Sunday, May 19, 2013

Dance Your Way to Ecstasy

Have you ever experienced real ecstasy? No, not the drug (though I've heard that's a neat trip too) but the feeling that it offers—that state where you seem to transcend your normal mode of consciousness? I have.

Ecstasy is a sort of transcendent state and the pinnacle of what we understand as happiness. I experience genuine ecstatic happiness as a regular part of my life thanks to dancing and perhaps you do or can too. I don't say this as a simple matter of personal taste and it doesn't have to be dancing that does it for you but there are some important, objective components of happiness that dancing can bring to your life.  We'll talk about how dancing does this but first I'd like to talk happiness and the three components that dancing specifically addresses: Flow, community and sensuality.


In a TED talk entitled “The new era of positive psychology”, Dr. Martin Seligman speaks about happiness and one of its most important components:  something that he calls “flow” or “engagement.”  (His talk is well worth the time and to be found here: .) Flow is that state in which we are engaged in an activity that makes time seem to stand still. It's that thing people experience when they are “in the zone.”  It can happen playing a sport, at work, doing art, during “spiritual” experiences, making love and yes, while dancing. The amount of flow someone experiences in their day-to-day lives is a good predictor of just how happy they will perceive themselves to be.
Having too much fun!  Photo Credit:


There is another kind of engagement that is essential to happiness: social engagement—that sense of belonging and community.  Not surprisingly, people who have stronger social networks are more likely to feel satisfied with their lives.

My Peeps: Photo By a friend.
No, having thousands of Facebook friends doesn't count; we're talking about real social networks here, not virtual ones!  Surprisingly however, we're also not talking about close personal friends.  Most people will only be lucky enough to have one or two truly intimate friends, the kind that you can tell absolutely anything and trust implicitly, and many happy people are actually not very intimately attached at all. We're talking about having a healthy network of people whom you can interact with on a more or less casual level and on a regular basis: friends in the broader but not the broadest sense of the word—a community to which one can belong.


Photo Credit: Brandon Yuan-Sheng Chu
A third, and often overlooked, component of a happy life is physical integration and sensuality.  I don't mean sensuality in the sexual sense (though that counts) but rather feeling connected to one's own body in an intimate way and receiving positive sensual (i.e. from the senses) input from others.  In another TED talk (If you're not a regular patron of, what are you waiting for? Get on that!) Sir Ken Robinson points out that in our culture we are increasingly educating people as if their bodies were simply vehicles for carrying their heads around; that we're educating from the neck up and slightly more towards the right-hand side of the brain.  What this means is that we experience a sort of disconnection with our sensuality.

Have you ever been in a crowded subway car at rush hour and heard the cacophony as people apologize for having brushed up against someone else? “Oh, sorry” they say, as if it was a violation to even inadvertently touch another human being.  If you think about it, it's a little unnatural.

Why I Needed Dancing

It was autumn 1999, the turn of the century (Okay, not really. I know that the century really started in 2001. Don't be such a nerd!) , and I tagged along with one of the few friends that I had to Babaluu, a Latin nightclub in the heart of Toronto's uppity Yorkville fashion district (I like uppity).  In my previous life I was an Evangelical Christian minister. I left the ministry after a change of convictions—but I digress...  When I left I also left behind every social connection that I had; all my friends were clergy or laity and leaving the church meant severing those ties for the sake of my sanity. I was very lonely.  I was nearly 30 and had no secular social skills at all. I didn't know how to behave in a club, and in particular I didn't really know how to talk to women (Being the handsome single minister, up till this time, was all the “game” that I needed). I probably still don't know how to talk to women... but again, I digress.

When I arrived at Babaluu I saw people moving in a way that I had never really felt before. Sure, I had seen it in videos but I   had never really experienced the beauty of a room full of animals that had the ability to move with such grace and with such passion. The music was electrifying, the energy was great and people seemed to be so friendly.  It quickly dawned on me that if I learned to dance that I would be part of this. I would have a community and I even though I didn't have any game I could just walk up to a lady and ask, “Would you like to dance?”  It was a couple years before asking that question and being turned down once in awhile ceased to be a painful ordeal but I persisted, torturing and straining the patience of the best female dancers I could find along the way. (Sorry ladies, I hope it was worth it in the long run. It was for me!)

Dancing gave me something I really needed at that time of my life: moments of pure happiness.  When I started dancing I had no idea that it was a gift that would save my life several times over the next few years. During that time I was cheated on by a lady I loved deeply and was engaged to, was financially bankrupt and homeless  following the failure of a small business that I ran and stayed in a shelter for a few months to in an failed attempt to help my partner keep her house,  had to make sense of the senseless murder of my two nieces (which I helped raise) by my own sister during a postpartum psychotic episode, met another fine woman, got married and watched it crumble after a few months. I had a rough ride but somehow never sank into the quicksand of the depression that stalked me from the shadows every day.  How did I survive? By dancing my feet off!

Would You Like to Dance?

Doing my thing. Photo by Salsa Circuit
You're a bright bunch so you probably already plainly see the conclusion of this piece but I trust you'll bear with me while I state the obvious (I need an ending after all): Dancing makes us happy by making flow, community and sensuality accessible to even the most miserable of us.

Flow: In recent months I've learned to experience flow while dancing by focusing only on the music, the lady I'm dancing with, the space that I'm in and the unique and special thing that we create together at that moment. Nothing else matters when I'm in that state, the rest of the people dissolve into the music, into the experience, and the entire universe exists only for that moment, for that feeling. At those times there's no you and me, only us.   If you're a dancer I highly recommend that you try treating dance as a sort of exercise in meditation.

Community: Through dancing we gain membership in a community. For me, I could feel like I belonged at times when I didn't belong anywhere else. I'd show up at a club and was greeted by familiar faces. Dudes shook my hand, ladies kissed my cheeks, I saw folks I knew in the subway on the way to work and we'd nod in acknowledgement of each other. In a city of millions I wasn't alone anymore. You don't have to be rich, smart, good-looking, funny, or cool in order to belong (though all those things help). Just show up smile and become minimally competent on the dance floor and you're in. “Hey, welcome to our not-so-secret dance society. We're glad to have ya!”

Sensuality: Dancing connected me to my body in a sensual and intimate way. It meant that I began to understand my own body better and feel more at home in it. I could go somewhere and have women smile at me and enjoy my company. It meant that I could be touched by another human being and feel that life-affirming physical contact, like a hug, without fear of awkwardness.

Want to be happy in life? Try dancing. I tell you without an iota of hyperbole, that it was dancing that saved my life time and time again over these last few years of my life. I'll be posting this article in some dance forums on social networks. Some of you reading this will know me but most of you will never have guessed what those few good dances with you meant for me. I thank you for it!


  1. Okay Dennis! I am so with you on all of the benefits of dance (particularly partner dancing) and I have a secret fantasy: to organize a community of passionate dancers to teach a multitude of homeless men how to partner lead as many dances as possible!
    My motivation? One selfish: I want there to be more men who can dance. As many who dance know, followers almost always outnumber leaders in the dance world, so the more leaders, the better!
    One altruistic: I sincerely believe that learning how to partner dance is truly transformative--for the reasons you outlined above--and that society will benefit when more men are experiencing the flow you describe in their daily lives.
    I am therefore asking all dancers to step forward and see where this potential goes--and to get this party started!

    1. Diane, That's an interesting concept. I'm wondering how that actually ends up playing out. It may be tough with the homeless. I don't want to sound crude at all but what about the fact that they tend not to shower a lot? Would clothes and showers be offered as well? It is an interesting concept however. I think the idea of teaching dancing as a transformative tool has real value. There needs to be some dialog about practical matters if it's to go ahead. I'd say that I'd be onboard with getting involved with something like that but I'm already stretching my time too thing and ignoring too many of my own projects.