The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being - Carl Jung

Our Trance Dancing Ancestors

01.04.1995   Excerps from Trance Dance: The Dance Of Life by Frank Natale

Dance, as a way to move into trance, dates back over 40,000 years to before recorded civilization.  Trance Dancing is a deep and moving altered state of consciousness filled with feelings, other lives in human and pre-human forms, rhythms, old and new smells, masks, transforming shapes, known and unknown faces and places beyond time.

We can actually be there without being required to think consciously about or imagine the experience.  These experiences begin to move us rapidly into the eternal flow of life and we stop being the dancer and become the dance.  During these magical times we disappear into the sacred Dance of Life, transcend time and space and are filled with the sense of our infinite existence that our ancestors called ‘ecstasy’.


Trance Dancing and Christianity


Trance Dancing has played a significant role in the birth of all religion.  Even within early Christianity Trance Dancing was used to restore religious seekers to spiritual wholeness.

    To the universe
    Belongs the dancer – Amen
    Whoever does not dance
    Does not know their immortality – Amen
                            Jesus Christ



Jesus was speaking about the ‘Round Dance of the Cross’, which is described by John, one of Jesus’s closest disciples, in his writings called the Acts of John.  In the fifth century The Acts of John were condemned as heresy by Pope Leo the Great.  He decided that ‘they contain a hot bed of perversity and should not only be forbidden but altogether removed and burnt with fire’.

Jesus danced with his disciples, so they would recognize their own mystical Christ consciousness and immortality.
According to John, those who danced the Round Dance of the Cross received two benefits:

1.    They came to know their own Christ consciousness or
       Spirit.

2. 
   They learned to transcend the paradox of human
       suffering and discover their own immortality.


Thousands of years before Christianity emerged pagan religions such as Goddess worship and shamanism had used Trance Dancing as a spiritual practice.  Dance was used as a way to transcend the physical into ecstasy.  Thus, Orthodox Christians condemned Trance Dancing fearful it would rob Christianity of its uniqueness.  In spite of these views the mandala patterns on the floors of medieval European churches were created so that dancers could Trance Dance on them and become reflections of the ‘greater mystery, or what we now call ‘non-ordinary reality’. My favorite is the mandala in Chartres cathedral.  Some worshipers would dance or fall to their knees while others would crawl or pass out into deep trance.


Trance Dancing around the World

Dancing as a spiritual practice, for entering non-ordinary states of reality, can be found in thousands of cultures: in the native Navajo Fire Dance and Grass Dance; in masked Balinese dancing; in the Hindu Lord of the Dance, Shiva with his many arms and legs; in Tai Chi, the spiritual dance of martial art; and in the whirling dance of the sufi.

The geographical areas where spiritual Trance Dancing was found most frequently include sub-Saharan Africa, the Mediterranean and eastern Eurasia.  Some cultures noted for their spiritual Trance Dancing include the North American Eskimo, the Yoruba of Western Africa, the Umbanda of Brazil, the Sioux of North America, the Shamans of Siberia, the Vodun of Haiti, the Shango of Trinidad, the Coastal Salish of Canada, the Santeria of Cuba, the Sami of Scandinavia and the Huichol of Mexico.

The Umbanda of Brazil are a good example of spiritual Trance Dancers.  Umbanda spiritual Trance Dancing can still be found in Brazil near the cities of Rio de Janeiro and San Paolo.  Umbanda combines Roman Catholicism and the religious practices of the Yoruba of Africa.  The Umbanda believe that while Trance Dancing you are embodied by Spirit and empowered to heal others.


Our Ancestors

Since before time we have listened to the beat of our heart.  We first danced in one spot then we began to move like the animals we worshiped.  Then we leaped into the air, imitating the sun and moon.  Later we became musicians using drums, hand bells and drumsticks.  We wore masks to lead us beyond our earth-bound reality and allow us to experience all humanity, all ages and all animals.

We wore masks, beat on drums, danced upon mandalas, channeled the whispers of Spirit, reclaimed our ‘soul parts’ with quartz ‘stones of light’, lived out our collective dreams through ritual dance and altered our consciousness with teacher plants.  All of these time-tested practices created spiritual wholeness.

We are the end result of a long line of choices within the animal kingdom.  As human beings we’re not accustomed to thinking of ourselves as animals.  Our neo-cortex or third brain makes us unique giving us certain potentials and abilities that no other animal has.  At the same time, however, it has led us to forget that we are part of the incredible kingdom called nature and has created the illusion of separation, encouraging the belief that we are superior rather than just another form of life.

There is much about being human that is positive.  We have come to believe that we are innately violent and aggressive, but when we look at our evolution honestly and openly, the evidence show that we once lived in a peaceful and deeply respectful partnership with nature and Spirit.
Our ancestors did not live in one state of consciousness.  They would move, at will, in and out of different states.  The shamans were the priest-doctors of our ancestors, enabling people to relate to the totality of nature and the universe by exploring dimensions other than just physical reality.  Psycho-active herbs such as ayahuasca, peyote, marijuana, hashish and mushrooms were viewed as ‘teacher plants’.  When taken with clear intent, they caused people to connect with Spirit and ‘listen to the whispers’ (that is, of their ancestors and higher and future selves).  Some people now call this ‘channeling’.  When I talk about ‘listening to the whispers’, I’m describing the idea of listening to the messages from Spirit, which counsel us when we are available to their input.

Our ancestors worshiped both the heavenly spiritual world and the magical world of nature, which is where our Spirit and physical forms come from respectively.  They also knew that animals were worthy of worship and that through feminine qualities one could produce the rebirth of spiritual life, or what we now call ‘enlightenment’.  Throughout the world teacher plants were used to civilize and to promote the qualities of passion, respect, love, preservation, nurturing and sensitivity, in both men and women.

Descendants of these people still exist, such as the Sami people in northern Scandinavia, the Indians of North, Central and Southern America and the aboriginals in Australia and Africa.  There are certain spiritual practices that they all do and have been doing for thousands of years, not out of faith or belief but because of trial, error and experience.

Obviously the various cultures have different and unique spiritual practices, but there are some practices that are common to all.  One of these is going into trance using drumming.  We now know through scientific research that rhythms of 120 or more beats per minute impact the brain in such a way that they alter consciousness.

Our ancestors also ran and danced in combination with special breathing patterns.  They ran as fast as they could until they become exhausted.  They then would fall down, or walk slowly, until they felt their energy coming back and then run again.

They used passionate sex, for it is comprised of breathing and physical movement, which alters consciousness.  Your breathing changes during passionate sex and you go into an altered state of consciousness where you are no longer aware of your body.  You and your partner hope to lead each other to that trance state of consciousness called ‘orgasm’.  You go into a deep void; your physical body, ego and consciousness as we know them, disappear even if it is just for a few seconds.

But the most popular way our ancestors went into trance was by Trance Dancing.  Dancing for purpose of altering consciousness dates back 35,000 years or more, in different forms.  It persisted in Western culture until about 600 years ago, buy which time we had eliminated most rituals from our lives.

This lack of ritual in our culture has cost us a great deal but where we see the greatest damage is in the psyches of our youth.  Most of our young people today have no idea what stage of development they are passing through.  We have removed all of the rites of passage and traditions from our culture in the name of being modern and contemporary.  Consequently, young people don’t really have any sense of where they are or where they are going.  They have become disenchanted, absented from Spirit and magic, incapable of being ‘turned on’ to life and being human beings.


Suppression, Persecution and Survival


So dance, as a way to evoke Spirit is not a new idea.  Unfortunately its suppression is not new either.  Trance Dancing has been perceived as illness and madness, something to be prevented and defended against.  This was especially true of the ‘possession dancers’ of the medieval period.

The following words describe the ‘Dance of the Rhine Valley’ in the 14th century:

"Amidst our people here is the madness of dance.  In every town there now are some who fall into a trance.  It drives them night and day.  They scarcely stop to breath."

Some of the ways in which Trance Dancing was repressed during the medieval period are quite frightening.  The following are just a few:

  • In 1507, 30 women were burned alive in Catalonia, Spain
  • In 1508, 900 sorcerers and sorceresses were burned alive in Lorraine, France
  • In 1630, the entire Benedictine convent in Madrid, Spain, was closed.

The beliefs that surrounded these dancers determined how the dancers were treated, rather than any real evidence.  For example, the sorcerers of Lorraine were burned by fire for being possessed by Spirits, whereas in Italy the Tarantella dance was encouraged since it resulted from, and was the only cure, for the bite of the tarantula spider.  Trance Dancing was viewed as a form of insanity, except when it was an expression of the religious beliefs in power at the time.

But Trance Dance was not wiped out.  Its roots are too deep: its origins may be older than humanity, being found in the mating habits of many species – although among primates we find it only in apes.

Dance itself is rooted in our hearts and our immortal being.  In the ecstasy of dance we bridge that separation between this and the other world – that world filled with Goddesses, Gods, Spirits and entities which we have no names or pictures for.

Trance Dancing is a sacred rite, which at times embodies prophetic vision.  It manifests the forces of nature, heals the sick and links the dead to their descendants.  It assures us of our immortality, therefore providing us with direction and self-esteem.  In ancient times it blessed the tribe or clan and returned it to spiritual wholeness.

It is time for us to dance once again.