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Trance and Transformation

Magic in the Dance

An Exploration of Trance and Transformation

By Shakira/Elizabeth Fannin

The following article was submitted for inclusion in the Proceedings of the International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance, May, 1997.

Is there magic in the dance? Amaya once asked a similar question in her “Star Talk” column. Her own answer was that there was, that there were certain nights when she could drop a zil and catch it before it fell, accent the music with her eyebrows, do the improbable if not the impossible. I felt a deep resonance with her statement. There were times in dance when I felt transformed from matter into pure energy; when I could step outside of time and observe it moving so slowly, and step back in when I pleased; when I could do the physically impossible; when I could anticipate musical accents in pieces I had never heard and hit them perfectly; when I could feel the energy of the audience and the musicians and the music as surely as a weaver feels her threads. This state did not occur anywhere else in my life.

Not, at least, until I took Dr. Felicitas Goodman’s workshop series on trance. In them I experienced something I recognized: the same physical state, the same mental state, the same feeling. I was in exactly the same place those moments in dance took me to, although now in a stationary posture. I was fascinated: What were these states and why were they so much the same?

To find the answers I studied medical, ethnological, movement analysis and other literature. I found that what I had experienced in dance, and again in Dr. Goodman’s class, and what others were likely experiencing as well, is a particular form of trance: hyperarousal, “excitational” or “ecstatic” trance. This can be achieved by anyone with moderately normal neurological function [2, 13, 18]. It is a species-wide capability, available to all cultures, and found in 89% of 488 cultures studied (including North American) [3].

Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlevi order, Konya, Turkey, performing Sema.

It is entirely different from the meditative version of “trance.” Hyperarousal trance does, however, subsume both possession trances and non-possession trances, both the “ecstasy of the dervishes” where “the dervish knows exactly where he is at all times [and] does not lose himself in ecstasy but becomes ecstasy [8],” and the zar, embodiment—pun intended—of possession trance. Indeed, individual dancers experiencing trance within interpretive1 solo performances of Middle Eastern dance described both: some dancers find that they are no longer “present” and have no recall of what they did; others remain “present” but experience an altered state, and sometimes feel “joined” by other powers.2

In any case, there are certain features common to hyperarousal trances. Participants often experience a sense of timelessness; “oceanic gestalt” [18] modes of thought and feeling; a sense of connection to and/or communication with the “otherworldly”; abilities and behaviors beyond the social or physical norms; reduced sensitivity to pain; exhilaration or ecstasy; subjectively significant and/or holistic insights or perceptions; feelings of transformation within the self; a sense of the ineffable; catharsis, relief or healing [18]; a sense of increased energy or rejuvenation; a sense of increased creativity; and, if a group experience, a sense of “communitas,” bonding or unity [2, 18]. Many of these persist after the trance state.

The methods used to create hyperarousal trance also have common characteristics[13]. The setting is non-ordinary—a place used only for ritual, or specially adapted from its mundane usage for purposes of ritual. Settings are demarcated from the ordinary world by virtue of who may be there [1, 6], by physically signaling the beginning and ending of sacred usage—in zar, for instance, with incense [1, 6]—or by the ritual performance and intention of the participants. When whirling, or Sema, is performed on public stages, “The dervishes are capable of creating an invisible wall to block out all external interruptions [8].” Thus the liminal space may be demarcated through the practice itself, as interpretive dance could be in its definition of the stage as different from ordinary reality. The trance practitioner is physically in a liminal place. At the same time, they may occupy liminal positions socially, as Deagon suggests [5].

All these forms employ another pervasive method of inducing trance: sonic driving, usually in a repetitive or monotonous form. This could well be the main operational factor in trance experiences by solo, interpretive dancers. Repeated rhythms, in the form of vocals as well as drumming, are employed in guedra, zar and whirling. In the latter, for instance, “Rhythm and voice are important, with melody assisting them both. These three elements work together in such a way as to create a monotonous music…As one concentrates on the music we become one with ourselves and new insights are experienced [8; italics mine].”

Repetitive motion [18] (though not involved in Dr. Goodman’s postural hyperarousal trances) may also help effect trance either by itself or by a flicker effect in lighting produced by regular positional changes, similar to that used by Neher [18, 25]. In traditional methods of trance induction, multiple sources of stimulation, potentially including set interactions with others as in sema [8], are often used, providing a “fail-safe” that accommodates individual differences [18].

Guedra dance, Goulimine tribe, Morocco

The wisdom of peoples who employ trance is worth noting: they know how to get the effect they want, how to vary rhythm to get a particular spirit to “descend” in zar [1], how to specify a position that both has symbolic meaning and will reliably evoke a certain flavor of experience. Lex [18] observes that “Systematic behaviors categorized according to the structures they affect not only clarifies the role of these techniques in facilitating ritual trance but also demonstrates the extent to which knowledge of physiological function is applied by ‘primitive’ people.”

So what are some of these physiological effects? Goodman’s work [14] shows that “compounds indicating stress, namely, adrenalin, noradrenalin, and cortisol, dropped, and at the same time there was evidence that the brain started synthesizing beta-endorphin, the miracle painkiller of the body, which is also responsible for the intense joy felt after a trance. The EEG exhibited not the famous alpha waves, so well known from meditation, but a steady stream of the even slower theta waves, usually seen only in bursts shortly before a subject goes to sleep…Most puzzling, blood pressure suddenly dropped, and simultaneously, the pulse started racing.”

Repetitive sonic driving uses neurological responses already in place [18, 28, 29] to “synchronize rhythms…in the brain and the nervous system—the external rhythm ‘sets’ the others [7].” Chanting operates both by repetitive stimulation and neurologically by monopolizing the left hemisphere, associated with verbal and linguistic abilities, thus reducing its dominance and leaving the right free to predominate [18]. Responding to rhythms in general, including dancing and clapping, activates the right hemisphere of the brain [18], the part theorized to be more active in hyperarousal trance and whose characteristics—including holistic, synthetic thought [26] and lack of temporal tracking [18]—most generally reflect those of hyperarousal trance states.

Hyperarousal trance is also characterized by initial inhibition of trophotropic (resting state) dominance. Movement and dance may assist with endorphin production and help create a predilection for the more active state, which is mediated by the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the same one that mobilizes us for “fight or flight.” Some of the “extraordinary ability” of participants in hyperarousal trances may come from sympathetic activation, which readies us to do our utmost in one regard or another. Perhaps stage fright, also mediated by the SNS, could be channeled into ecstatic trance via the addition of sonic driving.

Sustaining the highly activated (ergotropic) state certainly “allows discharge of emotional tensions” [7] which have built up, or catharsis. However, it also invokes parasympathetic and resting state rebound [11, 18, 27] part way into the trance. This produces both reduced sensitivity to pain [18] and a state which is both activated and relaxed—the perfect state from which to function, in dance or otherwise: one that inherently embodies both power and compassion [19, 20, 21, 22], is entirely alive and ready for activity, yet is relaxed enough muscularly that one is not “bound.”

Habitual tightnesses and predominances are overridden in trance and new states are reached. Trance can therefore function as a neurological method of reducing imbalances and “tuning up” the nervous system. Because new states are created in the process “new patterns of right-left hemisphere integration can result.” [18]

It is not surprising, then, that Goodman’s study of a signal the brain gives off during tasks requiring intense attention or learning showed:

“Peak values during learning tasks found to date amounted to at most 250 microvolts. With volunteers from my workshops experienced in the religious trance, much higher values, rising to an astounding 1,500 to 2,000 microvolts, were achieved. At the same time, the stream of theta waves continued unabated.” (Guttman et al, 1988) [14, 15].

The brain is learning to function under conditions outside normal habits. This may be the source of insights experienced in trance. Some of this interhemispheric learning may lead to new patterns, improved performance on some tasks [18] and enhanced creativity [18, 26], as well as subjective experiences of spiritual or personal inspiration or new life views.

Another interesting motif involves a trance participant reexperiencing an uncomfortable or traumatic event in the altered cortical state produced in trance, with all its beneficial effects and enhanced abilities. This processing method is more than mental; it is physical and neurological. The relaxed restorative state, with post-trance endorphins, may relieve or even erase the body/mind agitation formerly associated with that memory [12, 18]. Because of interhemispheric communication and the learning that is part of trance, a “new configuration of internal functioning [11]” is established.

This motif—re-experiencing an intense event under different functioning and controlled conditions—underlies a host of our modern methods, from “talking it out” with a supportive “Other” through Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), psychotherapy methods and bodywork. Before any of these modern methods, however, there were ancient ‘body/mind methods’ such as zar that could modify individuals’ body/mind responses to intense experiences. If these older methods were imperfect, required multiple repetitions, significant time periods and willingness on the part of the individual being treated—so do ours.

It is generally accepted that mental or emotional states can create physical changes in the body. The corollary, that changing physical states can alter perceptions mentally and emotionally, may seem more novel, despite the considerable body of research in several fields [7, 9, 10, 13, 14, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22]. It is not hard to see how general intention and purpose, as in guedra, can influence the dance that results [16, 24, 30]. The emotional and somatic state of a zar participant may also affect outcome. In contrast, whirling uses a very specific physical position to obtain specific desired experiences. This position is based partially on elaborate, structured symbolism and beliefs, but perhaps also partially on a knowledge of its effect and how the trance resulting from its usage assists the spiritual process. People need not speak in modern medical terminology to be wise.

The wisdom of using this particular pattern of posture and movement was highlighted for me when I presented an example of whirling to a group of trained bodyworkers at the Columbus Center for Movement Studies. Given that they had no prior knowledge of Mevlevi practices or beliefs, their observations were quite interesting [23]. Dr. Linden observed that it seemed to “separate the three-dimensional individual radiance from the rest of the three-dimensional world.” This is quite interesting when one notes the numerous references in Sufi literature to “loosening the earthly glue [8].” Among other things, they also noted that of the various three-dimensional directions, only a strong core connection from up to down was maintained, and that when whirling “you were pulling energy down from the sky in a whirl around you.” They identified, by means of the posture and action alone, careful engineering for and accomplishment of desires and beliefs unknown to them.

Another possible trance form is a body/mind state of being which is not sanctioned by the general society in day to day life but is only possible in the liminal circumstances of the trance ritual. In the cultural environment of the Sudanese zar ceremonies described by Boddy [1], closedness is greatly preferred over openness amongst and for the women. However, the participants can be visited by spirits that are open in many senses, even expansive and swaggering (witness “Luliya,” who performs a traditional dance, but with a looseness and openness not sanctioned for village women; and “Dona Bey” [1, 6], who tends so to the large and even overdone that he not only drinks “prodigious” quantities of liquor but carries an elephant gun to shoot tiny antelopes!) If possessed by these or other spirits (many of whom are Khawaja, Western foreigners, or flamboyant versions of other nationalities) in trance, the women can assume, for a while, the openness, expansiveness and power that is, in fact, a position of inherent strength and ability. The argument has been made that some of these characters afford social release, but, given the body/mind links and the feeling of power that comes with being expansive, confident and open in the body, the idea that this is somatically motivated as well merits some consideration.

One can also look at the movements of trance as a process. One martial arts technique involves tightening and constricting everything so that one can then achieve release and the resulting state of radiance, power and compassion [23]. A similar process could be operational in zars such as Eisler [6] describes. As Dr. Josephson suggests, “Through using a traditional series of steps…that swing your body through a series of postures, it joggles your thoughts and sense of self. Sometimes a person’s illness is a sense of being out of touch with some aspect of themselves…They take part in a dance and become one again [17].” Moving through a series of gestures, which tend to be externally or outwardly directed, may generate progressive release. There is also an intriguing similarity to a Feldenkrais Method technique which entails moving in a spontaneously demanding way, with the end result abandonment of habitually held postures and restrictions due to “overload.”

All these are methods which lead to a state that coincides with the desirable state for interpretive dancers: relaxed openness, readiness to respond to the music without tensions that prevent us from it, connection to the music and all the feelings and energies present or invoked. This is another way of describing being fully present in the moment, perhaps parallel to the timeless present of right hemispheric dominance. Perhaps, given the above goals and sonic driving, it is less surprising that some interpretive dancers have spontaneously experienced trance: the states may not be that far from each other.

Hyperarousal trance has many desirable effects, is available to all human beings and is used in personal, nonsacred and sacred ways. We need to respect the belief systems of sacred types, neither claiming the full belief systems when we only have a part, nor denigrating sacred beliefs. My high school sociology teacher said, “We all believe we’re right—but we won’t really know who’s right until we get there [the afterlife].” We can’t say what “they” are doing in trance or elsewhere; we can only speak of our own experience. Some would claim that religious trance experiences are not religious, but simply results of a neurobiological phenomenon that is “hardwired into” the species. Is novelist Eudora Welty ‘merely’ using the ‘mechanism’ of words, language, communication? No; she is creating literature. That she creates something meaningful and resonant is not diminished because she uses a mechanism.

That a trance phenomenon can be medically substantiated or measured does not diminish it, nor necessarily reduce it to “hardwiring.” Trance is a powerful method for achieving goals within its own context, and one that discovered some truths long before modern methods. As “The Emerald Forest” states, “They know things we have forgotten.”

I would like to leave you with the words of Dr. Susan Josephson, an affiliate of Dr. Goodman [17]: “What is magic? My sense from my experience…is harmony, balance between this and the ‘spirit world.’ Where the worlds connect…dance can be used for healing and community-building because it causes in the dancer a sense of magic, a harmony between the dancer and the world of community…They take part in a dance and become one again with the community and the world through the vehicle of rhythm and group effort and body harmonies.”


1 I prefer the term “interpretive” since either “cabaret” or, in many cases, folkloric dance, in solo, responsive, unchoreographed form, is interpretive—of the music, the dancer’s mood, the energies, etc. In addition this term allows incorporation of directions such as Goddess dance.

2 Various personal communications


1. Boddy, J. (1989) Wombs and alien spirits: Women, men and the Zar cult in northern Sudan. U. of Wisconsin Press

2. Bourgignon, E., Ed. (1973) Religion, altered states of consciousness, and social change. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

3. Bourgignon, E. (1972) “Dreams and altered states of consciousness in anthropological research.” Psychological Anthropology, 2nd edition, F. L. K. Hsu, Ed. Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press.

4. Chapple, E. D. (1970) Culture and biological man. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

5. Deagon, A. (1994) “Dancing at the edge of the world: Ritual, community and the Middle Eastern dancer.” Arabesque Vol. 20, No. 3: 8-12.

6. Eisler, L. (1995) “Songs and spirits: The zar ritual in Cairo.” Habibi Vol. 14, No. 4: 12-15, 37.

7. Emerson, V. F. (1972) “Can belief systems influence neurophysiology? Some implications of research on meditation.” Newsletter-Review, R. M. Bucke Memorial Society, 5: 20-32.

8. Friedlander, I. (1975) The Whirling Dervishes. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.

9. Gellhorn, E. (1967) Principles of autonomic-somatic integration: Physiological basis and psychological and clinical implications. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

10. Gellhorn, E. (1968a) “Attempt at a synthesis: Contribution to a theory of emotion.” Biological Foundations of Emotion: Research and Commentary, E. Gellhorn, Ed. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.

11. Gellhorn, E. and Kiely, W. F. (1973) “Autonomic nervous system in psychiatric disorder.” Biological Psychiatry, J. Mendels, Ed. New York: Wiley.

12. Gellhorn, E. and Loofbourrow, G. N. (1963) Emotions and emotional disorders: A neurophysiological study. New York: Harper and Row.

13. Goodman, F. D. (1986) “Body posture and the religious altered state of consciousness: An experimental investigation.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 26 No. 3, Summer: 81-118.

14. Goodman, F. D. (1990) Where the spirits ride the wind: Trance journeys and other ecstatic experiences. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

15. Guttman, G., Goodman, F. D., Korunka C., Bauer H. and Leodolter M. (1988) “DC-Potential recordings during altered states of consciousness.” Research Bulletin, Psychologisches Institut der Universitaet Wien.

16. Harding, K. (1996) “He is coming, She is coming: Guedra, the Tuareg blessing dance.” Habibi Vol. 15, No. 3.

17. Josephson, S. (1996) Personal communication, 10/28/96. (Dr. Susan Josephson teaches at both the Columbus College of Arts and Design and The Ohio State University, in the fields of Art History and Artificial Intelligence, respectively. She is also affiliated with Dr. Goodman’s work.)

18. Lex, B.W. (1979). “The neurobiology of ritual trance.” The spectrum of ritual: A biogenetic structural analysis. E. d’Aquili (Ed.) New York: Columbia University Press.

19. Linden, P. (1988-89) “Being in Movement: Intention as a somatic meditation.” Somatics, Autumn-Winter: 54-59.

20. Linden, P. (1990-91) “Applications of Being in Movement in working with incest survivors.” Somatics, Autumn-Winter: 38-47.

21. Linden, P. (1994) “Somatic Literacy: Bringing somatic education into physical education.” Journal of Physical Education and Related Disciplines, September: 15-21.

22. Linden, P. (1995) Compute in comfort: Body awareness training: A day-to-day guide to pain-free computing. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

23. Linden, P. Quoted personal communications from Dr. Linden and others at the Columbus Center for Movement Studies, 04/97.

24. Morocco (1993) “Guedra: Spreading soul’s love and peace to the beat of the heart.” Habibi Vol. 12 No. 3.

25. Neher, A. (1961) “Auditory driving observed with scalp electrodes in normal subjects.” Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology 13: 449-51.

26. Ornstein, R. (1972) The Psychology of Consciousness. San Francisco: Freeman.

27. Oswald, I. (1959) “Experimental studies of rhythm, anxiety and cerebral vigilance.” Journal of Mental Science, 105: 269-294.

28. Walker, S. S. (1972) Ceremonial spirit possession in Africa and Afro-America: Forms, meanings and functional significance for individuals and social groups. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.

29. Walter, V. J. and Walter, W. G. (1949) “The central effects of rhythmic sensory stimulation.” Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, 1: 57-86.

30. Woods, J. G. (1996) “Guedra: Inside the living ritual.” Habibi Vol. 15 No. 3.

Shakira teaches and performs internationally, drawing on twenty years’ experience in Middle Eastern dance. For nineteen of those years, she has held a special interest in trance and trance dances and has engaged in separate studies in this direction, including courses with Dr. Felicitas Goodman. Her background also includes four years of medical school and several years’ study of movement awareness and analysis methods including the Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method, and Dr. Paul Linden’s Being in Movement. She brings not only interest and methodology to the subject, but sensitivity and respect for cultural beliefs acquired from her own heritage (Eastern Cherokee and Celtic). efannin@columbus.rr.com

Originally published in Habibi Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall 1997, Santa Barbara, CA. Copyright Shareen El Safy, 1997.

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