Dance and Recovery
Whilst in Sedona I met Ayande, a beautiful Afro American man, musician and artist with his ancestral connection to Africa visible upon entering his home. Our connection was immediate and we shared 2 months together from that first meeting. He worked at a rehab centre called The Alternative to Meds for people recovering from drug, alcohol and prescribed medications. Every Sunday night they were allowed some reprieve from their long days of personal counselling and therapy, to sit back and be entertained by varying artists of whom Ayande was the coordinator. This was how we met and he invited me to perform for the guests. Having my didg, illimbah and Hang with me I figured I could pull off a 2 hour workshop of some kind that would be appropriate for where these people were at.
When I walked into the private facilities there was heaviness about both the people and the space. The TV was on, some were finishing up diner and no one seemed too enthused that I was there to entertain them. At first I thought oh no, this is going to be really hard, and reminded me of my days teaching Aboriginal kids African dance back in Arnhem land Australia. I was dressed up in my African garb, and thank God Ayande came to support me and he too was dressed in African clothes. I had a rough idea what I was going to do and set up all the instruments to take them on a bit of a journey. I realized one of my gifts as a performer is that of audience participation.
Ayande introduced me and to start I pulled out my didgeridoo and played over and around each of them with their eyes closed. I could feel some of the tension melting, mine included. I then serenaded them with the illimbah and sang my song of greetings. This broke the ice and looking at them I could see the many faces of the wounded child we all harbor and which if not dealt with leads to a path of more wounding, and for these people that path was self harm in the form of substance abuse. I was surprised to see so many young people and was later informed by some of them who shared their stories that they had been on drugs since they were a kid and as they got older they sought out stronger and stronger medications. Such is the reality of a medicated society.
I decided seeing it was late on a Sunday night that a story with lots of singing would be appropriate. With the illimbah accompanying me I told the story of the African farmer discovering the Kudu eating half his crops. I used the song “louidieh louidieh, eh wah eh wah” with the action of clapping and hitting their knees and then “wolileh wolileh” for the mother part of the story and “Acca Tumbaleh” for the man and climax of the story at which point Ayande joined me on the drums and I got them standing and all clapping and dancing to the drums. It reminded me of the many gigs Chinta and I did and how well we used to work together as a duo doing that sort of thing. Ayande and I worked together like we had always been doing this. I danced a wild African dance for them and they were so blown away by that sort of energy that for a moment they had forgotten all their problems.
Ayande had encouraged me to get them dancing so after the performance side of things I thought I would trial a condensed version of Elemental Trance Dance, a journey through the five elements. To my surprise they were eager to get involved and followed my instructions as I had them lying on the floor connecting with the space around them and in their bodies. Next I had them connect to their breath and start to awaken their body, to really listen to what was going on and stretch. As they writhed around on the floor in that tiny space I was sensitive enough to see how far I could go with them without pushing their boundaries to the point of them feeling unsafe or uncomfortable. Slowly they got to their feet and moved like eagles in slow motion connecting their movement to their breath. It was beautiful to witness these traumatized beings suddenly being transported into the present moment and just be allowed to move however they wanted and release all the tension that was stored in their bodies. I used the song “Who Am I” for this exercise and invited them to ask that deeper question while affirming, they are not their addiction, or their body but a beautiful shining light, a unique star that is who you are.
From air I got them breathing, faster as the music sped up and we did earth breathing of two inhalations then exhale and move the pelvis and then offer it to the Earth, to the Sky and to each other. Smiles replaced tightened jaws as they danced through their shame and embarrassment and just participated. It was amazing how the energy was transformed and soon they were all fully dancing and moving in a circle and feeling connected. Many had broken out into a sweat as they continued to dance wildly. When fire kicked in we returned to the breath using the breath of fire to stoke their passion. I had them breathe and focus on why they are here, their purpose and after they had connected with that one by one they came in the middle and shouted their purpose!!
“I am here to have fun!!!” “ I am here to enjoy life” “I am here to be of service” I am here to love” and with each declaration they all cheered and screamed in wild abandon and support. It was fantastic and from the fire we entered into the calm of water. The music slowed and they made contact with another individual. Just feeling hands eyes closed and I spoke the words of the compassion project…”just like me this person is seeking some happiness for his or her life” “just like me this person is trying to avoid suffering in his or her life”, they continued to explore and I gently guided them into dropping the hands and connect with backs or heads or shoulders but to stay connected like two water droplets merging as they flowed back to source.
Then I had them merge with two more individuals so that they were in small groups of four or five and said the words “just like me, these people have known sadness, loneliness and despair” “just like me , these people are seeking to fulfil their needs” and as they continued to roll around in a beautiful connected dance I could feel their longing and surrender as something tangible and it touched that part within myself as I said the last words “and just like me, these people are also learning to love themselves”. At this point they were very still and connected and a sense of comradeship had been birthed. I played the song of Natural Great Peace and just let me be there in stillness and savour the sense of relaxation and newfound comfort they felt within their own skin. Also for these people it was the first time they had danced without having to be highly intoxicated to enjoy themselves or hide their deeper inhibitions and shame about their bodies. I played the Hang and sang my song about my own personal journey from the dark night of the soul to becoming whole. The sweet sound of the Hang allowed them to rest and just Be.
We closed with a sharing circle and they all thanked me immensely, many said they hadn’t felt that good in years. I received many hugs and felt their genuine gratitude for what we had shared. I reinforced that all of us not just people in rehab, need to learn how to transform our thoughts and begin to seek happiness from the Source inside of us. Dance, yoga or any movement based modality teaches us that happiness comes from inside, not from external things-whether it be drugs, alcohol, another person or anything else. So by giving people with addictions a new perspective based on the power of movement there is immense potential for transformation.
The aim of recovery programs is to transform the individual from one who would use drugs, drink or take pills, to one who no longer views them as acceptable options. Alcoholics and drug addicts are not alone in their tendency for poor impulse control; it’s just that the consequences of their poor impulses that are often dramatic and immediately disastrous. However, if anyone allows their ego free reign, we would all soon find ourselves suffering endlessly through a life of reaction.
We all need to surrender the self to a higher power as a means of ego deflation. Also to learn reverence and respect for our bodies through a movement based practice like dance, chi gong or yoga may help recovering addicts avoid relapse. For recovering addicts who are often jumpy and unable to self soothe, simple dance movements and breathing techniques can provide immense relief from racing or impulsive thoughts, as well as relieve tension, fear, anger, pent up frustrations, and building anxieties. And it’s extremely fun! The ability to defuse thoughts and situations that trigger addictive behaviours represents a key to recovery. The calm and clarity that arise after a great dance session with lots of deep breathing may help an addict to step back from the edge and seek the tools to support his/her recovery instead of engaging in self destructive behaviours. In this way introducing dance as a therapy can have benefits that extend far beyond the rehab program. It has the potential to awaken the ‘ joi de vivre’ or joy of life and connection to Self that everyone is ultimately seeking. It is a beautiful tool for transforming life and becoming truly free.
The feed back the next day from the staff was that everyone was a lot happier and easier to deal with and as a result I was invited back the next week to facilitate another session before I had to leave Sedona. I happily and honourably did. The next session I had my two healthy happy sons with me, 20 and 22 and felt that it was especially powerful to have them also participate so these young people could have hope seeing healthy examples of young people living passionately and a positive Mother son relationship. Hopi played a beautiful piece on guitar and Eka and I did an African drum piece together with Ayande and once again I had them all dance in wild abandon and they loved it. In the closing circle Eka did some spoken word which touched their hearts and mine was full to bursting.
Ayande, filled me in that now they are including more dance and yoga dance on the Sunday night program as it had obvious good results and only positive feedback.