Last Saturday, I found myself dancing under black lights in a room full of silent people I didn’t know. There was a painter creating art in the front corner, a DJ spinning deep bassy music with elements of hyena and Tetris, a woman painting faces, an altar of tarot-like cards overseen by Ganesh and a room packed with people who were dancing like no one was watching. And it was at church.
Maui’s residents are as varied as her climates, and there are places and spaces for all of them. Dance Church Maui, which bills itself as a “Sacred and Sober Dance Community,” is one of those island niches that speaks to certain inclinations. Since its beginning in 2011, the event has grown into a highly attended dance gathering that draws people looking for a variety of experiences. Every first and third Saturday of the month, organizers (mostly volunteers) transform the community hall at Makawao Union Church with tapestries, lighting and altars. Dancers of all ages, backgrounds and ability come together for a unique and, for many, meaningful Saturday night experience.
Getting out of your comfort zone and into a new space can be, well, uncomfortable. But newcomers needn’t stress–it was a welcoming place. Dance Church is a unique space that provides an uncommon experience and is a draw for people looking for a place to do their own thing on the dance floor in a non-judgmental space, whatever that thing is. The Church provides structure and freedom, and in many ways, it’s what you make of it. It’s a group experience as well as an individual experience.
“Normally we have two DJs, and we always start with some guided movement, such as yoga, tai chi or qigong. Then we close with our closing circle,” said Mikaya Swabb, the event’s founder and organizer. “It’s also a drug and alcohol-free event.” Dancing sober is something that some people aren’t always comfortable with. In addition to providing space for people who have chosen sobriety, it’s a fascinating experience for those who associate going out dancing with going out drinking. “Most places where you are invited to dance, like a club or a bar, there’s a focus on socializing and drinking. For people who have chosen a life of sobriety, for whatever reason, it can be really important to have a container like this,” explains Swabb. You don’t have to follow a life of sobriety to attend the function, but it is required that you show up and stay sober.
Last week was my first time at Dance Church. I brought my friend Jenn, who’s down for anything. It turns out that this wasn’t entirely necessary, since there was no talking allowed on the dance floor. We traded looks as we tried to get into the groove. Once the free dancing started, we posted up in the corner and tried to get into it. I surreptitiously glanced around the room to see what everyone else was doing. They were doing whatever they wanted. One woman was gliding around the room, pausing to dance with people in the crowd. Some young women with obvious dance skill were at the center of the room. Most people danced by themselves. A couple was free flowing together and a little kid twirled around on her own, while another child napped on a cushion at the edge of the floor. I took my cue from them, closed my eyes and tried my best to let go.
The no-talking rule was actually helpful: no more strangers screaming into your ear over the music and having to pretend like you understood what they said. When I sat down with Swabb after the event, he explained the reasoning behind the silence rule. “There’s no talking on the dance floor, and the reason for that is we want to honor the dance floor as a sacred space, so the idea is to come into that space with a sense of reverence, and to work on one’s own spiritual growth through movement,” he said. Non-verbal communication is allowed, including dancing together if participants choose.
Although it’s at a church, you don’t have to be religious or spiritual to go. Swabb explained that the experience is subjective. “The motivation of the dancers is up to the dancer, but the invitation is there for people to set the intention at the beginning of the event and then to dance it out,” he said. At the beginning of the event, when asked, I set the intention to be open-minded, and it was helpful to have a focus.
“Dancing is an amazing way to work through blockages in our body–emotional, physical, mental chatter,” Swabb said. “But by moving and breathing and getting into the movement, it can be a spiritual practice. A lot of spiritual practices involve movement. There’s a strong history of dance being utilized as spiritual practice.”
If that idea doesn’t speak to you, the music probably will. The music was phenomenal, and the highlight of the experience. Swabb invites electronic dance music DJs and producers from around the world and includes local Maui DJs into the lineup. On May 5, AtYyA and Elemental Entropy took the stage under a tapestry of a dark-faced mystic presiding over a cauldron of fire, as if bending over a turntable. AtYya, also known as Tyy Clark, from British Columbia, brought layered music that was easy to dance to, with attitudes alternating from fun and playful to edgy and moody, with soft mystical lyrics spliced with deep bass. Elemental Entropy (Rigzin), a local DJ favorite, played a complimentary second set that showcased some 808 elements and mashed dubstep with grime and garage. Since the conception of Dance Church, Swabb has reinvested profits from the event into a quality sound system, with surround sound and subwoofers that help dancers feel the music on the wooden dance floor.
“Another analogy is that the event itself is like a dance class,” said Swabb. “While there isn’t a lot of formal dance instruction, the instruction is simply go inside and find whatever movement that is uniquely yours and express it fully, and to really have trust in the container. Towards that end, that’s the main focus.” The event did provide some of the structure of a dance class, but the focus at Dance Church Maui wasn’t about skill.
Dancing is something that all humans know how to do. I put that into my mind and got into it with my friends. After dancing for hours, we slipped out the back door and into the wet North Shore night, feeling intrigued, connected and quite sober.
Photos:Jerad Hobaugh and Sophia Billikopf