Ecstatic dance is a form of dance in which the dancers, sometimes without the need to follow specific steps, abandon themselves to the rhythm and move freely as the music takes them, leading to trance and a feeling of ecstasy.
The effects of ecstatic dance begin with ecstasy itself, which may be experienced in differing degrees.
Dancers are described as feeling connected to others, and to their own emotions. The dance serves as a form of meditation, helping people to cope with stress and to attain serenity.
It has been practiced throughout human history, including in classical times by the maenads, followers of the wine-god Dionysus. In the ancient and widespread practice of shamanism, ecstatic dance and rhythmic drumming are used to alter consciousness in spiritual practices. Ecstatic dances are known also from religious traditions around the world.
The modern ecstatic dance was revived by Gabrielle Roth in the 1970s and formalized in her 5Rhythms practice; it is now found in variants across the western world.
Attitudes to ecstatic dance have varied widely. In the 1920s, musicologists such as Paul Nettl and Fritz Böhme considered it primitive and unrefined. More recently, it has been compared to dancing in raves and in club culture, the anthropologist Michael J. Winkelman and the musicologist Rupert Till finding in these forms elements of ritual, spirituality, and healing.
The philosopher Gediminas Karoblis relates early ecstatic dance to religious ritual and notes that all well-executed dance borders on ecstasy.
Ecstasy (from Ancient Greek ékstasis, in turn from (ek, out) and (hístēmi, I stand) is a subjective experience of total involvement of the subject, with an object of his or her awareness. In classical Greek literature, it meant the removal of the mind or body “from its normal place of function.”
The primary effect of ecstatic dance is ecstasy itself. In particular, sacred dancers actively pursue ecstasy “in the experience of seizure and rapture”.
The religious historian Mircea Eliade stated that shamans use dance, repetitive music, fasting, and hallucinogenic drugs to induce ecstasy. The ethnologist Maria-Gabriela Wosien identified four degrees of ecstasy that dancers may experience:
“the warning, the whisper of inspiration, the prophecy, and finally the gift, the highest grade of inspiration.”
The described effects of ecstatic dance include a feeling of connection with others, indeed of “universal relatedness“, and with the dancer’s own emotions; serving as a meditation, providing a way of coping with stress and restoring serenity; and serving as a spiritual practice.
Roth identified specific emotions associated with the five different rhythms of ecstatic dance that she used, namely that the flowing rhythm connected the dancer with their own fear; the staccato rhythm with anger; chaos with sadness; lyrical with joy; and stillness with compassion.
Little is known directly of ecstatic dance in ancient times. However, Greek mythology does have several stories of the Maenads; the maenads were intoxicated female worshippers of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, known for their “ecstatic revelations and frenzied dancing“.
The mythical female followers of Dionysus, including bacchants and thyai as well as maenads, were said to have sought the “wild delirium” of possession by the god so they could “get out of themselves“, which was called “ekstasis”.
The male counterparts of the Maenads were the Korybantes, armed and crested ecstatic dancers who worshipped the Phrygian goddess Cybele with drumming and dancing. They were the offspring of the Muse Thalia and the god Apollo.
The Greeks often confused them with other ecstatic male confraternities, such as the Idaean Dactyls or the Cretan Kouretes, spirit-youths (kouroi) with magical powers who acted as guardians of the infant Zeus.
The myths gave rise to ancient Greek practices in honor of Dionysus. The oreibasia (“mountain dancing”) was a midwinter Dionysian rite practiced by women and said to be originally an “unrestrained, ecstatic dance where the ‘human’ personality was temporarily replaced by another“, though it eventually became structured into a definite ritual.
A variety of religions and other traditions, founded at different times but still practiced around the world today, make use of ecstatic dance.
- Rudra-Shiva (India): In Hindu mythology, the Rig Veda tells of the Maruts, the wild but playful companions of the god Rudra-Shiva. The god’s human followers may identify with and imitate the god’s companions, just as happened in ancient Greece with the followers of Dionysos and the Korybantes
- Shamanism (Worldwide): Uses drumming, rhythm, and ecstatic dance to alter consciousness in spiritual practices, hence magical rather than purely ecstatic; in Europe, this ended in the Middle Ages, prohibited by the Christian church, while it continued among native peoples in America, Siberia and elsewhere
- Anastenaria (N. Greece, S. Bulgaria): In the annual celebrations for Saint Constantine and Saint Helen, dancers perform the Anastenaria, a fire-walking ritual, as the climax of three days of processions, music, dancing, and animal sacrifice.
- Sufi whirling (Turkey): In the tradition of the Mevlevi Order founded by Rumi, ecstatic Sufi whirling is practiced by devotees as active meditation within the Sama (worship ceremony). In 2007, ecstatic dance was a focus for political resistance in Iran, reportedly “demonized” by Shi’a clerics.
- Santeria (Cuba): A syncretized form of African dance of Yoruba religion, Fon of Benin, and Congolese traditions merged with Christianity and indigenous American religions 16th century
- Candomblé (Brazil): Afro-American religious tradition practiced mainly in Brazil; makes use of music and ecstatic dance in which worshippers become possessed by their own tutelary deities, Orishas.
- Shakers, some Pentecostalists (America): “Charismatic” Christian sects using ecstatic ritual dance 18th century
- Balinese ritual dance (Bali, Indonesia): The anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead filmed Trance and Dance in Bali in the late 1930s, recording the use of trance in Balinese ritual dance, but also influencing what they observed, for example introducing the use of women dancers in the kris-dance in 1937. The dance climaxes with the women dancing ecstatically, stabbing themselves with their razor-sharp kris daggers, and coming to no harm
- Modern witchcraft (Western world): Modern witchcraft traditions such as the Reclaiming Tradition and the Feri Tradition define themselves as “ecstatic traditions“, and focus on reaching ecstatic states in their rituals, which incorporate dance with other techniques
- Mariamma worships (Guyana): Madrasi Tamil immigrants from south India brought with them ritual worship of the goddess Mariamma, based on ecstatic dance to drumming on the tappu. The worship of Mariamma or Kali-Mai (“black mother”) is practiced also in Trinidad and was once widespread in villages in India. Since the 1970s Kali worship has taken the form of “ecstatic healing ceremonies of spirit possession“
Modern ecstatic dance is a style of dance improvisation with little or no formal structure or steps to follow or any particular way to dance. Modern ecstatic dance has developed alongside a Western interest in tantra; the two are sometimes combined, and ecstatic dance often plays a part in tantra workshops.
The dancer and musician Gabrielle Roth brought the term “Ecstatic Dance” back into current usage in the 1970s at the Esalen Institute with her dance format called 5Rhythms. This consists of five sections, each accompanied by trance music with a different rhythm, together constituting a “Wave“.
The five rhythms (in order) are Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, and Stillness. The form has few rules but is carefully arranged, as documented in Roth’s 1989 book Maps to Ecstasy and a set of three DVDs.
Many different formats have developed since the 1970s, often spun off from Roth’s 5Rhythms. After being taught by Roth in 1989, Susannah and Ya’Acov Darling-Khan founded the Moving Centre School in Britain in 1989, teaching the 5 rhythms across Europe.
In 2006, having met shamans in the Amazon, the Darling-Khans started their own ecstatic dance form, Movement Medicine. The science and environment journalist Christine Ottery, writing for the British newspaper The Guardian in 2011, suggested that “ecstatic dancing has an image problem“, but that it “encompasses everything from large global movements such as 5Rhythms and Biodanza to local drum’n’dance meet-ups“. Reviewing her experience of 5Rhythms for the newspaper, she suggests that readers may “find 5 Rhythms a good place to start” if wanting to try ecstatic dance.
However, there are other styles that have been developed in North America, too, including the Ecstatic Dance Community founded in 2001 by Max Fathom at Kalani Honua in Puna on the Big Island of Hawaii and influenced by Carol Marashi’s 1994 Body Choir in Austin, Texas.
Also in Texas, Sydney ‘Samadhi‘ Strahan founded Ecstatic Dance Evolution in Houston in 2003, whilst the Tribal Dance Community of Julia Ray opened in Toronto in 2006. A more influential event program of ecstatic dance, simply named Ecstatic Dance, was founded later, in 2008, by Tyler Blank and Donna Carroll and held at Sweet’s Ballroom in Oakland, California. In 2010, the DJ Albert Pala introduced the ecstatic dance in Spain, with the foundation of Ecstatic Dance Barcelona.
By 2018, the Ecstatic Dance Community Foundation listed over 80 places that offered “organized, spontaneous dance practices“.
The musicologist Paul Nettl, writing in 1929, granted that ecstatic dance had emotional power “expressive of some psychic exaltation, some intensified emotion“, and that the “ordered rhythm” on which it was based was hypnotic, inducing a meditative state and the “dissolution of consciousness“, but argued that it was a “primitive” form of dance, a precursor to “higher“, more structured dance forms.
Nettl stated further that ecstatic dance was both religious and erotic, giving examples from ancient Greece, medieval Christianity, and Sufism. In his 1926 Tanzkunst (“Art of Dance”), the dance theorist Fritz Böhme similarly asserted, without giving examples to illustrate the statement, that ecstatic dance lacked “artistic refinement“, being limited to “a natural, organically grown expression.”
The philosopher Gediminas Karoblis states that in early cultures, ecstatic dance was linked to religious ritual, releasing the dancer from the egocentric self, undoing self-consciousness, and connecting to the absolute.
In Karoblis’s view, trance dances can be either ecstatic or magical. He considers that the trance of the whirling dervishes is genuinely ecstatic as it glorifies God, whereas shamanistic dance is not, being instead magical, as it is intended to induce effects in the world.
Karoblis notes that all dance borders on ecstasy, as the catharsis that it produces – if good – cannot be controlled or “technically calculated“, yet dancers depend upon it.
The psychoanalyst Mary Jo Spencer used the image of the ecstatic dancer (a Maenad) depicted in the Villa of Mysteries, Pompeii when explaining the appearance of the dance as a symbol for the psyche. She described in the fresco “a nude woman with a flowing scarf turning in a contained but ecstatic dance, much like the description of the dervishes: she does not dance in ecstasy; she is the dance“.
This was in the context of a client who presented a continuing “motif” of dance, which appeared whenever “a major shift in attitude” was imminent.
The nursing researcher Yaowarat Matchim and colleagues write that while mindfulness meditation arose in Buddhism, practices that provoke mindfulness are found in wisdom traditions around the world; such practices include ecstatic dance as well as yoga, prayer, music, and art.
The anthropologist Michael J. Winkelman suggests that shamanism and modern raves share structures including social ritual and the use of dance and music for bonding, for communication of emotions, and for their effects on consciousness and personal healing.
The musicologist Rupert Till places contemporary club dancing to electronic dance music within the framework of ecstatic dance. He writes that “club culture has elements of religion, spirituality, and meaning. Its transgressional nature is partly a reaction to the history of repression of traditions of ecstatic dancing by Christianity, particularly by Puritan and Lutheran traditions.”
He notes that the scholars of music Nicholas Saunders and Simon Reynolds both discuss electronic dance music culture “in terms of trance rituals and ecstatic states.”