"Because I write about love, a lot of people seem to think I'm just writing about girls, but it's much deeper than that. The phrase 'Holding On' comes from the Church. It means, before you give up on anything, especially when you know you're right, you should just Hold On, because then you're guaranteeing yourself the chance that something might come of it."
-Michael Watford, house vocalist, on the secularization of gospel quotes in house lyrics without relinquishing their spirituality. Frank Tope, "Holding On" (DJ, February, 1994), p. 26.
"Sometimes before falling the hypnotized subject runs wildly around the circle or out over the prairie... In many instances the hypnotized person spins around for a few minutes at a time like a dervish, or whirls the arms with apparently impossible speed, or assumes and retains until the final fall most uncomfortable positions which it would be impossible to keep for any length of time under normal circumstances."
- Description of the trance-like state achieved by Plains Indians doing the Ghost Dance, as observed by a non-Indian.
XXXIV. JACK YOUR BODY, JACK YOUR SOUL: The Ancient Rites of House Music
The exquisite integration of the erotic and the spiritual in early house music derives, I believe, from primarily non-Western traditions of salvation and release through communal music and dance.
We saw in the last issue how Judeo-Christian culture embraced the notion of the bifurcation of body and soul, adopted a fearful attitude towards dance that aroused bodily passion, especially in a spiritual context, and pretty much confined dancing to a secular activity. Although some visionary Protestant sects like the Shakers incorporated ecstatic dance into worship, as did the Hasidic movement of the eighteenth century, dance in Judeo-Christian societies from the Renaissance onward was divorced from any spiritual content.
The same may be said of the trance experience in dance. In Western cultures trance-like states are viewed as extraordinary incidents; not a part of daily life or the power of dance. While altered states of consciousness like trance are viewed as abnormal in the West, scholarly research has shown that the majority of societies accept and integrate rituals and dance that involve altering consciousness into normal social life. In these cultures, the power of the body in dance is truly awesome.
While I have always felt that the best communal dance experiences for me -- those nights at the Paradise Garage, the Warehouse, Wicked Full Moon raves, places where the body and imagination were liberated in a temporary autonomous zone free from the confines of Western, Puritan culture -- were transformative events where body and soul, sexuality and spirituality, worked together to produce a very valuable altered state of consciousness, it was not until I studied non-Western cultures that I came to understand what I at one time thought was some addictive behavior was actually an ancient and very natural part of life. This ecstatic dance was the glue that bonded many of the world's tribal and other communities, and it was the source of energy and validation of the self and soul in the intentional communities in which I lived most fully.
From African priests to Korean shamans, there was and still is the belief that dance and music can open communication with intangible powers and produce tangible benefits for the communities involved: self-knowledge; fuller understanding of the natural world; good health; and a sense of belonging to a supportive group in an often dark and hostile but ultimately understandable universe.
A. THE AFRICAN CONNECTION
It is my belief that the wedding of eroticism and spirituality in house music, especially given the dramatic context in which it arose, is more comprehensible when it is viewed as yet another rebirth of very ancient, natural, non-Western traditions of ecstatic dance. Since this rebirth occurred within an African-American subculture, I think it's interesting to take a brief look at some venerable African communal dance rituals.
In sub-Saharan Africa dance is a part of life. An African scholar was asked once why dance was so important: "Why do we dance? We say we dance because we are alive and not stones. Have you ever seen a stone dance?"
The Yoruba of West Africa do not separate the secular and sacred in dance. The world of the living and the invisible regions of gods, ancestors and spirits are not bifurcated as they are in the West. Rather, they share the same universal life force. There is a creator, an ambiguous entity neither male or female, who rarely interacts with humans. The connection with the intangible life forces is made by interacting with various gods and ancestors. Importantly, the dancing body is the vehicle by which the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit meet.
Some of the Yoruba rituals are designed to call upon the gods to possess a priest or priestess, thus allowing the deity to enter the human community. These rituals include dance, drumming, and the singing of songs called oriki. The Yoruba believe that without humans there would be no gods. Deities who are not honored regularly can "die." So humans nourish the gods. In return, the gods grant favors, like protection from disease, fecundity, and the like. All of these divine transactions are conducted via dance.
The Yoruba worship over 400 gods, or orishas, and one of the most popular, even today both in Africa and in the Americas where descendants of west Africans live, is Sango the god of thunder. Sango is passionate about dancing. In the dance to Sango the priest strips off his upper garments so that the god can mount and possess him. This dance is described by Ajaji, a scholar, as "...an inferno, a whirlwind, dizzy and confused, virile, full of body contortions, restless gestures, diagonal leg flicks and jerky shoulder movements."
There are many other ceremonies involving gods, ancestors and possession through dance, and some of these rituals have made it to modern times. Often, as in Africa and Latin America, the ancient rites are overlaid with Christian belief systems but the pagan origins are not terribly well concealed. Some Nigerian Christians, for example, practice the old ways with the new in aladura churches of ecstatic worship. In places like Haiti the old ways continue pretty much unchanged.
When Africans were brought to the Americas through the evil and inhumane slavery trade the old ways came with them. These Africans, of course, like all other cultures that fell under the power of the West, were eventually Christianized. The more erotic, Dionysian elements of the old rituals may have been tamed but I've often felt the ancient body-soul approach to the spirit remains just under the surface. One senses this in many African-American church services where singing, moving bodies, clapping, and even dancing are part of the ritual as is the idea of being possessed by the spirit. Much of our modern secular dance music derives from the tribal rhythms of gospel and other African-American music, and house and other EDM genres are no exceptions.
So it's not surprising that African-American culture gave birth to the ecstatic, erotic yet spiritual dance experience that characterized venues like the Paradise Garage and the Warehouse. The vibe at these places was intensely pagan, non-Western and exuberantly non-Puritan. Westerners are really control freaks. These people were all about loss of control and giving oneself over to a collective eroticism that moved into an altered state of consciousness that resembles the kind of possession by the spirit spoken of by the ancients.
Now Larry Levan and I didn't sit around rapping about cultural anthropology and ecstatic dance traditions back in the day. But I believe all of us who were passionate about this new dance experience knew intuitively that what we were all about was far more than throwing parties. This was about liberation of the loins and the soul through music and dance.
Further, I am in no way suggesting that the form and content of house music was intentionally designed to resurrect some pagan tribal rituals. This desire was, I believe, bubbling below the surface as part of some natural need that is consciously suppressed in the West. The context in which house was born -- oppression, mortality connected to sexuality, the need for redemption and release through communal dance -- brought these needs and ancient rites to the surface, and the body and soul were once again united in music and dance.
Much of the early rave community was well aware of these pagan erotic, spiritual ecstatic trance dance experiences. The spiritual symbols used at early raves were intentionally non-Western, and most often evoked Eastern, Hindu erotic-spiritual dance traditions. These intentions are still clearly evident at many EDM events, especially those given by the psytrance community.
NEXT: AFTER THE WAREHOUSE