Dressed like stragglers from a sleep-over, the motley group gathered at a Medford yoga studio pays little mind to persona, protocol or performance. They march to a beat all their own.
A woman clad in T-shirt and sweatpants sways, eyes closed, focused on some internal music. Across the room, a couple briefly defies gravity with a few swing-dance moves. A faster beat pulses from the speakers, and hands clap randomly. Hardly bent on synchronizing sounds, much less their bodies, the dancers jump, link arms, spin in circles and roll on the floor.
It may seem like a chance to release some stress by frolicking around barefoot, but the intention behind Body Choir is honoring all forms of movement, says creator Carola Marashi. Or, as some participants are fond of saying, it's a playground for adults.
"I can't dance to save my life, but here, it doesn't matter," says Gold Hill resident Steve Kiesling, who swoops unsuspecting women into the air and twirls them above his head like they're figure skaters.
Promoting physical contact, Body Choir is one of several free-form dance groups locally — one of hundreds nationwide — that gives participants a venue for expressing motions, rhythms and voices that are stilled or silenced during most daily endeavors.
"This is a space where we're allowed to be children again instead of self-editing," says Mary Theis, of Ashland.
Active in Ashland for the past two years, along with similar groups called TranceDance, Open Heart Dance and Ecstatic Dance, Body Choir debuted in Medford late last year. It's a move in keeping with Marashi's mission of seeing a dance established in every American town by 2012. She has help from a half-dozen Body Choir "families" and numerous other free-form dance groups.
"The dance is taking off," Marashi says. "What we hear is it's like coming home."
Body Choir's original home is Austin, Texas, where Marashi started facilitating a community dance in 1994. The concept spread through Marashi's family and friends to Seattle, San Francisco and Santa Fe, N.M. When Marashi, 49, and partner Todd LeMaster, 45, moved to the Rogue Valley from Austin three years ago, they brought Body Choir with them.
"I think this is one of the better ways to spread peace," Marashi says.
Also spreading the concept that such a relaxed atmosphere can provide a heart-pounding workout, Body Choir is valued by many participants as a means of socializing without the need for alcohol or other mood-enhancers.
"It's sort of like a club you didn't have to join," says Ken Becker of Talent. "It's a safe container."
Becker, 54, and his wife, Katie, founded Spirit Dance in 1991, transplanting an event they attended in Marin County, Calif., to Ashland. Twice a month, the couple would host a "barefoot boogie," which Ken Becker calls "good, clean fun," not unlike square-dancing, with its dual emphasis on physical activity and building community. When the Beckers shelved Spirit Dance more than a year ago to spend more time with family, several new dances, Body Choir among them, sprang up to take its place.
"Whatever it's called has always felt like really socially responsible human activity," Becker says. "It can be a very strong energy."
That energy has drawn numerous dancers into deeper relationships once the music stops. The Beckers met dancing, as did Marashi and LeMaster. More recently, Ashland residents Turtle Walzer and Brenda Johnson were drawn to each other from across the room, fittingly at an event called Open Heart Dance.
"There was something really magical and special in it," Walzer says, recalling the couple's first contact.
"Every time we dance, it just brings up those memories," Johnson says.
Chemistry aside, the "point of contact" is a primary focus for some participants who infuse Body Choir with the modern dance form known as contact improvisation. Its lack of musical accompaniment is one of the main features of contact improv, which demands precise coordination and weight distribution to execute acrobatic postures. The relatively small local following has prompted contact improv enthusiasts to look outside their own sphere to community dances like Body Choir, says contact improv instructor Lizzy LoPresti, who also hosts TrancenDance.
"We all get to dance more often," LoPresti says. "I think it has just made our community so much richer and connected."
While some community dances forbid physical contact among participants, Body Choir fosters it. Novice dancers take their cues from more experienced ones, body language communicating whether they're open to being touched. Even men — initially unnerved by the thought of bumping into members of their own sex on the dance floor — approach other men for a casual spin around the room.
"Men want to learn how to touch each other safely," Marashi says. "Body Choir has been a huge impact on men dancing with each other."
Growing up with an affectionate father, LeMaster still didn't make the leap to dancing with men until he had attended Body Choir for more than two years. Although not fully in his comfort zone, LeMaster pantomimes a wrestler's stance with Kiesling, foreheads touching while their feet inscribe a slow circle on the floor. Suddenly, they clasp wrists and fists, whirling like dervishes in the middle of the room before spiraling off in separate directions.
"It pretty much comes from a willingness to explore," LeMaster says of such encounters.
Freedom from inhibitions is a common achievement among Body Choir participants, and it's not just appealing to liberal-minded Ashland residents. The reception Marashi received at her first Medford gathering was "shocking." Whether they came from Applegate, as far away as Winston or just across town, 28 people were ready to shed their worries and dance.
"The freshness of it — I love it," Marashi says, adding that Medford is like a blank slate for community dance.
"I can already feel Medford being a warmer and friendlier place."