By Cody-Leigh Mullin
In the beginning there was the rhythm and the beat. The beat was steady and the sound of bare feet slapping on hardwood floors resounded from the dance studio. Then the celebrants said, “Let there be movement,” and there was movement. And the people danced, and it was good.
Within the walls of the 418 Project, a small community-run space located in downtown Santa Cruz and intended for expression through movement and the healing arts, a spiritual congregation takes place each Sunday from 9 to 11:30 a.m. that joins people of all areas on common ground. And on this ground, they dance.
The concept of the Dance Church, as the weekly collective of dancers is called, was a collaborative idea that came to pass with the help of many hands. When Keri Syndulko, a former UC Santa Cruz student, was required to produce a community-based dance project for her Dance in the Community class, she proposed the idea of a weekly space for attendants to dance freely without boundaries.
“I was interested in doing that [because it] engaged my own community a little bit more,” Syndulko said. “I had this idea of starting a dance class or some creative improvisational dance group.”
Meanwhile, Santa Cruz resident Jim Brown envisioned a similar space, yet one with a more spiritual edge to it, which he titled “Dance Church.” Brown, who had been attending Friday night Dance Jams held at the 418 Project, had gotten the idea from a similar spiritual adaptation called Yoga Church.
“I always felt like there was a little something missing,” Brown said. “It occurred to me what was missing was daylight and a spiritual focus to Dance Jam, so I translated the idea from Yoga Church to Dance Church.”
Dance Church’s spirituality came, not from its Sunday morning timing or any strict religious affiliation, but in the form of altars that members created. Many of these are fashioned out of earth-based elements like stones to represent the earth and shells to signify water and beautiful bowls of water and brightly colored flowers.
“The original concept was that there would be a basic altar structure and people could bring whatever objects they felt [were] sacred and could place on the altar,” Brown said.
Brown began to spread the idea of a Sunday morning Dance Jam with spiritual elements throughout the local dance community. Before long, Syndulko caught wind of his idea and decided to create it as her assignment.
“I just talked the idea up and spread it around,” Brown said. “Several months later, someone has a UCSC community service project to do and they were going to turn my idea into a reality. That’s in my mind, my idea of magic: When you can just speak an idea out into the universe and watch it create itself, it was really a wonderful manifestation.”
In the fall of 2001, Syndulko, along with the owner of the 418 Project and several others, put together a rudimentary Sunday morning service that procured a surprising turnout consisting of Dance Jam veterans.
“The Friday night Dance Jams were pretty happening social events and so there was a pretty strong social community around that,” Syndulko said. “Somewhere between 25 to 40 people came on the first day. And after that, it pretty much just took off!”
Shortly after the genesis of Dance Church, those in the 418 Project noticed a shift from the Friday night Dance Jams to Dance Church. A dance veteran, who asked to be called “Phil,” has been dancing with the 418 Project for years and was a part of the collective migration from the nighttime setting to the morning service.
“What was curious to me was to watch this gravitation, and no one knew why, but no one was going to Fridays and everyone was going to Sundays,” Phil said. “And those of us who were Friday devotees were like, ‘Where is everybody? What happened?’ But now, Sunday Dance Church has all of that great energy.”
Phil, a frequent DJ at Dance Church, and his partner Brendan have been attending Dance Jams at the 418 Project for years and have watched the evolution of the dance movement firsthand. For Phil, Dance Church allows for a completely free space of expression that he had not been able to find anywhere else.
“I used to go dance in clubs, and there’s always a limit as to what you can do before you get ostracized socially,” Phil said. “If you want to move in some bizarre way or flail around on the floor there’s not really permission for that. After dancing here I realized that there are no limits — people may even want to join you.”
Throughout the service, people swirl and mix in a giant mass to the rhythm of the music. Free from societal boundaries and free to construct their own. Conversation is kept at a minimum, yet the connections made through dance and contact are vast and deep. Playing off one another, members spontaneously write their own choreography to the beat of the drums and the pulse of the baseline.
“There’s ebb and flow that you become,” Brendan said. “You can meet people, feel their energy and know how to move with them in a gentle way or a risk taking way. You meet their energy. We all become ecstatic and people are often jumping for joy and hollering and playing in circles and mimicking one another, just creating tableaus and vignettes and spontaneous play that is highly intelligent because it’s everyone’s truth in the moment. No pre-conditioned ideas — it just happens.”
The mystique around Dance Church has grown despite minimal advertisement by the 418 Project. In the last year, the church’s numbers have grown to over 100 weekly members, mainly through word of mouth about its unusual practices, like energy healing and altar building. The appeal and attraction is hard to place a finger on, yet Syndulko has her own ideas as to why the Sunday morning ritual generates such a turnout.
“There’s an unveiled-ness about it,” Syndulko said. “There’s so much more intimacy involved in showing up, unfurling out of the night, and seeing how unveiled people are and how free we allow ourselves to be. Community equality is created when people are willing to unwind themselves out of their lives.”
Altars have any variety of spiritual, emotional, religious and political themes and add to the service’s eclectic ambiance.
“One altar was fairly Christian-focused,” Brown said. “One man created these mosaics out of beans, and he made these incredible patterns. I remember an anti-altar: There was a television set with a picture of George Bush taped to it and had plastic army soldiers around it with an American flag — it was one of the more extreme altars I saw.”
The DJ, in place of a preacher, resides alongside the wall and orchestrates the soundtrack of the service, sensing the energy of the room and controlling it with the turn of each song. Soft, melodic music substitutes for a sermon and creates a somber atmosphere; bodies glide and spin delicately, as if in a strange ballet. Faces reflect emotions varying from bliss to remorse as people act out their inhibitions to the sound of Mozart or Debussy. Soon after, the song may switch to a high-tempo meringue, or an upbeat Indian song with rhythmic bells, or even contemporary hip-hop with a steady beat.
Laura Bishop, president of the board of the 418 Project and fellow Dance Church advocate, attributes much of the healing in her life to Dance Church.
“I would just come on Sunday mornings and dance. I would cry and lay on the dance floor, and then I would leave without saying anything to anybody,” Bishop said, curling her legs beneath her, hands flat on the floor of the 418. “That’s how I was healed. I’ve never been in such a nonjudgmental space. You can’t really do it wrong. You could be graceful or gawky or emotive.”
To Bishop, dancing serves not only as a mode of expression, but also as a platform to connect with the many others who share the hardwood dance floor.
“When I come in I think ‘I’m dancing for this today,’” Bishop said. “A classic epiphany is: ‘Oh my God, I can see myself in everyone in this room,’ or ‘The vibe in the room is so strong that it hits me at one point.’ I don’t get that anywhere else.”
Dance Church’s “life force” has been known to break down barriers, as attendee Jillean McCommons experienced during her first visits.
“I was very afraid to dance — I didn’t dance unless it was dark,” McCommons laughed, sitting on the floor of the 418. “In the beginning I sat on the sidelines on the rug. But now I’m all over the place. No one is really judging you. They’re doing what they want to do.”
McCommons, a Watsonville resident, felt isolated from her community relationally and ethically as a young African-American woman. Witnessing the close connections at the Dance Church, McCommons slowly broke through her walls into a safe space. On the dance floor, young and old, black and white, dance together as if each human form were the same and created for the same purpose: to move.
“Dance Church is a totally spiritual experience for me,” McCommons said. “It’s working out stuff but also making contact with people. I live in Watsonville and there’s a small community of black people, so there I feel isolated culturally. But here there is eye contact and even physical contact. Dance Church is something I need to come to so I don’t feel so isolated, like I’m the only other person of color on earth. [It’s] like movement therapy.”
Movement therapy has become increasingly common in Western culture over the past few decades. All over the United States, Barefoot Boogies and Dance Jams are springing up in response to a full-fledged dance movement.
Gabrielle Roth, author and founder of the Moving Center School in California, has devoted her life to studying the dance movement and its exponential growth since the 1950s. Roth states that to sweat is to pray and make an offering of the innermost self.
“Dance Church is an evolution. It’s come through a lineage,” Phil said. “It’s the offspring of the culture that has grown not just in Santa Cruz. Grassroots freestyle dances are happening all over whether it’s in Austin or Portland.”
Dance Church serves as a nondenominational link to each person’s definition of “sacred.” Whether that be related to a specific religion or not, those at Dance Church encourage each person’s own pursuit of the sacred.
“There’s a reason why we call it Dance Church,” Syndulko said. “It connects to the sacred in a way that religious institutions try to do or attempt to do. And then on the other hand, it has its own culture and unspoken rules — it’s a completely different world and an organized religion. I don’t think it attempts to be anything like that.”
Kwai Lam, one of the 418’s board members, is one of those who leave their formalities, along with their shoes, at the door and give in to the joy of the dance and living in the present.
“Dance Church has its own energy and conventions and expectations,” Lam said from behind his large-rimmed glasses while running a hand through his long, grey beard. “Most of the people I dance with, I don’t know what they do for a profession, but it doesn’t really matter, right? But I know how they move. That’s what one sees.”
Just as religion serves individual patrons in a personal way, Dance Church and the experiences made on the dance floor mean something different to each participant.
“It just gives me great joy and easy healing,” Lam said resolutely. “And I feel virtuous when 11:30 comes in the morning and I’ve danced for a few hours.”
At the conclusion of each service, the music fades away and people slowly form a circle that lines the perimeter of the room. Some hold hands with their neighbors, while others close their eyes in reflection and thought. Singing erupts from one end of the circle, and instantaneously, a cascade of voices shift to complement each other in all ranges and forms and manifests an impromptu choir.
“People who go to other events like this almost invariably in the circle at the end say, ‘There’s something really special going on here’ and I feel it too,” Brown said. “Just the way it ends, the music stops, the circle forms, and sometimes there’s singing, sometimes there’s toning, or poetry or stories, and sometimes there’s silence.”
Dance Church incorporates elements from different cultural dances in the service, and in doing so, connects with another time and space.
“American culture is suffering for many reasons, but one of them is that we’ve taken away the feeling and power of movement,” Phil said as the beat of the music drifted off and the buzz of the 418 became a purr. “Many human cultures dance daily or use movement in their lives. If we can make it through our fears and reconnect with the power of movement, we’re going back through time and reconnecting with our origins. Then we’re more alive in the present.”
Talk of a “second service” is bubbling beneath the surface of the 418, but there is no doubt that the Dance Church will have to expand in order to accommodate all those who wish to share the floor.
“Dance Church appealed to me as a way to get free, a way to get out of the box, to not be structured,” McCommons said, looking in the direction of the dance studio where so many of her barriers had been broken. “I think that’s why it works. People are looking for the free space, that nonjudgmental body to meet people.”
The free space, created in between the 418’s mirrored walls and shiny hardwood floor, has become a core necessity to many of its devotees.
“It’s very soul-satisfying,” Phil said with a smile on his face, fatigued from dancing. “It made me realize that I’m nourished by movement, I’m nourished by community, and that I can’t imagine living without Dance Church or that movement community in my life.”