How it all started

On a chill February evening in Toronto, Julia Ray is lighting up the cafe with her ready laugh and bright passion for life. Julia is the founder of Ecstatic Dance Toronto (EDT), a community I’ve grown to appreciate immensely for many reasons, most notably the feeling of coming home. As we talk, Julia shares that EDT grew out of a lifetime spent seeking that very same sense of belonging.

Born to Serbian parents who were searching for their own place in the world, Julia’s childhood involved major upheavals. Her father, a self-taught jazz musician, was a dreamer with visions too big for his native land, and so Julia, an only child, entered the world at a time when the family’s homebase was Sydney, Australia. She describes herself as a “feral child” who ran around outside in bare feet. When she turned two, the trio returned to their culture of origin. A few years after that, Julia’s parents moved to Canada, temporarily leaving their daughter in the care of grandparents. She rejoined mom and dad in yet another new home, now on her third continent, at the age of eight.

After she turned 16, the family again returned to Serbia as her father had felt his strength seeping away over the years in North America, working hard to support his family.

However, this time his daughter’s spirit had something to say about the matter. Each relocation, with its subsequent struggle to rebuild her life in a new place, was becoming increasingly painful. While attending high school in Canada, Julia had finally started to feel a sense of integration, putting down roots, being in her element, and that was hard to give up. She was also building clarity in her values of what mattered most. Besides desiring stability, there was an equally powerful longing for freedom and independence, something that was hard to come by in Eastern Europe, where she experienced the feminine diminished in relationships and cultural norms.

After a year and a half in Serbia spent studying through correspondence and generally having a good teenage time, Julia felt her soul calling her back to Canada. The call was so undeniable that it felt like a knowing rather than a choice. The fire lit in her by this message was even strong enough to convince her parents into letting her return alone. Weeks later, they were scratching their heads as if waking up from a dream in which they had somehow been enchanted into conceding. This situation is a classic illustration of what mythologist Joseph Campbell called The Call to Adventure. When you say YES to your soul, the whole world seems to conspire to arrange a clear path for you where only moments ago the way was obscured by obstacles like thorny bushes, timidness and confusion.

Julia has been a resident of Toronto ever since. Starting with a sensible, straight-laced economics degree and project management work, she gradually explored her ways to the edges, into vocations that spoke to her heart and spirit. She studied craniosacral therapy and energy work, learned The Way of the Wolf with a shamanic practitioner and got into the yoga industry in its early, alternative days. In time, teaching yoga became her full-time profession, and she was leading 200-300 people per week in getting in touch with their bodies through yogic asanas. Yet something was still amiss.

Despite all the “yummy” benefits of ease, connection, embodiment and relaxation that she was imparting through yoga, Julia felt a mounting tension around telling people what to do and when to do it. She started teaching Yoga Freedom sessions, beginning each by asking her students what they wanted to experience, and then firmly stating that even in her role as a teacher, she was second to the primary form of guidance that comes from one’s own body. Here again was the pull toward greater freedom and honoring the inner knowing, what Julia sees as a more fluid and less restrictive, feminine approach in contrast to the patriarchal model, which expects people to hand their power over to an authority figure who is deemed to know better.

Throughout this phase, Julia went dancing on a regular basis, whether attending weddings or out with friends, and became increasingly conscious of the subcultures formed around different styles of music. In each venue, whether devoted to blues and jazz, swing, salsa, hip hop or in the sexually charged vibe of Church Street’s LGBTQ clubs, a different “tone” ruled the environment, apparent not only in the rhythms and movements but also in the way dancers related to one another.

Music guides how we move   ~ Julia Ray

She saw music as a teacher, and began asking herself – what was the “medicine” of each genre, how did its energy and essence influence the listeners? What was the intrinsic, invisible boundary where each scene maxed out in regards to growth and expression of both the individual and the collective?

With all of these elements spawning more questions than answers, Julia unexpectedly felt the “Eureka!” moment while watching The Matrix Reloaded, the sequel to the original film The Matrix. She feels it vital to set the stage: the Machines have taken over the surface of the Earth, pushing the remainder of human resistance deep into underground tunnels. In a large, torch-lit, cavernous space, every citizen of Zion has gathered to hear their leader, Morpheus, speak. He has sombre news to deliver: the Machines are boring down to find and destroy the last of the rebels, and this is the night before the big battle. The humans are hopelessly outnumbered and underequipped. And yet… they will fight, and Morpheus wants them “to be prepared in the only way that can make a difference: by shedding [their] fear.” His voice rings throughout the space, “Tonight, let us send a message to that army. … Tonight, let us tremble these halls of earth, steel and stone. … Tonight, let us make [the Machines] remember that we are not afraid!!” Morpheus walks off, giving the proceedings over to the musicians. With the first drumbeat, the crowd erupts into uninhibited, passionate, wild movements of torsos and limbs; wrists, ankles, ears and necklines flashing with tribal ornaments. The music reverberates throughout the space, and everyone present is dancing in defiant celebration of life, their bodies channeling the inner flames of their pride as warriors, of their right to exist, of their will to survive. Julia felt that fire “melting her brain.” As she watched the organic movements, hair flying, bare feet on the earth, sweaty bodies jumping, spinning, grooving on their own or in sensual connection, all she could think of was THAT’S IT. She’d glimpsed what wanted to be born through her.

Yet how does one translate a vision into manifested reality? In Julia’s case, the next step came as advice from her mentor. She had been studying dreamwork, a way of working with the messages from our sleeping-state dreams, with Dr. Christopher Sowton. She had sought him out during her “Saturn return,” the infamously challenging period of one’s life preceding turning 30 that can mercilessly yank the rug out from under one’s feet. (There is often a correlation drawn between Saturn’s tough-love reality check and the “27 Club” of people like Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, who all left this world at a similar age.)

Julia describes her relationship with dreamwork as the “most transformational guiding force” in her life to this day. Encouraged by Dr. Sowton to work with her vision by creating a pilot for her friends, she went on the hunt for the right venue, falling in love at first sight with the empty canvas of the large, hardwood-floored dance rooms at Dovercourt House. On January 7 and 14, 2006, about 35 of her friends participated in the first sessions of Tribal Dance Trance. (The name soon changed to Tribal Dance Community, before becoming EDT some years later).

Artwork on the altar at EDT, by Patricia Kambitsch. The tree represents the natural growth cycles of EDT – and by extension – its participants

Although giddy with elation at stepping into her soul’s work, Julia was simultaneously plagued by a feeling of falling off a cliff, which made her want to quit every single night. She was torn by battling emotions of knowing this was something she must do, yet questioning her ability to do so at every turn. She spent 20-25 hours putting together each week’s one-nighter, single-handedly doing all the roles for which she now has a team of helpers, and just breaking even financially – most of the time. From the initial enthusiasm of 30+ attendees, the regular count was down to 7-12 people, and took a long time to build to the 70-100 dancers who currently pile in on both Monday and Thursday nights. During the events, her Inner Critic was making a regular appearance, screaming, “Look at that person hating every moment of this!” Fortunately, that same individual would be the “angel” who would come up afterwards to deeply thank her for the experience. In this way, one thing or another always propelled her to keep going despite the misgivings.

As she grew more comfortable, she tried out all kinds of new elements that were “portals to access the self.” She encouraged the attendees to use their voices in freeing ways, whether that was laughter or primal sounds. Someone gifted her a “Tickle Trunk” of costume bits and bobs, and she recalls how on some nights it would be completely untouched, while on others the contents would be strewn around with someone sitting inside the box. Julia employed artist Elaine Ray to create elaborate installations from objets trouvés that evoked “the unconscious influences from the world around us.” Dancers arriving at the space encountered anything from a doctor’s waiting room, to a tent inside which pulsed the sound of a heartbeat, to a suitcase of rocks one could use to create an impromptu rite-of-passage ceremony.

Julia became astonished by the stories she saw released into the open from deep within people’s psyches, and the profound sense of liberation that came with that release. She references Carl Jung, who noted that the mental-health patients he worked with shared a commonality: no one had ever listened to their stories.

I trust what we can create together   ~ Julia Ray

And so she decided to turn that freefall from a cliff into an active jump by giving herself full permission to go no-holds-barred creative. Bigger play with the physical and emotional space followed, from covering half the floor with a flower altar at the time of Michael Jackson’s funeral, to psychodrama, to releasing balloons into the night sky with written prayers from each participant. Julia thinks of this 4-year incubation period as her “Exploratorium,” which in hindsight feels like getting a degree in experiential human potential. The deeper thematic explorations invited deeper expressions from the participants, and she occasionally still reminisces with the regulars of those years about the epic releases they personally went through and witnessed around them.

However, in part due to feedback that the ever-changing container she offered was intimidatingly unpredictable to some, over time the wildness of the Trance Dance Community simmered down to its current incarnation as EDT. It’s a simpler format, similar to other ecstatic dances held around the world, governed by less than a handful of rules: take your shoes off, refrain from talking on the dance floor, come sober, and respect consent or lack thereof if you want to engage with someone in your dance. These days, the night begins with a half-hour warmup, then the music stops for an opening circle where new folks are welcomed, the above rules briefly revisited, and the DJ introduces the optional theme for the night before everyone lies down for a guided meditation. Once the music restarts, everyone is free to move if and when and how they feel; and every time, something magical is created in the hour and a half of all expectations being replaced by curiosity. The dance ends with a closing circle, in which the DJ/guide of the night speaks again about the theme and often invites the group to sound together (which could be, but is not limited to, everyone singing their own version of the seed-syllable mantra OM). After that, dancers chat, hug, share snacks, exchange contact info and generally fill up on the natural-high vibes. Despite the late hour, people are often reluctant to leave.

Julia is present at nearly every one of the two weekly events, some nights playing the music: a joyous duty she now shares with a team of DJs on a rotating basis, who all select tracks from many different styles and backgrounds. On her “off” nights, she is simply there to nourish her heart and soul. Although she didn’t consciously set out to do so, through EDT Julia created the community, family and home she’d been searching for all those years and decades. She met her best friends and even found love on the very dance floor that asked to be conceived through her. Masterminding EDT has also given her a huge boost in confidence because she simply dove into its playground without degrees in either dance, theater or event planning. What’s more, she has made space for people from all walks of life to gather and connect to themselves and to each other in an enormously fun, creative, life-affirming way. Referencing this depth of connection, this “holding space for each other and for the bigger stories,” she states simply, “I live for that.”

With EDT in its 13th year, Julia’s vision is to make ecstatic dance accessible to all people, everywhere. She dreams of it being as ubiquitous as gyms or cafes, so that anyone interested could participate on a regular basis. Why? The freedom to give expression to whatever wants to arise from within, through movement or sound, honors the individual, becomes a vehicle for co-creation, and is all-around empowering. In Julia’s words and experience, at the end of a session of EDT, “we are always a better version of ourselves.” The question she now asks herself is, how can we be living and relating to each other in these absolutely magnificent, forgotten ways of being — not just on the dance floor but in our daily lives? Her spidey senses are telling her that the next part she is to play will be merging ecstatic dance with her dreamwork practice.

Julia is hands-down admirably following her greatest joy, and in the process, magnetizing others who also want to dream-into-being the kind of world in which we all get to shine and ignite each other with our light.

Stay tuned for more from Julia and EDT, follow the whispers of your own soul, and give ecstatic dance a whirl — it may just transform your life in the most meaningful ways.