Have you ever sat with blurred focus as the sounds of an exalting vocalist and slow rhythmic bass escalate into some ethereal, electronic intensity? Has it ever pulled you from your cushion, or propelled you from your isolated corner, calling you to move?
At the start of many Ecstatic Dances on Koh Phangan, people are in their own worlds. Stretching, meditating, swaying with closed eyes. Slow waving of their hands, circling of their hips. Personally, it takes me a few songs to ground and feel present in my body. To step out of my mind. I'm always nervous—maybe this will be the time I won't fit, the day my body won't find the rhythm, the moment my energy won't meet the music.
But no matter what emotional state I'm in or the energy level I have, this free form of dancing always opens me. It shakes loose my worries and thoughts.
"DANCING: is good for you" reads a sticker on the DJ's laptop. People are laughing, others are singing, and some are blindfolded. One man tears up quietly on the sidelines, his hand held by a friend. The floor quakes with our collective stomping and spinning.
This is Koh Phangan, the crystal island of Thailand. Where people from around the world come to heal. We’re pulled in so many directions in life. Obligations, both real and imagined, to the communities and cultures we belong to. People from around the world have found Koh Phangan as a place to retreat back into themselves. Who am I, how do I envision myself, what part of me is left unhealed?
"We're just a bunch of happy monkeys," I think to myself as I look out at the sweating, beaming faces of people in their process. I smile and exhale, glad to hop and hoot along with the rest, temporarily freed from the complications of everything but movement.
Before moving to Thailand, I wrote down a few intentions for my stay. I don’t remember most of them: they are tucked away in some old journal, and I’m sure they were mostly vague ones about “growth” and “understanding.”
But there’s one intention that was so specific, and such a deeply held desire, that I never forgot it: “While I’m in Thailand, I want to learn to dance.”
Dancing isn’t exactly easy for me. It rubs up against one of the biggest issues I see with western culture and creative arts. Especially in fiercely capitalist countries (like my US home), the belief is that if you’re going to do something, you need to be the best. The point is not to enjoy, the point is to win.
So I gave up dancing for a long time after loving it as a child. The point was to be the best, and I unequivocally was not. So what was the point of dancing?
When I set the intention to rediscover dance in Thailand, I was imagining formal partner dances—waltzing, swinging, etc. But instead, I found Ecstatic.
Ecstatic Dance is a dance space, independently organized all around the world. The rules are simple: No speaking, no substances, and no phones. The DJs make a journey out of their sets. It’s usually quite dynamic, but generally, over their three hours of playing they will build energy up to a peak and then set you back down again.
I don’t always feel like dancing. Sometimes I feel edgy and cranky and tired and don’t want to. But I still go to ecstatic, knowing that I can just sit and stretch and journal in the jungle if I need to. And always, if the music is right, my body goes. I almost can’t control it.
Dancing without competition or discussion, dancing just as play, is difficult. It takes a level of openness. Koh Phangan is full of that openness, that vulnerability. There is so much meditation and contemplation, and more modalities of healing than you know what to do with. People there are on the crystal island for that express purpose: to open themselves.
Dance is the most mindful form of expression I have found. It interweaves the feeling of the music, the emotions swirling within me, and the flow of my body all into one.
I move without conscious intent. I move stutteringly, smoothly, clumsily, gracefully, forcefully, timidly, rapidly, and slowly. When I’m most present, the motion comes through me, not from me.
We’re all so full of turbulence, so full emotions that are welling up and spilling out all over the place. That’s not bad or wrong or even avoidable. But Koh Phangan and ecstatic dance gave me the space and ability to move with the emotions, to not dam them or force them into stagnation.
I don’t know which came first. Whether a sense of freedom opened me up to feel like dancing, or whether pushing myself to dance opened me up to feel more free. Whichever it is, I’m grateful. But I can’t think of a better place to explore outer world of movement or the inner world of healing than the Crystal Island of Koh Phangan.