We all know what happens when a baby hears music.
If you haven’t witnessed it firsthand, you’ve likely encountered a YouTube video (or, if you’re in the majority, many videos) that captures a child’s reflexive physical reaction to music. Viral videos show babies instinctively scrunching up their faces and nodding their heads to a dubstep track, or flailing their arms and legs from the confines of a car seat when the chorus kicks in on a pop song. (And, if YouTube observations aren’t evidence enough, there’s research like this 2010 study that found babies are predisposed to move to music.)
Turn some tunes on for a kid and the results are not only adorable, they are telling: humans are born to dance.
Yet, even though this innate need to move doesn’t go away as we grow up, few of us adults let loose like our inner child would. When we do dance, it is often in a set way — in a dance class, for instance — or, if in more loose settings like the lusty dance floor of a nightclub, our movement can be filtered through the lenses of social norms and desires. Even as someone who relishes the opportunity to leave it all on the dance floor, my opportunities for truly liberated dance — the kind where you stop thinking and let your body go — are relegated to the dusty desert dance floors of Burning Man, the occasional concert and solo dance parties in my living room. (Of which there are many.)
So what happened to us from tot-hood to adulthood that tampered with our freedom to groove?
Any number of things, says Daniel Mollner, a filmmaker and facilitator of weekly “ecstatic dance” events in Santa Cruz, California.
“If you put music on, young children move to the music — its universal,” he said. “It’s natural. Then, something gets in the way of that or there is something that happens that shuts the person down — they get embarrassed or they get some kind of negative feedback and suddenly they don’t want to dance anymore.”
(Here, I was reminded of my alternate life as a ballerina. Sure, I stopped taking lessons in first grade and, sure, I don’t know any “real” moves, but in the judgment-free world of my living room, I am quite accomplished.)
Mollner, who has a background in dance, stopped dancing at one point in his own life, largely because it ceased feeling authentic.
“Most of the reasons to dance up to that point had been for external motivation, like I danced to look good or to meet women,” he said. “There was a lot of dancing to impress rather than express. And, if a person is on a conscious path, that has a limited lasting power — you can only dance for those reasons for so long.
“It’s easy to get caught in an ego-based place and dance your whole life for external motivation — for fame, for money, to impress people,” he continued. “But if you’re on a conscious path, at some point you realize you can’t dance for other people, you have to dance for yourself.”
Mollner’s desire to dance was reawakened when he stumbled upon ecstatic dance — “a freestyle movement space where you can move to your inner rhythm,” in his words.
It was 1998, and Mollner had just moved to Santa Cruz from Las Vegas. Walking a downtown street in his new city, he heard music emanating from a dance studio and went to investigate. The scene that unfolded before him was enthrallingly strange: people were jumping up and down, rolling on the ground and dancing in uninhibited bliss.
“Part of me was averse to it — like ‘these people are crazy,’” he said, “And part of me was really drawn to it.” He sat on the sidelines for a few minutes but, before too long, was letting loose with the rest of the dancers.
“I loved it right away,” he said.
Mollner began hosting ecstatic dance events in 2004 and currently oversees two weekly gatherings at the very studio where he first fell in love with the concept — the 418 Project, which is also home to long-running ecstatic dances like the Sunday morning installment known as “Dance Church” and events facilitated by DJ Hamid Martin.
The events are incubators for creative physical expression bound by just a few simple guidelines: no talking, no drugs or alcohol, “move as you wish,” and “respect yourself and others.”
Between the 418 Project and other spaces, there is an ecstatic dance nearly every day in Santa Cruz — inching this mid-size town closer to Mollner’s vision of ecstatic dance being as ubiquitous and easy to access as a yoga class. Just north, in California’s Bay Area, the ecstatic dance movement is booming — hundreds of people show up to weekly barn-raisers in Oakland, for example — while the custom continues to spread across the Golden State, the country and even the globe. (Barcelona, Paris and Amsterdam are just some of the international locales where ecstatic dances can be found.)
Ecstatic dance in its present form was born on the big island of Hawaii in the early aughts, and is the culmination of decades of evolution of earlier iterations of free-style or conscious dance. Dance jams in the Beatnik scene, the hours-long dance trances at Grateful Dead shows, and, more directly, the popularity of Gabrielle Roth’s 5Rhythms all funneled into the conscious dance scene that, when combined with electronically produced music à la Burning Man, created what is today thought of as ecstatic dance.
Back in my living room, the site of most of my dancing these days, Mollner invites me via phone to his upcoming Saturday morning ecstatic dance. I mark it on my calendar, but start feeling nervous. It’s not too far of a leap for me to attend — in fact, unstructured movement is the only type of dance that makes any sense to me. I don’t have enough rhythm and lack the coordination (to put it nicely) to keep up in dance classes. But a place where it’s OK to sway and wiggle and twirl? Sounds like my kind of dance party.
So, then, why was I hesitant to go to an ecstatic dance? Why couldn’t I bring myself to do what I do in my living room, in a room with others?
I tell Mollner about my hang up.
He laughs, and says, “We all have a living room dancer inside of us. It’s like singing in the shower. When we feel safe, we let it out — we move like we want to. What’s special about an ecstatic dance is being able to tap into that in the presence of others.”
It’s contagious, he adds. We’ll see, I think.
I arrived a few minutes past the 9 a.m. start time that Saturday. Mollner was behind his DJ table, tucked unobtrusively in the back corner, and three women were spread out across the cavernous room, laying or sitting on the hardwood floor. I followed suit, leaning deeply into some much-needed stretches, and listening intently to the soft, dreamy electronic music that filled the space. I didn’t know if more dancers would come and realized that I was more nervous about the prospect of dancing in a big, well-lit room with a handful of people than I would be if it was full. The fuller the room, the easier to blend in. I wondered if I’d rather be at a dance class with prescribed steps to follow, after all.
“This is one of the rare places where you can come and move however you want,” Mollner had told me earlier in the week. “It can be scary as hell to people. Part of the journey for the person is finding that faith and safety and willingness to be vulnerable, and say ‘I’m going to move in the way I feel like moving and I’m going to give myself permission to do that and not care what people think.’ That is a real character builder. It takes courage.”
People continued to stream in through the side door as the music escalated, and — much like the process of getting into a yoga class or meditation practice — I felt my body begin to win over the chatter in my mind. Mollner’s soundtrack ramped up seamlessly until reaching a crescendo, when the 30 or so participants jumped and shook wildly to the bass-heavy music. Some people rolled on the ground and across one another’s backs; one woman erupted into sobs as she moved. As for me, my cheeks began hurting from smiling so much. I spun and squatted and lifted limbs in ways I hadn’t before and yet were wholly involuntary and natural. I felt congested energy burst through the blockages in my body and stream freely from my toes to the crown of my head. Again, like meditation, it was a battle with the ego to continue to surrender to the moment and live in the body. I wasn’t just working out my physical kinks; I was oiling my psychic creaks.
“If we really got down to what makes ecstatic dance so powerful,” Mollner said during our interview, “Number one, it’s a very beautiful and powerful thing…to get us out of words and into our bodies. We don’t [do that often enough]. And we need that… When you can get out of your head and into your body, something feels really good and necessary with that.”
The music began to wind back down, ending with beautiful, mellow tunes. I lay on the ground and stared up at the exposed beam ceiling, observing every pulse as my body absorbed the experience. I felt light in spirit and open hearted.
Mollner ends his 2.5-hour classes with a closing circle — an opportunity for sharing any thoughts of feelings that came up during the dance. Across from me, a woman told the group that during that morning’s session she’d reconnected with her sense of self for the first time since having a child two years ago.
As everyone chatted and gathered up their belongings, I spoke with Gregory Rickman, who had driven 1.5 hours from San Francisco.
“I’m flying to Chicago tomorrow morning and I can’t go four days without dancing so I came [down here],” he said.
Rickman has been sober for 12 years, before which he would “get fucked up, take lots of psychedelics” and dance at raves and clubs.
Once sober, he missed the unbridled dancing, but didn’t want to return to the alcohol-and-drug-fueled settings where it takes place. Ecstatic dance, he explained, provides the space for him to do something he loves — that makes him happy — in a healthy, sober environment.
Gene Castillo, another attendee, introduced himself as an ecstatic dance virgin.
“I go to Burning Man, so I’m used to real free-flowing environments for dance, but that’s Burning Man — that’s out in the desert. So to get a taste of that here, in everyday life, is so freeing,” he said. “It’s lived up to what I thought it would be.”
Although there aren’t yet any in his area, he said he would seek out more ecstatic dance.
“The idea for me is that I need to be creative in a lot of ways in my life, and this is just another way to strengthen that muscle,” he said. “This place is a unique environment for expressing creativity. It’s a way to open up other areas of the mind — literally just get other parts of your neurons firing.”
For 66-year-old Ursula Lamberson, ecstatic dance is a lifeline. The Switzerland native, who now splits her time between Kauai and Santa Cruz, was in a near-fatal car accident 40 years ago that shattered bones and left her body in “an absolute mess.”
The experience set her on a path of conscious living paved with 5Rhythms, psychedelics taken in ceremonial settings, yoga and more — all in pursuit of understanding how “this body is much more capable than we think it is by its physical structure.” She says nothing comes close to providing that “sense of freedom and embodiment” as ecstatic dance.
During that morning’s class, she was present to the realization that her car accident was not a horrible tragedy, but “an unbelievable gift.”
“I healed much of my body, it’s getting better and better,” she said. “I’m becoming more and more alive the more I dance. It’s getting into the intrinsic energy in the body that frees everything up. I have constant pain and things moving and fused discs, and it’s always an invitation to move. To keep moving. And to deeply go into the injury and unwind it from the inside out through dance and it balances itself again.”
Later that day, already sore from the hefty workout and still buzzed from the natural high, I looked up the 418 Project’s class schedule online. As I made a note of the next ecstatic dance on my calendar, I suddenly understood why Rickman, the San Franciscan, had driven all this way.