An ecstatic dance how-to

I’m performing this weekend (yay! I love performing!), so I don’t have time to write a big essay. Instead, I have decided to write a little on how to actually do ecstatic dance.

It’s actually a pretty nerve-wracking thing to try to do, especially at first. And I find that, in general, there are two groups of people who have the hardest time with it–people who have never danced or think of themselves as really bad dancers, and very well-trained dancers.

When I first set out to do ecstatic dance, I fell under the latter category. I had over ten years of dance training. But all that had done was to limit my ideas about dance. I didn’t know how to dance whatever felt good, and only knew how to do choreography. And then when I tried just dancing, I felt lost and intimidated by the open space.

So here are my pointers on how to get over that intimidation and just dance.

1. Put on music that makes you feel like grooving, but that you aren’t too familiar with. I find that it’s harder to get into a trance if it’s music I can hum along to because I stay so focused on the “OMG! I Love this song!” sort of feeling than feeling my body in motion. For starters, I recommend Gabrielle Roth’s work, particularly Endless Wave. It’s sort of like the guided meditation of ecstatic dance. The first time I danced to this cd was the first time I ever really experienced trance. All you have to do is find some space, put it on, listen to the music, and do what she says. It’s about half an hour long, and amazing.

2. If you don’t have something like Endless Wave, then make for yourself some kind of improvisational structure. This can be anything. You could dance what a tree feels like to you. You could set up a pretend playground in your living room with one corner a slide and another a merry-go-round and another swings and a monkey bar. You could dance as slowly as possible. You could dance as if you’re starving, and there’s a giant peach in the room, but it’s too big for your mouth to fit around it. You could dance by pointing in different directions. You could dance on the subject of Laban’s efforts. If you’re feeling heatheny, you could dance how a particular rune feels. It doesn’t matter what the structure is, so long as there is one. Improvising with no structure is extremely difficult, even for the most practiced improviser. I always make myself some kind of structure, no matter how simple. Sometimes I’ll start out with one and then let it go and just move partway through. But it’s important to have something, so that you don’t feel intimidated to just move.

3. If all that isn’t working for you, just do something simple over and over. You could just sway your hips or take forward and back steps. Just so long as you’re moving. Then, you can make simple additions–slowly raise your arms up while you keep the rhythm of your hips. Or roll your head in a circle.

Once you’ve gotten yourself moving, try not to think about whether you’re doing it well or not. That saying “dance like no one is watching” applies here. Don’t worry about what it looks like, worry about what it feels like. Notice how raising your arms causes a different emotional state than lowering them. Feel the weight of your head on your neck and the articulation of your feet on the floor. Even if you’re just swaying, feel your hip joints rocking in their sockets. Just follow the feel of the movement.

When we are children, we’re taught about the five senses–sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. When they taught you that, they were lying to you. And it was something that always bothered me–if those are the senses, how do I know if my knee is bent or not without looking? Is that touch? But my knee isn’t touching anything.

There are many other senses, including my favorites–proprioception (the awareness of where your body is in space) and kinesthesia (the sensation of movement). While trying out ecstatic dance, make friends with these senses. Remember that they exist and that they are helpful to you in your life–they are why you can walk. Close your eyes and use those senses we so often ignore and take for granted. These senses are your awareness of your body. They are how we find embodiment. Dancing is like the sound of music or the taste of chocolate. It is the bliss of proprioception and kinesthesia.

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