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Get down on your knees and dance 

Dance Church provides a “wholly� different way to get spiritual.

At first glance you might think that Dance Church is, well, a little weird. And in a way, you might be right; this is not your typical Sunday service. For starters, the surroundings are decidedly un-church-like. “Worship� takes place in a candlelit yoga studio—no pews, no stained glass windows, no hymnals, no bibles, no preacher. “Sermons� come in the form of music that blares in a steady stream of bass-heavy electronica or live, improvised jazz, world beat, and funk. The “congregation� spins, twists, wiggles, rolls, crawls, and leaps in mounting bursts of blissful exaltation.

click to enlarge HOLY ROLLERS :  Spirits lift and bodies (nearly) collide at Dance Church, where weekly waves of ecstatic free-form movement wash through SLO every Sunday night at the Yoga Centre. - PHOTO COURTESY OF PHILIP NOVOTNY
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF PHILIP NOVOTNY
  • HOLY ROLLERS : Spirits lift and bodies (nearly) collide at Dance Church, where weekly waves of ecstatic free-form movement wash through SLO every Sunday night at the Yoga Centre.

# “I don’t like that word, ‘weird’,� cautions Timo (pronounced Tee-Mo) Beckwith, co-producer of Dance Church. “I would prefer, maybe, ‘unusual’.�

Philip Novotny, the other half of the production team and facilitator of the weekly event, notes that with so many people participating in this sort of thing—not just in SLO, but up and down the coast of California and all over the world—it isn’t even that unusual. “I would describe it as refreshingly diverse,� he offers.

The idea behind Dance Church, in a nutshell, is to provide a space for people to free their bodies from their minds, let go of their daily inhibitions, and find joy and pleasure, maybe even achieve divine inspiration, through a fusion of free-form movement and music. It’s part of the “ecstatic dance� experience, and it isn’t so weird when one considers that cultures throughout history have married dance and music to reach elevated heights of spirituality. Think Dionysian festivals, Whirling Dervishes, or even the rave culture of the 1990’s.

“It’s actually incredibly hip,� says Beckwith. “I mean, I’ve done a lot of hip things in my life, but this whole ecstatic dance movement, it’s really one of the most incredible things I’ve ever experienced.�

Beckwith and Novotny first witnessed the transformative powers of ecstatic dance at Sacred Spaces Studios in Santa Monica, during a workshop for dancers and non-dancers alike. The result was an expressive art form that was dramatic, creative, communal, and at the same time, entirely individualistic. “It was so powerful and freeing,� says Novotny, as he describes his initial experience. “When you get out of your head, it’s a very natural thing, just to move. So many people never have the opportunity to be this free, this spontaneous, to become one with the music.�

The music is the main reason Beckwith was so enthusiastic about bringing Dance Church to SLO Town. He describes it as a co-created art experience, wherein the movers give the musicians a habitat in which to create a sound. “As a musician who’s been performing for years, I’d never experienced a deeper connection between a band and an audience,� he explains. “It was like, ‘Wow, this is what I’ve been looking for. Why don’t we do this instead of concerts?’�

Indeed, why not? On Mother’s Day 2004, in a symbolic nod to birth and renewal, they created the SLO Dance Church scene. Through quiet promotion, week by week, the crowds kept growing. The concept has since caught on to the point that the church sometimes has to turn people away for lack of space. People who had never participated in anything like this before have become devoted regulars, and it’s a favorite venue for followers in search of a place to dance outside the conventions of a nightclub or bar.

“This is an alternative way for people to be together,� explains Novotny. “There’s no experience necessary. It’s not a pick-up scene, there’s no drinking—it’s not that kind of a party.� Adds Beckwith, “It’s a safe container where you don’t have to worry about how you look or act. You have the freedom to express your sensuality through movement without any further obligation.�

People of all ages and backgrounds attend Dance Church, notably adults looking to let go of their grown-up concerns. “Sometimes they start out pretty tense, and it’s clear they’re uncomfortable,� says Novotny. “But they keep coming back. You can see them start to smile, like they’ve discovered something in themselves. It’s amazing, you know, because for two hours they get to be a kid again.�

A typical evening of Dance Church begins with music around 7 p.m. In addition to a revolving group of top-notch musicians, the church also showcases the spinning skills of some of the area’s best DJ’s. Mellow, ambient sounds grow in pace and intensity with the movement of the dancers who, barefoot and wearing comfortable, loose-fitting clothes, sprawl out on the floor to stretch and warm up. The sound and rhythm progress with the movement of the dancers, a continuous give-and-take that flows uninterrupted by applause or breaks. The room quickly becomes a blur of continuous, uninhibited, spontaneous motion.

The motto for Dance Church, drawn from an Irish proverb, is “Dance as if no one is watching,� and one of the most curious aspects about these events is that, with so many bodies moving around so wildly and seemingly blindly, there aren’t very many collisions. In fact, says Beckwith, people seem to have a heightened sense of spatial awareness that prevents any major accidents. A hand might brush a back from time to time, but “what you really see,� he says, “is some incredible moments of pure grace.�

About 45 minutes into the session heartbeats are racing, and Novotny reads a poetic passage, providing some food for thought before the group is once again set free to explore the full range of expressive abilities. Some people roam throughout the room, skipping and rolling, interacting with one another in what’s known as “free-form contact dance.� Others maintain a personal space where the music is their only partner. Talking is discouraged, although cooing, chirping, giggling and barking—called “sounding�—are not uncommon. Two short, sweaty hours later, the group comes together in a circle to close the evening in contemplative meditation. There is laughter, sometimes tears, as people acknowledge the deeply emotional and spiritual experience they have trustingly shared with one another.

In keeping with the church theme, an “offering� is requested to cover the cost of the space, and to give a token thanks to the musicians. But Beckwith and Novotny consider this endeavor a community service, not a business. “I guess we’re reclaiming the word ‘church’,� says Novotny, “trying to bring a more positive association to it, for people who might be turned off by churchiness. We’re kind of the ‘non-church church.�

Ellen Watson, a movement and meditation specialist at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, calls the ecstatic dance experience “sweating one’s prayers.� Free-form movement helps free emotions, release negative patterns; it connect us to a higher power and invites individual transformations. Suddenly the weird becomes wonderful, and it’s clear that every member of the congregation is experiencing something special, otherworldly, a sort of dance revelation. ∆

Alice Moss is a dancing fool. Poke fun at her moves at amoss@newtimesslo.com.

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