As you may have noticed, I write a lot on here about this “5Rhythms” thing I do a few times a month. Because it’s not a well-known or widespread practice, I figured I’d provide a little background about this powerful moving meditation that has been a welcome part of life since April 2010.

Basic Description

5Rhythms is a meditative dance/movement class, described most fully in founder Gabrielle Roth’s book, Sweat Your Prayers, which I read before I even knew such classes existed and that one day there would be a class 20 minutes from me. During each class (the ones I attend are usually 2-3 hours), students are led through a “Wave” of motion. 5 distinct rhythms comprise a single Wave: Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, and Stillness, in that order. The music, which can range from classical to country to techno, is carefully selected to guide students through each segment; equal time spent in each rhythm ensures the ebb and flow of movement become natural, rather than choppy and disjointed. A typical class usually includes two or three Waves.

A Breakdown of the 5Rhythms

Warm-Up: Classes usually start with a self-led warm-up. Soft, inviting music plays as people enter the room, and students warm up their bodies however they please, whether stretching on the floor, sitting in meditation, or simply walking around the studio. There is no official “OK, class begins now; warm-up time!” People used to very regimented classes may feel awkward having to move on their own and not having direct instructions to follow; however, there are no “wrong” movements in 5Rhythms. Standing still and just focusing on your breath is just as acceptable as moving through a flowing yoga sequence.

Flowing: The swelling skirt of a dancing dervish

Flowing: Gradually the music shifts to Flowing. At this point, people who are in seated meditation usually begin to move a little more; movement may become more sweeping and airy. The pace picks up a little, and more bodies are crisscrossing throughout the room, arms circling, shoulders rolling, chests expanding and contracting.

Staccato: Washington Monument

Staccato: After Flowing, the music switches to something with a distinct beat, music you can bob your head or snip your fingers to. Frequently, this is the rhythm during which reserved students begin to smile, because the songs are usually fun and upbeat. Typical Staccato movement includes foot tapping, hip rocking, arm punching, and sometimes even clapping or vocal exclamations.

Chaos: Roller coaster

Chaos: After building energy from Staccato, the body naturally amps up to Chaos. Typical music includes fast African drumming and techno compilations. For some people (myself included), this is the “voo-doo rain dance” portion of the class, when eyes roll into the back of the head, ponytails are released and hair let down, flailing and spinning and wild hypnotic movement ensues.

Yet, at the same time, Chaos can also be very subtle; I have had very intense Chaos experiences in which all I was doing was walking very deliberately around the studio with my hands doing all of the dancing. In that sense, Chaos can be either laughing uncontrollably or experiencing one of those deep laughs where you don’t even make a sound. Both are equally as intense.

Lyrical: Swinging

Lyrical: After expending all that energy, the body gradually cools down with entrance into Lyrical, which is seen as a combination of all of the above rhythms. Synthesis would an appropriate term to describe this rhythm. Some people settle into more of a flowing pattern here, but others are still feeling the wild effects of Chaos, toning down their movements just a tad. Hints of Staccato usually return during Lyrical, even if just for a fleeting moment. People’s movements vary significantly during this rhythm, as some are growing tired and slowing down while others are still processing everything running through them.

Stillness: Buddha

Stillness: The conclusion of a Wave, Stillness is marked by music such as Tibetan singing bowls, an achingly poignant instrumental song, or a few piano keys. Movement becomes very meditative during this phase, and for some people is very sacred and profound, almost a prayer. Some people gesture up to the sky, others sink into the floor and curl into a ball. Despite its name, Stillness is usually the most “moving” of all 5 Rhythms; it is the time when everything falls into line, realizations are made, and emotions come to the surface. It is not uncommon for people to cry or get emotional during this stage.

(Real-life examples provided by Gabrielle Roth, Sweat Your Prayers. Photos are mine.)


Instruction is very loose during 5Rhythms, and most of the class is self-led, an invitation for students to explore their own movements and personalities. As mentioned earlier, those used to detailed instruction may feel self-conscious at first, thinking they are doing something wrong or that they should be doing what that guy is doing. I find that it’s much easier to move with my eyes closed at first, pretending I am in my living room at home, dancing to the radio. Copying others’ movement is also encouraged if you’re having difficulty getting in touch with your own rhythm; sometimes doing someone else’s move for just a few seconds will create an Aha! moment in yourself, and suddenly you’ll launch into your own pattern without even thinking about it.

If the class includes mostly new students or beginners, the instructor is more likely to include more discussion about each of the rhythms and his own demonstrations of each. Other exercises include isolated movements of each body part (i.e., “Just move your hands. Explore the movements of the fingers and wrists, make the dance come from only your hands,” so on and so forth with the head and neck, shoulders and arms, hips and knees, and feet).

Sometimes you’ll be guided on the kind of movement to make; for example, “Do an ‘open’ move,” followed by “Do a ‘closed’ move,” or do an “up” versus “down” movement. As you can see, these instructions are generous and open to interpretation, allowing for authentic movement to emerge. Never in a 5Rhythms class will you be directed exactly how to move (“Grapevine to the left, pivot turn, and shimmy on down!”) or told precisely how you should feel (“You are a goddess! You are glowing and radiant!”). The purpose of 5Rhythms is to explore your OWN movement, even if it’s sloppy and you feel like crap.

Depending on the experience and comfort levels among the group, sometimes partner work is incorporated into a class; however, it’s nothing like ballroom dancing. Partner work can be as simple as pairing up with another person and doing your own thing, just being aware of the other’s movement (this post includes specifics about 5Rhythms partner work), although some people, if there’s a connection, will find themselves engaged in a very eloquent pas de deux as though they had been dancing together forever. Some couples can dance beautifully without ever touching, and others are more tactile and like to grasp hands, link arms, etc. The instructor calls for partner changes frequently so you’re able to experience working with different personalities and abilities.

Who Can Do the 5Rhythms?

People of all abilities are invited to dance the 5Rhythms. Since the class is self-regulated, students have permission to slow down when they need to, use a wall as support, or even dance while seated. My instructor has taken classes on crutches after a knee surgery; I’ve danced with people with hearing impairments, autoimmune diseases, and myself with a gimpy hip; and I’ve seen all different types of people in class, from former Navy SEALs to yoga instructors to physicians. No dance experience is necessary, and it is typically people without formal dance training who express themselves the most during class, as they are not locked into the notion of what dance “should” look like.

What Does One Wear?

5Rhythms is done either barefoot or in soft-soled dance shoes, as most classes typically take place in dance or yoga studios with very delicate floors. As for clothing, anything goes, as long as it’s comfortable. I’ve danced in sports bras, sweatshirt hoodies, and flowing skirts, yet others come to class in sweatpants and a tee; loose-fitting jeans; or glittery, fringed, Latin-inspired dance dresses. Wear what makes you YOU. Layers are important as well, because although you may start off class a bit chilly, by Chaos you may be sweating up a storm.

A Deeper Experience

As I wrote here, there is no doubt that 5Rhythms is an intense cardiovascular practice. However, once you dance the 5Rhythms on a regular basis, you begin to notice how the Rhythms are parallel to real life, the same way yoga practitioners begin to notice that yoga is more than just doing poses on a rubber mat.

For example, you may find that you are more of a “Flowing” personality and can never be clear and precise about your needs and wants. Perhaps you need to be a little more forthright (Staccato) about declaring your intentions and ambitions. Also, you begin to see the 5Rhythms in everyday occurrences, such as children playing outside (after a breathless round of playing tag [Chaos], their movement will gradually progress to Lyrical and finally to naptime [Stillness]) or the death of a loved one (in which the stages of grief are very close to each of the 5 Rhythms).

Also with experience comes a greater comfort level in dancing authentically. It can take a few classes before you begin to let go of self-consciousness and find your true movement. I also enjoy doing a Wave or two by myself at home, when no one is watching.

Finding a 5Rhythms Class

Due to the rigorous, extensive training it takes to complete 5Rhythms teacher training, not many people are certified to teach and thus classes are not as widespread as, say, yoga classes. Certified teachers are listed on the 5Rhythms website (click on the “Teachers” side tab), and I found my local classes through Meetup. Institutions such as Kripalu, Omega, and Esalen sometimes host weekend programs or intensives. Although dancing with a group and having someone else DJ is great, the 5Rhythms can easily be done by yourself at home, as Meg from Spirit Moves Dance frequently demonstrates.

Reading Gabrielle Roth’s Sweat Your Prayers is a wonderful place to start, as she offers numerous movement examples and even suggestions for music. iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, and Grooveshark technology make it easy to create and share playlists; just be sure to have your playlist ready to go before you dance rather than choose music as you go along; the smoother the transitions, the more immersed into the dance you will become.

Final Words

No two 5Rhythms classes are the same for me. Sometimes I leave feeling open, exposed, and vulnerable; other times I leave class feeling high as a kite and in love with the world. Sometimes my cells vibrate; other times I am ho-hum. More often than not, though, I leave class feeling better than when I started, both physically and mentally. I feel more aware of the people and things around me; I am able to express my thoughts more clearly; and my body is thanking me for allowing it to move naturally rather than in some forced, repetitive manner.

To close, here are some snippets of journal entries I wrote following 5Rhythms class:

• “My body was delighted to be moving naturally, sweating from dancing, not from doing 30 minutes on a StairMaster. Dancing has always felt freeing, but it was even more so last night because I’ve just felt so restricted lately. My limbs and heart felt liberated, and in turn my breath quickened, my eyes rolled back, and I attained a sense of euphoria that even running cannot provide me.”

• “What I had learned in that class last month was that ‘dance’ can be achieved with minimal movement. Sure, I love leaping and jumping and spinning and am totally obsessed with the choreography on So You Think You Can Dance, but dance is also a mental place for me. So even though I didn’t move as much in that July class, I felt like I had danced more than ever. I connected with the music and took my soul to a different dimension.”

• “Once again, I had to drag myself to the center of the room after class. I felt like I was on a different plane and that my body needed some time to settle back on earth. All that from 90 minutes of dance!”

• “When the class ended, my cells were vibrating the same way they used to vibrate after an intense kundalini yoga class. I felt like I was drunk on air and music and sweat. What a wacky, wonderful, and soul-satisfying experience.”

(Editor’s note, 1/26/13: Gabrielle Roth, the founder of 5Rhythms, died in October 2012 at the age of 71. Detailed posts about her passing and subsequent memorial can be found here and here.)