Ecstatic Dance

The Solstice was inspired by a Catholic Christmas Eve party.

The Catholic lineage has been obvious to a lot of people. People afterwards tell me that it reminds them of a midnight mass – sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad way. The candles, the music that is sometimes lively but is usually sung sitting down. The stories often have a sermon-like quality to them. What’s interesting was that this was *not* because I directly copied a Catholic mass (the elements I did consciously copy came more from Baptist culture). I started with my family’s Christmas Eve party – which doesn’t have candles, doesn’t have sermons (at least, not of the kind Solstice reminds people of).

I derived those elements as helpful ingredients to weave together with the existing structure. The candles are important because they can be extinguished in a dramatic fashion. The sermon elements were not there at first, but it felt important to tell a story in the darkness that emphasized the most frightening truths we have to face as a community – and then ended with the inspiration we needed to come out of that darkness.

The fact that this tied together in a way that felt much more Catholic than my family’s annual party was… probably coincidence? I’m not sure.

But it’s become increasingly clear, if rational ritual is to grow and thrive, it needs to draw wisdom from more than one source. So I’ve been making a practice of taking field trips to other events – some ritualistic, some musical or artistic, and learning techniques that can give a greater breadth and depth to the experiences I create. I’ve been interested in paganism, yoga, authentic relating and other practices.

I used to shy away from this sort of thing, because, actually learning from these practices involves subjecting yourself to a lot of woo. In some cases, priests or instructors telling you outright falsehoods. In other cases, there’s nothing *inherently* false in the instruction, but there’s an overall tone of mysticism, and a clear sense that the people around me would disagree with me on a lot of intellectual issues.

If you’re allergic to woo and mysticism, this post may rub you the wrong way. But I think it’s worthwhile to cultivate an appreciation for mystic practices. There’s lots of good, useful material there that has no need to be tied to a particular worldview.

Last week I finally went to an ecstatic dance. More than anything I’ve done in the past year, it gave me a sense of new directions to take secular ritual and community building.

Ecstatic dafnce essentially means “free form improv dancing”. In one sense, it’s basically clubbing – you go into a big room with music playing and lots of people and you move your body however you like.

There are some concrete differences – the Ecstatic Dance event I went specifically asked people not to bring drugs or alcohol, for example. But the biggest difference is the intentionality. The goal is to to find a one-ness with your body, and to find connection with the people around you.

When I arrived, I was instructed to remove my shoes, turn off my cell phone, and leave them with my coat and and backpack. Once I entered the room, there would be no talking.

Ecstatic dancing comes in waves: 45-60 minute playlists of music that take you on a musical and bodily journey. The goal is to get out of your head and find a playful one-ness with your body. Don’t worry whether you look stupid (or whether anyone else looks stupid). Move however feels right in the moment. There was occasional guidance from the facilitator, suggesting that we focus our attention on our shoulders, or hips, or breath. The guidance was more suggestion than instruction.

The music had a mix of tribal drums, Indian instrumentation and modern electronica. It began tranquil, with the instructor suggesting we explore flowing, circular movements. Over the next 20 minutes, it ramped up in intensity, and the guidance was to explore sharp, staccato movements – moving your body freely but abruptly, angular.

By the time we hit the half hour mark, there was a pitched intensity, with wild, chaotic movements. People would stomp or clap spontaneously, sing out wordless whoops or wordless songs – and other people would echo them, adding to the music in an organic fashion.

By the end, it became tranquil again. This time, the vibe didn’t push me towards languid, circular movements – instead, it conveyed stillness. With no instruction, myself and people around me tended to be sitting down or standing still, moving gently until we came to a complete stop.

If you want a more concrete, visual sense of what this all looked and felt like, this guided ecstatic wave video, by the Gabrielle Roth (the movement’s founder) is a good starting point. It has more instruction than I think an ideal dance event would, but it does a good job of explaining the key principles.

My own takeaways

I found the experience to do more or less exactly what it was supposed to do. I got into a semi-meditative state. I had a lot of fun. I also found myself singing quietly to myself, improvising words along with the music in a way that felt very natural.

It was also the first time I had a very strong sense of wanting another humanist holiday. I’ve had other ideas since reimagining the Winter Solstice, but nothing that really felt right to me. Ecstatic dance made me feel alive in a way that I haven’t really felt before, and I felt an immediate desire to share in that with my tribe. It’s the first time I’ve felt that way since thinking about my family’s Christmas celebration and wishing it told stories that I believe in.

I’m not exactly certain what form that should take. In some sense, the existing format is already perfect. It’s elegant and simple – take off your shoes, clear your mind, don’t talk and experience an hour of  connection with your body and the people around you. I’m not even sure this needs to be replicated – there are plenty of existing events that humanists could just start going to.

But humanists also tend to attract particular types of people with their own needs and considerations. In my next post I’ll explore possibilities for a humanist dance-centric event in a bit more detail.

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Preachers and Pews, Pagans and Pi

(…I couldn’t come up with a word that began with “P” that meant “circle”, but I was pretty committed when I got to the end of the title.)

Typically, when people think about ritual and religious substitutes, it’s common to mirror the Judeo-Christian tradition. This comes with some baggage that we may not even think of as baggage – lining people up in rows, putting them before one person-or-small-group who stand in front of them, and tell them what to do and think about.

There’s some good reason for this – it’s hard to otherwise fit a lot of people in a room, and at first glance your community can’t grow if you acquire more people.

But in the past year, I was exposed to Atheopaganism. Atheistic pagans – drawing from the pagan aesthetic but treating gods as metaphors – have been around for a while. But there’s a new push to grow them as a movement.  And it’s got me thinking.

Photo credit to ShahMai Network,

Photo credit to ShahMai Network,

Pagans seemed to have optimized less for rapid growth and more for “having a particular kind of ritual/community/culture.” Quakers seem like a Christian-lineage culture with the similar focus. They both tend to orient around a circle rather than rows of pews. Some ideas this points at:

  • Power structure. If you have a large organization you need some kinds of structure to run said organization. But within a ritual itself, there’s also a power structure (conceivably divorced from the organization’s). Preachers and Pews creates a hierarchy where people are limited in how much they can shape the ritual.
  • Having people form a circle creates an atmosphere that is more shared, more reminiscent of “gathered round a campfire”, and more conducive to creativity and spontaneity.
  • There’s an obvious problem with flat power structure – random people can drag it in a direction people find boring, annoying or offensive. How big a problem this is depends on how well people know each other and what group norms you have.

I could see a completely leaderless ritual working with up to 20 people (easier with 4-7) if everyone trusts each other. If there’s not uniform trust, I could see 10-40ish person rituals working if there’s a leader who’s job is “facilitator” rather than “leader”, who is good at their job.

This requires some critical mass of people who want to shape the ritual in some way, and those people either having enough skill to do so, or having a ritual designed in such a way that less skilled people can have fun/meaning with it.

Ritual components that may lend themselves well to this sort of thing, and/or examples to draw from. These don’t necessarily require a physical-circle-shape to the people, but it may help.

  • If people have a shared body of music, you can have people take turns suggesting songs people already know (or request that people perform, in the way Filk and Folk circles do).
  • Improvisational dance or music that doesn’t require everyone to face a projection screen.
  • You could have a ritual centered around building something. Start with a vague goal and a bunch of materials, and the ritual can be about creating something together. (Alternately, you could start by building an altar or sacred space, and then using it to do a second half of the ritual)

I’d be interested in experimenting in this direction, and in hearing how other experiments in this direction have gone.

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Beneath Midwinter Midnight

Beneath Midwinter Midnight
Written by Raymond Arnold

Beneath midwinter midnight moon
Told you I’d be coming soon
I wish somehow, I wish you knew
That you are not alone.

You are not alone.

Beneath midwinter midnight snow
There’s no sign pointing where to go
No single sign that life could grow
But still, you’re not alone.

You are not alone.

Beneath midwinter midnight sky
Sometimes people say goodbye,
And no one’s there to tell us why
But we are not alone.

But we are not alone.

But we are not alone…

Beneath midwinter morning light
Getting hard to know what’s right
But take my hand and hold on tight
Cause we are not alone.

We are not alone.

We are not alone.

We are not alone.

We are not alone

We are not alone

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Solstice Season is Upon Us

At the last minute, I was able to visit the Bay Area Solstice last weekend.

This was the first time I’d been to a Solstice that I wasn’t personally running, and… wow, it was heartwarming. I arrived on the day of their final rehearsal and preparations. There were some people setting up lights and decorations. There were people tying red ribbons around candles, preparing to give them to celebrators the next day. The choir was practicing their songs.

There was also some bickering about how to do the decorations and what music to sing. But it was adorable holiday bickering, and it actually gave me a sense that “this is a real thing that real people come together to celebrate, bringing their own strong opinions about how to make it beautiful.”

The Bay Area Solstice – Photo Courtesy Lawrence D’Anna

The Bay Solstice gotten written up as an article published (among other places) in the Washington Post. Meanwhile, another Solstice last weekend was going on in Seattle.

This upcoming weekend, two more Big Solstices are happening – one on Sunday the 21st in San Diego, a collaborative effort put on by the Coalition of Reason.

And the one I’m running personally in New York City. Last Monday we had our final musical rehearsal, and I got chills just listening to some of the pieces. We have a new song called Stardust, and a new arrangement of our “classic” song Bitter Wind Blown that I’m extremely proud of.

I’m looking forward to this weekend. Looking forward to talking to other organizers and learning how to iterate and improve this for next year. Looking forward – where I feel pretty confident there will be plenty of Secular Solstices that happen on their own, that are evolving in directions I didn’t predict but which meet the needs of their communities.

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Material Components

This is the second post in a series about how to run the Solstice. Here’s the introductory post.

There’s a variety of things you need to run a Solstice. I’ll go into more details for each of these later on, but for here’s a broad overview of helpful things.

1. People

This is the most important part. If your venue falls through, if you have no money for food or decorations, a group of enthusiastic people can still come together in the night to celebrate humanity a la “Charlie Brown Christmas” or the end of “The Grinch.”

In particular, you will need leaders: 1-4 organizers, who bring particular skills to the table.

  1. Someone who brings positive, upbeat energy
  2. Someone who brings solemnity.
  3. Someone who coordinating supplies and logistics.
  4. Someone to songlead – NOT necessarily someone musically talented, but someone who is musically enthusiastic, who can make people feel comfortable singing along.
  5. Someone who can promote the event and bring together people who want to celebrate.






You’ll also need participants: People excited to be there. This can be 5 people, 50 or 500. What’s important is that a critical mass of them (at least 50%) are enthusiastic, ready to celebrate (non-ironically), ready to sing or dance or whatever activities you have prepared. (Again, they do *not* need to be good singers, they just need to enthusiastically ready to try things)

Now, what if you don’t have some of the above? In particular, what if you (as an organizer) don’t feel comfortable with public speaking, or singing, or leading a crowd?

I’d take this as an opportunity to grow. The Solstice is about humanity rising to overcome their challenges. And singing in public doesn’t have to be that scary!

The first year I ran the Solstice, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do it. I didn’t even have a person telling me that this could be done, that it was part of a growing tradition that would profoundly affect people.

And I’ll be honest: it was a little intimidating.

But it was a valuable learning experience.

2. A Place

You need a place for your gathering. This can be a living room, a large lounge, or an auditorium. Two important characteristics it needs are:

  • Be physically comfortable. People will be there for at least an hour and probably two to four. Comfy chairs, couches or cushions to sit on are nice.
  • Almost exactly enough space to fit your participants. You want people to feel cozy and you want the event to feel vibrant. You want enough space that people are comfortable but not so much that people are spread apart. You want people to feel surrounded by a community.

3. Things

None of these are strictly necessary, but they’ll make things run a lot smoother:

Food and drink - Sharing food is one of the most ancient ways humans built trust and connection. It’s the middle of winter, and we have plenty of food, and that’s worth celebrating!

Light sources - These can be candles, lanterns, electric lights or anything else you can find. It can be fun to have a variety of lights with different levels of technological sophistication, symbolizing the progress of humanity. (I recommend this rock salt lamp off Amazon, beautiful and pretty inexpensive)

Lyrics - One way or another, people need to know what to sing. You can go to the resources tab at and find either lyric sheets to print out or a PowerPoint to display on a projector. (A projector is much better if you have it – that way everyone is focused on one place instead of crinkling papers in their lap, and people can continue to read even as you descend into darkness).

Optional Bonus Things you might want are:

Musical Accompaniment - Many songs can be sung without any instrumental accompaniment, but if you have people who can play guitar, piano, or more, that can help things feel more lively. If you don’t have skilled musicians, then depending on your group you can either have people sing on their own (if you want a natural feel), or play songs over a sound-system, to sing along to karaoke style.

Decorations – You’ve already got lights of some sort, but you may also want decorations reminiscent of the themes of the event (astronomy, fire, and human triumph over winter)

Next Up: Creating the Arc

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The Arc Breakdown

This is the second post in a series about how to run your own Secular Solstice. The previous post (“Material Components”) is here, and the introduction post is here.

The Solstice lasts about two hours, with about 20 singalong songs, a few major speeches, and anecdotes that weave everything together. You can experiment with activities that help people get to know each other, so that by the end even the newcomers feel like part of a community.

The emotional arc of the night is divided loosely into 6 stages, each between 15-25 minutes long.


  • Introduction speech that welcomes people
  • 3-5 upbeat, familiar songs that are easy to sing
  • Between each song, short anecdotes can help tie them into the broader themes, and make people feel like they’re part of a tradition, rather than a standard concert.
  • It’s more important for the songs to be upbeat and singable than for them to have a clear tie-in with the theme. But as much as possible, the songs and stories should each begin three major narratives:
    • The hardship of winter
    • The solstice itself, and the beginnings of astronomy.
    • The birth of communities and rise of civilization
  • The Story of Stonehenge makes for a good introduction story.


  • Have some kind of short group activity that adds variety and (if in a public event) helps newcomers get to know people around them)
  • Extinguish about 1/3 of your lights
  • 3-5 songs that explore themes that are darker or more contemplative, touching upon death or injustice, as well as progress in philosophy and science.
  • Don’t provide any more alcohol at this point.
  • Suggested Songs


  • Extinguish another 1/3 of your lights
  • Begin this section with a story, speech or reading that takes the energy sharply into a darker direction. Beyond the Reach of God is a good example of such an essay.
  • After the reading, 3 songs that fully explore difficult truths we face and the challenges ahead. The mood should be somber.
  • Keep the songs under 12 minutes. It’s important not for the Eve section to go on too long – it’s hard to sustain
  • Suggested Songs


  • Extinguish almost all the lights, including the projector if you’re using one.
  • One last song in the darkness, led by two candlebearing singers who each blow their light out afterwards.
    • The song must be repeat-after-me, or very well known, so that people can sing without lyrics
    • The song should be very low energy, ending quietly
    • The mood should reflect that even in darkness, even if God doesn’t exist, we are not alone. We have each other.
  • After the song, one final story is told that acknowledges the darkness, but gives us the hope to climb back out of it, and keep working together for a brighter tomorrow. This can either be a personal story (such as my reflections on Life, Love and Death from 2012) or an open ended story (The essay “Can the Chain Still Hold You?” is a good one)
  • After the story, the candle is blown out, and we sit in darkness for a minute.



After the event is over, be ready for a great afterparty that’ll give people a chance to further connect! Lots of good food and drink, and ambient background music.

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Life, Death and Love

The candlelit story from Solstice 2012

A year ago, I started planning for tonight. In particular, for this moment, after the last candle is snuffed out and we’re left alone in the dark with the knowledge that our world is unfair and that we have nobody to help us but each other.

I wanted to talk about death. Continue reading

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