Dancing through Transformational Music Festivals in Western Canada: Tales from the Forest Floor

Kelci Mohr


Opening Remarks

Music festivals are places where people can embody the artfulness of life and try on different philosophies just as fluidly as they may change costumes, paint their faces, move their bodies to rhythmic music, encounter the ineffable and play with non-ordinary states of consciousness. Festivals open timespaces for participants to step outside of themselves, imagine alternative ways of being, discover and express inner desires and connect deeply with the people and landscapes around them—often through the lens of the psychedelic experience.

The following autoethnographic narratives were created to illuminate how people may find meaning through dance floor experiences at “transformational” music festivals in western Canada. Transformational festivals are loosely defined as multi-day outdoor events that revolve around the ecstatic experience of electronic dance music, visionary art and performance, workshop curriculum, sacred space and ceremony, artisans and vendors and a conscious intention to support transformation and healing processes. I attended the Astral Harvest Festival in Driftpile, AB and the Shambhala Music Festival in Salmo, BC in the summer of 2015.

These abridged writings were originally part of my exploratory Master of Arts thesis in Recreation and Leisure Studies, entitled “Dancing through Transformational Music Festivals: Playing with Leisure and Art” (2016). They aim to capture the collective effervescence of the festival milieu, and to paint an evocative picture of the experience of these potently creative places. Through them, I hope to elucidate one way people may reimagine visions for life through co-creating and encountering in these open-minded and open-hearted environments.

Tales from Shambhala Festival

The air is electric with excitement. It feels like we are in a big city on New Year’s Eve, but instead we are in the forest, celebrating our annual trip “home” to freedom. Suddenly, several camps over, someone yells “SHAMBHALAAAAAAAA-AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH” at the top of their lungs. Those around him immediately return his excitement with feverish yelling and yipping. The sonic wave of joy for these people and this place quickly spreads outwards from the source to overwhelm nearby camps. When the hooting and hollering reaches us, it is my turn to pass it on. I let it wash through me; I throw back my head and howl at the sky as loud as I can. “AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!” A tingle of exhilaration rushes through my body as I merge my voice with the surrounding sonic pandemonium.

Figure 1. Village stage night scene, Shambhala Music Festival. Photo credit: Luke GS Art and Photography (www.lukegs.com, 2015).

Night is falling, and my crew and I are making our way through the forest to the Village stage. The speaker system at this stage is extremely powerful, and we are about to get our minds blown. I am armed with only my earplugs, a backpack full of sangria and a head full of acid. We dropped LSD about three hours ago, and the effects are coming on strongly now. Morphing colors and rippling visuals disorient my vision, and I cannot wipe away the silly grin that has colonized my face. Nor do I want to, for that matter. The flashing light show and mighty lasers of the giant geodesic dome over the stage shoot dazzlingly vibrant kaleidoscopes across my field of vision, making it hard to focus on our mission of getting a good spot to check out the show. Thankfully, I’m not the only one.

As a unit, our group slowly bumbles through the crowd and filters up the stairs to the second level viewing area. I can feel the bass and hammering feet of hundreds of dancing people shaking the deck beneath us. Zapped by a crescendo of sound, a seething mass of gorgeous humanity throbbing, pulsing, beating the ground with sacred soles and souls. The air crackles with intense excitement as bodies resonate together, intimately synced with the baseline beat. Celebratory joints, hugs, smiles and laughs are passed through the crowd as the merriment of festival time reaches its peak. It’s Saturday night at Shambhala, a time many of us have waited for all year.

We take over a small area with a good view of the stage and I close my eyes for a moment, receptive, listening, sensing. I can feel the tiniest of hairs shivering in unison as a multitude of pulsing frequencies ripple through and around my tingling body. The lower the bass, the deeper the effervescent tickle. The speakers produce a wall of sound, and its sheer vibrational force enraptures me. My mind’s eye envisions the modal phenomena of sign-wave cymatics that are currently quivering every particle of my body with a specific sonic symphony. Manipulating this energy in the air, I swim through a liquid sea of vibrational frequencies. With eyes still closed, I feel my body begin to translate the music into a corporeal form. I tangibly push the resonances around, contain them for a while, channel them, release them and catch another flow. The music takes me on a rollercoaster ride of rhythm. Dancing in flow is a state of consciousness far above and beyond the ordinary.

Figure 2. Crowd gives love at Living Room stage, Shambhala Music Festival. Photo credit: Luke GS Art and Photography (www.lukegs.com, 2014).

Hours go by. I am soaked in sweat and my feet are sore from pounding the earth, but our crew feeds off the endless energy of the crowd. Amidst all of this euphoric chaos, I am struck by a moment of clarity. The bassline echoes my heartbeat, echoes the rhythm of the cosmos, and beyond—wow-wow-wowmp—over and over, we drop. Together. It hits me that we are all connected through the frequency of the music, the blood pumping through our veins and the rhythm of life on this rock of a planet that is miraculously hurtling, spiralling through space. Connected through love. We are one, here, now, always. A cloaked gentleman is praying at the DJ altar, eyes closed, head thrown back, arms outstretched, as the sound washes over his forehead and trickles down the back of his neck. He is peaceful serenity amidst the crazed energy of the dance floor, and I intuitively know he is experiencing the same feeling. We share this moment.

When I return to life as usual after this festival, exhausted and blissed out, I know that I’ll have blown off enough steam to get me through my next lap around the sun. The festival represents diving into new experiences, connecting, learning, playing, transforming my preconceptions of what is possible: who I am, what I can do, who I surround myself with, what is most important in life. It’s about getting my metaphorical watermelon noggin split open, feasting on the juicy fruit inside and sharing it with others—like a child’s picnic on a hot summer day. Pleasurable, refreshing, nourishing. When my face is fully in the melon, fully in the moment, I slurp up the delicious fruit nectar that dribbles all over myself and wonder at the simple delights of being alive, here, now. I spark up a joint on the dance floor and share it with my fellow legends around me in celebration of life, love and Shambhala, the most fantastical adult wonderland I have ever known.

Figure 3. Laser light show at Interstellevator stage, Astral Harvest Festival. Photo credit: Luke GS Art and Photography (www.lukegs.com, 2014).

Tales from Astral Harvest Festival

After the relative chaos of packing, running around to gather supplies, rallying friends and leaving the city in rush hour traffic, the change of pace upon arrival at the festival is palpably noticeable. As we reach our much-awaited destination, we are greeted by smiling volunteers at the main gate and roll into a patch of grass that will be our camp for the weekend. It feels great to be here—we are finally home! One journey was complete when we arrived at the festival space, and another is about to begin. Festival time begins to synchronize us with wandering, unhurried rhythms.

A couple of friends convince me to take a quick evening gander around the grounds. I throw on my comfortable unicorn onesie with little thought. As we make for the forest stage, I feel a refreshing sense of freedom: freedom from the timelines and obligations of my regular life; freedom from the heavy school backpack I usually have strapped to my back, laden with books; freedom from the judgments of conventional fashion, as I traipse around in an objectively ridiculous-looking mythical animal blanket. I remember the quote on the sticker I was given by the volunteers at the main gate when I arrived: “Your fear of looking bad is holding you back”. For the weekend, the free-flowing festival vibes allow me to let go of the doldrums of everyday life and step into a less burdened version of myself.

When we arrive at the stage, the music pumping out of the DJ booth is incredible! We aren’t sure who is playing, but the bouncing rhythms throw us into an unexpectedly epic dance session. The crowd is swaying to and fro, jumping up and down, bumping into one another and experiencing the energizing vibrations of the massive speakers before us. The dance floor is our common ground. It feels good to move. I am struck with a sudden awareness of how I needed to shake out the tension that I was holding in my body—tension from the long drive up, from the city rat race, from the everyday stresses of life. We are speaking the language of bass, capturing the pulse and translating it into a gyrating flail of feeling. The music itself ebbs and flows; it brings the crowd into frenzy, then down for a reprieve. A great DJ understands the dancing body; it needs variation. Anticipating the drop, people eagerly put their arms up in the air. The energy is physically electric. Though I am sober, the frequencies resonate inside my centre and rattle around in my skull like a hit that takes me higher.

When we dance, we are painting.

Figure 4. Collaborative art piece co-created at Astral Harvest Festival. Photo credit: Kelci Mohr (2015).

The following afternoon, I gaze upon our masterpiece as I watch my friend hang up the collaborative art piece we made together. Created during a midday downpour of intense proportions, infused into the artwork is the beauty of lotus flowers emerging from muddiness. Huddled under our makeshift tarp shelter, our group waited out the rain with communal creation. A spectrum of big kids and small kids freely slapped paint on canvas, talking quietly as they played together, letting their bodies dance across the painting: uninhibited self-expression. A friend strummed his guitar and sang serenely, set against the soundtrack of the pounding storm above. His music serenaded a silky sliding of shades, wet with fat droplets of rain. A beautiful disaster emerged from the experience; messy splendour at once colourful and cohesive; primal and futuristic. The presence of humans belied by footprints, like fluorescent animal tracks. Space-like organisms playfully swirl into curving cosmic complexity and completeness. Permeable boundaries, merging synchronistically with neighbouring artworks to create a sense of wholeness and oneness. The piece radiates a calm chaos, an emotional psychosocial map of a day at Astral Harvest.

When we paint, we are dancing too.

The world is thrown into sharp relief when the sun begins its descent into evening. Colours are intensely highlighted by gilded light and elongated shadows. Clouds roll quickly by; the wind teases the leaves of the trembling aspens into a shimmering dance of greens, yellows and golds. I am entranced by the feeling of wind on my skin; birds sing somewhere in the distance, beautiful warbling songs that lilt overtop a low background of thumping bass. The massive speakers of the main stage grow insistently louder as the sun passes over the horizon. Reverberating back to our campsite, whoops of joy from nearby revellers indicate a mounting excitement. Tonight will be the climax of the festival, a monumental release of energy.

Figure 5. TransFlowmation fire show, Astral Harvest Festival. Photo credit: Kelci Mohr (2015).

In preparation, members of our camping crew are engaging in the usual pre-show rituals: consulting the music schedule, hanging out, preparing food, trying on costumes and painting each other’s faces. We are getting ready for a big party night, especially because some of us have decided to indulge in MDMA this evening. A certain special bonding occurs between people who have “tripped” together. There is something about the deep love felt during a hug between friends on MDMA, or a wild fit of laughter shared between those coming up on LSD or psychedelic mushrooms, that fuses people together. Before we drop, we gather and a friend says a few words to set a communal intention for the experience:

“Thank you all for being here and sharing this journey. May our trip tonight be filled with joy, love and gratitude for ourselves, each other and this place. Let’s dance!”

A buzz of agreement echoes through the group. We “cheers” our capsules together and consume them. Supplements are passed around to ward off harmful toxicity and negative side effects. I feel grounded by this ritual and ready to head out on the night’s journey. Soon after, we make a B-line towards the main stage to see Desert Dwellers, who have just begun their set.

Other partiers are also drawn from afar by the carnivalesque light projections of the main stage’s powerful lasers. As night takes hold, people start spinning mesmerizing LED flow toys nearby—hula hoops, staffs and poi emit stunningly beautiful light shows when their owners lose themselves in flow, synced to the music. This art form visually demonstrates how when we dance, we are painting.

Figure 6. Unknown LED flow artistry, Shambhala Music Festival. Photo credit: Kelci Mohr (2015).

We bob and weave further into the main stage, aiming for a spot centred in front of the sound system. Along the way, we pass someone wearing a mascot costume cavorting with another reveller in a full bear suit, and a couple of girls with fuzzy neon legwarmers that look like hairy alien caterpillars. These will not be the most elaborate costumes we will see tonight. The creativity that many people infuse into their festival outfits and signage to find their friends in the crowd is all part of the experience. Around us, revellers on the dance floor are radiant; many exude blissful smiles, lost in rhythm and movement. Others clutch each other, laughing hysterically at some unheard joke. Jubilation bubbles up sporadically as people reunite with their friends in the crowd.

Above us, a mind-bending array of visual artistry plays off fabric stretched into multi-dimensional sail-like forms, and there are several visual artists doing live painting alongside the DJs. These sensory delights draw us in like moths to a flame. We sway beneath a purple, green, orange and yellow painted eye that shimmers and changes colour with the music. It scrutinizes no one in particular, yet perhaps symbolizes some omnipresent higher power. The air is thick with different smells; the fresh breeze carries a hint of heady, wooded smoke intermingled with the sweetness of marijuana and the pungent odour of perspiring bodies. I inhale deeply, absorbing the energy of the rich sensory experience all around me.

Figure 7. Interstellevator stage night scene, Astral Harvest Festival. Photo credit: Luke GS Art and Photography (www.lukegs.com, 2015).

Across the dance floor, I see one of the families that we are camped with, dancing with their little boy. He wears gigantic protective earmuffs to block out the powerful speakers, and he is laughing and dancing happily. The energy is infectious. Festivaling with kids is a constant reminder of how important it is to keep playing throughout life. When we play, we re-create ourselves. Recreation is potently powerful for reimagining who we are.

Our journey to the stage complete, we let the bass roll off the crowns of our heads and pound deeply into the centre of our chests. It feels primal; the music grabs hold of something visceral within me. Clad in a woolly animal hat, I am reborn as a forest creature with my bare feet in the mud. This place is our playground where we can let loose and swing from the jungle gym of life, together. I look over and one of my friends is dancing like a wacky chimpanzee, flailing his limbs this way and that. His head lolls backwards and forwards, his outlandish sombrero bobbing to the rhythm. It is his first festival, and I am remembering mine. There, my mind was blown apart and fused back together into a beautiful symbiosis of new awareness and possibility.

I can only hope to share those freeing, expansive feelings with my friends, my community and the world. I continue to be surprised by the lessons I receive and the transformations of self-concept that can emerge from unexpected places, such as dance floors. I reach out and give my friend a big hug; we sway to the music in each other’s embrace, surrounded by members of my community. My heart expands, explodes outwards in a rush of ecstasy. I feel a deep appreciation for all those who have supported, indulged, transformed, laughed and frolicked with me along my journey. Gratitude washes over me to be able to share my life with such fine people.

Figure 8. Anonymous group hug, Astral Harvest Festival. Photo credit: Luke GS Art and Photography (www.lukegs.com, 2014).

Closing Remarks

Festivals are celebrations of life, love and community. As immersive, multi-day events held in close relationship to nature, they allow space for “hanging out” and “playing with” different ways of living, being and creating. These leisures on the margins resist normative ideals and can open space for creative processes that remix life into a colourful patchwork of potentiality. They are psychedelic playgrounds of relational freedom where people transcend the everyday and re-imagine themselves and their lives differently. When festivalgoers return to their everyday lives, they carry the reverberations of these ecstatic experiences. The festival as embodied by participants continues to ripple outwards and interrogates or interrupts the potentially alienating rhythms of everyday life.

Transformational festivals are an expression and a practice of radical love that may help to heal rifts between people, between communities and between humans and the natural world. For some, they re-inspire the potentialities for life in dynamic relation, through an evolving process of embodied encounters. With these vignettes, I have attempted to leave an impression, however partial, of how transformational festivals may be experienced and a vision of how they may be meaningful. Festival dance floors are places where people may experiment with love-centered ways of knowing, relating and creating. At their heart, festivals may be seen as metanarratives about love.

I hope you, dear reader, have enjoyed the journey.

Figure 9. Love at Living Room stage, Shambhala Music Festival. Photo credit: Kelci Mohr (2015).

Author Biography

Kelci Mohr is a master of leisure. She is a festival enthusiast, ecstatic dance floor flailer, yogi, aerialist, avid gardener and growth induction artist. She is a transformational guide that assists people to awaken their inner healer and the truth of their heart with somatic tools and plant medicine. She helps people to prepare for, have and integrate psychedelic experiences in Nelson, BC, Canada.

W: www.instagram.com/blooming.inner.gardens/

E: AwakeningHeartTruth@proton.me


Mohr, Kelci L. 2016. “Dancing through Transformational Music Festivals: Playing with Leisure and Art”. MA Thesis (Recreation and Leisure Studies), University of Alberta. <https://era.library.ualberta.ca/items/ade040ae-d23f-4f30-94f9-5829c72a65f4>.