Every Sunday at the Masonic Temple, people of all ages bustle in through the grand archway for Asheville Ecstatic Dance. They fill up the elegant main dining hall, which has been cleared of tables, and begin to stretch. A facilitator from Asheville Movement Collective steps forward and discusses the theme for the session. It’s a secular-but-spiritual group filled with people who shun labels or classification. The gathering so resembles a religious service, though, the attendees jokingly (but consistently) call it dance church.
Devotees of dance church proclaim the physical and metaphysical benefits of free, expressive movement that takes place during the two “waves,” or sessions, on Sunday, which collectively attract anywhere from 95 to more than 200 dancers, according to the organizers.
“There’s no opportunity to go crazy in society. We provide a safe place to do it,” says dance church facilitator and Asheville Movement Collective member Marta Martin.
Werk it out
Expressive movement is a prominent and growing phenomenon in Asheville. While dance church is one of the largest regular gatherings, there is at least one expressive movement event every day of the week. Many of them are based on, or derived from, a practice known as 5Rhythms, developed by the artist Gabrielle Roth in the 1970s. The 5Rhythms philosophy can be summarized by her quote, “Put your body in motion and your psyche will heal itself.”
During a 5Rhythms wave, a trained facilitator leads participant-dancers through five sequences related to different tempos, typically over the course of two hours, to live or recorded music. Each sequence has a distinct attitude, and dancers are encouraged to observe what comes up through the movement of their bodies and express that energy in whatever way they feel.
One of the most popular 5Rhythms events in Asheville is “Sweat Your Prayers” on Wednesday nights at the Homewood building in Montford. Dancers gather in a grand room of the old stone house that has hosted the likes of the Vanderbilts, Nina Simone and the famous classical composer Béla Bartók.
Karen Chapman is one of three certified 5Rhythms instructors in Asheville who hosts the Wednesday night event. She leads dancers through the tempos and their accompanying themes. These, she explains, are flowing (“Your feminine energy, grounded, Mother Earth energy,” she says); staccato (“Your masculine energy, your passion, your fire”); chaos (“An energy that’s releasing, that’s emptying the mind. It’s all about letting go”); lyrical (“It’s about the soul, about love and beauty and grace”); and stillness (“The mother rhythm, where all the rhythms come together”).
The 5Rhythms website lists events occurring all over the world. Chapman recently conducted a wave in Barcelona, Spain. “We are a tribe, we’re a community of dancers,” she says. “When we gather together, it’s like family.”
Part of that bond is the extensive training that goes into becoming a certified 5Rhythms instructor. People log hundreds of hours dancing in sessions for years before applying. Once accepted, they go through a number of intense workshops conveying the original intent of Roth and the essential message of the organization. The tuition alone is $8,900 and, while financial scholarships are available, there are also travel, lodging and materials expenses.
Lose yourself to dance
For those who appreciate the practice of 5Rhythms but wish to cultivate a more free-form style of movement, there’s the broad term ecstatic dance. A facilitator for dance church, for example, will invite dancers at the beginning to consider a certain theme throughout. Dancers then move to the music provided by the facilitator geared toward that theme. After the initial introduction, there is no further verbal instruction. In fact, dance church guidelines encourage a “nonverbal space” to “do the work.”
“We encourage people to be there. If you’re sad, dance that sadness. If you’re angry, dance the anger. Just make sure you don’t kick somebody,” says Martin. “If something comes up, you say, ‘OK, let’s do that.’ It’s not guided at all. You find what you have to feel. And sometimes it’s just a dance, and you just have fun.”
Organizers and practitioners of expressive movement all emphasize the importance of holding space for people to feel. “There’s an invitation to be completely free with whatever comes out,” says Maeve Hendrix, a licensed therapist focused on body-centered and expressive arts therapy in Asheville.
In her workshops, Hendrix may use yoga to introduce expressive movement that might be unfamiliar to participants. “Because we’ve all entered through our bodies in this more familiar, structured realm of yoga, we can all transition into a more free-form flow together,” she says. Her background as a yoga instructor allows her to create that space.
“It’s still guided, but there’s an invitation to explore movement. Not in terms of dance, but more as a movement lab, where you’re exploring different movements,” she says. “It inevitably brings up emotions for individuals. They experience emotions they’ve been avoiding or they’ve been blocked from being able to access.”
Movement is “a way for people to experiment and find where in their body they hold certain emotions and how they can use their body as a map to discover the kaleidoscope of their human emotion. The wide range of human experience can all be explored and felt through the body,” Hendrix says. “It bypasses the reasoning, conceptual mind. In that way, it can be extremely therapeutic.”
Expressive movement adherents stress you can only truly understand their practices through first-hand experience. “It’s like getting in through the back door,” says Hendrix. “You’re getting in without knowing where you’re going. Then you find yourself in this space of ‘This is exactly what I needed.’”
To learn more about dance church, visit ashevillemovementcollective.org. AMC will be hosting a live music wave Sunday, Jan. 1, 10 a.m. to noon at Asheville Masonic Temple. Karen Chapman will be hosting a workshop on 5Rhythms Waves in January, see Facebook.com/Asheville5Rhythms for details. Maeve Hendrix will be conducting a four-week Art and Movement Lab called “The Art of Being” on Tuesdays in January; details at maevehendrix.net.