My First Ecstatic Dance
Off I go bicycling downhill all the way to downtown Houston Texas. Mmmm, my favorite part, the museum district next to Hermann park on this balmy spring morning. I’m at home here cruising these densely urban narrow streets on Sunday morning. Old trees, old houses, run down apartment districts with screaming kids running around like ‘wild Indians’. Yeah, just like downtown San Antonio where you can actually smell the old wood from the houses as you ride by real slow on your bike. Where in the daytime you go “oh how sweet this neighborhood is…” and then at night the hood is crawling with people in altered states of consciousness. Like as if they were rodents scurrying about and then it doesn’t seem so sweet.
I arrive 11 am on Sunday morning. Sweat Your Prayers. I’ve heard about it for probably a year now from my eating disorder clients who felt moved, more than traditional therapy did for them. They compared it to dance therapy, psychodrama, and art therapy all mixed in one.
They just did a workshop called ‘God, Sex, and the Body’. Anyone who puts those three words in one name, I gotta check this out!
We dance in an old building. It’s made out of concrete, with one round wall full of square blocks of glass. To enter, I climb wide concrete steps turning charcoal gray from years of Houston’s air pollution. Walking through the doors, it’s like I’ve imagined dance studios- rough wood floors, tall ceilings, tight little corridors with black drapes for changing clothes. There’s wall posters plastered everywhere about dance: ballet, modern, ecstatic, African.
I enter the large room toward the right of the entrance with a circular glass wall. It’s bright this Sunday morning. There’s twenty-ish people. Some are stretching and talking. Some are alone and quiet. The dance attire ranges from running tights to dance leotards. One girl’s wearing hot pink ‘butt floss’ and pale pink leotards with cloth ballet shoes. Some people (like me) are wearing running shorts, running shoes, and a baggy t-shirt. (E’hm…it’s 1988.)
A ‘cool’ looking woman wearing a gathered flowery skirt, tights, t-shirt, and bandana across her forehead asks us to huddle up. She describes what we’re doing today. She quickly lists the archetypes that she borrows from her mentor Gabrielle Roth: Mother, Father, and Maiden. “Archetypes” she says, “we all have inside us.” How does this relate to dancing? I’m curious. Some of the archetypes I balk at like Holy Spirit- Hmph! Way too new agey.
She says “Today we’re dancing the archeytype Wild Boy.” Okay. Now we’re on to something I can relate to. WOOO HOO! We’re dancing Wild Boy!
Moving through the center of the circle, she demonstrates the ‘rhythms’ we’ll dance through-flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical, and stillness. She moves fluidly, boldly and makes body sounds like wild percussive breath, drooling slobbery sounds, sing song like, and hush shush. I’m entranced. She’s so graceful. I feel welcomed by her risking to expose herself so freely. I look around the room and everyone’s quiet and still, intently watching her too. The dancers age range from mid twenty’s to forty-fifty-ish.
She quickly breaks everyone up into groups telling us we’re now in ‘gangs’. My heart is pounding. I’m alive. I’m glad I rode my bike. I’m pumped up ready to go! There’s five of us in our gang and there’s four gangs total. Our gang gets the group leader’s bandana and tosses it around to each other. I’m especially attracted to a tall red head woman in our gang as she leaps and lunges across the floor with full force. Her movements and vocal sounds keep me playing hard to keep up with her. We harass and tease the other gangs. Yay! We’re the best! I’m so completely caught up in the activity. I’m in. I’m needed. I’m good. I’m accepted.
I give my gang all I got to keep the the dance leader’s bandana. Then the dance leader stops the music, retrieves her bandana and puts it back on her forehead. Pulling us all together to one side of the room, she sets an imaginary stage. It’s the huge open space on the other side of the room against the glass block wall. She asks each group to create a human sculpture expressing their gang. Each person connecting with another to make one statue. Ugh! I’m shaking. Can I participate in this and have these strange people see me? My jaws tense up, I’m holding my breath.
My gang goes into the center of the room first. One by one, they leap onto the stage. The tall red head immediately sprawls belly up to the ceiling- horizontal, long and lithe. She pauses regally while each gang member comes out to join her, touching some part of her body. They slowly make one formation. One unit. One gang expression. I’m last. Gulp! I’m stinging from head to toe. I run toward my gang sculpture and position myself at what feels like the helm of our human sculpture. I stretch out my right fore arm shooting my middle finger-giving the sign-what I do best. Screaming silently “F-CK YOU! DON’T F-CK WITH ME!” and then, Eek! Gads! My heart thumps. I sink into my feet. My head goes light. My shooting finger shrinks back, curls up, disappears into a fist. Bam! Slam! I’m back into the room. I’m suddenly aware that I’m in the Dance studio. Downtown Houston. I’m a professional. I’m a therapist. Burning red hot, full of shame, I ask myself “Did I offend anyone? What do they think of me?”
After each gang takes their turn, we circle up to share our experiences. I’m mute. I’m wanting to be invisible. I wiggle around sitting nervous, listening to ‘them’ share connections between the dance, their relationships, their work, their life. Sighing heavily and dropping my shoulders, I slip further down to the floor…I get it that there are massage therapists, psychotherapists, artists, all sorts of professional people around me. I feel this softness between us, as I listen to my fellow ‘gang’ members speak from their hearts. Intimate sharing like “I wish I could be that aggressive with my boyfriend.” “I always envied kids in school that were bold like I was today.” “I can’t believe you got us to play in gangs.”
We share our names going around the circle and the dance is over.
I ride my bike back home. Now it’s up hill all the way. I’m exhausted. All I can do is drag my bike into the garage and flop on the couch. I feel heavy like concrete. I just want to close my eyes and sleep as I recall the dance and judge myself for flipping the sign at everyone. GAWD! At my first dance!
26 years later…I’ve been dancing this path between inside and outside, movement and stillness, violence and prayer. Sweat Your Prayers is my dance of opposites. Dancing tears down the walls between public and private, Self and Other, Human and Spirit. Stone by stone, I rebuild a dance path that leads me to my Wild Spirit, the Heart Whisperer. I thank God and Goddess for Gabrielle Roth and her 5 Rhythms that she brought to Houston Texas in the late 80’s. I now have a form of ‘worship’ I share with others.
I’ve established Ecstatic Dance Communities from Austin Texas (1994), Sante Fe New Mexico (2000), Houston Texas (2003), Ashland Oregon (2005), Medford Oregon (2007), Beaverton (2015) and inspired Ecstatic Dances from the Big Island to San Francisco California.
Carola Marashi M.A. Author, Ecstatic Dance Facilitator Trainer
I have a Master’s Degree in Transpersonal Psychology and author of 2 books-Sensual Eating, 1992; and Sacred Dance and 22 Deck of Oracle Cards, 2010 2nd Edition Sacred Dance Oracle Guide with Deck of Original Art.
I seduce the subtle. I enchant the awkward. I listen to the heart whisper.