Zahava Griss is the founder of EMBODY more LOVE, providing embodiment, healing, and sexual empowerment for social change leaders through performance, dance, coaching, and bodywork. Here is the story of the journey…
When I was a kid my dream was that one day I would know the dances of all cultures. I wanted to give a performance for the entire world combining these dances so everyone could see themselves in one body…and there would be peace. Every time I fall in love with how someone moves, it feels like the dream is getting closer. From age 2, I was in the dance studio learning how to move my body. I had the honor of working with legends such as the Joffrey Ballet, Katherine Dunham, Urban Bush Women, Tania Isaac, Wanjiru Kamuyu, and Mana Hashimoto. These communities became my mentors in strength, discipline, and how to move as a group. Over thirty years later I can say that I appreciate the time it takes to truly know a dance form. While I have experienced many flavors of dance the 6 main forms that live in my body are modern, Middle Eastern, Sufi dancemeditation, West African, ballet, and yoga.
Some of these teachings focused on my soul, most focused on a set of values about aesthetic beauty that I would later unlearn to reveal myself. I attended the Juilliard School, Tisch School of the Arts, North Carolina School of the Arts, the Alvin Ailey School, the Princeton Ballet, Sarah Lawrence College, the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, and Jacob’s Pillow with Oh!ni Sowa of Ghana. I danced in Senegal with Marie Basse Wiles. I learned how differently cultures define dance, the body, sex, the soul, and our relationship with the Earth. Dance became how I experienced the values and possibilities a community created.
Many NYC auditions made us expendable as dancers. There was a missed opportunity to really value the devotion between a choreographer and dancer. When I was dancing 9 am to 9 pm, my body became depleted. I literally ran out of fat, our power storage. My menstrual cycle stopped and I became infertile. Many of the women around me were hospitalized for anorexia and bulimia, or at least uncanny self-criticism. We were learning how to train our bodies but not how to feel and fully inhabit them. I became clear Embody More Love is about feeling our bodies. It’s about engaging dance to celebrate the love and sexual energy in our bodies. I dance to deepen trust, passion, community and creativity.
I LOVE sex. Growing up I often felt a potency of sexual energy that my personality did not feel comfortable expressing. The people that I saw personally and in the media who were living sexually adventurous lives seemed to be struggling with self care and consumed by their appetite. AND, then there was the other group of people, they had a sense of safety in their lives, they were trust worthy, sometimes they had a tangible connection to spirit, and they were sexually unexpressive from what I could see. Then I met Angel, she was my bellydance teacher, the one I drove 5 hours to see for private lessons in Maryland. Why? She seemed to have an ease about her soul, her womb was supple and powerful, her intuition was crystal clear. One day I sat before her, perhaps I didn’t really know why I kept journeying to her, until she looked at me and said, “Zahava, you need to experiment with lovers, you need to have sex with different people and to see what moves you.” I was a virgin, it was the summer after my freshman year of college. Angel was the first elder that I trusted knew about the power of sex, and had my highest spiritual growth in mind. Her permission, well really her assignment for me that day, shattered this division in my mind about the 2 models I saw around sexuality. I am so grateful she entered my life, and it would thrill me to inspire the same permission for others if you have not yet met your “Angel.”
Now the field of sacred sexuality is not regulated. And many of the educators, including myself, gravitate to it because we are on our own healing journey. So there has been a lot, a lot, to navigate and to discern what feels true. I knew that my sexual energy created anxiety for me, I knew that sometimes it consumed me and I didn’t alway make decisions that energized my heart. I knew that it thrilled me. I knew that the times I felt most alive, human, and connected to my primal wisdom were in the heat of orgasm. I knew that the lovers I got to share this with impacted my energy, my perceptions, my motivation to show up in other areas of my life. As if the act itself were not intimate enough, I started to understand just how intimate it is to share sexual energy and that this could be equally healing or destructive.
In the past 10 years I have found some deeply transformative teachers, lovers, and friends on my journey. I studied Sexual Shamanism with sexologist and Sun Dancer, Kenneth Ray Stubbs, Ph.D. I started to crave knowledge about the procreation of sex, about birthing. I earned my teaching certification and apprenticed in Anusara yoga for birth with Mary Barnes. I started to see how the physical and energetic fertility of my womb was not just about making babies. The movement vocabulary of birthing dances actually transformed energy and mindset. It is a dance of manifesting our vision.
I studied the intimate arts with Sheri Winston, the pelvic floor with Virginia Reath, and Energy Awareness with Teeni Dakini (from the Twisted Hairs tradition and the bioenergetics of William Reich.) I went to trainings, received healing sessions, and shared friendships (and sometimes intimacy) with pioneers in sacred sexuality including Kiana Love, Rev. Goddess Charmaine, Isis Phoenix, Cindy Highfield, Lee Harrington, Laurie Handlers, Anton Diaz, Reid Mihalko, Barbara Carrellas, Amy Jo Goddard, Mark & Patricia Michaels, Monique Darling, Alex Morgan, Caroline Carrington, and Om Rupani. I graduated from and assisted Barbara Carrellas’ Urban Tantra Professional Training Program.
I fell in love with Orpheus Black who became one of my most transformative guides, whom I discovered at the ethical porn film festival! He opened the gateway for me to perform as a sexual being, to channel this exquisite life force before an audience. Now I have been invited by many spiritual teachings to fully accept and love myself, but a profound new level of wholeness and love opened for me… a celebration so deep that many of the social norms that had been herding my beliefs and sculpting my identity had to surrender to a new embodiment of love. Which brings me to the next area of the spirit…
I studied the Chakra system with Anodea Judith, learning how the physical body is a map and access point for our consciousness. I slowed down… shifting for over a decade to Sufi dancemeditation with Dunya and Banafsheh. During this time I really learned how to FEEL my body. Up until this point I had become a master at commanding my body, but that did not mean I knew how to feel and flow with my intuition. I studied Earth based spirituality and community ritual with Starhawk. I started to see how our relationship with our human sexual nature mirrored our relationship with nature and life itself. It’s hard to remember to preserve the beauty of the Earth if we can no longer smell, feel, touch, and taste her, truly SENSE her. My reverence for sensation became an ecological act of devotion. Water has never tasted so sacred, cleansed me so deeply, and reminded me that our survival depends on the health of our global relationships.
I trained in Sacred Activism leadership with Seane Corn, Hala Kouri, and Suzanne Sterling, of “Off the Mat.” I went to the heart of healing, bringing my mom with me to a Healing Rage workshop with Ruth King. Rage is similar to sex in the nervous system, hot, fast moving, raw passion that can fuel healing or destruction. And no, those aren’t mutually exclusive. More on that later. But the next piece that unfolded for me was the importance of the Mother Daughter relationship. She called my soul into this body, and if we collectively are going to evolve the love and sexual energy in our bodies our relationship with our mothers is an invaluable access point. In May 2013, my mom and I facilitated our first mother daughter retreat for my Sacred Woman Alchemy program. Ok, well, technically I facilitated, per her request… but it could not have happened without her presence and her support.
There is one more piece to mention about spirit. My spiritual relationship with my body is too expansive to be limited by a gender. I consider myself “gender transcendent” and use the pronoun “they.” For many years I thought I did not belong to the trans community because I assumed that being trans required a certain amount of alienation from my body. For the record, I’ve experienced gender dsyphoria at times (when one does not have sensation or feel integrated with a part of the body, usually due to feeling incomplete with the gender they were assigned at birth.) Yet, most of the time I do not feel any less “woman,” I simply know that I am more than woman. I have a strong connection to my energetic cock. My body remembers being an embryo before genitals differentiate into one sex or another. I can still access this state of pure potential. I sense we are very fluid beings by nature and gender is just one way that we sometimes limit ourselves with one identity.
Somatics, Bodywork, and Coaching
I had the blessing of extensive studies in the Feldenkrais Method with Barbara Forbes, Ideokinesis with Andre Bernard, embryonic development with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, and somatic practices with K.J. Holmes. I would say this is the exploration of how we feel, sense, and perceive being in a body. I started to learn about trauma, an interruption in how we feel, sense, and perceive being in a body. I studied healthy embodiment for trauma survivors with Victoria Eisner and healing trauma with Peter Levine. I lived in the Re-Evaluation Counseling community for three years, and trained in Marshal Rosenberg’s Non Violent Communication. I also trained in Pilates with the protégé of Joseph Pilates, Kathy Grant, and earned my Pilates teaching certification from the Kane School of Core Integration. Pilates became a tool for teaching people the embodiment of strength and self worth, oh, and how to keep breathing!
Then I made a decision that completely changed my life. I left my day job and went to live at Esalen where I became Certified as an Esalen® Bodywork Practitioner. This was a whole new paradigm that softened my relationship to my body. The past 10 years of anatomy for dancers had instilled in me a model of a “perfect body.” While I had prided myself in rejecting the self criticism of the sexualized skinny, large breasted pop culture woman… I had unknowingly been comparing myself to a fictitious musculoskeletal virtuoso. My knowledge of alignment as a yoga teacher and an assistant for physical therapists had become a sophisticated system of judgments… that were now starting to dissolve and make space for an awe of the human body.
I have performed on Black Entertainment Television (BET), at the Kennedy Center, Joe’s Pub, the Blue Note, Jacob’s Pillow, Dance Place, Senegalese rooftops, in front of the 42nd st Library with my 92 year old grandmother, in schools, gardens, temples, and living rooms. I have had the honor of collaborating with master percussionist and griot, David Pleasant. Katherine Dunham selected me to perform Shango in celebration of her 93rd birthday sharing the program with Ron Brown, Danny Glover, and Harry Belafonte. My relationship to performance has been evolving. I am currently part of the Artist Dream Family, using dance, music, and ritual to celebrate the creativity and life force in all of us… and yes the audience gets on the “stage.” My dream is to have a touring dance company that facilitates audience listening projects and sacred sexuality workshops in local communities. I also want to share energetic and financial tools with the local artists so they are more supported as the creative healers in their communities. (If you just got chills, please email me, we are building our team.)
I choreographed Crusin the Divide, a theatrical performance based on 70 community interviews on the Kentucky Derby. I facilitated the cast, from the Actors Theatre of Louisville apprentice company, through an embodied journey of racial identity in relation to the content of the performance. I also choreographed the 6 Project, Chelsea Gregory’s one-woman show about the Jena 6, which has engaged over 2,000 people across the country in post performance dialogues on race. I choreographed and performed the opening ritual of the Sacred Sexuality Roundup, 2009-2010, and premiered the Love and Sex in Women’s Bodies at this conference for the nation’s sexuality educators. I also created and performed The Erotic Animal of Woman and presented on “being comfortable in your skin,” at the 2010 Theatrical Bellydance Conference. My cinematography and choreography Pray, Sex, Dance has been the focus of an interview for Sexy Spirits television with Anton Diaz. I created an autobiographical performance piece called Trust, Earth, Ancestors and premiered the Next Woman: Sexy Ancestry in Progress on Mother’s Day in NYC, 2014.
Educator and Ceremonialist
I taught workshops on how to engage sexual energy for performance at New York University. I presented at the International Inspiring Women’s Summit, Mama Sutra prenatal yoga teacher training, and the Theatrical Bellydance Conference. I have facilitated workshops for shamans, performers, tantric and somatic educators to deepen the intimacy between the body and soul.
I taught neuro-muscular reprograming to patients at East Physical Therapy and lead sacred birthing dances at Ina May Gaskin’s Farm, in Tennessee, internationally recognized for its woman centered birthing practices. I taught shamanic birthing dances at the 2011 & 2012 annual conference for the New York State Association of Licensed Midwives.
I was a primary meditation and yoga teacher at Deepak Chopra’s Center in midtown Manhattan 2005-2010. I co-founded and facilitated Sundays for Peace, spiritually and emotionally sustainable activism. I have been adjunct faculty for The Next Wave of Women & Power Program with Rha Goddess, a collaborative initiative that focuses on arts & activism for young women.
I co-founded White Folks Soul, By Any Dance Necessary, a dance collective exploring the incompatibility of wholeness and the race construct for white people. The collective presented a workshop on Re-Educating the Body Mind Soul Free From Racism at the 10th national White Privilege Conference drawing over 1000 pioneering educators, artists, and activists replacing racism with authentic power dynamics and relationships. White Folks Soul, By Any Dance Necessary has also danced interactive rituals in the Undoing Racism Community Organizing Workshop offered by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, and lead workshops through the Anti-Racist Alliance.