It’s Sunday morning in Tucson. The lights are off, the air is cool, and people are dancing.
Some move like ballet dancers, others are more aerobic. One woman dances with a walker, another lies on the floor.
There’s no talking on the dance floor of this growing gathering called The Spirit of Movement, which regularly attracts upward of 60 people ranging in age from young adults to senior citizens.
Instead of speaking, this gathering is all about moving to a variety of music for two continuous hours. Some participants say it’s spiritual, others say it’s physical. Many say it’s both.
The creator of Spirit of Movement is Sandra Morse, a local communications expert who was inspired after she learned about a moving meditation called “5Rhythms” when she was at a workshop in California. She cites benefits as both emotional and physical health.
The physical aspect certainly can’t hurt. A study that came out in March in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease says regular physical activity, including dancing, can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s as people age.
And the effects of meditation, prayer and spiritual practice on overall health are currently being studied at the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine, led by renowned mind-body researcher Dr. Esther Sternberg.
Sternberg is using scientific rigor to show how stress makes people sick, and the way activities like prayer and meditation trigger reactions in the body that can make them well.
No wrong way
UA professor Tracey Osborne and her partner Sapana Doshi, also a UA professor, have been going to Spirit of Movement for the past year and a half. The weekly movement sessions began in November 2014.
“There are no limitations. You could be in a chair,” Osborne says. “You can be your authentic self.”
Both Osborne and Doshi are energetic on the dance floor, and have the glow associated with a rigorous workout.
“It’s a time when I reset for the work week — negotiate out the craziness,” Doshi says. “There is no wrong way to do it.”
She says after two hours, she always feels an emotional lightness, perhaps from the endorphins. Endorphins are chemicals that the body releases during exercise and are associated with positive feelings.
But it’s not just about working out. Doshi says there is a false dichotomy between mind and body, but that really they are very connected.
“This is about reconnecting to ourselves, our bodies, and doing it with other people. It is uplifting and inspiring,” she says.
Once people start, they find it hard to stop, says Melanie Cooley, who is beginning a movement teacher training program to earn her certification in 5Rhythms. Cooley says she believes she’ll be the first person in Arizona to be certified in the practice, and eventually expects to teach locally.
The 5Rhythms was developed by the late American dancer and musician Gabrielle Roth as a practice intended not just for a physical workout but to ignite creativity, connection and community.
Learning about the 5Rhythms got Morse thinking about connection in the Tucson community, and about the way Americans have typically worshiped — passively sitting in pews. Getting people collectively moving on Sunday mornings seemed like a good alternative.
The Spirit of Movement is not a 5Rhythms class, nor is it an official practice of Roth’s method. But it’s based on Roth’s idea of expanding one’s world through dance, using music that corresponds with her 5Rhythms — flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical and stillness.
Morse’s husband Michael Morse is a DJ for the local gathering, and plays tunes that range from Celtic to reggae to Brandi Carlile.
Sometimes people link arms and dance together, while others remain alone. They take cues from body language.
“We want freedom for people — freedom to move, freedom to express,” Sandra Morse says. “Everyone has rhythm. They don’t always know it, but they do.”
Mind and body
The Sunday Spirit of Movement sessions start at 10:30 a.m. and begin slowly. People drop in and occasionally sit on the sidelines for a drink of water.
The music picks up speed, and by 11:30 a.m., many people are moving quickly, some of them vigorously jumping up and down. Shortly after noon the music slows, and by 12:30 p.m., most dancers are on the ground.
At the end of each session, the group forms a circle and joins hands. They briefly share announcements and welcome newcomers before leaving for the day. In spite of sharing almost no words, participants say they’ve become a community.
“The fundamental wound in our culture is the split between mind and body. This finds a way to integrate that,” Cooley says. “Our words and social conventions form a barrier. Here you get to know each other by your presence.”