Ecstatic Dancing Lets Me Channel Elaine Benes
An excuse to flail around my living room while my dog looks on in horror? Sign me up.
As someone who’s been into interpretive dancing since I was a kid, I couldn’t stop myself from trying ecstatic dance — a fun, cathartic movement trend I spotted on TikTok, where it has over 20 million views. An excuse to flail around my living room to music while my dog looks on in horror? Sign me up.
Ecstatic dancing has been around for ages, but the latest iteration is all about shimmying, shaking, and sashaying with abandon, especially when you feel anxious, disconnected, or depressed. “The idea is to allow your body to move freely and expressively to the music, letting go of self-judgment, self-consciousness, and inhibition,” Carrie Torn, LCSW, a psychotherapist and yoga teacher, tells me. “For some, it's a type of meditation through movement.”
Think of it as a way to connect with your inner child. You don’t have to look cool or actually be good at dancing — the idea is to move and groove the way you would as a kid while listening to your mom’s old Cher CDs. (Eleven-year-old me did believe in life after love.)
One of the most appealing things I noticed about ecstatic dance is that it often happens in a group setting. There are so many TikToks of people dancing with friends and strangers, but it’s also something you can get up and do in the comfort of your apartment. I tried ecstatic dancing for a few weeks to see if it could, well, make me more ecstatic. Here’s how it went.
The Benefit Of Ecstatic Dance
Whether you’re dropping it low, leaping through the air, or gently swaying back and forth, ecstatic dance is pretty much guaranteed to perk up your mood, banish stress, and maybe even help you feel a little more free. Seriously — there’s research that backs it up. That’s because, according to Torn, organic, spontaneous movement is a way to zero in on any sensations or feelings you might be having in the present moment — like a racing heart or achy shoulders — and shake them away. “It can help you let go of the stress you may be feeling mentally, as well as physical tension and energy in the body, which can leave you feeling more relaxed and grounded,” she says.
This is why a lot of people use ecstatic dance as a form of healing or as a way to reduce anxiety and/or depression. The free-form movements are a way to get out of your head, and because it’s so active, dancing also gets your feel-good endorphins flowing to improve your overall sense of well-being, Torn says.
Ecstatic dance totally counts as exercise, too, which is a true perk if you aren’t the biggest fan of the gym or more structured workouts. Any wiggly dance move will get your heart rate up, work your muscles, and, if you really get into it, serve as a nice stretch for tight hips and shoulders.
If nothing else, it’s a way to have fun and take life a little less seriously, whether that means shaking your booty or channeling your inner Elaine Benes. As Torn says, “The most important thing is to be open to the experience and allow yourself to fully engage in the movement and music.”
After spotting ecstatic dance on TikTok, I realized I’ve actually been ecstatic dancing my entire life — not only as a kid in front of my mirror, but all through high school, college, and beyond. I’ve taken dance classes, but I’ve always preferred the funky kind of dancing you do while playing way-too-loud music at home alone. The reason? It’s impossible to do it without cracking a smile.
After deciding I needed more ecstatic dance in my life, I tried doing it at least three times a day: once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and once after work. I also got up and did a dance whenever I felt stiff or stressed at my desk as a way to shake off tension or back pain. Sometimes it lasted for 20 seconds. Other times I danced through a few songs in a row.
I found my go-to moves were often a cross between hula hooping and the way your aunt dances at a wedding — slow, happy, and mildly unpredictable. The best song for this, IMO? “Flowers” by Miley Cyrus. You can dance to it however you like, but I go for hands in the air, hip circles, and then a set of waggly arms once the bass comes in. Obviously.
It feels good to start the day with a silly jig and even better to get up and do a dance mid-day. I noticed that whenever I finished ecstatic dancing, I had an easier time focusing and felt way less stressed. My Fitbit also registered my ecstatic dance as a workout, so that was a great bonus.
The best part for me, though, was ecstatic dancing after work. It was the perfect way to get my blood pumping and stretch my muscles that had become chair-shaped during the day. For the evenings, I’d stream my favorite ’80s playlist and get down.
Ecstatic dance has always been my go-to way of releasing stress, and I’m so happy (or ecstatic?) that I found it again. Now, if I’m nervous before a big Zoom call, I’ll do a shimmy. And if my back starts to hurt from sitting, I’ll do a shake. And just like that, I feel better.
Torn says ecstatic dance can help boost your mood and release you from a sense of overwhelm, and I definitely agree. I truly feel happier while I’m jumping around and singing to my reflection in the mirror. It feels amazing to do exactly what your body wants to do at any given moment, whether it’s a balletic leap through the air, a totally made-up move no one’s ever seen before, or something kind of cool, as if you briefly channeled a backup dancer. Either way, there is no right or wrong. It’s fun, it’s freeform, and if it feels good, you’re definitely doing it right.
Hanna, JL. (1995). The power of dance: health and healing. J Altern Complement Med. doi: 10.1089/acm.1995.1.323. PMID: 9395627.
Laird, KT. (2021). Conscious dance: Perceived benefits and psychological well-being of participants. Complement Ther Clin Pract. doi: 10.1016/j.ctcp.2021.101440.
Carrie Torn, LCSW, psychotherapist, yoga teacher