When we bought our tickets, all we knew about Ecstatic Dance was that it was a great time. No drugs, no alcohol, but the best dance party of your life. Ecstatic Dance on Sundays, we were told, is like church in Ubud.
We were told about Ecstatic Dance this Saturday night after happening upon Soma café. There, anyone who feels the urge is welcome to join a group of musicians in making music. When the group finally disbanded after several hours of singing and jamming, they said we should join them in ecstatic dance at 11 AM the next morning. Come at 9 AM, we were told. Tickets sell out fast, and there are only 150.
We were skeptical, arriving at 10 AM instead of 9 AM, only to find a winding lineup crowded with excited partygoers. The woman behind me had been living in Ubud for several years working as a Reiki practitioner. She told me I ought to contact her for a healing. Perhaps she was sensing my full-body tension from my morning’s Facebook conversation with a man who argued that Islamist ideology was a bigger threat than Nazism (which is, of course, wrong on so many levels).
Unsurprisingly, we ran into many of our new friends from Soma the night before, though we didn’t get the chance to speak much. Once you’ve paid the 130,000 rupiah and gone upstairs, the space is not for talking, photography, or videography.
The crowd inside was a kaleidoscope. Almost entirely composed of foreigners donning yoga wear or majestic, draping over-shirts with artistically planned rips and tears, there were young people and old people, fat people and thin people, and people wearing all colours of the rainbow.
At first, the music was almost meditative in quality. Without lyrics, the music drifted over the listeners who stood, waiting. Some people began to dance right away, making wild shapes with their bodies and passing through the crowd like fairies, totally unconscious of themselves. In the first moments the skeptical were seen at the edge of the crowd, their eyes darting anxiously as they likely wondered to themselves about how they were to mimc those movements, and why on earth they had spent 130,000 rupiah on looking like a fool.
What everyone soon realizes in ecstatic dance, however, is that the whole point of dancing ecstatically is to dance like no one’s watching. We say it so often, but in ecstatic dance you really do. The whole point is a space in time where you can dance as weirdly as your heart desires, with no earthly consciousness for the look of your body as it moves. Without that part of your brain considering whether this or that dance move will look beautiful or pathetic, dance becomes your body’s spontaneous physical expression of the music.
I had to close my eyes to reach that place. To pretend like no one was watching I had to avoid looking. But the music swelled, picking up the pace and soon, when I let my eyes open for the occasional moment or two, even the skeptics were dancing in full swing.
The music ranged from sounding like it had First Nations origins, to Arab dance, to African. A small part of my brain questioned the potential irony behind this. How many First Nations, Arab, or African people were in the crowd? What was it about using spiritual ideas and music from other cultures that made so many people feel more awakened? Hush, I told my brain, this is a question to be pondered while your feet are still.
Then my brain started talking to me about the tragedy of this wealth of self-healing resources in Ubud that were almost entirely unavailable to a populace that largely could not afford to spend 130,000 dancing wildly in the morning. What did the average Balinese person think about all of this? The woman in the lineup from that morning had explained to me that Ubud was a good place to go because it was well-aligned according to the earth’s lines of chakras. It was a space for spiritual healing, a place where you could be more yourself. I wondered if Balinese people living in small villages where their lives were closely monitored by both family and the local banjar (like a village council) felt freed by the spiritual alignment of Ubud.
And then, let’s say that Ubud is more spiritually aligned. What does it matter in a world where so many people are hurting? How does it help, what does it do, if people are so focused on healing themselves that they do nothing to make things better? We cannot fix the world if we do not put ourselves first, but what about the world? There was so much to fix, and so few things I knew how to make better. And what did this dancing have to do with yoga anyway? Again, I had to tell my mind to stop talking and to let my feet move.
I managed somehow (my brain is often very loud; it can be hard to ignore), and the experience was worth it. Dancing like no one is watching in a crowd full of people who are doing the same is very powerful, and, as we were told, very freeing. You lose the awareness of the eyes of the other, and you lose the anticipatory walls you build up for the sake of impression management. You’re just you: goofy, uncoordinated, ecstatic you.
As the music wound down to a pounding meditation, couples gravitated towards each other like magnets, dancing slowly together and sometimes even just hugging, letting the music help them express their connection.
At the end, the meditative quality to the music descended into real meditation. Bodies fatigued by two hours of wild dancing dropped like abandoned puppets to the wood floor, eyes closed as they waited for the music to end.
Our DJ – because yes, ecstatic dance is led by a live DJ – encouraged us to make a circle. Some words were exchanged, and some announcements were made in a fashion that, in retrospect, bore more than a passing similarity to church. And yes, at the end we said “Ohm.”
After two hours of ecstatic dancing I felt too meditatively zen to function. We ate our healthy food at Yoga Barn’s healthy restaurant in near silence, listening to the conversations about spirituality around us. I was focusing on feeling good. After feeling quite terrible at the start, it felt good to feel this good. In fact, Ranah and I both felt fabulous. Like many things ecstatic dance comes with questions, but trying it is so wonderful it’s worth saving your questions until later.
DETAILS: 11 AM at Yoga Barn in Ubud, Bali every Sunday. It costs 130,000 rupiah. Get there early to get your ticket!
Have you tried ecstatic dance somewhere in the world? Share your experience below!