Thunderous music begins to fill the room, and the dance floor awakens with an eclectic mix of arms, hips and bodies swaying to a new beat. Entirely self-assured, these dancers shed life’s hassles and anxieties and embrace one of nature’s best and most ancient stress-releases: dance.
Ecstatic Dance Ithaca members practice using a form of modern expression that focuses on free movement to relieve stress. The group meets monthly at the Community School of Music and Arts. This type of dance is meant to be a spiritual and meditative activity for people to find a way to live life to the fullest.
The group formed in December 2009 after a friend of senior Caitlin Warfield, co-founder of the group, went to Hawaii and saw ecstatic dance being performed. Warfield said she thought this style of dance might find a niche in the community.
“The people [in Hawaii] dance as a meditation,” she said. “We thought it was a great idea to establish it here in Ithaca.”
The group started modestly with only a few attendees in its first meeting. Warfield said the number of members has since skyrocketed, including 10 Ithaca College students.
“We just exploded by word of mouth and people really liking the experience,” Warfield said. “We’ve gotten a lot of great feedback on the Web site and a lot of people have contacted us who hadn’t come [before]. It’s really taken off.”
Members of the group spin, toss and twirl their bodies around on a wide-open dance floor in any way they choose while DJ Rob Haze blasts instrumental music from a stage. Dancers find themselves in a trancelike state of being during the session, while also having a tremendous amount of fun.
Ecstatic dance comes with no rules or choreography. Warfield said this provides the dancers total freedom to move.
“There is no specific type of dance,” she said. “It’s whatever you want to do, wherever you think the music is taking you.”
The group does not focus on putting constraints on style or past experience, Warfield said. Attendance is open to the general public for free, with a suggested $5 donation.
Every meeting uses a different style of music to get people moving. The last session was with African drummers. The next session on March 26 will be with a drum circle. The music is often simple and raw. It can be difficult to understand for an outsider, but given enough time, the beats practically demand emotional and spiritual release.
The timing of each meeting is important, too. Warfield said placing the sessions on a Friday night helps people decompress after a long week’s work.
“We do it on Friday nights [because] we figured that that’s a good end to the week, and it’s a great way for people just to come down and dance and let themselves get rid of all that stress that’s been building up over the week,” she said.
Senior Alison Walter, an acting major at the college, attends the classes and said she experienced a cathartic feeling among the dancers.
“You can sort of see — especially since it’s on a Friday — people just dancing their week off, dancing their month off,” Walter said.
Students at the college are not the only ones experiencing the release Ecstatic Dance Ithaca provides. The group attracts many locals looking to unload their worries, from Ithaca College and Cornell University faculty to small business owners.
The class caught local DJ Ian Gaffney’s attention. He said Ecstatic Dance Ithaca helps him feel fulfilled.
“There’s a good amount of space here where you can have some freedom to dance however you chose, and that’s kind of what I’m all about and why I’m here,” he said. “It’s definitely a stress release. ”
Janice Kovar, a senior lecturer at Cornell who attends the class, said on a conceptual level it’s extremely important for groups like Ecstatic Dance Ithaca to exist because it fills a void in Ithaca.
“There are people out there who really do want to dance, and in Ithaca there’s not that many places to go [to dance] in an informal kind of way,” Kovar said.
Warfield said shyness can be an issue for newcomers with this type of dance, but eventually people are able to let go of their anxiety.
“We’ve had a lot of people come in and be very nervous and very awkward about coming down,” Warfield said. “I felt very awkward the first time. Then we were like, ‘OK, just sit on the side, you don’t have to give us any money, just sit and experience the music, and if you feel like you want to go in, then go in,’ and we have not had one person not dance.”