Where Did Ecstatic Dance Come From?

So you’ve been out on the Ecstatic Dance floor throwing it down hard when all of a sudden a thought springs into your head: “How did Ecstatic Dance get started anyway?”

The origins of Ecstatic Dance are actually quite interesting, and offer a historical perspective about dance as a therapeutic tool.

In her fascinating book “Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy” Barbara Ehrenreich says that the vast majority of tribal or “small scale” cultures shared a common thread: ecstatic or trance dance. They may have exorcised either demons or stress, but whatever it was they felt a whole lot better after dancing.

Or as spiritual philosopher Alan Watts once said: “Sometimes you have to lose your mind to come to your senses.”

In the 1960’s, the spiritual incubator Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California infused dance and movement into its daily routine, knowing that humans were far more than just thinking machines but active bodies and spirits.

Esalen drew seekers from around the world to its gorgeous Pacific Coast setting, including NYC dance instructor Gabrielle Roth. (Also Ida Rolf and Moshe Feldenkrais of Rolfing and The Feldenkrais Method fame.)

There to work with Esalen founder Fritz Perls and his gestalt therapy techniques, Roth eventually had an “aha moment.” One day she told her roommate Harriet Rosen “I want to mix therapy with dance. And I want call it The Five Rhythms.”

Harriet told me this story during a month long, countrywide Ecstatic Dance Bus Tour in 2017 when she was 72. A dancer since her youth and still today in her 70’s, Harriet recalls Gabrielle Roth as very intense and direct.

“Focused. Passionate. Sensual, but in the sense of sensitivity to everything and everyone.”

What are The Five Rhythms? Roth devised her system to incorporate what she considered five essential movements, or rhythms, of the human experience: Flow, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness.

For Roth, dance was always therapeutic. When one movement was “blocked” – say a dancer had trouble experiencing total chaos – that was precisely what they had to practice to liberate themselves physically and psychologically – over and over and over again.

Many of Roth’s students were the rich and famous (and uptight) of Los Angeles. She writes of them in her book “Maps to Ecstasy”:

“And the bodies spoke to me. I saw stories in flesh, the untold tales of dead arms hanging there, of pelvises locked in ‘Park,’ of clenched fists and locked jaws, in physiques molded into attitudes of ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘Get out of my way.’ Chests sunk in shame, shoulders riding high, voices edgy with anger or contracted with fear. The body never lies.”

The Five Rhythms became an international movement, most popularly in Roth’s hometown of New York City. The soundtrack to Five Rhythms – and this is important – was typically World Music or rock – not electronica.

Five Rhythms began to change shape as new ideas – and new music – entered the scene.

Open Floor was a west coast spinoff of Five Rhythms. Soul Motion offered a facilitator to help dancers break through psychological barriers, including self-loathing.

Together with Five Rhythms, all of these dance forms fell under the umbrella “Conscious Dance” since they focused on becoming more conscious and aware.

Dance as therapy.

Meanwhile, there were other just-for-fun dance forms under the larger category “Freeform Dance,” such as the feel-good Barefoot Boogie. (“Freeform Dance” was a larger category that typically included Conscious Dance as well.)

Then came one of the central figures in the formation of Ecstatic Dance: Max Fathom. A restless musical and cultural explorer, Fathom eventually fused together the influences of Burning Man, electronic music, and the annual yoga festival at the famous Kalani Oceanside Retreat center to give birth to this new dance form.

As Fathom tells the story, there were a series of events that led to the creation of Ecstatic Dance. (Still, Fathom has no clue who created the term, and takes no credit for it.)

After moving to Hawaii from Austin, Fathom was DJ’ing for a handful of people, playing rock music like Peter Gabriel, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Patti Smith, using the cycle of Five Rhythms to guide the dance movements.

“And then I noticed they could care less about that shit,” says Fathom. “They just want to dance.”

After some younger kids invited him to Burning Man, Fathom heard electronic music for the first time. He wandered the playa talking to DJ’s, tapping them on the shoulder asking “What’s that?” Some were helpful. Others brushed him off: “Listen, man, I’m working here.”

Fathom then raced to Tower Records in Los Angeles buying up electronic music like Fatboy Slim. Back in Hawaii, he attended full moon parties on remote beaches with “big ass speakers” and danced until morning. There, a New Zealand DJ taught Max how to really DJ.

Soon after, he attended a two-day party with about 15 people DJ’d by Lorin Ashton of Bassnectar. Max watched, learned and danced.

“We had the weekend of our lives,” he recalls. “I’ve never been so out of control of my body. My body was just dancing itself.”

Finally, everything came together. Max had the right music and the experience to let it fly.

At Kalani, he DJ’d what was intended to be a Five Rhythms dance. But Max had new music to share. Electronica.

“Once I did that, the kids came out of the woodwork,” he says.

First 75… then 125… then over 300 dancers came to dance to this wildly celebratory electronica music every Sunday morning and Wednesday nights.

Thus the birth of Ecstatic Dance, which quickly overtook Conscious Dance in popularity. It’s now a worldwide phenomenon.

“Dancing is pure creativity,” says Fathom. “If you’re not doing a choreographed piece you’re dancing. And that’s spontaneity. And when you’re spontaneous you’re one step ahead of the ego.”

Written by Matt Perry.