Ecstatic dancers find peace in steps with others

It's far from an ordinary spiritual service, but people have been attending Ashland's ecstatic dance sessions religiously on Sunday mornings for 10 years.

Organizer Diane Horbacewicz spends hours preparing the Dance Space in Ashland to be a welcoming "container" for 60 or more people who stretch, sway and roll to meditative and uplifting music for two hours.

"People joke that it's 'dance church,' because it's a safe and sacred space to move and just be," says Horbacewicz, 50, a petite, former ballerina who came to Ashland to teach yoga and be a body-centered Hakomi therapist.

Then she discovered ecstatic dance, where there are no steps to learn, patterns to repeat or choreography to perfect.

Through free-form movements that meld conscious dance music with the DJ club scene, she says people can display that they are "incredible divine beings."

"When everyone dances their own dance, it's really beautiful," she says.

Since ecstatic dance took off in the U.S. in 2000, it has sired events around the world, as well as supportive Facebook pages and publications such as Berkeley-based Conscious Dancer magazine.

Often, it's associated with the expressive, improvisational movements seen in what's called authentic dance, barefoot boogie or sacred dance.

It can be confusing and intimidating, and some participants say that ecstatic dance is misunderstood and linked to hippies, illegal drugs and unencumbered touching.

There are other misconceptions, too, about what they're doing when the dance studio's windows are covered, the lights are dimmed, and everyone is invited to move as their body wants.

Spouses have claimed marriages have broken up after sessions, while other people say new relationships have sprung from the dance floor.

"It's a little scary entering into the space," says one dancer who asked not to be named. "But that may be a person's own fear that this is a pick-up joint and someone will touch them."

In Ashland, organizers host sessions with $10 entry fees throughout the week at different venues, including dance studios on Hersey Street and formerly the Jackson Wellsprings.

Each one has a different vibe. Encouraging hosts and sensual, throbbing music may lead participants into "cuddle puddles" or "love-drunk puppy piles" on the floor.

"From the sidelines it could look like an orgy with clothes on," says once-frequent attendee Mary Landberg of Ashland.

Horbacewicz's Sunday morning sessions attract a different response, she says, especially since people are invited to offer "dancing prayers for the good of all beings."

At these sessions, solo dancers tend to stay mostly upright when moving to the music.

"We don't have a lot of rules," says Horbacewicz, who finds the freedom of ecstatic dance "healing" after the demands of being a professional dancer with the New Jersey Ballet Company before injuring her back.

Although dancers are free to act as they want, they need to respect other people's wishes. One man who used to scream while shaking about was asked to consider the people who came to dance quietly.

No one seems to mind, however, when women yelp during the tribal rhythms or a man with silver hair rides a stability ball and hisses like a snake across the dance floor.

"There is nothing to fix here, and there is nothing wrong," Horbacewicz says.

When pushed, she reluctantly addresses unwanted contact among dancers, which she says is rare.

If a woman says she is receiving undesired attention, Horbacewicz and other facilitators make it stop.

Sometimes, she gently reminds assertive dancers that if a woman is running away across the dance floor, it means she's not interested.

"They just can't grab someone," she says.

Last Sunday, men and women of all ages and agility levels entered the Dance Space to soothing music. A half hour after the planned start, Horbacewicz gathered everyone into a circle for a few minutes of talking.

Most of the time, this community doesn't engage in chitchat.

"We encourage nonverbal communication," Horbacewicz says quietly before announcing the intention for the day of leading with your heart.

She welcomed back people who had not been at the dance for a while and asked newcomers to introduce themselves if they wanted to.

After a few "Hello, I am ..." followed by a first name, Horbacewicz said that it sounded like an AA meeting. People sitting and hugging their kneecaps rocked back a little and smiled.

Then the music started again. Dancers slowly graduated from sitting to standing. They stomped and skipped.

Those wanting to physically connect with others moved to a corner of the room reserved for contact dance.

There, a man in his 50s was propped up by his hands and knees like a human ottoman. He curved his back as others slowly tumbled over him.

Other times and other places, ecstatic dancers caress each other with their arms, legs or bellies, or roll over each other in loosely formed rows.

"You don't have to just dive in," Horbacewicz tells newcomers, who are invited to sit on the carpeted grandstand and watch as barefoot dancers slide near a Buddha on the ground, resting against carefully arranged wild flowers and candles.

She has received notes from people saying ecstatic dance helped them get out of their shell or recover from divorce. "Everything is honored and accepted," she says. "You don't have to be happy."

It takes Horbacewicz all week to collect the songs she wants to play on Sunday mornings. She carefully selects music and lyrics to evoke moods, and she has never repeated a song list.

She compares herself to a DJ at a fun wedding who helps guests tune into the energy, let loose and dance without care.

On this day, interspersed between lyrics such as "I am beautiful, I am bountiful, I am bliss. I am, I am" are echoing excerpts of Buffalo Springfield's "Something's Happening Here."

Horbacewicz has edited out negative references — "There's a man with a gun over there" — leaving in upbeat phrases such as "Young people speaking their minds" and "Singing songs and carrying signs, mostly say, hooray for our side."

"The music helps people on this journey," she says. "I won't pick lyrics about shooting, but if it's a little sexy, that's part of life."

Near the end of the session, the tempo gets slower, slower, slower, until everyone is lying on the wood floor. A dancer performs with his singing bowls and the group chants oms in harmony.

Ashland author and photographer Landberg, 53, describes ecstatic dance as a sensual alternate universe. She says she occasionally enters to experience "uninhibited self expression" with no projections into the future.

"I get to move in a world where all falls away except for lovely connecting on a deep, joyous level that is misunderstood by most out in broad daylight," says Landberg, who started a project, called Photography for the Uninhibited, after marrying nature photographer Mark Lunn last year.

She says spending time in the dance studio "flicks away any thought other than to love fully" and that helps her see the world outside as less troubling.

This makes Horbacewicz happy.

Considering the effort she puts into helping people dance for joy, she says that perhaps she was a priest or a nun in a past life.

"It just seems like this is what I'm supposed to do," she says, "to hold space for people to love themselves and experience less suffering."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or

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