Ecstatic Dancing

Motional Support

In a candle-lit room, an herbalist spoke. “Explore the four corners of your feet. … Let your spine hang from a rope suspended from heaven, and let a gentle smile come to your face. … Begin moving like mountains.” As we twelve mountains moved our four-cornered feet, the ecstatic dance had begun.

Every Thursday evening, New Haven Ecstatic Dance fills an Erector Square space with tall glass-jar candles and pursues a celebratory, anarchic form of modern movement called—you guessed it—ecstatic dancing. Emerging in the early 2000s as a cross between DJ culture and conscientious, meditative practices like 5Rhythms, ecstatic dancing has since caught on throughout the US and in countries around the world.

Though NHED has no affiliation with any specific religion or similar doctrine, spiritual exploration is central to the endeavor for founders Damian Paglia and John White, as well as for many attendees. During a session, the room—home to movement and fitness studio Dance Haven the rest of the time—feels like a sacred sanctuary, lit only by candles and Christmas lights. Informed by Paglia’s and White’s previous Buddhist practices, mantras and meditations color each occasion, either before or after the dance. Despite all that, neither spirituality nor dance experience is required. Just pay a $10 cover and you’re in.

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The night I went, Lin Jiling—a clinical herbalist and a regular NHEDer—was leading the warm-up exercise. “Move in ways you’ve never moved before,” she said. “Explore what it’s like to move like the oceans, like the streams.” We stretched, we rolled, we crested, we flowed. “Next element is fire. … “Think of the fire at the core of the earth. … The fire in our hearts.”

But while we were still learning how to move like ocean and earth, six-year-old Aiden and his three-year-old brother, Owen—sons of a regular—had already sublimated into fires caught flame and begun zipping around the room. Hot with energy, Owen hopped atop Paglia as he crawled on all fours. Paglia, a slower burner, carried the rascal around, calm and unbothered.

As we moved into “air,” the fourth and final element, the music rose in energy and we rose up with it. Punchy electronic dance beats, the kind you might expect at a Saturday night dance club, flooded the room. Calvin Harris made an appearance on the playlist. So did Dutch electronic producer Oliver Heldens and synth-heavy SBTRKT. There was popping and prancing, jumping and twirling, dipping and rolling. Occasionally, people locked arms and spun around or bounced off of each other, but mostly everyone occupied their own space. No one did anything like anyone else for very long, and in the middle of the fast, frenzied free-for-all, some even did yoga.

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A small shrine area off to the side was a good place to take a break. I joined two dancers sitting on patterned blankets before a Buddha head, its enigmatic smile catching candle light. From under its nose, one dancer took a ceremonial sage bundle and showed me how to perform the Native American-inspired ritual of “smudging,” said to cleanse a space or person of negative energy. I followed her lead, running the smoking nub of sage along the center of my chest to align my chakras, then, to clear my aura, in a circle around my head. Whether it worked as advertised is uncertain, but a few wisps of sage smoke found their way to my nose and that, at least, was a pleasant thing.

But the dancing itself was surely a tonic, freeing muscles and mind to follow the high-speed music with all the space you wish a nightclub’s dance floor had. “Wow, it’s a workout,” another new dancer shouted to me over the music. “It’s a celebration,” Paglia said later.

The seeming chaos actually springs from a foundation of three basic principles: 1. Move however you wish. 2. No talking on the dance floor. 3. Respect yourself and one another. While the second principle is a loose rule—and the first is perhaps the inverse of a rule—the third and last principle is close to a mandate.

Later in the evening, Paglia explained that what he and White are trying to create is “a safe container to rock out. A place where people can express themselves but also where boundaries are respected.” If someone is uncomfortable with anything or anyone, they can come to Paglia or White, who work to ensure that the “drunken creeper vibe” of some dance floors never enters the room. “This is a place to dance, celebrate and heal,” Paglia told the group before the dance began, and that ethos was preserved through the entirety of the dance, no matter how wild it got.

As we neared the end of the session, the music mellowed and our motions followed suit. The candles were moved from the edges of the room to the center, creating a reef of jars and wicks, flames dancing alone but together, much like we’d been. We sat in a circle with blankets over our shoulders, bringing our heart and breathing rates back to normal speeds, then slower still. We meditated to a hypnotic Indian devotional chant, then to no sound at all. Coming down from the energy of a modern DJ dance-scape—with its electronic peaks, blood-quickening drops and all the extremes of dynamic movement we’d indulged—we were left in a quiet that seemed deeper, more still, than any I’d experienced in a long time.

New Haven Ecstatic Dance
315 Peck St, Bldg 4, New Haven (map)
Thursdays 7:30pm-10:30pm, skipping Thanksgiving.
Website | Facebook

Written by Daniel Schkolnik. Photo 1 by Chris Randall. Photo 2 by Daniel Shkolnik.

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