The word ‘ecstasy’ can refer to a whole assortment of things, feelings, and states of being. The original etymology of the Ancient Greek word directly translates to “outside of oneself,” a state that can be achieved through a diverse number of pathways, from meditation to sexual pleasure. It’s no mystery why the recreational psychotropic drug MDMA is also known for its street name Ecstasy, or just E, as it induces feelings of euphoria, empathy and inner peace, while also causing mild hallucinations and an altered sense of time.
When I think of what ecstasy means to me, I conjure images of pure bliss, dancing in flowery fields, free from the constraints of my brain’s every day worries. Ecstatic dance is steeped in ancient ritualistic and spiritual practice, dating back to the Maenads of Greek mythology, who were worshipers of wine god Dionysus and known for “ecstatic revelations and frenzied dancing.” Many diverse religions have their own unique traditions of ecstatic dance, ranging from the Hindu Maruts, to the shamanic healing dances of the Kalahari San bushmen. Gabrielle Roth’s 5Rhythms format of the 1970’s modernized the ecstatic dance practice, re-framing it as a teachable method and inspiring various offshoots.
After spending my youth competing in the harsh world of formal dance, the act of dancing lost its joy for me. I associated it with body shaming, social anxiety and having to follow a rigid set of rules concerning proper etiquette and technique. As an adult, I had to revise the idea of what dancing meant to me in order to enjoy it again in its purest form: as a vehicle for physical, mental and emotional release through movement of the body. Attending Ecstatic dance classes became an opportunity to intuitively move my body, to lose myself in the music instead of hyper-focusing on mastering choreography.
I discovered Ecstatic Dance Toronto about four years ago, and it proved just how therapeutic dancing has the potential to be. I like to think of Ecstatic dance as embodying the fun inherent in dancing at a club, minus the alcohol, the handsy creeps, and the inevitable hangover that often follows a night out. The class I attend has some strict rules in place to help maximize the experience of its attendants: no substances (must be sober), no shoes, no talking, no cell phones. All of these can be massive distractions, and would absolutely inhibit a dancer’s ability to reach a heightened state of consciousness while dancing.
Before my first class four summers ago, I was admittedly skeptical about the whole idea - it all seemed a bit too hippie dippie and new-age for my rational (bordering on cynical) mind to handle. By the time the two-hour free-form class was over, I was a sweaty, breathless mass on the floor, allowing my emotions to flow without restraint from my eyeballs. The class served its purpose as a channel of physical and emotional release. I don’t remember much about the two hours I spent instinctively moving my body, and I think it’s because I actually reached the meditative trance state I'd always heard about, but could never quite grasp myself.
Every class begins with a half hour warm-up to carefully curated music by one of EDT's resident DJs, who then officially welcomes the class as we gather in a floor circle, and introduces an optional theme to ponder while dancing. The circle disperses as each dancer settles on the floor to lie down with eyes closed, while waiting for the music to start.
At first the music is atmospheric: mostly soothing tones and soft instrumentals, then gradually builds up to a faster, more frenetic beat. Before you know it, you go from almost sleeping on the floor, to whipping your body around the room like you’re at an electronic music festival in the middle of a forest. The progression is smooth and subtle - an ideal gateway to transition into a state of ecstasy beyond the confines of memory, stress and critical thought. The music eventually begins the descent back down to slower, calming sounds, and the dancing bodies follow suit as they melt to the floor once more.
It’s fairly common for people to become visibly emotional during this process, ranging from joyful to sorrowful. The energy in the room can be heavy and infectious, often easily absorbed due to a heightened state of empathy, so that it can be difficult to distinguish between your own feelings and of those you’re sharing space with. This kind of intense sensitivity can be disarming, but I find it to be refreshingly cathartic - it acts as a reminder that I’m capable of breaking down the defensive barriers I’ve erected in my everyday adult life. One look around the room at the emotionally open dancers freely embracing one another, despite the slick coating of sweat on their skin, proves I’m not alone in this feeling.
If you’re curious about exploring ecstatic dance for yourself, I encourage you to try a drop-in class offered by Ecstatic Dance Toronto. They gather every Monday and Thursday from 7:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. at Dovercourt House, offering a sliding payment scale from $15-$20 per class. Even if you don’t identify as a dancer, if you’re uncomfortable or lack confidence in your body’s ability to move, give it a try anyway. You might be pleasantly surprised by the non-judgmental vibe of the class - anyone is welcome in this space, even if you choose to just observe. If you approach it with gentle patience, for yourself and those around you, there really is no way to lose.