Contemporary adaptations: dance yourself awake and free
Dancing with spirit
Awakening The Shamanic Force Within
Trance dance has become a phenomenon all over the world, especially since electronic dance music, which is based on rhythms of 120 to 180 beats per minute (depending on genre), arrived on the music scene in the late 1980s and the 1990s. The beats are comparable to the drumbeats that are used to induce trance states in shamanism. A vast dance festival and clubbing scene has emerged since then, with drugs enabling people to dance all night. This shows us how much we all yearn for the experience of ’trance and dance’ denied to us since we ’found ourselves in the wrong garden’, where free expression of the body was increasingly declared ’sinful’. This contributed to keeping us on nonspiritual, restricted level of consciousness we are on today. Shamanic trance dances are powerful tools for changing this. They enable us to expand our consciousness, remove our ego barriers, let our body flow and express itself, embody all sorts of things, move stuck energies, feel our blissful, ecstatic essence and more.
Contemporary shamanic trance dance
Contemporary practitioners have adapted shamanic trance dance in many ways, all aimed at healing our relationship with spirit by connecting with our inner essence and at mental, emotional and spiritual healing and transformation.
In shamanic trance dance, we go on an inner journey during which, according to Wilbert Alix, one of the people who brought traditional trance dance to the West, our ego personality disappears and we become more like ’our spirit’.4
Whilst dancing is great fun, moves energies, allows self-expression, lets the body’s natural rhythm take over and contributes to our spiritual development by connecting us with deeper layers of ourselves, it also has mental, emotional and physical health benefits. According to research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, elderly people who danced frequently had a 75 per cent reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s, reduced rates of stress and depression and increased levels of energy and serotonin. Dancing improved their strength, flexibility and balance, boosted their cardiovascular health, increased their cognitive capacity and created new neural pathways in the brain.5
Contemporary shamanic trance dance is performed in groups, in a sacred ceremonial space and with spirit being invited. There is a preparation phase and each individual dancer will formulate the intent of their dance. Usually the facilitator works together with a group of drummers, who use various drums, led mainly by African djembes. It can be done with recorded music, but a group of good live drummers works magic because they can take the dancers up and down, adjust to the energy in the room and also create an energy field that will support the dancers.
I have facilitated many trance dance groups. We always have a day of preparation and the dance begins in the evening and lasts until all participants have danced. A dancer usually dances between one and four hours before they fall down or just stop and stand still. I have two to four people looking after each dancer. They group themselves around them to keep them safe, making sure that they don’t bump into anything, or into other dancers, and catch them when they fall. This enables the dancer to close their eyes and let go completely. The dancing may start with a breathing technique called ’the fire breath’ or I may whirl the dancer before they begin.
To illustrate how profound the experience can be, here is the account of Jan, who participated in one of my trance dance groups:
This experience happened near the beginning of my interest in shamanism and was partially responsible for my increasing journey into my spiritual self. I attended a weekend workshop which involved an evening of trance dance with drumming. During this an individual stood in the centre of a group of four other people, who acted as the safety boundary for the middle person. They then danced to live drum music, with their eyes closed, until they tranced out and safely fell to the floor.
When it came to my turn, I remember being conscious of the drumbeat for a while until it became a part of me. It felt as though the drums were me and the music was me, and I lost total awareness of my surroundings and, in a sense, of myself. Then a void opened up and I could see and sense the whole cosmos. I was standing on the threshold of an amazing place and all I had to do was step into it and become one with it. I can recall the moment when I stopped. It felt as though all my molecules separated and my body elongated and became one with the universe, to which I was fully connected: I was one with the cosmos and everything in it, and my concept of life changed. I then recall being aware of lying on the floor.
For me, this experience opened up an ever-increasing interest in my spiritual self and a conscious decision to explore and understand this part of my life more fully.
Five Rhythms: dancing the wave
Gabrielle Roth’s Five Rhythms Dance, which she described as the practice of a moving meditation of ecstatic dance, has become a worldwide practice. Gabrielle, a remarkable woman and urban shaman who combined shamanic ecstatic trance dance, Eastern philosophies and contemporary dance movements, trained many facilitators all over the world. She described the practice of Five Rhythms as a soul journey, because by moving the body, opening the heart and freeing the mind, we could connect to the essence of the soul, the source of all inspiration, possibilities and potentials.
The five rhythms form a wave:
Flowing: Fluid movement — you feel out where you are and get into your own body.
Staccato: Short, sharp moves — you confront the space and begin to be in it.
Chaos: Chaotic moves — you let go completely, release what you are holding and surrender to the wildness of your body.
Lyrical: Light and gracious, a subtle continuation of letting go — you are now in the space to really dance.
Stillness: You drop into the essence of the dance, into being the dance, into the still point within yourself.
Dancing the Five Rhythms produces remarkable results. The rhythms move you, in a semi-structured way, through whatever is happening, through whatever you are feeling, moving it energetically, without suppression, into a state of stillness. I have shed tears, become furious and felt heavy as well as blissed out with sheer joy. It is an amazing practice and I am sure that you will find a teacher and group near you. Try it. It is ideal if you want to start dancing as a psycho-spiritual practice.
Chakra dancing is very much inspired by tribal and spiritual dancing from different regions around the world. It blends free-flowing movements with specific frequencies of beats and sounds, each connected to one of the seven underlying energy centres of the body and to certain images. For instance, the rhythms of the base chakra are inspired by tribal dancing as found in the indigenous cultures of Africa, Australia and North America, as well as in the natural movements of animals. Together with images such as dancing around a campfire or imitating the movements of an animal, they help us to get into our base energy, to activate it, clear it and move it through the body.
Chakra dancing is generally based on the idea that emotional, mental, physical and spiritual blockages are stored in the cells and muscles of the body and show up as images, memories, hunches, feelings, intuitions and aches and pains. Dancing through the vibrations of the seven centres gives them a chance to be released. It is interesting that archetypal images connected to the chakras — animals, warriors, goddesses — often show themselves to dancers, even without being suggested. And in most cases, once we reach the crown chakra, we feel a strong spiritual connection to the wider fields of existence.
I have facilitated chakra dancing for groups of women and have often chakra danced myself. Even if we have stuck energies, aching bodies and emotional issues, chakra dancing is a magical medicine and produces much joy. I would encourage you to try it, especially if you like a bit of structure when you begin to dance.
Chakra dancing, Five Rhythms dancing and shamanic trance dancing are all spiritual paths and practices that lead to wholeness. They therefore should not be a one-off practice. The more often you dance, the more beneficial you will find it.
Dancing the shamanic journey
Another way of using dance in your practice is to dance the shamanic journey, either alone or in a group. You can either use a drumming download or you can drum whilst journeying. The space needs to be set up ceremonially, spirit must be invited and a clear intent stated. Then, instead of sitting still or lying down to travel to the upper or lower worlds, you dance. The body moves whilst the mind becomes aware of images, feelings, insights, sudden knowing and more, until the journey reaches its completion. The advantage of dancing the shamanic journey is that the body is involved, so you are also shifting energy on a physical level throughout the journey.
Dancing for integration, merging and embodiment
Dance is also a means of embodying any intent or spirit or essence physically, on a cellular level. I talked about this in Chapter 7, when using dance to integrate the outcomes of journeys. Besides dancing to embody these outcomes, you can also dance intents, power animals, guides and all essences. Hold the intent, imitate the movements of the animals, be the animals in your dance. Really feel it and you will connect with something quite profound as you let the dance unfold.
If you want to merge with an element, be it earth, water, air or fire, again you can dance it. Hold the intent, imagine that you are becoming the element and feel its movements, its power. Again, let the dance unfold.