Photo: Fall Equinox Open-Air Ceremony at Heartward Sanctuary 9/20/22
“Ritual dances provide a religious experience that seems more satisfying and convincing than any other…It is with their muscles that humans most easily obtain knowledge of the divine.” ~Aldous Huxley
Six months since lock-down here in the States. Computers, Zoom calls, distance from the usual life-sustaining practices. Lack of coherent, protective leadership in the U.S. and the threat of four more years. Pandemic fatigue, systemic racism, economic injustice, increased polarization, ravaging fires and planetary alignments converge in the body, igniting our internal fires. Less access to touch and forms of trusted self-care make everything more challenging. Even with all the privileges afforded us white-bodied folks, there are many moments of despair in this phase of the chrysalis–the slow, painful and yet much needed meltdown and metamorphosis of this culture. At individual, ancestral and collective levels, the transformation continues in its slow grind.
What’s the medicine for these times? Surely, the medicines are as diverse as we are. No one practice or strategy or perspective or even political candidate can provide a remedy to all. But these words ring true through my mind at times: adapt or die.
Adapt our practices. Adapt our medicines. Adapt our ways of gathering food. Adapt our ways of communing. Adapt our systems. Adapt…
As long as I can remember, dance has been a primary medicine for me. As soon as I was old enough to drop a needle on a record, I began soothing myself by dancing to music. As a teen I went to live music shows and danced. At 27, I found a hoop which offered a sacred space for my body to move. Due to inhibition and shyness for the first half of my life, dancing alone was sufficient and preferred. But for the past decade, ecstatic and community ritual dances have been my preferred practice. Facilitating these has been at the heart of the past decade of work. With or without physical contact, the potency of this medicine requires the group container, a community of dancers showing up for shared practice. The communion is about proximity, closeness, interaction, shared space. Sometimes I wonder if dance is my devotion to music, or the dance itself is a god, but more likely these two deities are woven in a sacred partnership, aspects of an ancient pantheon who brings sacraments and medicines to the people.
At the Summer Solstice, one season into the pandemic in the Southeast of the US, our dance community hadn’t gathered since just before the Vernal Equinox. With our downtown Carrboro studio space closed from COVID-19, the bottom had fallen out of our shared practices. While some of us have continued to meet weekly by Zoom, the tendrils of our community were beginning to wither, like roses in peak summer sun. Ancestral traumas were (and probably still are) activated from pandemic, confinement, survival uncertainty, racial injustice and uprisings. Our psyches have struggled as we seek purpose and meaning in the vacuum of what was and mystery of what will be. Our communal practice, a primary medicine for many of us, had been taken away.
Adapt or die.
Since 2011, our multi-generational community has been co-creating a ritual that works for our collective healing. For our community, improvisational dancing has offered a way to remember our interconnectedness. Dance has many forms and meanings to different people and cultures. Ecstatic Dance is what we have called our dance, but Ecstatic Dance looks different from community to community, venue to venue, facilitator to facilitator. Our dance has been co-created over years of showing up together to enter into wordless space and give space for our bodies to move however needed. Some dance alone, others together. Many lineages of dance mingle in the space.
The dance has provided practice of attuning to one another, settling together, entraining to shared rhythms, providing support for grief and trauma in improvised, body-led, wordless ways. These practices emerge organically in many improvised dance spaces. They may have arisen to heal the centuries of amnesia and trauma or as blood memories of dancestors past. Regardless, many of us have come together seeking healing and belonging amidst other bodies. Not around belief or text, scripture or dogma, but embodied practice. Over the course of nearly a decade of weekly Sunday “dance church” as some have nick-named it, we have co-created ways of attuning to one another and the unseen. Together, we track the subtle currents that flow through our individual and collective nervous systems, tending what is alive together in the unfolding moment.
These weekly have offered an opportunity to experience those fleeting glimpses of oneness, of moving as a coherent, collective organism. The practice has undoubtedly been the glue of our community. While the traditional village has been displaced for many of us, we have catalyzed community on the dance floor, a community that has proven to show up beyond the practice. We’ve danced together for emotional support and grief tending. To heal ourselves. To celebrate the precious miracle of this brief, beautiful embodied life. To mourn the ongoing tragedies, personal and collective. To tend the deaths of our beloveds. To process systemic oppression and injustice. To escape the prison of the individual self. To connect with our ancestors. To integrate, express or release that which the mind cannot articulate or even fully understand. To commune with the mysteries. In these dances, we witness one another and allow ourselves to be seen. Then, at the end, our practice has been to circle to share and listen to deepen community bonding and coherence through words.
For those of us who dance as a way to heal or connect with the divine, the loss of the practice during the pandemic has been acute. Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy about the loss of the ecstatic, dance-based religions around the world, especially in the West over the past two millennia. She argues that the demonization of the deities of dance and ecstatic rites and then later the emphasis on the individual self has led to an epidemic of depression and isolation while simultaneously taking away the traditional cure: “the mind-preserving, lifesaving techniques of ecstasy.” She also writes that “the centuries, roughly the sixteenth through the nineteenth, in which Europeans discarded and suppressed their festive traditions are the same ones in which Europeans fanned out all over the globe conquering, enslaving, colonizing, and in general destroying other peoples and their cultures.”
What if reclaiming ecstatic rites provide an opportunity to tend our personal nervous systems and decolonize our bodies? What if embodied presence can support our healing from white body supremacy and patriarchy? What if this type of somatic exploration and expression is part of the work needed to wake up from centuries of pain, enacted on and by our ancestors? What if building community around embodied practices creates an opportunity to build community resilience?
Community resilience is, and I would argue has always been, crucial for individual resilience. As we move forward in whatever world will be birthed on the other side of this collective initiation, community will be ever increasingly crucial for survival and health.
In late June, we had the opportunity and privilege to move onto land where we’re seeding the Heartward Sanctuary projects. But, who’s seeding who here? Is this our creation or has a seed been planted in us from the muses, from the powers who see that the necessity of our survival will include technologies of the sacred, a return to earth-and-body-honoring traditions and community-building practices? The muses of this project have led us here, in a space apart, beyond the edges of town, far from highways and the sounds of modern times, secluded amidst meadows, forest and farmland. Here, in Silk Hope, we dare to dream or be dreamed into new, yet ancient practices.
We came here to seed an Ancestral Grove (green burial ground) and deeper healing work, to have a space where our ceremonies and dance rituals could be in participation with the elements, in relationship with the other-than-human world, where our feet could commune with the holy earth.
With grief over lost practice and community connection, hope in decreasing reserves and new land to bless, our community opted to gather in June to bless this new land. This was our first time gathering since COVID’s arrival to the U.S. With the first dance, life slowly began to return. A taste of pleasure, of play and joy, of connection. After months apart, we’d adapted to the physical distance. This summer, we’ve gathered six times for an adapted, experimental, outdoor, distanced community movement practice. We’re experimenting with connecting with nature and one another in new ways. Each dance has been dramatically different and offered beautiful ways of exploring what’s possible for this next phase. Each time we gather, there is a spark of hope. We can sustain, build and deepen community ties, even within the parameters of physical distancing. We can adapt.
Now, here in this enormous lawn turned sanctuary, we’re embracing change. We’re invoking and surrendering to the elements and the other-than-humans. We’re spreading out over multiple acres to practice. We’re greeting the spirits of the land with our hearts and the soles of our feet. We’re embracing the trees instead of one another. We’re consecrating the ground with our prayers. We’re listening. With curiosity and openness, we’re coming together for communion. For joy and connection. For prayer and dance. For grief and praise.
At one of our dances, we proceeded to gather despite the 10% chance of rain. After I invoked the elements and the ancestors of the land and prayed for deep emotional healing from the waters, the spirits danced with us. As the music began, so did the breezes. When the rhythms picked up, a gentle rain fell. Sun still streaming through the trees formed rainbows to greet us at eye level. The closest rainbows I’ve ever seen, as if you could reach out and touch them. Elemental magic. As staccato rhythms intensified into chaos, the bottom fell out of the sky and lightning and thunder struck simultaneously. Nervous to get folks home safe, I removed the rest of chaos and shifted into lyrical music. As if following the music, the storm mellowed out. As the lyrics “please prepare me to be a sanctuary” rang out through the field, the rain paused and sky glowed. A storm, one that wasn’t present even across the street, dramatically followed the arc of our dance wave. Weather is one the ways the elements, the spirits and ancestors of the land can speak back and dance with us. While somewhat inconvenient and thoroughly soaking, this storm felt like a dramatic but majestic blessing. A cleansing. And a new and potent experience in this time outside our normal rhythms.
Practice isn’t the same. At moments, my heart aches to experience the group organism that coalesces in our old space, communing within the same field of breath. Sometimes it’s bittersweet to be close to people you want to hug but have to maintain distance. It’s undoubtedly different. Yet, there are ways to be connected at a distance. And, the community of dance partners is growing to include trees and breezes, fabric and sprinklers, thunder and rainbows.
For now, our sanctuary has found a place to dance, to deepen community bonds and to consecrate this ground for the mystery of what is to come. And, so that eventually, when we die, we’ll return to this earth, become part of this land and feed the milkweed which nourishes the monarchs, the fruit of the chrysalis.
We hope this place can truly become a sanctuary for folks in times of need and transition, for folks of many spiritual paths. May the privilege we’ve been granted to be here serve a diversity of people. May bridges be built between traditions, races and sacred practices. May we be able to share this space with others who need space to host or adapt their sacred rites. And ultimately, may we, a diversity of people, be buried, side-by-side, feeding the same trees and becoming part of the same storms, harmonizing to the songs played by our descendants.
By Julia Hartsell