Freedom in Movement: Using Conscious Dancing as a Tool of Transformation and Healing

I have always loved to dance. I took tap and ballet as a tiny girl, my sisters and I danced to our parent’s record collection in the living room, I joined the teen dance club that opened (and closed) in my hometown, I was all about getting the dancing going at grade five birthday parties.

The dance floor was a place where I felt free and expressed.

When I started sneaking into bars as a teenager, it wasn’t to drink or meet the opposite sex. It was to hit the dance floor once the DJ started and leaving when my ride was ready to go. I never understood (and still don’t) the girls with the perfectly done hair and makeup that stood on the dance floor, shuffling from one foot to the other, flicking their hair and looking bored. To each their own. I often finished the night drenched in sweat, ravenously hungry, and elated. Did I meet the odd boyfriend? Yes. Did that change my dancing habits? No. In fact, if they didn’t understand my need to move – and that I often needed to move without them – the relationship would fizzle out.

The best place to dance was always the gay bars. There, I could move so freely because I wasn’t of sexual interest to pretty much anyone. My dance was never interrupted by some guy saying: ‘I like your moves’. It was actually more likely that I’d hear: ‘I like your outfit’. As the music pulsed through me, I could move myself in any way necessary to arrive in a state that I now recognize as the ‘ecstatic’ in ecstatic dance. This sweaty, altered consciousness could be described as euphoria – and I often experience this in my current practice of three dance classes per week.

I started practicing actual conscious dance almost ten years ago, after the death of my grandmother.

I had heard about it from friends of mine in the personal development community, but I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it; barefoot people, dancing in a big room during the day or night, with no alcohol and no talking. It was the antithesis to what I was familiar with from bar culture: darkness, drinks to loosen up, lubricating both the dancing, talking, and connecting.

The timing was perfect. My mother called me late one night to tell me of her mother’s passing and, the next morning, I attended my first class at the Masonic Lodge out on Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles. As I threw myself around the room, I loosened my body that was tight with grief and cried even more tears even though I didn’t think I had any left. At the end of the class, as we all held hands, we were to say our names. But I said ‘Baba’, which was what I called my Ukrainian grandmother. And it felt celebratory, not mournful. I left feeling as if I had honored her with my unconstrained expression.

Since that day, I’ve been in either that same room or others countless times. Sometimes my dance is happy and energetic, sometimes it is angry and frustrated. I’ve danced out a plethora of feelings and moods – fear, anxiety, rage. I have used the dance floor to get over lost opportunities, lost belongings, lost love. There is something about dancing through emotions that is almost unexplainable, and there is power in the fact that it is this way. Dance, as an art-form, is often difficult to explain.

As a tool for self-discovery, it can be just as mysterious.

Dance has featured predominantly in countless cultures as celebration and ritual, a tool for healing, a way to unite communities. Dance has been used for thousands of years as a method of communication, as an act of worship, a way to honor the cycles of life, and serves as bridge between humans and the spiritual world.

You may have heard the terms ‘ecstatic dance’ and ‘conscious dance’ used interchangeably but they are not exactly the same thing. Ecstatic dance is fully unfacilitated while conscious dance includes not only facilitation, but calls for the dancer to come to the space with an intention for their dance. Yet no matter which form, both require each and every dancer to agree to guidelines set out to ensure comfort and safety for all dancers; no alcohol or drugs, no street shoes, and no talking.

In terms of what conscious dance is today, Gabrielle Roth’s 5 Rhythms practice led a movement that now encompasses a number of modalities practised by devotees including Movement Medicine, Soul Motion, JourneyDance, and Open Floor. Essentially, the dancer moves spontaneously, following their own impulses (rather than practicing choreography or being directed) to a ‘wave’ of music. This ‘wave’ features different rhythms, inspiring the dancers in their own journey. This journey can sometimes involve others, but is most often a solo endeavor, enhanced by the fact that a conscious dance floor is silent.

“The first thing that has to happen is we have to free the body from all its conditioning in a very literal way. We need to physically free the body, wake it up and get it back into motion and fluidity. As soon as that happens we start to feel, our emotional world is enlivened and we begin to deal with our fears, our angers, our sorrows and our joys.” – Gabrielle Roth

Many use conscious dance as their primary process to uncovering layers of emotion and releasing ‘stuck’ energy. I have – and still – use it as a supplemental therapy. It is almost impossible to move the body across the floor and not discharge or free up what we all bury in our tissues. But, as painful as this can be, dancing through what is stuck is what makes room for joy and euphoria.

For the first five years I danced, I didn’t exchange more than a smile or a wave with any of the people I saw on a regular basis. Often, I arrived just after the class started and left when I felt I was ‘done’. Participating in the closing circle wasn’t of any interest to me at that time, but can serve as an act of ‘closure’ for one’s dance and process. Now, after years of moving with certain people, I feel a connection to them that is unexplainable as I have often not interacted with them in any other way other than seeing them express their inner worlds through their own dance.

Unfortunately, the conscious dance community is not without its issues. I like to say my favorite move is putting one hand out in front of me in a ‘stop’ position because that is sometimes what it takes to put off a man who is determined to dance with me. As much as it is considered unethical, ‘picking up’ is something that many people attempt to do in class (and, full disclosure, I met my boyfriend in a conscious dance class). Perhaps not because they see dance class as the answer, but because they see every place they go to as a opportunity to meet the person of their dreams.

And that’s the reality – as people are in life, they often are when they dance.

And there are all sorts of characters populating the floor. There’s the aforementioned dude who cruises the entire class, forcing his body into every woman’s personal space in hopes of making a ‘connection’. There’s the woman with too much makeup and too much perfume in flowing garments prancing through the room as the embodiment of the ‘divine feminine’. There’s the women and men who close their eyes and flail their arms in a sort of chaotic shuffle – they’re releasing their inner turmoil but bumping and smacking anyone who happens to be nearby. There’s the (mostly) women who lie down in the middle of a populated dance floor and roll among the feet, getting pissed when they get stepped on. There’s the dude who ping pongs around the room, spinning and whirling and forcing others to effort to stay out of his way, lest they get hit. And there’s the untrained contact improvisors who think it’s an opportunity to play an adult game of ‘Ring Around The Rosie’. It’s not.

In my life experience, I’ve come to see that we’re all working out our issues, all around each other. The majority of those who do conscious dance are mindful, respectful, and clear on not only their boundaries, but the boundaries of others. On the dancefloor, as in life, the space is communal, as is the experience. Because, after all, we’re looking for the same things – belonging, connection, safety, solitude. Sometimes we find what we think we need, and sometimes we end up exactly where we need to be. Not every class ends with me sweaty and elated. Some end in stillness and a quiet, reflective mood. Some end with me sobbing on the floor in a ball. But, however it ends, dancing gives me an insight into where I am in my journey, and who is on that journey, with me.

Regular conscious dance events can be found in most major cities through a Google search.

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