Kindred Spirit Dance
If the spirit moves you
Nicola Rayner dips a toe into the world of therapeutic dance
Mankind has been dancing to ease its woes as long as we have had feet to beat out rhythms and ears to hear them. ‘As far as we know, dance has been part of human community life – as a way of healing, as a way of prayer, as a way of sharing stories, as a way of reconnecting to the bigger picture – forever,’ points out Ya’Acov Darling Khan, co-author of Movement Medicine: How to Awaken, Dance and Live Your Dreams.
‘All dance can be therapeutic,’ says dance movement therapist Enid Gill. ‘For those who feel comfortable engaging with therapeutic dance – and it can feel exposing – it can be a powerful experience.’
‘People can come away from a session feeling more comfortable in themselves,’ continues Enid. ‘Challenging feelings may also be awoken, but can be explored with a qualified therapist. When working in a group, we can feel we’re sharing and relating, experiences many people miss within cities, but ones we need and often crave. Without words, dance can allow deeper parts of people to emerge.’
Cathy Ryan, a London-based 5Rhythms teacher, agrees: ‘Therapy doesn’t work for me… personally I get too clever about it. Movement bypasses all of that.’ Ruth Strupinski, co-director of the London School of Biodanza, adds: ‘To be in the moment, to have the chance to express ourselves without words, to connect with others in a safe environment all make a big difference to our sense of well-being.’
Opening the box
When I first embarked upon therapeutic dance, which I would term as dance performed for its beneficial and restorative effects, I remembered a much-referenced episode of British sitcom Peep Show, which follows flatmates Mark and Jez to a Rainbow Rhythms dance class. They are both there for cynical reasons – to get girls – and uptight Mark, struggling with the ‘anything goes’ atmosphere, decides to fake it. When his dance teacher intones: ‘As we move into red, let it all go, my super-luminaries; open the box.’ Mark, still in his suit, quietly instructs himself: ‘Appear to be opening the box, while in fact the lid stays very firmly on.’
There is a bit of Mark in most of us – especially in the UK. Even as someone who dances regularly, I had anxieties about exploring therapeutic dance, about being so open in front of strangers. How exposed would I feel? Would people laugh?
It was a comfort, then, to hear Cathy’s story of how she discovered the practice in Findhorn: ‘Someone suggested that I went to a session and I thought, “Hmmm.” I looked in the room and saw these people in leotards and they were hugging each other and I said: “This is not my scene,” but I liked the woman who had recommended it to me, so I gave it a go – and I loved it!’
Like Cathy, I first came across therapeutic dance through a friend, love coach Cate Mackenzie, who asked me along to one of her workshops. ‘If you can feel it, you can be it,’ she says. ‘What’s amazing about dance, which is different from an intellectual or a mental workshop, is it literally shifts you. It’s difficult to explain to people before they come to a workshop, but it’s like Alice In Wonderland when she goes down the rabbit hole: you end up somewhere different, even in a day.’
Therapeutic dance is enjoying a boom at the moment – with everything from Morning Glory, a monthly pre-work rave, to Urubu, which is accompanied by ‘the UK’s first ecstatic dance band’, the Urubu Collective. But perhaps the most widely known therapeutic dance practice is 5Rhythms. Defined as a form of movement meditation, 5Rhythms was devised by Gabrielle Roth in the 1960s. ‘She’s an extraordinary person,’ says Cathy, who has worked with Gabrielle. ‘She’s very curious to see how we in the west can come to a place of stillness, of being awake and aware.’
It sounds like Buddhism, I suggest. ‘In a way it’s a western version, because we find sitting meditation difficult: it’s not in our culture. We are in a really busy world – we’ve got so much coming at us so fast. She believes – and thousands and thousands of people are agreeing – that first you’ve got to address that: you can’t ignore it.’
Mindful Tango, perhaps the newest form of therapeutic dance I came across, is also a form of meditation in movement. ‘It is a new and novel way to learn and practise Mindfulness,’ says Lotus Nguyen, who runs the Mindful Tango workshops in Brighton with Argentine tango teacher David Bailey. ‘It combines absolute awareness and empathetic connection with the passion of the dance, allowing oneself to engage fully in the moment whilst expressing the music and being aware of every detail of movement of both yourself and your partner.’
In 5Rhythms, as the name would suggest, the cycle takes the dancer through five different stages. ‘Flowing is the first rhythm and that’s associated with the element of earth,’ explains Cathy, ‘staccato is the second rhythm and that’s associated with fire. Chaos is water, lyrical is air and stillness is ether. The whole practice is about getting closer to stillness.’
‘We also work with the elements – not just as a metaphor but as a physical reality,’ says Ya’Acov, who now practises shamanic dance, but worked with Gabrielle Roth for many years. ‘The body is made from and operates from these elements. In other words, on a very physical, scientific basis, we are earth and fire and water and wind… we try to bridge the modern, scientific understanding with the ancient wisdom of the shaman.’
In Biodanza, there are five lines – vitality, affectivity, creativity, sexuality and transcendence – which differ from the five rhythms, though it could be fair to say that both practices are aiming for balance. ‘The five lines were created as a result of questioning many people – asking them what one thing could change their life,’ says Ruth. ‘Of course, they all gave different answers but these could be categorised into five.’
In Shakti Dance, which defines itself as the yoga of dance, the exploration of balance between the elements relates closely to chakras. The workshop I attended, led by London-based teacher Haripyari (Naomi Francis), was dedicated to Shiva. ‘Shiva is related to the elements, which is why I went off on a big elemental trip,’ she tells me afterwards. ‘We did two elemental cycles.’
Shakti Dance has a tighter structure than the other types of therapeutic dances I encountered, with eight clearly defined phases: tuning in, Shakti stretching, Shakti standing exercises, free-flow dance, relaxation, celestial communication and mantric choreography, meditation and closing. ‘There is quite a lot of boundary to it,’ says Haripyari. ‘It’s an incredible transformative experience to be in that process. Sometimes I want to break free of it – but then it wouldn’t be Shakti Dance.
‘It’s not the free conscious dance scene and it’s not the yoga scene either – it’s somewhere in between,’ she adds. ‘I think that’s perhaps why it hasn’t gone wild in this conscious dance craze, which is really big at the moment.’
Mantras and music
In the Shakti practice, I recognise Sanskrit words and mantras in the music. Are there rules about what sort of music you should dance to? ‘The only restriction on the music is that it be positive. It depends on who your teacher is. My main practice is kirtan, so that is where my music lies and I’m very strict about the music – so if we’re invoking Shiva, then every track is going to be related in some way to Shiva… if there’s suddenly a track about Krishna, I really feel the energy difference.’
Although Haripyari dedicates the workshop to Shiva, she explains: ‘Even though Shakti Dance comes out of the Kundalini yoga tradition, from the Sikh path… We still invoke deities of the Hindu yogic tradition; in the Shakti Dance teacher training, there is inspiration from lots of paths, we look at Chinese meridians, yogic nadis, different things… You don’t have to theme your class on anything, but you can and I like to. A lot of Shakti Dance teachers will use music in Gurmukhi, the language of the Sikhs, which is a derivative of Sanskrit.’
Biodanza (literally ‘the dance of life’) emerged from a different part of the world and, again, there are clues in the music. ‘Latin American nations always do well in happiness indices,’ says Ruth. ‘I always say that’s partly the music – of course it’s also the weather and all sorts of other things – but the music does induce a euphoric feeling and make us want to dance. We use all sorts of South American music, by all sorts of people, such as Chico Buarque and Sergio Mendes, as well as music from around the world, including classical pieces.’
Biodanza was created in Chile by an anthropologist-psychologist called Rolando Toro. ‘He was working with patients who were depressed and he started by thinking that he wanted to cheer them up, and he thought music would help,’ explains Ruth. ‘At first he tried classical – Mozart and all sorts of things – but because they were already deeply inside themselves that made them even more depressed, because they went even deeper.
‘He then found rhythmic music and put that on and they began to move to the rhythm and they decided they wanted to have a weekly dance. Then they began to wash their hair and think about what they were going to wear… and he discovered at that stage that the power of music was going to make a difference.’
Ruth, like all the teachers and facilitators I speak to, has the most amazing success stories – ‘people who come totally uncoordinated, so out of their bodies that they can’t even walk in rhythm… and it’s like a miracle because they become coordinated, connected to their bodies and that has a massive effect, much more than you’d ever imagine… It’s about being integrated. If your head is separated from the rest of you, you might be suffering from what we would call a dis-ease, which can then turn into disease, because you’re not comfortable.’
The power of touch
All the types of therapeutic dance I encounter involve interaction with other dancers in the class, segments where we dance in pairs or threes, and it is remarkable how these work to break down barriers; the communication is deeper, less cluttered, without words. The extent to which one interacts varies, however. While there is some interaction in Shakti, for example, the majority of the free-flow dance is done on our own with the lights off.
In Biodanza, towards the end of Ruth’s vivencia, as they call a Biodanza class, there is a section of ‘encounters’, where we are invited to touch or embrace each other. ‘The hugging is optional,’ stresses Ruth. ‘In my class I emphasise the importance of doing only what feels absolutely OK – people can connect in very respectful ways or leave out those exercises they are not comfortable with. I have found, though, that most people soon begin to benefit from a hug that takes place in a totally safe environment… Of course, in a class made up entirely of beginners there would be absolutely minimal physical contact, if at all.’
My experience of Ruth’s class – a happy gathering of friendly people – in Richmond supported her words. Ruth created a warm, safe environment and I was never made to feel uncomfortable or that I should touch people when I didn’t want to. When another attendee spontaneously hugged me, after we danced together, I enjoyed the contact, and it was clear the other participants got a lot out of the encounters.
However, I did find that when it came to the segment dedicated to encounters at the end of the class, I didn’t feel ready to participate, even though it was possible just to hold hands without a full embrace; there was an intensity to the experience that I wasn’t ready for.
‘There are interesting questions around how touch is introduced and how open we ought to be,’ says Enid. Of course, it’s not a black-and-white matter – clearly large numbers of participants benefit from the power of touch. ‘But respect any feelings of resistance,’ Enid adds. ‘Social media desensitises perceptions of body boundaries, so listening to our internal monitor is important.’
It is worth considering, then, how you feel about touch when picking the right therapeutic dance class for you. Indeed, in some forms of therapeutic dance, contact is the focus. In Contact Improvisation, for example, the point of contact with another dancer provides the starting point for a movement exploration.
In Mindful Tango you dance in the traditional embrace of the Argentine tango.
‘Tango is quite an intensive form of human interaction,’ explains Lotus. ‘Two people who know nothing about each other come together and merge like one to express themselves with each other through the music. In a normal social setting, it is difficult to quickly form a close relationship like that. And neither is it easy for a lot of people to feel comfortable to be fully open, relaxed and get close in tango… Mindful Tango helps dissolve the fear, promote self-appreciation, and encourage kindness. If you can enjoy a milonga (a tango social dance), you can surely feel comfortable with any social environment.’
In shamanic dance, the focus is also on the bigger picture in order to ‘make sure that you’re balanced between… getting a deeper sense of who you are through your own dance and, equally important, being in a relationship with the world around you and making your offering and contribution,’ says Ya’Acov.
Says Cathy of her own practice: ‘It’s basically about, for me, what is it to be a human being?’ Can it bring you to any big realisations? ‘It can do,’ she says with a smile. ‘It has me, over and over again.’
As for my own journey into therapeutic dance, it is a difficult thing to summarise because I experience so many different sensations and emotions – from grief to elation; I make connections with strangers; I learn things about myself I hadn’t known before. On the way home from one of the first sessions I find myself scribbling reams and reams in my notebook as though something has finally been unblocked. One thing is for certain, though: the lid did not stay firmly on.
Find out more
Ya’Acov Darling Khan: www.schoolofmovementmedicine.com
Enid Gill: www.aboutenid.co.uk
Cate Mackenzie: www.catemackenzie.com
Cathy Ryan: www.humans-being.co.uk
Ruth Strupinski: www.biodanzawestlondon.com