Dancing the Soul: Sweat Your Prayers

The slight breeze is a heavenly gift upon my perspiring body. Having stepped outside into the open air to catch my breath and cool down, I gulp a few deep breaths, hands on my hips, heart thumping in my chest like a solid drum with rapid cadence.

For a few minutes I stand there, breathing deeply, 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, and a 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 in Santa Cruz, California, to join a free form, “ecstatic dance” event. It’s the type thing I used to partake in regularly years ago when I lived in Portland, Oregon, when on weekends I would head downtown 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 refer to my Sunday morning social dance as “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 alone, sometimes dancing is simply a workout, while 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.

The music quickly pulls me in again and my feet start moving, spine undulates, hips gyrate, my neck rolls loose and arms carve patterns in the thick air around me. Wearing some old hemp yoga pants cinched with a drawstring and t-shirt emblazoned with artistic waves and Hawaiian honu (green sea turtle), my body delights to be in motion; I am strong and powerful, if slightly rusty. 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 dance.

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

I drop deeper into the flow, letting my body explore new patterns. This sort of gathering isn’t so much about dancing (e.g. steps, posturing and techniques) 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 and 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 group movement. Some are lithe, fit and graceful, others are not. No matter. Each one of us knows that little moves the soul like dancing.

At one point in the session, during a song 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 in a rugged, blue wave that drags me under. Curious, this, because I’ve been nearly giddy ever since I stepped through the front doors of the studio, bubbly with the excitement of coming home to myself.

I spend a few minutes simply feeling the emotion, allowing it to cascade 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; for a moment it feels like I could even cry, but then the sensation of sorrow behind my eyes abates and slips back down into my body, hiding again.

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

How could I be gone from this for so many years, I wonder, but it is rhetorical. 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 my soul has missed the unspoken camaraderie and shared energy of dancing with others in this embodied fashion.

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

I’ve been musing (and writing) quite a bit in the past year on passages, how one’s 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.

Mine is a hand-shaped life, one where I draw near to what beckons me and offer it the gift of my attention. As an artist (using that term broadly), 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’s dance centered upon a theme or dedication, and the intention offered for today is Forgiveness. As I deepen in “pigeon” pose and explore the velvet-soft contours of sadness, I choose to soften—into the stretch of my hip flexors, breath, my emotion, and also into self-forgiveness for the long absence from 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, breath, storytelling, and dance.

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 lightness and 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, your child, or the dog. Go for it.

If you’re feeling very adventurous—and lucky enough to live where there’s a communal dance studio—go move 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 “church” you’ll find me regularly back here when in coastal California, dancing with a 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. Shaking it all loose to the compelling summons of music.

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

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