Movement as Medicine

Posted on in On Our Radar by Mary Serphos

The Wisdom of
Conscious Dance


“Healing is movement. If you put the body in
motion, you will change. You are meant to

—Gabrielle Roth

I’m standing in an opening circle at Ecstatic Dance. It’s being held in a progressive church in Fairfax, which is fitting, since many people in the Bay Area and around the country are turning to conscious dance as a spiritual practice—for some, it’s taking the place of organized religion. Here, dance is truly a mindful practice, a moving meditation.

On this night, Tyler Blank, a cofounder of Ecstatic Dance, as well as a DJ and contact improv instructor, sets the stage. His words are an initiation into the sacred, a gradual dive into the opportunity to move freely with intention, into a creative space to express, explore, play, and dance alone or with another, and to find new ways of moving to break through habitual patterns that we find ourselves in during the daily grind. This is the wisdom of conscious dance.

Conscious dance goes hand in hand with the wellness, mindfulness, and yoga movement. Like yoga, conscious dance is spreading quickly in the Bay Area, across the country, and throughout the world.

There is an intention in almost all forms of conscious dance, which is to ditch drugs and alcohol and instead use dance itself to induce any altered state. The natural high or mood boost that occurs after participating in creative dance happens in part because of increased serotonin in the brain not only from the dancing but from the entire experience. The extras include a mix of global beats and world music, often spun by DJs. And at some venues, such as Ecstatic Dance Oakland and NYC, DanceMarin, and Dance Medicine in San Geronimo Valley, beyond the eclectic crowd, there are atmospheric candles and altars, ample chill spaces with cushions to lounge on, and even massage practitioners waiting in the wings. Some venues—especially the dances rapidly infiltrating yoga studios—have a lineup of food vendors selling everything from kombucha to healing tonic teas to raw chocolate with cayenne. Mix all of these modalities together, and you have a formula for attaining bliss without taking a puff.

But conscious dance is not only a blissinducing nighttime scene. In fact, most conscious dance practices occur in the light of day, usually on weekend mornings. For many, regardless of age, this form of dance is a vital weekly or even daily exercise practice, a combination of an athletic and artistic pursuit, increasing heart rate, reducing stress, and enhancing creativity. Dance can also increase endurance, flexibility, strength, and agility. The healing power of dance is a hot topic in the scientific literature. According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, dancing is the perfect anti-aging remedy. It has been shown to boost memory and even help prevent dementia. The study reported that dancing improved mental acuity, as it frequently involves the type of rapid-fire decisionmaking that creates new connections in the brain. Similarly, an article in the New York Times titled “The Many Benefits of Dance: A Letter” stated that “dance, particularly its creative forms, has so many benefits, starting with self-expression, but also as a form of meditation, sustaining community, and pleasurable physical exercise.”

Dance therapy is also becoming a popular modality at inpatient and outpatient treatment centers as well as in schools and other institutions worldwide. Gabrielle Roth, the founder of one of the most internationally acclaimed conscious dance practices, 5Rhythms, stated that two hours on the dance floor was equivalent to two years on the couch. An exaggeration perhaps, but Roth has inspired many to get moving as an effective modality to heal the mind.

But beyond the physical and emotional health benefits, the most luring aspect of conscious dance is this: anyone can dance. There’s no need to be choreographed, talented, or accomplished. In this practice the impulse to impress is released, while judgments toward self and others are dropped. Unlike the nightclub vibe of talking and dancing with cocktail in hand, at many conscious dance venues the guidelines are “No booze. No drugs. No shoes. No chit-chat.”

For centuries, dance has been a modality for human expression, used to heal, to achieve higher consciousness, as a sacred art form, and as an offering to the goddesses and gods. Our prehistoric ancestors danced as a way to communicate, gather, bond, and express love, and babies as young as five months old have a natural ability to move and sway rhythmically to a beat. Dance was an early language used to pass down stories from generation to generation before written language existed. Dance has also been a critical component of spiritual and worship rituals, from whirling dervishes to the Natya Shastra (an early manuscript describing dance in India) to current-day tribal gatherings in Africa. In weddings and other ceremonies, festivals, and concerts, dance plays a critical—and often celebratory—role.

According to Kathy Saltzman and Lori Altman, two of the cofounders of the Bay Area conscious dance practice called Open Floor, “Since the beginning of time, human beings have gathered to dance. Mindful movement is surging all over the planet because it’s good for us. People who dance regularly have keener minds, greater emotional intelligence, and a calmer presence. Connection, compassion, and communities grow. In this challenging world, common sense tells us to spend time dancing.” At least one of Open Floor’s two Sunday morning sessions in Sausalito often sells out. It’s clearly a sign, according to Saltzman, of the deep hunger not only to move but to connect and be in community. And most participants agree that Open Floor, 5Rhythms, and other conscious dance modalities often lead to awakening, healing, and connection that go way beyond the Sunday morning practice. For many, the dance fosters friendships and, yes, sometimes intimate relationships off the dance floor.

In our inhibited world where freedom of emotional and physical expression has been repressed, where technology and productivity rule, and where human connection often consists of a text, a tweet, or a status update, many of us are desperately in need of reconnecting with the self and with others. Conscious dance beckons us to enter into an internal space to drop the personality, the ego, and flow seamlessly with the music without an agenda or an expectation. Donna Carroll, cofounder of Ecstatic Dance in Oakland, said, “In dance we relax and allow our bodies to entrain with one another, and we know, without a doubt, that we are a part of something greater than ourselves. We become freed from the separation, freed from the heaviness, freed from our mortal worries. In essence, we become more whole, happier human beings through the simplicity of the container and through the magic of the dance.” As a dancer who goes by “Twilight” put it, “This is the paradox—that going deeper into ourselves actually connects us to something greater.”

In conscious dance, structured, pinpointed, and choreographed movements are abandoned and uprooted, and in their place enters a willingness to surrender, to let the body release and move instinctually. While conscious dance is a serious practice for many, with aspects of more organized movement, and even partner dance, the invitation is to look inside, to let the thinking mind go while allowing for an authentic and uninhibited purge of all that is stored up inside. To internally witness and dance out all the sensations felt in the moment and from the past including tension, joy, fear, and resistance, the ecstatic highs and the grief.

In 2006, just after I first moved to Marin, I found my way to conscious dance. After several years of the practice, I found that my whole personality changed. I was more confident and integrated socially and found it easier to connect on a deeper level with others. My committed movement practice also positively affected my mood, and I was no longer lonely because I had connected with community.

When I recently returned to New York to care for my mom before her death, I danced. The day after she died, I didn’t even think about it. I danced—it was the only thing I could do. I didn’t want to talk, I wanted to move in community. I took myself to 5Rhythms’ “Sweat Your Prayers” class and danced with the grief, letting the tears and sadness, anger, guilt, and pain fall out of my body. This was a place to go not only to physically move, but to be around others who understood dance as medicine for the soul.

This is one way to cope with grief that is ultimately not only healing and therapeutic but also transformative. And over the years, I’ve learned that it’s not uncommon for those who are in pain in one form or another, whether it’s chronic illness or past trauma, to find their way into conscious dance and deal with their pain right there on the dance floor. To surrender and dance through all emotions with courage, strength, and vulnerability, surrounded by community, is potent medicine indeed. This is the wisdom of conscious dance.

Mary Serphos is a dedicated conscious dance practitioner and a licensed psychotherapist at the Child Therapy Institute of Marin in San Rafael, as well as a nutrition consultant, certified health coach, and teacher at the Marin Mindfulness Institute in Fairfax.

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