Fear, Power, Beauty installation
The other day I wrote about England-based 5Rhythms teacher Adam Barley and his workshop back in March in Philadelphia: Fear, Power, and Beauty.
People outside of the conscious dance world get confused when I talk about “dancing fear,” because I guess they imagine ritualistic theatrics involving creepy masks and blindfolds or sitting around in circles sharing stories we would only confess to our priests or rabbis.
Maybe they envision a dictator-like teacher barking commands at us, scaring us intentionally, making us dance on our knees until they bleed, breaking us down.
That isn’t the case.
The process begins with an intention.
I remember one of my teachers commenting that a workshop truly first begins not at the designated start time but rather that moment when the student has RSVP’d. It means the individual has checked and set aside time on his calender, that he has secured the finances, that he is saying to himself, “I am committing my time, money, and energy to this occasion.”
With that commitment, the brain’s neurons begin firing—perhaps subconsciously—about intention. What was it that guided me to pay $200 to explore fear? Why did I carve out an entire weekend to do this work?
The answer might not be obvious. Some people have very clear intentions, for example: “I grew up fearing intimacy, and I want to move beyond that” or “I fear never being ‘seen.’”
For others, there may be no “elevator statement” on their reason for attending; nevertheless, the months/weeks/days leading up to the workshop involve a huge, simmering crock pot of “mental dances,” the brain working behind the scenes, knowing something big is coming up and beginning to direct energy accordingly.
As my therapist always reminds me, “Energy follows intention.”
The teacher usually helps with this process.
Here’s what Adam sent workshop registrants a week or so before the event:
So you’ve got this workshop coming up where we’re working with fear, huh?
Fear is scary. It’s particularly scary to your mind, and your mind is a tricky customer. Watch it come and go, create stories and scenarios that probably will not bear much resemblance to reality.
Your best prep for the weekend is to do what we’ll be fundamentally doing there: stay aware of your body and your breath, because those two aspects of you will stay reliably present, unlike your mind. Stay present. Breathe deep often. Take steps so you can feel your feet. And watch everything else come and go, rise and fall.
So, what happens when you first walk into a workshop on Fear?
You DANCE, of course! Throw your bags and belongings to the side, exchange hugs and kisses with your fellow dancers, tape up your toes/bandage your ankle/slip a brace on your knee, and find your way into Flowing.
In fact, the Friday night portion of a big workshop is mostly dancing and is mostly fun. It’s establishing connection with others, getting in touch with the body, warming up for the bigger work to come.
I had so much fun on that particular Friday, that I didn’t even feel an iota of fear flutter in my heart.
(Which is a bit ironic, because then the “fear” was that I was entering a Fear workshop without any connection to the main topic!)
Then that night I had a nightmare, waking up in a cold sweat. The dream was terrifically realistic and basically flung all of my real-life fears smack in my face.
That said, on Saturday I had “material” to work with.
And so the process began.
* * *
> We don’t only dance Fear-–Adam also instructs us to strike a pose of Anger, Sadness, Joy, and Compassion. We hold these postures, then find a repetitive movement to embody the emotion.
Repetition is an effective exercise because eventually our patterns emerge, clear as day. When we become aware of our patterns on the dance floor, it becomes easier to identify them in the real world.
In addition, after exploring all of the emotions above through movement, Adam asks us, “Which one felt the most authentic to you?”
I hated to admit it, but I really enjoyed the sharp vocalizations and precise martial arts-like movement I was expressing in Anger.
In fact, for most of the workshop, I continuously made the mistake of confusing Fear and Anger, bearing my teeth and flexing my muscles like a tiger when the intent was really to feel more like the prey, not the predator.
(I guess it’s clear what my “shadow”/defense mechanism is.)
> Adam is firm about not wanting us to “check out.” For example, when you feel the need to get water, before you scurry off to get your bottle, pause and see if you’re honestly thirsty and need hydration or whether it’s a built-in routine—a mechanical reaction (“Chaos just ended, so obviously it’s water time”) or perhaps something deeper (“This song/partner/rhythm makes me uncomfortable, I will ‘take a break’ now so I don’t have to face the discomfort.”).
It’s not that Adam wants us to be parched or hungry—he’s just reminding us to be aware of the unconscious mind games that unfold when we’re faced with something we’re not 100% comfortable with.
“Be aware of thirst, tiredness, music you don’t like, a partner you can’t connect with…go with it, that’s when stuff happens. Don’t check out.”
We dance each rhythm across the room several times, reminds me of going “across the floor” in dance class, when we’d practice the same steps from one end of the room to the other until perfection.
This time there are steps but not choreography, just a long path from Point A to Point B for us to dance a Flowing Fear, a Staccato Fear, a Chaos Fear, a Lyrical Fear, a Stillness Fear.
“Again,” Adam says with a simple hand gesture in our direction, compassionate fierceness in his voice. He never lets us check out.
There are chairs on the side of the room, but we are asked only to sit if we’re dealing with injury or pain. “If you’re tired, dance a tired Chaos!” Adam says.
> We dance to wordless music all of Friday and Saturday. On Friday, it barely registers in my mind. After Saturday, it becomes very noticeable that thus far we have danced to only instrumental music.
Without lyrics, the brain is able to shut off much quicker. You can’t use the words to help carry your movement; instead, movement becomes instinctual.
On Sunday, vocals began to appear in our music. Something in the air became lighter. It was like we were being pressed under water for two days, hearing only heartbeats and muffled murmuring, and now finally hearing the sweet sounds of the world sing clearly into our ears.
Here’s what Adam had to say about that, in a separate e-mail:
The intent was to take everyone into the dark at first, to encounter fear, find power, and then to emerge into beauty; though I had no idea of the exact steps we would take to do that, or what music I would choose along the way. All my music selection is totally intentional, and each track is chosen in the moment, none more than a few minutes before it plays.
> Energy indeed follows intention, even after the workshop ends and socialization begins. At a potluck dinner party after Saturday’s grueling class, I end up randomly sitting next to a woman, get into a conversation with her about mudra meditations, and then—holy coincidence!—nearly at the same time, we say, “Here’s my favorite one,” lifting our hands into the conch shell mudra.
Of all the possible mudras out there—so many combinations of finger placements and hand positions—how can this be?!
Just like having that fear-inducing nightmare on Friday night, I believe meeting “Elaine” on Saturday night was synchronicity, our work from the earlier part of the day culminating into a deeper experience to help us through the remainder of the workshop.
Turns out the conch shell mudra (which helps strengthen the throat) is so important to us because we both struggle with our voices, her physically and me energetically. In fact, our voice-related challenges are a huge part of our fear, the very reason we are at this workshop!
Well then, it should not be surprising that during the next day’s session, after a vicious, deep trip into fear—a plunge that leaves my nose running, eyes red and wet, hair askew, a dive in which I had been thinking about my voice—Adam tells us to pause, turn to the person closest to us, and that this person will now be our partner.
I open my soggy eyelids and find myself nearly arm to arm with—of course—Elaine. Energy follows intention even when there are 40+ other dancers in the room!
Adam asks one person from each pair to face the fear of fear, to place it in our bellies, to dance it out as the other partner stands off to the side and simply witnesses.
My eyes stay focused on Elaine, even as she moves among a crowd of several others. She circles and circles, her arms rising out to her sides, her mouth agape, a silent scream caught in her throat.
It is difficult to watch, knowing we share such similar restrictions. At times, I feel as though I am witnessing myself, decades in the future.
I eventually re-enter the dance floor, instructed by Adam to join our partner and stand by her side. “Not in front or in back of them, but by their side,” he emphasizes. “Be there with them.”
“For Stillness, what feels right?” Adam asks. “Taking their hand, touching, an embrace?” My one hand clutches Elaine’s hand, the other comes to back of her neck. My arms wrap her in a hug, her snotty nose in my shoulder. We make eye contact. Her eyes are glistening with fresh tears but so open.
When it is my turn out on the dance floor, I feel Elaine embodied in me, sensations of my throat being blocked off, barely able to talk. Even my movement is constricted. Yet, Elaine doesn’t have a choice. I can speak! Unlike the physical disability she has, I am only energetically impaired. What gives, Jennifer? You can speak!
I rip at my stomach, chest, throat, as though pulling a cord—maybe even a serpent—out of my mouth. Like a magician’s colorful mile-long scarf expanding from his sleeve, the snake keeps emerging as I tug. Wide open mouth.
Finally, there is Lyrical. Adam reminds us to take steps, as it is so easy to stay locked in one place after such a taxing Chaos. Such a relief to just take steps, no dancing, just walk and see what happens.
My robotic right-left-right-left pattern morphs effortlessly into something new, and with that miniscule change of footwork, I feel free, broken out of the restriction. I catch myself softly whispering “Yes, yes, yes” as my feet gradually slow down and I enter Stillness with Elaine by my side and her hand on my heart.
> I am relieved when Adam gives us time to spread across the room and journal. Finally, the energy that has been exploding out of me can collect on paper, an ink-infused take-home gift from all of this intense work. My writing is sloppy as my hands are shaking, and in this period of rest I realize I feel quite sick, a bit nauseous, extraordinarily thirsty, a throbbing headache at my temples.
But words come effortlessly from fingers to paper, and I begin to wonder whether the “illness” I feel is really just all the gunk worked up over the day trying to purge. Writing is my mental vomiting, and my sickness splatters all over the pages of my notebook.
So with that in mind, I receive Adam’s next instruction with apprehension: We are encouraged, one at a time, to stand up in this room of 40+ people and emphatically speak out our “summary statement,” a line from our journaling that represents the essence of our writing.
For some people, what they exclaim is enough, and Adam allows them to sit down and simply breathe in their classmates’ presence and receptivity. For others, Adam uses his best judgement to decide how to proceed:
- “Say it again, this time softer.”
- “Yes, now repeat that three times in a row. Make eye contact with everyone.”
- “Add just a little more softness to you voice.”
- “Where are your hands when you say that? Show me where your hands are.”
He pushes us. Offers comfort. Gently receives with a slight bow of the head. One man’s statement was so profound and gut-wrenching that Adam stood behind him in solidarity and took him into an embrace, the student enveloped in Adam’s arms.
> After the journaling purge, Adam tells us to find someone to be with. To truly, honestly just “be with” this person, whether it’s crying or dialoguing or sitting in meditation. A female dancer from New York is seated right next to me, and we situate ourselves shoulder to shoulder.
“What do you want?” she asks, and I say I just want to hold her like this—me straddling her between my legs as she leans back into my torso, my arms around her from behind. We roll on top of each other, her weight on me; the sensation of her sliding over my back and shoulders brings me to tears. I inhale her shampoo.
* * *
The workshop ends shortly thereafter, our group assembled in a huge circle, holding hands, our eyes taking in every person who has shared our fear that weekend. We all went through some pretty intense and perhaps unflattering moments, yet at this conclusion—amazingly—we all look radiant. Our eyes speak truth.
My headache is gone, and I no longer feel ill. My eyes are puffy, but they are not “sad” eyes. I am exhausted but invigorated.
As stated earlier, the workshop officially starts when one RSVPs and makes the commitment to attend. However, there is no official end to such an endeavor. The work continues even after the studio lights go out, the parking lot is empty, and Adam flies back to England.
We’ve been cracked open; now it’s time to get cookin.’