Search the world over for a hotspot of mind/body integration, and you'll likely settle on the Bay Area. This region is home to the Esalen Institute, where the human potential movement was born and where workshops are still offered on everything from yoga to biofeedback. It's where the California Institute for Integral Studies trains graduate students in somatic psychology and expressive arts therapy.
Geographically speaking, Palo Alto is positioned at the center of it all. Culturally, though, this region is better known for producing fast-paced scientific and technological innovations than for exploring the links between physical movement and emotional well-being.
Yet for more than four years, Peninsula-dwellers have gathered for a weekly practice that seems more Santa Cruz than Silicon Valley. Programmers, entrepreneurs, academics and artists alike flock to Ecstatic Dance Palo Alto to discover the healing powers of dance and the hidden connections between their bodies and their minds.
"When we started, it was three people and a boom box on a carpeted floor," said organizer Wendy Marie Dando, who has watched the weekly gathering grow to 40, sometimes 50 participants. The group now meets on Sunday mornings at the ballroom of the Lucie Stern Community Center, where they spend two hours moving to a range of danceable electronic tracks mixed live by a DJ.
From an outsider's perspective, ecstatic dance sounds like a nightclub for morning people. In fact, the practice has little to do with "dance" as it exists in a social context. Instead, participants describe ecstatic dance as a form of meditation: a practice in which music and movement facilitate a profound state of being present and connected.
The concept of ecstatic dance isn't original to the Silicon Valley. Born in Hawaii out of a synthesis of conscious dance and electronic music, it has become an international movement that has spread across the West Coast and beyond. The roots of ecstatic dance reach back to the 1970s to the work of the late American dance artist Gabrielle Roth, founder of the 5Rhythms dance practice. Roth drew on traditions of shamanism and trance dance to guide participants into moving meditations. Today, there are many related offshoots: Ecstatic dance, conscious dance, intentional dance and soul dance groups all offer some form of guided or unguided improvisational movement with an aim to evoke higher states of consciousness (for a peek at what conscious dance looks like, check out consciousdance.org). Many of these groups, including Ecstatic Dance Palo Alto, attract those interested in contact improvisation: a style of partner dance with no set choreography where dancers use their instincts and each other's bodies in a continuous and often gymnastic duet.
For many, though, ecstatic dance is simply a safe place to explore movement of any kind without pressure to perform or fear of judgment. What continues to bring people to Ecstatic Dance Palo Alto, Dando says, isn't a desire to get fit, look good, or impress anyone. Instead, it's a yearning to feel reconnected to their own bodies, and to those around them.
A forty-something-year-old native of Saratoga with a lifelong interest in dance and community-building, Dando talks about the way the culture of the region has shifted since the dot-com boom of the late '90s, a change she describes as replacing "nature and community with industry and technology." Dando sees ecstatic dance as an important challenge to the cultural norms of today's Silicon Valley.
"Technology is great, but we also need to be in our bodies," Dando noted, describing Ecstatic Dance Palo Alto as a way of "returning people to a connection with themselves and to each other."
Taking a risk
Intrigued by Dando's description -- and not a little dubious about what sorts of "connections" I might discover -- I ventured out to the Lucie Stern Center last week with the aim of taking in the experience as a participant-observer.
It wasn't hard to locate the room; even from the parking lot I could hear the bass reverberating through the walls. Just outside the ballroom, I came across a group of children clustered on the floor, intently drawing on butcher paper. Beyond them sat row upon row of shoes, neatly stacked. At the door, next to a tub of free earplugs, sat list of guidelines.
"No dance experience needed," it read. "Move any way you wish. Respect the space and the people in it." The rest of the guidelines were straightforward: no speaking, shoes, alcohol or drugs, phones or cameras. There was even a suggested method for communicating your desire to dance alone: Simply press your palms together in prayer position.
Once inside, I made my way barefoot to the back of the room, where someone had set up an altar with candles, tarot cards, flowers and driftwood. I pulled out my notebook and surveyed the scene. About twenty-five people dotted the dance floor. They ranged in age from children to elders. A few stood facing each other; most seemed to be lost in a state of reverie, alone in their experience. Strings of lights festooned the edges of the room, and from the speakers at the front issued the steady beat of drum and bass blended with world music.
I began by finding a spot in the corner of the room where I could lie down on my back and stretch. Eyes closed, music flooding my consciousness, I slowly felt myself relax. I circled my ankles. I yawned. I peeked to make sure nobody was watching me. Nobody was.
By the time I opened my eyes again, the crowd had grown to over 40 people. The music shifted to a faster tempo, my body responded, and I found myself rising to my feet and dancing the way I might dance alone in my bedroom. My lack of self-consciousness surprised and delighted me.
This state of deep comfort and mild euphoria lasted for the rest of the session, including a brief interlude of dancing with a complete stranger -- something I had been quite sure I would not welcome. Somehow, through moving my body to music in the company of others equally absorbed in their own process, I had quieted the incessant chatter of my mind, and found in its place a sense of calm and joy.
Returning to the body
For some, the experience is nothing short of transformative.
Longtime Ecstatic Dance Palo Alto participant Shankar Hemmady said he credits the weekly dance session with his health. In 2002, the software designer's feet started to hurt. After consulting multiple specialists, he was diagnosed with an acute case of Plantar Fasciitis, and told by a leading UCSF doctor that it was time to "get more grounded."
"At the time, that made very little sense," remembered Hemmady. Nevertheless, he dutifully began looking for ways to stop prioritizing intellectual accomplishments, and to reconnect with his own body.
"I realized that I rarely used my body -- except for designing computer chips and software, like many of my friends here in Silicon Valley," Hemmady explained. "I felt the need to really be present to the sensations and feelings that were welling up from within."
Eventually, his search led to Ecstatic Dance Palo Alto. For Hemmady, it was the beginning of a new way of life.
"I have never stopped ever since," he said. "In all honesty, I cannot imagine a life with no dance and music anymore."
Clinical counselor Liza Lichtinger, who was visiting Ecstatic Dance Palo Alto for the first time, also offered to share her experience. She described feeling permission "to express myself authentically, without judgment, in a safe and empowering setting.
"I entered a sacred space where there was no correct or incorrect way to be," she said, adding, "I leave feeling a playful connection to my essence, and immense gratitude and compassion."
It's reactions like these that keep Dando returning to the Lucie Stern Center on Sunday mornings to host the event, though financing the rental of the ballroom is an ongoing challenge. Her hope is to secure a more affordable dedicated space. In the the meantime, Dando says she will continue to offer this space for whoever comes.
"This is calling for me," she said. "I see it as a service to the community. Every decision I make has to do with helping people come back to themselves."
What: Ecstatic Dance Palo Alto
Where: Lucie Stern Community Center ballroom, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon, with a movement class at 9 a.m. and closing circle noon to 12:30 p.m. No dance Sept. 28, Oct. 26 or Nov. 16.
Cost: $15 to $20 sliding scale; scholarships available.