I must confess that the moment my friend and I arrived, breathless and panting (and late as usual), at the Wilder Studios in Bristol, where the Dance Mandala had already started, I wanted to turn right around and rush back down the flaking streets of St Paul’s...
Behind the closed curtains that separated the shabby stairway from the dance studio, I could only see glimpses of bodies moving around in blind darkness, with spots of candle light blinking at me like evil fairies. Strange, incoherent, screamlike moans came from the room. I looked at my friend and we shared the same frightful expression. Just as we were about to descend the stairs, to get the hell out of there, the dance instructor parted the curtains.
‘Hi, I’m Katy,’ she introduced herself. We mumbled our apologies, now hoping that we had arrived late enough not to be admitted an entry. ‘No, no - please come in – we’ve only just started,’ she said, instead, and her tranquil voice soothed my anxiety a little.
Ok, I thought as I reached for my purse to pay for the lesson, what’s the worst that could happen?
After adding our names to a list of about ten others, Katy asked us to find a free spot on the slick studio floor. A man with a white beard moved next to me from all the way across the studio, already in free-flow. Although we had our eyes closed for most of the remaining session, we never once bumped into each other. What had brought them here, I wondered, making out people from the silhouettes that swayed around, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, what were they expecting out of this session?
What was I expecting from
it? Some transformation, some out-of-the-body experience? Or was I just
curious? The thoughts played in my head as I staggered to
a place close to someone I knew, near the corner of the room.
Katy turned up the stereo a little, and moved to the middle of the room. ‘Let go of all your expectations. Let your body be in control,’ she said, her voice more commanding. Soft healing music played in the background. ‘I will guide you through several levels of meditation where you will strip away a layer of yourself each time, until you come into direct contact to that which is inside of you, your true, primal self,’ Katy said. ‘Keep your eyes soft,’ she said and closed her own. My friend and I looked at each other, as if to convey ‘good luck, I hope you survive’ and then we shut our eyes too.
But my inner meditative journey wasn’t going so well. Once I got past the initial reaction of how ridiculous this whole thing was, it was interrupted by the moans from the other end of the room. Although I was supposed to take notice only of myself, I couldn’t help but steal a glance at the woman across the floor from us who was the cause of these animalistic noises. Already in a deep trance state, she continued to move around, her arms swinging puppet-like, followed by sudden burts of incoherent movement, synced with her screams that came out like unplanned mini-explosions. A shaman in some ancient village would have probably danced like her, under the influence of spirits and magic mushrooms. I found myself chanting a prayer ‘deliver us from all evil’, embedded as I am with a Christian upbringing.
At that moment I was truly scared for my life. Had I unknowingly signed up to some exorcism exercise? Was I about to take part in some demonic ritual, like the wild dances of the witches who were feared in the medieval times?
My only argument against leaving that very moment, was – well, I paid 10 quid for this and so I might as well stick it out. I crept a bit closer to the corner of the room, away from the woman, and feeling somewhat safer next to my friend who still had her eyes closed. Unable to convey my feelings to her, I addressed my own mind. Right. It can’t be that bad. I closed my eyes, and began shuffling from side to side in slow, tentative movements.
As I did so, I saw flashbacks of myself in school disco when I did the same moves, jealous of my more confident friends who just went for it, jumping up and down and swirling around, their hair sweaty with excitement. I couldn’t do it. I was too worried of what I looked like in the eyes of others. And – more than ten years on – I was in the same position, as if I’ve made no progress since then at all. I peeked at everyone else. (I was sure that they did the same.) It was impossible not to, even with the best intentions. I was telling myself to just ‘let go and be brave’, my self-proclaimed mantra, but my worries kept me bound. You paid for this, I told myself, ten pounds. So you better do something.
I took a few breaths. I began to sync my shuffles to the beats in the music – it happened quite naturally, as if my feet wanted to do this, not my ever-defensive mind. ‘Just do whatever your body wants you to do,’ Katy repeated, as if she could follow me on my journey. I stretched my arms to either side, stretched my fingers as far as they could reach, like I were tuning a string on a violin. Upto that point I hadn’t even realised that I was so tightly wound, tangled with stress and days spent at an office desk. ‘If there are any sounds, release them here,’ Katy's voice cooed somewhere beyond the Tibetan mountain music. I wasn’t so bothered by the sounds coming from the woman across the floor anymore, or the others who had joined her now. I was inviting my own body to come outside and play, like a child knocking shily on the doors of the new kid in the neighbourhood.
The beat changed to something that resembled drum and base, a stark contrast to the meditative music I was expecting. ‘Don’t worry about being pretty now. Be ugly. Feel your skeleton, let go of your muscles,’ Katy said.
I felt my body slump, my arms plop down, like I was giving up a great weight, at last permitting myself to admit that I can’t carry on with this any longer. Not this dance mandala, but life in general.
I am beat from work, from responsibility, from stress and anxiety. I want to change. I want to connect with my inner-most part, I want to live the life of my dreams.
I took out my hair band and let my hair fall across my shoulders. I wanted to let loose from it all. As the sounds from the stereo ground like a great train engine, I waved my hair around, ridding myself of the stress, of that person who watches others go after that which they want, but never dares to do so herself. My dance became more rythmic. I felt my body’s moves melt to the beat of The Universe, which had become a microcosm of the stereo. I raised my hands high above my head, my palms cup-like, and then I let them fall to either side, the water streams of my imagination trickling through my fingers.
‘This is it,’ I thought as I repeated the
movements. ‘This is my calling. To go on a spiritual quest, to expand my mind,
to attend any weird gathering possible, to travel endlessly, so that I finally
let go of my stereotypes and judgements, and find the truth and peace, and God.’
My body moved of its own accord now. I felt I was on the flow of The Universe, the same wavelength, and it carried me like a great speed-train or like a wave carries a surfer. The Universe was transforming, and I felt myself as an active part of that transformation. My eyes still closed, my stifling thoughts surfaced and then let loose, merging with the ‘third eye’, the spiritual eye, my innermost self which always knows which is the right choice to make. But I stumble and worry, because that part is often so inaccessible - simply because I have judged it, labelled it ‘deviant from the norm of the society’ or of my own pre-conceptions.
My hair waving around me, and my body rippling in circles, I pictured myself as a witch - not the demonic kind, but the kind that was burnt at the stake by the inquisitors for knowing and sharing the secrets of herbs, the workings of The Universe, the mysteries of the human life cycle. And, who, through knowing those, had attained such peace, freedom and strength which others did not recognise, and burnt her for it.
What little progress I had made in life. Just like those low-minded people in the medieval times, I was still suppressing that side of me now, labelling it as ‘weird’, ‘demonic’, ‘unnatural’ because it promised too much freedom and strength.
Beautiful, gentle shamanic sounds somewhere from the Himalayan mountains filled the room with their graceful tinkling, and I heard the voice of God like a great gong, through the ominous sounds of a singer proclaiming ‘Ommm....’ Others around me still dancing, I sat down on the floor in the lotus position. I wanted to melt with this voice, to slide into that void which promised wholeness and healing.
I must forgive myself. That will be the first step towards my transformation.
‘When you are ready,’ Katy's voice interrupted my trance, ‘open your eyes and come to the middle of the room to join me in the circle.’ She turned the music down. I didn’t want this to stop but I obediently opened my eyes. The lights had been switched back on. I looked at the clock on the wall. The dance had lasted for almost two hours. I was drenched in sweat. I felt like I’d been on a great journey, a pilgrimage through unexplored, rough terrains, where time had morphed, melting like the clocks in the famous Dali paintings. For all I knew, that journey lasted anywhere between two hours and an eternity.
Katy made tea for us, and invited us to share some vegan chocolate treats in a closed circle with the other dancers. ‘Let’s sit so close that our touch. Join your hands with the person next to you,’ she said and we pulled in closer to each other. I sat squeezed in comfortably between my friend and the man with the white beard who had danced next to me for most of the session. ‘What was this experience like for you?’ Katy invited us to share.
Like an explorer emerging from the depths of a great cave, the bright lights and the need to express myself in words suddenly blinded me. Being so comfortable with myself only moments ago, I grew anxious. I did not know how to summarise what had just happened.
The thought of talking and thinking, of expressing that primal self I had just began to discover, in some comprehensible form, seemed terrifying. I could almost hear my thoughts slip back in through the back door. I felt envious of those in the circle who were more trusting of their minds.
A beautiful girl with a pixie nose and sleek black hair that stretched down to her waist, related her experience. At the beginning of the dance, she’d pictured herself as a dragon which had got itself tangled in the vines and the branches of a great forest, but released itself by the end. She said that this is how she felt about her move to London to take up an acting course in a few months time – her anxiety over not having yet found a place to live was smothering her. While I talked and listened, I had to focus hard not to slip the moment and end up in the prison of my own mind again.
‘Don’t leave this place without giving a hug to at least two people,’ Katy said. After the girl had finished her story, I hugged her tight, wishing her the best for her move to London.
As I got up to get my bag, another lady asked me for a hug. I recognised her as the one who had been emitting the ‘demonic’ sounds. She smiled kindly at me. Her smooth, shiny face was set with deep groves of worry and grief, like great scars reminding of some tragedy. Her eyes looked tired but bright. I asked he if she was considering taking up an 8 week course in Thailand which Katy would be running soon, and invited us to join.
‘Everyone I know has died, so I might as well,’ she answered.
Perhaps she had come to this Dance Mandala, seeking a ritual, for the same purposes described by Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Love, Pray). “We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don't have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down.”
After speaking to this woman and getting to know her story only a little, I felt ashamed for thinking that I had permitted myself to judge and label this woman even before I knew anything about her. I realised how deeply those judgements and stereotypes ran in me.
Demonic? What nonsense. What nonsense most of us believe most of the time.
I left the Dance Mandala thinking how this wasn’t such a weird experience after all. Thousands of us do this kind of thing every weekend, when we got to a club or a house party and we dance on the darkened dance floor – sometimes with our eyes closed, sometimes open.
It’s just sad that we are so out of touch with our innermost selves, those primal selves that perhaps existed long before our consciousness became aware of itself and began to label everything. And since then we only permit the true selves to come out and play when we have been sufficiently induced with alcohol or drugs, so that we can quickly laugh it all off the next morning when we are sober, and tell ourselves and others that it wasn’t really us last night.
Even at the Dance Mandala, a place which was designed for the truthful expression of that innermost self, when all of us (to the best of my knowledge) were sober and willing to acknowledge the existence of this terrifying inner self, we still danced with our eyes closed.
It is as if we are still afraid of unveiling our truest selves, the only well of true freedom, confidence and strength, to another human being.
Before leaving, Katy offered us to take an ‘inspirational postcard’ from a pile she laid out on the floor next to the fragrant tea cups and the vegan choccies. My hand instinctively reached towards one – perhaps guided by my inner self – and the words on the card seemed to confirm my reasons for coming here. May they also speak to your truest, most liberated self.