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Enlightened exercise

The Yum Session offers fitness and fulfillment

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DANCE LIKE NOBODY’S WATCHING :  Yum Session dancers experience ecstasy and exercise during weekly freeform dance events on Sunday mornings at the Monday Club. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • DANCE LIKE NOBODY’S WATCHING : Yum Session dancers experience ecstasy and exercise during weekly freeform dance events on Sunday mornings at the Monday Club.

I could hear tribal drumming filtering out to the parking lot as I pulled up for the weekly Yum Session, a two-hour free-form ecstatic dance session held at the Monday Club. As I walked into the building, a wave of patchouli drifted gently over me, propelled by the percussive thump of a funky jazz trio. More than two dozen barefooted men and women moved in time to the music, bodies dimly lit by high chandeliers and candles glowing through papers bags scattered around the room’s perimeter.

Some dancers engaged others, mirroring or countering one another’s moves; others seemed to bounce around in their own world. One athletic young man moved with the grace of a trained dancer, while most seemed to improvise and react. The event’s motto came to mind: “Dance as if nobody’s watching.” That’s precisely what seemed to be happening. This wasn’t a performance; it was a community expressing itself as one. And while I generally don’t go in for hippy-dippy, New Agey stuff, by the end of the two hours, I have to admit I felt more at peace, energized, and ready to face my week.

Like many “professionals,” my schedule doesn’t permit much time for exercise even if I had the fortitude to commit to it. My gym days are long over. Calisthenics, weightlifting, Stairmasters—no thanks! If I’m going to get some exercise, it’s going to be incidental. Riding my bike to a BBQ, taking the dogs for a walk, surfing, tennis—I’m more interested in having fun first and being an accidental athlete. If that describes you, the Yum Sessions may be the perfect solution. You go to dance, but you end up getting a serious workout ... and maybe even a little enlightenment.

- EXPERIENCE THE YUM:  The Yum Session happens most Sunday mornings from 10 a.m. to noon at the Monday Club and occasionally Thursday evenings at Smiling Dog Yoga. First timers, seniors, and students pay $8. Others pay $15, or a three-session pass for $30. To confirm scheduling, call 748-3815 or email philiption@aol.com. This Sunday, Jan. 25, the 10 a.m. to noon Yum Session will include a potluck for those interested in participating. -
  • EXPERIENCE THE YUM: The Yum Session happens most Sunday mornings from 10 a.m. to noon at the Monday Club and occasionally Thursday evenings at Smiling Dog Yoga. First timers, seniors, and students pay $8. Others pay $15, or a three-session pass for $30. To confirm scheduling, call 748-3815 or email philiption@aol.com. This Sunday, Jan. 25, the 10 a.m. to noon Yum Session will include a potluck for those interested in participating.
After free-form dancing for 45 minutes or so, Yum Session founder Philip Novotny spoke quietly over the P.A., asking attendees to line up by height. Then he divided the line into groups of three, guiding the trios through interactive dance. It didn’t matter how you moved; it was all about freedom and trust—freedom to dance without being judged, trust that everyone there was accepted and appreciated.

It didn’t take long before what little self-consciousness I had was gone and I was in the moment. And as I looked around at the faces of the other dancers, I saw something I never saw when I used to go to a gym. People were smiling! Instead of the grimaces of determination or the mind-numbing look of repetition, these people looked positively blissful.

There was something organic occurring here, not just with the dancers but with the band, who essentially played two hours straight without stopping, bringing the music to a crescendo before slowing it to the steady pulse of heartbeat. Nothing was planned; everything was improvised. At one point, with complete spontaneity, some dancers began to make sounds, and soon it sounded like a choir, harmonizing in yelps and trills, sometimes sounding like Tuvan throat singers, sometimes like gospel music sung in an unknown language.

When tired, the dancers rested, when rested, they danced. They remained transfixed, ecstatic, sometimes writhing on the floor, sometimes spinning like whirling dervishes. The band became hypnotic, and the dancers continued to lose themselves in music and movement.

PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
“It’s a lot of trust,” explained regular attendee Barbara Morningstar. “I didn’t think I’d ever do contact improv, where you physically interact with another dancer, but I remember dancing with Philip [Novotny] and thinking to myself, ‘Okay, I’m going to let go,’ and he truly took me places I’d never gone before.”

Morningstar was quick to point out that there are no expectations and dancers can interact as much or as little as they want.

“Sometimes you feel inert, so you dance inert,” she said. “It’s all about authentic movement. That’s why it’s a little weird when someone comes to observe.”

As noon approached, the music slowed and softened, and the dancers drifted together into a circle. Soon the only sound was that of bodies at rest—the deep breathing, the hum of satisfaction. The session finishes with the dancers sitting in a circle, where each takes a turn verbally expressing how they feel. That may sound weird, but after spending two non-verbal hours with people engaging in totally free movement, you’ve shared something undeniable, which is why the Yum Session bills its goal as “attaining heightened awareness and connection through breath, through beat, through movement, through dance.”

PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
“It’s so honest and in the moment,” explained Roz Crew, who was at her first Yum Session. “These interactions just happen, and when they do, you feel a lot of love in the room. That’s why it kind of feels like a prayer.”

Despite her first-time status, I wondered if it went well for her.

“Very well! I knew it was about getting into my body and not about meeting people, but people would just start dancing with me spontaneously. I felt so welcome and not at all ill at ease. It’s definitely an organic experience. If I was going to pick a religion, it would be this.”

The success of the sessions owes a lot to the revolving group of musicians who play the sessions.

“In a way, this is a real gift for the musicians, too,” said organizer Philip Novotny. “It gives them a space to come and journey, to push each other’s envelopes. It’s two hours of completely improvised music, two hours of complete freedom, which is rare. Usually it’s play, stop, applause, play, stop, applause. Like the dancers, they don’t know what’s going to happen.”

By the end, I was happy, relaxed ... and sweating my butt off. It was only then I remembered I had just exercised, and it didn’t hurt a bit. ∆

Glen Starkey’s favorite exercise is the 12-ounce curl. Buy him a round at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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