By Sara Vos
On an unusually warm Sunday in January, people are milling around inside Detroit’s archaic Scarab Club (the sign out front notes, “The scarab, an Egyptian symbol of rebirth…”). True to the venue’s name, a tribe of Dance Meditation Technique (DanceMT) practitioners, as participants are called, has been showing up every Sunday for a chance to be reborn with more vibrancy and vitality.
Michael Peters is inside, holding the space as a slightly impish and unconventional spiritual growth facilitator. With almost 2,500 Facebook fans as of this writing, Peters is, at least partially if not largely, responsible for the popularity of this practice in southeast Michigan, which began in earnest in 2011. DanceMT, which links movement, music, and meditation, is unique in dance and spirituality circles both for its unprecedented success in such a short amount of time and its seamless synthesis of the dance club scene and the healing arts.
DanceMT is a powerful, potent dance and qi gong practice that incorporates much of Peters’ spiritual training, as well as his capacity for leadership and container-creating. It is about utilizing your tension and trapped emotions to catalyze powerful shifts, to release them to open to your own freer movements and, ultimately, to liberation. It is about laughter and building a community of dancing spiritual seekers — naturally, without trying. People come together. It is a practice that requires a touch of fearlessness, as well as a desire to focus inward — both of which are cultivated more and more, the more you experience it.
Peters notes, “A lot of the modalities like ecstatic dance, dance church, rhythmic renewal — these kids don’t have a technique, so it’s just people dancing without drugs or alcohol, which is wonderful. But it’s not giving people real tools to understand why their mind is so frightened, why they’re experiencing so much anxiety, and how to become freer of that.”
Peters developed the DanceMT technique after deep self-exploration and spiritual inquiry with a variety of spiritual teachers, including Buddhist psychologist Aura Glaser (Glaser also founded Crazy Wisdom Bookstore in 1982); Amma, the “Indian Hugging Saint”; Gelek Rimpoche, spiritual leader of Jewel Heart, the Tibetan Buddhist Center in Ann Arbor; the late tai chi teacher and healer, Master Gabriel Chin; and one of Master Chin’s senior students, Anand Safi. Through his immersion experience in their collected spiritual teachings, Peters overcame suicidal depression and panic/anxiety disorders, and was able to make sense of his experiences in mental hospitals and lockdown facilities.
After years of serious study with his teachers, in particular Anand Safi’s “Transforming Tension into Creativity” practice, Peters realized he had become extremely sensitive to his own psychic state and, thus, to other people’s thoughts and judgments. “That’s what made it possible for me to discover Dance Meditation Technique. I saw it in my own mind. You’re not different from other people. To the extent that you can see your own mind, you can see clearly the other people around you. It just happens like that. I started to get the sense that, eventually, one day I would teach this, but it took me about ten years to get to a place where I could do this and where it could happen. Safi told me specifically that when I was ready, it would appear for me in a different way. And it did.”
To look at the 35-year-old Peters now, with his easy grin and mop of curls, it is challenging to imagine what those years of his youth must have been like for him — and yet, contained within (and beyond) those seal-brown eyes and laugh lines is a graceful humility: I-Am-One-Who-Has-Been-There-and-Overcome. Within DanceMT as a container for sacred evolution is Michael Peters as leader, yogi, jokester: What good is sorrow, without a few well-timed belly laughs? He gets it. With a countenance that conveys hard-to-come-by humility, people feel safe to be themselves around Peters.
Because anonymity and privacy are foundational elements of DanceMT — thereby providing safety for the practitioners — taking photos or videos is not allowed. There is no such thing as voyeurism here, only active participation. These and other components of this “inner container” are part of what makes this practice so radically transcendental.
The session starts with an introduction to the basics of DanceMT, which includes an agreement that practitioners will not watch each other, followed by a facilitated ten-minute sound and movement catharsis. After this, the 90-minute session (called “the practice”) begins. During the practice, people are encouraged to dance freely while maintaining an inward focus, and to release emotions and express themselves audibly to the best of their ability.
Peters plays the music at a loud volume, which creates a sense of ease and anonymity. As trauma researchers have noted, releasing trapped energy with sound and movement aids in healing and resolution. The DanceMT container creates a safe space for practitioners to explore training their minds to release judgment of self and others. It is 90 minutes of practicing “freedom from social compulsion.”
Peters explains, “People talk a lot about ‘safe, sacred, judgment-free space,’ but almost no one knows how to create that. When we’re with each other, we’re programmed. We’re really scared. We’re afraid we’re going to be rejected; we’re hoping we’re going to be accepted. All I do is help people see why we’re scared, and allow people an opportunity to practice doing the things that make us comfortable. The technique is specifically addressing all the mental fears that anyone is having at any time in any social situation. It’s addressing social compulsion — compulsive social behavior. Automatic, non-responsive, programmed social behavior.”
He continues, “So many people’s social situations are so broken, they’re looking for mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. Deep needs are wanting to be fulfilled or deep fears are looking to be avoided, and this is what compromises our social experience. If you watch people at a bar or at a club, they’ll sip their drinks, and their eyes are watching around and darting. A squirrel at a bird feeder does this: They take a little bit to eat, and then they’re looking around — they’re looking for danger. Is there a hawk? A kid with a BB gun? A cat? And see, that’s wisdom. If a squirrel didn’t do that, it would be killed very quickly. So, our fears are based in wisdom. What we did learn growing up is that if we aren’t careful, we will be rejected, we will be ostracized, we will be exploited...So these are not hallucinations.”
At DanceMT events, Peters shares his knowledge and experience about re-training the mind and body to release fear through accepting our fears and acknowledging them, instead of trying to bypass them vis-à-vis “positive affirmations” and other common techniques within the holistic health and spirituality movements.
What makes DanceMT different from yoga or other dance rooms is the emphasis on remaining inwardly-focused, while supporting other participants. Before the practice begins, Peters takes practitioners through various exercises that showcase the mind’s fears and reactions to being the only one to make sound or to move. In order to alleviate those fears and judgments, practitioners are guided to continuously move throughout the practice; to respond with sound in kind whenever another practitioner makes a sound (“mirroring”); and to return to the basic “catharsis” shaking and sounding whenever their thoughts, fears, or judgments start to loop through their practice. Participants are taught that when they are no longer able to come up with vocal release on their own to use “jai!,” a Sanskrit word that Peters translates as “victory over suffering.”
He explains, “We don’t even tell people how to dance… It’s about getting in touch with your instincts. Your ability to focus inwardly while being around other people just gets more and more and more profound. And you can use that anywhere, and everywhere, all of the time.”
The very first DanceMT was held at Royal Oak’s SkyLoft in 2009. Frank Raines, founder of Detroit’s popular dance event “Funk Night,” DJ’d the event. Although the first DanceMT event was very successful in terms of attendees, Peters realized he was not yet emotionally or spiritually capable of sharing the practice in the ways that would realize his deeper visions of healing and wellness for the Metro Detroit area, so he shelved the project for two years.
DanceMT was reborn on November 11, 2011, and has been continuously held ever since. The site of the rebirth was Jessica Hernandez’s Bakery Loft, the same location where Hernandez formed Detroit Soup. (Detroit Soup is a catalyzer and fundraiser for local Detroit companies to receive small grants based on proposing their ideas to a crowd, while sharing a meal.) “Unbeknownst to me, 11-11-11 was [the date I had chosen] to re-launch,” said Peters. “That was the first of many auspicious date/time situations that have occurred for us, in terms of astrology, sacred geometry, and numerology. I’ve never sought out to land on those dates; it just [happens that way].”
Peters’ vision also has created longer DanceMT events that encompass more than sound and movement. The 11-11-11 event that incorporated the re-launch of Dance MT was the first of its kind in the area — live art and healthy food and drinks, combined with movement practice in an intentionally drug-and-alcohol-free space. Live painters swept canvas sheets with swaths of multicolored hues as part of “The Angel Project,” Peters’ creative gift to blighted Detroit areas with angelically-focused squares of heartfelt beauty — a DanceMT version of Tibetan prayer flags. Pieces from The Angel Project have been shown at various Metro Detroit locales, and have provided the backdrop and side panels of some outdoor DMT events, including at Song of the Morning Retreat Center’s annual YogaFest.
2012’s Winter Solstice “Temple of Devotion” event was a particularly powerful evening, spanning eight hours and including live painting and drumming, donation-based bodywork, sacred song and chanting, community-created altars, guest meditation and qi gong leaders, and more, in addition to the focal DanceMT practice. As always, guests were invited to enjoy healing herbal teas that Peters provides, as well as the organic, local food that is sometimes a part of the gatherings.
The January 16, 2016, DanceMT practice at The Scarab Club pulled in newcomers from all over the Metro Detroit area, and I caught some of their responses. First-time participants shared their reactions: “I feel good moving in my body,” “I have a sense of emotional freedom I didn’t realize was missing,” and “I’ll definitely be back.” One veteran DanceMT practitioner, Jennifer Silverston, who also teaches chi gong and tai chi professionally, has been to The Scarab Club DanceMT events every week since November. She appreciates these events as a vital component of her spiritual and physical practice.
Meg Paul, Wayne State University Theatre and Dance faculty member and Artistic Director of the WSU Dance Workshop, is an ardent DanceMT practitioner. “Dance Meditation Technique is special. It has led me to the greater truth of who I am and has allowed me to find real compassion for myself and for all of life. Through the creative mix of DMT’s teachings, catharsis, music, and freestyle movement, I leave the class exploding with happiness, my emotional clutter exhausted and my greater truth loud and clear for me to hear.” Paul, like many, feels she has found something unique and extraordinary right here in Metro Detroit’s very own dance halls, yoga studios, and art galleries. Without any press or publicity, DanceMT is a quiet movement of spiritual seekers dancing for liberation from suffering and freedom for all beings, especially for themselves.
Peters summarizes, “When no one is looking, that’s when you have the opportunity to stumble on true, authentic movement — not contrived, [but] spontaneous, vivid. Everyone who’s done it knows the feeling... A few seconds here, a few seconds there... Then moments, then hours... Then ideally, most of our life can be lived in that uncontrived, spontaneous, authentic, real space. The essential universal nature is creative, poetic, artistic, musical — so you are that. You are absolutely that. Anytime you are put in touch with your energy source, that is creative.
Dance Meditation Technique mini-retreats happen every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. at The Scarab Club, 217 Farnsworth Street, Detroit, 48202. DanceMT Facilitator Training and other educational immersions are now being offered online for those seeking further instruction in how to experience, integrate, and/or facilitate the practice. Keep up-to-date with current offerings at www.facebook.com/dancemeditationtechnique/ and at www.dancemt.com.
Michael Patrick Peters is the creator of Dance Meditation Technique. He is a father, green business entrepreneur, gardener, transformational event planner, artist, musician, and poet. Learn more about him and his work at www.donebyimaginedo.com.