Dance is my therapy

14 Mins read

Since I was twelve, my Mum has had bi-polar disorder, a diagnosis that has caused a great rift within our family.

The way it has affected me personally is quite different. I have extremely vivid memories of walking in on her, with my Dad, when I was 16 with her head on the kitchen table, having tried to overdose on her medication and paracetamol. That’s an experience which is extremely hard to shake from your memory.

This is only one example of a moment in many moments of betrayal pain that I have felt during my upbringing. These include stopping your Mum, who isn’t acting like the Mum you know, without a plan, trying to get on a plane to London from Liverpool to see a concert.

Sitting beside your Mum’s bed whilst she is drowning in her pain and her perceived pointlessness of life. I’m not trying to bemoan my childhood and act like a victim, but this is merely to illustrate the extent of the trauma I’ve experienced between the years 12 and 19.

I lost contact with her when I was 19, and over the last two years, I’ve had multiple conversations with my Dad at different points about whether or not I should go to counselling. Eventually, this culminated in me attending counselling around June this year. I went to two more sessions and stopped. I didn’t feel like I could express myself in a vulnerable way to my counsellor, and it felt like she didn’t actually care and was just there for a paycheck.

Ecstatic dance

She is the most elegant being ever to embody human form, and I thank God a thousand times for allowing such an exquisite being to walk the earth. She is the only therapist that has made me cry, jump for joy and show me new insights to who I am as a person.

Discovering dance was something I did by accident. After packing up my things into storage over the summer, I felt bored and was looking for a spiritual event to go to. I found an event in Camden that day and when I arrived, I was blown away by what I saw.

Walking into my first ever ecstatic dance, there was a great sense of returning home. Like I had found a place where I belong. It was movement and self-expression in its purest form. Ecstatic “whoops” occasionally fill the air when the music picked up pace. Gradually the movement on the dance floor slows down to a stop as DJ Seth tells everyone to move to the edge of the room.

A picture of Seth Newman

Seth Newman [URUBU School of Transformational Arts]

URUBU School of Transformational Arts runs this Ecstatic Dance event. They’re a couple named Seth and D Newman. The company was initially started by Seth in 2009 after the financial crash and was the first of its kind organised in the UK.

Before starting URUBU, Seth worked for the Music Service, which was run by London Councils. Seth was employed to run Brazilian and African drumming across London in various schools. Everything was going OK until the financial recession in 2008, when a lot of the funding for the project was cut.

Driven to the edge due to being overworked, Seth considered ending it all: “Before attempting suicide, I had a lot of fear about what other people would think of me setting up a band and trying to run Ecstatic Dance events. After it, I didn’t give a shit anymore. I didn’t care what other people thought because I’d been on the edge of life and death. What mattered was stepping wholeheartedly into something that I really wanted to do.”

On the edge of the dancefloor, we were offered a small cup of cacao. “We’re now going to hand out the Cacao to anyone who wants some,” Seth says. His voice is airy and relaxed. It wafts gently across the room. When everyone has a cup, he continues: “We’re going to take the cacao in two rounds. The first is something you want to release.”

I wanted to release the anger and betrayal I felt towards my Mum. The sweet, rich, chocolaty mixture glides down my throat. We yelled each of our intentions as loud as we could so the other side of Camden could hear us.

The second was something that you wanted to bring into your life. I intended to bring in my own space where I felt safe and loved. Satisfied by the brief vocal expression, we began dancing again.

I gyrated my shoulders in a backwards circular motion to match a backwards-forwards four-step. Eventually, the cacao kicks in. The room becomes far warmer and joyful. I can slowly feel a smile spreading from the corners of my cheeks to a beaming smile “Awoooo!!”

Ecstatic Dance can be especially magical at times because there’s no talking or taking pictures on the dancefloor. You have to embody the dance completely.

Seth encouraged people to pair up and dance with each other. I meet this equally ecstatic girl with short brown hair and braces. By this time the movement has changed into a strange criss-cross walk where we move our palms in such a way that they’re opposite each other, but don’t touch. I felt this gentle, energetic, pulsing feeling where it was like an electric current was jumping between our hands, connecting us.

This interaction touched a new part of myself. Something far deeper than the personality and who I was on the surface. I closed my eyes, fully embracing this beautiful interaction with another human being.

Natalia, who is now a friend, has been practising Ecstatic Dance for about a year: “I was willing to push through some of my internal barriers. I think by doing an ecstatic dance, I have discovered a lot about myself. I have been able to reconnect with some powerful emotions that I was able to experience during an ecstatic dance.

Ecstatic Dance Band Playing in St Peter's Church Vauxhall

Ecstatic Dance Band Playing in St Peter’s Church Vauxhall [URUBU School of Transformational Arts]

“For example, anger and sadness and all of those emotions that sometimes in real life, I find difficult to really feel and give a voice to. All of the emotions we tend to label as ‘negative’. Also, the positive emotions of being able to connect with other people in a very authentic way in an environment I feel very safe. An environment where I get that strong sense of belonging.”

Personally, I can’t pinpoint what I’ve released since I’ve been dancing. I have found; however, that I walk around with a lot less blame and hatred directed at the world. I don’t feel that what happened to me as a teenager was too great an injustice. In fact, now, in many ways, I feel it to be a blessing because it has shown me how bad things can really get for people, developing the way I feel empathy for other people’s struggles.

Seth masterfully expresses the process that people go through in the dance. His beautiful description immerses you in waves of pleasurable ecstasy with the soft subtle tones of his voice: “We get to a certain point in our lives where we find the things that worked when we were younger no longer work. We reach a dead end. Some people might call it a midlife crisis. You’re now in this place where you have to shed a skin.

“By dancing, you’re shaking it off. There’s only so much you can talk about. You can go to therapy and talk and talk, but a lot of it is a physiological response to life. No amount of talking about is actually going to release what is held in the body, there’s an instinctive pull towards dance and movement in the body for the body to release what it’s holding on to. It’s so simple, but holds a lot of healing possibilities,” he said.

Natalia spoke to me about how ecstatic dance has impacted her life. “Soon after going to ecstatic dance during the summer, I decided I wanted to go back to psychotherapy. I felt as if something opened up in me. A certain readiness to work through some things that I found difficult to work through before.”

“I was willing to push through some of my internal barriers. I think by doing an ecstatic dance, I have discovered a lot about myself. I have been able to reconnect with some powerful emotions that I was able to experience during an ecstatic dance. For example, anger and sadness and all of those emotions that sometimes in real life, I find difficult to really feel and give a voice to. All of the emotions we tend to label as ‘negative’. Also, the positive emotions of being able to connect with other people in a very authentic way in an environment I feel very safe. An environment where I get that strong sense of belonging.”

Natalia was raised Catholic, and she also has a medical condition that affects her joints: “Something specifically came to mind, which was Jesus Christ on a cross. This image came to mind of the wounds Jesus had. This is also where the pains in my joints are. I was thinking about the idea of sacrifice and suffering, and how in Catholicism it’s been elevated as something to aspire to.

“I found it so powerful. I felt anger. Why was I educated that way? That’s not how you should be living your life. I don’t have to suffer. I started doing some movements as if I was peeling that pain away from my body, especially from my joints. I was doing it in a creative dancing movement,” she said,

[pullquote align=”right”]“By dancing, you’re shaking it off. There’s only so much you can talk about.”[/pullquote]“When I was dancing with other people, I was still focused on receiving that healing positive energy from other people. At the end of the night, when everything slows down, and people are almost meditating. I was drained. I lie down on the ground. I’m feeling a lot of emotions: on the one hand, I’ve had a perfect time, and I’ve connected with a lot of people. On the other hand, I’m feeling dissatisfied because I can’t dance as much as I want to and I’m feeling tired and aching.

“I lie down and close my eyes. I still wanted to dance, but I couldn’t.  I closed my eyes and listened to the music and imagined some dancing energy above me. It was just so beautiful, and the energy changed into a woman. With my eyes closed, I imagined a girl I see a lot at Ecstatic Dance. She dances really beautifully. She always has so much energy. She wears these beautiful, colourful, clothes and she has long hair. She looks adorable when she dances. Suddenly I open my eyes, and she was dancing above me, that was really spooky,” Natalia told me.

At another ecstatic dance, I met a woman named Maya, who described a beautiful scene: “So, tonight was very, very, sweet and special because, for me, the touching part was that there was a girl who was having problems with moving. We all carried her through. The energy of it was just beautiful. At one point, she fell, but there are no accidents. Nothing happens, usually. She was so beautifully picked up from the floor and started to dance again. The power of the group and the beauty of people caring.”

The ecstatic dance community is a very open, friendly community. Ecstatic dance could be seen as similar to a night out at a club just without the drugs or alcohol. “On one level, it is simply just a night club experience. At another level, you could see it as a way for people to get in touch with their life energy through dance, community and just having fun.  You can feel what’s happening in your body through movement and not have to run away from it. That’s the core addiction,” Seth said.

Ecstatic dance involves some level of facilitation too. Seth asks people to split off into groups of six. People dance wildly flailing their heads and arms in many directions. People each take it in turns to dance in the middle of each of these groups.

From the circle dancing, the group then moves into something called a chaos circle. Where the dancers spread out into a wide circle and dancers, take it in turns to step into the middle to be showered with positivity by the dancers on the edge of the circle. The music reaches its peak of intensity at this point, and there’s often the most amount of noises expressed by the dancers.

Eventually, this slows down, and all the dancers stand on the edge of the circle, holding hands as Seth encourages the group to find a unique way to close the dance. The dancers weave in and out of each other. Hands interlocking until they break the chain, the dancers move back to dancing on their own. This time the music has taken a relaxed tone. No more loud noises are expressed by the dancers.

Dreamily, the dancers sway from side to side. Some have chosen to stop moving at all and are lying on the floor with pillows they grabbed from the edge of the dance floor. Relaxed and content, to move or not move, the dance gently ends.

Going deeper

To grasp the roots of Ecstatic Dance, I went to a Five Rhythms event. I was sceptical since I felt that being only able to move within five rhythms would restrict my ability to express myself.

The venue was St John’s Evangelist Church, near Kensal Green tube station; and was a contrast to the tightly-packed Pirate Castle venue in Camden. The typically, intensely joyous energy that you’d expect from Ecstatic Dance was replaced with a far more relaxed, peaceful environment. People weren’t here for a night out; they were here to dance.

After easing into the spirit of dance, we stood in a circle. Ajay Rajani described and demonstrated the 5Rhythms to us. They are Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness. “Just let whatever flows to flow, and we’ll have a really nice time. Now turn around and walk,” he said.

I took careful steps away, aware of my balance, and how my feet padded across the church floor. Stopping, I crouched down on the floor with my knees to my chest. Ajay kept asking us to allow in more breath. I did. Feeling the density in my chest. I questioned myself: “How long has that been there for?”

I jumped up taking powerful steps forward, jabbing my hands out in front of me, moving to an aggressive Staccato rhythm. I start flicking my left side forwards in the movement then cry out! I collapse to the floor, crying. The pain in my side is so much. It’s like someone has placed tiny needles in my stomach, and is enjoying the pain it gives me as a struggle on the floor. A woman comes over to see if I’m okay. I nod my head.

Ecstatic Dance Band Playing in St Peter's Church Vauxhall

Ecstatic Dance Band Playing in St Peter’s Church Vauxhall [URUBU School of Transformational Arts]

Getting up, I then move into a Chaos Rhythm. Wildly waving my hands and arms about. My shoulders move into it as well as the big wide steps I take with my legs. Finally, I do a whole-body wave with my hands at my sides, collapsing on the floor again, clutching my side in agony.

Sitting up, I start moving again, slowly, as not to feel the pain that was now across my solar plexus and had now moved up to my chest too. A tanned Moroccan woman crawled towards me, placing her back against mine. We moved to the music pushing back on each other. Supporting each other. We rose together then span around to face each other pirouetting away.

By now, the pain intensity around my body was immense. I kept dancing intensely then stopped, holding myself chest out arms back, breathing, waiting. Then this massive wave hit me, knocking me backwards. I very nearly passed out.

After this moment, the sensation was strange. It was like I could see it again! Like I was actually using my eyes for what they were made for. The world in front of me gained rapidly in clarity. The density in my chest and solar plexus had evaporated. It was this moment that I fell in love with Five Rhythms and became very excited about its possibilities for trauma release.

This experience led me to seek out Christian De Sousa who was taught to be a facilitator by Gabrielle Roth, the woman who discovered the universal Five Rhythms.

[pullquote align=”right”]“La Chunga was a shotgun blast through my carefully constructed personality.” [/pullquote]“I trained with Gabrielle Roth in 2004/5. I’d been dancing Five Rhythms since 1998. It was a complete accident. I was a photojournalist, visual artist slash documentary photographer. I started dancing the Five Rhythms, and it was amazing. It was a homecoming, really. Gabrielle Roth talks about the Five Rhythms as being the DNA for the creative process and me that really resonated.”

In her book Maps of Ecstasy, Gabrielle Roth describes dance as being a “map” to ecstasy, which is “a state of total aliveness and unity, unity of body, heart, mind, soul and spirit.” It’s a way to step out of our “habitual roles and scripts”.

In her early career, she taught dance and drama to school children and people with mental illnesses. She found that it was difficult to plan and execute a lesson because the energy flow of the group was often very unpredictable, especially with children.

“One minute I’d be telling stories, the next moment creating a new tag game; then I’d be explaining why two dogs were stuck together; soon I’d be umpiring a baseball game, and then a crying kid would need consoling.”

It wasn’t until she went to Europe and saw a dancer named La Chunga that she began to her perspective from rigours practice, prescription and perfection of the professional dance world to a freer form of dance. “La Chunga was a shotgun blast through my carefully constructed personality and let my soul pour out into real-time. The permission to dance with passion and to dance forever jolted me from unconscious inertia and self-conscious imitation to the intuitive dance of my soul.”

In the mid-sixties, she moved back to America to teach. She eventually quit teaching with the idea to become a professional dancer. This was, however, cut short as an old skiing injury on her knee stopped her. At this point, she met the father Gestalt therapy Fritz Perls who invited her to start working at the Esalen Institute. This was the infancy of Five Rhythms.

In her book, Gabrielle often refers to an experience named the Silver Desert. I attempted to glean further information about this from Christian: “It’s a very expanded state of trance consciousness. That’s healing because it reminds us of who we are at our deepest level. We are much more than who we are on a surface level when we go about our daily lives. We have quite a restricted experience of what we are, and then in the dance, we can expand into the fullness of what we are.”

Five Rhythms has further applications beyond purely just dance. Christian says you can track a day through them. “You start your day, and you’re just coming into the flow of things. You wake up, and you’re just kind of receiving your senses and what’s happening. You have a cup of tea, or you go out for a walk. There’s this kind of fluidity.

“Then, the day starts. There’s a plan/agenda. I’ve got a list of things I need to do. You move into a different mode that has more of a Staccato Energy. It’s going from one thing to another and getting things done. At some point, if you’re tracking the natural flow of energy, things will kind of lean into chaos. Things move faster. You get lots of phone calls, or something happens that you didn’t expect or you realise you’ve forgotten something. For me, it’s one o’clock in the day. Then there’s that moment where we question whether or not we just surrender.”

We’re now reaching a point where more dance practices are coming into being. These include Soul Motion, Open Floor and Movement Medicine. “Movement medicine has a very strong Shamanic context while Open Floor has a more psychotherapeutic context because the founders were long-time psychotherapists. Soul Motion has an artistic element to it. The founder was an artist choreographer and theatre person,” Christian says.

So many more dance practices exist beyond the boundaries on Five Rhythms it seems we’re at an exciting “mushrooming” point where there are now more new dance practices than ever before. It’ll be interesting to see how this kind of dance develops further.




Featured image courtesy of the URUBU School of Transformational Arts.
Edited by Daniela Ferreira Teixeira.

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