I’ll never forget the first time in my adult life that I tried to dance completely sober: it was Christmas 2012 and I‘d been teetotal for over a year after a long and nasty battle with the booze. I was at a close friend’s wedding, happy to have survived both the champagne reception and the wine-fuelled dinner with no more than a small craving for something stronger than my sparkling water.
But then the disco started and things got ugly. My stomach flipped over like a whale’s tail as more and more people got up to dance. Soon it was just my partner and me sitting at our huge round table and I knew the time had come. She looked across at me hopefully but I shook my head and reached for another piece of cheese instead, watching as she went to dance with friends. A few minutes later when the isolation became unbearable I found the legs to go and join them. But my short-lived boogie was nothing short of excruciating. Self-consciousness stifled me like a straight jacket and I could barely hear the music through the noise inside my head. Critical voices. Negative thoughts. An overwhelming, debilitating sense of shame. I bobbed about like an apple in a water bowl for about ten minutes before heading outside for a cigarette.
After that I tried to avoid dancing completely. But that didn’t feel right either. Firstly, I didn’t want to be the person who sat out in a corner - that wasn’t my style in any other areas of my life after all - and secondly music had long been a source of enormous pleasure and the gateway into many different emotional states.
I remembered bopping as a child and loving it, never caring about the crowd, yet now here I was in my early thirties totally incapable of letting go. Clearly something had to change, I knew, but it wasn’t until three years after that fateful wedding party that I attended my first 5 Rhythms class - the embodied and creative movement and dance practice that doubles up as meditation and is now taught in 53 countries around the world. I very nearly didn’t make it, changing my mind about eight times before thankfully dragging myself through the doors of a shabby-chic old studio in South East London. I was lucky that it didn’t take too long before, around forty five minutes in to a ninety minute class I felt a shift. I’d moved through that familiar excruciating self-consciousness into a more accepting, fluid state after our teacher, Emma, had guided us through a dance (‘rhythm’) led by the feet (‘flowing’), then by the hips (‘staccato’) and was now encouraging us to let go of our heads and enter the third rhythm of ‘chaos’. And let go I did, in a powerful, ecstatic way. It felt like shedding a layer of skin - and an itchy layer at that - and with two rhythms (‘lyrical’ and ‘stillness’) left to go.
Comfortable, centred, awake. These are all words that I could use for my experience of sober dancing, along with liberated and ecstatic
After that first 5 Rhythms class, I returned the following week and was surprised (disappointed even) to have a much subtler experience. A fortnight later I went back and had another, very visceral, experience. When I attended one-day 5 Rhythms workshop the following year there were highs and lows, each of which also had their own colour, shape and timbre. Since then I’ve also tried some early morning sober raving - entering into the bright and beautiful world of Morning Gloryville, the brainchild of 30-year-old Sam Moyo who, having founded this international dance movement in May 2013 has watched the Gloryville community grow to over one hundred thousand people globally. Clearly it’s not just me who needs to dance. There’s something here that many of us need to develop, a connection not just with our bodies but with each other too.
“Once you put the body in motion the psyche heals itself and you can start to shift patterns of behaviour” explains 5 Rhythms instructor Emma Leech. “Half the time we’re not aware what we’re doing or what stands in our way. But we get to reveal ourselves on the dance floor. In this way dancing can wake us up, connect us to ourselves in an intimate way. The more comfortable we become in our own skin, the better we can function in the world because we’re more centred and more authentic.”
Comfortable, centred, awake. These are all words that I could use for my experience of sober dancing, along with liberated and ecstatic. But, as with pain love, how each of us experiences movement and our bodies is quite subjective and ever-changing. Nobody can tell you how to dance. Nor can they predict how you will feel afterwards. For me it’s been transformative, and I’m excited about what comes next.
Three sober dance opportunities
This dynamic movement practice is somewhere between ‘conscious clubbing’ and ‘therapeutic dance’. Founded in New York in late 1970s, 5 Rhythms was developed by Gabrielle Roth and is now taught in 53 countries worldwide.
This sober morning rave turns the clubbing culture up-side down with coffee, massage, juices and top DJs in various destinations around the globe including London, Manchester, New York, Melbourne and in other parts of Europe.
Brighton Dance Flash Mobs
If you’re more of a Macarena or Greased Lightening kind of dancer then Brighton Dance Flash Mobs is just the ticket (although you don’t need one, it’s free). Professional choreographers and strong community feel, all standards welcome.