Dance That Lets the Body Lead

dancers-2Here, a woman, elegant in khaki and white, gazes upward and glides along the floor. Here, a man wearing guitar-print pants tips forward into a handstand as a young woman dressed in flowing black twirls glowing orbs above her head. Here, a tall woman stomp-claps to the music, while another lets out a victorious “Yiiiiipp!”

According to Peter Weinstein, co-founder of a new Corvallis dance company, all of these people are dancing.

“It’s dance as a somatic meditation practice,” he says. “You’re dancing as a part of quieting the mind.”

Peter and his partner, Oli Oldaker, are local champions of “ecstatic dance,” part of a broader genre of dance sometimes called “conscious dance,” which emphasizes free-form movement over prescribed steps or techniques. The genre is closely related to contact improvisation, a type of postmodern dance in which dancers improvise movements based on points of physical contact.

In short: At ecstatic dance, any and all kinds of movement are accepted and encouraged, as long as you respect the space and the people around you.

Peter and Oli started Corvallis Ecstatic Dance in the spring when they moved to Corvallis from the Bay Area. They began by holding monthly events at different times and in different venues to test spaces and the community’s appetite, and moved to weekly dances at the United Methodist Church’s community center in August. The event draws a regular crowd of about 50 people, and the group is growing.

Peter says he has loved dance since he was young, but he felt less than enthusiastic about the available dance options growing up: Clubs, where people were often drunk and the energy was focused more on socializing and meeting “potential mates” than dancing; or more structured, choreographed dance, which he wasn’t interested in. Then, in the late ’90s, he found the Bay Area’s “conscious dance” scene.

“It sounded weird to me, but I went,” he says, and he loved it. “It wasn’t about being seen or getting picked up. It was about dancing and being a community together.”

Since then, he has become increasingly involved with conscious dance, both as a dancer and as a DJ. He goes by DJ Baron von Spirit, and has traveled as far as India and Bali to host dance workshops.

It was as a DJ that Oli first knew of Peter, and says that when they met several months later, “we instantly knew that we had to be together.”

In Corvallis, Peter is the primary DJ for the weekly events and plays “bass-centric” music, which he says combines “elements of recorded music and electronic music and sort of walks the line between them.”

Throughout the night, I pick out Latin-influenced beats, atmospheric jams, heady electronic rock, and even some remixes of pop and rock classics. My favorite moment was when I recognized the distinctive cowbell that begins ZZ Top’s “Low Rider” blended with a Latin beat.

Peter describes the music as a “wave” – starting slow, rising to “peaks of ecstasy,” and gradually returning. Some people dance along with the wave, hard, while others simply do what their bodies allow. Deborah Penner, a 60-year-old former nurse, spends most of the dance bent from the waist with her arms hanging loosely in front of her. Sometimes, she moves across the dance floor while maintaining that position, but much of the time, she simply stands.

Deborah was a longtime dancer until she had a serious illness in 2010 that required four surgeries. Doctors predicted she would spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair, but she refused. For her, dance is healing.

“My body gets to lead, rather than the pain,” she says. “I focus on the points of pleasure in my body and let it move me. It’s life affirming.”

I hear Deborah’s sentiment echoed over and over again in the dancers I meet, including 10-year-old Ezra Heenahan, the youngest dancer present. “One day I realized there’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” she says. “You need to dance, because it feels so good.”

Before she leaves, Ezra runs up to me and throws her arms around my legs. She steps back and shakes her head. “A heart hug,” she demands, so I lean down to her height.

Ecstatic Dance Corvallis will hold weekly Friday evening dances through Oct. 14 at the United Methodist Community Center, on the corner of NW 12th and Jackson Streets. On Sunday, Oct. 23, they will hold a free dance at 11:30 a.m. in Oregon State University’s Memorial Union Ballroom. Starting Oct. 28, dances will resume at the Community Center but move to Saturday mornings at 10 a.m. through spring. Entry is $10, with discounts available for bulk passes, students, and younger dancers. More information at

By Maggie Anderson