Embodied Global Leaders Dancing into Action

Melissa Michaels, Ed.D.

Melissa’s Personal Journey

I was pissed. I was moving fast, seeking sanity and safety anywhere I could find it. I was a teen, an obese, enraged, drug dealing white girl with a certain kind of privilege. I was hungering for things that I could not find in the corridors of shopping malls, in the text of my schoolbooks, in my job at a steel mill, in the arms of some random guy, nor could I find it in the absent gaze of the so-called adults around me. 

Something was missing. 

What was missing was a portal to my deepest truths, my wildest dreams, and my life force longing to be liberated. My hunger led me many places, some of them straight up dangerous. I was looking for something, anything, to fill me. 

At the poignant age of twenty-one, my hunger was insatiable. Seeking connection with something bigger than the world as I knew it, I journeyed far away from the safety and routine of my life. Airlifted by fate, I landed a small village in South India. For months, I taught dozens of young Tamil children. Our classes were held in the embrace of the branches of a huge Banyan tree. With no knowledge of the Tamil language, I turned to the only vehicle for communication the children and I had in common … our bodies. 

Every morning I was greeted by bright-eyed children, each delighted to imitate my every gesture. I found myself moving in ways I never imagined possible. Using my body for anything other than numbing my pain was a real stretch. Yet, my enthusiasm guided me to jump and roll, to do whatever it took to explain to these curious young learners the basics of addition and subtraction. I would contort my body into funny shapes, creating moving images to describe their vocabulary words. 

Meanwhile, my young Tamil “students” were busy teaching me. Their nimble hands crafted beautiful dolls from scraps, as they learned to sew and weave with their mamas. They constantly tended to one another, brushing and stroking each other’s hair with great devotion. Out of nowhere, their voices would spontaneously rise up together in the middle of cooking their meal of local grains, simply because someone felt like singing. These young people were naturally embodied; a state of being that I, as a fragmented Western girl, would take years to access.   

One particular morning when I was alone with the children and completely lost in my work of trying to explain things with my antics, a demanding voice began speaking to me from within. Disoriented, I leaned onto a wide root of our Banyan tree as this wave of intense energy washed through me. I felt like I was hearing the cries of the children all over the world. Images of wide-open diverse faces were flashing before me. Their hunger and innocence was so intense that I could barely stand. A message was being delivered intravenously into my soul: 

Melissa, the children of the world are calling. 

You will help raise the children that will help raise the children.

That mandate has guided my journey ever since.

In that poignant moment far from the shores of the familiar, I came home to myself like I never had before. A date with destiny was made. Not only were the children of the world calling, but my soul was calling too. And, I knew that the universal language of movement was where our conversation would begin. 

Decades have passed since that fateful day. What saved my life, eventually also gave me a life. Over these years, I have danced and danced until my nervous system calmed down, my heart opened, and my mind cleared. Of course, with all of that movement, the muse began to potently mobilize and actualize through me. I responded to the penetrating calls of my soul and the children by developing and teaching dance-based programs around the world. Ending up in church basements, schools, detention centers, conference centers, village squares, universities, open fields, even the United Nations, I have moved with peoples of all walks and ways throughout the life cycle, especially youth. 

The Journey through Surfing the Creative:

Understanding the natural longing that adolescents have for connection with something Great, within and without, over the past three decades, I have dedicated my creativity to building communities of practice that foster this kind of true connection. Season after season, hundreds of young people, and the adults who support them, now gather to awaken their creative life force through a moving rites-of-passage process I developed, Surfing The Creative.

Across race, class, gender, religion, culture, and ability, these young people come together from townships in South Africa, across borders in the Middle East, from refugee settlements in East Africa, Favelas in Brazil, rural villages across Asia, college campuses, urban environments, eco villages, prisons, farms, orphanages.

They come seeking to know themselves and to awaken their unique capacities to be the leaders the world so desperately needs. They come struggling with addiction, questions around sexual identity, too many mind-blowing traumas from injustices they do not understand, yet. They come longing to be a part of a community that speaks to their souls and supports them as they transform their pasts and awaken into their embodied creativity. They come ready to access and liberate their radically authentic voices. They come with gifts that they are focused on excavating and cultivating for this world. They come hosting the questions. 

Who Am I?

Who Am I in Relationship to Others?

Who Am I As a Creative Being?

Who Am I As A Sexual and Intimate Being?

Who Am I as a Spiritual Being?

How Can I Make A Difference in this World?

Surfing the Creative Rites of Passage Camps are a contemporary example of how the creative process, rooted in dance, assists in the healing, initiation, education, and mentorship of young people as they move into right action. Emerging leaders come by choice to journey through this process that begins as a 12-day camp and grows into a life path for many. The young people are guided through the seven-phased process that I developed, SomaSourceoffering them creative tools to access and/or refine their specific calling in this world, allowing them to move into their lives grounded and empowered to be who they are. 

For some, it is the context into which they can complete previously aborted developmental tasks. For others, this work provides them the opportunity to renegotiate traumas, experiences of abandonment or invasion still living in their bodies and in their hearts. For others, it is the place where addictions are faced, and once and for all are put to rest. For others, this is the context into which their cultural heritage is seen and valued in ways they had not yet experienced. For all, it is a place where their internal “True North” is accessed and ignited. They find their creative power along with the confidence and inner support to further develop themselves. This allows them to move into the world with greater faith, focus, and freedom.

Specifically, the SomaSource developmental process begins with Cycle 1, Soul Call. Young people feel a stirring from within encouraging them to heal and grow. Honoring this call from within, they set their intentions and make a commitment to the rites of passage experience ahead. They discover the power of making conscious choices, and the magic that can unfold through fully saying YES to something. 

Below are a few quotes from the extensive statements of intent written prior to camp.

  • I am really looking forward to Camp…especially with its timing…me leaving home and preparing to step foot into a world where I am the only one responsible for taking care of my needs. Its nerve wracking…but it’s inevitable and absolutely essential…and I understand that completely. My intention really is to CHOOSE this life…I feel like I´ve been pushed into it…I want it to be my choice to move into adulthood. 
  • I am healing deeply from the diverse wounds I have inside of me as a result of the different stages of abuse, violence and addiction I have experienced in my life.  Through going to Camp this summer, I seek to continue to heal from these past wounds, to continue to dance through them and keep creating the most absolute beauty in my life.
  • I am dark, and blind…more so now than I have ever felt before. It may be only because I’ve just started to allow myself to feel, but it has taken more pain, failure, dishonesty, and disappointment than I have ever experienced to get here. I fear myself. I fear never becoming myself … I am a product of my environment, and it is a product of me, and I hate where I am right now…So here I am, with this last desperate attempt to break through and topple my entrenched perception of this world and myself.             

~ Voices of Youth ~

Cycle 2, Ground of Being, assists young people as they begin to access the wisdom of their bodies. When so many people around the world are consumed by technology and dislocated from the natural world and stable communities, their bodies can become their ground of being—the sacred space through which they can locate themselves and heal. Their consciousness can shift. Understanding and incorporating cutting-edge somatic arts for transformation and awakening serves to resource young people as they begin to unwind trauma and mobilize. 

Cycle 3, Heart Of Truth, addresses the importance of offering young people body-centered pathways for the exploration and expression of their emotions, ultimately opening their capacity to give and receive love. This phase of the process provides young people with tools to unpack and liberate their feelings along with giving them tools to successfully communicate with others. 

Cycle 4 is devoted to Liberation Of The Creative, the normal adolescent developmental process of individuation, moving from reaction into creation. This phase encompasses the essential work of peace making with one’s parents, with those who served, or not, in this role. Through dance-based rituals of transformation, universal concepts of a Great Mother and Father are considered. From there, the youth are introduced to the potential of connection with a healthy inner mother and father. Once these inner resources are in place, the youth are carefully guided through the body and their imaginative forces into an encounter with their parents of origin. 

            The second part of this phase is that of the welcoming of the Creative Wild Child. When a young person is no longer unconsciously reacting to their family of origin, the creative self can begin to emerge. Creative choices are abound. Colorful celebrations of emancipation and authentic expression are ignited. Glimpses are given of the one who is returning from the rites of passage journey. 

Cycle 5 encompasses a vast landscape that we call The Breath of Intimacy. By recognizing their creative capacities, beyond that of making babies or trouble, the subjects of fertility, intimacy and sexuality are overtly introduced in this phase. Questions burning in the bodies and hearts of the youth are addressed along with art-based inquiry into the nature of these powerful energies and how they can be channeled in satisfying and developmentally appropriate ways. This process seeds collective authenticity and curiosity about the changes happening within. Dancing with one’s longing and desire opens options for how to explore and express the fire of passion that more fully comes online in adolescence. 

Cycle 6, Birth Of Soul, respects that the adolescent has the potential to be twice born during the rigorous process of growing from childhood into adulthood. At this juncture, we guide the young people through a very specific series of dances and artistic activities that metaphorically replicate the journey from conception through gestation, birth, and the post-partum period of welcoming new life. The focus is on that which is being longing to be born through each of the participants: projects, initiatives, next steps invoking and honoring the ever more adult one who is emerging. Intentions for the journey ahead are also shared. 

Cycle 7, Destiny in Action, helps with integrationThe focus becomes on what it means to be a citizen of Earth in these times. Visions emerge. Next steps towards that future self, awakening now, become clear. The brilliant and brave work of these young ones rising onto the world stage is celebrated and supported. Mentors ally with the young people as they return to their lives to meet their families, their communities, the environment, the world, and their destinies. The global community bonfire of goodness, truth, and beauty is now ignited by these righteous, creative, diverse, and benevolent youth rising.

Throughout this whole process, dances are made. Abundant supplies of paints, pastels, pens, musical instruments, clay, glue, fabric, and collage equip the youth as they begin to bring into form what is stirring from within. Making the invisible visible, they are moving from destruction into creation; from fragmentation into wholeness; from isolation into connection. The creative pulse mobilized and empowered a generation of embodied global leaders.

Embodied Global Leaders:

 At this point, I could share with you the stories of hundreds of mighty youth who have risen from the ashes into beacons of light around the world. There is Arjune who’s teacher had slippery and devastating boundaries with him in adolescence. After years of healing through our work, he is today running a community school and a cottage industry serving hundreds of children and adults in his home place. He is married, parenting, and leading with grace and integrity. Or Svetlanka who dropped out of school and wildly ran around her community with an emaciated body, a sassy mouth, and no parents to tend to her. In fact, she hid under the table her first day of dancing. Today, she is a renowned embodiment teacher, an artist and activist generously bringing justice issues to the front lines of our collective consciousness. Drew was failing school, burning in his rage and puddled in his grief over the abuse his girlfriend had faced. Today he has a doctoral degree in engineering, a professorship, and a beautiful marriage. 

The bright young leaders who fully embraced Surfing the Creative as their initiatory process from adolescence into adulthood are now empowering Bedouin women in the Middle East, rapping radical truths on the front lines of the social justice movement, tending to the sexual awakening of girls becoming women in Puerto Rico, bringing emotional literacy through the arts into classrooms across the United States, and educating children about indigenous arts in South India, for a few. Contemporary and traditional arts of body, heart, and soul are being woven into their work as educators and activists, hundreds of them emerging as brave leaders who have transformed their pain into medicine and are now building global bridges of peace. 

As one young woman said: “This work, is for me, what the developer in a dark room is.  It is constantly helping me realize who I am and who I am becoming, slowly bringing into focus the true colors of myself.”- H.S. 

Another gal wrote: “I can truly say that I have been changed, worked, burned, birthed and blossomed. How wonderful it is to feel home in my own skin…”- E.O. 

Another simply stated: “This work saved my life.” – A. R. 

Just prior to the lock down of COVID, I sat with our leadership team on the last day of Surfing the Creative. One young woman turned to me and said, “Melissa, you have raised the children who are raising the children.” I burst into tears. Truth was spoken. What was once a mandate from my soul is now a living reality awakening the souls of many others. Every dancing step that it took to grow this mighty global community has humbled and liberated me too! 

And this work is simply small drop in a massive sea of need. The work has just begun. If you are moved to join us on this dancing path, you are welcome too. We are dedicated to our collective renewal through the liberation of the creative spirit! 


Melissa Michaels, Ed.D., is the Founder/ Director of SomaSource Movement Trainings, Golden Girls Global, and Golden Bridge, a not-for-profit dedicated to improving and empowering the lives of diverse people through dance-based initiatory processes, mentoring, and community action. 

For the past 35 years, Melissa has been creating body-centered cross-cultural educational opportunities focusing on the potential that is available at major life thresholds. Mapping the journey from trauma to dynamic well-being, her work utilizes the expressive arts to establish body and heart as resources for authentic expression and connection to the sacred in all of life. 

Melissa is the author of Youth On Fire: Igniting a Generation of Embodied Global Leaders. It shares the story of her work with young people in principle and practice. This body of work is now being offered to people of all ages online in a 12-week course, introduced through this Thresholds Ebook and Video. Melissa has also directed and produced a number of films and performances, all of which share the stories of resilient people and communities, herself included. Seminal Films

Melissa is a first-generation teacher of the 5Rhythms® and a Registered Somatic Educator and Therapist (ISMETA). Her doctorate degree from The Fielding Graduate University is in Education, Leadership & Change. 

Married to her soul friend, Mark Gerzon, Melissa mothers three daughters, along with sharing in the love with Mark’s three sons and seven grandchildren. Daily, she actively mentors SomaSource emerging leaders across the globe as they navigate their way home to themselves and their unique life gifts. Together, they are creating collective waves of peace and justice through the arts, activism, and education. It all begins in the dance! 

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Posted in authentic Movem, Dance, Global OutReach, moving meditation, retreat, Sacred Dance, Sacred Dance Guild Journal, World Dance

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