I must be out of my mind. That’s the thought that rattled around the cranium as I flung it from side to side in a dark candle-lit village church hall last Saturday. Was I in the throes of spirit possession? Was I about to start talking in tongues or spewing ectoplasm? Nope: I was at ‘barefoot boogie’, the local variant of ‘5rhythms dance’ dreamt up by the American dancer Gabrielle Roth in San Francisco in the late 1970s. With that kind of genesis it involves, as you can imagine, a fair bit of incense, tea lights, and flowers (metaphorical or literal, we don’t mind) in your hair.
The soundtrack is designed to evoke five moods: flow, staccato, chaos, lyrical and finally stillness. It’s meditation with movement – or as a friend of mine calls it ‘sweatidation.’ There are ‘5rhythms’ trance-outs all over the place, once you know where to look. Here’s one man’s experience in Tufnell Park, London. “Regulars are arriving, and giving each other long hugs. They emerge from the rain wrapped up like Antarctic explorers and strip off to yoga pants and tiny man-shorts. One bony old man in is already leaping around the floor, like a geriatric jester. I stand at the side of the hall trying to look groovy.”
Once the music starts, though, his inhibitions start to drop away. “I remember how much I enjoyed clubbing, that moment when a good tune comes on and you look around at a dance floor filled with beaming, happy people really loving it, sharing it. You felt briefly transformed into a single organism, like coral, as the wave of the beat washed over us.”
The polyp in question is one Jules Evans, Policy Director at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary College, London. (How’s cool is that? I wonder if I should send them my CV. See all these emotions I have had: despair, giggliness, nostalgia, hope, schadenfreude, glee, boredom – and that’s just since this morning.)
Evans describes himself as a recovering Stoic – he was so into the Ancient Greek philosophy he even had the word tattooed on his shoulder. But he found that ultimately, the Stoics missed out a whole chunk of what makes being human so fun – those moments of “ecstatic surrender” that come with sex, drugs, meditation, dancing, art, literature and rock’n’roll. “As an introverted, cerebral, bachelor academic,” he explains at the outset of his new book, “I wanted to loosen up and learn to let go.” Evans set out to explore all kinds of ecstatic ego-transcendence – stripping off for a Tantric love festival in Dorset; going on a pilgrimage to Nashville, Tennesee, to hear the Reverend Al Green sing; putting himself through the spiritual boot-camp of a ten-day long silent Vipassana meditation retreat; joining a charismatic Christian church for a while; and interviewing people from Philip Pullman and David Byrne to the celebrity hypnotist Derren Brown about their “preferred routes to ego-loss.” The result is a fascinating and highly entertaining read called The Art of Losing Control.
The book, explains Evans (clearly having a lot of fun) is set out like a festival. Each chapter is a tent or area, which we are invited to drop into and mooch around in, checking out the vibe. Wander from ‘Ecstatic Cinema’ to the Rock and Roll Main Stage’ and from there to explore the psychotropic substances being handed round in the ‘psychedelic wonderland’. If you’re feeling a little spaced out by then, head to the ‘contemplation zone’, to do a bit of mindfulness-based-stress-reduction, or out into the natural world to lose yourself in nature – or strap on a headset to enter the techno-zone where you can experience the most vivid out-of the-body experiences at the touch of a button, or sweep of a mouse.
I just wanted to let my hair down. And so I did. In a church hall full of fellow aging hippies with a penchant for incense and a soft spot for yoga. The great thing about being short-sighted and long-haired is, if you take off your glasses and untie your ponytail, it’s like no one can see you at all! Terrifically liberating. The whole ‘dance like no one’s watching’ vibe is so much easier to access, when you can’t actually see a sausage yourself.
With his easy and self-deprecating demeanour, Evans is a congenial guide on this trip around trippiness – which is not without its startling, challenging and moving moments. At one point, he will be compare and contrast the relative merits of Zumba vs the catharsis of blood-sacrifice. At another, he’ll be talking about near-death experiences and sharing some hair- and consciousness-raising moments of his own. I am far more of a wimp than Evans, and I take my hat off to his willingness to explore the outer limits of the human experience, and thank him for reporting back to base camp with most of his limbs intact, so that I don’t have to.
First published in The Hindu Business Line supplement, March 25