Swing Your Hips, Feed Your Soul
By Rachel Winner
The Medicinal Magic of Shaking your Groove Thing
As a civilization, dance is one of our oldest forms of expression. Society may resign present-day dancing to the gyrating, bootygrinding nightclubs of a college town, or leave it for the stars as ex-reality show damsels pirouette into the arms of retired NFL quarterbacks on primetime. Society tells us we’ll look funny. They tell us that it’s socially unacceptable to cut a rug in public and that white guys can’t dance, anyway.
But to confine dance to a box (whether it’s a nightclub or a television, or the tiny square of carpet at the office party where you’ll wiggle your hips and maybe shuffle your feet around if you’re feeling frisky), is to inhibit not only a primary means of social and spiritual articulation, but to demote our bodies in favor of the ego as a dominant force of insight and personal power. To dance is to express emotion, to tell a story to entertain, to flirt, to welcome, to worship, to heal, to pray, to celebrate, to seduce, to prepare for battle, to honor, to say goodbye.
Although you still won’t find many prescriptions for ballet class in your basic allopathic procedures, dance therapy is an acclaimed treatment and starting to be acknowledged by more mainstream agencies, like the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The American Dance Therapy Association is partnering with that government agency to advocate for the arts in supporting resiliency to young trauma victims.
At the other end of the age spectrum, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) released an article last year discussing how dance improves conditions for patients with autoimmune diseases and dementia, backing its anecdotes with studies from The New England Journal of Medicine.
Right here in Asheville, we have a plethora of performance art options to keep sickness at bay. Dance classes like Zumba and Nias are offered all over Asheville, accurately promoting fitness and fun. But there are a couple of groups out there looking at dance on a deeper level – to realign the body and spirit by extracting ego from the equation.
The Asheville Movement Collective is embracing of all who pass through the doors of the Masonic Temple in downtown Asheville, where its weekly sessions are held. The AMC started more than ten years ago, founded upon the principles of the 5 Rhythms (created by Gabrielle Roth) and the dance wave. Each session is called a wave, based on an hour-and-a-half bell curve of warming up, an escalation of rhythm and intensity and closing with a meditation. Very few words are spoken during the warmups, and silence is golden once the wave begins. Members warm up and welcome one another with a smile or embrace, but continue focusing on their own needs.
Here, the space is created for the individual, and the community is formed in sharing of that space as dancers prepare themselves.
The wave opens when all members of the group are asked to circle up and to set an intention, or simply settle into a healthy frame of mind. No judgment – just be in the moment.
Then, for many newcomers, there may be a doubt-filled minute: “What am I doing here?” “What if people judge me?” “What if I look stupid?” And then, without warning or reason, those questions fall away altogether. In their place is a tangible release of anxiety as the entire group of 100 people or so begins to absorb the music into their bodies.
Over the next 90 minutes, thoughts are fleeting. Occasionally, one can return from the mental freedom to observe others playing together – prancing around the room, boogying with friends, strangers or the occasional toddler, twirling, jumping. The musical sequence and style is different each week – compiled by a volunteer facilitator, such as two-year AMC affiliate, Steve Jones, who will also be responsible for leading the opening and closing meditation as well as brief announcements.
Dancers step through the doors for fun, for exercise, for worship, for emotional escape, for an hour of bliss. The beauty of dancing in this space is that each dancer can create the values system that he or she needs whether it be pleasurable or profound. Although some dancers do capitalize on these dances as a means of worship, the factor uniting these individuals is not their religious beliefs – or age, gender, race or sexual orientation for that matter. Basically, anyone with a body is welcome to join in a communal manifestation of individual creative expression.
For Jones, the AMC waves are both joyful and serve as a spiritual healing. He explains that most spiritual quests manifest as a journey of the mind, but dancing liberates the mind and spirit by deferring to the body’s dictations.
“Everyone discovers socially constructed information embedded within us, like ‘I can’t dance’ or ‘I look funny’ or how we should control or move our bodies,” Jones says. “But [in dancing], we are able to get past that.”
That is also why there is no talking during the wave, Jones explains. “Once we start talking, we get back into the social construction. In society, we use our words to describe ourselves, but in some way that limits us.”
Dancing helps to break down that barrier and rather than saying “This is what I am,” allows people to manifest their spirits physically. At the end of each session there is a time for dancers to share their feelings and feedback, and to re-engage the collective experience. The power of spiritual embodiment and connecting with others is truly healing for Jones, and for many members of the Movement Collective.
InterPlay, another opportunity to liberate the mind, heal the heart and release one’s inner child, also incorporates various modalities of dance. Created by Cynthia Winton-Henry and Phil Porter, InterPlay defines itself as a social movement whose sessions are “based on a series of incremental forms that lead participants to movement and stories, silence and song, ease and amusement.” Program leaders explain, “We are often cut off from the wisdom [within our bodies] by the expectation of others, by external authority, by fear or repression.”
InterPlay strives to reconnect ourselves with that inner wisdom by empowering our insight through simple activities.
In Asheville, InterPlay workshops are hosted by movement leaders Lorrie Streifel and Lynda Letourneau. Like the Asheville Movement Collective, the sessions start with a warm-up and the setting of an intention or concern, which is written on an index card. Forms involve singing, movement, dancing, babbling and playing. For example, participants are asked to place their hands into the palms of another and silently convey an aspiration for themselves. Upon releasing that aspiration, they stand and dance or move based on the hope they had shared. This expression is usually followed by a conversation of feelings and observations made by both parties.
In one particularly impactful form, a group of dancers read the index card concerns aloud (anonymously, of course) and dance collectively based on what they had read. Participants who witness the dance may stand up and improvise a poem based on their observations. This creative progression is about more than the pleasure of freeform dancing, it’s about the freedom of expressing oneself through various non-traditional mediums. The idea is to free mind to let the body to become the decision maker.
If this entire experience seems way outside the realm of social norms, that’s exactly the point. The whole intention of InterPlay is to momentarily shatter that business-casual container in which we hold our egos to unshackle our creativity.
AMC’s wave and InterPlay’s workshop create (or better put, release) similar emotional effects, helping to break down social judgments and barriers – like a chiropractic adjustment for the soul.
Participants who dive into the emotional emancipation of programs like InterPlay and Asheville Movement Collective often claim to find an almost sacred therapy there. But for some, the joy of the dance is simply secular and physical. Aside from building muscle around knees, hips and core, the huffing and puffing and flinging of sweat drops are a pretty good indicator of its aerobic benefits.
But what about the psychological effects? As a geriatric social worker, AMC’s Jones has done extensive research on the benefits of dance – and aerobic activity in general – on brain health. In studying dancing among geriatric communities, Jones reports that it increases the neuroplasticity (the quality of signal reception between the brain and the muscles, in laymen’s terms). It has proven to perk up Parkinson’s and chronic pain patients, for instance. Freeform dancing also stimulates the brain through deciding the next movement, which increases memory function.
Additionally, dementia typically attacks the left brain, but the human mind stores music in the right side. Therefore, music tends to stay with us even as we begin to spiral downward mentally. Dancing will not only fortify memory and neuroplasticity, but will simultaneously help with memory recall that is associated with familiar music.
Jones claims that the social dynamic of group dance is just as powerful (and just plain fun!): “Everyone is given permission to work through whatever their pain is with others, whether it be emotional, physical or psychological,” Jones explains. Participants occasionally touch or interact during the wave, and in being reminded of the power of the body a means of expression, we are also reminded of its power to heal.
Jones references Reiki as an example of the power of touch, which is a healing art through the laying of hands and the transfer of “life force energy.” Reiki is actually being accepted as a supplemental treatment at some hospitals. In a wave where many dancers are in a euphoric or prayer-like state, there’s a lot of that life force energy to be shared. Just think of the community as a support group that grooves instead of listens.
If all this seems a bit much to you, rest assured that there are plenty of more traditional dance options around the Asheville area. Sites such as Danceasheville.com offer a detailed calendar for tango, contra, salsa, clogging – pluck a style out of a top hat and chances are pretty high that it’s offered around here. (InterPlay Asheville and the Asheville Movement Collective both have websites with schedule details and more information as well: interplayasheville.org and ashevillemovementcollective.org.) Involve a pole, jump up on the dinner table, swing into one of the zillions of classes around town or two-step down the street – choose freeform or stylistic. But the facts have been calculated and the reviews are in: For emotional, spiritual and physical well-being, we as a society must commit to consistently shaking our groove things.
Rachel Winner is the owner of WinnersWords, writing conscientious content for sustainable and socially conscious businesses and non-profits. She is saving the world, one blog at a time. Contact: (828) 290-2245 or Rachel@winnerswords.com.