Wednesday, 22 July 2009

The Origin of Carnival (circus priests 2)

This is a wonderful book.

Ehrenreich argues that the Christian church created carnival in the late middle ages by kicking ecstatic and wild dancing, singing, games and feasting out of Church. Where were they to go, then, but to the streets?
"In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Catholic leaders finally purged the churches of unruly and ecstatic behaviour. ... In its battle with the ecstatic strain within Christianity, the Church, no doubt inadvertently, created carnival." p77-8

She says that prior to the arrival of Christianity, ecstatic ritual involving entire communities was more common. The first third of the book is a fascinating delve into the histories of this across ancient Greece, Rome and Northern Europe.

For about the first 400 years of Christianity, planted as it was on a bed formerly home to pagan folk religions, the Church encorporated pagan dancing, singing and ecstatic rituals into it's own rituals.

As Christianity formalised as a religion, that became problematic. It was disruptive for a start: "when Church authorities in Wells, in England, banned dances and games from their Cathedral in 1338, they cited the damage to church property..." (p84)

But it was deeper than that. 

"The Church was determined to maintain its monopoly over human access to the divine. If religious dancing became ecstatic dancing - and the stories of dancers being "possessed" by the devil suggested that it sometimes may have - then ordinary people might get the idea that they could approach the deity on their own (as did, for example, the ancient worshippers of Dionysus) without the mediation of Catholic officialdom. Certainly the Church has a long history of suppressing enthusiasm, in the ancient Greek sense of being filled with, or possessed by, the deity. " (p84)

"The gradual expulsion of dancing, sports, drama and comedy from the churches created a world of regularly scheduled festivity that is almost beyond our imagining today."

But this was perhaps the beginning of our culture's separation of spirituality from our entertainment.

"The result of the Church's distancing itself from the festivities that marked its own holidays was a certain "secularization" of communal pleasure."

"Inevitably, something was lost in the transition from ecstatic ritual to secularized festivities - something we might call meaning or transcendent insight. In ancient Dionysian forms of workshop the moment of maximum "madness" and revelry was also the sacred climax of the rite, at which the individual achieved communion with the divinity... Medieval Christianity, in contrast, offered "communion" in the form of a morsel of bread and sip of wine soberly consumed at the altar - and usually saw only devilry in the festivities that followed.

"...this relative secularisation may help account for the uglier side of European carnival tradition. Without a built-in religious climax to the celebrations - the achievement, for example, of a trance-like state of union with the divinity - they readily spilled over into brawling and insensate drunkenness." p93

In the middle of the fourth century, Basileios, the bishop of Caesarea, is reported to have said this:
"Casting aside the yoke of service under Christ and the veil of virtue from their heads, despising God and His Angles, they [the women] shamelessly attract the attention of every man. With unkempt hair, clothed in bodices and hopping about, they dance with lustful eyes and loud laughter; as if seized by a kind of frenzy they excite the lust of the youths. They execute ring dances in the churches of the Martyrs and at their graves ... With harlots' songs they pollute the air and sully the degraded earth with their feet in shameful postures." (quoted on p73)

Around the same time, Gregory of Nazianzus pleaded:

"Let us sing hymns instead of striking drums, have psalms instead of frivolous music and song ... modesty instead of laughter, wise contemplation instead of intoxication, seriousness instead of delirium. But even if you wish to dance in devotion at this happy cermony and festival, then dance, but not the shameless dance of the daughter of Herod." (quoted on p74)

For it is the Devil who plays - and resembles none more than Dionysus, "who, like his manifestation as Pan, was sometimes portrayed with horns and tail, and his companion satyrs."

"Like the Satyr, the Devil is a rakishly handsome man with at least one cloven hoof, a long tail, horns or goat's ears. Both are master musicians - the satyr plays the lyre or pipes, the Devil the violin. Both scamper in dance-like movements of the goat, performing caprioles... The Devil... performed wild antics, pantomimes and dances akin to those enacted by the chorus in the Greek satyr play. The dramatic effect was one and the same." - Steven Lonsdale quoted on p81.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Taize Singing at Findhorn

I'm at my first singing workshop at Findhorn, a spiritual eco-village in Scotland. First impressions: Aaaarrghh!

The first thing we have to do is a partner dance. Stand facing each other. Put your right hand in the middle of your partner's chest. Place the left tenderly upon their right forarm (which is protruding from your chest). Gaze lovingly into each others eyes. (Yelp!) Sing, “I am one with the mother.” Lordy. Hold one another's hands. Maintain loving gaze. Sing, “I am one with Love.” Aaaaaarrrrrghghghghghghg. Put your hands in the air and do a silly flappy twirly thing until you're facing the next person. Allelujah. Kierier yliason. Swap partners. Begin again.

I'm having to purse and bite my lips to fight my overwhelming urge to laugh and play around with the ridiculous movements and words. Each new person I meet, especially the young ones, I can feel the corners of my eyes creasing up into theirs, subtly asking, is this for real? You're not taking this seriously are you? Can we play with this together? Oh shit you are! Oh shit we can't! Quickly I try to dress myself in respectful piety. Most people seem to be taking this seriously and exposing to each stranger the tender parts of ourselves that we expose to god or its closest approximation within our minds. If I keep taking the piss I'm going to be without friends here. I'll become sad and lonely. And just write more and more in my sad and lonely blog.

But is everyone really that comfortable with it? For the warm up, we sang something simple and walked around in a big spiral so we were all facing someone as we moved. “Look into one another's eyes,” soothed the facilitator, “and see the divine.”

Ok. I'm here to take part. I look at the eyes of every single person I pass – maybe 150 – and about 1 in 9 of them look back into mine. Am I scary? Ugly? Are you looking into everyone's except mine? Or is this like that thing in battle where soldiers told to open fire shoot upwards because there's an inner horror at the idea of pointing a gun at someone and actually firing bullets? Do we all share, no matter how much of a hippy we are, an inner horror at the idea of looking someone in the eye and singing at them?

We sing Taize music and I Don't Like It. First up all the lyrics are religious and I Don't Like That. Where's the space for diversity with religious lyrics? You're just heading straight towards bashing up against someone's comfort zone / different belief system / different way of expressing their spirituality / lack of spirituality.

I like Bobby Mcferrin's approach to lyrics. “Climbing the stairs.. chuck de bum, chuck de bum... Bacon and eggs... Chuck de bum, chuck de bum”

No one can argue with that!

Or the Mayday lyrics: "Unite, unite and let us all unite for summer is a come un today.” Again, no complaints.

Or Karigamombe. “Donkey, cow, goat. Donkey, cow, goat.”

The song I sing with people in the fun fed that tends to get them most high, Aslaa – (one man even said, “There was my life before Aslaa, and my life after...") - is utterly beautiful complete gibberish, written by Juliette Russell.
so. Secular words or gibberish, Yes. Religious words, no.

Oh dear. I'm in a sacred music festival. I think I better stick to the dancing. That's word free at least.

Second thing. I don't like using songbooks with words and music in them. It excludes non music readers. They have to wait for the music readers beside them to sing it a few times before they can join in. You might speed up the process, perhaps, but you exclude and divide. And: Everybody sits in strange positions, heads bowed to view the pages or twisted to view their neighbours. It's a rubbish position to sing in. Bollocks to that too.

Finally, it's all so f****** somber! Why does it all have to be so f****** sombre? Yesterday in the opening circle they asked for someone to come forward and pick an Angel card that would be the overriding quality for the whole festival. The woman picked the card of Play. Play! I know play. This isn't playful! It's sombre as hell! Where's the joy in that? And why is religious stuff this way So Much?

I don't get it.

Climbing the stairs... bacon and eggs...

Brunch time.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Come play at Hide and Seek - 1st August

Hide & Seek Weekender 31st July - 2nd August 2009
Southbank Centre 

For everyone who's totally confused about what the Fun Fed actually does, Saturday 1st August is a good time to figure it out. Dan and I will be running a session of games for adults at 11am and it's going to be wicked.

‘… combines all my favourite things about games - play, interactivity, performance, cleverness, technology, participation’ – The Guardian

Circus priests

Anthony is holding a big, smooth meter-long wooden magical wand from a Shaman in Haiti that was given to his great grandfather. We're drinking wine and smoking fags in his country garden late on a summer night.
In Haiti, the man who holds the community's singing is the Shaman, he says.

I see a theme emerging. In many cultures the role of the entertainer and / or MC is combined with the role of spiritual, um, MC. Yes spiritual MC. Master of Ceremonies.

An example is Chartwell in Shona singing. He gets us going, he keeps us going, we get high, and some would call him a shaman, he says.

In Theyyam rituals of Northern Kerela; the dancers and musicians are also spirit mediums which the people go to for connection to the gods. Circus-priests.

In Britain entertainment has largely split away from religion or spirituality. In my few experiences of British church the music has been as palid as an overboiled brussle sprout; the high energy of music has moved to concert halls and night clubs.

That's ok.

But does the Fun Fed's form of entertainment have more in common with Shona and Theyam than Camden's Electric Ballroom? And if so, what does that make our organisation, and our facilitators, actually and potentially? From the perspective of an atheist? From the perspective of a shaman?

And what exactly do we mean by spiritual?


i reckon the courtyard scene at the beginning is the most interesting part...

What I mean by 'god'

I use the word 'god' quite a lot in this blog, especially at the beginning. So, any social scientist would tell me off for using terms without giving my definition of them.

So, er...

I mean two and a half things, I think.

The first is really simple. If you took all the good qualities and stood them beside each other – trust, honesty, love, generosity, thoughtfulness, playfulness, kindness, honour, integrity, justice, grace, mercy, forgiveness, all that – and then if you gave those things a collective voice, you might call that voice god. You could have a conversation with it, and feel far away from the parts in you that are scared, mean, paranoid, selfish, and which believe the world is small. And you could ask god to be with you, or in other words, you could call up the good in yourself to come to the driver's seat in that moment.

This kind of idea is probably quite unproblematic to atheists like my Dad. He'd probably just say, why do you have to call it god?

Good question. The word has slipped in over the last 8 years and it's gradually getting stuck.

Ok, second thing.

We're moving slightly out of atheist territory here, but only slightly.

I feel, strongly, vividly, clearly, unmistakably, unambiguosly, would you like any more words, no I think you get the point, i've been reading jay griffiths and i'm getting slightly too used to very long and verbose sentences – I keenly feel the aliveness of life. It's an aliveness that is above the aliveness of individual living things. It is a kind of primal creative force within and around us and you feel it much more at the top of a mountain than you do in a air conditioned room or on a golf course. You see it in the sky, feel it in your tummy, hear it and feel it when we sing alone or even better, together.

So that, to me, is not life, it's Life. Life / god. Same.

I'm happy with those two things. They belong and settle.

Then there's the half, and this is where I get foggy.

My questions are around the relationship between Life force in natural ecology and life force in social or personal ecology.

I mean this: we see in ecology a fantastic intelligence at play. What the algae do in the shallow waters of Italy affects what the trees in Germany do, which affects the rain in England and the tides and the moon and the monkeys. Disparate parts of nature communicate and co-ordinate with each other across brainwarping degrees of separation. Life's creative genius is not an intelligence we recognise easily for it is not human and it is not linguistic, but I see our intelligence – and particularly the kind of flowing, instant ingenious intelligence we can have individually and socially when we're on it and letting and working chaordically and so on – as a kind of a child or a subset of that bigger, intangible intelligence that chaordically keeps life alive, or that is, perhaps, Life itself.

Fine (subject to some specifics from the ecologists).

The wierder part for me is where some people think that that kind of chaordic intelligence is also at play in the social / personal realm. In the realm of decision and destiny, sliding doors.

'Commit and the world changes,' says my yoga teacher Alaric.

Really? The world is changed by your commitment?

Why not: quantum physicists say an atom's behaviour is changed by its observer. Same dynamic.

Pauline, my coach (we're having a six week skills swap. I'm sorting out her website and she's sorting out my heart) believes that when you sit quietly, what you need comes and lands in your lap.

What's that about? So, yeah, ok, maybe it does and lots of lucky / jammy / 'synchronous' things happen but how on earth do we conceptualise the mechanics behind that? Is there some kind of chaordic intelligence at play in the world of mythos and logos – thought, word, deed – as there is in the world of eros – earth, nature, music? Can we change the world with our intentions and will, beyond the tangible, visible paths of influence that we know and accept?

That's beyond me, that territory. That's why it's half. I think when I talk about god, I entertain the possibility that that kind of thing is going on. I talk to Life all the time. I set intentions. I'm grateful a lot in our chats. Sometimes I ask questions and the wind answers. Maybe it's coincidence. I don't really care. I like it :)

Wild men

“Your Dad slept in the greenhouse last night. Well, until about 1 anyway, then he came in.”

Dad's got a new greenhouse.

I look sideways. “Why did he do that?”

Mum shrugs. “He wanted an adventure.”

Question: does contemporary society deprive men of an opportunity to express something that's inside them... some kind of hunter warrior instinct? The Strong Man who goes off adventuring in the wilderness, facing challenges and testing his strength and ingenuity, knowing that there is a loving home and community 'back home' that value him and what he is doing, bringing back victory / safety / meat.

OK, that's a bit idyllic perhaps. But I think there's something in it.

My friends Jake and Charlie were both diagnosed with schizophrenia when they were 18. They had a lot in common. Charlie is dead now and Jake's a fast stream civil servant who's marrying a beautiful woman this summer.

Both of them were filled with a beautiful wild power. It was like the world was too small for them.

Please behave yourself, it seemed to say. We have no place for your size and intensity.

One of the differences between the two is that Jake took up Martial arts. He got well into it. That seemed to provide not just a space for his abundant wild energy and strength, but also an honour and discipline to it, powerful role models with these incredible skills, heroes maybe, and support in sculpting an element of his masculinity that he could be really proud of. He used to get in fights on the streets of Camden. That seemed to stop once he could walk around at night feeling, I could kill you if I want to. There was a quiet, pleasing confidence to having powerful skills and choosing not to use them.

I say all this to my mum.

“Oh yes,” she says. “I think it's much better that men have their self-defense capabilities in their actual bodies, rather than feeling vulnerable and carrying weapons.”


I pass this sign on a train platform.

It seems funny after all the things I've been doing. Drinking beer! I haven't done that in a month. My instant feeling is of a dull, sore head, and quite a crude form of fun, neither playful nor delightful. I think, it's not beer that I don't like. A cold pint sometimes is ahhhhhh oh just hits the spot when it's hot and when it's cold, getting to a country pub and having a pint of ale and a pack of crisps is pure joy, especially if there's a real fire. Sorry to sound posh but some of the organic beers and lagers that have come out in the last few years are just delicious, missing some of the uglier flavours in non-organics.

I think the thing I don't like about this sign is the idea of a whole festival of beer. So the fun is just... lots of beer, and people together after / during lots of beer. That seems like... the old world, or something. My old world, perhaps.
Maybe it's not just me. Is it my age, or the age, that is thirsty for a different kind of fun?

Mbira camp

I've come to Mbira camp for two reasons.

Firstly, learning tunes on the Mbira smooths your brain out. It irons out the folds. It's like meditation, but there's an added bonus, which is that once you've learnt some songs you can play them with a group of people in The Tent at night, and there's singing and dancing, and gradually it gets free and wild and high.

It's organised by a robed Zimbabwean called Chartwell Dutiro.
Chartwell and I sat together today, a little away from everyone. I was playing him what I have learnt so far on the Mbira.

“You know what the Mbira is for?” He asks. “It is to call the spirits.

“In Zimbabwean culture the issues of the ancestors must be dealt with. The Mbira brings them forth so that we can do that.”

I'm puzzled by the idea of a culture where the unresolved issues of dead people are taken on by the living.

“Chartwell, do you remember the workshop you did at Tribe of Doris festival in 2007?”

I described to him my first experience of singing with him. We simply sang a song continuously for maybe an hour. I described to him how to begin with I had concentrated on getting the song, then I had enjoyed singing the song, then I got bored, then really bored, confused by what was going on, then thought about leaving. Then I slipped into something else. It was as if I had melted, I told him, dissolved. I quite forgot myself. It was as if I was the sound. I was no longer singing the sound; the sound was singing me. The sound was singing all of us, and a two part song had become a fifty part song, with nobody knowing what they were singing, it seemed, but everything working together like particles of smoke moving together in one continuous unplanned curling. Then when it ended we all sat in an endless still silence, and nobody moved or blinked or breathed. Actually we probably did breathe, I corrected myself, or we would have died.

Chartwell laughed.

“Did you like it?”

“Yes! I... really really, really liked it.”

“So you understand this music. You understand it well. People sometimes leave. They can feel the music pulling them somewhere and they don't know where, so they leave. They regain control. But I know this place.”

“Chartwell, what is going on when that happens? What is that place?”

It is the space where the spirits of the ancestors live, he tells me.

"Do you believe in a place like this?” he asks me. “Have you always believed?”

I pause for thought. Heaven? The spirits of the dead existing after life?


“Hum." He seems disappointed. "Well what do you think that place is?”

“... It's something like, pure nature, pure god, pure divinity...” “Pure spirit?” “Yes, pure spirit perhaps."

He nods, looking satisfied.

“In that space, Chartwell, do you hear the ancestors? How do you know they are there? How do you know what they want?”

“Sometimes I have dreams. Other times I feel it very strongly.”

“Are you like a shaman?”

“Yes. Some people would call me a Shaman. I like to yodel like mad! Ha! :)”

Each night we sit, about 25 of us, in candle lit circles in the round canvas tent and play and play and sing and dance and gradually it gets more wild and free. The Mbiras are quiet. Playing them inside hollow gourds amplifies them. The 'osho' (gourd-rattles) are loud. Last night we played a song and it was like lace. For a long time I sang so so so quietly, like I was trying to sing so I could only just be heard by the person on the other side of the tent who was singing the same line as me just loud enough that I could hear it, though I kept thinking maybe I was just imagining it. That was what the whole sound was like, like a living lace of sound on the membrane between the real and the imaginary.

When it finally wove itself to silence, Chartwell declared in delight, "that was Cool!" and everyone mumbled and wiggled in cheerful agreement.

On my first night in The Tent I felt tight and constrained. I need to make friends, I thought. I need to feel better in this community. I went to bed early. The next day I made friends and stayed up till midnight.

That was the night of lace music.

Tonight it's 2.09am and the music is still going. I'm in my tent. Past midnight is when it Goes Off in The Tent. In there, gradually I reveal more of myself. I can't help it. I begin to dance. This music invites a curving back. Woman is revealed. More dynamic, more powerful, more sensual, more wild, more raw female than anything revealed in the bumbling Britishness of the daytime. They play a song I like and I begin to sing more though my voice is still a little tight. In these sessions Chartwell seems to have been the only person that improvises; others seem to sing parts. I thought maybe it's not acceptable to just sing your head off, I thought, making it up as you go along. This sound is made of little regular repeated sounds like the making of a beehive or an ants nest. You can't just Nina Simone over it, but sometimes Chartwell does in a way that really really works.

They played a song I love and I Nina Simoned it a bit. By that point I was beyond caring whether it's allowed or not. Chartwell grins in the shadows and Nina Simone's along with me. I sing out. More of me revealed in this new community.

In singing and dancing it is hard to hide something that feels too potent for the everyday. Do we all feel this? Conversation can be safe but dance with someone and your raw soul is naked. Something in you is revealed that is usually only revealed in making love. Something wild and sensual and potent.

I see Denise dance. She is comfortable with letting this wild sensuality be seen, free, pretty free. It's wonderously beautiful. There are moments when she feels really free and the room gets hot; all the drummers, singers and players respond to her energy in kind and we raise the roof.

I would like to set this raw soul totally free.

This is a community of learning and teaching, people point out. We spend the days learning and teaching each other songs, and the evenings enjoying ourselves together. It's in our interest to help each other during the days, because the more that everyone can participate in the evening together, the more fun we all have. Chartwell has two roles: he teaches the songs patiently to a few people, who then spread them around the group, and he kicks off the evening playing and holds it together.

The evening (which is too dark to film or photograph) depends strongly on Chartwell and the core crew of old timers who keep the music thrusting on. It makes sense that in the community there are always old timers and newbies, elders and children. If there were a shortage of any group the community would be at risk.

Denise and I are sitting by the fire outside The Tent. We've been dancing. Free, free, beautiful wild dancing.

“I notice two freedoms in you,” I say. “You're free inside – you let your body do what it wants, what it loves – and you're free outside; you don't mind people watching you as you do that.”

She pauses for thought.

“I think, to see people go outside the normal bounds of behaviour is a blessing,” she says. “It's almost beyond whether what they're doing is 'good' or 'bad' – it's just so refreshing to see someone be honest and wild and free. It's a gift to let people see that.”

Later I'm chatting in the kitchen with Jenny and Gilbert.

“We normally behave within the bounds of our social norms because we're worried that people will think or say bad things about us if we go out of them," says Jenny. "And often, they do.” Jenny and I had had a wild dance together. For the rest of the evening people came up to each of us and said good things about it.

Communities rely on their social norms and police them actively with piss-taking, criticism, all that.
So what happens on a camp? Does a community form that has its own social norms? For me, it has been good to reveal more of myself in dance little by little, evening by evening. Each time a little praise afterwards tells me it's ok, encourages me towards freedom. Through praise, criticism, risk taking, stories and jokes, the community subtly sketches, agrees and reinforces it's own social norms and values. In this community, wild singing and dancing is ok.

But is looking stupid?

“I spend a lot of my time worrying about looking stupid,” said a man at dance camp, “and trying not to.”

People have been telling me that in Shona singing, ad libbing and Diva moments are fine. But hardly anyone does it. I point this out to Grace, an Mbira camp old-timer and beautiful singer. I like to sit in front of her in The Tent so I can hear her sing and gradually join in, following her lead.

The first time she really sang out over the noise it took my breath away. This was a Diva moment, though she was singing a part I think rather than totally making it up. I think I like Diva moments. Now and again.

“It's because people are shy I reckon,” she says. “It's totally encouraged to make it up.”

Next year I would like to do some workshops at Mbira camp in playful singing and vocal improvisation.
There's something... I still feel a sense of nervousness inside The Tent. I've literally tried to dance love into the tent, at least creating for myself a sense of it, to ease the nervousness into safety.

For this community, some games to make it ok to look silly in front of each other would be ace, I reckon. Games are the most effective way I've ever found to create that safety and freedom in a group. It's one thing to follow the parts and play the osho (shakers). It's another to license each other to really have a go at a bit of a yodel or freestyle osho, Mbira or wild dancing. Would some of the quality be lost then? Or would it be enriched? I think part of the nervousness is conscientiousness for the quality of the sound. People don't want to play around with it too much because they don't want to mess it up for everyone. I think that's good. And probably consistent with all types of music jamming. It's different with dance because if you look rubbish you don't mess it up for anyone else, but if you sound rubbish, actually you do.

So maybe the trick in music is to balance quality and conscientiousness with playfulness, deep safety and wild freedom.

That sounds like gold to me.

In the singing workshops I do with the fun fed, I've consistently found that non professional, non expert singers are amazing at making things up on the spot, totally coordinating with the other improvised sounds and together creating delicious and playful music.

We Can. Isn't that the slogan of some government sustainability campaign? Together We Can. Ha :)

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Hangy boingy things

In our new home I think we should have these from the ceiling

The original cast of Hair

“I'm Briony and I'm currently a nomad.”

I'm sitting in a broad circle of Californians. We've been asked to say our name, where we live and why we're here.

“I'm here because In April I got a new job, to conduct an experiential study of human fun and ecstasy.”

Gasps and ooos. Great job. Mumble mumble.

“What's happened in London is that our leisure and pleasure space has become really narrowed and is now mainly focused around alchol and quite passive ways of having fun - the cinema, the restaurant, the pub. I'm employed by a non-profit that is aiming to open up that space and bring in some of the richness that's still alive elsewhere. My job is to explore what else is going on, what's possible, and what we could be doing.”

The Californians erupt in spontaneous applause.

I've found myself at Esalen, a kind of Californian Findhorn, with the original cast of Hair.

Or maybe, the inspiration for Hair. About forty silver haired flower children have gathered for a Sufi Zhikr ritual, which involves repetitive breathing and movement exercises to live music, which, in a group over the course of an hour, is intended to produce the experience of 'Fana,' the Sufi term for ecstasy, also described as union with the divine, Nirvana, and annihilation.

“Fun? Ha! I know about that,” says the beautiful, silver haired Martine as we walk briskly up the hill towards the first meeting.

“I used to know a woman called Princess Funmaker. She had a baby with my husband about the same time I did, then disappeared into New Mexico. I haven't seen her since.”

New Mexico is pale desert territory of San Pedro cactus, hallucinogenic frogs and a higher than average density of shamans.

Later, Martine and I sit sciving together outside the workshop, talking about the '60s.

“It was so much fun!!”

“What kind of things did you do?”

She looked long into the distance, out across the sea. This place is luminous. I think it's because half of it is made of sea and sky.

“A lot of dancing and drumming. And singing. Dancing, drumming and singing. What more do you need?

“And Art Erruptions. My dear friend, now deceased, would say, 'right! We're meeting at 6am to paint the street! And we'd rush to gather paints and brushes and rags and a broom and we'd cluster bleary eyed the next morning, and sweep the street, and say, what shall we paint? The group mind would come up with something and it would grow and grow, and the cars would approach and say, 'oh, they're painting the street, we better go around,' and passers by would join in. We didn't have any permit or anything. Then a dog would run up. Shit! The dog's going to run over our painting! Everyone would go silent in horror and the little dog would run over the painting and its colourful little footprints would become like birds and butterflies around the picture and it was beautiful. You have to trust in the... the...”

“The Chaorder.”

“Yes! The chaorder. You have to trust the Chaorder.”

I like Martine.

* * *

This particular Zhikr became cool in 1960s New York through the influence of Sufi immigrants.

“We all went to Chille for a month,” a woman told me over lunch. “We practised every day and - ” she leaned over and lowered her voice, “we took a laat of acid.”

And Oscar would say, 'DON'T SLEEP WITH THE SUFIS!' And I was like, 'Oscar, Calm Down.' We were having sex with everybody else! What was the problem?”

The lunch assembly explains the Zhikr thing to me. Zhikr is the Sufi term for a practice or exercise that leads to Fana, aka ecstasy or divine union. Different Sufi orders are characterised by their particular Zhikrs. They're different, some are silent, others involve playing instrumental music, others involve whirling, and so on. There are perhaps a dozen different Zhikrs, someone says. I suspect there are more.

Wikipedia has it down as 'Dhikr' and says this:

Followers of Sufism engage in ritualized dhikr ceremonies, the details of which are the primary difference between Sufi orders or tariqah.[4]Each order or lineage within an order has one or more forms for group dhikr, the liturgy of which may include recitation,singing,instrumental music,dance, costumes, incense, meditation, ecstasy, and trance.[5] Dhikr in a group is not limited to these rules but most often done on Thursday and/or Sunday nights as part of the institutional practice of most orders.

"A group dhikr ceremony in Arabic countries is usually called the hadrah.

In Turkey the group ceremony is called Zikr-i Kiyam. The hadrah marks the climax of the Sufi's gathering regardless of any teaching or formal structure. Musically this structure includes several secular Arab genres and can last for hours.[6]"

I once did a very beautiful Sufi whirling workshop at Tribe of Doris, with the Coola Sheika as he became known. That kind of whirling was probably another Zhikr. The Sheikh would say profound things and then we'd get up and walk around in circles. It was a way of processing what he was saying, I guess. It was good. It gave it time to sink in. Robed musicians played elegant Sufi music and most people cried a lot. I cried my eyes out, got over my guilt about an old friend's recent suicide, and forgave my mother. Not bad for an hour and a half. I wouldn't exactly describe it as fun though.

This community practices the 'Arica' Zhikr, which is what we're doing all weekend. It has been developed and is kind of 'owned' by this guy,Oscar Ichazo, who picked it up from the Sufis in New York and, later, the Middle East. I wonder what Middle Easteners think of it. Everyone here is white.

For most people here, Zhikr has been their spiritual practice for many years, and this is their spiritual community. “I've done pretty much every recreational drug in the book,” one man tells me. “Nothing gets me as high as Zhikr.”

“The human body has everything it needs for ecstasy in it already,” says another. “Then it's a subtle art to reach it. But the idea that we need to take drugs to get there is a total scam.”

“It's a spiritual practice,” the drummer tells me. “It's not fun, it's work. You won't get there your first time. Some don't get there for years.”

I've just been scanning Zhikr and Dhikr videos on youtube. The closest thing I can find to what we did is this:

We did slightly different movements and formations, and no robes, but the qualities of choreography and repetitive movement, breaths, chanting and singing are the same.

It reminds me of the tribal war dances that Sabine Kuegler describes in her book Jungle Child, through which two tribes get into trance together prior to battle with bows and arrows. Repetition, rhythm, choreography, chant.

Honestly, the workshop isn't doing it for me. I realise a few things.

  1. There are some things that can produce ecstasy, but if they don't they're still really fun, like singing and dancing and making music. Then there are things that are designed to produce ecstasy and if you don't get there, they're just slightly strange things to do. I think that can be OK if it's a spiritual practice, but if it's not, it's just weird.
  2. A spiritual practice primarily provides a path for personal development towards a good life and away from suffering, and a community of deep shared interest and trust. In the name of that, you can happily do all manner of strange things. In my yoga community we take the action of the skin on the ankles terribly seriously. Crazy! Wonderful! For us. To outsiders? Crazy! I'm going to check this with the team but I'm pretty sure that the Fun Fed is not very interested in offering spiritual practices – unless play is a spiritual practice in itself?? - basically if you have to work at it for years to get the fun out of it, I think we're interested in things with a quicker payback.
  3. The Zhikr was a sombre ritual. There was nothing playful in it. At this stage of the research I think we can rule out sombre rituals because playfulness is such an essential quality of what we do. Something else to check with the team.
  4. I've discovered a curious thing in this and in a Quantum Light Breath workshop (where do they come up with these names?) at dance camp. I don't get off on inhalation-based practices. I'm asthmatic. It's pretty under control now but for a lot of my life it wasn't. There seems to be a kind of body memory of it. Repeated, sharp inhalations mean one thing to my fibres: an asthma attack. I don't like it. So while others are getting high, I'm wanting to slow my breathing down and, ideally, get the hell out of the situation. I'm not the right researcher for inhalation-based highs.
There are loads of videos of Dhkir (also written 'Zikir' and 'Zhikir') on youtube. It looks like in Sufism itself this is a deep, sombre and tender practice that is part of a broader spiritual framework with profound influence on the lives of participants.

Two themes are clear: repetition, and activities of group unity. These themes seem to come up again and again in ecstatic practice where the self dissolves into something like the divine.

One word for california


I lived in California for a year as a student.

These guys get naked at every conceivable opportunity.

We even had a naked olympics in the co-op I lived in where naked students raced each other around the block and stuff.

pic source 
I say this because I'm adding all the blog posts I wrote offline, 'in the field', and looking at them all together everyone seems to be naked all the time...



Solstice ritual

The night is full of a million stars. Last night was the summer solstice. We had a ritual and it made my cry. They put all of the fathers in the middle and cheered them and I imagined my father in the middle with them and wept with a kind of love and grief for all these amazing community things that I do with strangers and never with my own friends and family, and my parents friends, the people who have been my elders all my life. I long for a consistency of community and flit about like a fly. One day I want to do things like this in a real community that I stay in and burrow into and feed and feed from for years and years.

A man who came to dance camp 7 years ago after being in jail stood in the circle and said amazing things about what a mess he felt back then and how much he feels that he belongs now, and the 'healing' that he's experienced in this community.

The whole ritual was about values. It was great. Volunteers had prepared together during the afternoon, selected the community's top 8 values, and people came forward and did something in or with the circle for each value. Then we paraded noisly and irrevenerntly down to a big fire. Everyone had something to make noise with. I had a plastic bottle filled with grain. Great rattler. We circled the fire. The drummers were men. I was one of the dancers. Woman. Women. One woman was bear breasted, another in an orange fishnet catsuit with tiny orange g-string beneath. Loads of us wiggled, stomped on our bare feet, writhed on our bare knees, to the pound of the drums in the in the heat and light of the fire. I finally understood the point of didgeredoos. They create a powerful deep earth sound in ritual and it calls to the guts and the wildness in you.

After a couple of hours the wildness calmed to sitting around the fire with people stepping on the stone and telling moving stories about their lives and thoughts. We sang and finally put the fire out and went up to the lush carpeted Nirvana Cabana where gorgeous Californians were contact improvising sensuously around one another. I collapsed in the corner cushions with my friends, tired cudly, giggly allies. Gradually we began to dance, rolling slowly and lazily around one another on the soft dance floor. A bunch of people doing something very similar rolled into us and we ended up in a pile of 6 and then 7 people all lying on top of one another for ages and ages, stroking (non sexually) and uming and ahing and giggling and playing the Wow game where you all point at someone's chin / hands / hair / elbows and say Wow! And come up for a reason why it's great and the whole thing was very Californian but also, delightful.

The Yum Session

This was an ecstatic dance session at Dance Camp, facilitated very elegantly by Philip Novotny. Not better than our own ecstatic dance star, Jewls, but different, and equally wonderful.

Filming and photography was allowed in the middle section, so I've got no documentation of the beautiful warm up and cool down. Here's what I sketched in my notebook.

1. warm up dance

2. gender polarity - women to the soft-floored space. men to the music (hard dance floor).

live music.

facilitator says:

"take a stroll, see who's there. Saying hello to our tribe. Invite a practice of noticing how we invite connection with another. Duo, trio, quartet. How do we invite without words, through gesture, through mimicking, through passing in adjacency. Allow yourself to choose or be chosen. Notice how we say yes, how we suggest. Relaxing into the not knowing. If you haven't switched partners yet, explore that. How do we transition out of connection? How do we invite someone new? Notice how effective a pause is, how light we can touch as we suggest and invite."

giving interactive dance skills. great emphasis - notice, explore, invite

the small boys watch the men dance. this is feeding their understanding of masculinity, their comfort zones and boundaries for their own behaviour and identity

It's important for them to be able to see this.

Somehow watching the men dance together moves me to tears.

It's amazing how the women touch one another. They're wiggly and caress

the men are more straight and strong. They lift each other.

The men are half playfighting, half dancing.

Two women stand amid all the movement massaging one another's necks and grinning sublimely.

this has got to be one of the most beautiful things i've ever seen

somehow this space seems to hold it all, the LA divas, the gender queer bisexual stomper, the masculine men, the feminine men, old, young, mostly slenderish, attractive

(eye contact is really scary if you don't feel good about your face)

they joy on everyone's faces is clear to behold

After filming, I sit next to Steve on the edge of the dance floor. He's a 40-something man weighing maybe 18 stone, maybe 20. I ask him what he thinks about this.

"Ecstatic dance?" Pause. "Life doesn't get much better than this. This makes my soul feel alive again."

Naomi comes up to me. She's a pretty blonde woman in her late 30s, and she's been dancing most of the session. "I just love your smile!" she says. "It's so angelic!" I thank her warmly. "I get a bit intimidated by all this eye contact," I say. "Hearing things like that really helps."

I ask her about coming to dance camp.

"I came by accident for the first time last year. It pulled me in! I feel so much joy here. I have two metal rods in my back. I realised that my perceived limitations were just that - perceptions. It's been amazing to find out what my body can really do and feel."

I ask her about the metal. She turns around and lifts her shirt. A scar traces the full length of her spine.

The warm down is soft and slow and gentle and the group end draped over one another in pairs and piles and stillness.

Then when it's really over about half the group - oldies and youngens all - strip naked and run into the lake under the glorious midday sun.

Contact Improvisation

Contact improvisation is one of those things that looks weird and feels great. It's my latest discovery and it totally, totally rocks. In a group, it's a bit like an orgy with clothes on, and no kissing or contact with private parts – apart from indirectly. Individually, well, it's a bit like sex with the same differences. It feels awesome. You can get carried away. It looks incredibly beautiful when done well, bloody weird by amateurs.

The most fun class I did was for complete beginners. We heafty overweigh folks rolled around and collapsed on one another in fits of uncontrollable laughter. The facilitator kind of walked around in circles helplessly as we just took it and... rolled with it :)

Naked writhing people

"Briony, there are people up there doing a lot of writhing around each other... and are those people down by the lake all naked?"

Nicole, my old room mate from Berkeley, has come to pick me up from dance camp in her Dad's car. It has this bumper sticker.

Nicole's not very used to things like dance camp.

It's really hot. We strip off and have a swim in the lake. "This is really fun!!" squeals naked Nicole. We dry off and dress and have a hoola-off.  Nic's quite a pro. I learnt to hoola last night and I'm very excited about it. It's very fun, very sexy, and I finally understand how all those hippy hoola girls get such flat tummies.

I'm writing this in the room in her parent's house I'm sleeping in tonight. It has four guns in it. One is a sawn off shotgun. I've never slept in a room with guns in before.

Ok, enough on guns, here's the scoop on Northern California Dance Collective Summer Camp. 

The best things of all were:

the Yum Session with Philip Novotny

Contact Improvisation with Aaron Jessup

and the summer solstice ritual.

Apart from that there are just a couple of other things to say:

1. Everybody here is beautiful. It's weird and not weird. We have to look each other in the eyes a lot. I find it really challenging. It is like people are scanning your being. Argh you have to feel positive enough about yourself to take it. There is a lot of touch. It's pretty much the friendliest community I think I've ever been in. I think there must be a relationship between that friendliness and the intimacy created in the community by how much people dance together.

2. We did a great thing with the kids in the opening circle. All the children and teenagers went into the middle of big circle of maybe 200 adults, who created a rhythm for them by slapping the floor, clapping our hands, and making vocal noises, leading to a cheer. Moved me moved me moved my little heart it did, how fantastic to show our young people that they are at the centre, they come first, we value them like crazy. Then they were taken off to do cool stuff while we all heard about rattle snakes, bears, mobile phone usage and the nudity policy.

3. The blessings for dinner are ace. All the chefs, helpers and first round of eaters stand hand in hand around the big table. Thanks are given for everyone's imput, followed by the chant of three Yums. Hurrah.

4. This community has totally different norms around touch than my culture and anywhere else I've been. But then again, India has different norms around touch to the UK, as does Morocco, which is different to India, and so on. So norms around touch are culturally specific, and it bends your head a little to adapt to different norms. "What are the rules around touch?" Says the beautiful Taylor in the dinner queue. "For me, all my life it's been, only people who I love can touch me. That's it. Here you have to throw that rule out! You have to create a whole new set of rules and it's confusing!" Too right. It's confusing for me and I periodically have to go and be on my own where No-one Can Touch Me. And then I go and jump back in the pile and I'm starting to like it...

5. Everyone here dances all the time. It's like how we communicate. It's really wonderful and a bit weird all at the same time.

Overall that's my headline for the day. Wonderful and weird. Weird and wonderful. Northern Californian Touch-a-lot-boobs-out-eye-contact-cuddle-me Dance Camp. Goodnight :)


So, there are a few things to say about Harbin Hot Springs.

… how beautiful it is to see men dance.

I was too tired to get into dancing on tuesday night so I crouched and watched. Really masculine men were dancing. It struck me because in the UK, male dancing in any kind of free expressive way is kind of gay. Not here. It was just beautiful.

The thing that blew me away was the contact improv that two couples were doing. What a thing to see. Here were people even more in their bodies than me, tumbling over and around each other, playing with their weight and creativity and sillyness and instincts. Beautiful. Beautiful. A joy to behold.

… the thrill I get being naked outdoors.

Enough said.

… Watsu

Harbin Hot Spings has lots of pools of special, hot natural mineral water that's very buoyant and is supposed to have healing properties.

In the lower pools naked people are doing informal watsu – a kind of shiatsu in water – to each other all the time. To get a proper one you walk 25 minutes up the wild hills to the domes – a series of out-of-this-world round white buildings connected in a circle by something that looks a bit like water or tree root. Within the circle of buildings was a pool containing the definition of tranquility the evening I entered. Three naked watsu practitioners held three naked adult babies in their arms, eyes closed, limp and surrendered, their limbs being moved gently through the water, the epitome of trust, vulnerability and tenderness. Lara and I tiptoed round to the grass, and sat whispering until it was my turn. Then she left.
I met my watsu man, a 30-something block of groundedness with broad hairy chest. He prepared me a bit in talking. Are you comfortable to be naked? Are you comfortable for me to be naked? Do you have any intention? No is a fine answer. Anything you don't like, too hard, not comfortable, tell me. Here we go. I removed my clothes and followed him into the warm, buoyant water. He took my wrist, pulled me softly towards him and I was, for the next hour, in his bare hands.

There's nothing to do in that situation but surrender.

I was naked in his naked tender care. I was stretched around, lifted up, twisted, massaged, suspended in stillness, held tight to him, cradled in his arms. It was delicious. As a playful delicious exercise in trust and tenderness between two people, especially if they were lovers, it's hard to beat (short of love making itself).

I'm going to see what the team think about having a pool in our home that we can jump into after hot dancing sessions, laze around in on hot days, and warm up and run playful watsu classes for couples in bathing suits in.

I'm not sure about Watsu as a practitioner / client setup: for me, the lines between massage, sensuality and sexuality were too blurred. Harbin has been running a very successful trade in naked Watsu for something like 30 years and for liberated Californians, it's a total hit. So I'm a stuffy Brit. I think that stuff is for the context of a loving relationship, or something that is on it's way to becoming one.