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How Ecstatic Dance Helps Me Manage Chronic Illness

Mental Well-Being

July 03, 2024

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Photography by Lucas Ottone/Stocksy United

Photography by Lucas Ottone/Stocksy United

by Hannah Shewan Stevens

•••••

by Hannah Shewan Stevens

•••••

We can find relief in the most unexpected things. I found a pain management technique in the depths of a Thai jungle as I danced like a maniac with strangers, all without a drop of alcohol.

When we get diagnosed with any chronic illness, doctors can help identify the best medical solutions that fit our specific needs.

While these medical solutions are essential, broadening my approach to pain management makes my chronic illnesses easier to manage.

One unusual method I’ve discovered is ecstatic dance. Just like it sounds, ecstatic dance is essentially happy dancing.

These unique dancing events give me a sense of physical and mental freedom that’s now part of my toolbox of coping mechanisms to tame chronic pain.

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What exactly is ecstatic dance?

Ecstatic dance is a free-form dance practice that creates a strong bond between body and mind. Typically, ecstatic dances are alcohol- and drug-free zones.

Dancers are encouraged to dance in silence and not to take any photos. This allows people to sink into the experience without distractions from the outside world.

The goal of ecstatic dance is to form a deeper connection with your physical self, leaving behind self-consciousness and sinking into a trance-like state.

Stemming from a combination of shamanistic and Eastern philosophies, some consider the movement to be rooted in ancient tribal rituals and ceremonies from a time when dance was used to bond with the divine.

For example, followers of Dionysus, the ancient Greek god of wine, formed a cult that was considered one of the first to utilize ecstatic dancing to connect with a greater power.

The goal of ecstatic dance is to form a deeper connection with your physical self, leaving behind self-consciousness and sinking into a trance-like state.

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How I found ecstatic dance

These days, ecstatic dance is less about connecting with gods and more about forging a strong bond with your inner self.

I first experienced an ecstatic dance while living on the island of Koh Phangan in Thailand. One Sunday morning, I ventured into the heart of the jungle to discover this mystical event.

The first dance I attended was hosted in a circular room with walls and a roof made of mesh. This allowed a perfect view of the dense jungle canopy above.

The dance started slowly. Our facilitator led the group of 20 to 30 people through a meditation.

At first, we all stayed seated, stretching our limbs and relaxing our minds before we rose to walk about the room, connecting with other attendees through eye contact and touching palms.

Then, the music started.

Initially, the DJ kept the mood relaxed with slower songs, gradually easing into songs with higher tempo beats. I focused on letting go of my self-consciousness by closing my eyes to stop myself from studying others and comparing their moves to mine.

The DJ slowly worked up to a climax, increasing the tempo and intensity of the songs as attendees let loose and started jumping in the air.

I fed off the energy around me and soon found myself dancing with total abandon, arms flailing, truly at ease with whatever my body decided to do in reaction to the vibrations thrumming through the wooden flooring beneath my bare feet.

I succeeded in not caring what anyone else thought of my movements. My mind felt completely in tune with my body. As one, we floated into the jungle canopy above, released from our physical and mental stresses.

Even after the group meditation to calm us down at the end, I always left bursting with energy, on an undimmable high. I only realized hours later that my body was also pain-free, a rarity for my chronic illness-ridden life.

I always left bursting with energy, on an undimmable high. I only realized hours later that my body was also pain-free, a rarity for my chronic illness-ridden life.

I kept going back

I attended every session I could because it taught me how to truly sink into my natural self. I shed fears of being perceived in a certain way, along with other lingering anxieties.

I’d never believed in “energy” before, but the atmosphere in that room was undeniable. The space felt electric with everyone’s combined, feverish enthusiasm.

I’ve attended raves littered with drugs and never experienced anything close to the level of ecstasy on display in this substance-free environment.

I especially loved the meditation elements and how the DJ guided us through the rises and falls, cresting the wave before guiding us down. It was like being cocooned in sound. It felt so safe.

The deep mind-body connection I discovered quickly became another coping mechanism for pain.

The deep mind-body connection I discovered quickly became another coping mechanism for pain.

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Why does it help manage pain?

Living in constant chronic pain caused by various chronic illnesses — including irritable bowel syndrome, endometriosis, and fibromyalgia — creates a constant feeling of physical and mental tension.

I often feel like my whole self is in a permanent state of resistance, trying to reclaim my health in the face of a wall of pain.

In ecstatic dance, all of this falls away. Accessing this state felt like finally reaching a point of serenity that yoga practitioners rave about, although I could never reach it myself.

In ecstatic dance, I arrived at this mystical peak of tranquility quite by accident.

For me, pain led to years of dissociation. I lived separately from my body to cope with the unending agony, sometimes spending weeks in a dissociative state. There, I neatly filed the pain away in a different compartment of my mind.

Because ecstatic dance requires us to be in harmony with our bodies and let our minds rest, it forces me out of dissociation. I have to be present, so there’s no wandering off in my head.

The overwhelming joy of moving freely subdues rising pain, not by stuffing it into a lockbox but by letting it slip into the vibrations and dissipate into nothingness.

The overwhelming joy of moving freely subdues rising pain, not by stuffing it into a lockbox but by letting it slip into the vibrations and dissipate into nothingness.

Finding chronic connections

Sometimes, these events get emotional. I often see people crying while working through deep feelings as the dance forces them to the surface. I experienced this once or twice, but it never felt like a sad release. I always felt lighter.

These emotional moments also forge bonds with fellow attendees. While we can’t speak during the dance, we can connect through movement, forming friendships before words ever cross our lips.

Afterward, we regroup to crystallize our friendship with an actual conversation. Several times, I met people who found that ecstatic dance enriched their lives with chronic illness.

One person said that although ecstatic dance didn’t cure them of anything, it alleviated the stress of living with a debilitating illness. Others echoed my experiences, saying that the events let them release the physical tension associated with being long-term sick.

Ecstatic dance is already about coming together, but discovering these pockets of chronically ill communities deepened that for me. The experience bonded me with my people because we were all experiencing the same feeling of release from our symptoms.

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Still going

Since discovering ecstatic dance, I find events wherever I am in the world. When I can’t find an event or feel my emotions bubble over, I set up my own ecstatic dance experience at home.

I spend 10 to 15 minutes meditating and then put on an ecstatic dance playlist I’ve curated. I’ll dance around until my energy fails me, and I retreat into another meditation.

Although I miss the atmosphere of dancing in a crowd, solo ecstatic dance still touches the same places. I feel free. I move my body with abandon. I let my mind fully relax. I enjoy the benefits of reduced symptoms.

With or without dancing companions, ecstatic dance has broadened my community in real life and given me a unique hobby I can access anywhere in the world.

Fact checked on July 03, 2024

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About the author

Hannah Shewan Stevens

Hannah Shewan Stevens is a freelance journalist, speaker, press officer, and newly qualified sex educator. She typically writes about health, disability, sex, and relationships. After working for press agencies and producing digital video content, she’s now focused on feature writing and on best practices for reporting on disability. Follow her on Twitter.

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