The Incense Dance

Christina Alexander has been dancing her whole life, but the inspiration for her current style of dancing came to her in a dream.

Alexander says that when she was a production assistant for a dance company, she visited Jacob’s Pillow, a dance studio in Massachusetts founded by modern dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis. Her first night there she had a vivid dream of a woman dancing in white. The woman said to her, “the ashes are sacred.” The next day she saw a picture of St. Denis for the first time and realized she was the woman in her dream. The dance performed by St. Denis in Alexander’s dream was called the “incense” dance, for which St. Denis was renowned. This eerie connection led Alexander to learn more about St. Denis and veil dancing and eventually take up the art form.

To continue the spooky vibe, the Beaux Arts Gallery will be putting on a Halloween Festival on Oct. 25th and Nov. 1st when Alexander will be, as she puts it, “telling ghost stories.” Through dance she will be telling the stories of “tragic lovers” that haunt various places after their death. The stories of the folk songs that she dances to will probably be unfamiliar to most in the audience. One story is about a couple who haunts a Paris hotel. Another tells of a woman who haunts the Irish seaside.

None of the songs are in English, however, Alexander will explain the songs throughout her show, telling the ghostly stories behind the folk songs with the same ease as she tells the story of first seeing Ruth St. Denis in her dream.

Alexander started learning ballet as a child. In junior high and high school her interests extended to jazz and modern dance. In college, she was involved in musical theater before she joined the dance company that led her to discover barefoot veiled dancing, the style she practices today.

Alexander describes barefoot veiled dancing as a style of modern dance that incorporates modern dance’s freedom of movement but leaves room for fluidity and interpretation. Because of the mysterious veil, a tradition that started in the Middle East, the Beaux Arts Gallery, where she often performs, describes her as a “free-form exotic dancer.”

The inspirations for Alexander’s veil dancing are Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis, two of the most influential people in the history of modern dance. Both dancers were fascinated with belly-dancing and incorporated it into their work.

Modern dance began over 100 years ago as a reaction to ballet. It involves barefoot dancing and loose, flowing hair and costumes. The genre readily incorporated many Eastern styles of dancing. St. Denis’ unique contribution to dance was that she took veil dancing and other styles of dancing that were becoming popular on the vaudville circuit of the early 1900s and made the professional dance establishment take them seriously as an art form. Through her movement, Alexander hoped to give audiences a flavor of the countries that inspired her dances.

When St. Denis and her partner Ted Shawn opened up their dance studio, Jacob’s Pillow, in 1933, they began to pass on the legacy of Eastern dancing. Tom Reese, who runs the Beaux Art’s studio, had the opportunity to meet St. Denis and Shawn and work with them at Jacob’s Pillow. Alexander appreciates the knowledge and respect Reese has for her dancing. “Tom Reese is always encouraging the art form and praising my work, and it’s rare that I could find a venue to continue the tradition of barefoot veil dancing,” she said.

If you like Alexander’s Halloween performance, you can see her again as she dances most weekends at the Beaux Arts Gallery at 2635 Central Ave in St. Petersburg.