You’ll see them on the beach, sometimes – maybe even from your perch at the Malibu Beach Inn – twirling, gyrating, or even just swaying. You likely won’t hear anything, though you may see a DJ setup; in order to fit in without disturbing others, they’ll likely be wearing headphones. There will be little to no talking and no chat-up lines. But for those paying close attention, what might be most striking is the abandon with which they dance, like cameras haven’t been invented.

Of all the activities that draw people to the open sand of Malibu’s pristine beaches, ecstatic dance may be the oddest looking from the outside. But for those who take part, that outside view may be the least important perspective.

The idea of ecstatic dance is almost as old as movement itself. Many of the earliest forms were tied to religious rites: the term “whirling dervish,” used to describe a dancer twirling with abandon, comes from the Mevlevi Order of Sufism and their remembrances of God. In America, the Shakers (or “Shaking Quakers,” as they were sometimes called) incorporated movement and dances into worship, seeing these moves as spiritual gifts.

The modern lineage of ecstatic dance, though, owes much to different New Age movements that gained an American foothold in the 1960s and 1970s.  It became central to 5Rhythms, a meditation through dance pioneered in the late 1970s (and still practiced throughout the world, including at studios throughout Los Angeles). Others combine it with yoga or practices involving crystal energy. In all forms, though, the central tenet remains the same: the music, the rhythm, dictates the movements, rather than selecting music to fit the movements.

beach dancing

In some ways, this means the ecstatic form has already conquered the world of dance. It was born at a time when dancing in American culture was much more defined, with proper steps, rights and wrongs, etc. While dancing on social media apps and weddings might still feature a strict progression of moves (no one can deny a good line dance), the majority of time spent on a dance floor is improvised.

If that’s the case, though, what appeal does ecstatic dance still hold? If we consistently let the rhythm move us, then isn’t all dance ecstatic? One answer may come in the second half of the cliché instruction “dance like no one is watching.” There are no phones out at ecstatic dance events, and the setting – a beach in the middle of the day, or a yoga studio – feels less appropriate for people-watching than a packed nightclub, where gawking can be half (or more!) of the fun. At its best, ecstatic dance creates a meditative state, one that can’t survive when the dancer’s attention is focused elsewhere.

That same state is possible for beachgoers, as well. Ocean waves have been used as relaxation sounds for as long as we’ve used recordings as calming aids. Just the sight of the sea reduces stress: a study once found that people who live in homes with ocean views report feeling calmer than those who don’t.

Beach in Malibu

It’s no wonder, then, that groups like Ecstatic Dance L.A. and others find themselves gathering on the sand for events. And with the second-to-none beauty of Malibu’s beaches, it’s quite possible to run into a group of dancers on any given weekend. Some, like EDLA, involve more modern music (several types of electronic dance music make excellent backdrops for ecstatic movement), while other sets of tunes could pass for the sounds of an intense yoga class.

The goal? As the name would indicate, it’s about bringing ecstasy into day-to-day life, in its truest form: not just happiness, but a full meditative state of being. What it looks like while they get to that state isn’t of concern – a refreshing change for an image-based society.