Felicia Norton (aka Kainat Sharifa), described as "an extraordinary dancer"; (New York Times), living in New York City converses on her life as a dancer, Sufi, author, and teacher. She looks back with deep insight on her journey fueled by a passion for dance, commitment to Sufism, first as a disciple and then as a guide. She loves exploring the sacred feminine, as well as Nature in site-specific works and theater works.
She is a Senior Sufi teacher, author of An Emerald Earth, Performing dance artist, and is Vice President Emerita of the Ziraat Activity, devoted to joining inner cultivation with sacred ecology. She is a guide, Senior Teacher, and Retreat Guide in the Sufi tradition/Inayati Order and has served on the faculty of Suluk Academy. She is co-author with Charles Muinuddin Smith, of the book An Emerald Earth recently translated into French; Une Terre d'Émeraude. They co-lead the Inayatiyya Sufi Center in New York City and offer retreats and programs worldwide. Felicia teaches and performs internationally.
She has performed with many dance companies as well as toured a solo dance repertoire. She has performed solo dance-theater works in the US, Canada, Central America, Europe, and Asia. She teaches at the United Nations International School in NYC, and has taught at Lehman College, City University, NYC, the Rubin Museum of Art, and engaged in the collaborative arts initiative program working with NYC schoolchildren
at the Queens Museum through an NYSCA grant.
Learn more about Norton/Kainat at http://www.felicianortondance.org.
For upcoming book and Sufi retreats/teaching visit: http://www.anemeraldearth.org.
Felicia Norton in Saraswati- Lincoln Center, NYC/ photo credit: Charles Smith
Felicia Norton in Under the Uplands- Lincoln Center, NYC
photo credit: Julie Lemberger
Felicia Norton in NOOR-NYC
photo credit: Eve Cuyen
Usha Akella: We have a lot to delve into—both your work as a Sufi teacher, dance, and intersectional work. So, let’s start at the beginning. What drew you to Sufism and when did you discover dance was to be your path of expression in life?
Felicia Norton: At a young age I felt a wonderful boundless participation mystique in Nature. I remember feeling the presence of the numinous while standing in an empty open field, and of hearing an inner sound, the sacred sound of ‘Hu’ while standing in the crystalline white snow under the dark night sky with stars. It was as if I and the universe were in a sacred communion. I found the Upanishads when 13 years old and felt deeply moved by it and started to meditate in my room with a lit candle. Later I came upon Buddhist thought and chose to write about Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism for my high school paper. When asked to write a paper on ‘my philosophy’ I wrote a paper titled ‘I am a Pantheist’ feeling the Divine in all of life. I was interested in mysticism and the esoteric as well as mythology, and ancient civilizations such as Egypt and Mesopotamia and goddesses from around the world.
Dance was always my love as well. I started creative movement classes at age 4 and then went on to study ballet at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet school in NYC. As a teen, I supered in various operas at the Met Opera and with the visiting Royal Ballet Company from the UK. It was a joy to be on stage with great opera stars and with dancers such as Nureyev and to go to rehearsals with director Franco Zeffirelli and with choreographer Alvin Ailey for the opera ’Antony and Cleopatra’ by Samuel Barber where I went from being in an orgy scene in the first act to being a vestal virgin in the next act. I was especially transported being on stage with the Royal Ballet when watching the balcony scene from the ballet ‘Romeo and Juliet with the haunting Prokofiev score. The world of dance and performance was magical. I wanted to enter this realm where deep emotion and depth could be expressed. Dance became a vehicle for me to feel and express deep attunements. from the subtle and refined gossamer connection to the heavens and celestial energy to the
earthy depths. All the different planes of being from the angelic, jinn to earth were all interpenetrating each other.
Sufism came later. After graduating from college, I was teaching various subjects through movement and dance in a Montessori school in NYC. A fellow teacher invited me to a weekly Sufi gathering at St John the Divine Cathedral. I loved the dancing and chanting and continued going. I heard that a Sufi teacher Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan was coming to give a weekend seminar in NYC. I was about 21 years old. He spoke in a very intellectual way, had attended Oxford and the Sorbonne, and also carried a very ecstatic energy. His father was the renowned Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan, the first teacher to come from India to the West in 1910 to spread a message of Universal Sufism and spiritual Liberty. We happened to pass each other on a break in the hallway and he turned around and gave me a glance of recognition that I will never forget. Pir Vilayat told me in a darshan later on: “You are like a dance of Shiva; never lose that joy. Your job is to evidence beauty”. I continued attending his retreats and learning Sufi practices and then joined with a group of others to live in a Sufi community on East 14 th St in NYC. I received initiation into the Sufi path with Pir Vilayat, head of the Sufi Order of the West, at the age of 24 on a white snowy night at the Abode of the message in upstate NY and I again heard the unspoken sacred sound of Hu pervading all.
Dance, Nature, and Sufism are intertwined paths I continue to traverse. A common thread that joins them for me is the deep ongoing exploration of how the finite with the infinite join, communion with the cosmos, expansion of the sense of self, boundlessness, and a deep love and yearning to know the Divine Mystery.
UA: I was transfixed reading this Sharifa. I am trying to imagine this very young girl who perceived herself positioned between heaven and earth and knowing within that both are points of a single mystery—and offering dance as the expressive method to channel that ecstasy. Connection, communion, and channeling are the words coming to me from your life. It seems there is so much to go into with these intersections. When you dance can you put into words for us what goes through you? Is it fana of a kind?
FN: It is quite amazing to be embodied in clay, in flesh, in this vessel, to have a physical body while simultaneously feeling subtle energy, light, and cosmic energy moving through and within you. The body that at times can feel limited, a prison, has the possibility of experiencing itself as a prism. Within our solid, skin boundedness there is emotion, spirit all dancing within us. At times what feels forefront is the aspect of devotion, dance being an offering to our Source, the Divine. Also, there is the aspect of feeling deep emotion that can be embodied through movement and also molded and transformed. A dance can traverse the whole gamut of experience from pain and suffering to joy, the sublime, exaltation, and ecstasy in its expression. There can also be the feeling of entering into an unknown terrain of Mystery and of being totally in the moment. Dancing is a bit like a fana, a term used in Sufi thought, to describe a state of dissolving one’s fixed sense of self into a vaster sense of being.
UA: “All the different planes of being from the angelic, jinn to earth were all interpreting each other.” I think this perception of yours has special reverberations speaking of a wholistic universe not one polarized as good or evil; the Hindu world view is similar which in turns integrates the individual with samsara, not alienating one from it—at least in a deeper reading of Advaita—and present in Tantra more clearly.
FN: There is a feeling of engaging with many realms, the formless and form in dialogue, stretched between earth and the heavens, the soul and heart bridging the worlds and to feel connected to the whole universe. While dancing I can also experience the flowing of the particle becoming wave, the drop merging into the vast ocean and the seen and unseen worlds joining. Sometimes there is a feeling of being interpenetrated by the cosmos and being a vessel or conduit for drawing down the cosmos to the earth. Through dance, one can take all the difficulty of life on earth, with its limitations, and find a way to work with sorrow, pain and dance with it all, discover transformation and not get stuck. 'The watcher is the prayerful devotee but the dancer is Divine’. To dance in the flames as does Kali and Shiva Nataraj. Usha, I always loved that you titled one of your books of poetry "Kali dances, so do I". How wonderful! Kali knows how to dance; she does not stand defeated or stuck in duality but knows how to cut through and move through all limitations skillfully as she shatters the illusion.
UA: It seems like sacredness touched you very early through nature, soul, and dance—and Sufism became the natural path to access it in all of your life. You speak of feeling that power and mystery first with nature, considered the very manifestation of Shakti. Then there is the feminine that draws you in dance too… would love to know more of how it has penetrated your work as a dancer?
FN: There can also be the feeling while dancing of being extended into space, into the whole landscape. This has particularly been my experience when performing site-specific pieces in Nature. In particular creating a dance film in Sligo, Ireland, in Yeats country, for ten days a few feet from the ocean with the sacred site of Queen Maeve and the rolling green feminine landscape in the distance all present while filming a dance immersed in the elements of sky, sand, and sea. Another dance work I perform, Ma Ganga, was initiated from my experience of immersing in the Ganges River in Varanasi, India, and filming my dance of gratitude as I greeted the sunrise and sunset while moving in the water. This piece then developed into a ritualistic dance-theater work both honoring the sacredness of rivers as well as Ma Ganga expressing her rage at our pollution of her and has been performed in various theaters. Dance as devotion, a sacred joining, an honoring of the goddess and Great Mother.
Since a young age, I have always been drawn to feminine archetypes and goddesses, and Nature. I remember my mother related to me the myth of Demeter and Persephone while we were eating a ruby pomegranate when I was age seven. An image of a winged Egyptian goddess Isis was scotch-taped to my wall next to my bed. I felt deep feminine wisdom energy, some kind of mana embedded in my body that sought expression. Interestingly various choreographers approached me to perform various feminine archetypes in their works. I was always delightfully surprised when this happened. As a professional dancer in my early twenties, I performed with Manuel Alum’s dance company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in NYC. Manuel created a piece for me where I danced the role of Yemaya, the Yoruban goddess of the ocean, a Great Mother figure embodying both the ocean and the feminine together.
Other dance works that I performed with feminine archetypes include:
a site-specific piece 'Demeter's Daughter' by Tamar Rogoff within a Greek amphitheater and community gardens, performing the role of Demeter, goddess of fertility and agriculture
a dance opera by Peter Healey, performing the role of Salome, as a young devotee.
the solo 'Hamadryad', dancing the Spirit of the Tree, choreographed by Jean Erdman (partner of Joseph Campbell).
the solo 'Off Duty Dryad', by Robert Kovich, dancing as Artemis, goddess of the woods, the moon and wildlife
the solo 'Ma Ganga, Cleanser of Sins and Sorrows' created with director Sasha Spielvogel, dancing as protectress Ma Ganga
the solo 'Shekinah', created with Sasha Spielvogel, dancing the divine feminine aspect of God from the Kabbalah.
the solo 'Saraswati', goddess of music, arts, and learning, commissioned by The Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, NYC
the solo site-specific work 'Chrysalis', created with Sasha Spielvogel, a woman leaving the inner chambers to the outside garden of freedom at Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur India.
the solo 'Hildegard', based on the visionary mystic, artist, and composer, commissioned by the Science and Spirit Symposium in NYC.
the solo evening length dance theater work 'NOOR' co-created with Sasha Spielvogel, Artistic Director of Labyrinth Dance Theater. I perform the life of Noor Inayat Khan, daughter of mystic, Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan. Noor served as an undercover agent in Nazi-occupied France and gave her life to the cause of liberty.
It has been a gift to have engaged in these many artistic explorations through the merging of the dance, nature, the feminine and the spiritual. Pir Vilayat, my Sufi teacher, spoke of ‘making spiritual states corporeal’, and of embodying realization. He spoke of the dancer’s attunement, saying it is not so much the steps and choreography that move us, but the consciousness from which one creates and dances that moves us. Hazrat Inayat Khan spoke of the value of honoring the ‘dance of the soul’ in many areas of his teaching.
UA: Your repertoire of work has been profound. I know some of your Sufi teachings are about the earth. My last question to you is how do you read our situation as a human race in relation to the sacred feminine?
FN: The importance of reconnection with the sacred feminine describes how civilization has, for the most part, lost touch with a natural sense of a living universe, of “matter being alive.” This dismissal of a living anima mundi, a “soul of the world,” has gone hand in hand with the dismissal of the human body, and matter in general, as sacred. The book "An Emerald Earth: Cultivating A Natural Spirituality and Serving Creative Beauty in our World", co-authored with my partner, shares practices, poetry, and teaching stories from the Sufi and Buddhist traditions on bridging our inner cultivation with serving awakening in our world. We can see the earth and nature as a beautiful goddess, both powerful and delicate with whom we are in a reciprocal and beneficial relationship. The Sufi practice is to unfold an
accommodation for the harmony of heaven and earth, by teaching us how to come in tune with our natural state and find our unity with the sacredness of all life. We are being asked to change from a model of God as transcendent, distant, removed, and patriarchal to an experience of the Divine as immanent, sacramental, and feminine. The Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan said: “Humankind is far removed from nature both within and without and has become an exile from the ideal state of life”. Instead of honoring and protecting the sacredness of matter/the Mother, and of all life and developing an intimate connection with the living earth, we are witnessing the rape and pillage of mother Gaia. Motivated by greed and profit, her resources are being over-extracted way beyond our need. Can we develop a more reverential relationship with the earth and matter? There seems to be a pivotal role of the feminine in bringing about a transformation of human consciousness. May we see with the eyes and wisdom of Sophia, the creative feminine, and bridge our inner awakening with our sacred task of participating in an earth of beauty.
UA: Thank you, dear Sharifa, for this profound and moving conversation.
Felicia Norton in Chrysalis-Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur, India
photo credit: Susan Mains
Felicia Norton in Barefoot Tango -COOL New York Festival, NYC
photo credit: Yi-Chun Wu
Felicia Norton in NOOR- NYC
photo credit: Eve Cuyen