Ecstatic Dance: A Guide For Skeptics

Ecstatic Dance
what it is, how it works and why you should try it

What is Ecstatic Dance?
A type of dance that focuses on freedom of movement and self expression, usually held as dance events with conscious community values.

HIPPIE INDEX
CategoryLearning CurveBenefits
MovementNoneStress relief, self expression, fun, community
SafetyMinimum effective doseCost
Very safe1 – 3 timesFree or up to $30/event

Ecstatic Dance Guide Table of Contents


I flipped a coin to try to get out of ecstatic dance.

My girlfriend and I were on a group vacation in Santa Cruz (which I discovered was a hippie haven), and friends asked if we wanted to try ecstatic dance.

I hoped the coin would land heads because there’s something about dancing that I’ve always feared. I was intimidated by what I heard about ecstatic dance – that the point was the freely express yourself through movement.

The coin landed tails. I guess divine forces of the 50-50 coin toss wanted me to shake my tail.

What is Ecstatic Dance like?

Have you ever felt uncomfortable in the presence of someone who is so comfortable with themselves? Like when a friend breaks out in song or starts dancing in the streets?

The first time going to Ecstatic Dance can be jarring in this way.

I saw people writhing, moving, climbing over each other in a way that I’ve never seen before, let alone at a typical club. My first impression was that everyone looked like they were doing some sort of interpretive dance.

At first I felt hesitant. I was caught up in my head. Do I look stupid? I can’t dance like that guy. Does this move make me look gay?

It later occurred to me that reckoning with those questions is a hidden benefit of ecstatic dance.

As I acclimated to the environment, I noticed that people were moving more freely than in any place I’ve been. The atmosphere felt inclusive and non-judgmental.

I even surprised myself by trying out a few dance moves that I would’ve been embarrassed to try elsewhere. People truly seemed to be enjoying themselves.


format and rules of ecstatic dance

While events vary by format, there’s usually an opening circle, the dance itself, and ends with a closing circle.

Opening circle
This is one of my favorite practices from Ecstatic Dance. Participants sit in a circle and the facilitators talk about community guidelines (more on that below). Then the emcee may direct the group to connect hands with the person next to them, and set an intention together. Sometimes they’ll have everyone breathe in deeply and sigh loudly together. It really sets the tone that this is a conscious community event.

Optional: Warm-up event
Depending on the event, there may be a warmup before opening circle. These are typically facilitated workshops on yoga, dance or some other meditative movement. First timers should use the warmup to get acclimated, because the main dance event is unguided. For example, in one of the warmups I loosened up my hips in ways I never would on my own. It was a nice way to provoke meditation on what I want to explore during the ecstatic dance.

Ecstatic dance
This is where the rubber meets the, err…feet meets the floor. Ecstatic dance officially begins when the music starts. Personally, it takes me a good 10-15 minutes to get comfortable dancing more experimentally.

I’m biased because LA has high music standards and Ecstatic Dance LA does not disappoint. Overall music leans towards EDM. The better DJs try to incorporate a wide range of music, from tribal beats to electronic to slower music for partner dancing. Sometimes there are event live performances!

Closing circle
Stick to the end of ecstatic dance, and you’ll experience the closing circle. Participants are often encouraged to close their eyes or lay down. Soft music or guided meditation may follow. It’s a great way to calmly end the ecstasis.

Ecstatic Dance Guidelines

The dances I’ve attended in Santa Cruz, Los Angeles, Oceanside and Toronto all share the Ecstatic Dance guidelines. Guidelines may vary by location, so try to make it to the beginning of the event for the opening circle.

ecstatic dance guidelines and rules

Move freely without judgment

Ecstatic Dance encourages self expression through movement. And people are most self expressed when they don’t judge themselves, nor feel judged by others.

The following rules all work to support this guiding principle.

No talking on the dance floor

This was harder than I expected. Until ecstatic dance, I didn’t realize that I talked as a means to distract myself from moving freely. Silence places the focus on being in the body. Get out of your head and into your body.

Note: You can talk off the dance floor and in rest areas. On occasions I’ve forgotten this rule said something to a friend. It was no big deal.

No shoes on the dance floor

Have you ever been stepped on…with heels? (It hurts.) Dancing without shoes initially seems like a hippie thing to do, but it’s so damn practical – it’s cleaner and prevents getting impaled by sharp heels.

Barefoot dancing also allows for more movement, especially for contact improv or literally getting down on the floor.

Drug free, substance free environment

Ecstatic Dance is a safe space, so it naturally follows that it’s a sober event. The only sanctioned high is the natural high from movement.

I’ve yet to see anyone drunk or tripping out, so it seems like everybody respects the honor code on this one. It helps that there is no alcohol sold. Sometimes, Ecstatic Dances have attached kitchen spaces that sell health conscious food & drinks.

Respect others’ space

Have you ever had someone grab you or just come up from behind and start grinding? That wouldn’t happen at Ecstatic Dance. People can’t feel truly free to move if they’re worried about someone violating their space.

So what if you want to dance with someone? Most facilitators, at the beginning of class, encourage dancers to make a clear signal – steady eye contact or extending a hand – and wait for a response. If there’s no clear, affirmative response, move away peacefully.

If someone wants to say no, they can put their palms together and namaste-away from the interaction.

benefits of ecstatic dance

Unlike other new age things I’ve explored, Ecstatic Dance made immediate sense to me. This was a safe space for self expression (say that 3x fast).

Another way to understand the benefits of ecstatic dance is to think of it as the polar opposite of a night club.

Bars & ClubsEcstatic Dance
Alcohol-heavy environmentSober environment
NighttimeDaytime
ShoesBarefoot
ExclusiveInclusive
Talking/shoutingNo talking on the dance floor
Physical, e.g. hitting on womenRespect for personal space
Status-drivenExpression-driven


Another way I like to describe Ecstatic Dance is that it’s like going to a dance church.

The event is inclusive of all types of people, ages and backgrounds. You might see parents bring their kids to ecstatic dance or seniors bustin’ a move. Everybody is welcome.


origins of ecstatic dance

Ecstatic comes from the Latin word ekstasis – “standing outside oneself.” At ecstatic dance, you’ll see people lose themselves in movement.

I was surprised to find that forms of ecstatic dance can be found from ancient to modern history.

In Greek mythology, “the maenads were intoxicated female worshippers of the Greek god of wineDionysus, known for their “ecstatic revelations and frenzied dancing” (source).

Heck, even the Christian sect of Shakers were once shamed for their individualistic movements.

Shakers “sang, danced, and sometimes turned, twitched, jerked, or shouted… worship services were unstructured, loud, chaotic and emotional. Many outsiders disapproved of or mocked Shakers’ mode of worship without understanding the symbolism of their movements or the content of their songs.” (Wikipedia)

In the 1970s, Gabrielle Roth revived ecstatic dance and formalized it in her 5Rhythms practice.

Around 2001, Max Fathom used learnings from 5Rhythms and fused it with the increasingly popular genre of electronic dance music. This was big hit and Ecstatic Dance found its first roots on the Big Island in Hawaii. (Source: New Haven Ecstatic Dance).

In 2008, Donna Carroll founded Ecstatic Dance Oakland. Once the community moved stateside – especially into hippie Bay Area – Ecstatic Dance began to grow.

In 2015, Carroll founded Ecstatic Dance International which includes training on how to create an ecstatic dance community. This organizational structure powers much of the popularity of Ecstatic Dance today.

tips for first-time ecstatic dancers

How to find Ecstatic Dance events
If you’re in a sizable city, chances are that you’ll find an Ecstatic dance in your area. Google search “Ecstatic Dance” in your area, check out Meetup.com or search”ecstatic dance” on Facebook / social media. There’s also the list of locations on EcstaticDance.org, I’m just not sure how often it’s updated.

Side note: it's not uncommon for ecstatic dance events to be held at yoga studios, dance halls or even school gyms. Still none in your area? Make it out to a transformational festival like Lightning in a Bottle and experience it there. 

Know it’s okay to roll solo
Ecstatic dance events have an inclusive atmosphere. It helps that the value of the event is to focus on self expression, so there’s no societal expectation to show up with friends or a dance partner.

If you’re anxious, bring one of your more open minded or hippie friends to join you.

Go for the full experience
Definitely don’t miss the beginning open circle. This is where you’ll learn the format and guidelines of that particular community.

Try a new dance move…or twenty
Think about any ways you might restrict your body, and all of that is game for exploration at ecstatic dance. Move around different parts of the dance floor, or consider why you tend to be planted in one spot.

If you were to try moving in a way that’s more feminine or masculine, what might that look like? If there’s resistance to moving a different way – why? This, to me, is the whole point ecstatic dance.

diy corner: experience ecstatic dance on your own

You don’t need to pay $20 to attend the local ecstatic dance to experience the benefits. Ecstatic Dance can be experienced in the comfort of your own private space.

The point of ecstatic dance is to get into your body and out of your mind, and explore your boundaries as an individual through movement.

Aubrey Marcus, CEO of Onnit, shares his practice in this interview.

Do it by yourself in a dark room. Put on some music.

Put on something with a tribal beat and force yourself to move in those uncomfortable patterns and see what boundaries and restrictions you have for yourself, and then ask where that is coming from. 

I can’t allow myself to move in space by myself in the dark? What the hell? 

Whatever scares you to do on a public dance floor, consider exploring that in your private dance space.

  • Move in ways that feel “too feminine” or “too masculine” for you
  • Dance to a music style you usually wouldn’t, or even dance without any music.

Why attend Ecstatic Dance if you can do it yourself?

It’s the difference between listening to music on your own vs going to a concert. The community, feedback and energy you get from others can be inspiring. I’ve been impressed watching people move, challenging how I might move more freely.

Though it may look like it’s dancing like no one’s watching, it’s not that either because people are watching – and that’s a lot of the beauty of it. It’s people watching with love and support.

Anna Miller

final verdict: try it

I wholeheartedly recommended Ecstatic Dance.

It’s safe. It’s fun. It’s challenging.

As a cerebral type of guy, I realize that maybe what hinders my growth is my mind, prone to hacking away on one problem to the next.

Ecstatic dance is the exact thing I needed to help me get out of my brain and into my body.

It’s far the lowest-risk, highest-reward movement practice I can think of.

It’s cheap or free if you want to try on your own first. But I strongly encourage attending a live event – going just once or twice can help you feel more free, self expressed and connected to yourself. These are intangible values that are getting more and more rare in distracted, high-speed society of our times.

So try it out.

It might just be the most fun you’ll ever have dancing.

Other resources and more reading

Here’s a miscellaneous list of brain food to whet your curiosity about Ecstatic Dance…

Check out this Youtube video of Ecstatic Dance at the OG location in Oakland:

[Book] Dance: The Joy of Movement as a Spiritual Practice

Written by cofounder of the international dance organization InterPlay, Cynthia Winton-Henry. Chockful of nuggets on overcoming anxiety and using dance as a vehicle for therapy and maybe even spiritual growth.

[Websites]

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