Dancing toward transcendence: A personal essay

David Dodge/Flickr/Creative Commons

T he neighborhood was residential, tree-lined. Had we made a mistake, typed the wrong address into Uber? We saw no signs of life, heard not even a distant echo of music. My best friend had traveled to Berkeley for the weekend, and we were looking to dance (when together, we are always looking to dance). We stood in front of a warehouse that stretched half the length of a block on Eighth Street, low and brick-laden. A string of fairy lights was draped around a single wooden door. Like the most hesitant moths of all time, we drifted silently across the dark street, toward the light.

The common room immediately over the threshold was a dimly lit, sparsely furnished industrial space, imbued with an air of the unfinished. A gray-haired woman was perched behind a desk to our left. Had we ever been to ecstatic dance before? Did we understand the parameters of consent necessary in a communal dance space? We shook our heads to the first question, nodded solemnly to the second. To our right, a concrete hallway stretched, lit hospital-fluorescent. Plastic sheeting hung across the entry, exposed wiring crawled across the walls. To the woman’s left, a white curtain billowed. Light streamed through, a pulsing beat spilled out from behind the fabric, eerie and religious. We pushed the curtain aside and walked into the room.

A young woman in pigtails and knee-high socks was wrapping her legs around a scruffy, barefoot man. They were rolling around on the ground, grabbing at each other, dry-humping offbeat to the vinyl track’s synth. An older man with short-cropped salt and pepper hair, dressed in all black, was waving his hands in the air, turning in rapid circles, gliding across the hardwood with closed eyes. A woman in a skintight leopard bodysuit was grinding between a sinewy, tan, older man and a woman who looked like my high school librarian. A man’s voice welcomed us to the warmup. This was the warmup.

A string of fairy lights was draped around a single wooden door.

“Let’s just um… stretch.”

We bent into child’s pose.

Scenes like this are far from unusual within these spaces. Ecstatic dance, a form of dance in which people cede completely to rhythm, abandon control and awareness of their bodies, and move out of instinct alone, is notorious for highly uninhibited environments. There is a lack of formal writing and academic sources that define ecstatic dance; instead, there are the conceptually abstract descriptions on various websites, all emphasizing a unified ideal of free movement. The practice invites individuals to release their reticence, sink into their bodies, and, as one Oakland-based ecstatic dance location writes in its website description, “shape a consciousness that extends beyond our own.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but in the dark studio, it certainly seemed like the people around me did.

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Ecstatic dance became popularized in the 1970s by a woman named Gabrielle Roth. She founded The Moving Center, a dance studio that leads workshops and classes that employ the logic of the “5Rhythms” — flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical, stillness. More than physical movements, they are “states of being.” Roth, within a text post on the 5Rhythms website, claims that the rhythms, when practiced in order, mimic a wave; one that can “tune into instincts and intuitions … initiate us back into the wisdom of our bodies and unleash movement’s dynamic healing power.”

Roth herself, as noted in an autobiography posted to 5Rhythms.com, grew up as a classically trained ballerina, with aspirations of a professional dance career. When a knee injury barred that future, she joined a massage crew for elderly patients. It was there that she synthesized her interests in healing and dance and began mapping a practice that would intertwine the two. Today, the site notes, there are close to 400 5Rhythms teachers in more than 50 countries, preaching Roth’s gospel.

There is a lack of formal writing and academic sources that define ecstatic dance…

Ecstatic dance in the form I partook in that fateful Friday night found its origins in the year 2000 when Max Fathom, inspired by Burning Man, became obsessed with electronic beats in relation to Roth’s form of free-form dance. He opened a dance spot in the touristy Kalani Resort on the Big Island in Hawai‘i. When two Bay Area yoga instructors visited Fathom’s club, they were entranced and, as they wrote on the site, “desir[ed] a taste of [the] expansive transformational energy.” They opened their own studio in Oakland when they returned home. Since then, more than 25 ecstatic dance studios have popped up around California, including the spot I visited in northwest Berkeley, and close to 100 locations have appeared nationwide. Locations have sprung up internationally, too. From Moscow to Quebec, people are swaying to dance bops in converted dance studios, seeking the transcendent with each thrust.

Its broad appeal, I learned, may not be so surprising, given historical context; ecstatic dance is an ancient practice, an instinctual custom. Greek mythology tells the lives of the maenads, a group of women who, in the name of Dionysus, engaged in ecstatic frenzies to express their overwhelming devotion. Shamanism employs ecstatic dance in conjunction with rhythmic drumming to alter the consciousness of its worshippers. In fact, ecstatic dance is and has been used in several spiritual practices. The Afro-Brazilian religious tradition Candomblé uses ecstatic dance so that devotees may be possessed by deities. In northern Greece and Bulgaria, a three-day festival culminates in a fire-walking ceremony that relies on ecstatic dance, in celebration of St. Constantine.

By the time the music picked up post-warmup, my friend and I were acclimated. We didn’t blink twice when a man got down on his knees in front of us and demonstratively executed a silent wolf howl. We jumped around, making each other laugh, mimicking each other’s dramatic movements, twisting around each other until we were dizzy and sweating. We stuck together; we didn’t want any of the dancers to do to us what some of them were doing to each other, preferred that they refrain from gyrating within a foot of us. And to our relief, nothing was explicitly attempted. There were times in that room when we were absolutely freaked by things happening around us, many moments when we wondered how we ended up in the room after the innocuous Google search “places to dance in Berkeley,” but we never felt personally unsafe. Dance Jam, the ecstatic dance location we engaged with, has strict policies for its dance floor. No talking, no shoes and most importantly, no touching other dancers unless it is explicitly welcome. I was grateful this policy was rendered clear. Several ecstatic dance locations, as I later learned, have been accused of promoting an environment that allows assault and harassment to occur in the name of expression. Boundaries, especially in the most liberated spaces, are obligatory.

From Moscow to Quebec, people are swaying to dance bops in converted dance studios…

Halfway through the night, all the dancers gathered around a miniature plastic flame. I sat on the floor with my legs tucked under myself as a man named DJ Mark told me to close my eyes. I kept them open. He invited us to partake in a communal om to allow our voices to “vibrate against each other,” to feel the community bonds ripple audibly. I watched as the people around me seemed to grow euphoric inside the noise, their faces slipping into a blissed stupor. We decided it was time to leave.

When my friend and I were young, we spent hours in my kitchen, blasting Rihanna, our small bodies flailing, wondering if we too were good girls who would one day go bad. We danced through middle school, through high school, least self-conscious when we were bouncing around together. We danced until our lungs ached, until we believed in our bodies.

I probably won’t ever go back. But there is something primal, intuitive, undeniably restorative, in allowing your body to move without thought. There was something about it in my kitchen in 2008, and there was something about it in that liminal warehouse in northwest Berkeley.

Contact Lillian Wollman at [email protected].