The phrase 'ecstatic dance' conjures an image of a frenzied mass of possibly substance-enhanced partygoers, moving mindlessly to a lightning-fast EDM beat. But in truth, the phrase refers to a movement that mixes dance music and DJ culture with meditation, allowing dancers to move themselves into a drug-and-alcohol-free trance meant to bring people to a deeper awareness of themselves. Rather than the blissful escape that many might associate with dance music, ecstatic dance is meant to connect the dancer more directly with their souls.
The movement originated with dancer Gabrielle Roth, who created a meditative process called the 5Rhythms in the late 1970s. Roth described the practice as a journey through the soul, saying that by moving the body, releasing the heart, and freeing the mind, one can connect to unlimited possibility and potential. Moving through the 5Rhythms, which originally took about an hour, Roth drew from Eastern philosophy, mysticism, and shamanism to create the process. It's a movement that's steadily gained in popularity through the decades, with around 300 certified teachers in the U.S. as of 2016.
It's something that Alexandra Seaman, founder of Ecstatic Dance Charleston, first discovered while on an extended trip to Hawaii two years ago. Seaman, who has a background in both dance and yoga instruction, heard about a weekly mass spiritual dance in the town she was staying in and decided to check it out.
"Every Sunday morning it was like the entire town came out to dance," she says. "It was all ages, all backgrounds. I kept hearing about it so I went, and it was so welcoming. I was new in town at the time and it proved to be one of the best places to meet new people and connect with like-minded people. It was really transformative; I had no idea it would be such powerful personal work."
When Seaman returned to Charleston, the memory of that experience stayed with her, and she began holding Ecstatic Dance sessions at yoga studios about a year ago. She's been able to expand into larger spaces over the last two months, and rather than having people pick a playlist to dance along to, she brings in local DJs to create 90-minute to two-hour soundtracks of largely instrumental electronic music.
"We get together and begin with an opening circle where we go over the guidelines, which are very simple," she says. "There is no talking on the dance floor. There's a lot of communication, but it's not verbal. You're free to express yourself in sound, you're free to dance with others, and I'd say that it varies for the individual as to how much of that interpersonal communication happens."
Rather than emphasizing a specific structure or series of movements like a yoga class, Seaman says that Ecstatic Dance is far more free form, which can give each individual an entirely different experience. "You get somebody out on the dance floor, you give them something to listen to, and you invite them to move," she says. "And what comes up is anything from fear to insecurity to expectation to judgement, and you work through it in a way that's very open. It will depend on the dancer how internal or external that experience is. Sometimes you just need an hour or two hours to be with yourself, and you dance like crazy, and another time you might find yourself dancing with another person or the entire group, so each time can be very different."
Needless to say, there are some DJs around town who aren't familiar with Ecstatic Dance and how to craft a set that caters to that crowd's needs, and Seaman says there's often a brief education in order for those that she brings in. "The challenge of that is that they don't know what ecstatic dance is, but they're often excited about the idea of playing for an audience that's just there to listen and to move to what they offer," she says.
The whole concept of movement is for a very different purpose. "We're moving to facilitate a journey and create some sort of transformation to learn something about ourselves or to bring everybody together to experience community," says Seaman. "We keep lyrics to a minimum. And if there are any, we want them to be honest and uplifting. I don't like to limit the DJs; I like them to express their style, but we want to elevate. You're not going to hear profanity, or too much about sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll at these dances."
As for the types of music that tend to work best, there's no hard-and-fast rule there, either. "I've had everything from house music to EDM to groovy, funky music," she says. "It really depends on the DJ."
At the end of each Ecstatic Dance event, Seaman creates another circle so that she can get feedback on how it went. She says that so far, there's been one comment that keeps cropping up, and it goes back to one of the reasons she created these nights in the first place.
"We come from a culture that seems to be overly self-conscious," she says. "That was a huge part of my intention in starting it. Coming from the yoga community which is supposedly about liberation, I noticed that so many people are still pent up, and there's still this idea that we need something to make us feel safe enough to express who we are. The comment I get most is that people were nervous when they came and felt so far out of their comfort zone, but they felt so safe and able to express themselves and opened up like never before. That's the gift of the dance; it can set you free."