Sometimes the most inspiring component of a 5Rhythms class is not the music or the environment or the people but rather the guidance or encouragement the instructor shares mid-dance via microphone, a phrase that touches you just the right way, a combination of nouns, verbs, or adjectives composed and delivered in such a manner that words become energy in mere milliseconds.

For example, during Amara Pagano’s workshop last month, a simple, emphatic “There you go” would sometimes launch me from minimally energized to borderline explosive.

However, one phrase I never imagined would (a) ever be uttered during class, and (b) be such a catalyst for me is the following, courtesy of Douglas Drummond:

“Bust out your inner blacksmith.”

Now, I have imagined myself to take on several identifies and forms during a 5Rhythms class—a high priestess, a tiger, a lady in red, a collection of vibrating atoms—but never a dirty-faced dude wearing safety goggles and a leather apron, forging iron over an open flame.

But the command made sense at the time, as me and about 15 other dancers were in the middle of Douglas’ “Embodying the Elemental” workshop, and our Staccato—the element of fire—was getting hotter by the minute. We had just dug up the earth with our feet (my metaphor for Flowing; we were on a wooden floor the whole time), and now the music was picking up tempo and busting some bass, and it was our duty to transform this collection of dirt-speckled minerals with the fire churning from our bellies.

Even though I was physically dancing inside a church auditorium in Pennsylvania and a primary school in New Jersey, the two-day experience ended up being a journey into the center of the earth and on edge of the cosmos. Each class consisted of two standard Waves, but we approached each rhythm as an element:

Flowing: Earth
Staccato: Fire
Chaos: Water
Lyrical: Air/Wind
Stillness: Ether

The same elements are represented by prayer flags, like those hanging in the kitchen.

Connecting the 5Rhythms with the natural world brought a new level of understanding to this often complex dance. As much as I loved Amara’s Fire of Love workshop, associating the dance with heavy-duty and abstract concepts such as fear, love, and loss brought a certain degree of difficulty to the process. But water, sand, wind…how tangible these objects are, how primal.

We all know how pliable earth feels under our toes and how the threat of fire causes us to jump and react. Douglas acknowledged that everyone has had an experience with these elements, some positive and others not so much. While it is easy to associate earth with a flourishing garden or sandy beach, Douglas is from New Zealand, an area on fault lines where the constant threat of seismic activity makes this element a bit frightening. And yes, how refreshing it is to open the windows on a spring day and allow the breeze to rustle your curtains, but this same element of air and wind can also take the shape of a funnel cloud and wipe out entire towns.

At first I was perplexed about the element of water representing Chaos—Isn’t water always associated with flowing?—but the more it was explained, the more it made sense. Water is temperamental, unpredictable. I mean, heck, water can freeze, water can boil, water can turn to a solid or evaporate into steam. A heavy rainfall can turn into a flash flood in a matter of minutes, and a steady flow of water underground can turn into this the moment its container breaks:

Water main break in Center City, Philadelphia, the same day as the workshop.

To be able to actually visualize the rhythms was something relatively new to me. I loved Douglas’ example of how dancing in Staccato requires being aware of your environment: If you’re standing in tightly packed group, are you going to bust out a raging bonfire that’s going to burn others around you, or can you achieve the same heat with a simple and sharp strike of a match?

I’ll tell you, it was hard at times not to let Staccato become the blazing bonfire. Douglas’ playlist was heavy on the dubstep/psy-trance/electronica, music I seldom listen to but when I do—WATCH OUT! That genre already has that little electric “buzz” built it; my veins and arteries basically became live wires. And I love the brief moments of pause/suspension in the music—it reminded me of trick candles being blown out and then coming back to life, stopping for a breath (…) and then launching right back into the movement (!!!).

By the time Stillness rolled around, my mind was definitely in the ether; I was in a whole new dimension. Maybe it’s because I had just played with fire and water and been electrocuted, that the Four Winds had just resuscitated me with their breath of life, but during Stillness I hovered in a state of acute awareness and deep meditation, a bit scared by this near-possession but allowing it to move through me, because as Douglas had stated earlier, the element of ether is the deepest mystery, the enigmatic.

In Tibetan Buddhism, ether is defined as the regions of space beyond the earth’s atmosphere; the heavens. For me, Stillness is like looking in a mirror and seeing nothing but knowing and feeling that something is there. It is vibrating wildly like the smallest speck of matter, moments away from bursting and expanding into a vast universe, the Big Bang of my consciousness. It is also ending class with my limbs feeling like magnets being drawn down into the earth’s magma, barely able to rise from the floor and shuffle over to the center of the room for the final sharing circle.

And just as we have to share this planet, Douglas also gave us plenty of time to share our thoughts with each other. In pairs, we answered the question, “In the element of ___ (fill in the blank with the given element), I feel ___.” Douglas emphasized that this was an exercise in conscious listening—while the speaker spoke, the listener was simply to listen—no nodding in agreement, frowning, prompting the speaker in any way. Doing both workshops, what a gift it was to hear 10 different descriptions of these elements. I don’t recall everything that I stated, but I do remember snippets:

In the element of earth, I feel sludge, resistance.

In the element of fire, I feel electricity.

In the element of water, I feel like I am submerged, having no oxygen but hearing every little breath and sound my body makes.

In the element of air, I feel like a dolphin coming to the surface, the breath that connects me with the rest of the world.

In the element of ether, I feel a spiritual hypnosis, grasping for something that is always just out of reach, the beauty you feel but cannot see.

Honor and respect these elements, Douglas reminded us. They were here long before us and will exist well beyond our lifetime. Recognize their beauty, acknowledge their power, and feel the rhythms they hum, crackle, churn, whisper, and vibrate.

Element-inspired installation, Day 2.