I had my first experience at an Ecstatic Dance Session and this is how I found it
By Marianne Sheena, Nutritional Therapist specialising in gut, hormonal and adrenal health. Her approach focuses on combining dietary changes with lifestyle and biohacking techniques to rebalance and restore optimal health.
As an introvert with little to no rhythm (as a seven year-old, my despairing gymnastics dance teacher told my disappointed mother that despite excellent agility, I just couldn't seem to keep to the music), I am never the first person on the dancefloor. In my awkward twenties, I would never have dreamed of busting a groove without tempering my inhibitions with numerous cocktails and a rack of tequila shots. So, fast forward to today and having since embarked on an enlightening and perspective-shifting journey into health and wellness, and with the clubbing days of my twenties now (mostly) well behind me, I am rarely inebriated and my forays onto the dancefloor are even less commonplace. So the recent emergence amongst the wellbeing community of ecstatic dance events (described as “a movement practice that supports your free expression of emotions and inner space through movement and music”) was not something that had me running to sign myself up for.
Despite this, during my nutrition training, I developed a strong fascination with the body’s ability to influence neurotransmitters and brain chemicals without the use of alcohol or drugs. It seemed remarkable to me that a person's brain physiology could be dramatically shifted purely through natural mechanisms. Oxytocin, the “bonding hormone”, for example, is stimulated by hugs or positive social interaction and in turn triggers the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of wellbeing and happiness.
In my consultations with clients, I also regularly extol the virtues of movement, quoting the now well recited modern-day adage that "sitting is the new smoking". As cliched as it is, the research is clear: the benefits of movement are far-reaching. From increased bone density to improved cardiovascular health, to stress reduction and enhanced cognitive function; the science continues to hammer home the message that we need to move more. It can also stimulate a significant uplift in mental wellbeing. Studies have demonstrated that weekly dance/movement sessions for a period of three months improved depression and anxiety symptoms in a group of adults by 35%. And that's before we even come to its positive impact on metabolic health from the calories utilised through the associated physical activity.
Aside from the clear selling points of dance from a health perspective, I also believe in being open to new experiences and in trying everything at least once. So, when an old friend casually mentioned that as an alternative to weekend drinking, she’d been spending her Friday nights at a school hall in Tufnell Park where she dances for hours in a crowd of happy, smiley, energised people and with no alcohol or drugs, I decided it was time to get over my hang-ups and give ecstatic dance a go.
“I realised that there is something incredibly liberating about dancing without worrying or caring what anyone around you thinks. And that this was perhaps the first time I’d ever experienced that.”
I chose the night of the September full moon to provide an extra lunar energy boost and roped in an open-minded friend to join me in the ecstatic dance novice experience. The event is run by Cacao Dance Tribe who offer tickets ranging between £15 to £25 on an honesty-based pricing approach where you are asked to pay whichever price aligns to your financial means. On arrival, we were guided to take our shoes off and enter the main dance space which had a huge screen projecting beautiful rainforest video images across the room. The facilitator, a friendly and enthusiastic guy called Ravi, explained the rules of the road ahead. Firstly, strictly no drugs or alcohol. Secondly, many people prefer to dance alone. Dancing with others is acceptable but it is important to read the body language of the other person first and only dance with them if they give a clear message that they are comfortable with this. Thirdly, this is NOT a pick-up place so don’t ask for someone’s contact details (if you’d like to remain in touch, offer them your email address instead). And aside from that, dance free from inhibitions, connect to your body and emotions and move in whatever way you wish!
Once the key messages were covered, the DJ kicked off some rhythmic music (a mixture of Afro House, Brazilian, World and Organic Beats) and Ravi guided everyone to start moving around the room and begin slowly easing into some dance moves. At this point I began to feel incredibly awkward and self-conscious, and wondered what I had been thinking and how I would get through the next two hours. Having been separated in the throng of people, I couldn’t stop worrying about my poor friend and wondering what she must be thinking! But every now and then we would cross paths and she would smile enthusiastically and I realised she might actually be enjoying the experience. And as the atmospheric music continued to reverberate around the room, my body slowly started to loosen up and gradually my inhibitions followed suit, until eventually it occurred to me that I was no longer worrying about what anyone else was thinking and I was just existing in my own world. The music continued to beat dramatically and I finally found my own rhythm. Before long I realised I was actually enjoying myself.
As one might expect given the name, the Cacao Dance Tribe events also involve a cacao ceremony. As someone who doesn’t tolerate caffeine well (coffee leaves me feeling jittery and wired), I have always found cacao to be a calming and uplifting alternative. There is good science behind this. Theobromine, the main active ingredient, has been shown to lower blood pressure, improve mood, reduce inflammation and increase mental clarity. So this was one aspect of the experience that I was looking forward to, and it didn’t disappoint. Partway through the evening, the dancing stopped and cups of raw ceremonial grade cacao made from beans sourced from a Guatemalan farmer were passed around the group while Ravi guided everyone to reflect on what they wanted to bring into their lives. In the spirit of my recent shift in perspective, I focused on bringing in greater freedom and new experiences. We drank the cacao and took a moment of mindful contemplation. The taste of the cacao was rich, smooth and indulgent, with less sugar than traditional hot chocolate, it had a mildly bitter and nutty flavour. As I sat silently drinking with the group, I became aware of how deeply grounded I felt. The Mayans believed that cacao has heart-opening properties, and I could see why this notion might have come about.
The ceremony was followed by more music, dancing and general spreading of positive vibes. Now feeling very much in the moment, I embraced the uplifting beats and continued to ride the high energy permeating the room, losing myself to the movement. I realised that there is something incredibly liberating about dancing without worrying or caring what anyone around you thinks. And that this was perhaps the first time I’d ever experienced that.
As I made my way home with the full moon beaming above me, I was struck by the pleasant combination of the natural high from the circulating endorphins, alongside a feeling of inner calm and serenity. An ideal way to kick off the weekend. The natural high was complemented by the data on my Oura ring confirming that I’d been through a high intensity workout and had done 11,000 steps!
So, am I a convert? And will I be a regular ecstatic dancer from now on? Possibly yes! And following my first-hand experience, in addition to the compelling research supporting the associated health benefits, I will also be encouraging many of my clients to give it a go too!