Kamaladevi Beswick: Dancing Beyond Self

Kamaladevi and Rita Deierlein perform a song by Swami Kriyananda, “That Emerald Isle,” at the Ananda Sangha temple in Palo Alto, CA. Click to enlarge.

Kamaladevi Beswick was born in Marin County, on the rugged coast of northern California, across the Golden Gate from San Francisco.

The coastal mountains encompass some of Earth’s most beautiful natural spaces, and Kamaladevi’s roots as a dancer are deeply connected with the ocean and forests of her native Marin.

“I’ve always been dancing,” she recalls. “I vividly remember being this tiny kid dancing on the beach and in the waves. That freedom I felt as a little child has always been in me when I dance.”

When Kamaladevi watched the 1972 Olympics as a young girl she was deeply moved by the performances of Olga Korbut, the gold medal-winning Russian gymnast.

“Olga was very special. When she performed a back flip on the balance beam for the first time in a public competition, we all thought, ‘That was impossible! – how did she do that? How did she land on that little four-inch beam?’

“She put gymnastics on an entirely new trajectory, and lots of little girls around the world saw it and said, ‘That’s what I want to do!’ Soon gymnastics studios were sprouting up everywhere and the programs were filling instantly.”

She was also inspired by Peggy Fleming, the American skater who won Gold at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, and she began taking classes in gymnastics, ballet, and ice skating.

“I loved ballerinas – I was in awe of what they could do, but I remained focused in gymnastics and began competing in all of the events: balance beam, bars, floor, and vault.”

In our conversation, Kamaladevi reveals her spiritual journey as a gymnast and dancer.

By the time I reached high school I was growing fast, and I was becoming too tall to be successful as a gymnast, so I decided to leave the sport.

Nevertheless, those years in gymnastics fueled my love for dance. The gymnastics routines are filled with dance, so it’s important to know many styles, from ballet, to jazz, to modern and interpretive, in order to be able to choreograph movements that people haven’t seen and that will ensure that your routines are original.

I always felt that my body was happiest when it was dancing. Moving with grace was something that came naturally and made sense to me. As a child, running and leaping through the air was pure joy, and while I don’t do it as often these days, it’s still a great feeling. There’s a wonderful freedom in moving with inspiration from the inside, and being completely immersed in the moment.

After leaving gymnastics, I stayed with dance for many years, and only gave it up after I had twin boys and had to switch to less time-consuming activities to help balance my stress, like running and walking. But the desire to dance was always calling, and as the kids grew I began taking classes and performing again.

It was then that I began to notice a strange pattern. I would enroll in a class, and after six months I would find that I just couldn’t go on. At first it was confusing and upsetting to me, and it happened several times. The teachers were all excellent – they were talented and creative. I wasn’t sure why it was happening, but looking back now, I can see that I was changing inwardly, and that it was a transformation in how I felt about dance.

Hip-hop music had become popular and the dance classes were filled with the moves that go along with that music, and I just couldn’t do it. It didn’t feel right in my body, and the music was disruptive to my energy. I would look around and see that the other dancers seemed to be loving it, and it made me wonder if I was simply losing my passion for dance, or perhaps I was just getting too old.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but now I understand that I was being guided to find my own path of dance, choreography, and movement.

As a student in someone’s class, you’re doing the instructor’s choreography, to their music, and you’re imbibing their energy, and it can be fine, until you begin to feel a need to follow your own inspiration and your soul’s journey.

I began taking yoga classes at the Ananda Center in Palo Alto, and when I started coming to Sunday services I met Kristy Norfleet, who was directing a major production of a play by Swami Kriyananda, The Jewel and the Lotus. I volunteered to help, because I thought it would be a nice stretch for me, and when I mentioned to Kristy that I enjoyed dance, her eyes lit up and she carved out some scenes where we could insert some form of dance. She then asked me to dance a solo, and I had enough experience to know that I would need to find some new training, because it was clear to me that it would be very different from the style of dance I was used to.

Mainstream dancing usually has a competitive energy attached to it, and I knew I’d have to change my understanding in the context of this new setting, and that I would have to get some help to figure out where it was leading me.

Jyotish and Devi guided me to connect with Avital Miller, who would be teaching a workshop at The Expanding Light called “The Dancer as a Channel,” so I signed up, because I thought she might be able to help me understand how to approach this new path that I was being invited to follow.

The workshop was amazing. It was very different from anything I’d done in dance. Avital spent a great deal of time helping us get comfortable with doing our own improvised dance movements – for example, she had us move for fifteen minutes without any music, just tuning into whatever our bodies wanted to do.

Fifteen minutes is a very long time for an exercise like that, but it was a great experience, and it was the first time since I was a little kid dancing on the beach in Marin that I was able to feel my own divine dance coming through me again. It was a beautiful discovery, to realize that the original inspiration was still there.

Avital asked us to put together some choreography for a song of Swami Kriyananda’s, and while we were rehearsing she casually remarked, “If you want to perform it for an audience…”

To help us prepare for the performance, she raised her arm upward and extended it forward and said, “There is God…and now you are dancing just for God.”

It was the first time I’d heard anyone say anything like that. And between those two things, feeling a sense of my soul moving through my body again, and being asked to focus on God, it flipped a switch for me.

As the performance drew near, I was completely terrified. I had to rehearse and rehearse, and then I had to go back to my room and do yoga postures and pranayams and anything I could think of to calm down, because I would be dancing for God, and it was an entirely new and undiscovered mode.

I was thinking, “You’ll be dancing for God, and you’d better be really good!” (laughs) And to make it even more terrifying, people would be watching us dance for God.

It seemed to be such a big, overwhelming challenge, but it turned out beautifully, and I came away knowing that I had a starting point to begin working with Kristy on The Jewel and the Lotus.

I began putting together the choreography for a group of nine dancers. Hardly any of them had danced before, and people always feel very self-conscious dancing for the first time, and they almost always feel that they aren’t good dancers. But it was tremendous fun, and very powerful and sweet to help them work through those feelings. It was a privilege to go into that space with them and help them grow – they were so trusting, and they worked so hard to memorize the movements and understand how to do them well.

Preparing to dance the solo was a tremendous challenge, because I was feeling that I would be moving all alone up there on the stage. But I knew it had to be done, because I had to start learning to step through that fear.

For the first time in my life as a dancer I felt guided not to choreograph a particular solo in advance, but just let it happen in the moment. And of course I knew that I had to prepare very deliberately to be ready for the moment. Because if you just get up there thinking “I’ll let it flow,” it hardly ever works. Even if you’re deeply attuned as a dancer, you have to work hard to get ready to be spontaneous.

While rehearsing, I would dance to the piece while I tried to tune into how my body wanted to move, and as I noticed certain movements coming through I would think, okay, this is a new part of my kit, and when the performance comes I’ll have this to draw on.

The day before the performance, I was so nervous that it nearly overwhelmed me. I was meditating and asking for help and guidance, and praying for calmness and support and wisdom. And then several of my gurubhais gave me beautiful advice.

One of them said, “It’s not about what you do, it’s about the vibration that comes through you.” He said, “The people of Ananda are so forgiving and appreciative of whatever you’re giving them that it’s sure to be a very positive environment, and when you’re doing something special like this for other people you’re bound to feel a lot of support.”

Kamaladevi and Rita rehearse.

Another friend said, “You wouldn’t be in this position if God hadn’t wanted you to do this.” And a third friend said, “Swami always wanted to have more of the arts at Ananda, and more dance, and it’s really, really important that you’re doing this.”

Those three gems made a huge difference. They helped me relax, and then I told Master that he was going to have to push me onto the stage. (laughs) When the solo began, we would be standing on a raised dais, waiting for the music to start, and I said to him, “You’re gonna have to push me again, because I’m not going to want to move my feet.”

I would be standing with my back to Master’s picture, and I imagined him pushing me forward at the level of  the heart. It was the only way I could think of to tune into his inspiration in the moment. “Okay, Master, you’ve got to do this.” And he did, and I was able to take the first step, which led to all the other steps, and the dance felt beautiful. It felt wonderfully fluid, as if a divine gift was coming through.

A close friend was sitting in the front row, and when I glanced at her I saw that her eyes were sparkling. We felt a clear exchange, and she said afterward, “Watching you dance, I fell in love.” And, you know, these are unfathomable things.

I had almost never seen myself dance. I had watched a recording once, decades earlier, but for the most part you never truly know what is coming through. But when Rita and I were working on a dance to Swami’s song “That Emerald Isle,” we decided to film ourselves so we could remember our choreography at the next rehearsal. So we made a little iPhone recording and we were amazed when we played it back because we had no idea that the dance was so beautiful.

It helped me see what was flowing through us; it was an inner soul quality in the movement that felt as if it was coming from divine inspiration.

For the performance, I wanted to be free of nervousness, so I did an hour of pranayams, just long, deep breathing, and I found to my delight that it changed the whole inner dynamic. When I got up to dance with Rita, I felt completely calm and free to give. And that’s the whole point for me now. Because when a true spirit of giving is there, it’s pure joy to offer the dance to the audience and to God.

2 thoughts on “Kamaladevi Beswick: Dancing Beyond Self”

  1. What a joy to read your story, Karen! The lines from one of Swami’s songs, came to mind as I read and I heard “God’s love, God’s love flows freely through me; from darkness and doubt, forever I’m free!”
    Thank you for sharing your experience. My heart was dancing all the while I was reading. Master’s Joy!

    Reply

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