Exploring Expressive Movement through Ecstatic Dance
For as long as I can remember, I have longed to spend more time dancing.
My mother loves to tell the story of how much she would look forward to Sunday mornings when I was a baby. She could turn on the Gospel channel plop me down, where I was happy as a clam for a good hour or so, bopping away to the upbeat hymns, swaying with the same movement I saw on the screen, while she would sip her coffee, read and take it easy.
Having been raised in white middle-class Canadian society, dance, and expression through movement, in general, has not played any significant role in my cultural experience. I took some dance classes as a kid, but they were very structured and performance-based. I was a shy kid, and eventually, I asked if I could stop, since the classes caused more anxiety than they were worth.
I remember how excited I was when I would get new records and cassettes. I would play them over and over again, jumping up and down on my bed and dancing for hours, by myself or with friends.
At an early age I became fascinated with a Baptist church we used to walk by when visiting friends. Having been raised in a secular household, I had no concept of religious beliefs and practices until I was much older. But this church sounded like THE PLACE TO BE on the weekends. I was curious, fascinated, and so very drawn to the concept of getting together with other people in the community and singing and dancing.
Like many young girls of my generation, I was pretty in love with the movie ‘Dirty Dancing.’ I longed to belong to a group of cool people who would get together to dance and express themselves with movement and style. I could relate to the fact that they had to do it in their “off” time, having to portray a much less colourful version of themselves to be accepted by their families, co-workers and employers.
When I hit the bar scene as a young adult, for a short while my love for dancing was more adequately satisfied. But eventually the “pick-up” scene, late nights, and copious amounts of alcohol no longer suited my lifestyle. Not to mention dancing at the local clubs always seemed to be more about showing off, or being seen, than about movement and expression. And ever since, I have been at a loss for places to go out dancing that doesn’t involve getting hit on, drinking, and late evenings (maybe I’m lame, I don’t know…).
But what I do know is that I still CRAVE dancing!
My body wants to move!
Sometimes I wonder if there is a very voluptuous latino woman trapped inside this tall skinny white girl; a woman who was born knowing how to move her body, who is entirely at ease with giving in to the impulses the music asks of her, with confidence. Here I am trapped in a culture that Just Doesn’t Dance.
It’s a little stifling. It’s unlikely that there is a latino lady trapped inside of me, but I find it interesting that it is the imagery my psyche has conjured up. I have no examples of my own family, anyone from my earliest experiences of community, or white people in general, dancing for the pure joy of it! So I’ve looked to other cultures, cultures that use dance and expressive movement so much more than the one I was raised in and longed to be a part of a community that feels more comfortable with the body and it’s role in expression.
Earlier this year I was down in Peru on an intensive retreat. During the retreat, movement was introduced to us as a way to work through, and MOVE, a lot of the emotions and experiences that were coming up for us. In fact, many of us were experiencing a lot of physical discomforts, which was likely due to all the emotional work that we were doing.
Emotions take up space, just like anything else. And as we delved into ourselves, from deep in our being, we were suddenly much more aware of the physical space that our emotions, memories, traumas, and stress, were taking up.
Yoga was a daily activity, as was spending time in nature and swimming in the jungle river. These were immensely helpful, but there was nothing about them that especially came from within our body. And then one day, one of the facilitators announced there would be Ecstatic Dance in the Maloka (ceremonial hut) that afternoon. It was not mandatory, and I was wiped, but I do love to dance…
So, I dragged my butt over to the Maloka where our guide, Mel, explained a little about what Ecstatic Dance was. The point was straightforward; to connect with our bodies, and to allow ourselves to respond to the music in any way we feel. She had compiled a playlist that reflected the elements; earth, water, fire, air and ether. As she explained, each element posses a specific type of energy, a kind of energy that every one of us has a connection with, as we are amazing, beautiful beings of this earth and universe.
For example, earth energy tends to be somewhat heavy, dark, and slow, whereas fire energy would be in direct contrast to that; fast, hot, and jumpy. Using the music, our breath, and intuition, we were invited to connect with the music and let it move us.
All of us had been through quite a bit together at this point in the retreat, so it was a great place to be introduced to this, as worrying about what we looked like was just no longer an issue. Mel suggested we close our eyes if we feel ourselves getting anxious about what others are thinking. “Dance like no one is watching.” I think we have all heard that before…
Many of us lay down on the floor as she started the music. The low grumblings and heavy bass began to pull at me. I tried not to think about anyone. I closed my eyes and dropped into my body to start connecting to the ebb and flow of my breath. The music was heavy, and as I let it into my being, I could feel myself be heavy with it.
I started to wonder what it felt like to be dirt or to live in the soil. What would it be like to be so close to minerals all the time? What would it be like to be beneath all the action happening above and to feel it move the ground? What would it sound like? What temperature would it be? I started feeling the urge to roll around on the Maloka floor.
And then the most amazing thing happened; I started to roll around on the floor! I didn’t care what I looked like. I imagined that everyone was feeling more or less the same level of self-consciousness that I was and that they likely weren’t giving me, or what I was doing much thought. I decided to do myself a favour, and block out any negative or self-conscious mental talk. The goal was to be in my body and to give my mind a break.
So I was rolling around on the floor. It felt amazing. It was so silly and was what I felt like doing, and it was the best!
I instantly connected to my little girl, my five-year-old daughter who often dances without thought or worry, who blurts out visceral expression, be it yelling incoherent verbal speech, dance moves, or just falling on the floor for no apparent reason.
And I connected to my childhood self that used to do that too.
The pace started to pick up, and my movements got faster. Parts of my body started leaving the floor and reaching for the sky. Soon I was on my feet, and I was moving, a lot. Every part of my body that I became conscious of, I would connect with it and explore what moving it would feel like. Did it like rotation? Contraction? Dangling? What was it that made my parts, my body FEEL good.
Eventually, there was a lot of jumping, and the whole Maloka floor was bouncing and vibrating with everyone’s movement. The energy quickly increased, and Linda let loose and screamed out in Joy. Several others (including myself) followed suit. We were hooting and hollering and screaming and grumbling.
This was AMAZING!
After an hour or so the music started to slow down again. Everyone began moving closer to the floor, feeling a pullback towards the ground, connecting to the rock and mineral energy of the earth, and the gravitational pull from our planet’s core. At last, we were all still, laying on the floor once again, covered in sweat, happy as clams. I couldn’t believe how energised I felt. I had been EXHAUSTED before we had started. But the dance had shifted it all. I had pushed it all out of my body, having moved my body from my inner self, and had left it all on the dance floor. I felt so much lighter, and I couldn’t stop smiling.
It turns out there is a small Ecstatic Dance community in Ottawa. They meet 2-3 times a month, with rotating DJ’s. The drop-ins are affordable, and the crowd is very welcoming and non-judgemental. The dancers are diverse, young and old, tall and small, round and ruler like, a representation of all shapes, sizes and genders. There is no pressure to socialise, and chit-chat on the dance floor is discouraged, yet auditory expression is encouraged.
There is a woman I see there often, who about halfway through the set, starts to bubble up with laughter. She laughs and dances and dances and laughs. She’s my favourite. I try to dance close to her, as her energy and joy are utterly infectious. I often find myself giggling along with her. I always love being reminded that it is not only ‘negative’ emotions or energy that take up space in our tissues. It is all emotion, as really, they are just all the same emotion at different places on a single spectrum. It is all one. She reminds me of this every time.
Slowly as I’m attending more and more evenings, I’ve started talking with some of the other dancers before or after the dance. They are an amiable, lovely bunch. But generally, I go there to dance. These nights have the power to change your day, even your week. Bust out some gymnastic moves, roar like a lion, bring your bongo drum, or bop around like your at the club. The only rules are that you must exercise respect for others and their space.
Other than that, you are free as a bird!
There’s a lot of reasons why dance is good for us. The more I work with people, with my clients, there is just no longer any place for me to deny how linked our body’s are with our psyche, and even our environment. A release of emotion, both positive and negative sentiment, will often follow a discharge in the tissue, and vice versa. Our feelings, our stress’, they take up space, and not just in our minds.
Physical restrictions and tensions pull at the psyche too, affecting our moods, temperament, and patience. In the same way, a river needs space to flow, or it will bubble over the edge, our body/minds need the same. Or if there is no place to boil over, the water will sit there and become a stagnant and stinky pool. We are not much different.
With too much stillness our bodies will begin to cause us discomfort and disease because we need movement to maintain proper function, nourishment and oxygen. In Movement, there will be space, growth, evolution and a place to return to our natural state, that of Joy and Love.
This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
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