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Talk & Listen Sessions

Wednesday 7 February 2024

The Tribal Drums of Ecstacy!

 I shall tell ye through the medium of dance!

~ Little Britain

The Ray McCooney character in the BBC comedy Little Britain may have been onto something when he would say that he would express himself through the medium of dance. Dance is a form of expression, a medium of communication using movement, and a non-verbal art form. I've never really been much of a dancer. A couple of weeks ago I attended a two-day workshop comprising dance movement psychotherapy, authentic movement and ecstatic dance! I had very little idea what any of these things were but I found the experience quite illuminating and I now feel these are areas I'd like to explore more. As far as I know, authentic dance was born out of dance movement psychotherapy and has elements of Jung as well as other ideas in the underpinning theory. 

The dance movement psychotherapy we did revolved around dancing to music as a group. Our facilitator explained to us how we can use all parts of our bodies, moving freely whilst feeling the music flow through us. We were encouraged to go with the flow and embody ourselves into the rhythms in a mindful way, paying attention to what the body was telling us. At the end of the session we split into groups of three or four and talked about how we experienced the session. It was explained to us that as we move our bodies our minds start to feel freer, almost as if bodily movements somehow lubricate the mind. We were asked to reflect on the thoughts and feelings that were released through our movement and whether we noticed any changes in these during the movement session. We talked about a lot of this in our small groups and gave and received reflection to each other. I do think there was a therapeutic element to this process and believe it has much more potential than the limited time available did it justice.

We moved on to doing an authentic movement session. This involved working in pairs, taking it in turns to work as "mover" and as "witness". The idea was that the mover would engage in the authentic movement first whilst the witness observed and then we would swap places. We did the exercises to music, although I understand they can be done without, and we kept our eyes closed when we were acting as movers. Fundamentally we had to listen to our body and let it take us wherever it felt, almost as if it had a mind of its own. We were to feel the music and let the imagery, sensation and sound permeate our body and let it move in an authentic way without interfering cognitively. The movement had to be whatever we naturally felt without any restrictive thoughts to interfere with the process. The witness was there to make sure we were safe, as we were moving in the space with our eyes closed, and to provide non-judgemental and non-directive reflection at the end of the session.


Three people dancing
Image by Liminale

A key element of authentic movement is to allow a deep connection between the mind and body. According to the theory, by allowing ourselves to experience genuine movement a connection is made which can transfer elements of the past that are embedded in the unconscious into the conscious. The power of authentic movement as a therapy is that it makes a connection between the mind and body allowing for increased self-awareness and new insights. Our inner experiences which are buried in our unconscious are what move us physically and it is this connection that brings thoughts and feelings into the conscious realm where they can be integrated in the present. The process can also incorporate mindfulness and spirituality in a way that adds a transcendental dimension to the experience. Our mind, body and spirit become harmonious and represent a unified existence in the present moment.

The other part of the workshop was an extended ecstatic dance. Our facilitator guided us through the music which she DJd in a way that took us all on a journey together. The music started off very slowly with some new world tribal sounds, a slow but rhythmic beating of distant African drums, seamlessly progressing in tempo and eventually reaching deephouse and trance euphoria during the middle part of the dance journey. From there things started to slow down, with an alternative music sequence, eventually bringing us towards the end of the journey with mellow ambient sounds which I don't think I can even describe; maybe friendly, smiling dolphins swimming in the ocean whilst humming to each other as they glide through the water! The whole ecstatic dance experience was also rooted in authentic movement in that we moved freely, letting our bodies move as they wanted, but with an additional element of moving to the rhythm of the music in a conscious way. Other features of the ecstatic dance included not being allowed to talk, a collective experience of being on a journey together and being aware of our own sensations in the communal space. 


Woman dancing


We reflected on the experience in small groups shortly after we'd finished. What I'd found was that I had been able to "let go" of some of my inhibitions so that I had been able to dance without being particularly self-conscious. That had been quite a liberating experience. I also actually enjoyed the dancing and was surprised at some of the movements I could actually do! It did feel like a journey in many ways. It was a journey of the mind, influenced by the dancing and the movements, during which a lot of different thoughts and feelings seemed to come up for me. During the two hours I had periods of sadness and anger but also of happiness and optimism and lots in between. It was also a journey which I traversed with fellow travellers, the other movers and shakers in the space, with our DJ at the helm of the vehicle that was transporting us. Although there was a communal connection there was one thing that was missing: there was no connection with any individual human being. At the end of the dance we all went our separate ways and I with a feeling that I'd enjoyed the event, immersing myself in the ecstatic dance, but harbouring a persistent feeling of loneliness and isolation.

The workshop was surprisingly comprehensive, covering so many different facets of therapeutic applications of dance and movement, and expertly facilitated by Iona McNeil, who I found to be an amazing ecstatic dance leader. Dance movement psychotherapy and authentic movement are now on my radar for further exploration for their therapeutic benefits. Ecstatic dance is also on my radar as a potential mental and physical health well-being activity. A cursory search on Eventbrite and Meetup seems to throw up a whole bunch of ecstatic dance events but without the safety net of the more formalised workshop that I attended. Attendance of such an event will require a step a bit beyond my comfort zone, especially as I don't have anyone to go with. It would be so good to be able to go along with people that also want to explore these sorts of things. In the meantime I think I might put some music on a bit later and dance ecstatically in my flat! 

Let's see what a YouTube search for tribal African drums and deephouse brings up!


Information on Iona McNeil's ecstatic dance events; accessed on 07/02/2024 ~ definitely worth checking out!

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