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Why Ecstatic Dance?

What are we really looking for? I mean, really. When we ask this question, ordinarily we come up with a list of ideals: happiness, love, connectedness, peace, and the rest. If we have higher ideals, we may answer with awakening, liberation, union with the Divine, and the rest. There is a grain of truth in all these answers. The same grain that is at the core of a pearl, surrounded and completely incorporated in the mass of the pearl.

That grain of truth is very simple. What we are really looking for is being-in-touch. This is an extremely basic, fully embodied experience. It is the felt sense of being together with another, completely present to them as they are to us, engaging in no other activity that exploring this reciprocal presence, and playing with it. No specific purpose, goal, plan, aim, except this: being-in-touch. This is not an experience of complete union and dissolution into the other, there is a sense of being two and not just one. Yet, it is neither an experience of othering, objectification, or alienation. There is a sense of being really with the other, in touch with the other, beyond any distance, separation, gulf, solitude. It is in this being-in-touch with another that one can also find the more authentic sense of their being-in-touch with themselves, and with everything else, as if everything that matters was included in that same experience.

At the moment, I’m reluctant to provide a full-blown metaphysical rationalization for this assertion—that what we are really looking for is being-in-touch. At the moment, this is just a sheer observation, I would call it a ‘fact of experience’, based on my experience of course, but also on the experience of others I’ve been in touch with. A common experience. Or not so common, perhaps.

If I can indulge a bit in philosophizing, it’s clear that being-in-touch is not something exclusively human. There is a sense in which the very density of matter can be seen after all as nothing but a very rudimentary way in which this being-in-touch manifests. With Life, everything is taken to a whole new level of complexity—of ever expanding and evolving complexity indeed. Being-in-touch is a spectrum of possibilities that is explored throughout the scope of our reality. Every being is a different experiment in figuring out how to be-in-touch.

Yet, being-in-touch comes with its own difficulty. In the gesture of establishing a contact with the other, this link that is created, this connection, seems to erase all the rest. The other, here, is never a general and abstract Otherness, but it’s this particular Other that is in front of me, reachable from within the possibilities and configuration of my form of existence. It’s an Other with name and form, an Other I can understand, not a general empty ghost, but a fully embodied, finite, determinate Other. As I am in touch with this, I tend to forget all the rest. The world recedes in the background, other voices become just indefinite noise in a landscape that is there just as a distant scenery in the corner of my eyes. And the difficulty is this: as I lose the background, as the focus of my being-in-touch becomes absolute, absorbing, exclusive, I also lose that Other I was in touch with. All of the sudden, I am no longer in-touch but rather trapped in a grasping gesture, contracted in a spasm for possession, control, craving, fear, and all the rest. The Other is no longer a living presence, but a mask, a thing, a representation, a concept, a picture. All of the sudden, I am no longer in-touch but rather alone with the ghost of the Other I am missing out.

Most of our human conventions originated perhaps as ways of celebrating the multifarious ways of being-in-touch with others. Maybe they arose as everyday poems, singing those ordinary experiences of wonder. Yet, most of them eventually became cages, boxes, distances, hiding places, mazes of meanings and constraints, made of prescriptions and fixed patterns. This initiated a vicious circle. As we lose our being-in-touch we lose ourselves, we lose our purpose, our fuel, our curiosity. We become more or less stereotyped stories, more or less original characters in more or less conventional dramas. Enclosed within our own bubble of meanings and despair, loneliness and justifications. In this dejected state, being-in-touch starts becoming a remove, ineffable, eventually unintelligible and frightening experience. We start fearing our own deepest longing, making its fulfilment even more difficult.

This is just to say that being-in-touch might be common throughout all forms of existence (I’m pretty sure that stones, plants, and other animals have their ways of exploring it), and yet it is not something that can be taken for granted. It has its own instability. As it establishes itself, it also tends to degenerate, to decade, to revert into its opposite—hence creating even more need for exploring different ways of establishing it.

I can’t say how other beings would solve this puzzle, nor even how all human beings might have faced it. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that in this day and age, here in our contemporary globalized Western culture, a very powerful tool for cultivating this sense of being-in-touch and preserving it from its own decay, may be ecstatic dance.

This last assertion requires a few qualifications (hence the ‘may be’). From the perspective sketched here, ecstatic dance is nothing but the attempt at neutralizing the most common and powerful constraints that usually would undermine the experience of being-in-touch, by facilitating instead its emergence. The neutralizing part is achieved through the systematic encouragement of non-verbal communication and group interaction, together with the cathartic role that a music journey can play in evoking so many different scenarios, emotions, possibilities, and thus facilitating a deeper exploration of the full-range of our potential for getting in touch with one another. As we renounce words, we accept to enter the sea of sound, naked and vulnerable, sharing both what we are and what we aren’t. That’s the ideal condition for experiencing being-in-touch. In this sense, the ‘ecstasy’ in the name of ‘Ecstatic Dance’, may not necessarily refer to a state of euphoria achieved through music or obsessive movement, but rather to the literal state of ‘standing-outside-oneself’, yet not because one is thrown in some outer space, but rather because one finds an Other to be-in-touch with.

This is a rather idealized picture. What I often observed (in myself and others) during ecstatic dance gatherings is that some people simply join for the sake of ‘seeking’ something, running after what they think they are looking for (from ‘self-healing’ to ‘feeling high’ or maybe just ‘feeling something’). Others remains fully engulfed in themselves for the whole time. Some try to escape their bubble, more or less timidly. Others use the space to discharge surpluses of energies that they do not seem how to use or invest otherwise. Some come with their favorite partners, sticking carefully to them, seeking in the space nothing but a suitable scenario. There are more options. And this is all fine, of course. As it exists now, ‘ecstatic dance’ is a relatively loose container for a number of possible interests, approaches, attitudes, and probably this is also what makes it popular: everybody can find something there for their taste, can adapt it to its own needs.

Often, 'ecstatic dance' is presented as a way of 'letting go of control' or allowing oneself to 'feel one's own emotions'. It is seen as a sort of therapeutic practice, or as a form of movement meditation. These are good ideas as they go. But, implicitly at least, they still focus on the individual itself and their own problems, concerns, traumas, wounds. They surprisingly undersell the communitarian, relational, transpersonal component of the practice, which is its most distinctive feature, and the very reason why one cannot really and fully do 'ecstatic dance' on their own in the privacy of their living room.

There is a potential in the practice of ecstatic dance that goes far beyond the idea of simply having a different kind of dance, getting rid of stress, healing traumas, feeling emotions, or just seeking a new partner. It definitely has the potential for cultivating this sense of being-in-touch that we are all desperate for experiencing, even when we are not able to acknowledge or understand it fully.

In order to perform this higher task, though, ecstatic dance can hardly work as a practice in its own right, it itself needs some context and grounds. It needs not only to allow people to come in touch with their own body, in its potential and limitations, but also to enter the space with a state of hilaritas, equal equanimous activation, that does not necessarily steer in one direction rather than another, does not already operate under the pressure of a pregiven craving for this or that in particular, but remains open to what is and what might be. And moreover, people need to be made preliminary aware of that context that being-in-touch with others inevitably tends to erase. This is in fact the structural problem, namely, trying to remain simultaneously aware of both the context and the other. What is this context? The same that is discovered through meditation: empty, boundless silence, vibrant with freedom and love, of astonishing beauty. It isn’t a thing, it isn’t a concept, it isn’t an altered state. It is the matrix, the womb, the background, the horizon. It does not want you to dissolve in it, it wants to live your life through you, and yet that cannot be done if its presence is completely forgotten.

I came to ecstatic dance only recently, after spending almost six years deepening meditation and yoga. I think that neither yoga nor meditation can really provide the same depth to the sense of being-in-touch as it is possible to experience in an ecstatic dance. It’s obvious why: both yoga and meditation are essentially practices that one does on their own (no matter how many correctives one introduces). They are helpful and good, even necessary in their own right, but they are incomplete. At the same time, I do not see how simply throwing yourself into an ecstatic dance can possibly creating the necessary grounding for experiencing a being-in-touch that does not collapse on itself. One cannot simply let go all mental and physical baggage at will, or just because of the power of music or circumstances, pretending otherwise is superstition, self-deception, spiritual bypassing. There is preliminary work to be done, learning and training are essential, there is a certain process of maturation that needs to happen, and possibly be facilitated and guided.

Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly clearer to me that these three practices complement each other really well, they compensate for their relative shortcomings and support one another perfectly. I do not yet know how common is to seriously attempt at combining them, and I’m still refining ideas about how to integrate them best, how to create the most effective synergy. At any rate, this seems the way to go.

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