When it comes to “going out dancing,” most people think of it as a Saturday night type of affair—a chance to get dressed up and show off some sweet moves, staying up until the wee hours. Well, it’s 11am on Sunday morning now, and for the dancers gathered at Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center, this is the perfect time to get their groove on.
Inside the barn-like space, a trio of women in sweat pants and bare feet do an improvised line dance; a man lies still on the worn wooden floor with his eyes closed; others are stretching, or just swaying to the beat. There are adults and kids of all ages, including several toddlers and one small baby. People look comfortable, not dressed to impress. This is Soul Sanctuary, a community freestyle dance event that happens here every Sunday.
Daniel Ari is one of the main organizers of Soul Sanctuary, and also today’s D.J. As he explains it, “a community freestyle dance is everyone just comes and dances however they wish. The kind of watchword is you dance like nobody is looking. We have people of all abilities, ages, and people just dance however they wish to the music.”
Although the dancing itself is free-form, the two-hour event does have a loose structure. After a warm-up and arrival period, the whole group meets for a brief opening circle, then a long period of freestyle dancing. During this time, small groups coalesce and dissolve as people dance together and then by themselves. Some people lie or sit on the floor, some run or leap around the space, and kids dance and play with hoops and scarves. Handclaps and excited whoops occasionally echo around the space.
In the last 15 minutes, people gather in a circle again and formally introduce themselves. Organic fruit is passed around this “closing circle” as people share their thoughts and experiences. One woman, who is here for the second time today with her young daughter, becomes emotional as she describes the good time she and her daughter have had at Soul Sanctuary. “Coming here I feel so free, so relaxed. And she’s so safe here, that I could be relaxed here. I was feeling so well that I almost want to cry,” she says.
Soul Sanctuary has been going since 2003, but two years ago they decided to do away with admission fees and become 100 percent volunteer-run. Inspired by other local organizations like Berkeley’s pay-it-forward restaurant Karma Kitchen, they have adopted a gift economy model. There is still a box where people can put money, but as co-organizer Zach Pine explains, “the idea is that you don’t put the box right by the door, like it’s an admission box. It’s away from our admission area.” He says this removes the sense of obligation, and makes payment a voluntary action.
Pine makes it clear that Soul Sanctuary’s model is pay-it-forward, and not donation. He says the difference has to do with how the money is viewed – a donation is a one-time action for both giver and receiver.
“Whereas if you have the idea that your gift, your dance is already paid for as a gift from people who came before you, right away you’re receiving something. You’re valuing it as something that’s been given to you. And then when you, if you wish, and if you can afford to pay it forward, you’re saying I want this to continue for other people, even if I’m not here.”
The people who come to Soul Sanctuary have made it clear they want this dance to continue: in the two years since they made the switch to the gift economy, they’ve actually built up a small surplus. That’s because the needs of the dance community are pretty basic. Their rent at Ashkenaz, a non-profit organization, is quite low, and all of the work that goes into making the event happen is done by volunteers.
The organizers say it takes about $4000 and 350 hours of volunteer time to run the dance each year. But dancer Nancy Alima Ali says the dance runs on something more valuable—the energy of the participants.
“It’s about the exchange in energy and that can be in the form of money, or in the form of dancing, or that can be in the form of doing volunteer work. … Ultimately the idea is that you do get more out of it than you put into it,” she says.
Another dancer, Erika Leonard, says she appreciates that money is not part of the decision when she thinks about coming to Soul Sanctuary. She says, “So much of ‘do we go to the movies, do we go to dinner?’ is such a complicated thing. This is just my heart that brings me here.”
Leonard also appreciates that at Soul Sanctuary, she feels no obligation to dance in any particular way. “You can lie on the floor. You can interact with people, you can not interact with people,” she says. “It’s rare to find a place where you can really get in touch with yourself.”
That freedom to focus on self-expression is what Soul Sanctuary is all about, says organizer Zach Pine. And hopefully, dancers can take some of that with them when they leave the dance floor. “Real life has a lot of scary things,” he says. “But when you carry it around with you then you can have the freedom to try new things and to do new things and to have a positive effect in the world.”