I love to dance. I love how it feels to be moved by rhythms and to experience the joyful ecstatic vibration of being with other humans. It has the feel of soul medicine.
In the window of Covid reprieve that briefly opened this summer, I had a few strong doses of this soul medicine—at a sweet party in a beautiful barn in Bolinas, here in the Commonweal Garden while making music with new friends at a fiddle camp, and at an outdoor concert and dance gathering in Sebastopol. These stirred up a renewed appreciation for the power of music, song and dance, and for the essential cultural work of making and sharing music.
Community-building gatherings centered on joyful music and dance, especially in challenging times, move stuck energy—physical, emotional, spiritual—and foster the neurohormonal milieu that supports our resilience and interconnectedness. Man, could we ever use that about now.
Medicine people throughout time and across cultures have used rhythm, dance and music for healing. While the rhythms and rituals differ, the core elements of bringing people together with intention, creating a space that allows people to get out of their thinking minds and into their bodies, and moving to rhythms while in community have been deeply healing for so many in our human family.
I recall how formative and essential my early experiences at concerts and music festivals were—the perfect ecstatic counterpose to the rigors of studying for long hours as I prepared to become a physician. I danced through challenging emotional states and broke through constraints adopted at earlier stages into altered states of heightened sensitivity. I danced into a healthier relationship with my body, healing shame and body image issues that arose out of toxic messages internalized during my adolescence. I even caught glimpses of nonduality and the bliss of interconnectedness. Truly, my being has been shaped by experiences with music and dance.
On moving to California, I was amazed by the many opportunities to drop into ecstatic dance spaces held with conscious attention to connection. As I began clinical practice, initially with incarcerated women at a prison in Southern California through my work with the University of California, San Francisco, I had the opportunity to hold “mind-body-spirit” dance jams with the women on my off hours.
There, in the prison gymnasium, we circled up to breathe, stretch, ground and then dance. The rhythms in the funky, soulful and hip-hop beats moved through us, raising the vibe from prison blah to joyful, playful and even loving. Spontaneous soul train lines formed. Each dance closed with our coming back into a circle and sharing, in a word, what we were feeling. “Joy,” “connected,” “happy,” “alive,” “relaxed,” “love”—I can still hear their voices speaking into that rarefied space we created together with music, dance and our presence. The medicine worked in that most challenging of places.
Lover of science that I am, I’ve been curious about what happens within and between people while making, listening and dancing to music. What makes music so essential that it is as universal a human capacity as language? What is it that makes moving to a beat nearly irresistible, starting from a very early age?
There are many theories as to why we humans, social creatures that we are, make music. Dancing and listening to and making music releases oxytocin, a chemical that has many fascinating effects on human behavior. It promotes feelings of well-being, trust, altruism and connectedness. It quiets the fear and threat-scanning centers of the limbic system, decreasing anxiety and the perception of threat, supporting healing from trauma.
Evolutionarily speaking, it makes sense that this sort of “pro-social” form of human communication has served an important role in helping us humans keep it together through some really tough times. Our survival has depended upon it.
It is this age-old human capacity for music and dance to yield joy and connection even across social and cultural lines that intrigues me most. We humans need spaces to connect and heal our wounds. We are grappling with extreme divisiveness, racism and bigotry. The digital age that promised connection has brought isolation. We are facing various existential threats, while scarred by collective, generational and historical trauma. Processing our pain, looking at the part we play in it all, doing our own work, advocating for structural change—all of this is essential for our individual and collective healing.
Sometimes, though, in our serious endeavor to be of service and to change the world, we can start to forget that it is just as important to have fun, even just for fun’s sake alone. Tapping into embodied joy, bliss, connection, trust and altruism feels really good. It resources us in so many ways as we cultivate resilience.
We are still in a liminal state here with Covid. With the complexity introduced by the highly contagious Delta variant, we have to be thoughtful about what sorts of gatherings are safe—outdoors, not too densely packed, whether immunocompromised or unimmunized people will be present, whether we require immunizations and or negative tests of attendees.
For those wondering, putting one’s trust in homeopathic immunizations is very risky. Homeopathic vaccines do not produce a protective antibody response. Furthermore, they cannot be entered into immunization records as valid immunizations, and to do so puts one at serious risk of legal repercussions. Plus, it’s unethical.
Being immunized is the surest way to protect yourself from life-threatening illness, and, like mask-wearing, it continues to be a community-oriented way to protect the vulnerable and hamper the ability of this virus to continue to evolve. For those with unimmunized young children at home, the risk of unwittingly bringing the virus home must be weighed. The risk of long Covid after even a mildly symptomatic infection in children is real and significant.
Covid-19 may be with us for some time. In this next phase of the pandemic, let us develop the capacity to safely create and share the sort of soul medicine we all need. Let’s bring awareness to which opportunities and activities we say yes to, and those we decline. Let’s upgrade the quality of our presence with fellow humans, erring on the side of kindness and compassion even in the face of differing opinions. Let’s look for opportunities to weave music and dance into our healing work, and remember that gathering together to make music and dance is soul medicine. Let’s look for ways to bridge divides and share experiences with those from different backgrounds and ideologies, in joyful celebratory spaces.
Ultimately, Covid will pass, while the human need for joy, connection and healing will endure. Let us find harmonies and rhythms that move us through the hard times and draw us closer together with intentional delight.
Anna O’Malley, M.D. is a family and community physician with the Coastal Health Alliance. She founded and directs Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine in the Commonweal Garden in Bolinas, and invites you to join Natura’s list to find out about opportunities to engage in the soul medicine bubbling up at Natura.