New Haven’s autumn equinox ecstatic dance began in perfect stillness. Musician and globe-trotting energy-worker Minyan Zhu sat by his wooden guzheng (古箏) zither at the center of a studio in Hamden’s Your Community Yoga Center on Thursday night. The 15 people who had assembled to prance, caper, and mindfully move to a broad selection of contemporary pop and electronic dance music lay prone in a circle around him. The tops of their heads faced inwards towards the instrument’s long, rectangular body; their faces gazed upwards towards the ceiling.
Zhu began his opening invocation by plucking out a few long, deliberate bass notes. At this close distance, the sound waves palpably traveled out from the guzheng, through the ground and up into our spines. The notes nosed around a little resonance chamber defined by the small of my back and the hardwood flooring.
Ecstatic dance organizer Damian Paglia chuckled out a low, surprised: “Oh, man!”
Founded approximately three years ago, New Haven Ecstatic Dance (NHED) gathers together citizens who wholeheartedly enjoy throwing their arms and hips into the sounds of the average bar or rave, but could do entirely without the concomitant booze and conversation. Paglia offered three simple guidelines before the night began.
“No shoes, no rules, no chit-chat.”
Dance barefoot or in socks, however you’d like, mute or with friendly, but strictly non-verbal cues. Additionally: Come sober, be respectful, and leave your tech behind.
“That weeds out half the people,” Paglia said after the dance. “We’re looking for a safe container where people can express themselves.”
He conjured up a specter of the toxic creeps and drunken weirdos that cling to most dance venues. “You have to know the power of intention,” he said.
Zhu’s zither centered the crowd: a singular sound to focus on and clear our minds against. He alternated between slow, methodical passages of music and quickly cascading rapids of sound. Somewhere between an acoustic guitar and harp, his instrument had a slightly tart, twangy twist—sonically astringent and altogether cleansing.
Gathered later in the narrow corridor outside the studio, still sweat-damp and breathless, Paglia and co-organizer John White situated Zhu’s performance in the chapter’s longer-term goals. They indicated how ecstatic dance is a broad, national phenomenon, with meetings in New York City and the Bay Area drawing in hundreds of participants.
Ecstatic dances must meet certain criteria to be considered a proper “Ecstatic Dance.”
“We need consistent live music, subwoofers—”
One of the evening’s ecstatic dancers suddenly cut in.
“I went to a few ‘Ecstatic Dances’ in Seattle, and they’re nowhere close,” she said, shaking her head and smiling.
Based briefly on New Haven’s State Street, NHED moved out to Fitness Haven in Erector Square, and have since relocated to Your Community Yoga Center (YCYC). Paglia said NHED has been embarking on larger and more ambitious events, including its annual “Harmonizer” concert and dance. March’s “Harmonizer 2017” featured singer-songwriter-poet Hanifa Washington as well as Jason Cohen’s band Incus. It programmed for both of YCYC’s studio spaces, bringing in reiki therapists, massage artists, and vendors of various homeopathic therapies.
The recurring New Haven ecstatic dances draw in a cozier, more manageable crowd.
“Last week we had thirty people here,” Paglia said. “It just gives you more space to move around in.”
I’d admittedly been trained by crowded Chicago parties set to house, trap, and drill to work my body in a narrow radius of one to two feet using minimal, male gestures. It took a while to notice and perform in ecstatic dance’s liberating wideness. There was plenty room enough for sweeping motions that began at the top of my body with raised hands and crossed wrists, folding down and out through my full arm span.
A quality sound system and the residual heat of a previous yoga class, however, kept this big open room from feeling empty, chill, and voiding. Speakers pumped it full of sound, while we radiated volumes of cloying warmth, outshining the tea candles arrayed across the walls.
Paglia’s playlist cycled through huge, steel drum sounds that demanded sweeping strides. He hit upon some wistful ballads that allowed me to cross a box step and syncopated shoulder, torso, and leg pumping. Some mellow electronic music sampled from the soundtrack of a sci-fi grand strategy game allowed us to catch our breath by cycling through easy loops of smaller motions.
The result of all this frenetic, non-stop activity is a psychosomatic endorphin high. Flushed and not a little dehydrated, ecstatic dancers—myself included—achieve through unaided body-chemistry the euphoria it might take several drinks or hits to obtain otherwise. Picking out the beat to the music, and following it with repetitive full-body movements makes for marvelous trance meditation.
The dance’s score drew on the modern club scene: driving beats, bass drops, and the occasional Auto-Tuned or indistinct vocalist. Our responses, however, took on a special sensitivity and softness in the absence of drugs and alcohol, social posturing and predation. The ecstatic model rubs the sharp edges off of partying. It supplies mass, untutored dance in the 21st century with an innocent, Romantic vision of campfire vigils from our naïve antiquity.
Paglia wound the night down by introducing a lyrical guitar song with an occluded beat. Its blurred melodies guided dancers away from precise pops or locks and into flowing warrior poses, bringing everyone into a resting state and towards the circle of cross-legged ecstatic dancers assembled again at the studio’s center.
Seated on bolsters in the dark and in silence, the lone lights of a candelabra flickering against their eyelids, New Haven’s hot, tired, and ecstatic dancers listened to the crickets, the first autumn winds filtering in through YCYC’s open back door and windows.
“Thank you—,” said Paglia, his voice quiet, his sentence a little clipped. He lingered gently, waiting a good minute and half before speaking again. “Thank you for coming out this evening. It’d be sweet if we could stay here, like this, but—”
Weary, resigned, elated laughter filled in where his voice trailed off, saying everything else that needed to be spoken, speaking volumes.