The class began tinted with the light of a fading sunset.

By Stephanie Buck
June 23, 2019
Cultura Exclusive/Tim E White/Getty Images

I learned of “ecstatic dance” after a balmy yoga class overlooking the morning waves on Tulum Beach, where two local dogs wove between our legs and the air smelled of salt and peppermint oil. “Let’s do it,” I said to my friend, soon to discover a new form of movement-meditation that would sink me even deeper into an already relaxing Mexican vacation.

That Monday evening we arrived at Alaya, an eco-conscious hotel that calls itself a “mecca” for artists and musicians. Ecstatic dance was set to begin at 6:30 p.m. We paid $15 at reception, though locals are invited to attend by donation only, and huddled around the hut’s staircase. Soon the instructor informed us it would take 10 more minutes to set up and shooed us out to enjoy the sand and sunset.

Twenty minutes later, she gathered us up the stairs. Our sandals made a pile at the top. Inside, several people had spread out blankets. Some lay on their backs like insects, hands and feet pawing at the air. Others crouched and gently swayed their hips. We were to begin on the floor, the instructor murmured, and warm the body in whatever way felt good.

The class began tinted with the light of a fading sunset. The DJ spun soft, earthy beats so as not to drown out the tumble of the ocean.

After 10 minutes or so, no one instructed us to stand up — it just happened. The music grew louder. Although it was dusk, attendees began to look at one another — curious but respectful, open. A couple wore bikini tops; a long-haired, shirtless man chose stretchy athletic pants. One woman twirled two small children on the edge of the circle. As it darkened, they curled into blankets and fell asleep to the sounds of sticky, swishing feet on the floor.

I felt awkward at first. I am not a dancer and people’s limbs were doing things I’d never attempted before. Not advanced, but different. They thrust their arms and curled their hands down like waterfalls. They straddled the air and bounded invisible boulders in silence.

The guide asked us to partner up. To my brief horror, she was already standing next to my friend, so I sidled next to the woman at my right, who consented with a nod and a smile. One of us was to play puppet while the other followed their movements with our hands, said the instructor before falling into my friend’s arms, limp as a doll. My own partner simply slumped toward her feet, her long hair nearly touching her toes below. As she swayed, I laid my hands lightly on her lower back, hoping she felt reassured and safe. After several minutes, we stood and gazed in each other’s eyes (no easy feat) and massaged our own faces. I watched as she pushed her skin and her cheeks wrinkled around her nose and eyelids.

We dispersed as the beats of the music quickened. Some people found new partners, for minutes or a mere moment, as if stepping into spheres of individual energy. Eventually I left the edge of the circle and moved through the dark air to another position across the room. I swayed my arms and bounced, I twirled and stretched against the tree bark. Four or five dancers in the middle whooped and cooed. Many were smiling with their eyes closed. I let go.

We danced for over an hour. At various moments I felt what amounted to flow, like the feeling after a long run or a float in the ocean. It wasn’t sustained, as needles of self-consciousness continued to poke through my first ecstatic dance experience. But as the music softened and slowed, I somehow felt spent and lighter at once. I finally connected with the others in the room, without ever speaking to them.

Ecstatic dance is practiced around the world as a form of therapeutic movement, and has roots in sacred and ceremonial dance practiced by ancient cultures. The approach gained footing in Hawaii around the millennium, infused by the musical culture of the West Coast festival circuit and Burning Man. It forms one spoke of the wider “conscious dance” umbrella, which includes other interpretations, such as Gabrielle Roth’s 5Rhythms, a more guided exploration of meditative healing through movement. Most disciplines in the genre specify a substance- and fragrance-free environment, and are almost always barefoot. Otherwise, in ecstatic dance there are few rules other than inclusivity and freedom. One California blog calls the approach pure “blisschief.”

In Tulum, the experience emptied my ego. Walking along the beach with my friend afterward, I was physically loosened and open to what experiences lay ahead. In our case, it was fish tacos and laughter on the beach, and later, the sweetest night sleep of the entire trip.

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