By Nora Brunner
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, Aug/Sept 2007.
The gymnasium is filled with more than one hundred earnest students, yoga mats spread in a roughly circular pattern around a striking blonde woman with an ear mic and a dancer’s carriage. She is Shiva Rea, a California-born woman who’s drawn on yoga and dance traditions from around the world to create Yoga Trance Dance, a popular free-floating movement form that’s unleashing energetic possibilities and creative expression in students internationally.
The mats stay out long enough for some warm-up, then are cast aside. At Rea’s urging, people tentatively start to work the movements, shaking arms, swaying torsos, dipping and diving toward the floor, and finally spreading into open space and giving way to the sway of the group. At the height of the pulsing, chaotic stream, Rea cries, “We’re dancing with people all over the world! We’re dancing for change!” One believes her.
As the only notable yoga-based dance form this writer could find, the nearly fifteen-year-old Yoga Trance Dance practice might intrigue energy workers because of its effects on the chakras and the balance and flow of energy. Many of the movements Rea incorporates into routines, such as twisting kriya, are drawn from ashtanga and kundalini yoga. Ashtanga emphasizes internal fire, detoxifying sweat, and synchronized breathing, while kundalini is known for arousing the root energy force inherent in every person. Frequently portrayed as a coiled snake at the base of the spine, kundalini energy is empowering and becomes aligned when drawn up the back through the chakras or energy centers of the body.
Some of the work on Rea’s Trance Dance DVD focuses on the spine and “the central channel,” which lies along the column of chakras from root to crown. The spine work is aimed at liberating energy through undulating and wave movements, which bring energy into the core, according to Rea. There are several segments devoted to breath work on the DVD, along with movement series specifically activating either fire or water elements.
There’s significant precedent to suggest energy phenomena in this form is a primitive force. According to the late author Frank Natale, composer and president of the Natale Institute in Houston, trance dance or ecstatic dance dates back forty thousand years. Its forms are myriad and far flung.
When it comes to this experience, “There is no continent left unturned,” Rea says. “It’s primal.” While both Eastern and Western religions have at times suppressed dance as form of religious devotion, it appears to be a losing battle. The universality of this expression points to a deep human need.
Religious authorities, for example, were unable to squelch the European dance manias of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in the wake of the Black Plague. Some posit this ecstatic dance form burst forth as an anthropological imperative in response to oppressive tragedy. In these outbreaks, large groups of people gathered spontaneously and formed circles, dancing until they fell to the ground exhausted. The swell of activity had a highly contagious effect, drawing ever more people into its fold.
Rea is the daughter of artistic parents and grew up in a household where creative expression, Indian art, and Zen Buddhism were everyday elements of life. “I was born dancing,” she says. Her father prophetically named her Shiva, after the Hindu Lord of the Dance. Her path to a dance career was not a formal one and this doesn’t seem to have hindered her. It may have helped.
Aside from a few childhood tap-dance lessons, Rea’s training was self-directed. She’s just as happy she wasn’t inculcated into the rigid strictures of ballet, which can be hard to shed. Her strong athleticism and yoga practice as a teen led her to an interest in dance anthropology and movement therapy, which launched travels to India, West Africa, Bali, Jamaica, and other places, some of it field work for her academic studies. (She holds a master’s in dance anthropology and movement therapy from the University of California, Los Angeles.) It was in Delhi that she developed a deep love for Indian classical dance and steeped herself in ashtanga yoga, eventually coming to “the meeting of two great rivers”: dance and yoga.
The catchphrase “living from the neck up” (or the neck down) has been used to describe an unsatisfactory body-mind split that runs counter to a holistic model of health and spirituality. Religious fundamentalism often treats the body and its base desires as the enemy. Living from the neck up in a contemporary sense describes life that’s overly dependent on the intellect and made worse by a sedentary lifestyle. Without a vehicle for opening natural pathways, beneficial energetic forces can’t operate freely.
Where it’s allowed to flourish, in tandem with its close cousins drumming and dancing, ecstatic dance can express deep spiritual joy. It’s a means to self-forgetfulness that may lead to longer-term mindfulness. Its effects can benefit individuals, but they often are collective, as they are in some African traditions and those of indigenous North American tribes. The rituals are shamanistic and healing and can be transcendent for dancers, as well as the afflicted.
African traditions often regard peak moments of collective dance experiences as possession. The San dance of the Kalahari bushmen in Namibia has a hands-on healing dimension. “N’um is the mysterious vital energy residing at the bottom of the spine,” a San healer says. South African surgeon David Cumes, who has studied the healing practices of the bushmen, talks about a rising burst of energy out of the crown of the head leading to an inspired out-of-body experience.
He compares it to a reiki therapist or healing touch therapist “channeling the universal healing energy.” The Kalahari bushmen are “plugged into the main source,” Cumes says. “They have their finger in the socket.”
Nigerian dancers performing the Yoruba ceremony describe the progress of their shamanistic work, which culminates in a surge of heat rising from the base of the spine. It’s not a stretch to see this as the kundalini stream rising powerfully from its roots.
Captured on screen, some of these rituals appear much like contemporary charismatic and Pentecostal worship services that escalate into unrestrained movement with the laying on of hands. Before it’s all over, those being healed are likely to hit the floor in paroxysms they believe are possession, speaking in tongues, healing, even exorcism.
A more scientific approach might regard this phenomenon as a natural high, much like the runner’s surge of energy that kicks in at the point of exhaustion. There’s a breakthrough moment, usually attributed to endorphins and adrenaline, which gives the runner a new well of strength and stamina.
Movement therapist and author Jalaja Bonheim describes having to give a solo dance performance while very ill; she cursed and sweated the first thirty minutes of the ordeal. Her struggle melted away as she and the music became one, where the music seemed to slow and “time spread open like a fan.”
She says during this trance, “The healing rhythms connected me to a reservoir of infinite energy.” Her fever disappeared after the performance and she recovered completely within a day.
“It’s like athletes saying they’re in the zone,” says Gabrielle Roth, who has developed her own five-rhythm path to ecstatic dance, which she teaches in a New York studio. Author of Sweat Your Prayers, she believes, “Through dance I’ve found total communion with the spirit, an experience I call ecstasy. Rhythm is the language of the soul, but it’s a forgotten language because we live mostly cut off from our soul.”
Some traditions weave their magic entirely in circles. “What child has not twirled around until she felt like the still center of a spinning universe or endlessly repeated a simple motion until she went into a trance?” Bonheim asks. “In the West, we tend to disregard these activities as mere play. But in other parts of the world, people have carefully observed and charted the effects of movement on the human mind and spirit.”
The Whirling Dervish dance is called the Sema, originated by Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi (1207–1273 CE), poet and founder of the mystical Muslim Sufi sect. He whirled in his garden one day and set a centuries-long spiritual tradition in motion, although Sufis stop short of calling their devotional a trance state. To align themselves with the rhythms of God, the dervishes swirl in tall, conical hats and white clothing with full swirling skirts. The placement of their outstretched arms is symbolic—gathering blessings from God with one raised hand and dispersing them to humanity with the other hand facing down. While highly repetitive, it is mesmerizing to watch.
“Everything turns,” a Sufi says. “Even cells turn. The atom turns. There’s rhythm in the heartbeat and breathing.”
Another form of ecstatic expression is the rendering of the Akathistos hymn in the Christian Greek Orthodox liturgy, thought to date to the sixth century. As a devotion to Mary, it’s a lengthy singing, chanting, and swaying event involving church congregants and performed in segments over the Saturdays of Lent. It culminates in a final seven-hour performance.
“We’re just looking to suspend the touching of the rational, just for a while,” says Nick Tsiavos of Jouissance, a group that performs Akathistos. He speaks of being transported while performing and not being able to remember it afterward. He adds that people approach him after the event in amazement, reporting they had lost time. They tell him, “I woke up; I just didn’t know where I was.”
Forgetting and Mindfulness
Like much healing energetic work, trance dance involves setting an intention with a higher source or higher purpose and working from a different frame of mind than performance art engenders. Trance dance has no audience as such; those on the sidelines are really participants. In the language of psychology, there is no other for the dancer to incorporate. Self-consciousness is suspended.
The forgetfulness that arises can mean a deeper communion with the source.
“We lose ourselves in the ocean of God,” says a Sufi dervish.
We might well want to lose ourselves temporarily as our ever-busy minds process thousands of thoughts daily, often cheating the quality of our inner lives and drowning out the quiet core. A temporary surrender to universal energy through ecstatic dance can create space for energetic flow and cleansing.