hawaii trance dance

Dancing in Darkness, Seeing with Spirit

09.01.2009   Wendy Lewis

I was dancing with my ancestors. My mother and father were there and, with them, their mothers and fathers, and every person I have descended from—countless ancestors whom I’d never met, ancient souls who walked the Earth before time. They were overjoyed to see me.

Until then, I’d regarded only a handful of folks as “family,” but this reunion had drawn a huge turnout. Though I was blindfolded, I saw my ancestors’ hands—thousands of hands—reaching out to touch me. I felt like a celebrity surrounded by fans. They were thrilled that I had come to dance with them.

My ancestors then surrounded me, each like a petal of a thousand-petaled lotus. I swayed at the center of this ancestral flower, the product of all who came before me. Their love and pride washed over me in waves. Ecstatic, I fell on my knees, my face bathed in tears.

This was my Ancestor’s Walk, the second-night ritual of Wilbert Alix’s Dynamic Mythology Experience at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts, and I’d been counting down the months until this workshop. Several years previous, through Kripalu’s YogaDance teacher training, I was introduced to the idea of dance as an inner journey rather than an outer performance. Since then, I’d immersed myself in African drumming, trance dance, “barefoot boogies,” workshops, and all things dance, trance and tribal that an otherwise modern woman could find.

I’d become a big fan of both Wilbert Alix and Frank Natale, whose lifelong work in shamanic dance and ritual fascinated me and whose CD, Shaman’s Breath, (recorded under the artist name Professor Trance & The Energizers) had pretty much become the soundtrack to my life. So when I learned Alix was going to be presenting at Kripalu Independence Day weekend, I cleared my calendar.

Alix, who grew up steeped in the music and culture of New Orleans, has devoted the past 40 years to the study of shamanic cultures, ritual, dance, and healing. He combines the wisdom of these ancient traditions with modern science, technology and body-centered psychology to create what he calls Neo-Shamanism or Contemporary Shamanism. TranceDance, what Alix considers to be the descendant of ancient shamanic traditions, is one of the key components of the neo-shamanistic experience.

Before the Dynamic Mythology Experience, I’d trance-danced before at dance workshops like Gabrielle Roth’s 5 Rhythms and in barefoot dance venues like Dance Spree and Dance Friday in Massachusetts. A fitness buff and martial artist, I’d found that movement rather than stillness was my shortest path to enlightenment.

Though I considered myself a bit of a veteran trance-dancer, I’d never danced blindfolded—a critical component of Alix’s work. And though I’d always been attracted to all things tribal and primal, I still doubted that I, a 40-year-old white girl with a corporate job, was worthy of participating in ancient shamanic rituals. Would I be the oldest one in the class, surrounded by lithe young yogis? Would I crash into a wall blindfolded? Would Alix take one look at me and laugh? In the end, curiosity overrode my concerns as I entered the workshop the first evening. Little did I know that within two hours I’d be trancing like I’d never tranced before.

 
Breathing and Entering

John was the first to introduce himself. An older fellow, he had followed his wife to Kripalu for the weekend. She was taking a salsa dance class and he had registered for Alix’s class at the last minute. As the rest of the participants trickled in and took seats in a semicircle, John nervously grilled me about Alix and trance dancing. He’d never done anything like it before.

A few minutes later, Alix, just arriving at Kripalu after an overdue flight, joined us. Relaxed despite his delay, and looking unexpectedly modest in a pair of flip-flops and faded jeans, he paused, looked around the room, and took us all in with a beaming smile.

It soon became clear that Alix wasn’t the holier-than-human guru type, and lecturing wasn’t his style. Without notes or any apparent agenda, Alix just talked. Holding back wasn’t Alix’s style, either. Unapologetic and with a sharp wit, his words spiced with the occasional “F-bomb,” Alix shared his ideas on spirituality and dance and how his life, travels and studies helped form his philosophies. Though unscripted, somehow, it all related to the coursework to come.

I found myself grabbing a pen and paper to jot down choice nuggets of wisdom, and I saw my classmates doing the same. Though I didn’t agree with everything Alix said, I could have listened as long as he had breath to speak. The guy was refreshingly real.

John was scared, and he told Alix so. “Do you know the difference between fear and excitement?” Alix asked. John shook his head. “Fear and excitement are really the same emotion, but it’s your perception that’s different,” Alix said. “With fear, you think you’re not in control, and with excitement you think you are.”

Soon, it was time for us to dance. The sixteen of us stood up and spread out on the floor. Alix dimmed the lights and cued up music from his laptop. As a deep, bass “Om” began to pour from the room’s large speakers, I tied my purple bandana over my eyes, took a deep breath, and told myself that I was excited, not scared.

Alix had explained that dancing blindfolded enhances the trance dance experience by removing visual distractions and turning the focus inward. Since our eyes are the only sense organs directly connected to the brain, removing their sensory input was necessary for our awareness to bypass the mind and fully manifest in the body. Only then could we achieve a trance state and the awareness that defined the ancient shamans—the ability to “see in the dark.” The most important element of our trance dance would be our inward journey; our outward movements would be nothing more than an extension of our inner experience.

Alix’s assistant, Carol, had strategically placed yoga mats end to end, circling the perimeter of the room so that our feet could tell us if our bodies got too close to the walls. I still worried that I might knock someone out with my arms. Alix had stressed that though we were free to leave the room while the music was playing, only he and Carol were to remain there without a blindfold. I took comfort knowing that no one else would witness my blind awkwardness and that Alix, in all his years facilitating trance dance, had probably seen it all anyway.

Alix had instructed us to breathe the “fire breath”—two quick breaths in through the nose followed by one out through the mouth—when we heard its sound in the music. I recognized this “Professor Trance signature sound,” as Alix called it, from Shaman’s Breath.

The sound of the fire breath began to punctuate the “Om.” I breathed the fire breath and heard my classmates do the same. The fire breath sound continued and I kept breathing as the music morphed into a hypnotic, tribal beat. I kept breathing, soon wondering if I would hyperventilate.

A tingling sensation began in my ring and pinky fingers of both of my hands and traveled down my arms. A similar sensation began on either side of my lower back. I gasped, afraid, and I heard my therapist’s voice saying, “Sit with it” as he had in therapy sessions when painful emotions had surfaced. I breathed, trusted, and allowed the sensations to continue. “That’s it,” his voice said again. The tingling in my lower back deepened into a feeling of heat and pressure, as if a pair of large hands grasped me firmly by the hips.

My body began shaking. I heard the sound of someone, probably Alix, shaking a rattle close to my face. Instinctively, I turned toward the sound like a baby turning toward its mother’s voice. The sound seemed to intensify my body’s sensations. I heard cries and shrieks from my classmates, and I realized why Kripalu staff had designated one of its most remote rooms for our program; we were getting pretty rowdy.

Blindfolded, my movements were smaller and more grounded than in past trance dance experiences, though my inner journey was deeper. When the music slowed and Alix said we could remove our blindfolds (and I found myself standing practically nose-to-ear with a classmate), I struggled to leave the trance state. Only after dropping to the floor and sitting for several minutes with my head in my hands, making a conscious effort to become aware of my surroundings, was I able to rise to my feet and walk. I stumbled to my room, clinging to the walls for support, and fell into my bed and into a deep sleep. I danced more in my dreams.

 
Cycles of Life

The next day, Alix introduced the Rites of Passage model. In modern society, he said, life is seen as linear, whereas in shamanic tradition, the life journey is experienced as a cyclical event comprised of twelve mystical stages of spiritual and physical evolution.

Carol passed out copies of the model. It looked like a compass, with “Mid-Birth” at due north. Birth and death shared the same point on the circle, directly opposite from Mid-Birth.

Alix re-seated us in the semicircle according to age. A woman in her late twenties now occupied the youngest seat. John, at 69, sat at the opposite end. I needn’t have worried about being the oldest in the class; I was a few people on the “young” side of the semicircle’s midpoint.

Mid-Birth, Alix went on to explain, represented a spiritual birth into our own power. It is when the ego dies, as it must, for spiritual birth to follow. Mid-Birth is preceded by a passage called Realization of Betrayal. “In Western society,” Alix chuckled, “Mid-Birth is called a ‘mid-life crisis,’ and it happens at around 40.”

I’d just turned 40, and the past few years of my life had been full of upheaval and disillusionment. I’d ended a ten-year relationship and had had to redefine many deeply held lifelong beliefs. In my worst moments, I’d cursed my “misfortune” but, according to the Rites of Passage model, all had happened as it was supposed to. Best yet, my greatest years were still ahead!

My lower back had felt warm and tingly all day, ever since the first night’s trance dance. After the rest of the class left, I asked Alix about it. I’ve always been the type to have to know the “whys” of things; I’ve always been intrigued with how things work, and I often woke with dreams whose messages I loved to analyze. Surely, Alix had heard of this before, I thought. He would know what it meant.

Alix’s answer surprised me. “Don’t be so quick to try and assign a meaning to it,” he cautioned. “When we do that, we blind ourselves to a possible deeper meaning.” The shamanic way, he said, was to let the meaning of the experience reveal itself. It could take months or even years. I could consider what that part of my body meant to me, and if it stored any special significance, but aside from that, I was not to try and figure it out, or depend on someone else’s interpretation. “If you want to be more spiritual,” Alix said, “You must be willing to open the door marked, ‘I Don’t Know,’” he said with a knowing smile.

At lunch, I massaged my lower back and reflected on some other things Alix had said that afternoon. A firm advocate of experiential learning and self-responsibility, Alix had spoken with respect of the “Energizers” in ancient shamanism—those who entered trance powerfully, fueling and energizing all others who were present. The Energizers cultivated their personal power, leaving more than was there when they arrived.

Throughout his life, Alix said he had observed people’s tendency to absolve their own energizer qualities and self-accountability, deferring instead to the leadership of angels, saints, gurus, priests, and politicians. As I had expected Alix to have the last word about my lower back, I had also spent much of my earlier life looking for answers in people and things outside of myself. Alix’s non-answer confirmed a suspicion of mine that had grown out of my Realization of Betrayal life passage; I had to turn my focus inward, as I did when I donned my bandana, if I wanted answers.

 
Sacrifice and Soul Seeking

The climax of the Dynamic Mythology Experience was the Soul Hunting Ritual, held on the course’s final night, Saturday, July 4th. I’d read about it in the course program and watched some videos about it on his web site, but nowhere could I find a description of what exactly was to happen during the ritual, and Alix had only playfully hinted at it. It was somewhat shrouded in secrecy, and not knowing what to expect made me a little nervous. Just how shamanic were we going to get? Were we going to paint our bodies with mud and dance naked outside, or hunt with spears by moonlight?

The day before the ritual, Alix began to prepare us. During the stages of life, Alix said, painful experiences are inevitable. According to shamanism, we instinctively protect ourselves from trauma on our deepest spiritual level by sacrificing bits of our soul at these times. During the Soul Hunting ritual, we would reach a deep state of trance through a special breathing process and with Alix’s assistance. We would then find a spirit guide, who would lead us to the lost pieces of our soul. It would be our deepest inner journey.

The Soul Hunting ritual required some preparation. The first step was to make a good faith sacrifice at a fire ceremony. After Friday night’s trance dance, we were to walk silently to Kripalu’s outdoor fire pit. In the fire, we were each to sacrifice an offering—not our most prized possession, but something whose loss we would feel. “Try to pick something flammable,” said Alix. “It’ll have more meaning if you can sit and watch it burn,” he had said, particularly relishing the last word.

As Alix talked, I glanced down and felt my stomach twist. My shirt, just the right weight, fit and shade of green, sported a huge yin-yang. Bought just weeks before, it had quickly become my favorite. I would hate to lose it. It would make a good sacrifice.

That evening, in silence, my classmates and I watched my favorite shirt burn in a roaring blaze. It was joined by other favorite shirts, and offerings of a cherished photo, a book, and a piece of jewelry. After the last of the offerings disappeared in smoke and ashes, the members of our group left the fire pit solemnly, one by one. I rose and slowly stepped away, feeling strangely empowered. On life’s journey, I’d lost many things I cherished—possessions, faith, trust in others—but this time my loss had been conscious and deliberate.

The following evening I carefully prepared for the Soul Hunting ritual as Alix had instructed, scrubbing my entire body in a long, hot shower, skipping my usual body lotions, deodorant, makeup and—much to my dismay—hair styling products. “I want your pores to breathe,” Alix had said. I imagined exiting the ritual with breathing pores, a whole soul, and a halo of the worst summer frizz ever. We were also to dress for the ritual in head-to-toe white. It had been over three years since I’d done that, for another ceremony—my wedding.

At the door to the program room, I paused, hand on the doorknob, pondering what Alix had said about being willing to open the door marked, “I Don’t Know.” I took a deep breath and entered.

Alix had said that there are some aspects of shamanism that must remain in secrecy to retain their magic. At the time, I’d thought maybe he just didn’t want to give away his secrets. But having come and gone through the door marked, “I Don’t Know,” I believe he was right. I’m not sure of a lot of what actually happened in the darkened room that night, but I do know that, like my blindfolded trance dances, what happened outside my physical body was of far less importance than what happened inside. Lying shoulder-to-shoulder in a circle with my classmates like a spoke in a wheel, I journeyed blindfolded to where I faced my greatest fear, followed a most unexpected spirit guide, and retrieved my lost pieces of soul. Oh, and I actually saw through my third eye, too.

Fourth of July fireworks from a nearby celebration popped outside as our ceremony drew to a close. That night, I had worn my glasses instead of my usual contacts, so when I removed my blindfold, my classmates looked like blurry white angels from a distance.

“When your heart chakra has been opened, the best way to affirm its opening is to press it against other newly-opened heart chakras,” Alix said. Everyone in the room was to hug everyone else. We did so at first in silence and reverence that evolved into giddiness and laughter as each of us worked our way through the room.

 “Keep breathing through that Mid-Birth, girl!” Carol laughed when she hugged me. Over her shoulder I saw two blurred figures in white, laughing and jumping to the staccato rhythm of the firecrackers. Outside, they were celebrating our country’s independence; inside, we were celebrating our own. Even without my glasses, I could see it—we were all glowing.

I hugged Alix last. After we embraced, he gingerly cradled my chin in both of his hands at arm’s length and looked softly into my eyes. His smile was gentle, his gaze loving and fatherly. In that moment, I wanted Alix to adopt me.

 
Back to My Tribe

I listened to Shaman’s Breath again on the drive home. Though I’d listened to it countless times before, I now heard it through the ears of experience. When I heard the fire breath, I did a few fire breaths, too, and smiled in recognition.

 Two miles from home, Soul Hunters Return—the last track on the CD—began. The track had new meaning now. In four days, I had danced blindfolded, seeing vividly without my eyes. I had met my ancestors, retrieved the scattered pieces of my soul, and become something of a shaman, for I had seen in the dark. I hadn’t made sense of all that had happened nor, for the first time, did I want to. In its own time and in its own way, I knew, meaning would come.

The last few drumbeats of the song thudded softly as I turned into my driveway. I saw my husband exiting the front door of our house, and our dog running to greet me. They had been waiting for me. This soul hunter had returned after a successful hunt.