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Dance therapy

Dancing the elements with Wu Tao

Michelle Locke

Editor's note

Among the ways of living in balance with the self is an ancient path connected to the spirit called Tao. From it originate many ways according to the people who walk the inner journey. One such method is Wu Tao. A means of dancing yourself back into wholeness....

Wu Tao is a healing dance modality that balances life energy. Created by Australian dancer and natural therapist Michelle Locke, Wu Tao is proving to be a potent healing therapy suitable for many people including children and the elderly. It is currently being used successfully to treat patients with dementia and other cognitive disorders in Australia.

Wu Tao dance brings together a number of components that create a powerful energetic change within the body/mind. The dance form is a specific set of choreographed movements set to music that stimulate and open the meridians (channels that Qi energy flows through). Doing the dances assists in increasing the flow of Qi and unblocking areas of stagnant energy in the body. Refining and perfecting the movements of the dance helps to increase the natural flow of energy.

To encourage energy to flow freely, the dance technique is based on softness in the knees, elbows and other joints, with the movements flowing from one position to the next. The hara (belly) is brought into awareness and engaged through deep breathing, and core strength is developed. The spine is encouraged to be fluid and flexible, the head and neck relaxed, and the lower body is grounded and balanced.

When Qi is flowing correctly, there are a numerous benefits. A person will have greater amounts of physical and mental energy, resulting in increased stamina, vitality and strength. He/she will feel more balanced and even their response to difficult emotional states will improve. Due to their lifestyle, Westerners have significant levels of stress and toxicity which causes energy to be stagnant, particularly in the liver. When energy is unblocked and its flow is normalised, a person will feel positive, energised and less stressed.

Within the context of the Wu Tao dance form, there’s lots of room for self-expression. On occasions, emotions will surface and these can be expressed through the dance. At other times, a person may be engaged in a particular situation or aspect of their life-journey that desires release. All these things can be taken into the dance and expressed through Wu Tao.

Wu Tao uses creative visualisation to connect to the energy and quality of each dance. This frees up stuck emotions and energy in the body. The focus in Wu Tao is very much on the dance movement, which enables you to feel and express emotions as they arise. There is no need to get caught up in a story or emotional drama. Rather expression through this dance helps you to move back into a natural connection with life energy. Energetic changes happen more quickly when awareness stays grounded within the body and the energy is allowed to move freely without being limited or controlled by the mind.

Wu Tao dance is an active and dynamic form of meditation. Meditation is the act of quietening the mind and allowing the stillness and peaceful nature within to arise. While the mind is focused on the creative images and the body is engaged in embodying these images, there is less room for the mind to chatter! Over time, as a person deepens into the dance process, the mind begins to relinquish its hold.

Embodying positive emotional states such as gratitude has a healing effect on the body/mind. As we have more of these kinds of thoughts that flow on through our emotional state to the body, we create connections between cells that encourage healing, a stronger immune system and increased energy. Wu Tao helps us to embody these higher thought processes. The brain then begins to re-wire itself and the cells of the body start to rejuvenate and harness the life energy efficiently.

Energetically, when we have embodied the highest qualities of each of the elements, we have embodied Life, as it is meant to be lived through us. It isn’t normal for us to resist change. Change is natural and normal. When we align ourselves with the correct way of flowing with the energy, we begin to experience safety, trust, joy and balance in our lives. This is normal!

The elements

The Air element (metal in Chinese medicine), is related to the organs lung and large intestine and the season of autumn. It relates to how well we are able to deal with the past, release what no longer serves us, and open to a new life and the present moment. Through the lungs we take in life energy in the breath. As we breathe out, we release old energy that is no longer useful to our body. The large intestine has a similar function in that it’s the organ through which we eliminate our waste. Unbalanced, the energy in this element reduces our capacity to let go and release what doesn’t serve us. It can keep us looking backward into the past, grasping and holding on and manifest as symptoms of unresolved sadness, grief and depression. We cannot look forward into the future without it being shadowed by the past. Sadness tints our perception and our bodies can be closed to receiving and welcoming our greater good.

These manifestations occur at a cellular level. They can cause a whole range of physical symptoms such as breathing problems, asthma, reduced immunity and intestinal problems. However, when we embody the higher aspect of this energy, that of ‘release and transformation’, the body begins to reflect a whole different way of being. It is natural for things to change form, just like leaves change colour and drop from the tree in autumn. When we allow change to occur, when we flow with it, even embrace it, we become one with the energy of Life in this manifestation. Our bodies and every cell in our body is then able to do what they are meant to do. They can release energy or experience that it is old and no longer useful and stay open and welcoming to new enlivening energy and experience. Emotionally, we can maintain equilibrium while still allowing ourselves the full expression of our grief and sadness (which are the natural emotions that arise with change).

The Water element corresponds to the kidney and bladder organs, the season of winter and the emotion of fear. It is responsible for building and storing our energy or Qi. We unbalance this element when we waste our energy by working too hard, not getting enough sleep, rest and leisure time, and generally not respecting our need to balance our active masculine with the more passive feminine. The Water element is the deepest Yin time and like winter, it is the time to hibernate, build our energy resources, rest and dream.

Out of balance, this energy is driven, yet exhausted and running on an empty tank. It manifests fears and phobias, both conscious and unconscious, which can play out as a nagging unrest with life, lack of motivation, and control issues.

When we honour this energy in our bodies we manifest a different story. We rest when we need to. We tune into our dreams and deepest desires and feel safe enough to allow them to germinate in the fertile ground of our inner world. We take time to imagine and fantasise about what we desire to create. We are able to be still in the void of non-doing and await the spring rains of energy to awaken us. Physically our body rejuvenates itself during this period, rebuilding our structure and beliefs into forms that serve our highest Self and increase our potential.

Wood is the next element in the cycle. It relates to the season of spring and governs the liver and gall bladder in our body. In balance, the wood element gives us the raw vital energy to create and express our potential and purpose into the world. In Wu Tao we use the image of the tree. We dance our roots down into the earth so that we are grounded and can be nourished by the Yin energy of Life. We ourselves grow up as the young plant into the sapling, expressing ourselves into our leaves and branches. We reach for the light of the sun, drawing the Yang energy into our being. Through this dance we embody flow, vitality, self-expression and purpose. We also allow ourselves to simply be who we are, without using effort or force, just like the tree.

This element is particularly important for us in Western society, as we tend to live our lives using force, effort and ambition. The nature of the Wood element teaches us that the way to grow into what we are meant to become, is to express ourselves freely and creatively, flow with vitality and be true to our Selves.

Out of balance, this element manifests in the emotions of anger, frustration, depression, irritability, competitiveness and ambition. The energy tends towards blockage and stagnation due to its sensitivity to emotional and physical toxicity. The dance frees up this energy and gives it space to find its natural flowing nature. We then feel positive, purposeful and creative.

The Fire element follows the Wood. It corresponds to the season of summer and governs the heart. In Chinese medicine the heart houses the spirit, the aspect of consciousness known as Shen. If you visualise a fire, even a simple single flame, it is easy to understand why spirit is represented here. The light of our inner nature shines through our eyes, and the Fire energy is what gives rise to our passion, the ability to radiate our essence and to transform the dross of our ego-mind into a true reflection of our spirit. When balanced, the Fire energy illuminates us. We know ourselves as consciousness and our naturally peaceful and joyous nature radiates from our heart.

Out of balance, the fire of our passion can be extinguished leaving us sad and depressed, even suicidal. Or it may burn out of control, destroying everything in its path by inflicting heat, consuming energy and eventually reducing us to nothing. The practice of working with this energy is to maintain equilibrium between our ego mind and spirit, with the mind serving our spirit rather than running the show and threatening our state of internal balance. Out of balance the fire can manifest as egocentricity, mania and anxiety. For all of us, when working with the fire element, we have the opportunity to shed the masks of the ego and allow our true Self to shine through.

When we dance the fire, we shed the illusions we have about ourselves, freeing up our hearts and connecting again with our inner nature and source of real passion. The burdens we carry that cover our joy are surrendered happily to the transforming power of the Fire and we become peaceful again. It is always wonderful to see the smiles erupting and joy shining through people’s faces as they dance the Fire dance!

The Earth element is the final element of the five. If any dance was to capture the essence of Wu Tao this is the one. The Earth is our physical home. Our bodies reflect it as the home for our spirit. It is the manifestation of life force in form and as such it embodies the feminine principle completely. In all its beauty and wonder, the earth as manifestation of Life Energy invites us to rest and to give thanks for the bounty that Life brings us in all ways. In Chinese medicine it relates to the season of late summer, the time of harvest. Its nature is still and receptive and it teaches us to be open and receive what Life has to offer.

The benefits of embodying this element are profound. A sense of gratitude immediately opens us to Life’s gifts in whatever form they present. Gratitude allows space for trust to emerge. Bliss and grace are found in this state. This is where we realise our oneness with Life and can open ourselves completely to her expression through us.

Out of balance, the energy of Earth manifests as worry and obsessive thought as the mind (which feels itself as separate from Life) attempts to control the inflow and outflow of energy. This imbalance shows itself in how we nourish ourselves in all areas. Physically, we may focus on food, taking in too much for our needs or not getting enough depending on our patterns around physical nourishment. Emotionally, we may give ourselves away through unhealthy nurturing of others or not offering enough love and support. Both these patterns come from a sense of deprivation of love and energy. Love is what life energy feels like when it flows from our heart and spirit.

The Earth dance is a dance of prayerful gratitude. As we do the simple movement sequence to each direction we surrender to the river of Life and open to receive her gifts, as they flow to us through every opportunity, challenge and manifestation of experience. It is impossible to resist anything from this place! A deep sense of peace permeates our whole being and flows into all we do. We are one with the very flow of life energy itself. Harmony and balance are restored to body, mind and soul.

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Wu Tao dance




Dynamic meditation


Air element


Wood element



Earth element