyond the survival issues of nourishment, sleep, physical affection, and aging. When we relinquish our social anxieties, dance gifts us the experience of thriving in our non-verbal intelligences, and we realize we are so much more than we assumed.
In theater onstage, what do live dancing performances offer the viewer that they cannot get from the written word, or even video?
I’ll bounce back to The Urantia Book to answer your great question. The book offers a new vocabulary term to us, Mota:
• 103:6.7 (1136.2) Mota is a supermaterial reality sensitivity which is beginning to compensate incomplete growth, having for its substance knowledge-reason and for its essence faith-insight.
• 103:7.13 (1139.5) Reason is the act of recognizing the conclusions of consciousness with regard to the experience in and with the physical world of energy and matter. Faith is the act of recognizing the validity of spiritual consciousness — something which is incapable of other mortal proof. Logic is the synthetic truth-seeking progression of the unity of faith and reason and is founded on the constitutive mind endowments of mortal beings, the innate recognition of things, meanings, and values.
• 5:4.4 (67.2) The domains of philosophy and art intervene between the nonreligious and the religious activities of the human self. Through art and philosophy the material-minded man is inveigled into the contemplation of the spiritual realities and universe values of eternal meanings.
When I observe someone move in the light of their inner truth (whether choreographed or improvised), I am honored to get myself out of their way and let that experience be holy ground or sanctuary for them. That poetic movement stirs a buoyancy in the heart that defies language. It transcends dogma. It injects a sacredness into the moment that commands breath and attention…and even tears. Perhaps we can liken it to the Spanish term duende? The Ontario Arts Council captured this essence to stunningly in their 2013 viral video: Ontario Arts Council.
What do women who study dance learn about their souls?
With humility, I can only respond by sharing what this woman has learned by dancing: We are imperfect, asymmetrical, flawed and utterly beautiful. We can manage more than we estimate. We are growing and evolving, each contributing something inherently valuable to the larger fabric of creation and Source in unseen ways.
Embodiment is not a hindrance to spiritual or intellectual growth. It can be harnessed as a tool to catapult growth and coherence when not vilified religiously or ideologically. The body is incapable of untruth, and provides the most honest reflection one could hope for in a life companion on this journey.
How has dance changed the consciousness of women you have mentored?
I cannot answer for them, but a surprising percentage of them have gone on to life-work in therapeutic and healing practices: physical therapy, yoga therapy, conscious and wholesome sex work, advocation for under-served population, tremendous art-making, nursing, food justice, social justice work and more than I could have ever imagined. I have deep admiration for my former students, and regard myself as blessed to vicariously benefit from their ongoing explorations. They really keep me young at heart.
Here’s a quote from one of my blog articles about being a teacher: “If serving as a teacher of dance, be generous in spirit. If you are not emotionally prepared for one (or many) of your students to eclipse you in stature or financial reward, then please get out of teaching. Remember that you are not responsible for all of your students’ blockages or challenges, nor can you take credit for their personal successes. Teachers are guides who point the way forward. If done well, students will always be grateful and teachers receive the respect that gratifies and dignifies all of the effort.” (Excerpted from “It’s Not Just a Dance).
How does dance and movement arts contribute to elevating the social consciousness of culture?
Dance shows us how unproductive shame is. In my view, it will be a beautiful day when we stop trying to motivate social cohesion through fear, conformation and shame. Dance is frequently misused as a tool of this social shaming, and many people tell me they know they “are bad dancers” and wouldn’t wish to be seen dancing in public without getting some classes or training!
May I please challenge that right here?! I personally refuse to let dance be fashioned into a hegemonic tool for social shaming. Worry less about what the body looks like, and affirm what it can do. Take good care of it, not to achieve a certain look, but rather to fully actualize all of the creativity that wells up within. Aligning oneself with popular notions of what is alluring is a losing game with no finish line. Contrary to popular sentiment, dance is not about beauty.
May I please share a quote from dancer/anthropologist Pearl Primus here? “People who truly dance have never bartered the fierce freedom of their souls, never strangled their hunger for rhythmic movement, nor frustrated their joyous physical response to music and song.”
Dance gifts us ourselves draped in sweat, wrapped in joy, drenched in communal connection, lavished in the euphoria of music, rhythm or silence, clarified and renewed from the inside out. Our spirits swell to the surface and we breath and surge into our next moment of living with greater clarity. That seems a worthy endeavor to revisit on occasion. Those are the kind of people I crave to be around, so please elevate me to where those folks are!
Thank you for great questions, and thank you to your readers for taking the time to read the thoughts I’ve shared. May you have many nights of fierce and rapturous dance in your lives. Worry less about what the body looks like, and affirm what it can do. Take good care of it, not to achieve a certain look, but rather to fully actualize all of the creativity that wells up within. Aligning oneself with popular notions of what is alluring is a losing game with no finish line. Contrary to popular sentiment, dance is not about beauty.