I originally wrote this article for ‘Head’ magazine where it was published in issue no.10, ‘Altered States’, 2000.
After more than ten years of the instant altered states offered by drugs, dancing and electronic beats it has become almost a cliche for people to see themselves as following the shaman’s footsteps on the dancing ground. A typical example talks of 'techno trance parties as the new contemporary ritual', embodying “the power of ecstatic trance dancing' like 'the temple dancers of Egypt, the ecstatic Dionysian dances in the temples of Greece', Sufis, Native American Sundancers and Australian Aboriginals (Return to the Source).
Music, dance (and sometimes pyshcoactive plants) are certainly key ‘archaic techiques of ecstasy’ (Eliade) used to achieve trance states throughout history and in most parts of the world. But it is misleading to think of a universal, unchanging trance dance. There is a great deal of variation in terms of the kind of music used (and in some cases there is even dancing without music); the bodily movements of the dance, which range from the calm to the frenetic; and the kind of mental state induced. Most importantly, the meaning given to the trance state varies according to the ritual context and the beliefs of the participants.
Clearly there are parallels with modern dance scenes, but it is arrogant to assume that all the various techniques of trance dancing amount to the same thing as staying up all night at a club in South London. It implies that we already know it all, and have nothing more to learn. Considering the differences may be more instructive.
In most settings, trance dance is not just about hedonism (although pleasure is often part of it) or even the mystical state of oneness. Typically, trance involves some notion of possession, with spirits being invoked in a controlled ritual context. These spirits may be ancestors, nature sprites or aspects of Gods and Goddesses. Furthermore these rituals tend to be undertaken not just to achieve altered states of consciousness but to bring about change in the material world, such as curing sickness or making it rain. These rituals can be very complex, with the trance dance only one element. For instance the all night dance of the Navajo’s healing ‘medicine sing’ marked the conclusion of a nine-day ceremonial featuring prayers, sand paintings, sweat baths and medications.
It follows from this complexity that to be able to master the trance experience can take years of training. It is perhaps typical of the commodified New Age spiritual supermarket that people imagine they can achieve the same results for the price of a pill and a ticket.
To say that contemporary mass dancing offers a different kind of trance experience is not to say that it is always inferior. Practitioners of esoteric/magical trance dancing sometimes bemoan the lack of focus for the energy raised in a club or party, but in some ways the key to this experience is precisely the pleasure of abandon and excess without purpose, an anti-economic expenditure of energy without return (Bataille).
There is a clear political aspect to many traditional trance practices. I.M. Lewis refers to spirit possession/trance as a ‘ strategy of mystical attack’ by which people of low social status are able to act and speak in ways which would not otherwise be socially permitted. He gives examples of spirits which possess women and servants, demanding that their husbands or masters treat them with respect or offer them gifts. Since it is the gods or the sprits who are responsible, this ritualised rebellion is tolerated within certain limits, beyond which people risk being labelled as witches or sorcerers.
Trance dancing is also characterised by what the anthropologist Victor Turner calls ‘liminality’ (from the Latin for threshold). This describes the way that people in ritual activity ‘separate themselves... from the roles and statuses they have in the workaday world’ crossing the threshold to a space emphasising ‘equality, anonymity and foolishness when compared with the heterogeneous, status-marked, name-conscious intelligence of the social order’ (Driver).
An example is the medieval phenomenen known as St Vitus Dance or tarantism. In Germany, Holland, Belgium and Italy ‘In times of misery, the most abused members of society felt themselves seized by an irresistable urge to dance wildly until they reached a state of trance and collapsed exhausted... peasants left their ploughs, mechanics their workshops, house-wives their domestic duties, children their parents, servants, their masters - all swept headlong into the Bacchanialian revelry’ (Lewis).
Trance dancing ceremonies often involve reaffirming the bonds between people, between the living and the ancestral dead; between humans, animals and the land. Turner calls this ‘communitas’, a spirit of unity and mutual belonging generated by ritual that is more than simply the fact of living in a common space implied by ‘community’.
Prior to their last stand against confinement in a reservation in the 1870s, the Comanches held an elaborate sun dance: ‘the people danced in bands for five days before the sun dancers themselves danced, drummed and sang for three further days, doing without food and water for the duration of the dance’ (Wilson). We can trace a similar link between dance, community and resistance today. On Reclaim the Streets parties for instance dance music is much more than just a soundtrack. It is the act of dancing together that help creates a collectivity from a collection of isolated individuals, giving us a sense of our power and a vision of a different way of being.
Anybody who has been out dancing in the last ten years will recognise something of their own experience in these ideas of liminality and communitas. (I would add that this applies not just in the self-defined trance scene, but in dance music scenes generally whatever the soundtrack.). Of course, it is possible to criticise this experience as illusory, compensating for, but not challenging the ruling society that denies real community. In this sense, the contemporary dance scene could be said to perform the same role as religion as ‘the heart of heartless world... the opiate of the masses’ (Marx). And there is a truth in this. In clubs you sometimes get an incredible mix of people dancing together, but whatever the feeling of togetherness, at the end of the night some go back to stately homes, some to children’s homes. Yet, however fleeting this feeling, it is never entirely a fiction - even if it only provides a glimpse of how different things could be.
- G. Bataille, Eroticism, 1962.
- T.F. Driver, The magic of ritual: our need for liberating rites that transform our lives and our communities, 1991.
- M. Eliade, Shamanism: archaic techniques of Ecstasy.
- I.M. Lewis, Ecstatic Religion: an anthropological study of spirit possession and shamanism.
- Return to the Source, Deep Trance and Ritual Beats booklet, 1995
- B. Wilson, Magic and the Millenium, 1973.