Looking to free your mind, throw your body around, and connect with the universe on a Sunday morning? Maybe you’ll be as excited as Caroline Parsons that ecstatic dance has hit 22nd and Mission.
“I’ve taken ecstatic dance in Santa Cruz and Sebastopol, and I was walking down the street and stepped on the flyer for Mission Dance and thought—this is just what I want to do. This is fate,” she said.
If you want to be an ecstatic dancer, all you have to do is let go of your inhibitions, and jump in—to the present.
“Any kind of dance that transcends the ego is ecstatic…More and more people are finding it a path to connection, to themselves and their spiritual side. They’re finding an emotional release,” explains instructor Heather Munro-Pierce, who has taught variations of ecstatic dance for over 20 years, mostly in the East Bay.
“It is about bridging dance and consciousness, not technique and performance…Any kind of dance that transcends the ego is ecstatic.,” she said.
Linked to ancient practices of shamanism and tribal dance, contemporary ecstatic dance has no choreography or rules (except no talking!). First pioneered by Gabrielle Roth’s 5Rhythms “moving meditation” in the 1960s, the practice takes influences from Eastern philosophy and from somatic psychology, which emphasizes the mind-body connection.
Each ecstatic dance class is a journey, with a beginning meditative induction phase, building to faster music and higher energy, and then returning at the end to the slow tranquility.
“I always look to music that inducts people into their body, into their felt sense of being alive…Music that opens one’s being to a sense of wholeness, oneness, yumminess, loveness, beingness, grooviness…and let people’s impulses in the dance be a sense that awakens them,” says Munro-Pierce, who calls herself the “musical alchemist.”
The journey just might shake your world.
“I’ve almost felt a cosmic fissure in my ribcage because of moving and screaming so much,” recalled Kristel Allen, who took classes in Big Sur at the Esalen Institute. “When I danced in Hawaii each Sunday it was like the Gospel, like Sunday morning church. We would come out from the jungle and wear feather boas, anything we wanted,” said Stevyn Polk, whose ecstatic dance experience at Mission Dance is his first in 8 years.
“I’ll be back next week,” he said, happy to return to the practice.
Operating since November out of the Capoeira Arts Studio, Mission Dance holds class 9:30-11:30 am each Sunday. It is the only ecstatic dance class in the neighborhood.
This Sunday’s free class, themed “Songs of Peace and Justice,” was a chance for many students to discover the studio, and everyone had a different experience.
In his suit jacket, tie, and jeans, Ankur Gupta stares and smirks at his classmates roll around with their eyes closed on the ground. Is he nervous? Did he walk into the wrong building? Is he another journalist?
Twenty minutes into the class, his friend walks into the room and he gets up, smiling, beginning to rock his hips side to side and mouthing the lyrics to her.
Later he accounts for his evolution.
“It started out slow and then got trippy but then suddenly the energy went way up. I’m not a trippy dancer like that,” he said.
“I like to go clubbing, and I thought why not go dance on a Sunday morning? An 80’s interpretive dancer is what I call myself.” He demonstrates by waving his hands in front of his face as he sings, “When doves cry.”
When Gupta was stiff, Curry was in his element.
“The beginning is my favorite part because it’s about getting in touch with your body in the present,” he said. Curry came to ecstatic dance through yoga, which also emphasizes the mind and body in this moment and their connection with all living beings.
“They are both about moving through your body. They improve your entire quality of life…Yes, entire,” he said like a true disciple.
Recent convert Lori Stasuklis, a stockbroker who swings her arms and smiles through the whole class, says that before she discovered Mission Dance, she never danced.
“It releases my inner kindergartner. But it also makes you think. It’s not often that you’re in your own head, for two whole hours,” she said.
For Tiffany Sippel, who takes technique classes at ODC Dance, ecstatic dance is challenging in a different way than traditional dance classes.
“Most people I take dance classes with wouldn’t want to do this. The unstructuredness is a little scary,” she said.
Dr. Lola Vollen, director of Mission Dance and an accomplished human rights activist and physician, said that traditional dancers may be “very desirous” of this lack of structure.
“They see in it the unbridled passion,” she says. With a small build, tight curls, and high energy, Dr. Vollen prances around the room and beams as she dances with other students to “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye.
She insisted that you can’t know ecstatic dance until you do it yourself.
Even Gupta agreed.
“You can’t write an article about it without going out there, at least one song, on the dance floor,” he said.
When the moment is right, I put down my notebook, slip off my boots, and slide to the back of the room. I’ve taken many a dance class, and I love to go out dancing, but this is different.
Scary at first, but then I melt into it and I feel a rush through my body.