To the universe belongs the dancer.
Whoever does not dance does not know what happens.
– Jesus, from the 2nd-century Gnostic text The Acts of John
Dancers Modern and Ancient
It is a gray, cloudy Sunday morning in twenty-first century Portland, Oregon. Thirty adults of various shapes and sizes are dancing around a large room that overlooks the city from a fifth-floor height. A tribal, electronic beat bounces insistently off the high walls and shiny hardwood floor. Three lush tropical plants, a small potted tree, and a seated stone Buddha congregate in one far corner. Two dancers dart back and forth like headless chickens, while a small group across the room moves together gracefully like geese flying in the sky. An impassioned middle-aged woman shakes her pelvis furiously, while across the room a young male newcomer vibrates his lanky body in a move you’d expect from a break-dancing serpent. The dancers each move in their own manner, in their own rhythm. Yet viewed from above one can perceive a pattern that connects them all to some larger choreography.
It is a time of celebration and healing for the Kalahari Bushmen people in ancient Africa. The moon is dark tonight, but the heavens are not. The dome of the sky scintillates with a thousand flickering stars. Booming drums resound through the archaic night; the ceremony has begun. The tribe will dance around the towering fire until the sun returns from its sleep. Two warriors shake spastically, their faces solemn, yet blissful. A young girl makes ornate, sweeping gesticulations with her hands and chants a hypnotic pattern of three ethereal notes. Walking among the assembled crowd, a venerable elder lays his tingling hands on those in need of healing. The dancers are not following formal steps, but are willingly opening themselves to the unpredictable spirits of life. Their whirling bodies are portals to the sacred world of ecstasy.
Both the modern and ancient dancers shake in sometimes gentle, sometimes frenzied movements. Burning through the veil of ordinary life and consciousness, they climb the ropes to the heavens to communicate with their ancestors and guiding spirits. Participants in this most primordial of rituals feel powerful waves of energy pulsate throughout their minds and bodies. Convulsing in paroxysms of delight, they touch each other to share precious healing vibrations and to restore balance to the world. Their awareness soars and expands. They see visions of both terrible and beautiful spiritual beings. In the full throes of ecstatic trance – part of the human birthright – they see beyond common appearances into the iridescent essence of life. Their mystical experiences occur in a realm language and thought cannot touch. And what the outside observer might call demonic possession is for them the influx of rapturous life energy and blessed spirits.
Though unknown to most Americans, trance dance practices from the oldest extant cultures in the world might be timely medicine for our lost modern tribe. Trance dance, in which the body can shake and convulse almost uncontrollably, offers the contemporary seeker a natural experience of bliss, connection, and healing with a force that few other activities can. For some, trance suggests a frightening state of mind in which a person does not have control. Going into trance does involve leaving one’s ordinary state of mind, but this is a passage dancers welcome as a necessary precursor to uncovering an abundant state of awareness and knowledge. Trance itself is a meditative state in which the mind attunes to a flow of images, feelings, and sensations that is ordinarily blocked from consciousness. Many people experience light trance in the form of daydreaming or concentrating single-mindedly on one activity such as gardening or exercise. But few realize that in heavy trance lies a realm of experience essential to human well being, yet mysteriously absent from mainstream religion, psychology and culture.
All The Worlds A Dance Floor
While William Shakespeare told us that “All the worlds a stage,” he just as easily could have said that all the world is a dance floor. Indeed, the world whirls, shimmies, crawls, flows, and prances along its way. Hives, electrons, geese, blood, grass, quasars, schools of zebra fish, nervous tics, and orange-yellow mountain chickens – everything moves in cosmic choreography. The world within and without is not as solid as we think. We humans, along with everything else known in the universe, are temporary energy forms in perpetual motion. We meet, love, hate, join and separate. Relationships, daily habits, and patterns of thinking and activity get shaken up again and again only to come back together in different form. And these cycles of creation, motion, and dissolution certainly didn’t start in the 21st century.
In ancient times almost everyone danced and sang. In the Greek epic The Iliad, Homer mentions the chorea, or circular choral dance, from which we get the concept of choreography. The ancient Greeks honored many gods through assorted choral and frenzied dance rituals, including the god of ecstasy, Dionysus. In medieval Europe English people danced around the maypole to celebrate the coming of spring and the fertility of the earth. The middle Ages also saw several outbreaks of ecstatic dance manias affecting entire villages, in which dancers shook and jumped for hours until they collapsed. Just a continent away from all this excitement, whirling dervishes of the Sufi sect danced themselves into euphoria and Pygmy peoples connected with their forest home through evocative animal dances.
The Author Gets His Groove
Despite my persistent efforts, I’ve always been terrible at standard social dances. No matter whom the teacher or what the method, I simply have not been able to get the steps down. I’ve taken over ten Salsa dance classes, but have never been able to master even the simplest of patterns. I believed that I had little rhythm, and often saw others smiling at my tentative, jagged motions as they glided along as smoothly as Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk. But at improvisational dance classes I could leap and shake and express myself any way my body wanted with no fixed rules. Crazy and spasmodic worked just as well as smooth, sensuous and graceful.
When I lived in Portland I began attending improvisational dance classes at a downtown studio called Bodymoves. The teacher, a handsome, mercurial man named Vinn Marti, would play different pieces of music with distinct sounds, beats, melodies and tempos. Dancers would experience and respond to the pieces with improvised movements. Marti taught the 5 Rhythms® system, developed by improvisational dance teacher Gabrielle Roth. According to Roth, these five rhythms encompass all ways of feeling and experiencing life.
“I work with five rhythms: flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical and stillness,” says Roth. “Each one is a whole world. The five rhythms are a map to everywhere you might want to go, on every plain of consciousness. They are physically, emotionally, intellectually inner worlds, outer worlds, future worlds, past worlds. They are markers on the way back to a very real self, a very vulnerable, wild, passionate, instinctive self.”
For someone who is extremely verbal and cerebral like me, the opportunity to feel and express different rhythms of life through movement was a new and exciting world, an initiation into the knowledge and pain and passionate wisdom of the body. I loved the spontaneity of this form of dance, the lack of external standards to which I had to conform, and the wonderful peculiarity of unexpected movements waiting to come out of me. Beneath the façade of a normal, socially acceptable self were antelope-like leaps and vehement gyrations, perhaps the workings of a mad Paleolithic dancer long dormant inside my psyche.
The improvisational dance class provided the safe space for me to move as I wanted to move, without fear of an unsympathetic crowd judging or mocking me. I didn’t have to work hard to act normal or try to make a good impression. “Most of the physical paths available to us have to do with controlling the body,” Roth notes. “My path is surrender. That way you can explore the promise of your own beauty in your own terms – allowing yourself to unfold, vs. bending and twisting into somebody else’s concept of what you are supposed to look like, who you’re supposed to be.” I had never experienced anything like this class before; I felt like all parts of me were welcome there, even the quirks I usually concealed. Thirty adults were consciously moving in strange ways: sometimes smooth, sometimes jerky, but always somehow beautiful. From the first time I encountered this scene I loved it and knew I had found my home in the world of dance.
Over the last two years in Minneapolis, I have also participated in several sessions of a form of improvisational trance dance pioneered by Wilbert Alix in which participants are blindfolded. Wearing the blindfold allows people to let go of inhibitions they may have about how they appear to others. The purpose of this dance assuredly isn’t to look good or attract a sexy mate. I found it a relief to wear the blindfold. In our culture our eyes are over stimulated and overworked. Looking into the dark blindfold allowed me to rest my eyes and relax my ceaselessly thinking mind. Wearing the blindfold in this dance enabled me to smell more, hear more, and most importantly, to connect with my inner proprioceptive sense, how it feels to be a body in space.
In this ritualized form of expression, dancers have an intention for the night, such as “family healing,” “opening to love,” or “relief for my aching back.” Participants hope and trust that the dance will help them awaken a source of healing, perspective, and wisdom related to their intention. The music is loud techno and world-electronic music with a heavy and steady beat. Classic performers in this genre include Professor Trance, Gabrielle Roth and the Mirrors, Deep Forest, Brainscapes, and Trans Global Underground. But Alix says that for millennia, the background music for dancing ceremonies focused upon various organic materials, especially the ceaseless, driving beat of the drum.
“Trance music does not come from a single location,” according to Alix, “but is more of a cross-cultural phenomenon. Every continent on this planet has their unique forms of trance music. Currently trance music takes on many forms, from early indigenous (organic) sounds derived from using ‘natural’ instruments such as wood and animal skins used to make drums, to contemporary (electronic) sounds generated with computer technology.”
The effect of dancing to music with heavy, driving beat is magnified by doing the “breath of fire” exercise, which is similar to meditative pranayama practices found in several traditions of Indian yoga. This technique consists of inhaling and exhaling loudly and rapidly for several minutes. The rapid breathing helps the dancer leave her ordinary consciousness and thought stream in order to enter the more fluid unknown territory of the body and the inner life.
Trance dance is a form of moving meditation that can lead to deep experiences of peace and even altered states of consciousness. While sitting meditation is of great psychological and spiritual value, the trance dance modality might be more accessible for the restless, rapid American mindset. Paradoxically, allowing the body to shake and move as it will can lead to profound states of inner stillness and relaxation. States of deep, trance absorption can provide remarkable insight into one’s emotional concerns as well as a tremendous sense of physical and psychological rejuvenation.
And what may seem odd to the 21st century American might be considered normal to her ancestor. In his book Shaman’s Body, Jungian psychologist Arnold Mindell points out that shamans around the world believe that we can only activate our deepest powers of intuition and healing by becoming aware of the most subtle sensations and fantasies connected with our bodies. Not surprisingly, American culture is focused on the external and very few people are encouraged to connect with their inner flow of bodily fantasies and sensations. Most Americans will do almost anything but feel and move with what is inside of them.
Bradford Keeney, noted psychologist and explorer of indigenous healing practices, has written extensively of the historical and cross-cultural phenomenon of ecstatic dancing for purposes of healing. According to Keeney, it is striking that something so central to the human experience is practiced so infrequently in modern America. He notes that most Americans do not realize the significant role dance and trance have played in most human cultures of the last several millennia. In his book Shaking Out the Spirits, he explores the centrality of bodily shaking and improvisational movement in various spiritual and healing contexts around the world past and present: those of the seiki healers of Japan, contemporary Lakota shamanic practitioners, American Shakers and Quakers of the 19th century, and Zulu tribal healers ancient and modern, among others.
Keeney believes that modern Americans can benefit greatly from this ancient practice. He observes that shaking forms of dance help people connect with sensations in their bodies, release suppressed emotions held within their musculature, and open to the joyous flow of energy that pervades all of life. Bradford Keeney suggests that these dances are not some easily dismissed primitive mumbo-jumbo, but rather doorways into meaningful psycho-spiritual experience. And for some reason, people in modern society receive minimal social support to experience and express their feelings of excitement and joy.
“The great taboo in our culture,” says Keeney, “has nothing to do with sex, drugs, or controversial theater – it’s ecstatic experience. It’s an experience that’s been known by mystics of all cultural persuasions, and when you’re in it, your body begins to shake and tremble. That finally leads to the desire to express oneself, and there, words just can’t hold the great feeling.”
When a person is in the rhythmic flow of the dance, she is no longer so concerned with names and labels but rather is aware of an overarching, pervasive feeling or wave running through everything. Trance dance empties the garbage cans of the mind, helps cultivate intuitive and instinctual modes of knowing, and clears the space for sacramental perception and vision. This kenosis, or inner emptying, is a precursor to deep spiritual understanding, but is understandably threatening to many modern people who are accustomed filling their days with noise, activities, and a busy schedule of tasks to accomplish.
Many modern Americans have a great hunger for spiritual knowledge and altered states of consciousness, but are not sure how to pursue this desire in a safe and natural way. In order to satisfy this urge to touch something transcendent or non-material, many people use alcohol and drugs, while some others turn to established religious traditions, hoping to connect with something beyond the human and experience a kind of divine intoxication. Still others eat to alter their mood or throw themselves only more doggedly into buying new things or following the latest developments of popular culture. All these activities can work to either transfix or distract, but may not allow seekers to realize that the true source of ecstasy does not lie outside them.
In order to feel at ease, many Americans need some kind of external stimulation or distraction, whether it is music, television, or social interaction. The cynic might say that most Americans prefer taking pills, being passively entertained, and distracting themselves in countless other ways to nakedly encountering themselves and getting a direct connection to the world of spirit. But deep down everybody has the urge and the ability to experience natural ecstasy through movement and palpably connect with a power of great healing and love. Trance dance is a healthy, simple, and effective way to taste and touch of spirit world, what the indigenous of Australia call the Dreamtime. The world of the dream and of the spirit, say the Aborigines and countless other tribal peoples, is a precious source of healing, inspiration, and nourishment for human beings.
I was in serious need of some of this healing and inspiration last winter. I was feeling anxious, depressed, and generally out of sorts. The conventional ways of dealing with my frustrations weren’t working for me, so one frosty Wednesday night in February I made my way to the upper floor of Stonehenge Books in Minneapolis for a trance dance session. At the time I hadn’t participated in a group dance for over a year and was wondering what I had been missing. I had moved and shaken a bit on my own in the confines of my small apartment, but hadn’t lost myself in the experience as it is often possible to do in the safe and structured class environment. Part of me didn’t want to go that night, though. The temperature was well under freezing and I was exhausted from my day of teaching high school students. I was not enthused about the prospect of bundling up and facing the frigid, windy night. Surfing the internet and sitting inside my warm apartment seemed much more appealing than trying to find the energy to dance for an hour. After a few minutes of internal battling, my instinct for a new experience won over and I left home in search of something fresh and vital.
In addition to the facilitator, Terry Christiansen, there were four other dancers there that night. After Terry explained the different elements of the dance–intention, trust, darkness, and breath–and recited an inspired poem by the Sufi poet Hafiz, we tied bandanas around our eyes and the music began. After a period of rapid breathing, I started to move. I moved tentatively at first, but then began rocking and shaking with no small measure of abandon. I’m not sure what it looked like from the outside, but to me my movements felt like a combination of jumping jacks, epileptic seizure, and the double spins executed by Olympic figure skaters. Terry was there, without a blindfold, to make sure we didn’t kick each other in the head while doing a twirl or accidentally dance our way through the large window that overlooked busy Hennepin Avenue below.
For a few minutes I forgot where I was and why I was there. I entered what Zen Buddhists call the realm of no-mind. I was so lost in the dance that my thinking mind relaxed its ceaseless flurry and I let my body and spirit lead. Without conscious intention or decision my feet stomped and hips shook. I howled and moaned, and made my way cyclically through different intensities of motion: chaotic, lyrical, choppy, and still. Terry had explained earlier that stillness is also part of a dance. For three separate intervals, I made my way to the floor to lie quietly and rock in subtle motion, only to quickly rise again to find another rhythmic pattern. The highlight of the night was the sense of vitality I felt in my body throughout and after the dance. Tired from school and my winter routine, I had forgotten how much energy, passion, and feeling was inside of me waiting to come out.
By the time Terry invited us to lay down and finish the dance I was in a mild trance state. My sense of self felt bigger and deeper than the thoughts about my day. My heart felt tender and open. Rivers of feeling – joy, sadness, delight, and gratitude – flowed through me. I felt more peaceful than I had in weeks. The dance had allowed me to unearth reserves of energy and happiness that seemed essential, even though I had been living without them. And not insignificantly, the dance was fun; I felt like a child outside of time, lost in a world of freedom and play. At first it seemed like work to breathe hard and move, but minutes into the process I couldn’t help but laugh as I vigorously and spasmodically moved my head, hands and feet. Afterwards, I walked out into the freezing night with a spring in my step. The trees looked more alive and I felt more a part of everything. I slept deeply that night.
Who knows what crazy, wondrous raw or subtle movements lay inside of us waiting to come out? Without words we can express so much, if we would only move in congruence with our bodies. In such a case, that which is hidden springs forth: the beauty, sadness, vulnerability, and freedom of our souls. The dance flows best when there is little or no self-consciousness and the person has found their unique flow. It is then as if some force of rhythm or beat from beyond is moving through them. We have so many different partners that we move through and with: our angels, our neuroses, our lovers, our enemies, our friends, people we don’t know, and Protean spirits that were forgotten long ago and covered up with concrete or drowned out in the drone of man-made device.
I have a dream. That Americans begin to regularly move and shake, sometimes alone and sometime together. I believe that intentional movement can bring us together and enable us to awaken our compassionate hearts and galvanize our potential to take constructive action in the world. I envision a simultaneous loosening and intensification of individual and communal life through simple, natural, and powerful forms of ecstatic dance.
But why is it so difficult to let the body shake and express itself? What is the resistance? Undeniably, there are deeply entrenched religious and cultural fears and taboos about unleashing the body electric. As Western Europeans colonized Africa and the Americas, they banned the drum and ceremonies of ecstatic dance and denounced such practices as indecent and devilish. Deep in our cultural structure and conditioning are severe prohibitions against unbridled experiences of bodily rhythm and inhibitions about freely expressing ourselves through movement. There is minimal social support for the ecstatic dancing experience, consuming alcohol at a local club notwithstanding.
We also fear entering deeply into the realm of the dance because it removes us from the societal standard of normality and compels us to investigate and take seriously our own unique experiences, feelings, and perceptions. A trance dancer is compelled to follow her inner beat, which may not be the beat of the mainstream culture. Furthermore, human beings like to feel as though they are in control. Cultures that possess advanced technology and conveniences are especially invested in the notion that they can control life with their minds. Immersing yourself in the domain of trance dance necessarily involves a loss of conscious, ego control and a surrender to something that is not easily understood or quantifiable. We modern Americans try to control most aspects of our lives and are threatened by an experience that can, literally, shake up our preconceptions about the nature of self and life.
The phenomenon and suppression of ecstatic dance rites in history and modern culture would be merely a curious side note did it not strike at the core of several of the most significant concerns of our times. In short, repressed and restricted movement is dangerous, for it can be a symptom and a cause of denied pain and feeling and a reduced capacity to imagine and love. There is a striking connection between the mind and the body; we hold tensions, memories, and emotional wounds in our body. As any practitioner of yoga will attest, engaging in different physical poses and stretching the muscles and tendons leads to a more supple and open mind. A body that tries to control its movements so it looks normal and controlled from the outside is not a happy body. Most people in the United States repress their bodily movements and inner bodily sensations. In doing so, they reduce their capacity for deep feeling, clear awareness, joy and even love.
Trance dancing is important now because our culture is at a deadly crossroads of possibility, a moment the Greeks might call kairos. Despite advanced technology and increased ability to manipulate the environment at the macro and micro levels, we humans still have trouble living in peace and balance. An increase in conveniences has not led to increased amounts of wisdom and compassionate action. In a fast-paced, highly structured society, people have lost touch with their biological roots and are not always able to act in ways that best build supportive and sustainable community. Not that trance dance will solve all the world’s problems, but it can help cultivate deep connection to life, the earth, and reservoirs of peace within us. The dance can help us ignite something simple but valuable: fresh, vast perception and a strong, open heart. Sometimes we look for complicated, expensive, or exotic solutions to our sense of unease or duress. But perhaps our humble, stressed, often neglected bodies, right here and now, provide us with great opportunity for spiritual and psychological renewal.
So try it. When no one is looking, close your blinds or shut your office door. Shake your hands and feet or contort your eyebrows. Bounce up and down. Move any way you want–no rules. Kick some Mr. Miyagi style karate kicks. Perform a pirouette. Let your wrist flap like a flag. Forget for a few minutes what your judgmental mind has to say and listen to your body. Yes, listen to it. What does it feel? What does it want? What is it saying? Move the way your tender, divine body wants to move. And when you are ready, take it to the streets.
The word “dance” comes from the Frankish word dintkan, which means to tremble or move back and forth.
The word “ecstasy” comes from the Greek word ekstasis, which means distraction, trance, or being put out of your regular place.
The English word “trance” comes from the Latin transire, which means to die or to go across. It is also related to the Old French transe, which suggests great anxiety or fear.
Bono, that singing, dancing Celtic soul, has it quite right.
She moves in mysterious ways
It’s alright…it’s alright…it’s alright
We move through miracle days
Spirit moves in mysterious ways
Photo by photoj ;-], used under a Creative Commons license.