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‘The body’s instinctive way to heal’

Roll, twirl, sway, laugh, cry, close your eyes, lie down. Only rule on this dance floor? No talking.

| 30 Nov 2023 | 06:47

People filter in by ones and twos, take off their shoes and find a spot on a mat or cushions. It could be a yoga class except for the DJ booth and speakers. The dance studio at Mountain Lake Park is the new home of Warwick Ecstatic Dance, an informal group of locals and occasional out-of-town visitors who find nourishment, healing and joy in the act of dancing.

The core group constructs a welcoming container for the Sunday events: wall hangings, intentional messages, yoga mats, rugs and cushions, soft lighting, a small table with inspirational cards and self-help books to leaf through.

People greet each other, find a spot to stretch, or just sit and find their bearings. Families with young children arrive and set up camp with snacks and coloring books for the hour-and-a-half session. At first the children are shy, wary of the space and the adults in the room, not sure what to expect – not unlike myself. Gradually as the music starts – a slow, meditative rhythm – a calm comes over the room. The children begin to explore their surroundings, growing more comfortable. Adults move about the room following the flow of the music. Many have their eyes closed, swaying, finding their center of gravity, settling into themselves.

The energy level in the room rises with the tempo of the music. Parents dance and play with their children. Occasionally dancers interact with each other, gleefully sharing the moment. For the most part, everyone is dancing for themselves, uninhibited by the gaze of others.

Karen Berry, the instigator behind Warwick Ecstatic Dance, was a practicing psychiatrist for 35 years. After her dad died, she closed her practice and helped a family member raise a young child. Feeling isolated, she realized she was avoiding her grief. In her early twenties, she had found catharsis in drumming and dance circles, exploring the primal rhythms of the body, of not caring how she looked, concentrating instead on how she felt. If she wanted to retire in Warwick, she needed to create a safe space where she could use dance to drop into her body in connection with others.

The guidelines for setting up Warwick Ecstatic Dance were straightforward: create a positive, non-judgmental, inclusive, drug-and-alcohol free environment, welcoming all ages, abilities, genders and sexual orientations.

Jody Weatherstone, a classical vocalist, yogi and vocal toning and breathwork facilitator, describes what drew her to the group. “It’s the most inclusive, accepting group of people. It’s freedom of expression without judgment. You show up however you want to show up. Lie down, move a little or a lot. You have permission to cry, make noise, laugh, let it out. Though no talking on the dance floor.”

It’s impossible to simply watch: your body responds to the emotional content of the music. The ebb and flow is carefully curated by cofounder Steve Regan, with a selection of world, alternative and pop music. With 30 years’ experience as a DJ and sound engineer in New York City, and many more exploring ecstatic dance in California, he knows how to create a journey through movement. When he plays a pop song that everyone recognizes immediately, the energy ripples through the room, cohering the group.

Based on the 5Rhythms, a movement meditation practice developed by Gabrielle Roth in New York in the 1970s, ecstatic dance follows a distinct pattern, with energy levels rising and falling over the course of the 90 minutes: Flow, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, Stillness. Each elicits a visceral response within the body.

“The bass beats drop me deeper into my body, while the pop music lifts me,” said Jennifer Padham, a trained dancer who also DJs for the sessions. For her, discovering the 5Rhythms of ecstatic dance was a rebirth. She learned how her body holds different kinds of energy, and how to release it. She likens the “wave,” or “journey,” as it’s often called, to storytelling.

As joy spreads around the room, the children, all shyness forgotten, roll and twirl, giddy with the shared experience.

“We all love to dance. It’s a spiritual journey – dance is where I find my Zen,” said group member Dr. Ann Studer, of Vernon, NJ, a chiropractor and transformational healing coach. “One of my favorite things is to get down on the floor and play with the young families, feed on their energy and spirit.” She brought her 12-year-old son one Sunday, not expecting him to join in, and as the dance progressed, he spontaneously came over to join her on the dance floor. Whatever kind of week she’s having, Studer says the dance floor is the place to process it. “Dance is the body’s instinctive way to heal.”

As the tempo winds down, everyone gathers into a sharing circle to conclude the dance. One woman, near tears, says she’s been looking for exactly this kind of experience for two years. Another says that this has become such a supportive community for her. A man says how good it feels to follow the children’s example and get silly and playful.

The group can be for those seeking an alternative spiritual practice or a place to have connection with others, said Weatherstone. “I always leave feeling uplifted and connected even if I’ve cried,” she said. “It’s personal and communal at the same time, the alchemy that happens in a group.”

As a parting gesture, the group slaps the floor and throws their arms in the air, offering up the shared experience. “Whatever you do on the dance floor is perfect,” says Karen Berry. “We are building an inclusive community to be, heal and play.”

Warwick Ecstatic Dance (which goes by Hudson Valley Ecstatic Dance on Facebook) meets on the second and fourth Sunday of the month at Mountain Lake Park in Warwick. Suggested donation is $15 per person or $25 per 2-adult family. Children and teens are free. They host a quarterly Saturday evening freestyle dance jam, 7:30-10pm.