The Existential Dance: Healing and Spiritual Meaning Through Creative Movement

Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt.
Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt.

I would believe only in a God that knows how to dance — Friedrich Nietzsche

The best tools I have found for living well as an adult came from my experiences as a little girl. Two that I particularly recall are writing poetry and placing it in the collections plate at church, and dressing up in big full skirts with my cousin to dance to various Tchaikovsky waltzes that we would play on my little blue turntable in my Grandmother’s basement/playroom. I wanted to be a ballerina. I also wanted to love God well and be loved by God.

As it turns out, I took ballet classes at the age of nine and was kicked out for having a horrible sense of direction. I couldn’t quite understand the difference between right and left, and the ballet teacher was frustrated with me. Being a child who seemed to be small, clumsy, and generally more connected with my mind and less with my body, I didn’t do well with tying my shoes, learning to swim, or riding my bike. I was afraid of the volleyball during PE because it hurt my wrists to volley it back…I was always “last” in this way, including last in line for being a shorty. As a result, I was less likely to engage with anything physical. I was afraid of the dance floor for years.

Back to God: I believe that I became a poet at the age of eight when I wrote free verses to God in our local Presbyterian Church and placed them in the offering plate. That was probably the truest worship I knew. That, and singing in the choir. Something filled me up: something ecstatic and large. I would look at the stained glass windows and imagine beautiful images, but it was a deeply internal sense of elation that drove me to convey my esoteric experiences via poetic language.

The other side of church was listening to all of the “rules,” being bored to tears, being afraid that I would be “bad.” I won’t say that church was an entirely negative experience. What started out as a black and white morality has somehow been the foundation for a more evolved adult sense of ethics: a regard for others, both human and non-human. The poetry writing was likely the birth of my artistic sensibilities. I didn’t consider dance to be “art” at that time, however. And I ended up ditching church eventually. Why? It made me feel bad.

Fast forward to “now.” I spent my morning attending 5Rhythms; Sweat Your Prayers, working out my weekly tensions through movement, inviting in a spontaneous rush of connection with both myself and the other dancers around me. For the past four months, this has become my Sunday morning ritual: my worship. I have been having the time of my life, and a few thoughts return over and over again: “why didn’t I learn to pray like this when I was a child?” and “what if we all went to this kind of church: a church that invited us to practice being and praise of the great mystery in joy and gratitude, in movement and being?”

I’ll say this: I think the world would be a better place without all of that fire and brimstone I grew up with. I think people would be kinder, more aware of each other, and more present to the great mystery in a way that encourages feeling the wonder, rather than our minds lamenting over it and trying to grasp the great mystery in a way that does not lend to it being grasped at all. Regardless, 5Rhythms isn’t exactly church, but it is my church in the sense that my body is my most immediate environment, and here I embrace the notion that my body is my temple. It is in this space that I worship, in my body, and on a broader scale, in a nearly overcrowded gym.

Just a little back story here: 5Rhythms was developed by Gabrielle Roth in the late 1970’s. She was a dancer and musician, and also was interested in shamanism. Over the years, 5Rhythms has become a worldwide practice used by hundreds of teachers. However, the Native Americans had a dance for everything, and likely many other indigenous cultures. I don’t believe this was a matter of East and West, either. I believe that at the human core is this drive to move: this legacy of dance.

So, how did I discover 5Rhythms?

I was seeing a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner to help me with sleep. I was beginning to take the principles of Somatic Experiencing (Peter Levine, 2010) and apply them to dance in my living room. Somatic Experiencing engages our body’s natural wisdom and through tracking and movement and helps people process rhythmic cycles in the body to completion.

Anyhow, I was finding that talk therapy of any sort was not helpful to me for sleep. I could have intellectual insights up the wazoo, but at the end of the day, I couldn’t turn those insights off. Somatic Experiencing, on the other hand, has been tremendously helpful. Outside of my SE practitioner’s space, I was creating all kinds of dances, from anger dances to grief dances, and of course, joyful freedom dances. I shared with my SE Practitioner, Michelle Leifer, about how effective these dances were for me and how I thought somebody should turn this into a particular therapy modality, and she said “Oh, go to 5Rhythms.” As a result, what I have found is something much deeper than a method to help me sleep. I have found a mode of spiritual ritual to replace old religious experiences that felt bad, and revive the elements of those experiences that were critical to my development as a person: the parts of worship that engaged my ecstatic being. I have to say, it’s a non-secular worship. I don’t really need to know this spirituality intellectually. I just need to feel it.

In Art and Artist: Creative Urge and Personality Development, Otto Rank (1932) wrote of the religious and spiritual dimensions of art-making, even saying that “not only did the development of the soul begin with art, but the process of humanization of the soul completed itself in art and not in religion” (p. 16) and “art, though born from the same spirit as religion, appears not only as outlasting it, but actually fulfilling it” (p. 16). By gathering historical ideology into a bouquet of wildly indigenous variety, Rank postulated that some cultures viewed humanity as a direct expression of God: a medium between the spiritual and natural worlds. Art explored that relationship. However, I think our cultural Zeitgeist is beginning to transcend this belief that seeks mediation of two seeming opposites, and is recognizing the possibility of the spiritual being manifest in the body: the two are not separate. Dance is an ideal art form to explore this healing of opposites.

Rank (1932) also addressed how art joins the personal with the collective:

“the artist, as a definitive creative individual, uses the art-form that he finds ready to his hand in order to express a something personal; this personal must therefore be somehow connected with the prevailing artistic or cultural ideology, since otherwise he could not make use of them, but it must also differ, since otherwise he would not need to use them in order to produce something of his own.” (1932, pp. 6-7)

Here is one of the most engaging paradoxes of existence: to be self and yet lose self via reverence for a larger community, world, and even cosmos. And unlike Nietzsche’s (1967) assertion that Dionysian Art forms primarily serve to lose self and join others, I would assert back that one can also find more of one’s self in the dance. When I am on the dance floor, I often begin inwardly. I am getting warmed up in my own body, slowly exploring my comfort zone, trying to understand the unique place within myself that I am arriving at today, in the “here and now.” I am differentiating myself via awareness of my body. Once I have spent a little time understanding myself in my body and the dance, I then move outwardly to my community, sometimes making brief contact, sometimes engaging with a dance partner, feeling inspired by the unique facial expressions and movements of each person in the room. At the end of the two-hour dance, I return to myself a little more real than I felt when I woke up that morning.

It is my feeling that existential psychotherapy tends to be misunderstood as atheistic, and also incredibly intellectual. I do not believe this to be true. In fact, I find the opposite to be true. Existentialism is largely about finding one’s most true crux of being: a being unadulterated by externally imposed ideas about what it means to be a good, bad, or a “healthy” human being. Inarguably, part of being human also includes the wide spectrum of beliefs about God: atheism; naturalism; agnosticism; monotheism; polytheism; spirituality; etc. For me, the dance has included a full exploration of both. I am at my most direct “being” state. I am also feeling in the largest sense my own personal experience of the spiritual realm of existence. As a result, I sleep better (even when things aren’t rosy), but more importantly, have developed an internal sense of freedom that wasn’t coming with my deeply insightful thoughts. I feel very alive.

Not to mention, healing comes in many different forms: I like “church” again, and I’m not getting kicked out of “dance class.” Go figure.

Levine, P. (2010). In an unspoken voice: How the body releases trauma and restores goodness. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Nietzsche, F. (1967). The birth of tragedy. (W. Kaufman, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books.

Rank, O. (1932). Art and artist: Creative urge and personality development. New York: W.W. Norton.

— Candice Hershman

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