LUTZ — Rachel Pope prays with her whole body, channeling her spiritual energy through her arms, her hips, her feet.
"Our body is a temple and prayer is the dance," she said.
Pope, 32, calls herself an "eclec-witch" — an eclectic pagan whose spirituality is rooted in nature, with adaptations drawn from several faiths. She practices her faith through spiritual belly dancing.
"I approach the dance as an art form that is a spiritual practice," she said. "It's something that I just feel driven to do, connected to in my own way."
Pope, who has a degree in religious studies, teaches a couple of spiritual belly dancing classes. She is developing a sacred dance course she'll teach next year at the College of Metaphysical Studies in Clearwater.
Her search for the deeper meaning of life began as a child, she said. Her mother is Jewish. Her father was raised Christian but converted to Judaism. Her mom took her to synagogue on holidays, but because of her father's background they celebrated Christmas.
"When I was around 10 I decided to look for my own path," Pope said.
She heard the word "paganism" defined during the first day of her Witchcraft & Paganism course at the University of South Florida, and it clicked.
"I knew that it was exactly the right word for my beliefs, and I knew that I had finally found my spiritual path," she said. "From that moment I started my life as a witch and a priestess of the goddess."
Paganism refers broadly to non-monotheistic religious practice, often with a focus on nature. Pope calls her version "nature-based spirituality that recognizes the masculine and feminine in divinity." She tends to focus more on the feminine divinity, saying the world needs more of a softer presence. She said she recognizes her connection to Mother Nature and the oneness of all divinity.
At first, however, her own mother bristled at the idea.
"Mom didn't like the word 'witch' at all," Pope said. "There was a stigma with that word. Over time she understood what that means. … I was honest with her about who I am and what I do."
During her search, Pope initially stayed away from Judaism, but "went back full circle," studying Jewish mysticism and history.
"That resonated very well with me," she said.
She now focuses on balance, harmony and the cycles of life, she said.
Pope is a single mother of two children: 10-year-old daughter Raina Cheyenne and 8-year-old son Sagen Dakota. After the birth of her son, she discovered belly dancing during a workshop at a local pagan festival. Then five years ago she started taking belly-dancing classes at the Soul Mirror in Tampa.
Over time she talked to more teachers and explored the spiritual side of the dance.
It evolved into what she calls sacred belly dance: "Connecting to the divine and using dance as prayer."
The Soul Mirror asked her to come back there and teach her version of the class on Fridays, and she also teaches on Thursdays at Sacred Grounds Coffee House. Her Tuesday night class is in her home, a more intimate setting.
"It's just a circle of women dancing together and learning together," she said.
The classes took off after Pope connected with Sherry Stamback, an artist and witch who gives readings with a following in Pasco, online and around the country. Five or six of her clients carpool over from New Port Richey to Lutz for Pope's class each week.
"We found that we are both dancers and we both adhere to the beliefs that the dance is an avenue to a more intense sort of prayer, an avenue to opening up that door," Stamback said.
She added that Pope is "teaching people to walk more confidently in their own lives."
Laura Lynch-Sicuro, a substitute teacher in Pasco who this summer is running a job placement program for troubled teens, started taking Pope's class last summer.
She previously took a dance class at Shapes gym, but found it to be impersonal.
"This is much gentler, a peaceful kind of vibe," Lynch-Sicuro said. "We bring spiritual faith into our dance. We seem to actually reach this place where there's just a peace and a calm, but within that peace there's a great feeling of strength, this energy that we create together. I walk out of there refreshed and energized, yet exhausted from a great workout as well."
Natasha Motesharei of Tampa takes her class at Sacred Grounds. She said it's about "women dancing to empower themselves as opposed to dancing for men or other people." Pope's class is about "focusing on awakening what's inside of you," she said.
Pope, for her part, continues to focus on being a mom, all the while teaching others a way to improve their own lives.
"We need more of the beauty and the goddess energy coming into the earth," Pope said. "It's important to stay positive and put that positive energy out there, and keep ourselves filled with hope and faith."