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Contacting the Soul by Ken Martini
Contact Improvisation for me has been like riding the vanguard of human development. So here we stand at what may be one of the edges of human expansion, stretching the envelope that contains us.
Contact Improvisation is not just another dance technique or discipline. It is a forum for discovering who we are beneath our skins. It is a place where our self concept is questioned. Who am I? What is the shape of my fear? To what degree am I present? What particular trance am I in at this moment? What dialog is running through my mind? What ghosts gnaw at my soul? I stand so naked on this dance floor, I cannot stop from being witnessed in all levels of who I am.
To be off balance. To loose control for that split second. To be plucked out of the air by a sure hand. To have that hand miss. To land on my sure hands. To land on hands that are not so sure. To come to the edge of my envelope .
I ask why?, and why not? When we question what comprises our reality, we are about to push the boundaries of our awareness. We are now on the “Heroic Journey”. This journey is heroic because we may die, not once but many times. In the house of mirrors where we reflect on ourselves. We see ourselves standing before us. This particular body, our profession, the good parent, the athlete, the charming smile, the twinkle in the eye, our higher learning credentials. The body will disintegrate. The rest is intangible. When we reach out to touch our hand passes through. It is only a concept we call self.
If we are to construct an evolved self, some of the premises we call ourselves have to be discarded. We cannot avoid dying, and in dying we are reborn. Perhaps less encumbered by ghosts. Maybe more present for the next dance.
Ken Martini, Sept. 6, 1996
What a Dancer Needs? by sudha
Moves and a feeling to dance, is that enough for a dancer? The answer is no as a dancer requires more than these. Along with the physical strength some mental power is also essential.
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A dancer should be a lively character. Liveliness should appear from head to toe. Dexterity makes a performance better and enthralling.
Along with the agility, steadiness is also essential for a dancer. I won’t be wrong, if I say that agility and steadiness go hand in hand. A dancer should look vigorous, sparking and dynamic but at the same time control, calmness and reliability is required.
Many dancers are naturally flexible and rarely have to worry about improving their stretch. But the non-dancers have to work hard for graceful lines and curves. Back flexibility is very crippling for anyone involved in dancing. Even the most basic choreography engrosses executing moves that involve flexibility.
For moving the body slowly and steadily balance is also essential. In any dance performance along with the moves some lifts and rounds are part of it. For any lift or jump balance is required. Every dance form has different kind of lifts. For every lift balancing is the pre requisite. You may fall down on the floor, if body is not balanced properly. For balancing the body, focus is on toes.
Hard work and devotion
A dancer has to work hard really for a good, beautiful and graceful performance. Every dance move requires strength. If your body is not flexible, you have to, make it. A dancer can’t lag behind just because of stiff body. Devotion for dancing is the most important and strong feeling of a performer. It’s the inner feeling which makes you lost in the world of dancing that lends in relaxation and eternity. Dancer has to be in the performance. Devotion for dancing lends you in such a world that you and the dance becomes inseparable.
Along with all these traits and essentials some more characteristics which a dancer should have is love for dance, modesty, commitment for learning, punctuality, honesty, awareness and discipline. So explore the inner energies, incessant efforts towards bringing excellence and above all, faith in art that it will help you connect with true perfect brilliant self.
Above all, a dancer should be healthy enough that he has the strength for the moves, lifts and is capable to exhaust for long hours. So, a dancer needs a healthy diet. Fruits, green vegetables and juices help a lot if you don’t have ample time to have three meals a day. Eating something, after few hours will make you feel energetic.
Keeping these things in mind, you can tap your feet on the dance floor with a charming smile.
Wisdom: Brain vs Body by Donna Carroll by MT
As the music began to slow to a spacious, velvety sweetness, my sweat-infused body, arms outstretched, made contact with another’s sweaty limbs and we began moving together on Valerie’s candle-lit dance floor in her spacious Point Richmond home. The pressure of his strong forearm against my tattooed tricep urged me to lean into the connection. As I did, I noticed a contraction happen in my chest as my mind warned me not to get too close, protecting me from the times when touch was unwanted and unsafe. After all, my brain reasoned, I didn’t know this person and wasn’t sure if he could be trusted if I opened and exposed my vulnerability. He might want something more, or I might get caught up in the story of a fairy tale romance. I made a choice to thank my mind for its concern, and let it go, following my body’s wisdom. What if I surrendered into this dance, the way I am able to surrender into the dance I often dance on my own? Yes, my body seemed to be saying, please do, for I am craving tenderness and human contact.
Ecstatic Dance FAQ by Karen Berggren
Grab your candle and dance!
Everyone is dying to live ecstatically in a community where spirits and people are equal.
– Arnold Mindell, The Shaman’s Body
Across time and culture, dance has long been revered for its power to heal body, mind, and soul, strengthen the bonds of community, and to commune with spirit and nature allowing us to discover deeper aspects of who we are as human beings. Dance is also used as a form of worship, celebration, story-telling and myth-making, and to commemorate important rites of passage. We can glean some of the significance dance held in ancient tribal life, for next to hunting, it is the second most common activity shown in cave paintings.
Cut off from its healing and esoteric roots, western culture has reduced dance to a form of entertainment, a way to socialize, or to attract a mate. It’s generally not thought of as a way to pray, meditate, evoke visionary experience, or commune with spirit and nature. Yet in the past decade or so, it seems that the ancient understandings of dance as a healing and spiritual modality are impressing themselves upon the modern mind, as if welling up from old, vibrant memories of the tribal soul within. The idea of dance as a symbolic language of the psyche that can initiate healing, visionary, and ecstatic experience through rhythm and movement is being explored by increasing numbers of people searching for new levels of health, wholeness, and spiritual connection.
What is ecstasy and ecstatic dance?
When we think of someone in ecstasy we usually picture a person swooning with wild unbounded joy and happiness. Yet ecstasy may also arrive during the throes of a painful or deep heart-rending event such as the death of a loved one, or a debilitating illness. It is the last thing you might ever expect to show up in the center of a deeply challenging experience, but sometimes it does.
Terrence McKenna defines ecstasy as a complex emotion containing elements of joy, fear, terror, triumph, surrender and empathy. It derives from the Greek word ekstasis, meaning “displacement, trance, to take flight, to drive out of one’s senses.” The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets defines it as “standing forth naked.” Einstein referred to it as the “ultimate religious feeling state,” while author Chris Griscom views it as “the higher self in action.”
A defining trait of ecstasy is its immediacy. Ecstasy is not some splendid event, like a ravishing sunset, that happens in the external world before our eyes and ears. Ecstasy happens to our selves. It is a momentary transformation of the knower, not merely a transformation of the knower’s experience. — Jourdain, Ecstasy and the Brain
Ecstasy bestows a sense of amazing grace and can come about with, or without, conscious intention. It’s an experience of unity and wholeness, an opening of the heart and mind that suddenly brings you into communion with something much larger than your self. It’s a deeply intimate experience creating a palpable sense of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. No social, political, or dogmatic constructs of any kind can contain, erase, or prohibit it from human experience.
Ecstatic experience is the oldest form of healing and spiritual practice known with evidence of it dating back over 30,000 years to ancient traditions of shamanism. It is believed that shamans were the first to discover and codify the use and power of rhythm through drumming, dancing, and chanting to carry them on their journeys into a world beyond the ordinary.
The “flight of ecstasy” is an anthropological term given to the shaman’s journey into these non-ordinary realms. In The World is as You Dream It, John Perkins introduces us to “dream change”, a translated term Ecuadorian shamans use to describe this flight of ecstasy and its purpose. The basic tenet of shamanism holds that our physical universe is an emanation, a protrusion, a dream, from this non-ordinary reality that is believed to be the source of all creation. Some names for this primary reality are the sacred realm, the mythic world, the Dreamtime, or in humanistic terms, the psyche. Even some physicists recognize its existence, referring to it as ‘the implicate order. ‘ The shaman’s work is to effect change in physical reality for the benefit of an individual or the tribe by journeying into this other realm. Once there, the shaman’s goal is to intentionally engage or reconcile the issue at its source, understanding that the results of this encounter will manifest in physical reality, thereby ‘changing the dream.’
Dancing through a shamanic portal
Ecstatic dance, which is sometimes referred to as trance dance, is based on the tenets of shamanism and has been used for eons as a method for dream change. It’s a multi-layered experience that takes the dancer on an inner journey to connect him to other sources of guidance, activate abilities to re-invent him, or invite spirit or life force energy to embody and heal him. Actually, the term ‘embody’ is a bit misleading, because this life force energy is within each of us, already. The demands, addictions, and over-rational beliefs of the modern world, however, have served to impede its flow and fragment this awareness away from us, taking with it other vital aspects of the self. Ecstatic dance helps restore this vital flow of life force and recover lost parts of the soul in the process. It is a way to re-member and activate the inherent shamanic archetype we each carry within our body-mind complex – an archetype that reveals our interconnections within the greater web of life and seeks to identify and consciously change the dreams that no longer serve our well-being.
Ecstatic dance is a form of active meditation or prayer where music, movement, and the breath are used to shift brain wave patterns from the day-to-day cognitive beta state, to the more meditative and insightful alpha state. The terms trance and altered state of consciousness refer to brain waves resonating at this alpha state, as well as theta and delta. Michael Harner has coined the term shamanic state of consciousness (SSC) to describe this level of awareness. The SSC is what the ecstatic dancer seeks, as well as the shaman, to initiate the dream change process.
Before entering an ecstatic dance journey, the dancer forms an intention for a particular dream change. When the dancer enters an SSC through the dance, the veils that appeared to separate the self into mind, body, and soul in ordinary reality are pulled away so that the dancer can experience herself and her intention at another level. In the landscape of the SSC, she feels an expanded sense of herself in communication with a greater source of being. She may experience her intention as already existing. This is because the SSC connects us with a more transcendent reality beyond the bounds of time and linear existence, as we know it. Not only do the veils that separate aspects of the self fall away, but also those that clearly differentiate past, present, and future. In ecstatic dance, the dream change we desire can be conceived as a pattern of energy that already exists which we then allow ourselves to entrain or resonate with.
With the music on, or drumming in the air, the dancer gently surrenders her body to the rhythms, allowing her movements to express and intuitively entrain to the energy of her intended dream change. The mind remains in a relaxed, yet attentive state, observing the process more than directing it. As the body moves within the SSC, a deeper wisdom begins to stir. … Hidden doors in the psyche open and information in the form of images, sensations, or insights related to the intention arise into conscious awareness, holographically. The dance then becomes a dialogue of sorts between the worlds; the body listening and responding to deeper cues and information through movement, while the mind makes note of journey imagery and interjects a telepathic question or comment now and then. The dance becomes not only a place to express one’s intention through movement, but also to listen for feedback and guidance on that intention from deeper sources of being.
It’s not unusual for ecstatic dance to open up into what people describe as a visionary experience of a mystical or spiritual nature. In these experiences, dancers report such things as communicating with spirit guides, animals, nature spirits, the earth, geometric shapes or symbols, or being immersed in a divine healing light or energy. Information gained in these experiences is frequently described as an instantaneous transmission or downloading of a large chunk of knowledge. Although it may take several pages in a journal to relay the information afterwards, it was all seen, learned, or realized within mere seconds. It also happens that specific information about your journey is not immediately available to you, but may take weeks or even months to rise into conscious awareness. It may take even longer to fully integrate this information into your life, so patience, reflection, diligence, and self-compassion are key. Information gained during ecstatic dance journeys can augment more traditional forms of therapy.
Ecstatic dance sees the body as a holy vessel of the spirit, a sacred kiva where we can awaken our greatest talents, healing, and dream change abilities, oftentimes hidden from our sight for years. The dance then becomes a source of revelation and renewal. From this experience our whole being: body, mind, and soul, is honored as sacred and the work of beauty it is. There is a sense of profound sense of sovereignty and sanctity that comes when the body has a time and place to genuinely express this deeper wisdom of the self, without having our socialized sensibilities reprimand or censor its expression. This in itself can be incredibly transformational.
Why dream change through ecstatic dance works (a theory)
When brain waves shift from ordinary consciousness into an SSC, we enter the realm of experience where the mind doesn’t distinguish between what is real and what is not. In effect, everything is real in an SSC. The dance journey experienced through the SSC guides us to our inner ‘field of possibilities’ where we find the most fertile soil to plant the seeds of our dream change intentions, or water the blooms that are already growing.
One working theory is that ecstatic dance enhances the dream change process by amplifying the creative powers of belief through movement. Rather than entering the landscape of the SSC through your mind alone, as in still meditation, in ecstatic dance your body is resonating with, moving through, and expressing the reality, the isness of the journey. Every cell in your body is humming with the images of your dream change reality. Your body, mind, and heart are collaboratively engaged, experiencing the context and contents of the journey as real.
In ordinary reality, we also know that a moving body initiates change. So when we put the body in motion to express the dream change journey, our movements inherently reinforce the belief that the change we seek is already in motion, that it’s happening. In effect, you’re able to experience your dream-changed self. Ecstatic dance also connects us to the deeper rhythms of life, numinous forces constantly flowing through us like a river below the surface of ordinary reality. Dance gives concrete form and expression to these forces, so that we may reflect upon their substance and dynamics and work with them more consciously.
To dance then, is to pray, to meditate, to enter into communion with the larger dance, which is the universe.
– Jean Houston
If I want to try ecstatic dance, what do I do?
There are different forms of contemporary ecstatic dance. I recommend exploring different models, for each has something important to contribute to our understanding of dance as a modality for dream change. Gabrielle Roth, the long-time pioneer of ecstatic dance in the west, offers a model based on a five-rhythm process she calls “The Wave.” Frank Natale has created another simply called Trance Dance in which a bandana covers the eyes and oxygenated breath is used to embark on a journey. There is another form called PanEuRhythmy that is done outdoors with specific movements and inspirational readings. And there are many other forms as well.
The approach I use unfolded organically, primarily through visionary experience and communications with the sentient landscape of my ecstatic dance journeys. What I mean by it unfolded “organically” is that this approach came about without my conscious awareness or intention to design one. It’s been very much like remembering a technique I’ve known, deep down inside from another place and time, and carried within me all along. As I began to share my discoveries and methodology with friends, we found that, much to our surprise, their experiences were very similar.
Through continued study and work with this approach, I’ve synthesized the information into its five basic archetypal elements: intention, surrender, entrainment, imagery, and non-ordinary states of consciousness (the SSC). The synthesis of these elements evokes the deeper stories, imagery, characters and creative energies in the overarching landscape of the psyche and provides a means to interact with this rich, living, inner soulscape. Due to their archetypal nature, these elements can be easily and beneficially integrated with other forms of ecstatic dance. While it would take several pages to describe each element in detail and how they together, I can offer an overview of the process if you wish to explore it further.
If you feel at all dance-challenged or have some sense of performance anxiety, just know that there are no wrong steps in ecstatic dance! Every move you make is right. You don’t have to be concerned about being aesthetic, graceful, disciplined, pretty, strong, confident, coordinated or contained as we’re so often taught that dance is about. In many ways, ecstatic dance is the antithesis of everything we’ve been taught that dance is supposed to be. In the ecstatic dance journey, your whole being becomes the paintbrush that your spirit guides across the canvas of your soul. To become the paintbrush all you need do is relax, surrender into the rhythms, and let your body’s wisdom guide your movements. In other words, trust and release your grip on the steering wheel. You’re dancing for your Self and no one else.
To begin, don loose comfortable clothing and find a space where you won’t be disturbed or hurried for about 45 – 90 minutes. Set the ambience by lowering the lights. Light candles if you wish. Colored light bulbs are also good. You may want to burn a bit of incense or use an aromatherapy diffuser to release a light scent into the air, for fragrance also contributes to the shifting of consciousness.
Take a few moments of silence and call yourself into the presence of the Divine, or whatever it is you consider sacred. During these moments, create an intention for a dream change or something that you wish to accomplish through the dance. In this way, the dance begins to take on shamanic elements, since the shaman always enters the sacred realm for a specific purpose. Setting an intention also focuses and begins to ally the different parts of the mind in a shared task. An intention may be to request healing energy for you or for a troubled place on the planet. You may ask for insights into an issue you’re struggling with, seek guidance to find a new home or job, or simply invite your essential self to express its deeper reality through the dance. You can also use inner work cards like tarot, medicine cards, the Goddess Oracle, etc., to help with an intention. Draw a card and use the image or information contained within it to inform your dream change journey.
When you are formulating your intention, focus more on the feelings and qualities of it, rather than specific details of what you think the result should look like. For example, if you’re seeking a new job, picture yourself having that job and the good feelings it gives you…you’re ecstatic about the work, your colleagues, the location, etc. Use the dance journey to plant the seeds of change that will blossom into this reality. Focusing on the qualities of your dream change will help you be more open and perhaps less prejudiced against receiving those occasional unexpected, quirky, yet brilliant opportunities the universe sends your way in response to your intentions.
An important aspect of the experience is your choice of music. Try music with minimal vocals, ample polyrhythmical layers, and a solid percussion line. Some favorite ecstatic dance cds are by Gabrielle Roth & The Mirrors, Brent Lewis, James Asher, and Professor Trance. Whatever you choose, you may want to record a cassette of selections beforehand, or program some cds so as not to interrupt your dance journey once you begin. Choose music selections that offer a variety of tempos to inspire periods of restful and energetic movement.
Start with slow music and spend some time gently stretching and warming up parts of your body, from head to toe. As you begin stretching, breathe deeply following your breath inward. Drink the rhythms into your body using the breath. Scan your body with your inner senses using a relaxed attention. Notice if there are areas of tightness or discomfort. Breathe into these places and send the rhythms there to gently bathe the area. When you exhale, envision the tension being released through your breath. Do the same with your emotional body. Scan it gently to see what’s there. You don’t have to be peaceful to dance. In fact, the emotions are often the juice of the experience — the very thing that propels the journey or begs for release through the dance. Honoring your feelings and expressing them through the dance is a sure route to ecstasy through which well-being is restored. As Gabrielle Roth reminds us, “put the psyche in motion and it will heal itself.” So at this point, just gently scan your emotional body to see what’s there. If you find stress, sadness, joy, excitement, or frustration, just breathe with these feelings inviting them to share their energy and wisdom with you as part of your journey.
After stretching and scanning, feel free to increase the tempo of the music. At this point you may put your intention aside. It has already begun to seed your dance. Give your body permission to move authentically, in any way it wishes, so that it may express the deeper reality of the self. Your inner critic may pop up with its little judgements and admonitions, but just smile back and dance past it allowing its voice to fade into the background. If you don’t feel like getting up off the floor, stay there and do your dance. Follow the juice. Trust. Surrender into the rhythms. Let your dance become a prayer, offering up your intention to the universe. Let it become a cauldron burning away whatever you no longer need. Lose yourself in the motion. Be as a child. Go with wonder and curiosity to the place your body and soul want to take you. This is not somber work, it’s sacred play, fruit of the soul.
As you relax and continue surrendering into the rhythms you’ll enter an SSC as your brain waves begin shifting from ordinary beta waves to alpha waves. Don’t worry about if or when this happens. Just keep dancing. Lose yourself in the music for the next 30 or 40 minutes, or however long feels right to you. Let your mind make note of any images, sensations, or insights you receive along the way. If you entered the journey with a particular question in mind asking for assistance, the information will come to you. It may remain at an unconscious, imperceptible level, though during the journey you can often catch brief glimpses of this information. Then again, it can be days or weeks later, often when you least expect it, that insights and information from your journey suddenly flood your mind.
It’s not at all unusual to feel waves of intense energy during an ecstatic dance, but have no inner visual images or cognitive cues as to how these energetic sensations relate to your dream change journey. Since physical reality is, in part, created through many levels of the psyche, (conscious, supraconscious, subconscious, and unconscious) consider that the energy you feel indicates dream change activity happening below your threshold of cognitive awareness. Trust that whatever contents you need to know will eventually bubble up into your awareness. If you’re journeying with a spirit guide, you can also turn to them during the dance or afterwards and see what clarification they may offer.
When I first experienced intense energy in the dance, my body adopted a stomping movement for a few moments. As I followed this movement with my mind I became aware that it was my body’s way of acknowledging the energy and grounding the knowledge it carried into my being. As I joined my thoughts with this movement, I thanked the energy for coming to assist me and affirmed that I’d have conscious access to the content when I was ready, or needed it. If you encounter a similar experience, let your body create whatever dance movement feels right to acknowledge the energy and to affirm its knowledge into your being for future reference.
While we’re on the topic of intense energy, it’s not unusual for ecstatic dance to activate kundalini in the sacrum. This is life force energy that curls up the spine and emanates outward through every pore in your body. It creates a buzzing, tingling, heady, or at times an orgasmic sensation. Sit or lie down if it gets too intense. The journey will often continue, undisturbed, or even heighten as your dream change journey draws on the kundalini energy.
If you’re new to ecstatic dance, be gentle with yourself. Take your time to become familiar with entering SSCs in this manner and traversing the landscape. It’s different for each person, and no two journeys are alike. The more you strive to have a certain type or intensity of ecstatic experience, the more it will slip away, entirely. You really have to open and surrender to a deeper reality and directive. As Rilke once advised a young poet “…be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try and love the questions themselves…like books that are written in a very foreign tongue…The point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.” Rilke’s eloquent advice applies here beautifully as well. Live and love your questions. Dance them fully to the best of your ability, and one day, perhaps without even noticing it, you’ll dance yourself into their answers.
End your dance journey with slower, quieter music, whatever selections you find inspiring. Feel free to recline in a chair or lie on the floor with your eyes closed, breathing the rhythms into your being for another fifteen minutes or longer if possible. Being still is also an important and powerful part of the journey. Sometimes inner imagery becomes most active during this time, perhaps due to brain waves entering the theta state when outer movements are brought to rest, and the SSC continues. Direct your breath and the rhythms to any place you feel needs or wants attention. Afterwards, sit quietly and take a few minutes to record your impressions of the experience, whether pictorially or with words.
If your physical movements are restricted in any way, you can still experience the benefits of ecstatic dance. Find a comfortable chair, or if you can be propped up in bed, do so and follow the above guidance, only envision yourself dancing your dream change in your mind’s eye. When you drink the music into your body, give your mind all the freedom you can to free associate with the rhythms and the beat in your body. If it’s comfortable for you, rock or sway slightly. Even the slightest movement combined with music and your intention can have profound effects.
For in reality, rhythm and the ability to imagine are some of the greatest teachers and healers. Rhythm is the basis of our entire existence from the micro- to the macro-cosmic. It moves through us all the time, on all levels: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual seeking harmony and greater order in all its interactions. It’s the language of creation, the mother tongue of us all. Rhythm stimulates the imagination and evokes the shamanic state of consciousness whether you drum, dance, sing, chant, walk, or breathe your way there. Ecstatic dance is just one way to gather and synthesize the healing and dream change power of rhythm and imagination. The great ambassador of the drum, Babatunde Olatunji cautions that when we fall out of rhythm with our selves, our community, the earth, or with spirit, disease is sure to follow. So whether or not you’re healthy or have full mobility, it’s not only wise but extremely fun to include a conscious dose of rhythm along with your daily vitamins!
Dance, Dance, Revolution By BARBARA EHRENREICH
Published: June 3, 2007
COMPARED with most of the issues that the venerable civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel takes up, this one may seem like the ultimate in urban frivolity: Late last month, he joined hundreds of hip-hoppers, salsa dancers, Lindy Hoppers and techno-heads boogying along Fifth Avenue to protest New York City’s 80-year-old restrictions on dancing in bars.
Op-Ed Podcast: Editor David Shipley Talks With Aimee Mann and Barbara Ehrenreich (mp3)
But disputes over who can dance, how and where, are at least as old as civilization, and arise from the longstanding conflict between the forces of order and hierarchy on the one hand, and the deep human craving for free-spirited joy on the other.
New York’s cabaret laws limit dancing to licensed venues. They date back to the Harlem Renaissance, which had created the unsettling prospect of interracial dancing.
For decades, no one paid much attention to the laws until Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, bent on turning Manhattan into a giant mall/food court, decided to get tough. Today, the city far more famous for its night life than its Sunday services has only about 170 venues where it is legal to get up and dance — hence last month’s danced protest, as well as an earlier one in February.
Dust-ups over dancing have become a regular feature of urban life. Dance clubs all over the country have faced the threat of shutdowns because the dancing sometimes spills over into the streets. While neighbors annoyed by sleepless nights or the suspicion of illegal drug use may be justified in their concerns, conflict over public dancing has a long history — one that goes all the way back to the ancient Mediterranean world.
The Greeks danced to worship their gods — especially Dionysus, the god of ecstasy. But then the far more strait-laced Romans cracked down viciously on Dionysian worship in 186 B.C., even going on to ban dancing schools for Roman children a few decades later. The early Christians incorporated dance into their liturgy, despite church leaders’ worries about immodesty. But at the end of the fourth century, the archbishop of Constantinople issued the stern pronouncement: “For where there is a dance, there is also the Devil.”
The Catholic Church did not succeed in prohibiting dancing within churches until the late Middle Ages, and in doing so perhaps inadvertently set off the dance “manias” that swept Belgium, Germany and Italy starting in the 14th century. Long attributed to some form of toxin — ergot or spider venom — the manias drove thousands of people to the streets day and night, mocking and menacing the priests who tried to stop them.
In northern Europe, Calvinism brought a hasty death to the old public forms of dancing, along with the costuming, masking and feasting that had usually accompanied them. All that survived, outside of vestiges of “folk dancing,” were the elites’ tame, indoor ballroom dances, fraught, as in today’s “Dancing With the Stars,” with anxiety over a possible misstep. When Europeans fanned out across the globe in the 18th and 19th centuries, the colonizers made it a priority to crush the danced rituals of indigenous people, which were seen as savagery, devil worship and prelude to rebellion.
To the secular opponents of public dancing, it is always a noxious source of disorder and, in New York’s case, noise. But hardly anyone talks about what is lost when the music stops and the traditional venues close. Facing what he saw as an epidemic of melancholy, or what we would now call depression, the 17th-century English writer Robert Burton placed much of the blame on the Calvinist hostility to “dancing, singing, masking, mumming and stage plays.” In fact, in some cultures, ecstatic dance has been routinely employed as a cure for emotional disorders. Banning dancing may not cause depression, but it removes an ancient cure for it.
The need for public, celebratory dance seems to be hardwired into us. Rock art from around the world depicts stick figures dancing in lines and circles at least as far back as 10,000 years ago. According to some anthropologists, dance helped bond prehistoric people together in the large groups that were necessary for collective defense against marauding predators, both animals and human. While language also serves to forge community, it doesn’t come close to possessing the emotional urgency of dance. Without dance, we risk loneliness and anomie.
Dancing to music is not only mood-lifting and community-building; it’s also a uniquely human capability. No other animals, not even chimpanzees, can keep together in time to music. Yes, we can live without it, as most of us do most of the time, but why not reclaim our distinctively human heritage as creatures who can generate our own communal pleasures out of music and dance?
This is why New Yorkers — as well as all Americans faced with anti-dance restrictions — should stand up and take action; and the best way to do so is by high stepping into the streets.
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of “Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy.”