NEW YORK — On an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday evening, I found myself facing a stranger, swinging my arms back and forth, and hooting like an owl.
I was warming up for an ecstatic dance session at Union Square Ballroom in Manhattan, which I attended with about 250 other people. Ecstatic dances are essentially free-form dance parties, and the directions for the one I attended — hosted each month by Ecstatic Dance NYC — were pretty simple: no shoes, no drugs or alcohol, no phones or cameras, and no talking on the dance floor.
The only directive: Allow your body to move exactly how it wants to move.
This was no small challenge for me, as my body is much more accustomed to slouching over a laptop, or contorting itself into knots to avoid touching people on the subway. But something about ecstatic dance drew me in.
On the designated evening, I fought my way through an aggressive crush of commuters in Union Square to get to the location and entered a different world. A gentle horde of 20- to 50-somethings in exercise clothes and loose palazzo pants were affectionately touching each other’s faces and greeting one another with slow embraces.
The smell of incense wafted from a makeshift altar that was outfitted with crystals, a rock painted with the words “We Are the Medicine,” and what appeared to be an animal jawbone. A flyer on the wall dictated how one could gently rebuff a prospective dance partner (hands in prayer position at the heart).
As I settled into what I hoped was a discreet corner of the room, a small woman in teal sweatpants paced the floor, gently guiding us through a series of warm-up exercises that seemed designed to make me twitch with anxiety.
Make a shape with your body and let out a sound to go with it, she instructed. Initiate unspecified physical contact with a stranger while dancing. Stare into someone’s eyes for 90 seconds.
Nighttime jungle sounds chirped and squawked over a loudspeaker.
“Try to get ahead of your thoughts,” she said.
I found this hard to do while staring into the eyes of a woman I’d never met. I was wondering whether it was impossible to stare into two eyeballs at once — or if there was something wrong with me, specifically — when it was announced that our 90 seconds were up. “Thank you,” my eye-contact partner murmured gracefully. “Uh huh!” I said too loudly, shuffling away.
But as we transitioned into the dancing segment of the evening, I began to twist and sway, losing my stiffness. “Yummy yummy yummy yummy,” the facilitator sang over the microphone. With the thump of a heavy beat and an explosion of cheers and howls, the pace quickened. “I love you, and have a wonderful journey,” one of the DJs said.
Dancing as a means of release is not a new phenomenon. But ecstatic dance parties — much like other substance-free “conscious” dance parties, including Barefoot Boogie, Morning Gloryville and Daybreaker — seem to fill a growing need for physical expression in a time of technology-driven isolation.
“The idea is free-form movement to music in a judgment-free space,” said Sarah Monette, 41, an ecstatic dance facilitator and DJ who co-founded I-Opener, an all-ages version that takes place in New York and Boston on Sunday mornings. “The idea is not to put a label on what ecstatic dance is. It can be so many amazing things.”
Most adherents I talked to framed it as a less-structured offshoot of 5Rhythms — a meditative “dynamic movement practice” that guides dancers through a “wave” of five distinct sequences. Legend has it that Max Fathom, 50, now a craft services professional in Austin, Texas, began blending the 5Rhythms concept with electronic dance music after a trip to Burning Man in the early 2000s. Fathom (Fathom is his Burner name) put on popular Sunday morning dances at the Kalani Retreat Center in Hawaii, and from there, the practice spread to such disparate places as Kansas City, Missouri, and Christchurch, New Zealand.
In 2012, Daniel Laureano, a marketing professional who did ecstatic dance in Oakland, California, decided to start a New York version of the event. Different dances have different vibes, he explained, and he wanted Ecstatic Dance NYC to avoid veering into “new-age white folks homogeny.” There was definitely a medium-to-strong neo-hippy aspect to the dance I attended, but the crowd was easygoing, fairly diverse and it felt supportive.
“When people feel safe, and they don’t feel like we’re here to judge you for you dance, how you look, they open,” said Omar Aena, one of the current producers of Ecstatic Dance NYC.
As the night went on, I grew more comfortable taking up space, slowly shifting from the planted-feet sexy club grind I learned in seventh grade into bigger, looser, weirder movements, flapping my body around like a tube man at a car dealership. Next to me, a man and a woman climbed over each other’s bodies, twisting into a pretzel on the floor. Two men barked at each other, jumping up and down. The oddness of it all ceased to register.
By 10 p.m., I had become enthralled by my fingers. How perfect they were! In a trancelike state, I held them up, twisting them around in the soft pink glow. At the end, I practically floated through the tangled, blissed-out mass toward the exit.
It felt a little bit like the end of the world, or the beginning.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.