Something strange and wonderful happened to me last summer.
When I was staying in Berlin I went to a club with my friend Franziskus—the same Franziskus who I traveled with in Morocco last year—and he suggested we show up sober to enjoy the music. It was the first time I ever got a high just from dancing, and it was unlike anything else I had experienced before. A few months ago in Belgrade I stayed up til dawn at a rave with a couple hundred other people, moving to minimalist house music and giving my body up to the thrumming bass. I paid no attention to other people, didn’t try to look cool, or touch a drop of alcohol. I lost myself in the movement and the noise.
I was reacquainted with that feeling while living in Split, and this time began to understand what it might mean. It was my third week there and my flatmate Jenny and I were spending a quiet weeknight in and talking about The Witch of Portobello, a book by Paulo Coelho that she lent me. I wanted to know about the dance which Athena, the protagonist, performs in order to achieve a higher state of consciousness—it reminded me of my experiences in Berlin and Belgrade. The dance in The Witch of Portobello is quite difficult to describe in words, which is why Jenny showed me this video:
“And people actually do this spontaneously, not because they’re acting?” I asked.
“It’s really how they dance, yes. There’s actually a 5 Rhythms course happening this weekend. Want to go?” she offered.
So that’s how I ended up in a nondescript yoga studio with an overwhelmingly female group of dancers gliding slowly about. We were lead through our paces by the calm voice of a woman old enough to be my mother (I found out later she was in her 40s) but who looked no older than 30.
For the first ten minutes or so I managed to get by despite the instruction being entirely in Croatian; then the woman came up to me and said something directly at me and I smiled, “sorry, I don’t understand Croatian.” “Oh!” she blustered. “We’re partnering up, find someone to dance with. I haven’t taught a class in two languages in a while, this will be fun.”
I partnered up—by that, I mean stood in front of—a tall girl with high cheek bones, cropped dark hair, and a big red bow on top of her head. We were instructed to move in such a way that complemented each others’ energy. “Show your partner your inner beauty, show it in your legs, then your arms.”
If this sounds like completely wonky New Age bullshit to you, just imagine how I felt.
It was broad daylight. Everyone was stone sober. I had just spent the past fifteen minutes mimicking others pacing slowly around the room, or rolling their shoulders and necks with their eyes closed, or making deep sighing noises. A burly bearded man who looked like Samson gone slightly to seed was swaying back and forth with his eyes closed, occasionally stomping and emitting hard guttural sounds from somewhere deep in his chest. I was afraid to look anyone in the eyes because then I thought we’d burst out laughing.
And yet when I looked more closely at people’s faces I discovered that most of them had their eyes closed. People were in various states of rapture, swaying in tune to inaudible music. Gradually our instructor began to push us faster. At one point she commanded us to freeze, then told us to act out any feelings of negative energy we had. I had no idea what she meant by this. I opened my eyes briefly and noticed people doing very different movements: one older woman near me was swinging her arms wildly, her eyes rolling back in her head. A girl with long tapering legs was crawling slowly on the floor, arching her back like a cat.
I closed my eyes again and instead focused on my breathing, willing myself to let go of thoughts, hoping that the emptiness in my head would be replaced by movement. Sure enough, my legs began to bend, and my arms came heaving upwards. Soon I was caught up in a motion that came from somewhere I didn’t know existed. It was sort of like I was scooping water up out of a pool and then splashing it upwards. We did this for however amount of time.
Finally we were told to stop, and this time focus on building positive energy. Without realizing it, I had let go of my skepticism. The voice in the back of my head that thought this entire class was ridiculous had been silenced; it was replaced by the instructor’s voice, encouraging me to channel positive energy and drive my body forwards into it. I began flexing my arms and pulling them slowly inwards to my chest, then pounding my fist as I exhaled deeply. I was lost in my body; we all were by this point.
You could feel the entire class building upwards to a crescendo, our deep breaths and bodily movements rising together. Without warning the instructor began playing this song.
All of a sudden we were moving with a unified purpose. Some people were singing; a few women were hugging each other. We were all gliding about the room, spinning, twisting, leaping, sashaying, twirling—building off of each others’ energy. After the song ended a few people stopped dancing, but the instructor was quick to tell them not to stop. Soon another song played—this one was a big band jazz song. Then another. For probably an hour we danced to music; there was no real style or form that we followed. The sun was going down when we finally stopped, long shadows falling across the parquet. We were covered in sweat, tired in body but elated in soul.