Shake it out

Teetotal Lucy Fry discovers the healing power of dance…


It is 9am on a Saturday morning when I walk onto the dance floor at my first ever sober rave. Immediately I feel my body stiffen with dread and self-doubt: Why did I come here? I think. Whilst I do have some early childhood memories of boogieing freely around the living room, somewhere around aged eight I learnt to worry too much what others thought. I become overly concerned with how I was perceived and whether I might look either silly or ungainly. Then, throughout my teens and twenties my sense of being monitored by an invisible camera (my inner critic and persecutor) worsened until, here I am, a thirty-five year old teetotaller who wants to break through self-consciousness to something more instinctive, more carefree.

But is such a feat possible, I wonder, particularly without any alcohol or drugs? All around me the crowd is jiggling legs and arms and raising celebratory fingers, strutting their sober stuff. I begin to sway and then to bounce, as the DJ spins track after track. These people are really, ecstatically awake, I notice, and most are also smiling, displaying that kind of pure in-the-moment joy that music can bring. Slowly, slowly, I feel something inside me shift. After half an hour I notice more emptiness between thoughts, allowing me the chance to pay attention to my skin as I clamber inside and start to properly inhabit my body for the first time today.

Yes, I remember: I can dance. I can let go. And what’s more, I don’t need booze or drugs to do it.

When have I felt like this before? I wonder, remembering a huge dance tent (and a 20-hour bender) somewhere in South London about seven years previously. Though I feel a similar sense of freedom here this morning, there is one all-important difference: apart from my morning caffeine fix, there’s not a mind-altering substance in sight. Another tune arrives, this time with a bongo drum and I start grinning. I’m surrounded by individuals – happy legs and arms flailing this way and that. Suddenly my shoulders drop, my hips loosen and my middle back – usually so tense and fraught with responsibility and guilt – starts to unfreeze. Yes, I remember: I can dance. I can let go. And what’s more, I don’t need booze or drugs to do it.

Two hours afterwards, dripping in sweat and with a jaw that aches from smiling, I leave the party and head home. My body feels light and I’m positively euphoric, not just from the endorphins that come from almost three hours of dancing but also about having broken through a physical, mental and emotional block. The trees stand out a little brighter against the sky; I feel more connected and alive. A swathe of gratitude moves across my heart as I stop and look around a moment, noticing the freshness of the autumn air as it slides up my nose.

I felt like something important has been unlocked, something from my past that had got stuck.

Perhaps inevitably, over the next few days some of the tension and self consciousness returns (that’s life, after all) and yet a part of me has changed irrevocably and for the better. Firstly, I’ve finally proved to myself that the alcohol I’d felt I needed for some fifteen years to give me confidence and rhythm had in fact been muting everything all along. Secondly, I felt like something important has been unlocked, something from my past that had got stuck. Dancing (and movement in general) can be more than just catharsis, after all – more than just getting something out and expressing it in the body. It can facilitate a healing process too, insists Dance Movement Psychotherapist Kate Snowden, who has worked with survivors of sexual abuse and sex trafficking as well as eating disorder sufferers. “Processing trauma via ignoring the body [ie. just talking with no attention to the body] never works,” she says. “There’s a wealth of untapped knowledge there – our bodies, minds and emotions are meant to work together in order to help us cope with life. If you take one out of the frame – stop listening to the body and letting it process – then often the brain works too hard because you’re not connecting with your feelings and that can leave you quite ungrounded.”

This is certainly my experience. In my case there was a stiffness (and a stuck-ness), probably acquired in my younger years, whose weight I hadn’t truly acknowledged until I began to shake it off. Thanks to regular positive embodied experiences at sober raves and 5 Rhythms classes I’ve shed more and more layers of self-doubt, fear and worry. Without a regular practice though (much like yoga) some of the old self-doubt creeps back. I know now that I need frequent opportunities to reacquaint myself with my body via music and movement, preferably around others but not necessarily… These days I’ve been known to shimmy out anger and anxiety (frightening off the cats) in my office at home.

Ironically, for something that involves near-continual movement, dancing helps me ground myself and stabilise. After activity comes a kind of stillness. It’s similar, and yet also different, from the endorphin rush and ensuing calm we feel after an intense gym workout. It’s more instinctual too, requiring one to tune in to the body’s wishes rather than to have the mind dictate its movements (according to a gym programme or the rules of a particular sport). Dancing, much like sex, is simultaneously all the more intense (and thus all the more powerful) when done sober. That doesn’t meant it’s always easy though; apart from those few natural exhibitionists and performers we all know, most people tend to worry about looking or feeling silly when they first start to shuffle about to music. But trust me: it is worth it. There’s something profoundly liberating about releasing oneself from the need to think – about having the experience, however fleeting, of being so wholly in one’s body that the mind is able to take a breather. In this way dancing sober can be a kind of moving meditation, a chance to step away from worries and to-do lists without having any real purpose except to move. And those people who, like me, tend to wince at the very thought? They’re exactly the ones who need it.



5 Rhythms
This dynamic movement practice is somewhere between ‘conscious clubbing’ and ‘therapeutic dance’. Founded in New York in late 1970s, 5 Rhythms was developed by Gabrielle Roth and is now taught in 53 countries worldwide.

Morning Gloryville
This sober morning rave turns the clubbing culture up-side down with coffee, massage, juices and top DJs in various destinations around the globe including London, Manchester, New York, Melbourne and in other parts of Europe.

Brighton Dance Flash Mobs
If you’re more of a Macarena or Greased Lightening kind of dancer then Brighton Dance Flash Mobs is just the ticket (although you don’t need one, it’s free). Professional choreographers and strong community feel, all standards welcome.


First appeared in Psychologies Magazine.

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