Healing the spirit through dance


By Ruth Vincent

‘Skin of Glass’ is a memoir of divine and human love

In her recently published memoir, “Skin of Glass: Finding Spirit in the Flesh,” ballerina-turned-Sufi Dunya Dianne McPherson, explores dance as a spiritual practice. McPherson, 55, a longtime resident of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, was compared to a modern-day Isadora Duncan, but ditched dance fame to become a bellydancer, a Sufi mystic, and the creator of Dancemeditation, a spiritual practice of awareness movement in which the body is viewed as a teacher. This is her first book.

I met McPherson several years ago in one of her Dancemeditation workshops. I was mesmerized by McPherson’s dancing, her almost inhumanly liquid spine, but more than that I was impressed by her teaching abilities to help someone like myself, with no dance background whatsoever, learn to be more comfortable in my body. When her memoir was published I wondered if McPherson would be able to convey as a writer what I knew she could convey as a performer and teacher.

McPherson succeeds admirably in the almost impossible task she sets for herself: putting into words what is wholly nonverbal—dance, and describing what is utterly indescribable—mystical experience. Boldly experimenting with writing style and form, taking risks most writers wouldn’t dare, she writes her memoir from the body, not just about it. Chapters entitled “Eyes,” “Spine, “Legs and Crotch,” and “Skin” explore the differing consciousness of each body part, each becoming a launch for memory which further unravels her life story.

The memoir begins with McPherson as a young dancer, pirouetting under her father’s critical gaze and secretly starving herself to meet the demands of her ballet teachers. McPherson has all the outward signs of success in her field, but injury and a growing spiritual restlessness lead her within to study Sufism with a charismatic Iraqi Sufi master. He gives her the Sufi name ‘el Dunya,’ which means ‘world’ as in the physical universe. Initially McPherson balks at the name, asking him if she could have a moniker that’s more obviously ‘spiritual’?

“Where do you think the spirit is?” he replies.

The name becomes synonymous with McPherson’s earthy spirituality, one that doesn’t reject the body.

When I asked McPherson about her intent in writing her memoir, she told me that she had initially penned it with a very small audience in mind—namely her own community of professional dancers and Sufis. However, since the book’s publication, McPherson says she has been surprised and gratified by the “wide range of readers who have responded to its message…the mother who read it with her teenage daughter and how it became a way for them talk together about respecting her body and her sexuality in a way that reached beyond morality into who each truly was…the elderly woman at the library who told me she had never thought much about her body until she read my book…the woman scientist who didn’t think of her self as spiritual, through the embodied nature of my journey she opened to that aspect of herself …or the memoir-loving librarian who really loves “Skin of Glass” as memoir.”

Like a good dancer, McPherson begins her book with a slow warm-up. The first few chapters on her early youth resemble a scientist’s observations—painfully detailed, heady, tedious—but the writing sharply accelerates once she undertakes Sufi study. Her stream of consciousness prose creates the bodily sensations of movement meditation. In the spiritual tradition of Sufism, where the Divine is often referred to as the “Beloved,” “Skin of Glass” is also a love story. Endearingly frank about her insecurities, McPherson reveals her increasing trust in letting another human being love her, and this trust parallels her growing belief in the Divine. It’s a tale of both the awkwardness and the ecstasy of learning about Divine love in the arms of a very human partner. McPherson is at her best when writing about mysticism and sex, and ultimately the two are inseparable. Her prose style echoes Rumi’s poetry in the sensuality of spiritual experience:

When we kiss where does the kiss begin? Is it when my lover leans toward me and I smell a change in the air, then his scent? Or is it when the conversation shifts temperature, ceases to bound forward, where it halts slightly… his body seeming to grow dense and planted before torquing in my direction?…Is it when our mouths, having meshed like greased gears, find a sucking rhythm, or is it when the tongues meet, scissoring like the thighs of tango dancers? Or is the kiss only truly a kiss when our touching skins melt… amoebic and formless, our minds slide inside the sensation? Is it when we no longer count who is leading and who is following, when we are mixed into simultaneity?… Where did I say “yes” or he say “yes”?….Was there ever a place where the tentative “maybe” was discarded and my answer to him was all “yes” and the “yes” was abandonment to timelessness, a complete surrender? Is there ever a complete surrender?

There’s an unflinching honesty in the midst of all this poetry. McPherson resists the memoir genre’s temptation: to simplify the ambiguity of her life. She makes no final judgment on the Sufi community that shaped her. “We were westerners seeing what we hoped or feared in a culture we would never fathom.” She acknowledges both the spiritual gift of her Sufi training, and that she was raped by her Sufi master, the same Sufi master who gave her her name. Unlike other memoirs, McPherson tells painful stories from the voice of her body, rather than psychoanalytically.

Her writing heals like a tribal trance dance. McPherson’s memoir has the unfinished quality of a life still being examined, an author still very much alive and kicking. This is mysticism for New Yorkers: a non-fluffy, erotic, and startlingly honest memoir.

“Skin of Glass: Finding Spirit in the Flesh” can be purchased online at dancemeditationbooks.com, amazon.com, or at the Integral Yoga Institute (227 W. 13th Street; 212-929-0586). McPherson teaches regular classes and workshops in Dancemeditation, including a 5-day intensive in NYC November 6-10. For a schedule of upcoming workshops, visit dancemeditation.org