How “Ecstatic Dancing” Helped Me Heal 10 Years’ Worth of Anxiety

“I guess I came here to overcome fear.”

That’s what I told them, with my legs crossed and stacked on a cork yoga mat facing a circle of strangers and an ornamented Buddha statue.

I felt my palms slide against one another in palpable anxiety. I certainly had not ventured across the world on a 16-hour flight to China, a two-hour transfer to Cambodia, and a one-hour-long Tuk Tuk ride along the bumpy backroads of Siem Reap to work on my public speaking skills.

I cleared my throat. The faces that met mine ranged from ages 20 to 70. There was an Advertising executive from New York City with an Irish accent that melodically sang out his origins, a beautiful Norwegian woman who had previously attended no fewer than 10 retreats in India, a performing arts instructor from Copenhagen with a wild sense of humour, a globe-trotting couple from South Africa with contagious smiles, a Finnish bookworm who collected wild plants and wrote eclectic poetry—and me—a solo Canadian with sweaty hands.

It was the truth after all. I went to Hariharalaya Yoga and Meditation Retreat to overcome fear. When I studied the schedule and laid my eyes on Ecstatic Dance Night, I knew that’s exactly what I’d be doing.

I used to dance. For 12 years to be exact. If you watched my home movies there were several grainy tapes of a smaller version of me in a cayenne red dress spinning on stage after the number had finished and the other obedient girls had shuffled off. There was something about twirling under the hot stage lights and feeling the pulsating music in my chest that made me feel utterly alive.

When I was 14 years old my anxiety started to crop up, poking its head through the soil of my adolescent life. Of course, I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. I sat in the car of my dad’s SUV pouring tears into my hands and confessing, “I feel sick.” I did feel sick; my stomach was writhing like I could curl over and vomit at any moment. My hands were clammy against my salty cheeks and although I wasn’t sure what was happening I was sure of one thing—I did not want to dance.

This happened week after week in the front seat of the car. Sometimes my dad or mom would convince me to get out of the car. Other times, they would turn the car around with me in it. Eventually, the car turned around more frequently than not, until it never turned back again.

I didn’t say goodbye. And how could I? After over a decade of my life in those mirrors, with my legs arched over those bars, and my evolving face printed on those walls in a series of costume-clad group photos, I simply never returned. Like a phantom, as if I had never danced before and I would never dance again. I couldn’t explain myself to my teacher Peter so I didn’t say goodbye.

A few years later I got a call from my bewildered sister that Peter had died. He was 54 years old. The emergency workers arrived at the river too late. A passerby found a man floating face down in the water before calling 911. Witnesses say the canoe went over a drop off point with the man still situated inside.

Nearly 8 years later I rarely thought about the studio, dancing, or Peter. I was sitting at Hariharalaya in the yoga hall during one of the silent meditations when Peter materialized in my mind like a cloud passing through a sky. I found myself asking, Peter, are you there? 

Nothing. I was disappointed but not incredibly surprised that my attempt to access some kind of alternate plane was a failure. It must have slipped my mind that that very evening was the dreaded ecstatic dance night. I was ready to discreetly sneak away and read a book in my hammock during this particular hour. I would be content listening to the distant chorus of music undulating across the darkened grounds—alone.

When the evening rolled around and the blood orange sun dipped out of the sky, I found myself mindlessly carrying my body to the yoga hall and joining the others to lay on my back around a series of flickering candles. Something about the evening felt sacred, the same way you feel when you’re bathed by a full moon.

We were silent and the buzzing of nocturnal insects created a vibrational hum like a rock skipping across an otherwise stagnant pond. The music began, rippling through the air. My body responded, and soon I was rolling onto my stomach and propping myself up onto my hands and knees, feeling the solid surface of the floor beneath me.

It was like my body knew what to do. There was no choreography. My limbs felt their way through the darkness, reaching for each note. I arched my neck and was met by the strange site of other bodies twisting and stretching in the candlelight, their faces unidentifiable, but warmed by the glow of the fire.

The music picked up and as the bass thud, we were suddenly blinded by an iridescent strobe light. The light flickered so quickly it left behind tableaus of dancers frozen in time.

You don’t know presence until you’ve found yourself soaked in sweat, heart pounding, ears ringing, lying on the floor with tears of joy welling up and out of your eye sockets. All I could do was cry and laugh as the music lingered.

My anxiety is the perimeter of the room, the place you stand and tap your foot in hopes no one will ask you to join in. My anxiety is the passenger’s seat of the car, where you beg to turn around and never look back.

There was something about that place and those people that let me crumple up the neatly folded edges of my fear and toss it into the blazing fire, watching it melt and crack in the embers. At last, I felt like dancing.

In the closing circle, we gathered in the same room. It was the same room where we would stretch our spines into downward dog each morning and chant hymns each afternoon. It was the same floor where I had twirled my hips and thrown my regrets into a hungry fire. It felt like a different room now.

I went to Hariharalaya dormant and emerged dancing. It was a few days later when I looked back on the retreat and realized that Peter may not have responded at that moment but he spoke to me the way he knew best, through dance.