Amara Tabor-Smith (she/her/we) is a choreographer/performance maker and the artistic director of Deep Waters Dance Theater. On Tuesday September 14th as part of the CounterPulse Festival 2021, we will be hosting Embodied Divination, a movement-based workshop where participants are invited to “contemplate their body as oracle, as compass, and a site for social repair”.
CounterPulse’s Communications and Engagement Manager, Grey Tartaglione (they/them), sat down with Amara to talk more about the workshop and the intersection of dance and spiritual practice.
Grey Tartaglione: Tell us more about the Embodied Divination workshop at this year’s festival! What can people expect?
Amara Tabor-Smith: It’s a movement based workshop and it’s a workshop rooted in divination. My inspiration for this was looking at ways that we can actually dislocate the information of divination from our brains and actually see what our bodies have to say.
I’m an initiated priest in the Yoruba Lokumí and Ifa traditions and so I draw inspiration from these spiritual technologies. I have created my own divination system for the purpose of taking information, embodying it, and dialoguing about it. I want to look at how we can approach divination not just from our own personal experience but how we are connected to each other in the world and what our responsibility is to one another. I want to look at how we move in the world, how we interact with the world, and how we engage in collective work and responsibility.
The Yoruba Lokumí tradition has survived by adapting. The people who practiced it kept their traditions of revering the orisha by hiding them under the guise of the Catholic saints, or if they didn’t have their original sacred objects then they used other things. Let me be clear, that I have created a divination practice inspired by the Lukumí system for divination, but it is not a replacement for that system. I am experimenting with traditional concepts and practices, And I’m drawing from that. I’m using other items that are not traditional that stand in as avatars. it might be a little wild and unruly but that’s also part of my spiritual understanding– that chaos is necessary for creation.
So what will they experience? We will move our bodies and engage in dialogue throughout this process together. We’re going to sit with the information, we’re gonna move with the information and let it move us, and who knows!
GT: Can you talk about the relation between your personal dance practice and your spirituality?
ATS: There was a time when bringing spirituality into your work could be seen as imposing a dogma on your audience – that people have to believe what you believe – and I didn’t want that. You don’t have to believe in nothing but yourself and your heartbeat. So for that reason I kept it out of my work. But what started happening was it started insisting on coming to the fore. I wanted to keep it on the down low but it was like nah we’re not having that anymore, just come out about it.
I think the turning point was when I did a piece for my dance teacher who was like my father, Ed Mock, a beloved San Francisco figure who was one of the early casualties of the AIDS epidemic. He wanted a party and he was like “bring me back” so I did a big piece with twenty-plus people and said, “Listen, we’re gonna do a seance where we bring Ed back to the streets of San Francisco.” That was the first time where I was really like, “You don’t have to believe in what we’re doing, but you have to be willing to go along with the ride. And if you’re not that’s cool too. If this doesn’t resonate with you, don’t stay. But I have to do this because this is what he wants and this is what I believe.” And there was no going back at that point.
The works that happened after that took me even deeper. What has really come out for me is that my work is prayer in the sense that I’m trying to make performance work that shifts the vibration of oppression into liberation, wholeness, and wellbeing. I like to say that I’m a “death doula for the patriarchy” cuz that shit needs to end.I believe that they advent of the patriarchy was the beginning of gender oppression, the construction of race/racism, and most systems of oppression that we live under today. And ending the patriarchy and its systems requires energetic forces that are much larger than I am, so I’m only trying to be a vessel for that through the work.
GT: You did this workshop for us virtually back in December, how will being in person be different?
ATS: I don’t really know! To be physically in a space with people will have its own energy, which some folks will find really liberating but some folks may find intimidating. I’ve only done this workshop twice before the pandemic and I can’t even remember, because who remembers anything before a year and a half ago. We’ll possibly be a little awkward, maybe somewhat uncomfortable or feeling vulnerable, you know? “What do we do? What do we not do? How do we do this?” and I’m like, “Exactly!” Lets just be filled with wonder and questions and a whole lot of reverence and respect for what this time is asking of us.
GT: Anything else people should know ahead of the workshop?
ATS: There’s always agency around how people move in a space and how people take care of themselves in a space, and I’m super super supportive of that. It is a participatory experience though, so I really want people to be open to that process. Come ready to participate fully. Again, I encourage each person to take care of themselves in the process, while being open to the process and the experience. There will be time to assess and time for dialogue in smaller and larger groups to reflect on the experience.
GT: Do people need to know anything about oracles and Yoruba traditions going into it?
ATS: No previous knowledge! I will provide some context for the spiritual system that is inspiring this process, and I’m gonna provide more information and resources for folks who want to learn a little more about this cosmology if they want that. There will be some resources to pursue further.
Nobody has to have movement experience, but they must be willing to move. Nobody needs experience in divination, but I hope they will come willing to participate in that experience.
Amara Tabor-Smith’s Embodied Divination Workshop will take place in CounterPulse’s Mainstage on Tuesday, September 14th, 2021 from 2-4PM PDT.
Header photo by Jean Melesaine. Other photos by Robbie Sweeny.