Tripping the light ecstatic

The nice young woman from New York who was camped in the RV next to me handed me the Sweet Tart and said, “Take this while you’re standing in line waiting to get in. And have an awesome show.” Aha. One of them there “special” Sweet Tarts. “What is it?” I asked, as I took the small offering and put it in my pocket. She gave me a look that said the question was clumsy, that she could be trusted, and that she’d appreciate it if I would bestow that honor upon her. I got the message. “OK, thanks.”

The tradition of humans gathering to engage in the pleasures and powers of ecstatic dance goes back a way. As in way before the ’60s. As in thousands of years, with some anthropologists guesstimating 10 to 20,000. Indeed, ecstatic dance could well be the oldest form of spiritual exercise practiced, a method of inducing trance and visionary states that has been discovered and used in culture after culture.

Outside of all that, of course, there is the simple reality that ecstatic dance, as one can infer by the name, makes the practitioner feel pretty darn good. For most, that’s probably enough, the goal not always being some sort of ego-death union with The Grand Whatever, but just to shake off the doldrums and experience joy again. You don’t have to take drugs to do it, to “get there.” Not necessarily. The Sufi dancers of Islam, for example, those famed whirling dervishes, would use only prayer and sustained twirling to “get off.”

Then again, ecstatogenic substances aren’t exactly strangers at these sessions. The evidence is strong that those partying at the ancient festivals of Dionysus in Greece weren’t bashful about using potions, plants, and booze to bring about the desired states of flaming fever. Native American ghost dancers of the 19th century may well have spiked the punch at some of their bashes. The hippies in the ’60s, as I recall, were somewhat gung ho when it came to using various agents of hypersensitivity at their electrified hootenannies. And raves broke out around the world as MDMA (called, coincidentally enough, “Ecstasy”) arrived.

So it was that I found myself under the light of the full moon on Halloween night on the grassy polo grounds in Indio, Calif., trying to dance my ass right out of my costume to the tribal-rockin’ beat laid down by the band Phish. As I looked around, I saw all these comrades, thousands of them, engaged in what I fancied to be a modern incarnation of a truly ancient calling. Was there really some kind of kinship here with those ancient stomps in Delphi, Ur, Babylon, and Baal, or was I just searching for some kind of historical justification for the evening’s beautiful buzz? Whatever. All I know for sure is that my arches ached for days, my shins splinted nicely, and later, back at camp, I gave my neighbor a really gooooooood hug.