Dance your way to a happier you

Once upon a time I went to Burning Man, and it did not radically change my life. But it did make some helpful minor adjustments, and nudged me in the right direction. For example, I would never have taken up barefoot hippie dancing on a Sunday morning, otherwise. And that would have been a terrible loss.

Allow me to back up and set the scene. It’s a dusty hot Burning Man day, and I am napping at Center Camp, under one of the fabric “wings” extending out from the circular structure and providing much-coveted shade. It’s a busy part of Black Rock City, but the noise is lulling, along with the heat.  Through shallow dreams, I hear drumming, and wake up suddenly with one very clear thought: “I think I need to go dance.” I followed the sound to a group of percussionists, some 10-15 strong, each with a white painted instrument. There was no melody, only the flow of rhythm, and the stage-like circular clearing was already full of dancers. I kicked off my dusty boots and joined in. In my long purple skirt, in my yellow headscarf covering dust-calcified pigtails, dancing to the evolving rhythm, I felt more in the moment than I had felt in years. I was fully present in my body, and unselfconsciously, ridiculously happy.

There is no way to tell this story without it sounding cheesy. Here was my transformational Burning Man moment, dancing barefoot with strangers! But it stuck with me. I have fits of moodiness and anxiety, and there are few reliable ways to get through it, but of those, movement – usually hiking – helps the most. Music helps too. Yoga and meditation, these things that slow down the body and were supposed to slow down the mind, only made me more fidgety and distracted. But I have always loved to dance, anything from ballroom to salsa to Georgian folk dance to swing to the local top 40-spinning bar. Dance, I realized, had everything I needed.

It was my tremendous luck to be living in the Bay Area when this thought occurred to me, and soon, half by accident, I stumbled on Ecstatic Dance. It was not an immediately reassuring title. I imagined religious overtones or self-important ceremony, but vowed to give it a try – and fell in love.

Imagine a giant ballroom: tall windows, wood floors, morning light. Imagine music – world, trance, soul, hip hop – not shy of rhythm. Imagine people of all shapes and ages dancing ridiculously, beautifully, unselfconsciously, alone or with partners, with eyes closed, faces focused, or openly grinning. Some might be professional dancers, others can’t quite keep a beat; some stay in one spot on the dance floor, others weave curlicues around the other dancers. It is like that Burning Man moment, but without the dust, and afterwards we all disperse to our regular Sunday relaxation or errands.

The E-dance community certainly skews towards yoga instructors, astrologers and vegan chefs. People will tell you with un-ironic gravity that their life motto is “dharma not drama,” or offer to do a crystal grid attunement for you. There is an altar at the side of the dance space, and will feature, from day to day, gilded Buddhas or a giant crystal, and always tealights. The dance will end occasionally with rolling ohms. This is not my scene. But this is ok. I do not pray or activate nor attune myself to vibrations – or maybe I do, and simply call it by a different name. Because all I know is, it makes me feel present, and happy, and grounded.

I think of all the partner dancing I have done, of the rigidity and polish of competitive ballroom dancing, or the stylized and formal Georgian dance. Then I think what a release it is to move as ridiculously and freely and informally as I want, as reserved or as exuberant as I choose.  It is incredibly freeing to be in your body, feeling no judgment, only the positive energy of the other crazy people around you, dancing on a Sunday morning. It’s wonderful. You should try it.


Dancing between lights and shadow

It’s telling that that the Alonzo King LINES ballet now called “Constellations” was originally the named, in a Dali-esque phrase, “The calming effect of shadow dispersing clarity,” as Alonzo King reveals in the pre-curtain talk; he is a poet of words as well as bodies. This ballet is a collaboration with artist Jim Campbell, who worked with LED-lit spheres to create nets and screens that serve as backdrops for the dancers, who also interact with individual spheres during the ballet. It all comes together in a graceful, powerful, surreal ballet: the rawness of the dancers’ bodies in minimalist costumes, the technology elements, the striking soundtrack. The dancers move to ambient and electronic soundscapes, which suddenly give way to Russian Orthodox choral music. In some scenes,  mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani joins the ensembles on stage in a commanding red gown.

I had never seen the LINES company, which falls closer on the spectrum to Jiri Kylian than to the Balanchine lines of the San Francisco Ballet Company. The dancers are constantly moving, an arm changing direction while the torso continues the motion. They seem to be boneless one minute, angular the next. The electronic elements in the ballet never overshadow the dancing, but the interaction is beautiful. At the opening of the ballet, the spheres seem to hang like fireflies over the dark stage. Dancers touch or toss or roll the individual spheres or step through the LED netting. In one scene, a dancer creates fire-dancer-like light trails with the LED spheres he holds, and is eventually backlit by a fire-evoking LED screen that “ignites” out of the darkness behind him, eliciting gasps from the audience.

For me, the most spine-tingling scene in “Constellations” happens when 3 male dancers move in front of a bright LED screen to a soundtrack of swishes and cutting swoops. There is something slightly menacing and martial in this minimalist arrangement. It is not until low-resolution bird silhouettes start sweeping across the LED screen that the sound resolves conclusively into wing beats.