In this modern age, humanity is living within a paradox of being connected in ways that have never before been possible while simultaneously facing a great disconnection from traditional communities, interpersonal relationships, and the natural world. Due to this paradox, as well as ever increasing globalization, many people are coming from complex cultural and genealogical backgrounds. This leaves many individuals finding themselves separated from their traditional cultural identities, and thus lacking in many of the enriching experiences that come from having traditional community structures, such as cultural celebrations, rites of passage, and traditional music and dance.
Today, youth from across many cultures are coming together to craft the communities that will one day become the future; of these future-forward subcultures, this paper is focused on possible positive benefits of the electronic music festival culture (sometimes referred to as ‘transformational festivals’) in which there is a resurgence of ancient rituals melded with modern technology: united around music, dance, identity development, self-exploration, social cohesion, self-reliance and community (Ballantyne & Packer 2011). This paper draws conclusions from interdisciplinary research including a study conducted on music young adult music festival participants, anthropological perspectives on community dance rituals and rites of passage, possible positive implications of psychoactive substances, and dance and movement as a form of therapy used to invoke cathartic experiences.
This research has evoked many questions: In what ways can this co-creative culture contribute to the social wellbeing of individuals across generational, cultural and societal lines? Are there significant psychological benefits to participation? In what ways can we involve ancient knowings in our modern world, and to what ends? Can psychotherapeutic theories and perspectives be applied to the design and curation of the festival experience in order to increase the positive outcomes for participants? And, can the festival experience provide the space for the separation, liminality, and reintegration (Larson & Martin 2012) required to create modernized rites of passage for youth and adults alike? Further studies are required to gain deeper insights into all of these questions, as the current body of work directly related to the music festival experience is limited and largely based on naturalistic study and subjective reporting. In spite of these limiting factors, there is much evidence that combining music, dance, and ritual in a community setting can create positive psychological outcomes for the participants (Ballantyne & Packer 2011; Monteiro & Wall 2011).
Most cultural and religious traditions from around the world have rites of passage that mark the transformation of one stage of life into another. There are some rites of passage that remain culturally relevant, especially within cultural or religious backgrounds such as the bar and bat mitzvah in the Jewish culture or the Quinceanera in latino culture (Larson & Martin 2012). Outside of this context, since many individuals are separated from their ancestral culture and religious upbringing, these community guided rites of passage are not necessarily provided by the elders, but instead created by the youth without the guidance of the wiser members of community, which results in events such as graduating high school, moving out on your own, travelling, getting your first job, or using alcohol or illicit substances as informal rites of passage in westernized culture (Larson & Martin 2012).
As much as these traditions mark the passage from childhood into adulthood, they often lack the spiritual relevance of many ancient rites of passage such as the walkabout in Australian aboriginal culture, or the Ndembu tribes in Zambia where young boys are taken in the night and given the tools required to survive in the wild for six months. Upon return from this experience, they are reunited with their community, with more wisdom and experience which can then enrich the tribe as a whole (Larson & Martin 2012). Anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep recognized three stages that exist within most of these rites of passage: separation, where the participant leaves the regular life, be it the safety of the village, their community, either physically or symbolically; the next stage is liminality, which is characterized by risk-taking activities that happen outside of generally accepted social boundaries; and finally, reintegration, where the participant returns to their community and allow the learning that took place during the rite of passage to integrate the everyday experience (Larson & Martin 2012).
The experience that can be cultivated at music festivals resembles this formula for a rite of passage in many ways. As Ballantyne & Packer (2011) observed in their study, “By providing a new social context that was removed from the expectations and routines of everyday life, it allowed participants to reflect and re-evaluate their own self-understanding and self-acceptance” (p. 9). In order to attend these festivals, one must separate themselves from the regular, everyday experience and often travel for hours into a natural setting where space has been created in which liminal experience is encouraged. The reintegration stage occurs for participants, both by going back into their original communities filled with the inspiration generated by the experience and with the connections that are built at the events. This modern day, co-creative experience allows individuals to craft new cultural identities that weave ceremonial practices across cultural boundaries.
Central to the experience that is created at these events is the ancient practice of ecstatic, transcendental dance. Dance rituals have been used as community medicine and celebration in indigenous cultures and spiritual traditions from all around the world. Monteiro & Wall conducted research into tribal dance rituals in Africa and reported on the African worldview in which “dance is a conduit of individual and community healing. African conceptualizations of illness and health integrate social, spiritual, physical and mental realms, all of which are impacted by trauma” (2011, p. 243). This world view is complementary to the western psychological concept of transpersonal psychology which looks beyond the scale of human experience as one in which healthy behaviour exists at one end, with illness at the other, and a variance of emotional disorder exists as the middle ground. Instead, it encompasses spiritual experiences, altered states of consciousness and manifesting our highest potential (Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, Tartakovsky, M., 2011).
Examining the festival experience with these concepts in mind, one can see the ways in which providing spaces for community led rites of passage using ceremonial awareness, combined with musical expression and group trance dancing can assist in increasing psychological and social wellbeing, beyond the point of healthy and into the realm of self-actualization (Ballantyne & Packer 2011; Monteiro & Wall 2011). Like many of the ancient dance rituals, there is an air of ceremony and sacredness surrounding these gatherings. This context gives an opportunity to craft rites of passage and co-create them as a community. Within the African world view it is understood that for the facilitation of healing, the body and mind need to be integrated with the community. This connection between the individual and the group creates a container for transformation and growth (Monteiro & Wall 2011). Participants in the survey of young adult festival goers, conducted by Ballantyne & Packer (2011), reported greater levels of autonomy, mastery, purpose, and self-acceptance, as well as increased feelings of social integration, cohesion, acceptance, and contribution. The combination of this unique setting, where technology is merging with natural settings with the theories that drive dance and movement-based therapy could have the potential to assist individuals in gaining access to the high end of the full spectrum of human experience conceptualized within the framework of transpersonal and humanistic psychology.
Dance and Movement therapy (DMT) is a psychotherapeutic modality founded in the 1940s based on the understanding that the body and mind are deeply entwined with one another (Fladger & Ray, n.d.). In both DMT and the traditional African healing modalities, dance is used as a way to non-verbally communicate emotions through physical movement, allowing emotion, trauma, and unconscious processes to be expressed symbolically and interpreted to gain insight and foster a deeper connection between emotion and the body (Fladger & Ray, n.d.; Monteiro & Wall 2011). This symbolism allows people to access a healing space, in DMT, this is measured by the post-session evaluation done by the practitioner (Fladger & Ray, n.d.), and in the African healing worldview is seen as connecting to available spiritual restoration power that assists the individual in achieving a reduction of symptoms (Monteiro & Wall 2011). At music festivals, this healing space exists on the dance floor, where people come together across generational lines and experience bold, authentic movement.
One goal that exists within DMT, African dance healing rituals, and the music festival experience is cathartic experience. Catharsis, derived from a Greek word meaning cleansing or purification, is an experience characterized by a combination of emotional and cognitive processes. The emotional portion involves the discharge of powerful emotions while the cognitive portion can involve hidden parts of the psyche coming into awareness, unconscious processes becoming conscious, and new insights into the emotional processes or re-experiencing and expressing repressed traumas (Powell, E., n.d.). The community structure and support that exists within community dance rituals, music festival culture, or group DMT sessions is essential to the safe expression of these stuck emotions and previously hidden cognitive processes. The ability to undergo these experiences, with the assistance of ecstatic dance, allows the nonverbal expression of emotion to take place in an environment in which people can feel validated in their strong emotions, without allowing that powerful discharge to occur in a negative way.
The cognitive reintegration aspect is most important for the full positive benefit of these experiences to be integrated by the experiencer of the catharsis (Powell, E., n.d.). In DMT, this takes place during group reflection, as well as follow-up psychotherapy sessions; in the community healing rituals from Africa, this exists with the relationship with tribe and community; and within the music festival community, resources such as sanctuary space, healing temples, and first aid staff are available. These areas are staffed with individuals who are trained in assisting people in reintegrating, grounding, and healing from the challenging states that can be induced by intense emotional expression and psychedelic crisis.
It would be reductionist and naive to academically explore the phenomenon of electronic music festival culture without taking into the account the effects on participants created by the use of psychedelic substances. Due to the disconnection from traditional rites of passage experienced by many individuals in the modern, industrialized western world, many young adults turn to substance use and abuse as a type of cultural ritual. Alcohol abuse is incredibly pervasive on college campuses, with many college students viewing alcohol use an essential part of the college experience (Crawford & Novak, 2006). As an alternative to this experimentation with alcohol at these community dance events, psychedelic use serves similar functions of lowering inhibitions and opening one up to new experiences, but unlike the depressant effects of alcohol use, fosters creative expression, altered states of consciousness, mystic/spiritual experiences and increased feelings of connection between individuals. Although this use of psychedelic substances is pervasive at these types of events, it is important to acknowledge that many participants also engage in spiritual practices such as meditation which have the potential to unlock similar altered states of consciousness. Thus, these substances are not integral to the experience but instead act as a tool which many individuals chose to use in order to gain access to these other realms of consciousness, much like William James, one of the founding fathers of psychology, who attributed many of his spiritual philosophies to the use of nitrous oxide (The Nitrous Oxide Philospher, 1996).
Between the 1950s and 1970s many of these psychoactive substances such as LSD, MDMA, and psilocybin were studied in clinical settings, but ultimately prohibited and classified as having no medical significance. In spite of this government sanctioned prohibition, a resurgence of research is taking place around the world to investigate the psychopharmacological potentials offered by these substances (Tupper, Wood, Yensen, & Johnson, 2015). Due to the restricted status of these substances, research on their effects are predominantly limited to extreme cases such as individuals with terminal illnesses, and people who suffer from severe post-traumatic stress disorder that has been otherwise non-responsive to traditional treatment methods. The body of evidence that is growing shows that these psychedelic substances have positive effects on lessening death related anxiety, reducing persistent PTSD symptoms, and decreasing dependency on alcohol (Tupper et al. 2015).
While these clinical trials are producing peer-reviewed, scientific accounts of the both the benefits and risks associated with the administration of psychedelic substances, these effects are well known to individuals who engage in their own wild west style of experimentation. This psychedelic drug culture has been part of counterculture movements since the 1960s and has roots that have been studied by anthropologists stretching back far further than that. Although there is limited research done on exactly how this type of experimentation affects individuals within the context of music festivals, dance rituals, and cathartic experience, it is important to note that in many indigenous cultures from around the world psychoactive plant medicines have been used as healing rituals and rites of passage, and are regarded as tools for unlocking cognitive and spiritual potential (Tupper, 2002).
While the history and politics of prohibition is a discussion for another place; it is notable to acknowledge that Tupper et al. (2015) assert, “that lifetime use of classic psychedelics at the population level is associated with decreased psychological distress” (p. 1057), and despite the risks associated with use, such as increased manifestation of psychosis in individuals with a predisposition to bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, it is plausible that the possible positive, or non-harmful effects in the population outweigh the potential for harm experienced by some individuals. There are significant differences between clinical trials and the style of experimentation done by participants at these events, however, special care is given to creating a set and setting (two aspects thought to be essential for positive psychedelic experience) in which participants can undergo positive transformations.
The music festivals that are curated with the intention of bringing together community, and creating space for personal growth and exploration provide a container for co-creating new cultural identities through the exploration of ancient rituals such as group trance dancing and use of entheogenic or psychedelic substances. Through creating an environment in which the ideals of transpersonal psychology are united with community dance rituals, the potential exists to give participants access to mystical experiences in which they are able to experience the stages of rites of passage: separation, liminality, and reintegration. In addition to this, the freedom of expression that is present in the experience of dancing together, mirroring, playing, and undergoing cathartic moments on the dance floor could potentially give participants many of the same benefits as undergoing traditional dance and movement therapy, such as decreased levels of depression and anxiety. Music festival participants report improved feelings of social integration, as well as increased self-awareness and self-confidence. Although further research is required to gain a thorough understanding of the positive psychological implications of this subculture, the evidence suggests that with proper integration and awareness of the tools available, the festival experience can be intentionally designed to minimize risk to participants while maximizing positive psychological and sociological outcomes.
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