There are a lot of recreational music making experiences available today that, grouped together, are called “drum circles”. These range from highly structured team building events for schools and corporations, to free-for-all celebrations of life found on beaches and in many cities of the US. There are drum circles for community building, mental health, physical health, exercise, performance, creativity, cultural connection and education, and fun.
At the root of why they have gained in popularity is that participants are reconnecting to something that resembles an ancient practice that has been happening in one form or another all over the world for thousands of years. Co-creative community experiences involving drums and dancing are in our breath and bones.
30 years ago, I came of age in an eclectic community that had already been doing drum circles in the US for decades. They drew on instinct, intuition, and practices and traditions of indigenous people around the world and were focused on the benefits of drum and dance circles to be opportunities for development, community evolution, and personal transformation. Some of the elders of that community sometimes called ours an “Alchemical Drum Circle” referring to the ancient process of transmuting matter.
relating to or characteristic of alchemy, the medieval forerunner of chemistry concerned with the transmutation of matter.
“writing a novel is an alchemical task”
The aim of the Alchemical Drum and Dance circle is to be transformed by it, to transmute ordinary consciousness to something greater than our limited awareness can usually access. It’s practicioners seek to have an experience of being larger and more inclusive than what we usually think of as ourselves; having a direct experience that transcends the consciousness of the individual identity or ego. Sometimes interpreted as religious experiences, various traditions refer to these altered states as transcendental, trance, or possession. The experience is one where participants are swept up in a shared, kinetic, multi-sensory co-creative process. The ideal result is feeling a greater awareness of a deeper sense of self and the other participants. Sometimes the experience results in an even more expansive sense of dissolution and connection, as with or embodiment of “Divinity” or “the Universe”, often leading to an easy embrace of the idea that there is a greater intelligence or universal organizing principle of which we are all a part.
In my own experiences over nearly 30 years, I have been thoroughly transformed. The person writing this today only exists because of the shared rhythm experiences that have accompanied the moments of my life. Rhythm has given me a better understanding of myself, a greater understanding of others and a sense of connection to that which binds humans and all living things together. In that time, I’ve identified what I think of as the basic ingredients of an Alchemical Circle. The list below isn’t comprehensive, but it covers the essentials. It’s worth noting that the presence of these ingredients doesn’t guarantee a successful circle, but I’ve never been to a successful circle that didn’t have them.
The Basic Ingredients:
A dynamic and subtly, gradually changing rhythm that lasts for a minimum of 30 minutes. Typically due to the range of experience for participants, an experience is more likely to be successful if it lasts at least a couple of hours. My own experiences have usually been most powerful when we have been able to play for a few hours.
Participants are giving their attention to the present moment, the rhythm, their senses, particularly non-visual sensory experiences, the sounds, and the sense of one’s body in space. We avoid evaluating our performance, seeking results or reflecting on the moments that have passed. There is only now.
A Safe Space:
A safe physical space is safe for bare dancing feet, clear of obstructions, and large enough to accommodate the participants, including dancers who need to move through space. A social space is safe when participants can trust that the environment and other participants are in service to the shared experience; cooperative, sensitive, encouraging, inclusive, free of criticism and harassment.
Free of disruption:
Also relating to a safe space, it’s important that the participants are provided a space that is free of sensory distractions or disturbances (touch, conversation, abrupt and/or non-conducive changes to the sonic or visual environment).
Inhibition is prohibition of the experience. Drummers and dancers will have to let go of concerns related to execution, performance, ego, and appearances.
Starting with the sense of momentum that no longer requires thinking, the rhythm becomes its own impetus. Motion becomes effortless. the line between “doing” and “the doer” becomes streamlined or disappears. Ideally, this eventually leads to the feeling of “not doing” – “not drumming”, “not dancing” while participating. The sense that the drumming and dancing are doing themselves, or that we are being guided by the collective or “some external presence”, or that someone/something else is doing the drumming or dancing through us.
Other Optional/Helpful Ingredients:
A Visually and Aurally Conducive Environment:
A visually and aurally conducive environment is one where sights are in service to the experience, for example a forest or a meadow, fire, and/or a ceremonial setting. It’s also helpful when ambient sounds and acoustics are supportive of the instruments. The absence of traffic, media, machinery and chatter is preferred. More inspirational is the presence of acoustic nature sounds like birds, crickets, a fire, and a well balanced, reverberant acoustic environment.
An opening Ceremony or Ritual:
The experience described here is broadly shared around the world even among groups with diverse beliefs and use of religious symbology, which suggests that this is a relatively universal human capacity not bound to the truth of any particular religious tradition, but in inclusive and open minded groups or groups with a shared belief system, a ritual/ceremonial focal point can be helpful. Such a symbolic focal point can be a conduit of creativity. If used, this should be done at the beginning of a circle to help create a collective intention. Once the circle is underway, no further interruptions of the flow of rhythm or focus on the present moment will serve the experience. It should be noted that ceremonies or rituals can be off putting to some people and should be used to create cohesion and avoided if they will create division.