Ellen Pearlman,
Tibetan Sacred Dance:
A Journey into the
Religious & Folk Traditions

(Inner Traditions, 2002)

If any of you have ever been curious about the significance of the sacred dances of Tibet, there is finally a book that might answer some of your questions. Ellen Pearlman has released a small coffeetable-sized book titled Tibetan Sacred Dance: A Journey into the Religious & Folk Traditions. This work is filled not only with interesting narration describing both the history and meaning behind this Buddhist tradition, but also scores of large pictures and photos regarding the culture in question.

The book is divided in to two main topics, each being a specific type of Tibetan dance. The first, and larger section, is devoted to Cham or sacred monastic dance. The second type of dance is called Achi Lhamo or folk dance/opera. Within each section there are three subsections. The first explains some history of how particular dances evolved. The historical information described in the Cham section was my favorite part of the text. Next, Pearlman describes the significance behind particular dances. Cham dances are more mystical in nature and are used to banish evil forces, provide blessings and the like. Achi Lhamo dances portray moral stories of good versus evil. The final subsection of the two types of dance breaks down a performance to the significance of various costume pieces to musical instruments and singing styles used.

While the photos and paintings are nice to look at, there is some question as to their placement in the book. Usually, they are relative to the topic at hand, but on just a few occasions, I have to admit being confused between the relationship of the artwork to the narrative. I almost got the impression that the author simply wanted certain pieces to make it in the book regardless of their placement. I'm sure my impression has more to do with my being a neophyte regarding sacred dance from Tibet versus any intention of Pearlman's.

Despite my opinion of a couple of seemingly random pictures, I think most people will enjoy the pictures without reading the text and in that case, this is a great coffeetable book. The costumes are colorful and exotic. The locales are intriguing. And the face shots are full of history. On the other hand, taking a single snapshot of a dance is hardly symbolic enough to portray the significance of the movements and what they mean. Pearlman realizes this and closes the book stating that she hopes she inspired her readers enough to seek out and experience this Tibetan custom with an open mind.

I have one final complaint about the text. I had a little trouble with the lack of consistency. You might compare the reading experience to a certain fairytale. At times the explanations are verbose. There are too many words. The author gets redundant as she repeats herself. The reader is left wondering if the section will ever come to an end? Other times, text is sparse. Most of the time, the section lengths are just right -- enough description to maintain the attention of those who are not familiar with the Tibetan culture and yet teach them a thing or two at the same time.

Overall, my impression of Tibetan Sacred Dance has been positive. Pearlman has been a practicing Buddhist for more than 30 years, and she has more of a connection with the Tibetan culture than her Western name might imply. While she currently resides in New York, she has spent time with Buddhist teachers in the Far East (according to her little bio in the book). Simply put, whether you read the text or not, the photos are quite good and make the book at least worthy of being looked at. You won't come away with a complete understanding of Tibetan sacred dance, but you might at least gain some appreciation.

- Rambles
written by Wil Owen
published 13 March 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.