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Banging Drums and Dancing Around a Bonfire. In The Heart of Philly.

September 3, 2011

Text by Caroline Newton. Images by Colin Kerrigan.

I tiptoe my way through the trees, carefully stepping over the plants that drape over the narrow dirt path. It’s dark, well after 10 pm. I see a bonfire in the distance, flickering between the dancing people. Following the sound of music, my buddies and I meander toward a small, circular clearing where at least two dozen people bangs drums and twice as many hang nearby, watching the activity.

For a moment, I stand off to the side. And then I join the festivities.

Instantly, I’m at ease. Although I don’t know anyone, no one knows everyone. Most of the people are strangers to each other. The ones who aren’t know only a few others.

I feel the energy in my bones and in my chest. I don’t feel uncomfortable just watching the dancers around the roaring fire because the majority of the spectators around me are neither drumming nor dancing.

Ask anyone here tonight how they learned about this Pagan-like, weekly ritual and without a doubt, you’ll hear, “I heard about it through a friend.”

The infamous drum circle – a hippie haven – has been operating on word of mouth since it was first conceived in 1983. It has been at this location since the late 1990s.

So as not to ruin the tradition, I will not disclose the exact location of this intimate Tuesday-night gathering, deep in the wooded heart of Philadelphia. You’ll just have to find a friend who knows where to find us.

A child, no older than eight, sits with her parents on a blanket in front of me. Their dog, off-leash, wags his tail, greeting the people who steadily arrive in the clearing. In front of the family, hefty fallen logs act as benches surrounding the raging fire. There isn’t an open seat on the logs.

Hands hit the tightly stretched heads of bongo drums. The rhythmic pounding of the drums increases as more and more people arrive with drums tucked underneath their arms.

By 1 am, now Wednesday, a school or work night for most of the world, there are nearly 150 people in attendance. Free spirits from different backgrounds dance around the fire, giving the music visual representation. Among the attendees, I’m told there is a goat herder and the owner of a multi-million dollar construction company, as well as students, artists and environmentalists.

One man started the drum circle with a couple of his friends behind the old Spectrum in South Philadelphia in 1983. Shortly thereafter, the gathering moved out of Philadelphia to an undisclosed suburban location.

In 1996, the drummers began meeting in Love Park, where they would often stay until six in the morning. A radio station discovered the event and revealed the drummers’ festivities on air.

Swarms of people soon scrambled to join the celebration. Kegs and nitrous oxide tanks were snuck into the mix, and the event grew out of control. The police cracked down on the crew, so they fled Love Park.

The troublemakers didn’t deter the drummers and their chilled-out brethren from continuing to make music. They moved the celebration to the Eakins Oval fountain near the Art Museum.

They were only making music and hanging out. Without illegal substances to attract the police, they thought the fountain was a safe bet. But people started complaining about the noise and the peaceful celebration became illuminated by the flashing lights of squad cars.

“When the cops rolled in with their lights flashing,” one of the longtime drum circle participants recalls, “the drummers held up their lighters in response.”

It was a humorous gesture to a negative situation. As it turned out, the cops were understanding of the drummers’ purpose. They even suggested a new location.

The circle was nomadic for a while, testing different locations, looking for a proper fit. For a while, the crew met behind the Art Museum and then continued in a small meadow located near its current location.

At one point, vendors began selling products on blankets and small stands near the circle. Drama ensued as nitrous oxide tanks began appearing at the gatherings again. One man recalls helicopters and cops invading the scene. Everyone scattered.

Veteran attendees say the purpose is not to get wasted and dance around a fire, though an unmistakable aroma pervades.

The purpose, they say, is to connect with the Earth, with new friends, with love. The purpose is to feel empowered and healed, and to feel at one with yourself, everyone and everything around you.

You can dance, you can drum and you can even bring your Hula-Hoop. You can bring yourself, your friends, your dog and your family. Alcohol is not permitted. New people filter into the clearing every week, drums in hand.

Several regulars say they feel a new, stronger, more positive energy.

One man now lives in Mexico but finds himself drawn back to the drum circle during the warm months.

“For many, this is the weekly connection to the spirit, each with their own interpretation of what that is but we somehow can’t seem to live without it,” he says. “We are drawn back every week – same place, same time, same people, same energy. Call it love, or call it healing, or connection. We are one with the infinite Sun, forever and ever and ever.”

3 Comments
  1. September 4, 2011 7:30 pm

    Beautifully stated. Makes me want to finc out where it is and go!

  2. September 17, 2011 10:15 am

    Hey – Caroline – Great job and right to the point. I think knowing all of the extended information you had from me and others, there was lots to sift through and you came up with a very “right on” picture of the scene… thanks for your good work, research and writing. I think you have a real journalistic skill… keep at it! You’ll be read! Gary

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