In a room filled with morning sunlight, dancers move without inhibition to a constant flow of rhythmic music. There is no routine to follow, no specific movements, no socks or shoes and no talking. This is ecstatic dance.
"Ecstatic dance is barefoot, sober, freeform, judgement-free community-oriented dancing," said SeanTayah (Sean) Hiwe, one of the founders of Ecstatic Dance Duluth, a free dance event offered from 10 a.m. to noon every Saturday at the Avalon Educational Institute, 404 W. Superior St.
The ecstatic dance movement started in Hawaii in the early 2000s and spread into West Coast states. It is partially based on dance leader Gabrielle Roth's "5 Rhythms" movement theory, with less formal structure.
According to Sean, it is a practice of "surrendering to the moment within our own body's awareness and wisdom." It is an opportunity for allowing, feeling and expressing all the emotional qualities and textures that make up this human experience. It is exercise for the body, mind, spirit and heart.
"You get to actually just come in and do what you want. Let your body move to the music naturally and just let it flow. And I think that's a lot less intimidating for people, at least for me," said Joyce McQuiston, after attending her first ecstatic dance event on Dec. 31. "I mean, I love things like Zumba, I even used to teach it, but it was exciting to see everyone just be free today."
The Duluth ecstatic group is just starting out, but Sean and his wife, SeanTayah (Tayah) Hiwe, have been dancing ecstatically for about three years. Sean discovered the dance form in San Francisco and started dancing with various groups in California. He met Duluth native Tayah at a dance flash mob in a bar in Oakland.
"It's pretty unique because we didn't talk at all within the first two hours that we met," Tayah said.
"Yeah, I'd flipped her head over heels before we even said a word to each other," Sean said.
The couple moved to Duluth last spring after the birth of their son, Bailey. Tayah wanted to be closer to family. After a few months, the couple found themselves missing ecstatic dance and decided to start their own group.
"It was the only way that I've found that I can get the exercise that I need in a way that is enjoyable and in love with. Instead of forcing myself to mechanically do an exercise because I have to," Sean said. "Ecstatic dance makes it happen automatically. It's the physical exercise that I need and at the same time it's really good spiritual practice."
Although there are not movements to follow, there are a few regulations. During the dance, dancers are asked to refrain from verbal communication on the floor. Sean explains that this encourages people to have a "fully embodied experience."
"If you picture a lot of parties and places where people dance, they are about 10 percent in their bodies where they're swaying, but they're also having a conversation and self-conscious. It's really just the same mental place that we get stuck in throughout our daily lives," Sean said. "Instead, we want people shut the mind off and let the body do its thing with as little thought as possible."
However, that's not to say you can't make sounds. Vocalizations from the vocal chords are allowed.
The dance is also 100-percent sober, scent-free and cell phone and photography-free. Participants must be barefoot.
"It helps us become more embodied. You feel your foot touch the ground and you feel more raw and more open. And you also know that someone with a shoe isn't going to step on your foot," Sean said.
The free dances will continue every Saturday morning at Avalon for the foreseeable future. Right now the music consists of pre-edited selections, but Sean wants to train a volunteer to be a live DJ.
So far, the group has ebbed and flowed in size from 5 to 15 people. Last Saturday, there were about 10 individuals throughout the session, including Joyce McQuiston and her friend, Sheila Miller.
"What captivated me was the atmosphere. Because when you go out dancing, there's so much talking and taking pictures of yourselves. But this is selfless. It's more of an opportunity to work through some stuff through movement," Miller said. "I'll be back."
If you go
What: Ecstatic Dance Duluth
Where: Avalon Educational Institute, 404 W. Superior St.
When: 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Saturdays