Laser beams thread through the blue-black sky as Anu grins and swings her arms skyward.
It’s that time of year when the summer’s last embers welcome in autumn, and the air, still a little warm, touches her skin through the lacy top tucked into her white jeans. She’s in a vast Coventry car park that has been converted to a stripped-down party space, primed to embrace three and a half thousand house and techno heads for one day only.
Gazing around, she sees gnarly, make-shift bars, rows of Portaloos – and a towering sound system. Hearing the opening piano notes of one of her all time favourite tunes, Candi Staton’s You’ve got the Love, butterflies shimmer in her gut and her euphoria reaches fresh heights.
She takes in the expanse of people, mostly in their 40s and 50s, all here to dance to the legendary DJ Carl Cox. Anu – as you might have guessed from the crowd she’s in – is no thrill-seeking student, or a 25-year-old on a big one.
Rather, she’s 42, a trauma specialist and a mum of one (she’d wager that her son, 4, was ‘made in Ibiza.’) For her, raving is an integral part of her life, as much a shard of her identity as what she does for money or where she chooses to live.
Save the rave
Until recently, however, she’s been in the minority. According to a 2017 survey, 31 is the average age at which people in the UK hang up their dancing shoes.
And yet, things appear to be shifting. In May this year, DJ Annie Mac launched a new club night, of which much is reassuringly routine: darkened room, the BBC Radio 1 titan spinning up front; roars of recognition when the crowd clocks a freshly-dropped banger. But rather than waiting to see your favourite selector at 2am, before rolling home at 4, this event begins at 7pm and ends in time for you to make a Cinderella exit.
It’s aptly titled Before Midnight and is billed as a night for people who need sleep. In a statement, Mac explained she’d created the night for those ‘who adore the clubbing experience’ but who ‘need to be sharp and useful at the weekends and just can’t afford sleepless nights’.
Going out to dance is fun. But, ask any seasoned raver and they’ll tell you there’s more to it than simple hedonism, from expelling energy to the connection of community and healing through trauma. So, WH wants to know, just what can moving to live music in a room of like-minded souls – and keeping it up, long after your twenties and early thirties have passed – do for your mental and physical health?
Dance for your life
One person who is primed to unravel this question is Peter Lovatt (@drpeterlovatt,) psychologist, former pro dancer and the author of The Dance Cure: The surprising secret to being smarter, stronger, happier.
Let’s start with the brain. ‘There’s something called the endogenous opioid system, a network that triggers rushes of feel-good chemicals which are at the root of your feelings of elation, such as the opiate beta-endorphin, your body’s natural painkiller,’ he explains.
As well as being activated when you hurt yourself, you’ll also recognise it from the flood of joy that occurs when you’re cocooned in a loved one’s hug, or the chilled-out buzz of sipping on a gin and tonic.
‘Researchers from Oxford University found that when we move in synchrony with other people’ – Dr Lovatt lists the examples of dancing in a club listening to a DJ, the crowd moving to the beat in tandem, or tightly controlled synchronised movement, such as line dancing – ‘this system is activated, triggering an increase in these feel-good opioid chemicals.’
This, he explains, raises people’s pain threshold and increases their sense of bonding and connection. Health psychologist Dr Sula Windgassen (@the_health_psychologist_) notes that the hormone oxytocin, responsible for sensations of empathy and safety, plays a role here, too.
As well as simply feeling good – as Anu did, moving as one with the crowd in that car park – researchers argue that all of this has a vital evolutionary function. Namely, that the reason why humans have been dancing together since the dawn of our existence is to yoke us together. While our web of connection matters from day dot, Dr Lovatt doesn’t perceive it as too grand a reach to suggest that, for people in midlife, these experiences may provide even greater benefits.
After all, these decades often see radical changes to our social circles. ‘Our offspring, if we have any, start moving away, our parents might die – our community changes,’ he says. Dancing together, whether under a disco ball or at an open air festival, can charge up our feeling of connection, even as our networks alter.
He’d posit there may be specific wins for the 40+ ravers in terms of physical longevity, too. ‘At 59, I ache more than I ever used to. To apply that to the idea of clubbing in your 40s, 50s and 60s, by dancing, you get that increase in pain threshold.’ Indeed, one meta-analysis found that dancing regularly significantly reduced pain levels in people with (debilitating neurological pain condition) fibromyalgia. Raving as we age could trigger some cognitive wins, too.
‘Improvising movements, such as freestyle dancing to a DJ, improves problem solving,’ explains Dr Lovatt. ‘Particularly when it comes to diverging problems, where there’s not just one right answer.’ Dr Windgassen agrees. ‘Cultivating bodily awareness through dance helps build attentional focus and enhances mindfulness,’ she explains. ‘Which is associated with reduced stress and greater cognitive flexibility.’
High on your own supply
It would be remiss to write a piece about raving without mentioning the party drug – ecstasy or MDMA – that many see as an intractable element of the scene. But while partaking is, of course, an ingredient for some, for the women in this piece, it’s the trifecta of music, dancing and community that makes the experiences joyful, not illegal substances.
Take Kareen. The 49-year old Birmingham-based mindfulness expert and mindful DJ (calmify.co.uk) started her clubbing career around 17, sneaking into dimly-lit venues underage. At 19, she discovered house music and began attending raves to seek out her favourite DJs. Drink was typically off the menu as she’d drive, and most often partied sober.
As time has gone on, Kareen still goes out dancing, but has become more choosy. She’ll go to a music event roughly once every three months, and while she occasionally goes to venues packed with thousands, her ideal is an intimate festival in a warmer country. In doing so, she’s built up a team of like-minded people, who enjoy the same music as her. ‘When you go to an event, you see the same people who have that love. We call it “the music family.” I’ve built amazing relationships,’ she says.
In a similar vein to Annie Mac’s night, she shoots for day time events that leak into the evening, swerving 5amers. ‘I don’t want to write off the weekend because I’m tired,’ she says.
The way she sees it, raving functions to actively support her health, rather than something that takes away from it. ‘When we think about wellbeing, we might think about going to the gym,’ she says. ‘But because dancing is so much fun, you get both mental and physical benefits. You move, and so exercise, but you also feel interconnected; you feel part of something.’ She notes that this sort of movement allows her to release pent-up energy, transmuting negative feelings and washing her in a wave of peace.
The necessity of this was highlighted at her first communal dance back, after pandemic restrictions lifted, at GROW, a venue in Hackney, east London. ‘I thought I’d managed the pandemic quite well, but when I went to that first event I thought “I didn’t realise how much I missed this.”’
She saw friends she hadn’t been with in a year and a half, hugged people whose touch she had been craving and heard tunes she had been longing for. ‘Music is in me,’ she says. But it’s that fusion of beats and community where the ineffable happens. ‘There’s a spiritual feel to it: when you see someone across the floor, you both hear a track, and they are with you.’
Talk to people who love to rave and it won’t take long to hear that, much like Kareen, many feel a sense of spiritual connection to the past-time. That doesn’t surprise Eddy Elsey (@eddyelsey) a shamanic practitioner and the founder of workshop and events provider, Street Spirituality. He has spent years studying various shamanic and spiritual cultures.
‘In lots of traditional cultures, there’s an understanding that experiences of altered states [of consciousness] are something that is essential to human life – and repetitive dance to repetitive sound is one preferred medium for going into a trance, which is one type of altered state.’
Altered states of consciousness are defined as any condition which is significantly different to a normal, waking state, such as entering creative ‘flow,’ or deep meditation. These are associated with down-regulation in your brain’s frontal lobes, responsible for logic and reason, and an uptick in theta brainwaves, which elicit free-flowing, creative thinking and deep relaxation.
‘When the community gets together and dances, they can reach this altered state together. On a spiritual level, they can connect to their surroundings. On a psychological level, they can connect to one another. And it’s taken very seriously. It’s not doctrinal or forced, but a lot of importance is placed on it. These ritual dances can be seen as a mode of healing.’
In traditional societies, Elsey says, it’s often elders who lead the dance – a stark contrast to our own, in which dancing is seen as the preserve of young people. He suggests that the best way to move through that is to normalise dancing through the decades; for more 40, 50 and 60-year-olds to go raving.
Raving, clubbing and festivals, he notes, might not be thought of as a portal to a spiritual experience. But in terms of the make-up of spiritual ceremonies seen in traditional cultures, the building blocks are there. To take the example of an underground club: ‘you enter a liminal space – you leave the mundane world. You and the other people there have a shared intention.
‘There’s the altered state you reach, whether that’s through dancing and repetitive sounds, or drugs. There might even be a certain dress-code, which is common in rituals. They often run all the way through the night. You leave something there, whether that’s your sweat or your laughter. And, when you go back to the world, there’s this idea that you’ve shed something.’
There is, he notes, a lot there that is similar. If you explained what happens at a rave to someone from a shamanic culture, they’d probably say “that sounds like an amazing ritual to me.”’
Dance to heal
This healing aspect is core to Anu’s relationship with dance. Her and her husband have both found dancing in community to be something that has helped to work through childhood traumas. ‘The tune feeds the soul,’ she says. ‘You shake it out, it’s that mind-body connection.’
The idea of dancing as a healing practice stacks up with the latest science, says Dr Windgassen. ‘More and more research is showing the importance of trying to process difficult life experiences and trauma by getting into the body, whether that’s approaches like EMDR or somatic sensory therapy. There’s compelling evidence to show that these can alleviate long-standing symptoms.’
As to how this works, biologically? ‘When trauma occurs, our brain doesn’t process the event as it processes regular experiences,’ details Dr Windgassen. ‘Instead, we can experience a split between the “cognitive brain” – the logical, rational part of the brain, located at the front and top of the organ – and the “emotional brain” – areas in the midbrain such as the limbic system, which contains the amygdala, the home of the fight or flight response.’
Trauma, she explains, can result in the cognitive brain shutting down, causing a block to rational thinking. That’s not all, though. This brain region tries to protect us from feeling the emotion of what we have experienced, by suppressing memories and thoughts about it. It’s this that is at the root of the disassociation or numbing response to a traumatic event, think: the sensation of being untethered to your body, or persistently seeking distraction, such as incessant phone scrolling.
‘It is because of these processes that getting into the body is so important. Doing so can bring us back to the present in a safe way, as well as building familiarity in the connection between our emotions and our physical experience,’ she adds. ‘We can’t necessarily change our emotions directly, but we can respond to our bodily needs, which feeds back into our emotional experience. Embodied therapies, including dance, can help us feel safe in our bodies, which is fundamental for trauma processing and emotion regulation.’
It’s also, true Dr Windgassen says, that when the emotional brain is running the show, rational thought is difficult, if not impossible, to engage with. As such, trying to talk yourself out of a trauma response only causes more stress. ‘In these cases, getting back into the senses is fundamental.’
There are lessons here, too, for a society still reeling from the isolation and fear of the pandemic.
‘During the pandemic, we had a sense of fear about being with others. After such a long period of time, with lots uncertainty about the degree of risk, it can be hard not to find being amongst people as anxiety-provoking. During this time, people may also have felt a sense of disconnection from others. Dancing together can be an excellent way of healing these negative associations and increasing that sense of connection.’
Everybody’s free to feel good
But she also notes that making space for those things that make you feel joyful and alive in the moment – throughout your life, no matter how long your ‘to-do’ list – is key for your long-term health: trauma or not.
‘We have a general perception that self-nourishment is indulgent. But if we look at what impact this has across lifespans, and what health outcomes it influences, it’s substantial. We have no problem saying we want to be healthy, but when it comes to time for enjoyment, there is more resistance. Perhaps we’re not clear that these things are important for our physiological health and mental wellbeing.’
Her advice? ‘If you have to rationalise it to yourself, doing things that give you joy, that get you in your body and that give you a sense of freedom is a health intervention.’
It makes sense to Anu. With responsibilities stacked, getting that release is a profound tool, she believes, to stay psychologically well. ‘We get stuck in work, in parenting. When I organise a time to dance I celebrate me, I get in tune with myself again.’
That night, dancing to Carl Cox in a Coventry car park, Anu’s river of happiness, connection and liberation attested to this. To move beyond the rigidity of day-to-day life, to feel united with a crowd and to lose yourself in live music is a unique joy: one that has no business being placed in a box and savoured only by those born after 1991.
The prescription, then? Reclaim the rave. Your health might just depend on it.
3 ways to dance for people who don’t like clubbing
Don’t love clubs and festivals? No problem. Get the vitality-giving benefits of dancing, via these events.
This is a form of dance that centres connection, with an emphasis on getting out of your head and into your body. There are many event spaces offering up some form of this practice, but, generally, sessions follow a similar format. All dancers move barefoot and agree to refrain from talking during the dance, and, it goes without saying, no alcohol is involved. Music, often spun by a live DJ, starts softly and peaks to a fast-past crescendo, before slowing back down towards the end.
Morning Gloryville’s signature sober morning raves brought the idea of ‘conscious clubbing’ to the mainstream. The team’s events are mostly in London, but they travel out to other cities on occasion.
Devised in New York, this dynamic dance practice – practitioners think of it as moving meditation – is now franchised out across the world. Rooted in various New Age spiritual beliefs and founded by Gabrielle Roth, who was interested in various mystical practices, it tracks very ‘woo.’ If you’re allergic to such things, maybe skip this one.
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