Ecstatic Dancing: A Primer

A dance craze sweeps the city.

By Peter Holley December 31, 2013 Published in the January 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

More than just the latest craze, “ecstatic dancing” gives people a new way to relate to themselves and each other—and it’s hitting Houston.

Image: Alex Fine

The first time we come upon 63-year-old Ted Viens—or “The Entity Known as Ted Viens,” as he prefers it—a young woman is dragging him across the dance floor by his ankles, which, if you’re wondering, is just as difficult to watch as it is to do. The woman wears a purple leotard and a somewhat wild-eyed smile. She is also quite diminutive, although this does not prevent her from sweeping the floor of Planet Funk Academy in River Oaks with Ted Viens, his white ponytail trailing lifelessly behind.

If we were to tell you that ecstatic dance—or “treating a man like a broom,” as we prefer it—is making its way into living rooms all over Houston, we would be lying. Nevertheless, the practice is gaining momentum, which in itself is shocking and perhaps borderline-revealing. 

Now, mind you, having endured many an Austin drum circle, we are far from prudes. However, a few hours of Dream Dance Houston—a monthly, underground-ish gathering of ecstatic dance devotees—is enough to turn even the coolest among us into Mitt Romney at a rave. Broadly defined, ecstatic dancing appears to be about bringing together dozens of near-strangers for the express purpose of tearing down the walls between self and other, which is all fine and dandy until you witness the peculiar combination of body painting, yoga, massages, uncomfortably long embraces among casual acquaintances, and other vaguely Eastern schmaltz that the practice gives rise to. 

“Our species has an ongoing need for hugs and cuddling, as well as periodic episodes of uncontrollable laughter and an occasional bursting into tears, all things that one cannot typically do at, say, Kroger. ‘We need each other, and Houston can be a very challenging place to find that.’”

A 260-word description on the Dream Dance Houston Facebook page takes a stab at explaining all this, referring to its monthly outings as a “creative experiment,” “an ancient practice,” “a way of being,” and a “community experience.” It is also a sweat-soaked dance party where the only things not permitted are talking on the dance floor, casting judgment, booze, and drugs. (Homemade kombucha flows freely, naturally.)

For further clarification we turn to Sydney Strahan, an entity known as Samadhi, at least in ecstatic dance circles. One of the first to bring the practice to Houston more than a decade ago, Samadhi calls it dance in its primeval form, before it became a discipline that embraced constriction, by which she presumably means dance steps, toe shoes, Tom Bergeron, and Zumba lessons. Practiced by people all ages, she says, and to a soundtrack that ranges from classical music to animal groans, ecstatic dance is a way of “breaking through the matrix” and, yes, building community. 

“We all want community, we want family, we want tribe,” says Samadhi, explaining that our species has an ongoing need for hugs and cuddling, as well as periodic episodes of uncontrollable laughter and an occasional bursting into tears, all things that one cannot typically do at, say, Kroger. “We need each other, and Houston can be a very challenging place to find that.” 

Semantic confusion aside, she seemed to be drawing a straight line between atomized, lonely commuters—endlessly shuttling between workplace sterility and suburban isolation—and Dream Dancers, endlessly writhing around a dance floor and growling at each other as if practicing a reptilian mating ritual. 

In short, we want tribe but Houston be not tribe-friendly.

At large dances, says Samadhi, continuing to talk, loving touch by strangers from all walks of life is foundational. To some extent, this is borne out by the night’s participants. We see many whom we imagine would self-identify as New Age, but for every dreadlocked dancer in face paint there’s a mom from The Woodlands in yoga pants. Montrose hipsters find their place on the dance floor, but so too do middle-aged guys who appear to have gotten lost while wandering the aisles of REI. A rough approximation of the Houston mosaic finds itself coiled together, we think, even as a man scoops up two young women and then the trio stands together motionless, awkwardly, for second after second, all staring into each other’s eyes and giggling nonstop. A long moment later, we query the man about his intentions.

“It’s not overtly sexual,” he says, a bit defensively. A beat, then: “But sexuality doesn’t exactly go out the window either.”

Over the course of the evening, the dance floor tends to polarize. There are the touchy-feelies, of course, but also solo dancers who politely clasp their hands Namaste-style in an effort to fend off unwanted advances. Meanwhile, the group engaged in reptilian mating has disbanded, by which we mean that the writhers have stopped writhing and are now shaking hands and formally introducing themselves.

“We have quite a few people who are from the corporate world,” Samadhi tells us, noting that over the last two years the ranks of the ecstatic have been growing, especially among the young. “Some people show up and feel weird, but others feel like they’ve found the family they’ve never had right off the bat.” 

The Entity known as Ted Viens is one of these people. No longer being swept across the dance floor, we spot him searching his pockets near the Kombucha lounge. Viens tells us that he is an astral being in human form, which we take to be code for not having cash on-hand. He gratefully allows us to spot him the Kombucha in exchange for a chat, although warning us that he prefers creative movement to verbal exchanges, the latter being prone to cumbersome rules and expressive limitations. 

Viens, who attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, works in IT at a local telecommunications company, it seems. He is also a loner and has been since age 10, when he experienced a catatonic breakdown following one of his parents’ many domestic disputes. He emerged from this black hole with a new perception of reality as well as a newfound sense of freedom. In ecstatic dance, he says, he’s found others who respect that freedom and take part in it with him. 

In a moment, verbal exchange having reached its limits, Viens will take to the dance floor once more, returning to the young woman in the purple leotard for another drag as a green strobe light begins flashing, animal-like groans erupt from the speakers, and dozens of bodies mix sweat and transcendence in equal amounts. 

“This type of dance means having a more primal understanding of what it is to be alive and to be on earth and to be sharing the day-to-day activities of life with other humans,” Viens says by way of farewell. “Earth is my home and this is how I choose to experience it.”

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