It’s cool to be a sceptic and all, but have you ever actually tried enjoying things?
Disclaimer: Ecstatic dancing is obviously very against social distancing. I went in March when hugging your friends wasn’t illegal yet, and if you want to try it yourself, maybe wait until the World slightly un-fucks itself up again.
My housemate Tim and I sat on the couch of our Bali villa, eyes glued to a YouTube video with a mixture of confusion and slight horror. On the screen, a dozen slim, beautiful young hippies contorted themselves into shapes and forms that would perfectly encapsulate the sentiment ‘Dance like nobody is watching’. A guy in a tank top was writhing on the floor. In the middle of the make-shift dance floor, a woman leaned her back against a skinny young man, bending herself into a C shape over his crouched figure.
‘This is like a weird mating dance’, Tim mumbled.
When our Swedish friend had invited us to go ecstatic dancing with her, the first thing we – two inveterate sceptics, at least one of us with a serious dancing disability – did was research. ‘I just do it for exercise’, Julia had told us brightly. She sent us a video clip where it did seem more like a big party rather than strange slithering.
So we said yes. After all, don’t you have to try everything once?
What the heck is ecstatic dancing??
Ecstatic dancing is not a new practice – it’s been around in some shape or form for a lot of human history with Greek myths and even the Bible making a mention of it. In modern times, these dance events are less like bacchanalia and more just free-form dance parties that are often connected with mediation and energy healing.
(Energy healing? I know. Just bear with me.)
Udara, the resort in Bali where I tried on my figurative dancing shoes, describes the dance as “a movement practice where people come together and dance in a conscious way”. The idea is to let your body just follow the music. Often the venues have a live DJ who plays a mixture of different genres of mostly electronic music.
The haven by the sea
A road snaking through spring-green rice paddies takes you to Udara, located right by the beach in a quiet Balinese neighbourhood.
We climbed upstairs to the highest platform. It was more like a rooftop gazebo than a room, open on all sides and the roof supported by thick, tree-shaped columns. The sound of the waves carried up and I found myself adjusting my breathing to the rhythm of their roll.
I felt nervous, slightly self-conscious. Where do my hands go? What do I usually do with them? I stood with them laid on my hips and felt ridiculous. A girl in a flowy white dress sailed in like a summer fairy and I felt a little underprepared in my sports bra and yoga pants even though the majority of the room was dressed in a similar fashion.
A woman, our host, entered the room. She had a warm smile and an easy, unassured air around her, a stance that told me she’d done this before. Me? Not so breezy. I crossed my arms. Did that look grumpy? I released my arms and let them hang on my side.
‘Welcome,’ she said. ‘Are there any first-timers here today?’
Not a completely lawless dance
She started by laying out the rule of the land. It seems that most ecstatic dancing events follow the same guidelines.
Firstly, strictly no drugs or alcohol are allowed. (When watching that first YouTube video, I found this hard to believe.)
Secondly, taking photos or videos is prohibited. Influencers gotta influence, though, so I did see a few people sneaking out their phones mid-dance.
No shoes, no talking and no judgement – the most important rule of ecstatic dancing is to let yourself move freely and let others do the same.
Ready, set, party
We warmed up with small exercises. The host asked us to walk around and look people in the eye as we passed and smile at them.
Coming from Finland, eye contact is not quite illegal but the way some Fins avoid it, you’d think it was. As soon as I started walking, though, I found it easy to meet the people I passed. I felt myself relax, starting to enjoy the movement of the crowd and the feel of the wooden floor under my bare feet.
Next we greeted all four directions – bowing south, I could hear the waves crashing – then raised our arms up and finally squatted down to lay hands on the floor to connect to the earth. It wasn’t that different from the sun salutations I’d got used to in yoga.
Then it started.
I felt I was fully inside my body, nerve endings alert, feet grounded. I kept my eyes closed. The music started slow, quiet, and I felt a strange jolt of electricity run through me. My body was moving. I’m not quite sure I’d given it the command to, but there I was, gently swaying in time with the music, anyway.
I was dancing in a dark space, eyes closed and fully given in to myself. It felt easy to move along to the music, natural, like I was a snake being charmed. Almost without any thought, my arms travelled above my head in what felt like a smooth wave, and my hands became the head of the snake, bending gracefully to look around the room.
(I felt ridiculous about it afterwards – like when you find yourself chuckling at a really stupid joke. Tim confessed, though, that he had imagined himself as a dragon while he danced.)
I didn’t open my eyes until I felt comfortable that my body knew what it was doing. When I did brave a look, I saw the crowd swaying, pumping, twirling, moving in so many different ways that it felt impossible to be embarrassed about my hips and feet and snake hands. Some people were barely moving, shifting weight from one foot to another; some were spinning each other around, skirts and loose tops swooshing. A circle had formed in the middle of the floor where a tall, striking woman dressed in all black moved so fervently she had gathered a few imitators around her.
I had never expected it to feel so… natural. It was almost like a trance, I supposed, except for being hypnotised I felt acutely aware of everything in me and around me. What’s best, I felt there was zero judgement in the room. I was free to be and move as I liked.
My movement had become bigger and braver as the songs switched between a gentle snake-charmer’s whistle to jungle beats and tropical techno. I spotted a man in an open shirt playing a saxophone. The DJ rarely spoke but when he did, the whole crowd cheered at him.
Now this song, this was definitely something known to them, something that all of us had become familiar with in sentiment. The lyrics were simple enough as everyone started singing along.
‘I love my life! I love my life!’
And in that moment I felt like I did, like I was in my right place in the universe, like all these strangers around me were my friends and the world was filled with infinite possibilities. I cared little for else than my feet against the floor and my hands in the air and this stupid, wide grin plastered on my face. Bliss makes you feel light-weight and tingly, hollow but filled with some invisible energy, like a hippie balloon.
Little by little, the party started to die down. After an hour and a half, I was exhausted and happy, light on my feet. Tim found me through the crowd and even though I had expected him to declare a big hard NEVER AGAIN, he looked as cheerful and bright as I felt.
Mission Try Everything Once: Success, I guess?
We stayed for sound healing afterwards – fuck, just that morning I had sworn up and down I would not, that’s where I drew the line of my hippie-dom – but everyone laid down on the floor together and it felt rude to leave so I lay down too and let my thoughts get carried away and centralise in new, crystalline shapes as the host walked around the room, tapping bells and Tibetan prayer bowls.
To end with, we all congregated in a circle, and the host led us to a chain of mantras. She sung the lines to us and we repeated them in harmony. The song resounded off the tens of bodies around me, filling whatever space had been left over from before, like something warm and familiar.
I left the space feeling fuzzy and energised. I mean, it’s cool to be a sceptic and all, but have you ever actually tried enjoying things?
Less ‘dance like nobody is watching’ – more like ‘dance like everybody is watching, and no one cares’.
Have you ever tried ecstatic dancing? Would you?