Ethnography of an Epiphany

Ethnography of an Epiphany

Physiological/Psychological Indications for Trance-like Behaviors in Middle Eastern Dance

By Marguerite Kusuhara with Richard Adrian Steiger

Who is our ancestor, to make healing with magic prayer?

We in the colored robes are walking here.

Come down to my dark red heart!

To the book with no words.

My teacher, the teacher who taught us,

We are praying to you (bowing to drum)

I am praying for you my spirit.

The drum is a book for us,

The drum is a door for us,

Drum and cymbals are a book for us,

We are kneeling and praying.

We are calling you, calling you,

Go into my body!

Oh mother’s father, spirit, going in.

Leave your tomb, your body,

And come into this dark red heart!

We are calling you.

Onghot,1 come in!2

It is the summer of 1994. The region of Jerim League, Korchin Banner in Inner Mongolia is flooded, which has made it difficult for the performers to make their way from the countryside to the hotel where the possession ceremony will take place. The People’s Republic of China has declared a national disaster. In spite of this, the top floor conference room is filled with officials, interested bystanders, my research team, and three traditional psychotechnologists. This Shaman’s team is composed of two young apprentices and their blind leader. Atlan Chichige is a woman of 68, who will drum, dance, sing and direct her students throughout the evening.

“Calling the Spirits,” Altan Chichige and assistants in Shaman performance with Manchu influence, Khouchin Banner, Inner Mongolia, 1994. Photo: Marguerite Kusuhara

“Where is the door? I will try to walk to the place,” she says to her students. “Pray well. This place is not like the home of people in the world for healing.” She makes a distinction between regular ceremony and the one which will be attempted tonight. Although an actual possession, it is more of an exhibition, not one for the purpose of healing illness or divination. Instead the spirits will be contacted and reassured that all is well and right with the world and harmony retained (Belo, 1953; Humphrey, 1999; Singh, 1999; Steiger, 1988, pp. 30-40, 151-165).

When they begin their chanting, dance and drumming, I find myself observing a commonality between several other types of dance and something of which I have only formerly seen descriptions. My feet move involuntarily in time to the beat as I hold the video camera. I begin to hyperventilate.

The Eurasian Shaman-healer at one with the divine (Eliade, 1964). The spinning Sufi Dervish. The Egyptian Zar performer possessed by zayran (Boddy, 1989; Fakhouri, 1968). The warrior dancer­—shaking, swaying, turning, covered by armor of flowered head dress, coins and mirrors, rainbow skirts flying to the other world with swords flashing, falling to the ground in ecstasy. Here is the connection before me, in a small city on an eastern central outpost of the Silk Road.

And the list of effects produced by such behavior and attendant belief systems—for those of the “Call”(Covell, 1983; Peters, 1997; Walsh & Roger, 1994)—come alive.

1. Visual: color patterns and movement. Phosphenes which can be actuated through induced trance states (Hodgson, 2000; Lewis-Williams & Dawson, 1988).

2. Kinesthetic: swaying, spinning, jumping, vertigo, floating of the Sufi sects around an Axis known as Sama, originating in Central Asia with possible direct connections between Sufi brotherhoods in Central Asia and Shamanic practice (Zalman, 1999).

3. Cutaneous: tingling and prickling sensations.

4. Auditory perceptions: phantom voices contained in the overtones of the drum and cymbals, and Shamanic voices (Halifax, 1979, Steiger, 2001).

5. Visceral perceptions: the gut feeling of rightness.

6. Emotional and Abstract experience: confusion, pleasure, disturbance of time sense and timelessness (Bourguignon, 1989; Wright, 1989).

7. Organized hallucinations: ideas which cross cultural boundaries and evolve through dialogues with others in the past and present (McKenna, 1993: 98).

Another Mongolian dancer is awestruck and begs to join. My universe orders itself and all the physiological manifestations of altered states of consciousness (ASC) and their attendant symbols (Achterberg, 1985; Bourguignon, 1979: chpt. 7, 1974; Rios & Winkleman, 1989). I am drawn by the monotonous drumming, the sonic driving and entrainment at frequencies of four to seven beats per second. (Maxfield, 1990; Neher, 1962; Redmond, 1997: chpt 12; Wright, 1989, pp. 28-32). “The drum is a door for us, drum and cymbals are a book for us,” sing the Shamans of flooded Korchin (Potapov, 1978). Here is a doorway of altered states—the same frequency as the brain’s own theta and alpha waves—controllable and short term (Harner, 1997, p. 50).

“Asking the Spirit,” Bulinbayaer in possession trance with Manchu influence, Khorchin Banner, Inner Mongolia, 1994. Photo: Marguerite Kusuhara

There are rural Shamans, farming part-timers, who claim descent, sing of it and fashion their social relations around personal myth and professional associations—self-designated like the Middle Eastern dance organizations I belong to in my own town where we whirl to the instruction of an urban tribal teacher who would restore our own harmony like an advocate of Terence McKenna’s Archaic Revival theory (McKenna, 1992) at a rave. Therapeuticism and Shamanism. Sufis and possession cults. Middle Eastern Dance.

As the drumming and chanting continue, my feet follow the steps of the Shaman’s floor pattern, and two oscillators pulsating in the same field in almost identical rhythm lock in. Our vibrations become a synchronous rhythmic entrainment (Berendt, 1987, pp. 116-118).

But, how is it that audio with embedded binaural beats alter brain waves? Mind consciousness is now my own field phenomenon, which is interacting with my body and the neurological structures of my brain. Corporeal (Partch, 1974) physiological interpretations, perhaps predisposition, become metaphoric (Houran, Lange, et al, 1997; Peters & Price-Williams, 1980).

Quadratic and right-left brain functions become folk theories and dissolve into a finer analysis (Herrmann, 1989; Springer & Deutsch, 1993; TenHouten,1995). “Entheosonica,” or sounds which produce altered states, literally sounds inspiring the divine (Ott, 1995; Steiger, 2001), assist in the creation of the performer’s out of body experience.

Psychophysiological changes continue. The dancer tremors, shakes and convulses like a temporal lobe micro seizure with spontaneous onset and excessive motor behavior. (Persinger, 1983, 1988; Wright,1989). The Shamans shake and jump. Their movements imitate then simulate the onset of physiological effects of electrical changes in the brain and promote a kindling, or repeat effect of what their bodies know, exercising control over their limbic brain lobes and hypersynchrony—with or without amygdala3 involvement (Wright, 1989). Endorphin releases of ecstasy in their bodies act directly on the hippocampus4 to produce high voltage slow waves and bypass serotonin, which is an inhibitor of the altered state of consciousness (Prince, 1982; Winkleman, 1986). Temporal lobe5 transients have developed a neurological substrate for the development of altered states which in this case clearly includes possession trance states (Persinger, 1988; Wright, 1994).

I hear the jingling drum and remember the long ago band behind me. My own cymbals strike in my memory of a really good show—a neurognostic framework or signal system for sensory motor activity as a bridge to produce narratives facilitating human survival (Krippner, 2000), a bridge to another world of personal and public paradise.

I remember the Shaman’s tests with blades of Mongolia and Korea, and watch the ones in front of me whirling like those of Dervish sects or Fakirs who traditionally and perhaps now in secret heal the sick, eat fire, make magic, swallow needles and walk on knives, and become one with the divine.

I seem to hear Rumi’s words, “Oh Beloved, there is a link between your heart and mine and my heart is looking for that path,” or those of the blind woman, Atlan: “Come down to my dark red heart! To the book with no words. I am praying for you, my spirit!”

In the Shaman’s and Zar performer’s possession, as the drum beats call forth the different spirits—perhaps militant ones like sword carrying Zar or Korean general spirits (Boddy, 1989; Covell, 1983)—the costume elements, colorful gown, head covers, mirrors, strip skirts and flowered head-dresses merge. Symbols and movements of all three combined in performances of modern Middle Eastern dance, where a role-playing dancer displays strength and mastery over a personal universe and personal demons (Campbell, 1988). Audiences at trade fairs such as Rakassah, actually stop shopping as a group unity is invoked, catharsis reached and a chaotic universe reordered. Symbolic intervention (Dow, 1992) and combined beneficial physiological effects result—mood elevation of a performer and audience. Euphoria, resulting in endorphin production (Prince, 1982) and a restored faith in a world where the marginal can make a place for themselves and are marginal no more.

A healer/performer has attached an audience’s/patient’s emotions to transactional symbols chosen from social and cultural myth. The healer/performer manipulates these symbols to help the audience transact their own emotions. (Bourguignon, 1989, 1968; Dow, 1992, p. 56; Moerman, 1979; Nishimura, 1987).

Marguerite Kusuhara. Photo: Keith Drosn.

Why would the Shaman, the Dervish, the Zar performer and the Middle Eastern dancer utilize certain props, metaphors, and visual symbols? Is this interconnectivity cultural or universal? Is American tribal or theatrical Middle Eastern dance a crossroads where healer’s performance and psychotechnology (Moerman, 1979) has taken modern refuge from the steppes of Asia and Islamic Egypt? Possibly—due to human biological similarity and the syncretic absorption of symbols from one culture to another close in proximity. In modern and ancient times, people do not stay in one place. During political upheavals, things do not completely disappear-they are passed on or absorbed and transformed by those that carry traditions and practices from one place to another, despite religious, social, and geographical constraints (Campbell, 1988; Peat, 1991).

I have come from America to a tiny town in eastern central Asia to record the dancing Shamans before me who have themselves traveled 4 hours by donkey cart though the flooded countryside in order to perform in an atmosphere of Socialist and Buddhist disapproval. They are called “Bronze Warriors” and wear the symbolic armor and universal protective paraphernalia common among performing psychotechnologists (Covell, 1983, chpt. 2, pp. 26-39; Wong, 1985, pp. 58-61).

1. Mirrored and metal disks and metal plates. Armor containing helping spirits and repelling evil (Covell, 1983).

2. Bells to call the spirits and warn the enemy sickness and disharmony (Covell, 1983; Hart, 1991; Price, 1983).

3. Circular rainbow colored skirts, veils and strips: representing flight, feathers and path to heaven, often with obscure vision facilitating trance and gender concealment (Basilov, 1978; Covell, 1983; Djakonova, 1978).

4. Flowers and floral motifs-fertility gods and goddesses, healing and regeneration of the Earth (Belo, 1953; Covell, 1983).

5. Birds and snakelike cording: flight and travel upwards or downward between upper and lower and middle worlds. Mastery of elementals and the medical: organs and skeletal system (Covell, 1983; Gimbutas, 1979; Kenin-Lopsan & Taylor 1997).

6. Imitation of animal or human power symbols through movements imitating or inspired by birds, snakes, felines, insects, sea life or other fauna. (Campbell, 1983, 1988; Lonsdale, 1981; Peters, 1989, p. 119; Ulanjee, 1992).

I watch Atlan and her assistants light flames to the spirits, elementals and ancestors in tiny cups, play frame drums and recite their genealogy, call the spirits or present their reason for existence and dance to exhaustion. At another performance, a Shen Guan or “Master of Heaven” called the gods and challenged poverty’s evil with his sword while beating himself with the blade, predicting the future with playing cards and producing medicine using sleight of hand. Among my stimulated memories of other ceremonial artifacts emerges one from a collection displayed some years ago at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—an ancient Buddhist reliquary with Aramaic script. An odd combination in an artifact created for someone traveling somewhere in an unknown sect from a far flung area.

Another brain cell fires away and I am reminded of Baraba Turks of Western Siberia, where Islam gained ground in the 16th century, who still guarded their Shamanic beliefs until the first half of the 18th century. Their surviving frame drums with drawings and their chants strongly resemble those of the present-day Mongolia and Samis of Lapland (Dioszegi, 1978; Wong, 1985). Some Turkish groups were converted to Buddhism before the introduction of Islam, most certainly affecting Sufi beliefs, aiding in the creation of interesting performances, artifacts and even poetry. The martial spirits of pan-Asian Shamans (Chinese, Mongol, Korean), and those of north and east African Zar may also be wandering ones, who drifted and then settled from their mendicant paths like a friend of Hafiz or Rumi.

Power for the powerless as the performer identifies with, seeks control over or convinces an audience of their knowledge of the universe. The psychological reframe of the Zar can be seen to present a convoluted form of social apology in which woman receives sympathy, justification, and reimbursement when in a difficult situation­; but within its tradition exists sacred marriage, communions with and transformations into warrior entities, the reacting to specific drum rhythm to identify spirit, and purification—a union with the divine (Boddy, 1989).

Egyptian dancers have combined both Dervish and Zar movements in their performances. People cross cultural and physical boundaries and conference, and have always done so in synchronicity (Peat, 1991). And presently, what we are told is happening behind closed doors, what we are told to believe or “see,” and what may actually be happening are completely different issues in terms of cultural performance and belief. A culture or group constructs for us what vision of themselves they wish us to know. Central Asia, Turkey and Egypt have always lain along a very beaten path. Inner worlds and outer ones appear to be maintained separately in all societies, where biological and cultural crossroads convene (Arrien, 1990, Peters, 1989). What we are told can or never will happen by members of a society, may indeed be happening unknown to the observer even as it is denied, or danced or created.


The relationship between the costumes and motions found in modern Danse Oriental, and the trance behaviors, physical techniques, and material paraphernalia of Shamans in Eurasia represents a compelling synchronicity. Rhythmic arabesques stream and rivulet, mosaic and fractal, crystal and voice. The consciousness imbued by the entrainment of the surface mind, and the engagement of the motor-sensory, flies free in the overtones. The differences of cultural frameworks of tradition and innovation intensify the breadth of the continuum of the experiential context. The subtext of this enfoldment enriches the transactional symbology of the dance in all its forms.


1. Onghot is a Mongolian shaman’s teaching or possessing spirit, sometimes an actual ancestor, sometimes a dream figure or ancestor. Many Mongolian shamans dance and sing at the same time, calling their spirits, blessing and importuning the gods and ancestors, naming illnesses, reciting their genealogy to both vocally and visually establish their power over the cosmos.

2. Shaman’s Song, translated from Mongolian Khorchin dialect utilizing Marguerite Kusuhara’s primary video and audio sources by Ms. Oranchimeg. Oranchimeg of Inner Mongolia’s English Department at NADA University, and her husband, Huurelbaatur, have also assisted Dr. Caroline Humphrey of King’s College and Department of Anthropology at the University of Cambridge with Dr. Humphrey’s research on the Nomads of Inner Mongolia.

3. amygdala- an interior section of the back of the brain or cerebellum

4. hippocampus- an interior section of the front of the brain or cerebrum

5. temporal lobe- the lower exterior frontal section of the brain.

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Marguerite Garner-Kusuhara holds an M.A. in Visual/Psychological Anthropology and B.A. in Fine Art from Cal. State Fullerton, where she received the prestigious ISTOR award for international research. A multifaceted performer of Middle Eastern dance in Southern California, Marguerite is a professional dancer, singer, magician, visual artist, and instructor. She has appeared in Egypt, China, Israel and most recently in Germany, where she taught a seminar and movement workshop on shamanism and dance symbolism for Middle Eastern Dancers. While in China, she was a foreign expert at the Social Science Academy of Inner Mongolia. Her seven year involvement as cultural advocate with a published government project on collaborative research and cross-cultural studies concerning Shamanism included studies of music, divination, dance, instruction, demonstrations, and public performances of Mediterranean, Mongolian, and Middle Eastern dance and music. She also performed at joint venture hotels, night clubs, on syndicated Chinese television, and on tour with the Hohhot Song and Dance Ensemble of Inner Mongolia. For the past several years Marguerite has appeared in a number of Southern California Middle Eastern Dance concerts and events.

Richard Adrian Steiger received an M.A. in Ethnomusicology and a B.A. in Fine Art from San Diego State University. He is a musician, artist, writer and researcher who currently resides in the San Diego Area. Richard composes classic electronic music, and performs Middle Eastern/Iranian style percussion on the tablah and derbeki in the local Iranian community and for Middle Eastern dance events throughout Southern California. He has also studied and performed Balinese, Javanese, Sumatran, Brazilian, North and South Indian and African music with master players from each of these cultures. His activities included a stint with the Plus Fire Performance Group as their resident composer/musician, and performances of Medieval music with the Harry Partch Ensemble. Performances and recordings continued with the Rinaldi String Quartet, the John Kaizan Neptune Ensemble, Suddenly Finnish, and Titanya Dahlin’s “Scheherazade.” In 1994, he appeared with the SDSU Javanese gamelan at UCLA. In 2000, Richard was a contributing composer to the ongoing ambient/experimental music series Project Cathedral. His most recently produced albums are Plexus, and the Musique Concrete/Electronica, World Within. An active member of SAMEDA, Richard has played for a number of San Diego area events, and gives lecture/demos and workshops. He is currently completing an instructional resource book on the dumbek.

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