Dancing the Soul: Sweat Your Prayers

The slight breeze feels welcome upon my perspiring body, having stepped outside into the open air to catch my breath and cool down. I inhale a few deep breaths, hands on my hips, while my heart thumps in my chest like a solid drum beating a rapid cadence.

For a few minutes I stand there, cooling, and then step back through the door into the studio. Immediately I am embraced by the compelling beat of evocative music, the humid warmth of bodies in motion, the slightly pungent smell of sweat, the welcoming coolness of the wood floor under my bare feet. Reentering the large room of moving, dancing individuals, the thought or impression arises, this is a Temple of Souls.

It is Saturday morning and I’m at a movement studio to join a free form, ecstatic dance gathering. It’s the type of assembly that I used to partake in regularly years ago when I lived in Portland, Oregon, when I would head downtown on weekends to the welcoming refuge of BodyMoves Studio. Sometimes my partner came along too. Together or solo, I would join the weekly communion of dancing, expressive, ecstatic souls in a 5 Rhythms class—a popular format developed by dancer and movement arts guru, Gabrielle Roth. I used to half-jokingly call my Sunday morning social dance “going to church.”

By the gods, I’ve been away too long.

It was years ago that I gave up yoga classes with their comparatively static sequences of asanas in favor of a movement arts practice—ever since meeting the alluring Roth in Denver and discovering her 5 Rhythms work. Through the past decade and a half, I have danced communally when lucky enough to find an open studio or gathering, ever relishing the shared energy, and I have danced on my own in the privacy of my house wherever we have roamed. When I’m alone, sometimes dancing is simply a workout; other times it is a moving meditation. Often it seamlessly fuses both. Regardless, it’s always a portal to authenticity, and I’ve learned that nothing frees stuck energy like shaking it loose with movement.

Reentering the studio from my brief break outside, the music quickly pulls me in again and my feet start moving, my spine undulating, hips gyrating, my neck rolling loose and arms carving patterns in the thick air around me. Wearing some old hemp yoga pants cinched with a drawstring and a new blue t-shirt emblazoned with artistic waves and Hawaiian honu (sea turtle), my body feels strong and powerful, delighted to be in motion. I’ve been letting my hair grow out these days, looking slightly unruly, and the crazy curls of my salt and pepper mane are wet with sweat as I push them back from my face. With a slightly mischievous smile, I navigate the crowded space, circling and turning, occasionally catching someone’s eye or exchanging a little grin, all of us disciples of the music.

This is the realm of Eros and the wild demigod Pan, not fair Apollo.

I drop deeper into my dance, letting my body explore new patterns of movement and expression. This sort of gathering isn’t so much about dancing (i.e. moves, steps and group_dancetechniques) as it is simply a form of creative, somatic expression—allowing the music to seduce the soulbody and move in an authentic way. It is free, non-patterned, unformatted. Probably no one in the studio is a ‘real’ or professional dancer, instead they are men and women of every size, body shape, character, constitution. temperament and sexual orientation—individuals who find themselves called to explore some aspect of themselves in collective dance. It might be for exercise but more likely they are here simply for the sheer enjoyment of collective movement. Some are lithe, fit and graceful, others are not. No matter. Each one of us knows that little moves the soul like dancing.

I’ve long said that dancers know more about the soul than most everyone, even artists.

At one point in the session, during a piece of music that I don’t particularly resonate with, I drift to a corner of the studio where I rest on the floor and stretch in a yoga style pose to further open my chronically tight hips. As I gently move, roll, and stretch, a powerful sense of sadness washes over me in a rugged, blue wave that drags me under. This is curious because I’ve been nearly giddy ever since I stepped in the front door of the studio, excited with the warm feeling of coming home to myself.

I spend a few minutes simply feeling the emotion, allowing it to cascade over and flow through me, observing where I feel it concentrated in my body—simply being with the very palpable sadness. From my hips and core, it rises and gathers in my throat and for a moment it feels like I could even cry, but then the sensation of sorrow behind my eyes abates and slips away.

Tracking my affect, I realize that the core of the sadness crystallizes around that I have let this very essential part of me—my luscious, ecstatic inner dancer who delights in sharing the communal dance—be neglected for so very long.

How could I be gone from this for so many years, I wonder, but it’s a rhetorical musing. My absence has largely been circumstantial. With our move to Europe and tendency to settle in more rural areas, I’ve not resided in a place with an ecstatic dance gathering. (None that I could find, anyway, and I certainly did look.) This morning, once again in an open dance studio, I realize how profoundly I have missed the unspoken camaraderie and shared energy of dancing with others in this fashion.

The many years as roaming gypsies in our painted wagon have yielded all sort of adventures and unexpected blessings, and have been a period of intense personal change and growth. But for the comfort of each other, our time living abroad and even our return to Hawaii has mostly been a solitary passage, and as I have written elsewhere (and shared in a Riverspeak podcast or two) perhaps what we have missed most in our extended, nomadic passage is community.

I’ve been musing quite a bit in the past year on ‘passages’, how our life is mainly a long series of them stitched together. Some passages feel easier or more joyous than others, and some prove distinctly challenging. Certainly, each offers inestimable gifts—if we are open to discovering and embracing them.

It’s a hand-shaped life, mine, one where I draw near to what beckons me and offer it the gift of my attention. As an artist, my role is to notice with keen attention. Listen. Appreciate. Wonder. Expand. Create. Share.

And dance. Preferably with others.

The Saturday morning gathering is a non-verbal zone, each week centered upon a theme or dedication, and the intention offered for today’s dance is Forgiveness. As I stretch in my extended “pigeon” pose and explore the soft velvet contours of sadness, I choose to soften—into the stretch of my hip flexors, my breath, into my emotion, and also into self forgiveness for the long absence from the movement studio… the Temple of Souls.

Soul is the most authentic, creative essence of an individual. Across cultures throughout time, the paths to discover, cultivate and celebrate that élan vital have included music, singing, chant, drumming, storytelling, and dance.

Soul Artists know that dancing frees, expresses, and nourishes the soulbody. It loosens our somatic armor and restrictive patterns. Indeed, as an archetype we would do well to court and cultivate the Inner Dancer, who may be the very best guide to the playful, powerful, sensual celebration of the lusciousness of life.

In our mostly soulless society, a modern day shaman might ask, When did you stop dancing? And can you lose your inhibitions enough to risk it again?

Gentle reader, here’s hoping that you’ll put on a bit of music and allow your body to move. It needn’t be ‘dancing’ and perhaps it’s better if it is not. Simply allow yourself to explore movement with music, whether gently or wildly, to open and stretch and invite motion to sequence through your entire body. Try it just for five minutes and notice the difference in your bodymind—a sense of openness, lightness, energy. Maybe you’ll end up out of breath. No worries, that’s just your body’s invitation to do it more often. Perhaps you’ll choose to dance with your beloved, or your child. Go for it.

If you’re feeling very adventurous—and lucky enough to live where there’s a communal dance studio—go dance with others. Enter the Temple of Souls, surrender to the music, shed your inhibitions, and explore whatever seeks to emerge. Dance your edge(s), your familiar patterns of engagement or withdrawal, while celebrating and fully inhabiting the ecstatic resource we call body. Dance your anger. Inhabit your sadness through movement. Mobilize and express your joy. Reclaim and embody your Wild Soul.

Now that I’ve discovered my new studio home you’ll find me regularly back at ‘church’, dancing with my freshly found community of wild souls. Sweating. Celebrating. Barefoot on the studio floor, engaged with others and exploring the boundaries of contact, energetic or physical. Dancing with authenticity, personal power and Eros. Flirting a bit. Shaking it all loose to the compelling summons of music.

Let your life be a wild love prayer to the Earth, the Sacred Other, the Beloved. Dance your devotion.

Or as Gabrielle Roth says, “Sweat your prayers.” Amen, sister.