Ecstatic Dance: Embodying Self as Animal

It is not often that sustainability solutions prioritize reclaiming of ourselves as animal, but this shift in identity is essential to strengthen our connection to the more-than-human world. Remembering that we are animal is more than an intellectual act; it is a felt experience of dissolving boundaries between humans and “nature,” to become entirely part of the animate world we are engulfed in. Though a variety of experiences can facilitate this sense of dissolved boundaries, ecstatic dance deserves recognition, as it is not typically perceived to be an activity that connects people to the Earth. However, in my own experience, and others I have encountered, ecstatic dance is a process of rewilding, and ultimately remembering what it means to be animal. This challenges many current environmental solutions because to experience ecstatic dance allows room for our solutions that expand beyond consumption. Even though this video is technically consumed by our senses, the intention is that the viewer will feel inspired to explore their own ecstatic movements.

Why this is relevant? Without recognizing our own capacity to tune into the part of ourselves that is still wild, still part of “nature,” sustainable coexistence with other life is not possible.

 

 

My first encounter with ecstatic dance was nearly two years ago at 3rd place in downtown Boone. In this small space, a group of about 10 individuals gathered and sat in a circle. Megan Kelley, a proponent of the ecstatic dance movement in Boone opened the circle by introducing newcomers to the concepts and underlying intentions of ecstatic dance. She expressed that this space would be safe and non-judgemental, and even encouraged us to close our eyes to fully allow for spontaneous, non-choreographed, and ego-less movement. We were encouraged to interact with others if we felt inspired, but our only limitation was to avoid verbal communication. After an hour of participating and moving in a multitude of ways, we gathered in a circle once again to share our intermingling of movement and emotion. Over the course of my time participating in a diversity of ecstatic dances in North Carolina and Hawaii, descriptions of what people have felt have reflected a sense of feeling more connected to one’s own sense of being wild, as well as feeling more deeply sensitive to the world around them.  I noticed these experiences in myself, but I felt supported by hearing that others were experiencing this simultaneous ego-dissolution and felt sense of connection that accompanies ecstatic dance. This is poetically reflected by Jacqueline Murphy, when she proposes that dance enacts relationships between people, but also between people and what philosopher Val Plumwood referred to as “earth others,” which are non-human animals, plants, minerals, and other beings.

The importance of shifting one’s identity has been recognized by deep ecologists who aim to facilitate greater emotional bonds between people and the planet. Though this identification may be seen as perceiving commonalities between living things, some deep ecologists suggest that this identification is not merely metaphorical of one thing resembling another, but that there are literal implications within common statements, such as, “being one with nature”. This sense of identity allows for the notion of self to incorporate other forms of life by perceiving the evolutionary past and the future. With this perception, there is a realization of the transient nature of things, in which all things on this planet have a material past and future, including humans whose bodily atoms can be traced back to before organic life emerged 4000 million years ago.

The sense of wildness that can be evoked through dance can be experienced in a multitude of environments. This in itself can help to deconstruct current dominant perceptions of what nature is and what it is not. Though many perceive nature to be a place that excludes human intervention, such as forests or protected “natural” areas, many, like William Cronan are critiquing what he deems to be a mere illusion. Cronan boldly reminds his readers that this perception leaves no room for humans to exist as part of the natural world, and worse, it privileges some parts of nature, while oppressing others. Accepting ourselves as natural or as animals does not give us permission to continue to degrade the planet that sustains our lives. Cronan says this remarkably well when he states,  

“The point is not that our current problems are trivial, or that our devastating effects on the earth’s ecosystems should be accepted as inevitable or “natural.” It is rather that we seem unlikely to make much progress in solving these problems if we hold up to ourselves as the mirror of nature a wilderness we ourselves cannot inhabit.”  

Historically, dance has been an integral part of various cultures around the world.  Five phases of the evolution of dance are recognized, including courtship practice to emulate sexual desire, communal ceremony, dance as a tool to alter states of consciousness in shamanism, calendrical ceremonies for agriculture, and finally, professional and choreographed dance.  A performance studies scholar Diana Taylor argues that performative practices such as dance, theater, music, ceremony, and other ritualized activities transmit social knowledge, memory and a sense of identity from body to body, across time, to form social bodies.

In the same way that these various stages of dance can transmit the social knowledge of that time, participating in ecstatic dance transmits the identity of oneself being animal and inherently part of this wild Earth. This is a solution that necessitates experience; the perceptual shift cannot occur in watching a video alone, but it can inspire one to explore one’s own capacity for movement.  Kimerer LaMothe poetically reflects this when she states, “Every movement “we” as individuals make expresses an impulse to connect with whatever movements have enabled and will enable our ongoing participation in the rhythms of bodily becoming.”

Sources:

Abram, David. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York: Pantheon Books, 2010.

Garfinkel, Yosef1. “The Evolution of Human Dance: Courtship, Rites of Passage, Trance, Calendrical Ceremonies and the Professional Dancer.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 28, no. 2 (May 2018): 283-298. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed April 5, 2018).

LaMothe, Kimerer L. 2015. Why We Dance : A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed April 4, 2018).

Shea Murphy, Jacqueline, and María Regina Firmino Castillo. 2016. “Dancing the Pluriverse: Indigenous Performance as Ontological Praxis.” Dance Research Journal 48, no. 1: 55-73. SPORTDiscus with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed April 4, 2018).

Milton, Kay. Loving Nature: Towards an Ecology of Emotion. London: Routledge, 2006.

William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995, 69-90

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