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Adapted from
Spirituality & Health
The Soul/Body Connection

Sweating Your Payers
The Spiritual Practice of Ecstatic Dance

When Gabrielle Roth wants to get closer to God, she dances. She sinks to her knees, floats to her feet, twirls, steps with a slide and a pop, bounce, twist, slink, shimmy, swish. Her favorite music blaring, she drowns out the clamor of inner voices and disappears into the moment.

Roth’s God is ecstatic dance, she says, and she has been moving — and teaching others to move — for 35 years. Three videos, a dozen-plus albums, three books, and some 200 teacher trainees later, she calls this energetic pursuit of ecstasy a philosophy, a perspective, and a practice. As a philosophy, ecstatic dance declares that energy is motion and motion is energy. From a dance perspective, she sees life as movement through changes. And as a spiritual practice, ecstatic dance is a way to literally sweat your prayers.

Roth’s brand of ecstatic dance is rooted in five rhythms that she calls flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical, and stillness. The instructions are simple: Dance who you are. People of all body types and physical capabilities find their own idiosyncratic ways of moving. Just crank up the music, open your mind, and follow these rhythms in whatever way your soul directs.

Begin with the flowing rhythm. Practice being fluid, becoming a continuum of movement. In flowing, you can discover what’s going on inside. For instance, you might discover that you’re feeling inert today.

Then move into the staccato rhythm. Feel focused and your movement will be focused. If you’re feeling inert, take that into the dance. Trust that inertia is the state of your being for now and allow it, move with it. Find out whether it’s a heavy inertia or a rigid inertia. Define it in your dance.

Fly into chaos. Let go of all control. If you are inert, dissolve the inertia by breathing and moving into it. Let the inertia, or whatever you’re feeling at this moment, carry you deeper into chaos.

Now let your body become lyrical. Be funky — your original, most outrageous self. Become like a big rag doll, and disappear into the dance.

End in stillness. Be formless, identifying with the river of energy that flows through the body, rather than identifying with the body itself. In stillness, detach from the previous state and begin to feel how you are now. Whatever that is, be true to its dance energy as your body rests in stillness.

Each rhythm is an energy field in which we can explore the question, “What does it mean to be a human being, a human in motion, our fluid ever-changing, impermanent self?” For Roth, the dance is always moving toward ecstasy, an egoless, timeless state of being. “You don’t get there every day, by the way,” she says, “but that’s the goal. It’s like a cleansing; it burns karma. Just let go of everything for a few minutes, and be free. It feels exquisite.”

Roth whimsically defines herself as “a verb” and “an ongoing teenager.” But beyond that, she is a modern-day shaman of sorts — an artist and healer who believes that ecstatic dance is a contemporary shamanic practice that transforms cultural and personal neurosis into creativity. Roth was a religious child who loved church, rituals, and hanging out with God. Jesus was her hero, but she was averse to dogma. “The dance freed me from the dogma,” Roth says, and now God, the dance, “is that force that keeps everything moving and changing. In the trance of the dance, I get as close to that experience as I possibly can.”

Ecstatic dancing is not an isolated, self-indulgent pursuit. In her classes, Roth directs gyrating students into relationship dances. Even if you practice alone in your living room, you will discover that your dance informs your living. The awareness and aliveness that bubble up in your body during the dance enliven everything from the trip to the grocery store to time with the kids to the drive down the freeway.

“I brought all my sufferings, starting with my teenage sorrows, to the dance,” says Roth. “I learned early on that my body was the enemy. I was ashamed of so much and had so much fear. Through the dance, I began to put myself back together. By denouncing my body I had lost my soul, and my dance was a soul retrieval. For me, the soul was my body, heart, and mind being unified. Taking on my skinny little body was like taking on the whole Western civilization. We were all suffering from this divorce of spirit and flesh, from this Western dismemberment. I quickly realized I was not alone: Everyone else was walking around the same way. Every single dance moved me closer to God — to that which is bigger, badder, and better than any self could be — toward the great big mystery.”

The movement from birth to death is a dance, says Roth, to be done in grace. We are all meant to move, whether to our favorite tunes on the radio, or the tunes on Roth’s CD Tribe, set to the beat of the five rhythms. “You can put on music really loud, music that you love,” she says, “and blare out the little voices in the head and dance until you drop.”

Keeping ourselves fluid, alive, and aware is a glorious lifelong mission, says Roth. We ought to do more than passively notice the background music. We ought to get up and dance.

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