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A Review of

Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance

by Iris J. Stewart




In this book, Iris Stewart explores women's use of dance as a form of spiritual expression, both historically and in modern times.



Fact Sheet


Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance


Iris J. Stewart




Inner Traditions International


Non-Fiction: Dance History



Number of Pages


Published In





This book looks at the role of women's dance as spiritual expression both from a historical view and also from a modern-day view.

The book opens with a "herstory" of the link between dance and females (goddess, priestess, normal woman) in a sacred context, and explores how centuries of change and the rise of patriarchal religions led to the loss of knowledge regarding women's spiritual heritage. I find it intriguing to see how Stewart looked behind folk dances and modern-day games such as Ring Around the Rosy for clues to ancient sacred dance traditions. Stewart also reveals some fascinating insights into how the meanings of certain words such as "virgin" have significantly changed over the centuries.

The second half of the book looks at sacred dance today, discussing modern practices, the historic roots they come from, and suggestions for people who would like to explore spiritual dance for themselves.

The book closes with reference material: a list of resources, footnotes, bibliography, and index.

Throughout Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance, Stewart examines many cultures worldwide, including the Middle East and North Africa. She covers both ancient legacies and rituals still performed today - the Guedra of the Tuareg Blue People, the zar, and ancient Egyptian dances to Hathor. In the WomanDance section, Stewart discusses both the historical use of selected belly dance moves to ease labor in a sort of birth ritual and how women can use the movements to create our own rites for today.



Is It Right for You?


You Will Probably Enjoy This Book If...

  • You are interested in exploring the use of dance for spiritual expression or liturgical praise.
  • You are interested in spiritual practices of women around the world.
  • You have a strong interest in the cultures that pre-dated the book-oriented patriarchal religions.


This Book Probably Isn't Right for You If...

  • Your interest in belly dance is strictly secular in nature.
  • Your interest in world dance traditions centers less on the Middle East and North Africa, more on other cultures such as India.



What I Liked, What I Didn't


What I Liked:

  • The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs (many of them in color) and drawings, making it a visual feast.
  • Some of the illustrations depict ancient statues and drawings, while others show modern-day spiritual dance leaders.
  • The historical research is very credible, and presented in a way that clearly demonstrates that the author has looked behind the surface. I find Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance to be much stronger in its study of ancient dance forms than the book Serpent of the Nile.
  • Stewart avoids linking the benefits of spiritual dance to any particular belief system. I've seen other writers focus on the "goddess" aspects of sacred dance, causing some Christians to e-mail me to ask whether belly dancing might be incompatible with their belief systems. Stewart, in contrast, acknowledges the historical origins of sacred dance in pre-Christian cultures, but emphasizes that dancers today of all faiths can experience its benefits within the context of their own faith.
  • Throughout the book, after discussing an aspect of a historical dance form, Stewart includes a section titled, "Now Let Us Dance" which offers recommendations on how modern-day women can experiment with sacred dance. This approach brings the historical research to life by involving the readers in thoughts of how to apply dance to their spiritual lives today.
  • In her research, Stewart turned to several sources whom I consider to be top researchers in the field of Near Eastern dance, including the dancer Morocco, Andrea Deagon, Aisha Ali, Eva Cernik, Elizabeth "Artemis" Mourat, and Edwina Nearing.
  • The 7-page bibliography offers pointers to a large number of additional sources for readers who find that they're hungry for more information. I'm not familiar with all the items cited in the list, but I have read some of them, and the ones that I'm familiar with are definitely credible researchers.
  • The "Resources" section offers a guide to where a reader could look for instructors, workshops, and other assistance in further pursuing sacred dance today. For anyone inspired by the "Now Let Us Dance" sections, these resources offer pointers to connect with others who share an interest in spiritual dance.


What I Didn't Like:

  • I found the index to be somewhat weak. There were a number of times when I wanted to refer back to something I had seen in the book (for example, Guedra), but couldn't find applicable index listings.
  • Some topics receive only cursory treatment, topics I would have liked to see being explored in more depth. Admittedly, a researcher always needs to pick and choose from a large volume of information and often can't include everything, but there were a number of times that I was hungry to know more about a particular area.
  • Some of Stewart's sources on Near Eastern dance are ones I consider to be not so credible in their research skills.




This book can speak to women on many levels. For those who would like to integrate their spiritual lives with their love for dance, it offers both validation and practical suggestions for how to start. For those who want to explore the history of women as it existed before the rise of the patriarchal religions, this book offers extensive illustrations and solid research that I haven't seen in any of the other books of this sort. The book can be appreciated as either a historical and cultural tour of dance around the world, or as a guide to using dance to express your own spirituality today.

Stewart's knowledge of Middle Eastern and North African dance is strong, and several of the people she has interviewed to write her chapters on dance from this region are people I find to be very credible. She touches on dances from other parts of the world as well, but her knowledge of those other regions seems to be less strong than her knowledge of Near Eastern.




My contact with the author has been minimal, just a couple of e-mails exchanged related to my review of the book. I purchased the copy of the book that was used for this review.



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