So what has heel-work to music got to do with the lost feminine? What even is the lost feminine? Here's my thoughts.
I’ve moved house recently and I was unpacking boxes in the room that was to become my office. As I unpacked, a book fell off the shelf and landed at my feet. The book was “The Woman and the Alabaster Jar” by Margaret Starbird.
“Interesting” I thought. This is a book I had read, and I had two others by the same author that I hadn’t got round to. Maybe I was being nudged to read them?
A few minutes later a postcard fell out from a pile of papers.
It was a postcard from Provence, of ‘Grotte Sainte-Marie-Madeleine’. Minutes later, a couple more postcards slipped to the floor. Two more pictures from the same Grotto in Provence.
I remembered visiting the grotto and buying the postcards on a holiday in Provence over 10 years ago. Legend has it that the grotto was where Mary Magdalene had lived to the end of her life.
Putting it together
Too many 'nudges' for me to ignore. There is always a hidden meaning if I care to look for it. I promised myself that I would sit down later to understand what the links might be.
I started to re-read ‘The Woman and the Alabaster Jar’ looking for more clues. Rather than try and describe what the book is about in my own words, I’ll share Margaret Starbird’s first two sentences with you:
‘Institutional Christianity, which has nurtured Western Civilization for nearly two thousand years, may have been built over a gigantic flaw in doctrine – a theological “San Andreas Fault”: the denial of the feminine. For years I had a vague feeling that something was radically wrong with my world, that for too long the feminine in our culture has been scorned and devalued. But it was not until 1985 that I encountered documented evidence of a devastating fracture in the Christian story.’
On page XXII of the Preface I found the link to the postcards from Provence, with the following quote
‘The restoration of the balance of opposites, the foundation of classical philosophy must have been understood as necessary for the well-being of civilization. The cult of the feminine flourished in Provence in the 12th Century’
There was the link. I was being encouraged to consider the loss of the ‘feminine’ side of our culture in my own ‘search for truth’. Having received this nudge, I went on to read the other two books: "Mary Magdalene, Bride in Exile" and "The Goddess in the Gospels". More aspects of the same message, including details of Margaret Starbird's own journey. Sometimes I read things that just ring true. Its as though I am being told something I already knew but had forgotten. So it was with these books. I found the books deeply healing. And they had me reflecting on male and female energies and the balance between the two.
Male and Female Energies (or right and left brain!)
Regarding the imbalance of male and female energies, I certainly do share that feeling that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. Personally, as a woman, I do not feel as worthy as a man in this world. I tell myself that I am equal but deep down there is still part of me that doesn’t believe it. I don’t think that this belief is related to my upbringing. Growing up I was encouraged to be the best I could be, independent of gender. My sister and I were given similar opportunities to my brother. It seems that the discomfort is something deeper than personal experience in this lifetime.
Furthermore, as a human being in our society, I feel that I am encouraged to be logical and rational thinking, that its important to focus on goals and winning. This is often described as examples of masculine energies, or ‘left-brain’ thinking. It seems there is less open encouragement to talk about feelings, the importance of gut instincts and intuition or to look at things symbolically. These traits can be described as feminine energies, or right-brained ways of thinking. The latter are skills you might have and use,on the quiet. If you talk about them openly you risk being referred to as a ‘crazy crystal lady’, or maybe a ‘soft socialist’ (an insult lobbed at Jeremy Corbyn, the current leader of the labour party in the recent UK General elections!). But then again, maybe I worry too much about what other people think.
I would like to emphasise in this discussion that I am talking about masculine and feminine energies, not inequalities between men and women. To be balanced all human beings, all societies, all sentient beings need masculine and feminine energies. It is my personal view that the inequalities between men and women across the world, and possibly other problems, occur because these energies are out of balance.
So what had this to do with Hounds Connect and dogs?
My work is on the relationship between our (human) emotional health and how it links to our relationship with our dogs. Thinking about the imbalance between male and female energies I wonder if there is a connection to the growing dog-ownership in our societies. Are more of us drawn to have dogs in our lives as a way to connect with our feelings that we are otherwise denying ourselves?
Is there a growing problem with dog behaviour? It would seem from what I read and hear about that there is. Is it due to a suppression of our own true feelings? Are these suppressed feelings being expressed by our dogs? Or is it that some of us find it difficult to relate to our dogs because we have turned down our feeling, intuitive senses. Or is it a combination of the two?
For me personally I believe there is a link. I have never been an intuitive dog handler/trainer/partner. My relationships with dogs is a constant challenge, but paradoxically,one that I wouldn't be without! I'm constantly learning to experiment and go by my own intuition with my dogs. In doing so I am unlearning habits of a lifetime: follow instruction; refer to 'the manual', or a book or an expert!
Heel-work to Music
My recent introduction into 'heel-work to music' with Jack, my hamiltonstövare, has been giving me an opportunity to learn more.
I have been intrigued by the discipline of ‘dancing with dogs’ for a while. I have given up the idea that I will ever be able to walk my hound safely off lead and I was looking for some other activity that would help us develop our relationship together. Towards the end of last year, after a few false starts, I plucked up the courage to give it a go.
I signed up with a trainer, Heather Smith. I find Heather hugely enthusiastic about Heel-work to Music and encouraging people into the discipline. She is widely involved in training and judging internationally. In addition, she is one of those mentors whose energy and encouragement is compelling. In other words, she can have you signing up for anything! Jack and I started to attend some of Heather's training classes. I went along to watch a local competition. Interesting, I thought, but I won't be taking it that seriously. I'll never be able to do that with my hound. For starters, you aren’t allowed to have any food on you!
We also went to a workshop Heather had organised with Attila Szkukalek (check out his Charlie Chaplin routine).
And Jack and I mucked about a bit at home – combining a bit of clicker training, Natural Dog Training, Gun dog ideas and now Heel-Work to Music.
And....a few months later I found myself booked to compete in a ‘Freestyle’ competition, at Starters level!
Oh dear. It was OK when I was just messing about, but having to work towards the goal of a competition brought up my issues.
I was worried if this was the 'right' work for Jack. What if I was asking him to do things he wasn’t interested in?
Was it fair, doing what I wanted to do? I mean, dancing with your dog, when he wants to be out hunting deer?
And dancing, really what practical purpose does that serve? Isn’t it all a bit self-indulgent?
How does this compare to Natural Dog Training, where the emphasis is on teaching the dog where to put his energy, getting him to give you his 'bite'? Was it compatible with that work?
These are the sorts of questions and self-criticisms I struggled with. Standing back and looking at them they seem like clear signs of judgemental, left-brain dominant thinking (yes, and that is a an example of more judgement!)
Difficulties at the practical level, Jack is very ‘sociable’ and is excited when he meets other dogs. Our relationship isn’t such that he will come to me 'no matter what'. That’s why I’m drawn to do the work, to build our relationship. My coping mechanism is to avoid putting myself in those situations. How were we going to be able to do anything indoors with other dogs and not cause chaos?
At the Attila workshop there were some emotional outbursts when things started to go a bit pear-shaped - from me! Other dogs’ were more interesting than doing a leg weave with me for a liver treat. The refreshment table did very nearly get trashed! The very things I had been worrying about, upsetting other people and dogs. I am very grateful to Attila for convincing me to persevere and to the other students for being so kind and understanding. We didn't actually get barred or arrested.
Planning and more anxiety
With the date set for the competition I had some work to do. I had to choose the music. I had to choose the tricks. I had to choreograph the routine and I had to work with Jack to make it happen. I had to develop a theme, and come up with a costume. It was all on me, no one else could tell me what to do. And people would be watching. And people would be judging. My stomach churned (and still does) just at the thought of it. There was to be no food treats and there would be no lead! My whole training regime relies on liver treats, hot-dogs and a long-line.
They say visualisation is a good way to manifest your dreams. All I could visualise was me standing in the middle of the hall, powerless, as my hound sniffs round the perimeter fence, barging off once he has found the escape route! It might as well have been the date for my execution, the way I was feeling about it.
The thoughts that kept me going were: reminding myself that I had wanted to try new experiences with the dogs, to enjoy them while I had them; and more importantly ‘I can always back out of this any time I want’!
I got hints and tips from Heather and other friends who compete. It all felt very ‘off-piste’, a lot more than I was used to in my life. I follow instruction. I’ll read the book from the experts and then I’ll follow a plan. Don’t ask me to use my imagination. This project required using my creativity, my intuition, going by feel and trusting in myself – and bringing my dog with me. Ah, see? All right-brain, ‘feminine’ skills!
Heather suggested music relating to hunting, to tie in with Jack being a hound. I scoured YouTube. I came across red-neck hunting songs from the US, and arguments for and against Fox Hunting in the UK. I was losing heart. The hunting theme all seemed a bit predatory and aggressive. Also fox-hunting is an emotive subject in this country. I didn't want to give any wrong impressions. Then I came across a 1940's rendition of a Nursery Rhyme ditty – ‘a-hunting we will go'. This was the one! It appealed to my sense of fun. With a line like ‘we’ll catch a fox and put him in a box and then we’ll let him go’ I felt much happier. It was also mercifully short!
And I needed a costume. With the thoughts of the lost feminine, Diana the hunter Goddess seemed to fit very well. So now all I had to do was turn up!
On the day I felt physically sick and in need of staying close to the facilities! Having helped out on the first day, and watched and chatted to people, it was a bit less daunting. I turned up in the afternoon of the second day. My competition was the last one of the day. Everyone was friendly and supportive. I now had this feeling of being at the point of no return, I could no longer get out of it.
Stepping out into that ring there was no more to worry about - we just had to do our best. In the event Jack wasn’t as enthusiastic as he had been working in the back garden. There were tricks that he didn’t perform that he had done previously. I just hoped I could keep him with me. He was reticent about the leg weave, something he usually loved doing. But when he tentatively went between my legs, and I clapped my hands with excitement, he noticeably perked up! I realised I was encouraging him with my energy. Hmmmm... I wonder whose reticence it really was?
There were two times in the routine where I was asking Jack to get up on a table. I had put this in because I knew he liked doing it. It was a technique we had learned from Natural Dog Training, giving him some resistance to overcome, to get a feeling of being in control. I might be explaining it wrong, but I know he likes climbing up on a box. And that really helped us out!
The end of our routine was for Jack to ‘chill’, lying flat out. It is something that Jack is an expert at. Training this trick involved lying there quietly and getting treats delivered to your mouth if you don’t move. What is there not to like about that?! And in the competition, he didn’t disappoint. We even managed to time it to the end of the music. The fact that I also ended up flat on my back beside him was more to do with my relief at it all being over!
And it was a great feeling. I was so pleased that I had made myself do it and Jack had stayed with me throughout the routine. We could hold our heads high!
I was in a bit of a stupor as I watched the rest of the competitors, releasing all that stress that had built up over the weeks leading up to the competition. It had been a big deal for me and I was enjoying the relief. Stepping out into that ring, having committed to showing up was …invigorating. All that dread, all those nerves they were all real. But so was the feeling of achievement. I had pulled together some ideas of my own and I was showing it to others – with my dog.
The judges deliberated. I had switched off. I wasn’t interested in points. I knew I was undoubtedly the worst one there, that hadn’t been the purpose of entering. People had even commented - first time they'd seen a hamiltonstövare at heel-work to music. So I shouldn't really be there anyway.
But then I heard my name being mentioned.... Jack had won a special award for achievement in Starters! We had won something!! I confess to being, in my view, a little ridiculously excited, as I went up to accept the award. I could not believe it. A shield, that he would have his name engraved on!
Glowing I sat there in a daze, tuned out to the rest of the prize giving. And I heard my name again. I had got a rosette for 4th place!!!
It was a weird feeling. Being recognised in this way had never entered my head. In fact, if I’m honest, ‘not being noticed’ is usually my preferred way of going about my life. That's how I try and keep out of trouble. I still don’t really understand what I did to deserve the awards. What I most definitely do know is how important the recognition has been to me, not just as a dog dancing competitor, but as a human being!
Learning about Heel-work to Music and meeting others that train and compete in this discipline, has given me an rich insight into another area of the world of humans and their dogs. I think it’s probably true to say that everyone is drawn to the discipline for their own different reasons. For me it has helped hugely with my relationship with Jack, but also with myself.
I believe successfully working with dogs requires that you get in more in touch with your right-brained skills, like feeling and intuition. The breed and temperament of dog (or dogs) you partner with present their own challenges. It seems to me that heel-work to music (or dancing with my dog), requires an additional level of creativity and innovation compared to other dog disciplines I've been involved in. I find myself wondering why it is predominately women that compete in the discipline.
The experience was much more profound than ‘just’ dancing with my dog. It required me to face quite a few personal fears. The support and encouragement that I received from friends, trainers and other competitors was so important in helping me do this. Those demons haven’t gone (do they ever?) but I think the more I can shine light into the darkness the lighter life can become 🙂
Dancing with my dog is a great way to look into those dark corners, improving my balance and harmony as I go