Ecstatic dance

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Ecstatically dancing maenad. Detail from a Paestan red-figure skyphos, c. 330-320 BC

Ecstatic dance is a form of dance in which the dancers, sometimes without the need to follow specific steps, abandon themselves to the rhythm and move freely as the music takes them, leading to trance and a feeling of ecstasy.

Ecstatic dance has been practised throughout human history, including in classical times by the maenads, followers of the wine-god Dionysus. In the ancient and widespread practice of shamanism, ecstatic dance and rhythmic drumming are used to alter consciousness in spiritual practices as different as the Kut ritual of Korea and among the San of Southern Africa. Ecstatic dances are known also from religious traditions around the world, including Sufi dervishes; from Nigeria, Morocco, Ghana, and Senegal, and the Candomble of Brazil, derived from African traditions. Modern ecstatic dance was revived by Gabrielle Roth in the 1970s and formalised in her 5Rhythms practice; it is now found in variants across the western world.

The effects of ecstatic dance begin with ecstasy itself, which may be experienced in differing degrees. Dancers are described as feeling connected to others, and to their own emotions. The dance serves as a form of meditation, helping people to cope with stress and to attain serenity.


Map of ecstatic dance across the world[1][2]

Ecstasy (from Ancient Greek ἔκστασις ékstasis, in turn from ἐκ (ek, out) and ἵστημι (hístēmi, I stand) is a subjective experience of total involvement of the subject, with an object of his or her awareness. In classical Greek literature it meant the removal of the mind or body "from its normal place of function."[3]


"The Ritual Dance of the Shakers". Before 1923

In their 2003 DVD Dances of Ecstasy, the filmmakers Michelle Mahrer and Nicole Ma documented ecstatic dances from around the world, with traditional dances by the San of the Kalahari desert of Namibia, and by the Yoruba of Nigeria; the modern annual Firedance celebration in the Santa Cruz Mountains, California; by Gabrielle Roth; the whirling Zikr dance of the Sufi dervishes; the Hadra ritual danced by Moroccan women, brought by immigrants from Ghana and Senegal; the modern Rainbow Serpent Festival in Australia; the Candomblé ritual in Brazil, derived from Yoruba, Fon of Benin, and Congolese traditions; and the shamanistic Kut ritual of Korea.[1] To this list can be added Balinese trance dances; Santeria, like Candomblé a syncretised form of African dance; Native American dance forms; and the use of dance by "charismatic" Christian sects such as the Shakers and some Pentecostalists.[2]




San bushman rock art, South Africa

The writer and musician Karen Berggren relates ecstatic dance to the ancient practice of shamanism, which has for millennia made use of drumming, rhythm, and ecstatic dance to alter consciousness in spiritual practices.[4][5] For example, the San bushmen of the Kalahari have a shamanic healing dance; the shamans move and sing around a fire, sometimes falling in trance or throwing themselves into the fire.[6]

Paul and Josephine Zmolek note that mass expressions of sacred ecstatic dance in Europe ended in the Middle Ages, but that these were little regarded in official chronicles. They state that the dances were described both as "disease and satanic hysteria" and "paradoxically, [as] cure and saintly grace."[2] They assert that these "choreomanias were essentially shamanic pilgrimages; the participants knowingly ingested the hallucinogenic fungi ergot to facilitate the trance activities of the dance."[2] The Christian church then "instituted Christ as the ultimate shaman", leading to the prohibition of shamanistic dance.[2]

Greek Maenads and Korybantes[edit]

The ecstatic Kouretes dancing around the infant Zeus, depicted by Jane Ellen Harrison, 1912

In Greek mythology, the Maenads were intoxicated female worshippers of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, known for their "ecstatic revelations and frenzied dancing".[7] The female followers of Dionysus, including bacchants and thyai as well as maenads, seek the "wild delirium" of possession by the god, "get[ting] out of themselves (ekstasis)".[8] Also among Dionysos's entourage were wild, lustful and often drunk satyrs, sileni, fauns, and bacchants (Iobacchoi), a confusing mixture of supernatural and human.[8][9] The oreibasia ("mountain dancing") was a midwinter Dionysian rite practised by women, and said to be originally an "unrestrained, ecstatic dance where the 'human' personality was temporarily replaced by another", though it eventually became structured into a definite ritual.[10]

The male counterparts of the Maenads were the Korybantes (Greek: Κορύβαντες), armed and crested ecstatic dancers who worshipped the Phrygian goddess Cybele with drumming and dancing. They were the offspring of the muse Thalia and the god Apollo. The Greeks often confused them with other ecstatic male confraternities, such as the Idaean Dactyls (Greek: Δάκτυλοι Ἰδαῖοι) or the Cretan Kouretes (Κουρῆτες), spirit-youths (kouroi) with magical powers who acted as guardians of the infant Zeus.[11][8]

Hindu Maruts[edit]

In Hindu mythology, the Rig Veda tells of the Maruts, the furiously wild but innocently playful companions of the god Rudra-Shiva. They are depicted "as a troupe of freakish, adventurous, delinquent and wild young people, who prowl in the night, shouting in the storm, singing, dancing and ceaselessly playing outrageous tricks on sages and gods."[8] The god's human followers may identify with and imitate the god's companions, just as happened in ancient Greece with the followers of Dionysos and the Korybantes.[8]

Religious and traditional[edit]

A variety of religions and other traditions around the world make use of ecstatic dance. For example, some modern Witchcraft traditions such as the Reclaiming Tradition and the Feri Tradition define themselves as "ecstatic traditions", and focus on reaching ecstatic states in their rituals.[12][13]

The Afro-American religious tradition Candomblé, practiced mainly in Brazil, makes use of music and ecstatic dance in which worshippers become possessed by their own tutelary deities, Orishas.[14]

Candomblé dancers in Brazil

In northern Greece and southern Bulgaria, in the annual celebrations for Saint Constantine and Saint Helen, dancers perform the Anastenaria, a fire-walking ritual, as the climax of three days of processions, music, dancing, and animal sacrifice.[15][16][17]

In the tradition of the Mevlevi Order founded by Rumi, ecstatic[18] Sufi whirling is practised by devotees as a form of active meditation within the Sama (worship ceremony).[19] In 2007, Sufi practices including ecstatic dance and the reciting of religious poetry were a focus for political resistance in Iran, reportedly "demoniz[ed]" by Shi'a clerics.[20]

In Trance and Dance in Bali, the women dance ecstatically, stabbing themselves with their razor-sharp kris daggers, and coming to no harm.

In Guyana, Tamil immigrants from south India, known as Madrasi, brought with them ritual worship of the goddess Mariamma, based on ecstatic dance to drumming on the tappu.[21] The worship of Mariamma or Kali-Mai ("black mother") is practised also in Trinidad and was once widespread in villages in India. Since the 1970s Kali worship has taken the form of "ecstatic healing ceremonies of spirit possession".[22]

The anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead filmed Trance and Dance in Bali in the late 1930s, recording the use of trance in Balinese ritual dance, but also influencing what they observed, for example introducing the use of women dancers in the kris-dance in 1937.[23][24][25]


Modern ecstatic dance is a style of dance improvisation with little or no formal structure or steps to follow or any particular way to dance.[5]

Gabrielle Roth's 5Rhythms[edit]

The dancer and musician Gabrielle Roth brought the term "Ecstatic Dance" back into current usage in the 1970s at the Esalen Institute with her dance format called 5Rhythms. This consists of five sections, each accompanied by trance music[26][27] with a different rhythm, together constituting a "Wave". The five rhythms (in order) are Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness.[28] The form has few rules: "No talking. No shoes or socks. Be mindful of not bumping into others."[27] Far from being random, however, it consists of "a carefully orchestrated crescendo of tempos set by the DJ."[27] This was documented in her 1989 book Maps to Ecstasy.[28] In 2004, Roth illustrated her work with an audiobook called Ecstatic Dance and a set of three DVDs; these included three dance workouts ("Waves") to her "five universal rhythms".[29]

In her 1997 book Sweat Your Prayers, Roth described the onset of ecstatic dancing in a participant in one of her workshops in the first section of a Wave:[30]

My eyes scan the dancing bodies but keep returning to a young man. He's been gliding along the surface doing his standard repertoire of flowing moves, when suddenly something shifts inside of him. He transcends his boredom and enters the body of a panther on Rollerblades. Moves spin out from his center in endless waves, some breathtaking to watch. He disappears in the dance until all that's left of him is a mop of bleached-white hair... He dissolves in a swirl of arms, in the sweep of a leg, in the curve of his neck. ... he surrenders his bones to the waves and dances in the ocean of his being.[30]


Many different formats have developed since the 1970s, often spun off from Roth's 5Rhythms.[31][32] After being taught by Roth in 1989, Susannah and Ya'Acov Darling-Khan founded the Moving Centre School in Britain in 1989, teaching the 5 rhythms across Europe. In 2006, having met shamans in the Amazon, the Darling-Khans started their own ecstatic dance form, Movement Medicine.[33] Meanwhile, in 2001, Max Fathom founded Ecstatic Dance Community at Kalani Honua in Puna on the Big Island of Hawaii, influenced by Carol Marashi's 1994 Body Choir in Austin, Texas.[34] Sydney 'Samadhi' Strahan founded Ecstatic Dance Evolution in Houston, Texas in 2003.[35] In 2006, Julia Ray started Tribal Dance Community in Toronto.[36] In 2008, Tyler Blank and Donna Carroll co-founded an influential Ecstatic Dance event at Sweet's Ballroom in Oakland, California.[34]

By 2018, the Ecstatic Dance Community Foundation was able to list over 80 places which offered "organized, spontaneous dance practices – as oxymoronic as that might sound".[37]

Ecstatic tantric union, Yuan dynasty, 14th century. Modern ecstatic dance sometimes incorporates elements of tantra.

Modern ecstatic dance is sometimes combined with elements of tantra and may form a part of tantra workshops.[38][39]


The anthropologist Michael J. Winkelman suggests that shamanism and modern raves share structures including social ritual and the use of dance and music for bonding, for communication of emotions, and for their effects on consciousness and personal healing.[40]


Ecstasy and emotions[edit]

Mississippian culture (800–1600 AD) shaman dancing. Design from a shell cup, Spiro Mounds, Oklahoma

The primary effect of ecstatic dance is ecstasy itself.[2] In particular, sacred dancers actively pursue ecstasy "in the experience of seizure and rapture".[2][41] The religious historian Mircea Eliade stated that shamans use dance, repetitive music, fasting, and hallucinogenic drugs to induce ecstasy.[2][42] The ethnologist Maria-Gabriela Wosien identified four degrees of ecstasy that dancers may experience: "the warning, the whisper of inspiration, the prophecy, and finally the gift, the highest grade of inspiration."[41]

The described effects of ecstatic dance include a feeling of connection with others,[5] indeed of "universal relatedness",[2] and with the dancer's own emotions; serving as a meditation, providing a way of coping with stress and restoring serenity; and serving as a spiritual practice.[5] Roth identified specific emotions associated with the five different rhythms of ecstatic dance that she used, namely that the flowing rhythm connected the dancer with their own fear; the staccato rhythm with anger; chaos with sadness; lyrical with joy; and stillness with compassion.[43]

20th century attitudes[edit]

The musicologist Paul Nettl [de], writing in 1929, granted that ecstatic dance had emotional power "expressive of some psychic exaltation, some intensified emotion", and that the "ordered rhythm" on which it was based was hypnotic, inducing a meditative state and the "dissolution of consciousness", but argued that it was a "primitive" form of dance, a precursor to "higher", more structured dance forms.[44] Nettl stated further that ecstatic dance was both religious and erotic, giving examples from ancient Greece, medieval Christianity and Sufism.[44] In his 1926 Tanzkunst ("Art of Dance"),[45] the dance theorist Fritz Böhme [de] similarly asserted, without giving examples to illustrate the statement, that ecstatic dance lacked "artistic refinement", being limited to "a natural, organically grown expression."[46]

Modern experience[edit]

The science and environment journalist Christine Ottery, writing in The Guardian in 2011, states that "ecstatic dancing has an image problem" and "encompasses everything from large global movements such as 5Rhythms and Biodanza to local drum'n'dance meet-ups". She suggests that readers may "find 5 Rhythms a good place to start", and does so herself: "Nervously, I stretch and warm my muscles. As the rhythms take off, I shake off my shyness." She dances in different ways, alone or with partners. "My body is expressing itself - it's utter abandonment and a complete high."[47]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Mahrer, Michelle; Ma, Nicole (October 2003). Dances of Ecstasy (booklet inside DVD case). Opus Arte, a label of Naxos Records.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Zmolek, Paul; Zmolek, Josephine A. (2002). "Dance as Ecstatic Ritual/Theatre" (PDF). Callous Physical Theature. Retrieved 17 October 2018.
  3. ^ Versnal, H. S. "Ecstasy". The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Third, revised ed.). p. 505.
  4. ^ Berggren, Karen (1998). Circle of Shaman: Healing Through Ecstasy, Rhythm, and Myth. Inner Traditions / Bear & Co. ISBN 978-0-89281-622-4.
  5. ^ a b c d Rooke, Jacques. "The Restorative Effects of Ecstatic Dance: A Qualitative Study" (PDF). Retrieved 29 March 2018.
  6. ^ "The Shaman Healing Dance of the San Bushmen". Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand. 2011. Retrieved 15 October 2018.
  7. ^ Dickason, Kathryn. "Stanford scholar studies ancient Greek dance performances from the viewers' perspective". Retrieved 14 October 2018.
  8. ^ a b c d e Daniélou, Alain (1992). Gods of Love and Ecstasy: The Traditions of Shiva and Dionysus. Simon and Schuster. pp. 81–82. ISBN 978-1-62055-023-6.
  9. ^ Brouwers, Josho (26 March 2018). "Satyrs, sileni, and fauns | Lustful Graeco-roman spirits of nature". Ancient World Magazine. Retrieved 15 October 2018.
  10. ^ Russell, Meredith (August 2003). The Danced Space, Ancient and Modern | The Role of Transformation in Classical Indian and Modern Dance. University of South Australia (Ph. D. Thesis). p. 38.
  11. ^ Harrison, Chapter I: The Hymn of the Kouretes, p. 1 and 26. On page 26 she writes: "The Kouretes are also, as all primitive magicians are, seers (μαντεις). When Minos in Crete lost his son Glaukos he sent for the Kouretes to discover where the child was hidden. Closely akin to this magical aspect is the fact that they are metal-workers. Among primitive people metallurgy is an uncanny craft and the smith is half medicine man."
  12. ^ M. Macha Nightmare, "Reclaiming Tradition Witchcraft", Witchvox, 2001. Retrieved on 13 January 2008.
  13. ^ Cholla and Gabriel, Ecstasy and Transgression in the Faery Tradition, Witch Eye, 2000. Retrieved on 13 January 2008.
  14. ^ "Religions - Candomblé: Candomblé at glance". BBC. 15 September 2009. Retrieved 7 January 2014.
  15. ^ Xygalatas, Dimitris (2007). Joseph Bulbulia; Richard Sosis; Erica Harris; Russell Genet; Cheryl Genet; Karen Wyman, eds. Firewalking and the Brain: The Physiology of High-Arousal Rituals. Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, and Critiques. Collins Foundation Press. pp. 189–195.
  16. ^ Xygalatas, Dimitris (2011). "Ethnography, Historiography, and the Making of History in the Tradition of the Anastenaria". History and Anthropology. 22 (1): 57–74. doi:10.1080/02757206.2011.546855.
  17. ^ Danforth, Loring M. (1989). Firewalking and Religious Healing: The Anastenaria of Greece and the American Firewalking Movement. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0691028538.
  18. ^ Erzen, Jale (2008). "The Dervishes Dance -- The Sacred Ritual of Love". Contemporary Aesthetics. 6.
  19. ^ "The Sema of the Mevlevi". Mevlevi Order of America. Archived from the original on 21 December 2012. Retrieved 26 March 2009.
  20. ^ Scolieri, Paul (2008). "Introduction Global/Mobile: Re-orienting Dance and Migration Studies". Dance Research Journal. 40 (2 (Winter)): XVII.
  21. ^ Stone, Ruth M. (1998). The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: South Asia : the Indian subcontinent. Taylor & Francis. p. 602. ISBN 978-0-8240-4946-1.
  22. ^ Winer, Lise (2009). Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad & Tobago: On Historical Principles. McGill-Queen's Press. p. 484. ISBN 978-0-7735-7607-0.
  23. ^ Jacknis, Ira (May 1988). "Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson in Bali: Their Use of Photography and Film". Cultural Anthropology. 3 (2): 60–177. JSTOR 656349.
  24. ^ Geertz, Hildred (1976). ": Trance and Dance in Bali . Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead. ; Bathing Babies in Three Cultures . Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead. ; Karba's First Years . Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead". American Anthropologist. 78 (3): 725–726. doi:10.1525/aa.1976.78.3.02a01160.
  25. ^ Rony, Fatimah Tobing (2006). "The Photogenic Cannot Be Tamed: Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson's "Trance and Dance in Bali"". Discourse. 28 (1): 5–27. JSTOR 41389738.
  26. ^ Plonka, Lavinia (2005). What Are You Afraid Of?. Penguin Publishing Group. p. 102. ISBN 978-1-101-16082-4.
  27. ^ a b c May, Meredith (25 October 2013). "Ecstatic dance moves the spirit, soothes the soul". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 20 October 2018.
  28. ^ a b Roth, Gabrielle; Loudon, John (1989). Maps to Ecstasy: Teachings of an Urban Shaman. New World Library. ISBN 978-0-931432-52-1.
  29. ^ Roth, Gabrielle (2004). Ecstatic Dance (DVD-ROM ed.). Sounds True. ISBN 978-1591791768. Roth, Gabrielle (1 May 2004). Gabrielle Roth Ecstatic Dance Collection (The Wave, The Inner Wave, The Power Wave) (DVD Video (3 DVDs) ed.). Sounds True. ISBN 978-1-59179-176-8.
  30. ^ a b Roth, Gabrielle (1997). Sweat Your Prayers: Movement as Spiritual Practice. Tarcher Putnam. pp. 52–53. ISBN 978-0-87477-959-2.
  31. ^ Faulkner, Ian (1 March 2018). "The Healing Practice of Ecstatic Dance". Elephant Journal. Retrieved 15 October 2018.
  32. ^ "Welcome to Ecstatic Dance". Donna Carroll International. 2018. Retrieved 15 October 2018.
  33. ^ Darling-Khan, Susannah; Darling-Khan, Ya'Acov (2009). Movement Medicine: How to Awaken, Dance and Live Your Dreams. Hay House. pp. 20–25. ISBN 978-1-84850-605-3.
  34. ^ a b "Ecstatic Dance Community". Ecstatic Dance Community. Retrieved 15 October 2018.
  35. ^ "Ecstatic Dance Evolution". Retrieved 15 October 2018.
  36. ^ "Ecstatic Dance Toronto". Retrieved 14 October 2018.
  37. ^ Miller, Anna Medaris (24 May 2018). "What Is Ecstatic Dance – and Can It Improve Your Health?". US News.
  38. ^ "Tantric Trance DanceTM | Moving Meditation and Alchemical Practice". Urubu. Retrieved 16 October 2018.
  39. ^ Solluna, Shashi (2016). Tantra: Discover the Path from Sex to Spirit. Hay House. p. 47. ISBN 978-1-78180-784-2. Dance has traditionally been a part of Tantric practice, at least for women, with the Devadasis being women who danced in Tantric temples... modern Tantra workshops often have a lot of dance in them. Freestyle dancing, such as ecstatic dance, is also often found in modern-day Tantra, for both men and women.
  40. ^ Winkelman, Michael James (2015). Emilia Simão; Armando Malheiro de Silva; Sérgio Tenreiro de Magalhães, eds. Biogenetic structural perspectives on shamanism and raves. Exploring Psychedelic Trance and Electronic Dance Music in Modern Culture. IGI Global. pp. 1–37. ISBN 978-1466686656. Retrieved 18 October 2018.
  41. ^ a b Wosien, Maria-Gabriela (1974). Sacred Dance: Encounter with the Gods. Thames and Hudson. p. 211. ISBN 978-0500810064.
  42. ^ Eliade, Mircea (2004) [1964]. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (New ed.). Princeton. ISBN 978-0691119427.
  43. ^ "Gabrielle Roth's 5Rhythms". 5Rhythms. Retrieved 18 October 2018.
  44. ^ a b Nettl, Paul (October 1929). "Notes on the History of the Dance". The Musical Quarterly. 15 (4): 583–589. JSTOR 38569.
  45. ^ Böhme, Fritz (1926). Tanzkunst (in German). Dessau: Dünnhaupt.
  46. ^ Toepfer, Karl (1997). Empire of Ecstasy | Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910–1935. University of California Press. p. 348.
  47. ^ Ottery, Christine (21 July 2009). "Ecstatic dance: rhythm to beat the blues". The Guardian. Retrieved 18 March 2012.

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