Come dancin’

Soul Shake Dance Church builds community through movement

Souls were shakin’ when the Dance Church traveled to California WorldFest in Grass Valley.

Souls were shakin’ when the Dance Church traveled to California WorldFest in Grass Valley.

Photo By Alan Sheckter

Soul Shake Dance Church happens every Sunday, 10 a.m., at the Dorothy Johnson Center. Cost: $8-$15 (sliding scale). Classes move to Chico Women’s Club for Christmas (10 a.m.) and New Year’s Day (1:45 p.m.).
Dorothy Johnson Center
775 E. 16th St.

It’s late Sunday morning in the Dorothy Johnson Center gymnasium. It’s dark, save for some well-placed lamps and a tangle of Christmas lights framing the perimeter of the basketball court.

About 50 Chicoans from all walks of life are dancing as they see fit to a strange mix of Eastern instrumentation and house techno, over which a woman is singing in foreign tongues. Hair is flying, limbs are disjointedly flailing and people are spazzing out on yoga mats.

This is the Soul Shake Dance Church.

One middle-aged man is spinning around the edge of the dancing mass with his arms outstretched like some wayward top, apparently disconnected from the rhythm of the music—but nobody cares. You don’t see anyone elbowing their buddy and snidely whispering, “Check out this dude.”

As it turns out, that’s the point.

“People need a space in the community where you can just have fun without being drunk, without needing to care what you look like, without having people watching and judging whether you’re dancing right or not,” said Luke Anderson, one of four regular DJs at Soul Shake. “There’s a real freedom to come as you are.”

Anderson and his fellow DJs Jacia Kornwise, Karisha Longaker and Sarah Nutting have been hosting Soul Shake for three years. Originally held at the late Café Culture, the weekly community dance “church” has since made the Dorothy Johnson Center its permanent home. And in addition to the regular Sunday service, Soul Shake has hosted events at the California WorldFest in Grass Valley.

But don’t let the name mislead you—the Dance Church is not associated with any organized religion.

“The only connection to church is that this is the way we pray,” Kornwise said. “We pray through dancing. We pray by finding our truth.”

Indeed, Soul Shake has a distinctly spiritual flavor. Unlike more conventional dance classes, there are no guided moves, routines or even an instructor. Soul Shake is based on Gabrielle Roth’s 5Rhythms, a movement mediation practice that gained notoriety in the 1970s. The four DJs rotate the responsibility of putting together a new playlist each week, but that’s about as hands-on as they get. The only requirement is that the music begin slow, purposeful and mellow, reach a frantic peak about halfway through and then end on a soothing, meditative note.

“It’s a wave format,” Kornwise said. “It starts grounded in your roots and your heart, gets up into chaos where you can just let it all go and then back into stillness.”

At the music’s peak, the dancers let loose with primal energy. There are audible cries in response to shifts in the music, and there is a genuine sense of celebration. In the aftermath, the dancers lie prone on the floor or remain motionless where they were standing when the music stopped, and the gymnasium becomes silent except for some heavy breathing and the intermittent chiming of bells.

Anyone interested is welcome to join in, regardless of dancing experience, age, race or religion.

“It’s a chance to share joy beyond words, to share connections beyond the typical means,” Kornwise said. “It has promoted so much intimacy, connection and love and drawn together so many groups. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what you look like, whether you’re a trained dancer or have never danced in your life. It’s not about that.”