Extreme rituals in a BDSM context: the physiological and psychological effects of the 'Dance of Souls'

Cult Health Sex. 2017 Apr;19(4):453-469. doi: 10.1080/13691058.2016.1234648. Epub 2016 Oct 14.


Participation in extreme rituals (e.g., fire-walking, body-piercing) has been documented throughout history. Motivations for such physically intense activities include religious devotion, sensation-seeking and social bonding. The present study aims to explore an extreme ritual within the context of bondage/discipline, dominance/submission and sadism/masochism (BDSM): the 'Dance of Souls', a 160-person ritual involving temporary piercings with weights or hooks attached and dancing to music provided by drummers. Through hormonal assays, behavioural observations and questionnaires administered before, during and after the Dance, we examine the physiological and psychological effects of the Dance, and the themes of spirituality, connectedness, transformation, release and community reported by dancers. From before to during the Dance, participants showed increases in physiological stress (measured by the hormone cortisol), self-reported sexual arousal, self-other overlap and decreases in psychological stress and negative affect. Results suggest that this group of BDSM practitioners engage in the Dance for a variety of reasons, including experiencing spirituality, deepening interpersonal connections, reducing stress and achieving altered states of consciousness.

Keywords: Dance of Souls; Sadomasochism; USA; cortisol; extreme rituals; sexuality; spirituality.

MeSH terms

  • Ceremonial Behavior*
  • Dancing / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / analysis
  • Male
  • Masochism / psychology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Motivation
  • Sadism / psychology*
  • Sexual Behavior / psychology
  • Spirituality
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology
  • Surveys and Questionnaires


  • Hydrocortisone