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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Worst. Night. Ever.: Ecstatic Dancing and Lots of Dong

Posted by Ned Lannamann on Tue, Jun 24, 2014 at 1:29 PM

ecstaticdance.jpg
It wasn't my intent to be this summer's first victim of Worst. Night. Ever—the schedule just sort of turned out that way. And my coworkers laid it on THICK, throwing down three truly uncomfortable options like they had been saving 'em up all year. I'll level with you: I am glad I didn't have to go to the gun nut convention. Really, really glad. Instead, most of you guys opted to send me to the weird sex ecstatic dance naked thing, which hit pretty much all of my remaining anxiety points: strangers, dancing, new age therapy, repetitive trance music, Burning Man hippie shit, and optional nudity.

Was it worse than the gun thing would have been? I can't say. I can say that the Naked Bliss dance was, for me, 100 percent absolutely excruciating—far worse than I was anticipating. I'm still bummed out about it. Congrats, Blogtown readers and my Mercury co-workers; thanks to you, I truly did have a Worst. Night. Ever. And I hate you.

After studying some directions to where this was all going down, I left work and drove through unfamiliar neighborhoods, pulling up to the private residence where a group of—I don't know, strangers? friends? once and future sex partners?—were converging to all have biweekly naked dancetimes together. Let me start first by saying, hey, Southwest Portland is really nice! The roads are all twisty-turny and full of green plants and things.

I parked and walked in; there was a man downstairs who I later would realize would be one of the dance's nakedest participants. "First time?" he asked me. I said yes and he told me to take off my shoes and that the dance was upstairs. As I removed my shoes, a black dog snuffled up and greeted me. This was one of those lovable, calm, sweet, wonderful, all-time-great dogs that is able to make everything better, and he or she was more than happy to let me pet him or her, assuaging my nervousness for a minute. Then I went up the stairs.

The host couple had turned their upstairs room into a pleasant, clean yoga studio with hardwood floors and a bed that had been pulled up to the ceiling by ropes. One side of the room opened onto an outdoor deck; two of the other walls were entirely windowed. (Later, it occurred to me that these folks had very tolerant neighbors. Even later, it occurred to me that some of the neighbors might have been at the dance.) A few people had already arrived; some were out on the deck smoking pot—the very last thing I wanted to do at that moment. No one said a word to me, which was perfectly fine. And it didn't seem proper to go up and start introducing myself. So there I stood, just milling around silently in a stranger's house, waiting, unsure of what I had gotten myself into.

There was a plate where people were leaving the collection fee, a sliding scale of $10-15. Holding only a 20 dollar bill and not seeing any workable change in the bowl, I put the whole 20 bucks in. (Note to Mercury management: you can be expecting my expense report shortly.) There was some music playing already, and people were stretching and getting comfortable.

I should explain what Ecstatic Dance is, if you don't already know (I didn't). It's ostensibly a form of meditation through physical movement, the end goal being some sort of transcendence and out-of-mind experience. It is about as hippie-dippie an activity as exists in the universe. Speaking is not permitted, thank god, but any kind of movement is acceptable, which means the dance moves I typically bust out at all the live shows I go to (arms folded while foot arrhythmically stomps on floor; fingers tapping on belly or thigh; ass gently, subconsciously swiveling against my will) would be fair game. But most participants typically ramp things up. There is a lot of contorting, a lot of gallivanting, and a fair amount of thrusting.

What made this particular Ecstatic Dance gathering so special is that it was clothing optional—which, I guess, is not typical for similarly planned Ecstatic Dances? "Ours is a smaller space that tends to foster more intimacy and connection," the organizers say on their site. "Our dance tends to be more sensual than most other dances; you can dance topless or even fully nude if that is what is authentic for you in that moment." Hooray?

So the music was playing and people were sort of beginning to move around. The crowd was small but steadily growing—it would eventually reach around 20 people, with a ratio of men to women of about 4:1. The room was spacious for a bedroom but quite tight for 20 dancing adults, and while asserting one's physical space was not really in the spirit of the event, one did have to keep a mind on the amount of room one was taking up.

I was conspicuously one of the younger people there—most, but not all, people seemed to be in their 50s and 60s. There was one woman there who I am sure was younger than me (and she was lovely—is it inappropriate that I mention that?), but otherwise I would guess that everyone else was a fair bit older. As I was saying, there was already music playing and people were beginning to dance. Is this it? I wondered. Has it started? I figured it had. I began to throw myself into it as best I could, contorting awkwardly and inventing an outstretched-arms dance move that would more or less get me through the rest of the night: a tree rustling in the wind.

What seems like an hour went by, with some of the men in various modes of shirtlessness and underpantsness, although no outright nudity (yet). All right, I thought, I can get through this. This isn't so terrible. Then everything stopped, and I realized that probably only 10 minutes had passed, and what had transpired was an informal warmup session. The dance hadn't even properly begun yet.

We formed an "intention circle," in which everyone joined hands and made a big circle. The woman host made an announcement and vaguely described the dance's "intention"—some words I can't remember now but I'm guessing had to do with spirits and freedom and feeling and sensation. All I could think about were my palms growing uncomfortably sweaty in the grips of the grown men on either side of me. Later I realized that the man holding my right hand was wearing a see-through sarong, and not a stitch else. (He was not the only man garbed thusly.) The host woman also made a point of talking about what to do if any one person's dancing made another uncomfortable, emphasizing that this was a safe space and that unwanted aggressive behavior would not be tolerated. It never became an issue over the course of the evening that I was aware of.

And then the dance began. It was like the warm-up portion, but more intense, more intentional. The music was loud but not annoyingly so, and I fumbled around, dancing and pretending to be seeking my own personal bliss. I kept thinking that at least one of these people has to be the type who can claim to read auras, and I was genuinely curious what they'd make of my aura at that particular moment. Would they notice I was deathly uncomfortable? Was my misery emitting in a panoply of colors from my body? Sickly yellow, or charcoal gray, perhaps? Anybody could have simply glanced at the expression on my face and probably reached the same conclusion.

Most of my dancing was intended to stretch out my body, to work out the kinks in my back, the stiffness in my shoulders, the tautness of my sciatic nerves. I basically figured, well, since I can dance any way I want, I might as well take this time to get as loose and limber as I can. I was perhaps more noticeably awkward than the other participants, but no one really paid me any mind.

In fact, that was by far the best thing about the experience. There was no judgment nor forced social interaction: people just let me be and didn't confront me or look askance at my palpable awkwardness and discomfort. I thought surely at least one or two of them must have known about the Mercury poll that had sent me there—but if that was the case, no one revealed it. Later on, I determined that they probably get a lot of lonely looking misfits rolling through these events, and that the whole purpose was to offer a place of acceptance and hospitality.

But lord, I was uncomfortable. As the dance progressed, so did the nakedness. Since you're probably wanting cold hard statistics, I think two of the women were topless while three or four of the men were fully nude? There was a lot of dong. At no point did I feel obligated to completely disrobe, which was a relief. But yeah: a lot of older naked men gyrating around me in a confined space. People would take breaks—to drink water, to go out to the deck and smoke herb, to whatever—but I knew that if I stopped for a second, it would be impossible for me to make myself start again. I had to plow my way through the entire dance without pause. It was taking all of my effort not to run down the stairs and drive the fuck away.

It's worth mentioning that I dislike dancing to music I don't love. It's my least favorite thing about weddings (well, that and dressing up). Sure, dancing can be fun, but I have to have had a couple drinks in me and the band has to be killing it. It's rare that I'll actually want to get down to a recording, and if pressed, I prefer '60s R&B, or at the very least, something with an actual drummer and bassist. (Call me a snob; I don't give a shit.) The playlist for this Ecstatic Dance was all over the map. A lot of it was the sort of new-agey meditation-friendly music that you would expect: lithe and electronic and not too intense. I didn't recognize (or enjoy) any of it, nor could I pull out any memorable elements. But there were some curveballs in there, including a couple songs from Malian musicians—Tinariwen and Toumani Diabate, I think? These were easily the musical highlights and I was glad they played them. And at one point Rihanna's "Pon de Replay" came on, which was just strange. There was also some ridiculous Faith Hill song with super cheesy lyrics of affirmation ("I try to love Jesus and myself") that killed the dance party dead.

As the night went on, it got stranger and more intense in a way that I can't really describe. It definitely felt more physical, and people's libidos were getting worked up. I didn't see any outright intercourse or anything, but there was some making out and boob grabbing and crotch grinding, and lots of dance moves that would have gotten you kicked out of junior prom, even without the nudity. My best point of comparison is a show or concert where the crowd gets whipped up into a frenzy. It's kind of indescribable, but it happens. I remember thinking, over and over, "Uh, this might be getting a little out of hand..." Still, no one rubbed up on me or anything, mostly because I refrained from making eye contact with anyone. In fact, I closed my eyes for a good bit of time, only to realize that it was a bad idea; when I opened them again, the situation had gotten much nakeder. I was flailing around to the greatest extent my limited enthusiasm would allow (a tree in the wind, I was), but I still felt highly distressed, not to mention morbidly uncomfortable. I got as naked as I felt was authentic for me in that moment—which is to say, hardly naked at all. Sorry.

I'm conflicted in writing about it. One on hand, everyone there seemed perfectly nice, maybe a little bit dotty, but this partially naked bliss dance seemed to be not just pleasurable to them, but important. It was therapeutic. It was something they'd all been looking forward to. And the removal of any sort of judgment from the equation was of utmost importance. Yet here I was, sent by a bunch of dicks on the internet to crash their fun naked dance party and be the galumphing fish out of water—and then report back my hilarious findings, ostensibly with the idea of making these perfectly nice people's unorthodox practices sound ridiculous. I don't really feel like doing that. On the other hand, I was deeply unhappy to be there. I was put into a sexually charged situation against my will—one in which consensual participation is key. At no point did I become "okay" with being there. And when it had ended, I didn't feel any better about it. I felt icky and, yeah, sort of violated—not by the dancers, but by the people who sent me there. I still do. Did I miss the point of the exercise? Do I just chalk it up to "My job is weird!" and let it slide?

The dance ended, after what seemed like hours (it was more like two), and we formed another circle again, each of us sitting on pillows. We went around the circle and shared our experiences. The impression I got was that this had been a particularly potent session—not sure what was different about it, but everyone seemed super charged by the experience. Some were glowing, some were ultimately relaxed. "I felt a lot of forgiveness," the host woman shared. When it came my turn to speak, I was exhausted and my nerves were completely shot. I mumbled something about "Tonight was about facing new challenges and finding new modes of expression." Again, there was no sense of judgment or suspicion from anyone in the circle.

And the night went on from there—there was a post-dance pot luck about to get underway, and while the hosts' hot tub was broken, I gathered that was where the night typically led to. I don't have any way of knowing what happened next, but it did feel like the evening was on the cusp of some sort of amorous group experience. Maybe I'm crazy. But I was more than ready to get out of there. I walked down the stairs and put on my shoes, hoping it wouldn't be too conspicuous that I'd be the very first one out the door. No one else seemed ready to leave. I kept my head down and waited for someone to call out to me or say goodbye or something. Nobody did, and I was grateful. The wonderful dog toddled up to me, and I gratefully gave him/her a few goodbye pats. Dogs really are good at relieving stress—that's a kind of modern therapy I entirely understand. (It didn't strike me until later that the dog might have been polyamorous, too. Ha, joke!) I walked out the front door and started the car.

It was not a good night for me.

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