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By Sarah Hodges

I remember watching live musicians and performers, ever since I was young, and feeling that their songs and movements understood me. That is to say, I felt often like a ‘stranger in a strange land’ out in everyday life. The way I sensed the world didn’t quite line up with how others around me seemed to experience it. Then my family would take me to a show to hear beautiful music or watch dancers jump and move across a stage. The performers expressed a way of feeling the world instead of thinking the world. And as both are valuable, for my little self in my younger years (and still), I suddenly felt less alone amongst those who predominantly move from within the heart of their felt aliveness.

Every live show and performance I’ve seen since then, from symphony concerts to dance shows, recitals, and plays, leaves me with a deepened appreciation for the beauty in our shared humanity. In recent months, getting to perform myself and portraying a powerful deity of Hawai’i, I’m reminded of what a great and exhilarating mystery it is to be human.

This past weekend, I got to see a performance by five musicians and dancers from the remote T’boli tribe of southern Philippines. They were dressed in bright red, white, and black checkered fabric, colorful beaded jewelry, head wrappings for the men, and beaded hair decorations for the women. The dancers moved with fluidity, their feet lightly pattering on the ground with gentle precision. Right behind them sat the musicians, comfortably arranged on the floor, their wooden instruments placed between their legs and feet.

The group, Helobung, meaning ‘never-ending joy’, expresses the spirits of birds, harvest, and courtship through dance and song. I’m struck by a feeling of harmony as I watch their hands smoothly waving like a bird’s wings. Their heads tilt slightly from side to side keeping rhythm with the drummer. Their movements blend with the nature surroundings of the outdoor auditorium in Manoa Valley. 

Before beginning each dance, they acknowledge the sacred. Each performer approaches the drummer who sits on a mat in the middle of the stage and touches the drum with one foot. How unusual for us in the West! They explain in the program that in T’boli culture all things have a spirit. When they touch the drum they give their respect to the spirit of the instrument. 

I watch intently. Little by little they transport me to a familiar feeling from when I was a child, observing the presence and focus of performers as if it were the spring water to quench an inner thirst in me – a wish to reach out beyond the general state of being in daily life. Perhaps this very human need, the inner call for feeling expansive beauty, to feel life’s mystery in our fingertips, is part of the reason most cultures have some kind of performance art embedded in their traditions. 

The rare honor to see this group, I later learned, is thanks to a program called Center Stage. Something inside me jumps with excitement to learn about this organization. A program built to uplift and share arts from around the world! I’m happy to learn that the US federal government helps fund this non-profit. Through art, there exists such a potential for finding unity amongst differences. I wonder, how many more little children and even adults might feel less isolated and more understood if they could connect to other human beings through the performing arts? 

Over the past years, I’ve developed a love of performance from the other side. In my most recent role, portraying the Hawaiian goddess of fire, lava, creation/destruction, I remembered the child who had not felt a place in this ‘strange land’. This little child was finally let out her song, in its unique and fiery way. The stage offered a space for the un-ordinary, the artistry of life, the chance to boldly explore what it means to be human.

I wouldn’t have guessed all those years ago as a young girl, that I’d walk in the shoes of a performer myself, and see what it’s like to be on the other side of that expression. I felt fully connected with the audience. My character’s charged presence resonated through the space to them. The audience’s energy infused my dance. The intent silence of the crowd in front of me swept into my breath, filling my movement as I suddenly reached out to one side of the stage in a spurt of lava-like eruption. 

For the sake of that little child within me, I love knowing that a government program supports the wonder and artistry of our humanity, from near and far corners of our world. 

Read the rest of this month’s newsletter HERE!

Renée Tillotson

Renée Tillotson, Director, founded Still & Moving Center to share mindful movement arts from around the globe. Her inspiration comes from the Joy and moving meditation she experiences in the practice of Nia, and from the lifelong learning she’s gained at the Institute of World Culture in Santa Barbara, California. Engaged in a life-long spiritual quest, Renée assembles the Still & Moving Center Almanac each year, filled with inspirational quotes by everyone from the Dalai Lama to Dolly Parton. Still & Moving Center aspires to serve the community, support the Earth and its creatures, and always be filled with laughter and friendship!

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This post is also available in: 日本語 (Japanese)