‘Dist-Dance’: Love of Ecstatic Dance Motivates Director Michael Love

By Steven Libowitz   |   April 7, 2021

We also spoke with Michael Love, the veteran screenwriter (he authored the screenplay for the Academy Award-nominated, Gaby: A True Story, in 1987) and director with dozens of credits to his name, including multiple short docs and a few features that have premiered at SBIFF over the years. His 2021 entry, Dist-Dance, chronicles the ecstatic dance community’s move to outdoor locations during COVID. 

Q. Michael, you are not only the filmmaker but also the creator of the “Dist-Dance.” What prompted you to keep going with the dance that had only happened sporadically indoors before COVID? And did you always know you were going to make a film at the same time? 

A. Before COVID, my partner Donia and I were part of Santa Barbara’s thriving ecstatic dance community. We held a weekly dance at Divinitree and also attended Dance Tribe and other dances in town.  When everything was shut down, we attempted Zoom dances with other dancers, but they just didn’t work. It was Donia who had the idea to try a pilot outdoor dist-dance and to our amazement people drove half an hour to White Rock to come dance. The idea to gather material for a possible film really didn’t happen for a few weeks. I wasn’t sure where it was going, (but I realized) it was visually interesting and showed how one community was surviving through COVID.  

You divided the film by the various locations where the dance has been held, although it could very well have been the seasons, too. Can you talk about that choice? 

The locations were key: Distinct and hard to find (to be able to accommodate) projected sound. They became characters. So, it made sense to me to make them the chapters. Seasons would have worked too, though.  

How do you think being able to dance together outdoors helped you (and the others) through the struggles of the pandemic?

There is no doubt that the dances helped us and the other dancers get through COVID isolation. It was like a celebration when we saw our friends and community once a week and bonded in nature. I heard over and over how much it meant to the other dancers, who included doctors and other people working on the front lines. Knowing we were making a difference in others’ lives made a big difference in ours as well. 

Who is your target audience? What do you think non-dancers might take away from seeing the movie?  

As a filmmaker I want the audience to see that Ecstatic Dance is actually just a bunch of people dancing together however they feel like dancing in a substance free environment. Anyone can do it. You don’t need a partner or memorized steps, and it is liberating in the most wonderful way. The outdoor dances have attracted a lot of people who never heard of ecstatic dance to join in and become regulars. I hope the film continues that demystification and brings more people into the community.  

I was struck by a number of quotes like “I don’t know how we’re ever going to go back…” and “COVID has had a huge effect on accelerating the transformation of Ecstatic Dance.” What do you think will happen with your dance, and ED in general, when people feel safe enough to return to dancing indoors perhaps just inches apart?

Outdoor dances are here to stay. After COVID, indoor dances will begin again and we will be there enjoying them, too. It is a more intimate experience. But the exuberant experience of dancing in nature at sunset has been an eye-opener for the community and we’re hooked. What better place to do it than beautiful Santa Barbara?


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