Clíona O Conaill tracks down the roots of the global conscious dance phenomenon and discovers an antidote for the modern age.
Living in ours heads and out of touch with our bodies is a disembodied way of life and it has become habit for many people. It’s common to live in a state of frenetic rush from home to work and back, plugged into an array of digital devices, that give us instant communication, information overload and the conviction that if we switch off we would miss out.
Obviously that makes it difficult to relax, calm down and tune into how we are feeling. This is one of the reasons for the high levels of stress, anxiety and depression reported in the media.
The good news is that there is an antidote that doesn’t involve taking a pill or sitting cross-legged meditating for hours and it keeps pace with this culture wired for speed.
What it is?
Conscious dance (CD) covers a vast spectrum of dance practices from more fitness-based Zumba and NIA to more meditation-based dance like Soul Motion, 5Rhythms and Open Floor. Mark Metz, editor of Conscious Dancer magazine defines CD as, “Movement with an intention towards greater awareness,” while Andrea Juhan, a dance teacher for 30 years and co-founder of Open Floor International uses the term, “mindful embodied dance” to describe what she teaches. This article focuses on the latter.
CD is a vibrant workout. It’s fun and freestyle, so there are no steps to learn. It’s also a moving, mindfulness practice and a fast-track to liberation for the committed.
The moving body is the vehicle and the terrain for this intuitive exploration. So conscious dancers pay attention to their bodies sensations – internally as well as externally. There is a vast inner landscape of feelings, emotions and thoughts and often a sense of spirit or mystery. Dynamically tracking these ever-shifting sands is a process of healing, self-discovery and embodiment.
“Dance offered me a sanctuary – a playful, wordless, timeless relief from the thought-driven world. The more I’ve danced, the more I’ve felt at ease in my body,” says Leela Fisk, conscious dancer, certified Soul Motion® teacher and mentor.
Different types of conscious dance
5Rhythms started in the 1970s and now is the most widely practiced form of conscious dance. Its founder, Gabrielle Roth, discovered that,
“If you put your psyche in motion it will heal itself.”
5Rhythms is based on a “wave” of energy guided by music that gradually builds to a crescendo then gradually reduces in intensity into “stillness”. 5Rhythms has inspired many more dances including Movement Medicine, Soul Motion, Open Floor, FreedomDance and SpiritDance SoulSong. Now there are over 100 different types of CD including Biodanza, Continuum and JourneyDance, so the sources are wide and varied.
Why is it so big and growing?
The popularity of conscious dance grew slowly for the first 30 years, speeded up in the last ten years, and has now reached a “critical mass”, says Andrea, making inroads into some community centres, schools, nursing homes, prisons and psychiatric units.
There are three main reasons for this. Firstly, “It has become more visible, people see that you don’t have to be a hippie, you don’t have to be on drugs, it’s not a pick up scene. Mindfulness practice for stress reduction has become more mainstream as has yoga. Conscious dance is following that wave,” says Andrea.
The second reason is that technology is hindering real connection and community. “The growth of CD has accelerated in parallel with the recent dance with digital technology we are all doing. So it’s a natural pushback to reach for community, where the experience is not mediated by technology. One place that’s phone free is the dance floor,” says Mark.
Andrea agrees, “Embodiment is a need. We need to feel ourselves through real contact. It is vital to our physical, emotional and spiritual health. Our world has become virtual and many people feel cut off from life, so there is a huge sense of isolation”.
The third reason is spiritual, Mark says, “Church isn’t doing it for people anymore and that’s accelerated with the digital revolution. One of the central themes of CD is sweating your prayers. The rational mind shuts off and you have a direct experience, which feels spiritual on a personal level.” (He’s quoting Gabrielle Roth’s book Sweat Your Prayers).
Andrea agrees, “Conscious dance practises bring a sense of community that one might find at church, or at social gatherings, with your family, or sanga. And that is meeting the need for embodiment, contact and community”.
So conscious dance gives us somewhere cool to dance, a secular place to pray 21st-Century-style, and an inclusivecommunity where we can meet other people. Everyone is welcome, even if you think you can’t dance. That’s radical medicine in a capitalist culture designed to make you feel inadequate until you buy the right product.
Dance has been used since the beginning of human civilization for celebration, ritual, tribal bonding, art and pleasure because human beings are hard-wired to dance.
“There is movement DNA in everyone’s body,” says Lori Saltzman, co-founder of Open Floor International, in a Podcast with Conscious Dancer Magazine1.
There are many strands contributing to the conscious dance movement2: dance movement therapy (DMT), humanistic and body psychotherapy, drama therapy, expressive arts therapy, psychodrama and even rock ‘n’ roll because that was when we started freeform dancing.
Wilhelm Reich was a pioneer and the originator of body psychotherapy in the early 1900s. He developed a theory that muscular tension in the body reflected unconscious repression that he called “body armour”, which correlates to different “character types”. Reich’s successors Alexander Lowen and John Pietrakos developed his theories further.
Then in the 1940s, DMT began to use dance psychotherapeutically to create a sense of wellbeing and wholeness. Modern dancers including Isadora Duncan and Anna Halprin, the “Grand Dame” of movement and expressive arts therapy, started to express their emotions in dance. Halprin took dance off the stage and transformed performance art into healing art. Marion Chase and Mary Whitehouse were other pioneers of DMT2.
Jacob Moreno developed Psychodrama in the 40s and 50s–a blend of psychology and theatre.
In the 1970s, Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt psychotherapy, started working with Anna Halprin and later Gabrielle Roth at Esalen, a pioneering spiritual retreat centre in California. He also met Ida Rolf, the originator of Rolfing there.
Rolf discovered that the fascia of the body, the dense layer of connective tissue between and around muscles and organs, could become hard and inflexible when our body contracts due to emotionally stressful experiences. This is one of the causes of Reich’s body armour.
“Gabrielle is credited with the birth of this movement as much as anyone but what she really pioneered was ‘branding her mojo’, and trademarking a conscious dance practice,” says Mark. He lists Margaret H’Doubler, Martha Graham, Anna Halprin, Ellen Watson, Sondra Fraleigh, Emilie Conrad and Esalen as influences and contemporaries of Gabrielle.
Conscious dance grew out of the rich soil this cross-fertilization created.2
Why does dance heal?
To answer this we have to go back to the beginning of psychotherapy. Freud found out that psychological problems can be traced to our relationships with our parents, and that the first seven years of life create our “conditioning”.
Wilhelm Reich built on Freud’s ideas and found out that conditioning, repressed emotions, experiences and trauma are stored in our muscles, bones and cells11.
Thanks to Candace Pert, neuroscientist and pharmacologist, mind body medicine entered the scientists’ vocabulary in the 1980s backing up body psychotherapists’ beliefs. Contemporary body psychotherapists, particularly trauma specialists (Peter Levine, Babette Rothschild and Bessel Van Der Kolk et al) agree that the health of the body, mind, emotions, and spirit are all interconnected.
There are some specific places where the bodies wisdom feels more accessible. In 2011, Joseph Bray wrote that the heart has around 40,000 nerve cells and the gut has 100 million10. So gut feeling and heartfelt emotions are not just figures of speech they refer to the bodies innate wisdom.
The fascia is less familiar but no less important. “The fascia holds our belief system in place…Emotions, memories and thoughts stored in the fascia and muscles come up as you begin moving your body…it’s common for people to burst into tears when certain fascial muscles are stretched or touched,” said Dr Christine Northrup wrote in 2015. 11
But this is still only part of the picture. It’s the implicit memory that encompasses the entire body.
In an interview for Kindred Spirit, Andrea explained that the brain stores memory in two different ways. “In the explicit memory we store symbolic images, words and story, things that we can consciously reflect on. Implicit knowledge is the feel of things, it’s nonverbal and often considered unconscious. It’s the way we know how to ride a bike, or tie our shoelaces. You can’t think about it, you know it in your cells, in your bones, muscles and fluids. It’s the whole organism.
The majority of what we know about human relations resides in the implicit memory and mindful movement practice brings that into consciousness”.
So when you dance you aren’t just moving the physical body, you are moving your entire being. If we include mindfulness we can spot clues and patterns and gain insights into the mystery of who we are.
The body is a biographical map, a record of where you’ve been and what you’ve done since birth. It is the sum total of your physiology, your psychology, your conditioning and your personal biography. When you commit to a movement practice these places start to unlock and unravel and you gain access to the bodies innate wisdom sooner or later. On the dance floor you start redrawing that map and writing a different ending to your biography. If you don’t meditate or have another mindfulness practice, conscious dance is not just an antidote to the stress of the techno age, it’s crucial for your mental, emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing. See you on the dance floor…
Conscious dance can help us:
Physically and physiologically because as we move we get fitter, and we reduce our stress, dexpression, anxiety, pain and tiredness. CD can also boost our mood and body image, improve our mental alertness and immune system, enhance our memory, brain function and neuroplasticity, 5-9. Dancing can also help us become grounded, more solid, and down to earth.
Emotionally and spiritually because we become more self aware, honest and present to ourselves, more connected in our relationships, and more discerning in what we want from life. Inspiration, intuition and creativity can flow more easily and we start to feel more keenly the joy of life as well as the pain. This can deepen our compassion and empathy for our selves and others.
Build body awareness by being mindful of our thoughts, physical sensations, feelings and emotions when we are moving. This is how we tap into the body’s innate wisdom that knows how to move to unravel the next layer.
“I notice a greater ability to be restful, trust my intuition and be guided from the inside out,” says Eadaoin NI Challarain, GP, physician in Palliative Care and Open Floor Teacher-in-Training.
Release our wildness in a safe place, which is ideal for those times when we need to let it all out and go wild. It’s liberating to have a place to cathartically let go of messy, socially unacceptable emotions without alcohol or drugs.
Develop leadership qualities because it hones our focus, clarity and direction and helps us develop confidence and stronger boundaries.
Meditate – CD is much more in tune with our speedy, techno-culture.
“For me sitting meditation was never as accessible as aligning my body with the principle of movement,” says Andrea.
Apologies to anyone I’ve missed out in this is edited version.
• Clíona O Conaill – conscious dancer for 15 years, freelance writer, Open Floor Teacher-in-Training and founder of the embodied dance Earth Beats in Devon and Bristol. firstname.lastname@example.org, www.earthbeats.co.uk
• Eadaoin NI Challarain – GP and Open Floor Teacher-in-Training in Sligo, Ireland, email@example.com
• Leela Fisk – certified Soul Motion teacher and Soul Motion School Mentor for apprentice leaders,www.leeladance.com in Devon and California.
• Andrea Juhan PhD and Lori Saltzman – Open Floor teachers and co-founders of Open Floor International, openfloor.org
• Mark Metz – Author, DJ and Director of the Dance First Association, publishers of Conscious Dancer magazine. www.consciousdancer.com
- Andrea Juhan – PhD Thesis – Open Floor: Dance, Therapy and transformation through the 5Rhythms
- Goddesses Never Age, Christiane Northrup (2015)
- Joy, Alexander Lowen (1995)
- What Everyone Should Know About Stress, Brain Health, and Dance, Judith Hanna, PhD author and former dance teacher.
- The Wisdom of The Body, Joseph Bray, Therapy Today (BACP Journal) (2011)
- www.backfixbodywork.com/Great%20Methods%20-%20Bodymind%20Section% 2031-99.pdf
© Clíona O Conaill 2016