Christmas morning. I don’t usually have Sundays free and our family holiday celebrations lean nontraditional, so I’d come to a special ecstatic dance celebration and brought my 9-year-old daughter with me. As the music started and people all around us began to flow and move, I reached out to touch her hand. As if she’d been doing it for years, she shifted into a beautiful contact improv flow with me, rolling her arm down and across mine as she beamed love and radiance right into my heart.
This child brings up so many feelings in me as I watch her grow.
On many occasions at ecstatic dance, I’ve looked around the room and been overwhelmed by the beauty of the dancers and their joyful embodiment. When delight, peace, and ease are conditioned out of many of our bodily relationships through past traumas, body issues, or simply living in a disembodied or misembodied culture, feeling comfortable in our own skins is simultaneously an intentional act of cultural resistance and a profound act of self-care and self-love. Being present in the ecstatic dance space with lovely people moving confidently in fluid, sensual, emphatic, and silly ways fills my heart to overflowing on any given dance day.
Being present in that space with my daughter, looking around the room and imagining what it must look like through the eyes of a 9-year-old girl, gave it a whole new hue of meaning…
Several years ago, my disillusionment with the spiritual communities available locally bubbled over. Nothing felt like a good fit for me theologically or culturally, and yet I yearned for intentional connection with similarly seeking and passionate people. I needed a community.
My embodied understanding of divinity and search for a non-theological, non-hierarchical, quasi-spiritual community eventually led me to the discovery of flow arts after seeing Beth Lavinder hooping at a public event, recognizing that there was something powerfully transformative happening in her in her hoop practice, and talking to her about how she learned to hoop and what it meant to her. That year, in 2009, I began to take hoop classes with Ann Humphreys, now of Line and Circle. Over time, I worked in a few classes with Baxter from Hoop Path. I became friends with people who spun poi and did aerial silks and worked with fire and felt out the boundaries of the body — how it moves through its connections with other objects and through space.
What I found in the flow arts community was a shared sense of meaning. The meaning itself wasn’t shared, exactly; just the shared and passionate realization that each of our lives had meaning beyond the minutiae of everyday living, and that this meaning could be explored through the metaphors of how we move through and interact with our tools, how we discipline our bodies to respond to our tools, and how they become extensions of our body once we reach a state called “flow.” In the act of community-based hooping, I found acceptance (of each of us with all our varying levels, ages, and bodies) and cheering of our current skills and encouragement as we learned new, more difficult skills. In the hooping itself, I found new ways of understanding my body, greater patience for myself as I made mistakes on the path of learning, and those cherished moments of bliss in which my body disappeared into the hoop and it into me.
In the hooping community, I found a model for seeking out and creating heart-based community in which people are invited to bring their authentic, whole selves to their work as well as their play. There were hoop classes and hoop jams, but there were also fire festivals and potlucks and social events at which people were able to share who they were, how they were facing challenges, and what they were learning about themselves and their lives. The social was spiritual, in the sense of acknowledging a deep sense of purpose and offering fertile soil for meaning to be sowed and co-nurtured among similarly-impassioned (if not like-minded) people.
While my schedule left me in the periphery of the hooping world for a few years, I returned to a similar community in early 2016 when I finally started attending ecstatic dance. What initially drew me to it was feeling tired of being out of community and anxious socially, and wanting a place in my life in which I could explore interpersonal relationships and communication in a safe space, with safe people. Ecstatic dance, at least in our community, is a 90 minute “dance wave” of music that starts with slow, meditative sounds, works its way up to a high-energy, upbeat middle, and then gradually expands back into a mellow close. Some people come and dance alone for the entire dance each week; others prefer partner dancing. Many make plenty of time for both solo and partner dance. There is no talking on the dance floor; consent is essential, emphasized, and negotiated nonverbally, though just like in everyday friendships, a comfort level emerges with those who dance together regularly and consent becomes less mechanical. Anyone can decline any offer to partner dance gracefully, with no hurt feelings. Gender becomes part of the play, and many who attend consciously break up gender norms in their dress, behavior, and approach – men dance with men, women with women, women with men, and a host of gender-nonconforming folks with everyone, with no expectation that one will lead and the other will follow. Instead, the focus is on paying close attention to your partner’s nonverbal communication and allowing your bodies to match movements, falling into a dance that is comfortable and fun for both of you.
Sometimes this means partner dances are quite intimate – I’ve danced with my body entwined with another, have been part of the swirling 20-person multi-partner dances that sometimes spontaneously occur (I call this phenomenon “the amoeba”), and have ended more than one ecstatic dance wave lying on the floor in the pile of people we like to call the “cuddle puddle,” eyes closed, absorbed in shared bliss, unsure who was holding my hand or whose limb was thrown over my shoulder (or whether it was an arm or a leg). I once spent an entire song with a partner/friend and I holding each other, barely moving except to match the rhythm of our breaths. (The number of people with whom I share this level of intimacy on the dance floor, remains small and controlled – all within my comfort zone.)
Other times, partner dances are silly and fun, interspersed with childlike humor, games of peek-a-boo, laughter, and make believe. Sometimes, someone does something playful – starts marching around, or honks like a goose, or takes a friend’s hand and begins a chain of people that weaves in on itself – and others join in, welcoming the chance to play. In our ecstatic dance community, there are performers, singers, voice teachers, artists, and dancers. There are counselors, therapists, psychiatrists, and yoga teachers. There are accountants, architects, teachers, developers, researchers, and web designers. There are people in their early twenties, “senior citizens,” and people of all sizes and body types. Each dance flow feels like a lesson — a classroom in which social anxiety, interpersonal skills, jealousy, fear, friendship, and love can all be examined through the lens of dance metaphor.
In this community and the open, safe space it has provided, I have found much of what I had been missing in terms of spiritual community, even as much of my personal theology expresses as solitary activity and I’ve only in recent weeks even attempted to begin to articulate some of my personal beliefs to others. There are no dogmatic rules in ecstatic dance, although non-judgment, freedom of expression, and consent are key ideals. We don’t discuss theology or religious worldviews at dance as a routine, though a sense of gratitude and wonder about the universe, the shared ecstatic bliss of the dance space, and universal and personal growth patterns are regularly discussed as part of our closing circle. In social events outside of official dance spaces, we take opportunities to discuss how we are working these ideals into our larger communities and how they affect our lives. For those who aren’t huggers, none are expected. For those who enjoy touch, long hugs and leaning on friends are the norm.
There’s a lot of crossover between the hooping, ecstatic dance, and other flow arts communities, and many of the friends I’ve made in one of those circles are also involved in others. Talking to them, I know that they also see the connection between flow arts, dance, and the embodied spiritual traditions. If Spirit expresses into the world through us, our words, and our bodies, then conscious exploration of movement and sound, of mindful focus and unthinking ecstasy, and of where self and other meet in communion become ritual acts of growth and devotion to a manifest Love and embodied Divine. Shared in a community without dogma or hierarchy? Just what I needed.