Moving the body while clearing the mind is a great way to touch and express emotions that ultimately block us when we get stuck in them. I’ve kept a yoga practice for years, and it has been integral in helping me gain flexibility in my body and mind.
And then I tried ecstatic dance.
Based on three principles (free movement, no talking, and respect for oneself and others), ecstatic dance sounded fun when a friend described it. She said the radical self-expression and silence takes the mind-body connection deep, and with more freedom than a yoga session, it facilitates a unique healing experience.
From the moment I signed in, I found the ecstatic dance community welcoming, friendly and inclusive: the perfect antidote for the disconnected feeling I had from constant travel. While I was waiting for the session to begin, however, I felt uncomfortable and awkward. Free movement. What did that mean for me? What did that mean for everyone else? Would they look at me and judge me? Luckily, the MC guided us to “think less, feel more.” We were encouraged to start with very small movements, if any — some people sat in meditation. Closing my eyes, I was able to tune into my body more and think less about what my body was doing, I simply did what felt good in the moment.
It wasn’t long into my first session before I stopped thinking altogether and let my body flow, connected to the music.
The freedom of making shapes and dancing like nobody is watching helped me let go, yet totally express myself. Sometimes, I feel a disconnect between my body and mind, but it doesn’t take an anatomy class to know they are one. And as I am able to let go in my body, I am also able to let go in my mind. I can tell where my body is congested without judging it and I think these spots are connected to my emotions. I move through them. I move into them. Feeling deeply and fully expressing these feelings is liberating. It allows me to integrate emotions.
The best ecstatic dance sessions (in my opinion) incorporate live music in the DJ set, and just recently, I was in San Luis Obispo, California and dropped into a session with multi-instrumentalist DJ Ryan Herr.
Having played ecstatic dances for over ten years, Ryan has find-tuned his set to include a variety of tempos and styles while covering an array of world music, electronic beats, live improvisation, and original tracks. At times, Ryan layers live instruments on top of recorded music and, at other times, he completely brakes away from the computer and creates music on the spot. Ryan chooses from various instruments including a mandolin, guitar, and electronic hand drum.
When I asked him about this technique, he said he uses the pre-organized tracks to “blend and flow into something live…and unplanned.” Oftentimes, these improvisational moments allow Ryan to feel that he and the dancers have “arrived.”
“What does that mean to you?” I asked.
Ryan explained: “I’m attempting to have an interaction or conversation [with the dancers]…if you go back to indigenous cultures there was no separation between drummer and dancer. They were the same thing. One couldn’t happen without the other. I’ve always tried to keep that relationship, at least with dance music. That’s part of the reason I do something completely spontaneous because that is dropping into a direct connection that is only happening here.”
And, truly, our shared experience with ecstatic dance proves the unity between drummer and dancer. Like the dancers, Ryan is able to feel into the music and he has the freedom of I constrained expression to access the healing aspects of music to help him move through emotions.
Ryan noted that because ecstatic dance moves away from performance and convention, it allows both dancer and musician to experiment more. The lack of expectations of ecstatic dance has helped Ryan “develop as a musician. People come to be in a movement space. It’s less of all the eyes are on you as when you’re on stage, it’s more free-flowing. And that energy makes me feel like I can go off the beaten path; there I’ll stumble across awesome things and I’m able to save that on my pedal for later and I can turn that into a produced song.”
Likewise, I take the space and clarity I gain through the course of a session into my daily life.
Everything about ecstatic dance sessions combines to form a unique resource for dancers and musicians alike. It allows us to express ourselves without constraint or judgement, which leads to emotional circulation and new pathways of creation. We unwind and relax, we let go; we create space, and in the space we find freedom.
The track below showcases Ryan’s live instrumentation on top of an electronic song. For more of Ryan’s music, visit his website ryanherrmusic.com.