It’s Monday evening, I’m tired after a boozy weekend, it’s dark, cold, and pouring with rain. I do not feel like dancing ecstatically. And yet that is precisely where I am headed: to an ecstatic dance session in a town hall in Islington (where else).
It’s called A Call To Dance, which is a version of something called Five Rhythms. My friend Olly told me about it, he’s a fan of Ecstatic Dance, and hooked into the network. When I told him about my research into ecstatic experiences, he suggested I try it. ‘It’s better than any pill’, he said.
I am somewhat unsure if I’ll fit in. I love dancing, but can’t remember the last time I danced without the aid of alcohol or drugs. I need them to get me out of my head, into ‘the zone’. My usual Clark Kent self is a rather rational, uptight, non-intimate, non-touchy-feely academic. Very ‘heady’, as they say in Brighton. Will I be able to get into the tribal groove, or will I stick out, a fifth wheel, a sixth rhythm, like Mark from Peep Show when he visits Rainbow Rhythms?
There are numerous options for ecstatic dance in north London – I could go to the Saturday night wig-out in a church in Tufnell Park, or this more intimate affair near Angel. I go for the latter.
It’s a big, rather empty hall, ringed by statues of goddesses holding branches. Regulars are arriving, and giving each other loooooooooong hugs. They emerge from the rain wrapped up like antarctic explorers, and strip off to yoga pants and tiny man-shorts. There’s some stretching, some more hugging. One bony old man is already leaping around the floor, like a geriatric jester. Hey nonny no. I stand at the side of the hall, trying to look groovy.
The master of ceremonies is Sue, an American lady who is petite and full of nimble energy. She puts on some music – a slow jazz version of Billie Jean – and the 40 or so ecstatic dancers converge on the floor and start doing their thing. As you can imagine, they are all very expressive, individualist dancers. I have no idea how to dance to a slow jazz version of Billie Jean, so I stand at the back and do the old ‘step to the left, step to the right’.
Expressive individualism, I think to myself. Another ruling philosophy of our time. To hell with structures, dogma, hierarchies. Do your own thing. Get out of your head. Get in touch with your sacral chakra. There’s DH Lawrence, doing some sort of aboriginal dance. There’s Emerson, deep into the Orphic boogaloo.
I’m reminded of Claire Denis’ brilliant film Beau Travail, about the French Foreign Legion. The film explores rigid male power structures, symbolized in the tightly choreographed drills the soldiers do together in the desert. The hero loves the clear boundaries and structures of the Legion. But then he’s chucked out. The last scene is him alone, in a disco. And he suddenly launches into this incredible freeform dance. That’s expressive individualism.
But why am I thinking? Stop being so heady, Jules. Get into it. Am I doing it right? Does anyone ever pick up girls here? What the hell is going on?
Sue the instructress gathers us round in a circle. She walks around the circle quickly, talking in a hypnotic sort of incantation. ‘We will go through five rhythms, which together form a wave. Each rhythm is associated with one part of the body. First we start with ‘flowing’, which is connected to the feet. The feet are the physical key to the conscious state. Then ‘staccato’, connected to the hips. The hips are the physical key to the conscious state. Then ‘chaos’, connected to the spine. Then ‘lyrical’, connected to the hands. Then ‘stillness’, connected to the breath. Sometimes you will dance on your own, sometimes I will invite you to connect with someone else. Go with it’, she smiles, ‘there are no ‘right moves’.’
And we’re off! ‘Connect to your feet, explore with your feet, stay grounded in your feet’. The music gets a bit more lively – a trance beat, building up. It’s fun to dance in my bare feet, feeling the wooden floor beneath me. I feel myself getting into it, though I do wonder about the risks of athlete’s foot. But it’s pleasant. No one cares what I’m doing. Go with it. Let yourself go.
The beat picks up, it’s a good tune. I look around, everyone is into it. I remember how much I enjoyed clubbing, that moment when a good tune comes on and you look around at a dance floor filled with beaming, happy people really loving it, sharing it, enacting it together. How much fun was that?
‘Now move your awareness into your hips. Find someone to connect with and dance together’. Crikey. I am suddenly a sixteen-year-old at a disco, with no idea how to ask someone to dance. Plus you’re not meant to use words here. It’s all non-verbal. My hip-based small-talk is fairly rudimentary. Luckily a Japanese lady is in front of me and we dance for bit. She is a very good dancer and it’s fun, dialoguing through dance. I explain to her that I’m a philosopher, focused particularly on ancient Greek philosophy. I say this with my hips. ‘Now find a way to say goodbye and thank them’. We nod hips and spin off into the mass.
I find myself trancing. It’s like my awareness moves down, spreads out, diffuses, my eyes glaze, the pupils dilate, the mind opens, the critical fire-wall comes down, the autonomic nervous system connects to the music, you can feel it on your skin, in your stomach, in your groin. You are being carried by the music. Your consciousness extends into the tribe, dancing together, coral flowing as the wave goes over it. Expressive collectivism.
Then the dance carries up into the spine. The chaos stage. Kundalini. The music becomes loud, aggressive drumming. Everyone starts to freak out, their spines gyrating and whirling. The elderly geriatric is leaping around like a goat on crack. He keeps whisking past me, making me flinch. It brings me out of the trance. I start thinking again. I feel self-conscious. For some reason, I start to think about ISIS. Is this prancing around a town hall in Islington totally decadent, while ISIS enslaves and beheads its victims? Have we lost our masculine warrior spirit, our grit, our ability to stand up to evil? What would my grandfather make of this?
But, later, I think this: ISIS don’t dance. Radical Islam is Puritan, and Puritans hate dancing, particularly women dancing. Sayid Qutb, one of the founding fathers of radical Islamist thinking, went to America, went to a ‘bop’, and watched in disgust as the men and women slow-danced. When puritanical Islamist groups come to power, one of their first moves is usually to ban dancing, as the Taliban did. They often ban Sufi lodges, like Saudi Arabia did – no ecstatic dancing. Dance is an offence in their puritan regime, too wild, too sensual, too much fun. The only kind of ecstasy ISIS allows is the ecstasy of killing.
Dance is good for us. It lets us trance, in a healthy way. The music, rhythm, and movement interacts with our Autonomic Nervous System, and helps us shake off anxiety and depression, get out of our heads, transcend our little egos, and feel connected to others. Dance lets us do this in a positive, pro-social, loving way – rather than the toxic transcendence of ISIS. And ecstatic dance sessions let us do this without drugs, without booze, without predatory men.
The music slows. The wave subsides into its final phase. A man and woman, who I guess are a couple, dance together, holding each other, but that’s the only physical touch there’s been. We’re all on our own again. It’s a bit melancholy.
We gather in a circle to de-brief. One lady says she loves coming, she goes to a session every day, sometimes even two a day! This is their church, I guess. The church didn’t really allow for ecstatic dance. It banned it, quite early on. St Paul: women should cover their heads and keep quiet. Then the Puritans banned carnival. Then the rationalists did away with church all together.
But the spirit comes back, like a wave. The Pentecostalists reconnected with the body, with dance, they let it shake. And the shaking spread, like molecules vibrating. It spread out of the church through rock and roll, and it also spread through the other denominations, even to stuffy old Anglicanism. I remember a woman I saw at this church in Wales, dancing to the music like a complete hippy. She said she’d had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for several years, and then the Lord had delivered her. Now she danced in worship of him. I am the Lord of the Dance said he.
ISIS will never last, just like Cromwell’s Commonwealth didn’t last, because people’s urge to dance is far stronger than the Puritans’ ability to control it.