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Byron Shire
January 29, 2023

Collective effervescence on the dance floor

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In the months after the flood, with Mullumbimby rattled and reeling, I started dancing on Friday nights. The ritual is now firmly entrenched and will not be easily abandoned.

Dance is a pure form of celebration and I attended that first dance with a certain reluctance, given the distress around town. But that night I experienced a joyous abandon totally at odds with the difficulties of the previous months and rode home flooded with a profound sense of wellbeing. And there was this unexpected and rather intense sense of connection to my fellow dancers.

Communities have engaged in ritual dance ceremonies and celebrations since the dawn of time. When, in the early twentieth century, pioneering French sociologist Émile Durkheim wrote about ‘collective effervescence’, he was describing the energy and sense of harmony people experience when they gather around a shared purpose. 

Durkheim was not referring specifically to dance; however, the very nature of dance enhances the effect. Synchronisation blurs the perception of ‘self’ and ‘other’, while exertion releases endorphins, whose analgesic and reward-inducing qualities are thought to be at the root of social bonding.

Collective effervescence was conspicuously absent from many people’s lives during the COVID lockdowns. Emotions are the glue of solidarity and are, like viruses, socially contagious. The intense shared experience of merging with a group’s flow and becoming part of a seamlessly intermingling mass of bodies on a dance floor, leads to changes in brain chemistry producing potent emotional states. The result is euphoria or even ecstasy.

The word ecstasy derives from the Greek ekstasis, meaning standing outside oneself, or the mind or body removed from its proper place. It is used to describe an overwhelming feeling of happiness; or a frenzied experience of mystical self-transcendence; or a party drug associated with the dance scene whose active ingredient, MDMA, is a powerful euphoriant. 

A chance to surrender

The dance I attend is called Ecstatic Dance. It aspires to be drug and alcohol free, although I am uncertain how fully this aim is realised. According to the blurb, ‘we dance as we are. No Drugs/Alcohol, No Phones, etc.’ It is a ‘freeform movement journey, held in a safe and sacred container.’ A live DJ supplies electronic dance music. The idea is abandonment – to surrender to the beat and give oneself over to the moment, removing the mind from its ‘proper place’ as dictated by society.

Ecstatic Dance (in capitals) is in the lineage of ‘conscious’ dance practices and is related to 5Rhythms, a trademarked meditative ‘dynamic movement practice’ founded in the 1970s that draws upon the ancient tradition of (lower case) ecstatic dance, such as practised by Sufis, shamans, and their ilk.  

The dancers on Friday nights are a diverse crowd but certain trends are clear: the large millennial cohort, abundant yoga practitioners, and a marked tendency to dress in active wear. There are some familiar faces, yet the crowd is largely alien to me. Nevertheless, after dance I buzz with kindly feelings towards all fellow humans – an odd sensation for an avowed misanthrope – and wake on Saturday mornings bone tired, feeling calm and enchanted.  

I suspect collective effervescence is at play here. Which got me thinking about another notable dynamic – namely, the way our community, which was divided, quite bitterly at times, by discordant attitudes towards COVID mandates and masks, suddenly united as we gathered together in response to the floods. 

Durkheim was preoccupied with how societies maintain their integrity and coherence and came to the view that collective effervescence played a key role in fostering social solidarity. He developed the idea after studying the reunification of Aboriginal tribes at corroboree, observing how ‘a sort of electricity is formed by their collecting which quickly transports them to an extraordinary degree of exaltation’.   

I remember with great fondness how Mullumbimby would pulse with joy during the Mullum Music Festival and reckon a little part of town died when the festival went into hiatus in 2019. The sublime live performances and unrestrained dancing throughout town made the festival, in my view, the cultural highlight of the year. Perhaps the main appeal was how one could naked dance in the street without being regarded as drug addled or otherwise mentally deranged. 

We should probably not hold our collective breath awaiting the Mullum Music Festival’s return. But we can be grateful for the plentiful opportunities to gather together and express ourselves in dance. I’d prefer to dance in the street like some lunatic but if I have to do it in a sacred container, then that’s okay too. 

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