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Dance Medicine and Witchy Art Activism - and it’s only January

Updated: Jan 29, 2021

Two weeks ago I found myself in a little church hall in Bronte, with twenty strangers, at a Visioning Dance, where I danced (off and on) for six hours. At the end of the dance we made personal mandalas from leaves, rocks and shells. What might sound like a nightmare to some turned out to be the perfect medicine I needed to shake me out of my post-new-year funk. Shaken loose by the dance, was fun enough, but the ideas that landed on my shoulder and whispered in my ear, might just change my life. They have nudged me into writing six hours a day for a start, with new clarity, vim and vigour - and to think I was so close to not going to the dance at all.

The new year had started well, like a summer dream. I was at a friend’s beach house down the coast, brimming with hopes and dreams for 2021 that lit me with delight. Lazy days, ocean swimming, easy meals and great company - life was good. While there, we attended a beautiful ceremony to remember the anniversary of the day the bushfires decimated the local forests and wildlife, and traumatised the community, some who had been badly burned, many who had run into the water for refuge. This is the community that rallied together to fight for their last remnant of unburnt forest in the Manyana Matters campaign, and they're still fighting. Their stories and the reminder of all the trees and animals that had perished seeded a germ of grief within me.

Back at home I was puzzled by the slowness of bookings for our next retreat, Wild Writing, with the renowned Nature Writer, Inga Simpson. Nature Writing is rising under the impetus of our collective environmental angst to be a genre of great importance, and in March we will finally have the first Australian dedicated Nature Writing Journal, Wonderground. Given that we are in the grip of so many ecological challenges, why aren't we flocking to Nature Writing in droves? Soon my inspiring hopes and dreams for 2021 morphed into waves of discontent and an underlying grief that, on reflection, seemed to be about the enormity of global environmental- COVID -political -injustice and my own impotency to take any action of consequence. Then, as if by magic, I came face to face (literally and metaphorically) with two surprising antidotes, and Wild Writing was almost sold out, all within the space of a week.

I was at a secluded waterhole, enjoying a dip in a cool dark billabong, when Sara Jane turned up with her little girls in tow. Did you get my invite, she asked, are you coming to the dance? I’d been vigorously ignoring her invitation to the New Year Visioning Dance that had appeared in my inbox some days earlier. Dancing was the furthest thing on my mind. And what was a visioning dance anyway? I preferred to stay safely inside my paralysing malaise, and yet here she was, with an invitation in real life that was impossible to ignore. All I could do was heave a sigh and say, Maybe I should. The odds of Sara Jane turning up at the exact same time as me were even more remote than this waterhole, so I took it as a sign and booked my spot.

I kind of knew what was in store, but not really, and it had been decades since I’d danced for six hours. Dance-medicine might be good for me, I’d thought, but in my current mood, I’d rather not. For most of the past twelve months, COVID permitting, I’ve been inviting groups of women to come to Springfield to dance once a month, at Full Moon or New Moon. Our dance is a dynamic form of meditation that gets us out of our heads and into our bodies - to stop thinking and to move, feeling whatever it is that the body is feeling, tuning into it, then letting it go.

In my youth I’d been a passionate dancer, first as a ballerina, then later as a Tasmanian teenager at our favourite pub, Man at the Wheel, dancing in a trance to the hippy-tunes of my house mates, the folk band, Dingo Rose. My pilgrimage to pop-art-inspired Limbo in Adelaide, in my early twenties, was a delicious weekly fix of fun music and exuberant dancing. Sydney, when I first found myself in Peter’s arms asking, Who exactly is leading this dance? was a far more sophisticated world of corporate Balls, ballgowns and live bands.

Dancing into my thirties was a different gig, a mixture of The Wiggles and Playschool in Sydney, Wiggleworms at the Old Town Folk School in Chicago, and clubbing at Zouk in Singapore. Dancing dwindled out of my life in my forties, except for the tail end of dinner parties, but if dancing was infrequent in my forties, by the time I hit fifty, it was in the grip of drought - until we moved to Bali. While I was not game to abandon myself to the rhythm of Ecstatic Dance on Sunday’s at The Yoga Barn in Ubud, I became a fan of 5Rythyms and began to incorporate dance into my Inner Landscaping groups. A beautiful French dancer named Sophie was a highlight for each group, her grace almost eclipsed by her skill as a DJ. So, for the first time in too many years I was dancing as if no one was watching, and I didn’t want to stop.

My Bali dancing experience, aside from being great fun, was a divine release and a great way to tune in to how I was really feeling, underneath the layers of appropriate and expected appearances. Normally, dancing in broad daylight sans alcohol would be mortifying and I’d stand frozen, twitching with self consciousness, self judgement and fear. I had, however, recently experienced dancing on a different level when days before my mother died, she suddenly sat bolt upright in bed and announced, Right, it's time to do the music for my funeral, and so we did. One of the chosen songs was Cosmic Dancer by T-Rex.

I was dancing when I was twelve

I was dancing when I was out

I was dancing when I was out

I danced myself right out the womb

I danced myself right out the womb

Is it strange to dance so soon?

I danced myself right out the womb

I was dancing when I was eight

I was dancing when I was eight

Is it strange to dance so late?

Is it strange to dance so late?

I danced myself into the tomb

I danced myself into the tomb

Is it strange to dance so soon?

I danced myself into the tomb

Is it wrong to understand

The fear that dwells inside a man?

What's it like to be alone

I liken it to a balloon

I danced…

Dance was my mother’s parting gift to me. My niece, Jie Chen, danced to Cosmic Dancer at Mum’s funeral, and afterwards the music became the primary vehicle for my grief. I’ve lost count of how many times I have danced, sobbing to this song, so I know first hand that there is a mysterious alchemy that happens when you mix emotion, movement and music. Now, whenever I feel stuck and stiff in my life, I dance. I dance because I'm alive and therefore I can, and because every time I do it transports me inwards to the real me. It is not always pretty, I don’t dance for show. I dance to bring the inside out, to make the invisible visible, and sometimes what comes to light is hard to look at. Then the magic happens and, despite appearances, by the end of the dance it feels like pure joy.

Bali to Bowral is not a common trajectory, unlike Bali to Byron, but beneath the frosty and proper facade there is a rich and pulsing layer of artists in the Highlands. So, it was a great delight to find Sara Jane who now comes regularly to Springfield with her giant speakers and awesome soundtracks to guide us in our Moon dances. Sometimes, on the dates we’ve booked I don’t feel like dancing, or don’t have the energy, but when you are the host you can’t just not turn up, and so I do and I’m always rewarded. One time, last winter, in a mad moment, when I heard the super-moon would be huge in the sky, I decided to take the dance outside and we danced around the fire-pit, in the middle of an open field. That morning I woke, paralysed with anxiety - what was I thinking? The idea of dancing, exposed in an open space, sans alcohol (again) and around a fire suddenly seemed totally ridiculous. Not surprisingly I had a few apologies during the day from people who must have woken in the same state as I had, who’d remembered why they couldn't come.

Our small group of six brave women started dancing tentatively. The sunset glowed pink and orange, ablaze across the western sky as a silver haze grew in the east. At first I felt nervous and hesitant, moving with forced uncoordinated jerks, but then one of our group pointed silently to the moon, a glorious orb rising behind the silver birch trees, perfectly balancing the vision of the sunset. Something happened then, I can’t exactly explain. Perhaps it was Luna, the ancient Goddess of the moon, inviting us to dance, or maybe it was some archaic memory we share about dancing around a fire, who knows? Suddenly, I felt free and very, very naughty, and I flailed about blissfully, aware that I was breaking a taboo. Barely sparing a thought to wonder if Peter was peering out from behind the curtains, an idea rose up, and became an impulse to call out (but I don't think I said it aloud?) We don't need to hide in the forest to dance around a fire any more, we can come out into the open!

Witches, I am noticing, are appearing in increasing numbers on the edge of the zeitgeist. Perhaps this because of a need for a more feminine approach to our relationship with nature - the need to live in harmony with, rather than at war with nature? Or, maybe it's a growing hunger for cultural stories about enchantment, mystery and magic, instead of war, crime and heroes? Pre-Covid I considered running a Green Witch retreat, about learning to use herbs for health and healing. When I think about witches, I don't think about ugly old women who eat sweet and tender little child-morsels, I think about women who are tuned in to the healing throb of nature in ways that are almost lost and forgotten. Almost, but not quite. Thankfully there are enough wisdom-holders left who can still teach us about plants, the power of the moon, and other such witchy things. One of my dreams is to invite women who know such ancient plant secrets, to come to Springfield to join our own local knowledge-holders for a Green Witch retreat - so watch this space!

Like shamans, witches are often edge dwellers, with one foot in the 'village' and one foot firmly planted in that wild, deep dark space where creativity comes from. The darkness that cloaks witches in our mainstream culture is often a bad darkness, but the wild, deep dark space of creativity isn't bad-dark it is dark because it it deep and it's not easy to get to. It can feel scary because at times it might feel like being lost in the dark. The wild, deep dark place of creativity is potent, not easy to control and unpredictable so it's not hard to see why witches, activists and artists are the first to be rounded up in times when regimes topple. They are seen as a danger because of their power to conjure up change by opening our eyes and touching our hearts and souls. In these times when the status quo is crumbling we intuitively turn to those who can help us dream, heal and manifest a new vision. Artists are our avant-garde of cultural change, our frontline pushing the boundaries of the status quo. Now, more than ever we need to support and look to our artists and activists to call out our dreams and our fears, to experiment, innovate, and to shine the light at the end of the tunnel. Artists are creative - they create - and in doing so they show us that it is possible to create what isn't real yet, but could be.

My second January surprise was meeting the Dirt Witches, a collective of environmental activists who rise up to stand against systemic environmental destruction. Art as activism is at the core of the Dirt Witches work. The group has grown organically to include fifty or more women artists, scholars, poets, curators, horticulturalists, beekeepers and writers answering the call for care and connection in a world that desperately needs a spotlight shone on our beleaguered environment.

Two recent Dirt Witch projects, include the Barlow Street Forest - an installation of critically endangered plant species in a micro-forest in a laneway in Sydney’s CBD - and a performance at Sydney Festival’s Requiem, in The Reservoir in Paddington. In Requiem Janet Laurence curated an experience that wove together “visual art, music, poetry, performance, literature, science, philosophy and environmental advocacy to craft a time-space for us to lament and be present to the reality of the loss.”

As a newbie Dirt Witch it was a great honour and thrill to participate in their “contemporary environmental incantation in memory of the bushfires”. This time, instead of dancing around a fire, we chanted (socially distanced) around a pile of blackened logs and sticks painted with white words that spoke to the destruction; cindered, stricken, lost, ashen, lament...

It is only January 28th as I write, and already my yearning for more fun in 2021, together with ways to defeat the looming dread of global concerns has been met with this heady mix of activism, dance and chanting - all totally unplanned surprises. My experience tells me that doing what little I can, where I am, with what I have is enough to keep the dementors at bay. Doing nothing, for me, is the dementor. So, thank you Dirt Witches, I can’t wait to conjure up more art as activism with you soon.

Clearly, January is also good for ranting, so if you’re still reading you deserve a prize and are about to be rewarded with a recipe for a DOSE of bliss.

And, if you need more evidence to convince you to kick off your shoes and hit the dance floor, science can help to explain why dancing can chase away any residual dementors lurking in your peripheral vision. So, go to town on Google (while we still can) and you’ll find plenty of supporting research. For example, as if we didn't already know, a recent report from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) explains that dancing is good for your brain, and according to Radha Agrawal who coined the term DOSE (dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins) dancing is the “the most healing modality on the planet”. Low frequency chanting too, according to Dr Amit Ray, generates the same four DOSE hormones.

While we may not be free to dance, sing, or chant OM in group gatherings in real life, no one can stop me dancing, singing and chanting in my own living room or paddock. So, bring it on 2021, and as Bowie says, Let’s Dance!

x Kinchem

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