people doing ecstatic dance

Ecstatic Dance is a Trip With (or Without) Psychedelics

For advocates, the free-form movement practice offers a way to heal trauma, let go of shame, and come into your own body

DoubleBlind Mag

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Published on
Updated December 13, 2023

Yarixa Ferrao, a 42-year-old in Los Angeles, was working as a personal trainer when she injured her back while lifting weights and suffered from herniated disks. The typical physical therapy exercises recommended for her condition didn’t help. Then, on her birthday, a sudden intuition inspired her to fly to Miami, put on red heels (something not recommended for someone with herniated disks), and go out dancing. “When I woke up the next morning, my back had completely healed,” she recalls. Such miraculous healing is certainly not guaranteed, but for many advocates, ecstatic dance is freeing in a way that can be hard to come by in daily life.

“Dance just allows you to liberate yourself…it brings you a level of joy, and people that are joyful heal faster,” Ferrao says. “My soul knew that my movements were too rigid, too linear, and that just was not the life that I was meant to be living.” Ferrao’s awakening led her to dedicate herself to ecstatic dance, which embodies the flowy, unstructured way of being she felt called toward. 

READ: Inside Shroom Rave: A Radical Experiment in Post-Alcohol Partying

Yarixa Ferrao of Unleash! ecstatic dance holding a microphone wearing a leopard-print leotard.
Yarixa Ferrao, founder of Unleash! speaking before an event. | Photo credit Li Michelle (@humanbelight) for Unleash!

What is Ecstatic Dance?

“Ecstatic dance is a type of freeform dance that involves no particular dance steps, but rather flows to the rhythm of the dance music to lose [oneself] to states of trance, catharsis, and ecstatic joy,” says psychedelic-assisted psychotherapist Dr. Cat Meyer. “It invites the fullest expression of the dancer in every moment. Whatever they feel, they move through, express, and emote. There is no wrong way to dance, but what is true and alive for each individual.”

At ecstatic dance events, a group of people engage in freestyle movement, often to spiritual music. Frequently, there are opening and closing circles to infuse the gathering with intention and facilitate emotional healing. Ecstatic dance events are meant to be judgment-free zones where people can express themselves physically and emotionally. Ferrao is not the only person to benefit from this art form, which people engage with all over the world to exercise their bodies, meet fellow free spirits, heal trauma, and more.

Dancing Without Limits: What Happens in Ecstatic Dance

Ferrao now holds her own ecstatic dance events and retreats through her company Unleash! Many of her attendees have experienced profound physical, mental, and emotional transformations, with some overcoming addictions and leaving relationships that weren’t working for them. “Ecstatic dance is a non-linear form of dancing, and when you are not subject to anything that feels linear but rather give yourself the permission to express how your body wants to express, it opens up the space for your mind to also think non-linearly,” she says. “So it kind of trumps the logical mind that often has incessant thoughts that are full of fear and worry.”

Ecstatic dance helps people feel free to unabashedly be themselves by creating “a new reference point of being in wild, liberated, full-spectrum expression—and not only being safe, but welcomed,” says Meyer. “If we are in a room of other people going bananas in physical movement, flailing their arms, twirling, leaping, twerking, and no one else is shaming or excommunicating anyone, this is really healing. We are letting go of the mental chatter that tells us we have to move in a certain way or that we can’t look weird.” Meyer adds that “dance as a form of exercise is also a great resource for depression and stress.”

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2021 UCLA study found that ecstatic dancers had higher levels of mindfulness—i.e., feeling present in their bodies and in the moment—than those who didn’t do ecstatic dance. The majority of participants with depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and trauma said ecstatic dance had therapeutic benefits for them.

Jason Karol, a 35-year-old musician in Massachusetts who organizes the Divine Design ecstatic dance event series at the Common Street Spiritual Center, says ecstatic dance helps him “to be more in my body and more in touch with my feelings, as somebody who does spend a lot of time in my head.” Playing music for ecstatic dance events helps him “to have an experience that is about fun first and foremost…in a way that reminds me why I fell in love with music in the first place.”

two women dancing at an ecstatic dance event by Unleashed!
Ecstatic dancers can choose to dance together or individually. Many dance events have community guidelines about boundaries and touch | Photo credit Li Michelle (@humanbelight) for Unleash!

Ecstatic Dance Benefits, According to Practitioners

Freya Hathaway, a 36-year-old massage therapist in Los Angeles who began going to ecstatic dance events five years ago, says it “can really help you process a feeling and be present with it and give it somewhere to go because you’re moving.” For this reason, many people find ecstatic dance helpful in healing trauma. 

According to Meyer, trauma can leave us stuck in a moment from our past, and moving our bodies can be a way to get unstuck. “Our bodies may freeze or be unable to physically complete the emotional experience to favor survival,” she says. “When we place ourselves in the right conditions that allow us to feel safe to express, our bodies can surrender into what we may have needed to do. Oftentimes we may cry, or tremble, twitch, or move our legs as if we are running.”

In Ferrao’s perspective, ecstatic dance allows you to not just access trauma but “release it and rewire it through the nervous system as well.” The feeling of safety facilitated by ecstatic dance also allowed her to overcome social anxiety that stemmed from being bullied as a child and come out of her shell.

Ecstatic dance also speaks to some trauma survivors because of the emphasis on consent at group events. Hathaway says it’s helped her practice saying “no” as well as receiving a “no” from others. At the events she’s gone to, people have been instructed to put their hands in a prayer position if they’re dancing with someone and are ready for the dance to end. “It’s not an insult, and someone just wants to dance on their own,” she says. “That was helpful in setting boundaries for myself. There’s not this thing like, ‘they’re not cool with me if I need space; they’ll feel rejected.'” 

Have you heard…?

“Whether we like it or not, consent is a part of the fabric of society and consciousness. Recognizing how consent (or lack thereof) plays into social, professional, political, physical, and sexual dynamics is a revolutionary act.”

For Leia Friedwoman, consent is psychedelic. Read why in her full article.

Ecstatic Dance, Psychedelics, and Spirituality

There’s an overlap between the psychedelic community and the ecstatic dance community. Many of the same people attend both types of events, and ecstatic dance even sometimes takes place at psychedelic ceremonies and retreats. This overlap is in part because psychedelics can help us dance free from self-consciousness. “Psychedelics can reduce the self-critical and inhibition aspects of our brain, promoting more authenticity and freedom in movement. We are less concerned about appearing in a way that would risk our rejection, such as, the fear that we aren’t good at dancing or that we aren’t attractive when we dance,” says Meyer. “Under the influence of psychedelics, we also are more attuned to sensory experiences and rhythm, contributing to easier entertainment.”

But psychedelics may not be necessary: Some people can achieve altered states of consciousness through ecstatic dance alone. Many dance communities make a point of keeping their events sober. Meyer has seen people gain relief from emotional pain, process and release emotions, feel “sensual and sexy in their bodies” for the first time, and move in a way that feels divinely inspired rather than consciously controlling their movements. “I have definitely gotten into the ‘flow’ state, where I was in the moment, and my attention was directed purely at experiencing the dance,” says Anna, a 37-year-old UX Researcher in Portland, Oregon.

This phenomenon is not new, as many cultures have long used ecstatic dance “to connect to the divine through trance,” Meyer explains. “Native Americans have used drumming and dance as a part of rituals for divine vision. The Sufi whirl was practiced by devotees as an active meditation. Ancient Greek followers of the Dionysian rite engaged in a frenzied ecstatic dance called the oreibasia, or mountain dancing, to honor the god of wine. During these dances, the women would enter into trance states to seek mental elevation and spiritual freedom. Ancient Mayans had a dance characterized by visionary trances through which they could become godlike to see and communicate to the other world.”

Shellie White Light, a 39-year-old wellness, wealth, and womanhood mentor in Charleston, South Carolina, calls ecstatic dance “a very deep prayer,” explaining: “It’s a prayer for peace in the world, and I don’t know how to put that prayer into words, so I’m just going to dance it into the ground.”

READ: The Dark Side of Festival Culture

group ecstatic dancing at an unleashed! event
Ecstatic dance events can take many forms, from rave-like settings with large groups to outdoor gatherings to small meditative events. | Photo credit Li Michelle (@humanbelight) for Unleash!

Hathaway appreciates that ecstatic dance can help people connect without words. “You’re creating a closeness and an understanding that is kind of primal and basic,” she says. “You’re meeting in this simple way that I think can create a bridge of connection. That led me to be able to create connection in other ways because that opened me.”

“I love that ecstatic dance provides a space for nonverbal self-expression,” Anna agrees. “Participating in ecstatic dances has helped me get in touch with my body and has allowed me to observe, in a nonjudgmental way, how other people want to experience embodiment. Whenever I attend a dance, I leave feeling more connected to myself and others—even when I haven’t spoken to anyone.” 

When people feel free to express themselves in all their weirdness around others, they also may gain reassurance that they can show up as their full selves and be accepted, says Meyer. “When ecstatic dance is practiced among a community of others participating, it can create a sense of belonging as our most authentically expressed selves.”

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