HIGH NOTES: Getting High on Ecstatic Dance

COLUMNS|High Notes|Monthly Mondays

Usually, when I’m in Amsterdam, my plans involve drugs in some way or another. But during my latest trip (trip as in, excursion, I should specify), I had an impending ayahuasca ceremony, and taking other drugs in the days before you take ayahuasca is not advisable. On my search for a drug-free yet Amsterdam-typical experience, I stumbled upon Odessa, a nightclub on a boat that hosts ecstatic dance events.

Ecstatic dance is a practice where people get together and dance however it moves them, often to spiritual music. There are ecstatic dance communities and retreats in many major cities, Amsterdam being one of the foremost. It attracts what people might consider the hippy-dippy crowd. I’d never been to an ecstatic dance event before, but I have a friend who’s into it, and it sounded like something free spirits like me would enjoy.

The event’s Facebook description oozed with wholesomeness, with bread and vegan soup served and no alcohol or drugs allowed. But it also said it aims to put participants in a “meditative state.” A meditative state without substances? I was intrigued.

The three-story ship on the ocean was the perfect venue for natural mind-altering. When I walked in, I saw some people cuddling on pillows and others eating. A man who was serving the food explained to me that everyone had to be silent before the event started. I was relieved – no pressure to start conversations with strangers without any social lubrication.

I walked downstairs to the dance floor, where some people were already swaying to the music. The song was contemporary but with spiritual lyrics like “this is only the beginning.” Then, something that sounded like traditional Indian instrumentals came on; in my head, I all heard was the same familiar soundtrack I hear when I want to dance.

“You’re going to look like an idiot.”

“No, I’ll only look like an idiot if I’m worried about looking like an idiot.”

“But that’s exactly what you’ll be thinking about.”

I got the feeling, though, that this was not an environment where I’d be judged. One woman was hopping up and down joyfully; a man was in his own little world as he shuffled his legs; another man was meditating with his legs crossed. I got up and started swaying. It was not hard to get into. The man who was meditating came over and danced in front of me, and we laughed as our moves got more exaggerated and sillier.

Soon after that, the event officially opened with a few games that reminded me of high school theater class. We had to make shapes with our bodies and find our way between other people’s shapes, walk only at right angles, and form an equilateral triangle with two other people in the room. It wasn’t exactly taking me to a higher state of consciousness. My mind wandered through most of it.  

For an opening ceremony, we closed our eyes and meditated, and the DJ told us, “enjoy your journey.” Between that and the cups of ginger licorice tea arranged ceremonially amid candlelight by the bar, I almost thought I was already at my ayahuasca retreat.

Then came the dance part. The DJ mixed tunes that ranged from spiritual to EDM-like to a fun combination of the two. Some people bounced up and down like they were celebrating life. Others had their eyes closed like they were in a trance. Couples gave massages and slow-danced. If I hadn’t read the event’s rules, I would’ve guessed some of these people were high.

The energy in the room was palpable. There were moments when it escalated and people screamed. Electricity ran up and down my legs and I could not contain my jumps. Some people jumped with me, and we all laughed. I guess I came off a bit like I was on drugs, too.

Except this high had more substance to it. Drugs have a way of making everything seem profound for no reason. I could understand the profundity of ecstatic dance. It was like we were traveling back in time to when humans danced to connect with nature and one another. We were all connected. As the boat rocked, we even felt like part of the ocean. 

I walked over to another room at the end, where just one woman was dancing. The lyrics of the song were in another language, but it made me think of the sun. I leaped around and did a move that reminded me of sun salutations in yoga, and the other woman danced similarly. I felt more joy than I’d felt in a long time.

Afterward, I went up to the ship’s top floor, where there was a hot tub and sauna. I didn’t have my bathing suit, but I put my feet into the tub. “Are all ecstatic dance events sober?” I asked a man who was bathing in there. “They tend to be,” he said. “The idea is to connect directly with the music, not through any substance.”

“Can’t drugs help you connect with music, though?” I asked.

“They’re not doing anything to your brain that it doesn’t already do,” he answered. “They make it easier to get there, but the goal is to get there without it.” That sounded like a worthy goal. A high without hangovers.

In the sauna afterward, another man and I debated whether consciousness could have arisen from inert matter. Then, on my way out, the meditating man I had danced with told me I had a beautiful soul.

“You were dancing Indian dances,” he told me. “How do you know them?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Past lives, maybe.” We got dinner and discussed past lives and everything else you’d expect to discuss after an ecstatic dance event. It was exactly the hippy-dippy experienced I’d hoped for.

I ended up returning to ecstatic dance three times. On the second night, the guy from the hot tub stroked my hair as we listened to live music. On the third, we discovered that all six people in the sauna had taken ayahuasca and recounted what it taught us. The experience did not provide everything I’d gained from taking drugs at clubs, but it did provide a few of the same things: fun, deep conversation, and genuine connection.

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