It's been a long time since I've been to a festival. In my late twenties, I had a short sharp stint of a few years prancing around dressed as a pirate. My neon-pink zebra sequin leggings were quite the sight to behold. My festival "career" reached it's peak at Burning Man 2016 where I spent a week dressed as a dinosaur, doing things that will never be appear in my blog.
The Horse! Prints available.
Then, just like the burning of the giant 40ft man, my mental health went up in flames and I've been on a recovery journey ever since. The freedom of expression and self discovery found in those beautiful little micro-communities fell off the map and I've always been a little saddened that I left that part of me behind.
This summer while in New Zealand, I got wind of "Burning Horse". Not quite an official "Burner" festival (card machines and commerce a-plenty). They just happened to burn a wooden horse at the end. Feeling good about myself and wanting to explore my comfort zones ever further, it was finally time to return to the fold :)
I don't know what I was expecting. Being in Southland I knew it would be a small event. But as we walked from the campsite, across a seemingly empty field... I realised that this field WAS the festival. CUTE! Quite the contrast to 60k+ people in the desert and perfect for the dipping of toes. At one end was the portable sauna and wellness area. At the other, a stage adorned with a large owl's face. Somewhere in the middle, a big ol' wooden horse that would be burnt at the end of the night...
Except it wouldn't be. With the fire bans across the country, the local council was having none of it. Burning Horse Festival had become simply "Horse Festival".
The "big bad" for my comfort zone this time around was Ecstatic Dance. For anyone who hasn't heard of it, my basic understanding is that it's a form of meditation that creates a safe place to move your body however you like. Dance about like a nutter. Sit on the floor and wiggle. Lay down and do nothing at all if the mood strikes you! It's supposed to be very therapeutic. Despite having a few years of Lindy Hop under my belt (that's a whole other story), I still feel VERY uncomfortable as soon as I'm left dancing without a partner. What on earth do I do with my limbs!? How do I move without sets of organised eight beat manoeuvres? Being dragged onto the dance floor at weddings is my idea of hell and it really flares up my anxiety.
And yet here I was, sat in front of the big owl-faced stage with my eyes closed at the start of the workshop. There were three rules. No talking. No alcohol. And hold the space for everyone around you because everyone is on their own journey. The beats began to pump and we were encouraged to see if any part of us fancied moving at all. OK I thought. I could probably move my shoulders a little bit. That was no different to a yoga warm up. Then I realised that my freedom of movement stopped there. Everything else felt awkward. Maybe I could try moving my arms? Everyone had their eyes shut after all... I squinted my eyes open for a cheeky look and saw that most of the crowd were waving their arms all over the place already! Blimey, people weren't hanging around! With a bit of working through the cringe I'd loosened my arms up to the music. I then became super aware that the bottom half of me was locked firmly in a crossed legged seated position. I took another sneaky look and people were stood up! If you can't beat them, join them I guess!
Then things got weeeeird. A good but somewhat heavy weird.
With some very craftily worded suggestions from Ayumi, the host for our dance, we were encouraged to explore what it would be like if we let all our limiting beliefs and self doubt take control and move our bodies. Allowing the things that you hold deep inside to actually take control!? Ooph. This was powerful stuff. I found myself stomping about. Pushing my arms away as if trying to shed myself free. My movements felt angry. "Who do you want out of your life? What do you need to get rid of? What no longer serves you?". Thoughts and images immediately sprung to mind as I shook my arms to rinse out all of the negativity. I was balling my eyes out. Feeling sadness for decades of negative self talk.
Then things changed up a gear. Once we'd gotten the negativity out of systems (or at least a bit of it) we got rid of literally everything else! "How would you move if you didn't exist? If your ego was gone? You were just atoms in the universe"? "I don't know Ayumi... how WOULD I move!?" *makes bigger wafting swirly movements*
At one point my hips started snaking about all sexy! I had no idea where they were going. They don't normally want to move at all! At this point the music had taken complete control of my body my inhibitions on the dance floor had disintegrated.
With all the crap cleared out, our egos politely put on a shelf for a bit, and the tunes pumping faster and faster, we then switched to some positives. "How do you want to step forward into the world? How do you want to feel? How does that make you move? What one word ends the sentence "I AM...". Holding a random stranger and looking them square in the eyes (yay cringe!) we announced who we were. I decided "I was BRILLIANT". A sentiment counteracting years of not feeling good enough.
With the session over I stripped my clothes off an jumped in the river. I was crying like a baby.
(Trigger warning - emotional abuse themes)
My mental health journey meant that intellectually I knew that your body could hold on to trauma, and there were a plethora of movement based treatments out there. What I hadn't expected was just how much I still had buried deep within me. In 2014 I had survived a year long emotionally abusive relationship and it had chewed me to pieces. I was a broken mess and I've effectively had to rebuild my identity from the ground up. I'm not saying that to garner sympathy. I've done the work and I'm stronger than I've ever been. My life is INCREDIBLE. But ecstatic dance allowed me to connect to part of me that I didn't even realise existed. Carried deep inside and apparently only accessible by some carefully selected words and letting music take over my body.
I ran over to Ayumi and thanked her what turned out to be a pretty wild experience and smashing through decades of awkward dance avoidance.
Touché ecstatic dance. I'll be having more of you in my life!
*wanders off to enthusiastically shake his booty*
Thanks for reading!