A little while ago, I moved from New York to San Francisco in a fashion that was radically out of character, which is to say quickly, and for a job in software. This was painful and exciting and lonely as hell, but I came to enjoy everything a lot more when I stopped trying to understand San Francisco within the framework of New York, and when I suspended as much cynicism as possible and began saying yes.
In my first year as a Californian, I visited a hypnotherapist, attended a farm rave, slept in a tent that wasn’t inside an apartment, purchased a Patagonia jacket, and seriously considered replacing my general practitioner with a healer named Paris. Needless to say, when a friend encouraged me to attend something called Ecstatic Dance, there was only one way forward.
Here it feels important to mention that my friend is an editor at a culture and fashion magazine in New York City; she had heard that Ecstatic Dance was “A Thing” in the Bay Area, and wanted to know whether it was worth investigating. As someone chronically late to trends and popular culture, I was thrilled at the prospect of being on the cutting edge for once. I agreed to be her mole, her canary in the mines of the Californian zeitgeist, her coolhunter traipsing through the pages of a Malcolm Gladwell article. Plus, I love to dance, though the dance parties I’m familiar with are always held at night, in dark rooms, amongst people with poor motor skills. These elements have proven themselves valuable: my own style, even – especially – when sober, looks something like the dance sequence in A Charlie Brown Christmas crossed with deep squats.
“What if I love it,” I wrote back. “What if, after all the years of anxiety and health issues and panic attacks, ECSTATIC DANCE is what I’ve really needed?”
As anyone on the brink of a potentially life-altering spiritual experience should do, I prepared by Googling. “Why i dance…because i like to speak without words…to connect with my soul…to fly!!! to heal!!! to love!!!” read a testimonial on the Oakland Ecstatic Dance community page, and my heart sank.
It wasn’t them – it was me. I grew up in Brooklyn; I’ve used Excel spreadsheets to organize my life since I was eleven; I moved to San Francisco to work at a data-analytics company. I’m not saying these are virtuous traits. It’s just that when I see a sentence like “Dancing as manifestations of light,” my brain immediately scrambles.
I switched tabs from the community page to YouTube, and watched a video of a Portland chapter: a cluster of people swayed gently in what appeared to be an American Legion Hall, and in the background a woman spun solo, her arms skyward. At the edge of the room, two adults played horsey.
It didn’t look like my idea of fun, but at the same time it looked like something I could enjoy. I sent the video to my friend Jenny with an invitation to join; we planned to meet in Oakland at 10:00 on a Sunday morning. We promised ourselves we’d leave when we needed to, and that it was more than acceptable to skip out on the crystal circle.
Before going any further, I do want to clarify: I did not journey to the cutting edge when I went to Ecstatic Dance. If anything, I walked in the opposite direction. This is because – and I say this in the most flattering and supportive way possible – there is nothing about Ecstatic Dance that is, or wants to be, cool. There’s just something markedly old-school about it: it felt like we’d tumbled back in time to the pre-Google Bus era that so many San Franciscans seem nostalgic for. At a moment when money is encroaching on the Bay’s artistic and alternative communities, it felt like an unmarred holdout.
There are increasingly popular early-morning, sober dance parties, like Daybreaker and Morning Gloryville, yes. Ecstatic Dance is not of their ilk. It is refreshingly un-sceney, unhip. Unlike the newer morning raves, there is no elaborate lighting setup at Ecstatic Dance, no fancy coffee, no props, no smoothie bar, no live band, no hashtag. The DJs probably don’t have Soundcloud pages, and if they do, they aren’t promoting them. There are older folks and small children in attendance, and fewer Customer Success Managers.
Oakland’s Ecstatic Dance community convenes in a vast and dusty ballroom, formerly the home of a nightclub called Sweet’s, which from the jazz age until the mid-2000s hosted every music luminary you can think of: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Sinatra all graced the stage at some point. Something about the space is sacred, no doubt, and there’s still a touch of the old grandeur – but it’s countered by a number of colored lights, cracked mirrors, and the drifting funk of damp velvet and incense. There was a modest DJ table onstage, and a shrine had been erected by the windows for the occasion. Beside it were two massage tables. The space was inviting, a quiet bustle.
For the most part, the ballroom was full of women, many of whom looked like they were wonderful and healthy mothers: the sort of moms who would give you lots of advice and holistic guidance and a name like River or Anise. Some of them were wearing Fitbits. Across the room, bodies were stretching and embracing and twirling.
“It’s your typical San Francisco yoga class,” I started to say, and then a man walked past in purple fisherman pants, carrying a rainstick.
“Let’s challenge ourselves to thirty minutes,” Jenny suggested.
We stayed for four hours.
Tinkling piano music, the sort you might hear while waiting for a bikini wax, began to play. Two people cradled each other in the center of the floor; one of them emitted a protracted and guttural groan. I lingered by the edges, next to a spread of yoga mats, tending to fabricated and non-urgent problems. I procured a glass of water, hung out in cobra pose, and tightened my ponytail. Jenny, tired of this fiddling, eventually abandoned me; I watched her twirl gracefully around the periphery as I changed into a new pair of socks.
I wanted to move, but my body would not cooperate. It was a feeling not dissimilar to the paralysis I’ve experienced when wanting to kiss someone for the first time. Mentally, I was able to project myself vividly into the space. In my head, it looked good. On the ground, though, nothing changed. Frustrated by this self-imposed inertia, I closed my eyes and tried to conjure the living-room parties of college: the empty PBR cans, drunk boys jumping on musty couches to New Order and Bruce Springsteen, the blessed darkness. I opened my eyes: Jenny was being solicited for contact improv.
In ecstatic dance, contact improv is initiated by deep eye contact, and often seems to culminate in an entangled limb-nest on the floor. (A woman who had been the subject of numerous unwanted contact-improv solicitations would later offer us a practical solution: dance with your eyes closed.) Feeling overprotective of Jenny, I wiggled my way over, forcing myself into the groove. The piano music phased into beatless chanting, slow jams, reggae, and eventually the sort of electronic dance music that often incorporates saxophone riffs and sounds best in a loud, cavernous space. We stomped and waved and hopped across the floor.
I performed a rapid, mechanical-looking dance-march that I once saw in a nightclub in Berlin, and felt like a videogame character hitting an invisible wall. I had a short flashback to the step aerobics class I took in high school, and wondered whether this might ever become a suitable form of exercise. “Like curriculum-free Zumba,” the ad copy would read, “but barefoot, in harem pants!”
Around the two-hour mark, I went hunting for a water fountain, and fell into conversation with a gentleman named Happy. Happy was sitting on the outskirts of the party, looking content, and he welcomed me in generously by asking whether I wanted his full attention and eye contact – yes, please. Later in our conversation, I learned that he teaches a healing method called Eye Gazing. Happy was exquisitely kind, and told me he’d been part of the Oakland Ecstatic Dance community for several years. A woman ran over and wrapped her arms around Happy’s neck. “Church should be a party!” she said, then scampered off.
“Church is a vessel for spirituality,” Happy clarified, as I fleetingly wondered whether I had inadvertently joined a cult. “People get their freedom in dance, in wordlessness. They get a lot out of their own freedom, and out of other people’s freedom, and –” this is where he lost me “– it leads to deeper and deeper levels of ecstatic freedom, where we find our true nature. There’s a chemistry to ecstasy.”
Chemistry, ecstasy: sounds good to me! I thought. I was back on board.
As I made my way back to the dance floor, I bumped into the least probable co-worker, Louis, who was taking a much-needed water break. He was wearing a terry-cloth headband, and we greeted one another exuberantly and with mild suspicion. Louis has an advanced degree in computational biology, which is both practical and sane; at the office, I have a well-groomed reputation as a bookworm and a skeptic. Neither one of us seemed a natural participant in ecstatic dance. Yet there we were, wearing tank tops and blinking at each other through sweat-bunched bangs. As we whispered by the yoga mats, I tried to imagine any other situation in which he, Happy, and I would all be at the same party. I was hard-pressed to come up with a feasible scenario that didn’t involve a mutual bloodline.
By this point, we had reached Peak Ecstatic Dance. People were bouncing and smiling and sweating; a guy who looked about my age removed the bulk of his clothing and did a prolonged handstand. A woman held two small children and spun them in a circle. An older man in flowing linen pants, a knee brace, and purple socks rubbed shoulders elegantly with a lithe 20-something woman rocking a bleached pixie cut. One man slithered over to another and they writhed around on the floor, eventually emerging with one airborne on the other’s feet. It was clear who the regulars in the crowd were, but for the most part, I’d seen (and done) this sort of dancing before – if you ever attended a Dispatch concert in the early 2000s, you have, too.
Ecstatic Dance is an often wordless practice – people had their mouths closed, opening only to release an excited yowl or heavy breath. It’s also intended to be a nonsexual space, but there were a few people who seemed to violate this principle. A man in tight cotton shorts pogoed vigorously between women, trailing his fingertips down their sides. Men are perfect at ruining things, I thought, as he barreled toward us.
It’s hard to explain, but I now feel oddly protective of the Ecstatic Dance community. It’s not my community and likely never will be, but I have to commend the people who belong, who build and grow it. They’ve identified a need and addressed it. They’ve proactively made something beautiful for themselves. No matter what it looks like from the outside, it works: people there glowed with self-comfort. I wished I could get there, and one day I might. Dance, however, probably isn’t my path.
As I watched an older couple hold each other to a reggae remix – she with swollen ankles, he with slight shoulders and white hair – I was moved. Later, sweaty and beat, Jenny and I emerged onto Oakland’s Broadway. Cars sped past; two men walked by, shouting at each other. I felt a little deflated, and also extremely relieved. Maybe I’d lost my edge. Maybe I’d never really had it.
“I’ll think about that older couple for a while,” I said.
“I never want to do that again,” I said.
“Mmm,” Jenny said. We continued to walk. “It’s so peaceful out here,” she said after a while.
“Yes,” I said. And it was.
Anna Wiener is a writer in San Francisco.