Ecstatic Dance has mushroomed in the last few years, particularly since lockdown with a whole new set of dancers coming onto the scene via social media and live online events. We might ask, where did this all come from?
The answer is twofold: dancing is our birth right and has been going on for as long as humans have been around on the planet. It’s just that in the West we lost touch with it for about 500 years due to political and religious repression, and the drive towards industrialisation. People stopped dancing in free, expressive ways until the counter cultural revolution of the 1960s came along, and then it took one inspired woman, Gabriel Roth, to invent a new way of dancing and being in our bodies. She called her method, The 5Rhythms. This was the first Ecstatic dance.
First a little context…
A song from the 1967 musical, Hair, captured the zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s. It spoke of ‘The Dawning of the Age of Aquarius’, a new era, or the ‘New Age’ in which there would be a social revolution in the Western World. Young people led the charge against war, racism, gender inequality, homophobia, environmental devastation and the rejection of consumerist values. Music, drugs, meditation, hippies featured heavily. There was great hope that the call to ‘tune in, turn on, drop out’ would spark an entire societal change. Peace and free love were foreground.
Psychedelics were outlawed in the 1960s, the hippie movement petered out in the 1970s, and yet ‘The New Age’ continued, unabated. The Age of Aquarius was in play. People began to get interested in Yoga, Meditation, Spirituality, Healing, Vegetarianism, Environmentalism. Young people from the West travelled to India and other parts of Asia and learnt about Buddhism, Hinduism, new ways of living and seeing the world.
Post War Malaise
Set against the cultural revolution of flower power and transcendental meditation, the post war decades were dominated by big challenges: the cold war, the threat of nuclear annihilation and terrorism. In recent times, there have been other significant challenges: climate emergency, loss of bio-diversity, the threat of cyberattack, pandemics and the growing understanding about the ubiquitous nature of trauma.
Reconnecting Mind and Body
The reconnection and rebalancing of the mind and body is the story behind the instinctual pull to dance. Our bodies are not an object in the world of our minds, a physical system detached from the mind. They are also an emotional system and an intelligence platform – the body is a conduit for wisdom, insight, consciousness and healing. If we can find reliable ways to work with our bodies sympathetically, our health and wisdom will improve.
Enter 5Rhythms Dance
Gabriel Roth, founder of the 5Rhythms Dance, made the breakthrough for dancing with awareness in the body in the 1960s. She was, beyond doubt, a pioneer, the person responsible for bringing ecstasy back to dance floor following centuries of mind/body estrangement. She found herself drawn to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, a retreat and educational centre, and home of the Human Potential Movement (HMP) which offered alternative values to mainstream ideas of organised religion, lifestyle, psychology and what it means to be fully alive.
Therapy Meets Dance
Fritz Perles, the father of a new form of humanistic therapy, Gestalt Therapy, was at The Esalen Institute in the '60s when Gabriel Roth arrived. He knew that she had a background in teaching movement and asked her to teach dance to his therapy groups. She wrote in her book, Sweat Your Prayers, that his students were resistant to dancing. that they didn’t know how to breathe below their heads:
‘Sometimes two hours of moving were as powerful as two years on the couch. I discovered that the body can’t lie; put it in motion and the truth kicks in… I wanted to set the breath free and release all the pent-up energies in the body that were keeping it from moving, preventing it from being inspired.’ Gabriel Roth, Sweat Your Prayers.
Gabriel and God
Through her own dance practice, Gabriel Roth underwent divine inspiration:
‘God had spoken to me without saying a word…I danced till I disappeared inside the dance, till there was nothing left of me but the rhythm of my breath [in which] I felt totally connected, body and soul.’
She had the realisation that people had been estranged from their bodies as a form of social control. The sense of aliveness and spontaneity that comes from truly inhabiting our bodies would make people impossible to control. Her mission then was to reconnect people with a deeper more sacred sense of self, to longed-for ecstasy, through their moving bodies.
Roth developed her map, 5Rhythms dance, that follows 5 distinct styles of music and movement: flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical and stillness:
‘I’ve found a language of patterns I can trust to deliver us into universal truths, truths older than time. In the rhythm of the body we can trace our holiness, roots that go all the way back to zero. States of being where all identities dissolve into an eternal flow of energy. Energy moves in waves. Waves move in patterns. Patterns move in rhythms. A human being is just that, energy, waves, patterns, rhythms. Nothing more. Nothing less. A dance.’
Roth is awesome. Just reading her books I’m back on the dancefloor, doing my dance. Thank you Gabrielle for giving us back to ourselves.
50 years on and people are increasingly turning towards the conscious dance movement: Ecstatic Dance, 5Rhythms, Open Floor, Movement Medicine, Chakra Dance, Flomotion and a whole host others.
Come and join us on the dance floor at Flomotion, every 2 weeks in Archway, North London!