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Letter: Ecstatic dance participant responds to criticism 

Ecstatic dance participant responds to criticism
I was surprised to see an article that appeared in this publication that mentioned a scene of sexual predation run amok here in our own community. As an advocate of human rights, I was disturbed by the title and curious to read what was going on and why someone felt the need to champion the rights of others at an event that I regularly attend.

You can read the article here: Column: Is ecstatic dance group knowingly allowing sexually predatory behavior?

I was most surprised when the article’s main report focused on an un-named victim involved in a “pillow dance”.

I want to name myself as the female participant in that “pillow dance”. I would like to offer my perspective here. I will start by saying that I have been participating in SLO’s Ecstatic Dance scene for approx. 14 years. Through the years, I have cultivated rich relationships and developed deep trust with my community. I consider this community as my extended family and I can count on them with my life. Family who offer me an environment that feels both emotionally safe and non-judgmental.

After reading the article I am aware that I’m the one who is also being judged and projected upon. I’m not a victim, do not feel disempowered, nor do I feel mishandled by anyone in this community at anytime over the years. I have not directly witnessed it either; if I ever felt a concern about someone based upon an observation of them I would simply check in with them, offer support and respond accordingly.

While I respect the author’s perspective on what she witnessed it was not my actual experience. I do admit that the pillow dance and the following dance segment were over the top. Especially to someone who doesn’t know about my inner comic book character, that will occasionally emerge and engage in play fights, it can appear irreverent and forceful. The truth for me is that it is my reverence for my movement partners in this community that gives me permission to move in this way.

Did the author ever consider the reason why nobody came to my rescue? Further, her silence in the moment causes me to question her concern for my safety as she asserted that she was witnessing me being sexually assaulted. Based upon the way her article is written I’m left to wonder the following: Did she ever consider the following? 1) my community respects my space and trusts me enough to take care of myself. 2) they don’t feel the need to ‘restrict or monitor’ another’s dance. 3) Their ‘zoned-out’ looks (in the article reads like a judgment not an observation) was because folks were engaged in their own personal process of holding space for the field, trusting and giving permission for each individual’s process and to take care of themselves as they need to, feeling into their own thoughts, feelings or movements.

The premise of ecstatic dance is – dance like nobody is watching. It is also a sober event, ‘zoning-out’ implies something else entirely. In retrospect, to an onlooker, the pillow dance may have appeared very rough and tumble. My fellow dancers could clearly see I was laughing and smiling and my behaviors as such reflected that I was engaged and playful, not evasive, fearful or attempting to get way.

The foot example comes to mind here. A dirty foot never touched my face, admittedly, it was very close. Maybe too close for someone else’s comfort but not mine, in that particular moment. If it happened right now for example without the buildup and connection that occurs in the ‘field’ after a period time of ecstatic dancing I might just push it away or ignore it or goodness knows! It’s called ecstatic dance for a reason. Sometimes people well… just get ecstatic, this doesn’t mean unsafe. In my experience it is the opposite, there is a heightened awareness, and all movements either minuscule or big and bold are simply reverently sensational and conscious. I feel reverence and peace. When I dance I feel a build-up of endorphins and after a half hour or so of movement my stressors melt away and begin to feel good.

Over the years ecstatic dance has become a vital part of my self care routine; it is how I destress from a long hard work week. The Merriam Dictionary defines ecstatic as: Adjective: 1. feeling or expressing overwhelming happiness or joyful excitement: 2. involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence: Noun: a person subject to mystical experiences.

During a dance, emotions can also present themselves. Sometimes they show up as joy through playfulness, anger through stomping, peace through stillness, the possibilities are as infinite as one’s body’s ability to move and express. The point is ecstatic dance gives everyone permission and the opportunity to physically express without judgement or a critical choir telling us what we can and can’t do. Goodness knows our lives are chockfull with critics, let alone our own inner critical voice.

The referenced article above is harsh, punitive and downright critical, nothing that reflects my experience or my values or the values and the history of this ecstatic dance community or its members that I know of.

To the author, Skye, I apologize for contributing to your feeling unsafe in our community. That is not my desire for anyone who attends these events. In hindsight, I wish I were aware of the discomfort that was present and maybe I could have contributed to a more supportive experience.

Ecstatic dance is a somatic experience and deconstructing my dance down to words in this way is both limiting to my experience and obliterates any joy that I have painstakingly cultivated during the dance.

Ecstatic dance is a lived-in-the-moment experience. One cultivates a deep connection with self, freedom of expression with self or with others. Inside this community space and my life in general I not only intend to, but also practice the following beliefs: 1) I am the one who is responsible for my own safety. 2)I take action when I don’t feel safe and I don’t expect or desire anyone to rescue me and I trust that mature adults will naturally take care of themselves in the way that best suits them.

Skye, I understand that you had an undesirable experience with our community. I empathize that you want to be seen and heard and that you wish that others in the future not feel what you felt. I want that for you too. I also know that many members of our community, people I know, trust, and who have the most caring and kind hearts have reached out to you to discuss this in person, but that you have refused.

It has been your adamant insistence in your articles and social media dialogs that this individual be banned that has contributed to the appearance that this is your own personal witch hunt fueled by your position as the editor of several publications. That is not how we create justice in any civil society. It also doesn’t create change. Simply banning a predator (if there is one) from one community sets them free to become a predator in another community. Is that what you wish? Additionally, your public defamation and slander of an entire community in this article is undeserved in this case. It is unprofessional and intimidating and it is not based upon facts, interviews, or editorial curiosity.

It appears to me that you came to this event with a personal agenda and selectively observed one person and selected a dance routine out of hundreds that occurred that day to validate and promote your agenda. The airing of this experience in the way that you have chosen feels like a violation to me as a woman and I do not understand what I could possibly have done to deserve this from you. I have never met you. I feel as violated as if you walked into my bathroom with a camera and posted videos of me on YouTube. Yes, that violated. I feel like I’ve been made a pawn in your personal vendetta. I don’t deserve that and I did not consent to that. I am personally open and available to meet with you anytime.

—Stephanie Oliva
Arroyo Grande, CA