m and dance circles are often not the shape of a circle.  I’ve been to hundreds of drum and dance circles. Very Lifew of them were actually the shape of a circle. Those that that were often presented phasing problems due to difficulty in people hearing one another across the circle.

The reason it’s called a circle isn’t that we have to assemble in the shape of a circle. When it’s shaped more like a cup (which is a better shape for everyone to be able to hear) we don’t call it a drum and dance cup. We still call it a circle.

I think there are at least two reasons for this. The first is that the dancers (and every good circle has dancers) tend to dance in a circle, usually around a centerpiece (often a fire). This keeps the energy and flow moving and gives everyone equal access to every part of the sonic and physical space.

The second reason is because the circle represents the social structure of the participants, the hierarchy, or rather, the absence of one.

 Drum and dance circles are co-creative and aim to be egalitarian. They differ from ensembles, bands, orchestras in a number of ways. Chief among them is that the participants of a circle are not required to be familiar with the music. There is no music to be familiar with. There is no composition, no rehearsal, no audience, no performance, and no qualifications required for someone to participate.* Circles don’t have a band leader, a composer or a conductor. There is no designated soloist, nor is there anyone empowered to do the designating.

In the circle, rhythm is the primary organizing principle. The pulse, tempo, meter, and “song” are arrived at through consensus in the language of rhythm. In each moment participants are spontaneously creating and discovering, a sensory experience that is entirely unique. Each voice makes a unique contribution, without that voice, or with a different voice, the experience would be different.  At it’s best, the circle is a spontaneous co-creation driven by rhythm, inspiration, and mutual respect. Through this experience participants experience deeper connections with their own sense of self and one another and a personal and collective sense of empowerment. For many, it’s literally been life changing.

How often do most of us get to participate in the shaping of a beautiful thing? An inspiring thing? How often do we get to do something that makes someone dance? Or dance in such a way that it makes someone make a different sound? How often do we get to co-create a thing that can change someone’s life? 

Around the world for thousands of years, people have participated in the co-creation of rhythm driven music and dance experiences as part of culture. These experiences are used in ceremony, ritual, celebration, expression, and community connection. Around the world, for thousands of years, people have been creative in how they interact with one another.

The Fragility of Creativity

In the United States, most of us have been taught to leave creativity to “experts”. Very few of us have connections to a cultural heritage where we gather around a fire and make music together. Instead, today, we gather around a television and watch Netflix, or listen to Spotify, go to a concert, a gallery or a museum.  We’ve left creativity to others, and the validation of creations to gatekeepers. People have surrendered their own creativity and in so doing, they have lost touch with themselves. I’ve heard a thousand times “I don’t have any talent”, “I’m not good at this”, “I don’t know how to do it”, “I don’t know where to begin”. Behind these statements, is a fear of being judged. Sometimes people are afraid that their contribution isn’t good enough; that they might be ridiculed, or feel foolish. In addition that, there’s sometimes another fear. “What do I sound like?” “What do I want to say?”, “Who am I to say anything?”

When someone stands in the middle of the circle and says, “don’t worry about it, just follow me”, many of these people are more than happy to surrender the reigns of their creativity. They can safely dissolve into the anonymity of a collective experience.

There are always a few folks who seem to be wired to let it all hang out. Their creativity isn’t fragile, nor is their ego and those folks should be celebrated as an inspiration to us all.  The people I’m thinking about are those that might be more sensitive and more reluctant. For these people, opening up is usually a process that takes multiple steps. Each step begins tentatively, it’s evaluated, adjusted and evaluated some more. After it’s been assessed as acceptable/successful, the participant is able to build on that confidence to take the next step, which also starts out as tentative, and so on. For many of us, this process can evoke some really powerful and deep emotions that are wrapped up in our sense of identity, autonomy, individuality, and personal strength. It may seem small, but the sense of discovery that can arise from the emergence of a creative voice in a safe co-creative space is one of the many beautiful transformations I’ve been able to witness. It’s precious and powerful and drum and dance circles are a perfect place for us encourage, participate in, and  honor that process.

Now, I’m not saying there’s no value in a drum hierarchy. It’s sort of like an impromptu ensemble. People can have a little bit of the experience of being a performer, a musician, even if they’ve never played music before. People can still feel like they’re having a collective experience but from within a safe hierarchichal structure.

It’s important to recognize though, that if a circle is egalitarian, self-directed, and co-creative, this is not a “circle”. As an exercise this can be a great way to introduce children and adults to the instruments, some basic rhythmic concepts, and have some fun having a collective rhythm experience. These experiences can be great for team building and connecting to our communities.

  • The beautiful thing about the structure of a drum and dance circle though is that it can be welcoming to people of all experience levels (including no experience) for these reasons:
  • Humans are wired to entrain to rhythm (for most of us, it takes more effort to clap out of time than to clap in time, try it.)
  • Many modern drum circle drums benefit from technique, but don’t require it to be able to make a meaningful sound
  • Most humans have been listening to metronomic rhythmic music their whole lives and have a fundamental library of rhythmic ideas in their minds ear from which to draw. It’s a language that most of us can speak at least some without ever having to learn it.
  • Humans have been playing and dancing to drums for thousands of years all around the world. This is an experience that is in our breath and bones.

To be clear, I teach this stuff. I provide workshops and lessons on how to play these instruments, I teach rhythm theory, I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of cultivating a stronger sense of rhythm and instrumental technique while deepening our understanding of creative opportunities through musical analysis.

But, in a drum circle, these things are not prerequisites to participation or making a meaningful contribution. Due to the spontaneous nature of the co-creative process, any voice in the circle can be the one that establishes rhythmic consensus. Any voice can be the one that inspires the next change, or the one that completes the collective melody.

All that is required is that we create a space for that voice. The space is the circle. It is the absence of a leader, director, conductor that makes that space.

(I don’t use the term “facilitator” because everyone who makes a contribution to the order of the circle is facilitating it. Facilitation doesn’t imply hierarchy. )

— Julian Douglas


* I am also a performer, and I really enjoy structured musical experiences, the aims are entirely different from a circle