As a therapist, I practice what I preach.
I meditate, I practice yoga, I journal. When I described Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) to a client and she asked, “Do you use this?” I answered honestly that I hadn’t used it very much but I know many people have found great relief. Then I committed to try it out along with her in the time between our sessions and I followed through. And it worked - my stress level decreased each time I used it.
So when my yoga teacher sprung an “Ecstatic Dance” on us during our teacher training, I opened myself up to the experience. If this could be a healing modality for my clients, I’m willing to be a test subject. The fact that dancing with other people brought up some of my own fears and insecurities was perfect to work with.
My teacher explained is as dancing in a meditative state, getting in touch with your body’s intuition to dictate how it wants to move. The goal is to have a moving inner experience and feel uninhibited, allowing the body to express and release however it needs to. A main element of Ecstatic Dance is also the norm to not use any drugs. When people go out to dance at public events, the freedom needed to express oneself physically can be marred by drunk or high participants. Sobriety adds a level of safety to relax and enjoy what comes up.
Lobo Marino, an earthy folk duo performed live for us. “Just listen to your body!” encouraged Laney Sullivan, the female component of the band. “If you feel the urge to open the door and run around the block, go for it!” We all laughed, the atmosphere in the room on that Sunday morning feeling warm and relaxed.
For clients with anxiety and trauma, I use whatever tools I can to get the body involved. When we regularly go into fight-or-flight or if we are experiencing chronic low-grade anxiety, the body doesn’t know how to relax completely. Breathing, meditation, guided visualization, yoga, EFT - these are all techniques to access the body’s wisdom and learn to set up a line of communication between the brain and body that communicates safety. The miracle of neuroplasticity means that every time we do this it helps to lay down new pathways in the brain. We can enjoy our daily lives and let go of the struggle to feel okay.
Dancing can bring up that anxiety or awkwardness, especially in a group of people. It involves feeling vulnerable and exposed. By bringing conscious awareness to the thoughts and feelings that come up, and practicing willingness to be in that discomfort, new pathways in the brain are forged when the anxiety dissipates. Our bodies learn that we are able to relax into something that initially felt uncomfortable. With repetition, eventually we are able to perform the previously feared task with relative ease. Then the lesson learned from this one situation, dancing, can be applied to other anxiety-provoking situations, like giving critical feedback to a co-worker.
The rules laid out, Lobo Marino began playing and the participants started gently swaying. As the music progressed, I spent a good 20 minutes or so finding my comfort zone. Every time I peeked around, everyone had their eyes closed or gazing at the floor and they were moving around in their own space. This was reassuring to me, though I had to suppress laughing too loudly because the picture did look absolutely ridiculous to me. After a few peeks I was able to keep my eyes to myself. I felt plenty of tensión in my body, and I walked around a lot trying to find my own space in the room. I wandered in the kitchen and up the stairs, but being removed from the group didn’t feel right.
A well-loved bright green beanie baby frog on the stairs caught my attention, and I picked him up and made him dance to the music with his little frog legs. This was highly amusing to me, and I couldn’t stop laughing at the silliness of it all. That frog had great moves! I finally found a space on the dance floor and placed the frog on the floor. I noticed the remaining tensión in my body and thought about how free and relaxed the toy frog had seemed to me. It felt like a big insight that I could manipulate the frog to dance and easily feel and imagine his confidence and joy, and it was harder to summon those feelings standing alone. Be like the frog, I told myself. This mantra helped me to let go and totally relax.
At that point I was able to move freely, experience pleasure in the movement and explore the memories and visualizations that came up for me. An old painful memory surfaced that involved dancing as a child, and I was able to release some long-held emotion in a gentle puddle of tears on the floor. I lifted my head and arms high as the music inspired beautiful images to come to mind, and I continued to cry tears of happiness and gratitude. A significant insight came together as I processed the images, and as the music wound down Laney began to sing directly to us an old folk song and we all joined in together.
We thank the source from which we came
You and I must be the same
We thank the source from which we came
Rivers go on flowing
The rivers go on flowing
The rivers go on endlessly
And I call your name
Our teacher invited us to sit in meditation for as long as we wanted to, and pressed for time I snuck back to my house to check in on my family. The dancing did give me a natural high - I felt deeply relaxed and the colors of the leaves and flowers looked more vibrant as I drove home. When I got in the house, music was playing in our home studio and I entered to find my three-year-old spinning in a circle with her eyes closed, arms out, dancing in her own world. She didn’t notice me and I joined in dancing next to her, and when she saw me her eyes lit up and her smile burst forth as she grabbed my hand and we twirled together.
Now that I have some personal experience I feel comfortable talking about dance as a healing form of therapy with my clients. Instead of just saying, “Oh yes, dance is therapeutic,” I have some experience to back it up and I can understand and explore their experience more deeply in an authentic way. Dancing is human; it transcends cultures and religions. Everyone can relate to the experience of dancing and there are often memories of shame in combination with dancing that can be useful to process in therapy.
If you feel intrigued (or skeptical!) I encourage you to seek out an ecstatic dance event in your community. Try calling some local yoga studios. Bring a friend for support, or if it’s absolutely out of your comfort zone you can start by doing it by yourself at home. Find a private time where you won’t be interrupted, pick out music you love, use your reflection in the mirror if it inspires you or cover it with fabric if it’s more of a distraction. See what comes up, stay present, be curious about any feelings of discomfort or irritation. Dance for a good 45 minutes and then wind down with some stillness and contemplation. What has opened up for you? What realizations and insights came for you? This could be a one-time thing, or become a regular part of your self care practice. The goal is to know yourself better, becoming a fuller and more evolved version of you over time.