On the last Friday of October, I set out for my monthly 5Rhythms class in South Jersey. Fourth Fridays at Yoga for Living, as I had been doing regularly for the past two and a half years. It’s an event I mark on my calendar with exclamation points and spirals; it brings an anticipation that hits me full-force at around 3 p.m. on the day of, my feet becoming restless in my office chair, my body aching to move beyond the three gray walls that comprise my cubicle.

This time, however, something felt different.

Not even a week prior, I had been in New York City dancing in what turned out to be probably the biggest celebration of 5Rhythms of all times. Four days of moving, crying, laughing, stomping, rolling, exploring, discovering, sweating, and breathing with 150 individuals from around the world, sharing this practice with some of its most devoted dancers and talented teachers. It was such a massive group that one collective inhalation and exhalation sounded and felt like Mother Earth sighing. The energy was electric, as powerful as the speeding subways that ran under our feet, the megawatts of light that illuminated the island around us.

So, I wondered, how was I supposed to go from THAT to *this*, the quaint little 5Rhythms class in southern New Jersey, held in the basement of an office building, where the low-hanging ceiling prevents any enthusiastic leaps upward, where at most maybe a dozen or so people would show up? Where on earth would the energy come from? I had taken one of the deepest breaths of my dancing life in New York; could this 2-hour class with only a handful of other individuals sustain me, or would it feel like sucking through a straw?

The doubt lingered with me as I descended into the basement. But then, as I entered of softly lit, womb-like dancing space, my eyes made contact with my teacher, Richard, and then moved across the room to the altar in the corner, a framed photo of Gabrielle Roth surrounded by flickering votive candles, an illustration of a commanding black bird perched at foot-level.

Instantly, all of my hesitations evaporated. No, dancing won’t be a problem, I thought. And with that, I spread my wings and allowed the raven inside of me to take flight.

* * *

In these funky, frenetic times, we need our feet on the ground, our instincts intact and our intuition in full force. Being true to the signs and signals that come from within is our survival art, not to mention a way to move with integrity in a world in flux.

So began the description of “Slow Moving with Chaos,” the workshop I had emphatically penned on my calendar back in the summer, when word had begun to spread that 5Rhythms founder Gabrielle Roth—who rarely made public appearances anymore due to her ailing health—would be teaching a 4-day workshop in New York City. For the longest time, there were no concrete details about the event, only dates and the fact that Gabrielle and her son Jonathan Horan would be facilitating. I checked The Moving Center’s website almost every week, waiting. TBA. TBA. TBA, all through the summer.

As a planner and stickler for details, it killed me that I didn’t have all of the 5Ws right away; nonetheless, I was going to New York, come what may. As you may be able guess from this blog, 5Rhythms is a HUGE part of my life, beginning in 2009 when I read Gabrielle’s Sweat Your Prayers. Everything I have ever felt about dancing was reinforced in that book, and it opened my eyes to a form of movement that so perfectly follows the natural rhythms of the human persona and natural world. The book is very much like a bible to me, a work that I can re-visit over and over again, sentences and paragraphs touching me in new ways with each reading as my own practice expands. The pages are dog-eared; notes are scribbled in the margin.

Gabrielle’s words, her oceans of prose from which five lighthouses guide weary sailors—Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, Stillness—had become my mantras. The wisdom she had imparted on her teacher trainees, who then passed this kinesthetic knowledge down to students like myself, was changing my life, day by day, Wave by Wave, rhythm by rhythm.

I needed to meet this woman.

As soon all the details about the workshop were released, my check was in the mail.

* * *

Hello Dancing Loved Ones,

Over the last few weeks Gabrielle has been moving into stillness. Robert [Gabrielle’s husband] and I [Jonathan] have been deeply moved by the love and support pouring in from around the world. We appreciate each and every message and have been watching her smile when we share.

We have now entered a time when we need to focus our energy on Gabrielle. We would like to ask that you all please understand that we can no longer respond to the outpouring of beautiful words via phone and the email individually. Gabrielle has asked to take refuge in stillness and solitude, and as her family, we need to honor that.

This was the e-mail I received from The Moving Center only a few days before the workshop was scheduled to begin. Gabrielle was dying, yet people from all over the world were actively on their way to New York by planes, trains, and taxi cabs to meet her.

The news rocked the dancing community by surprise. Online, prayers and songs of stillness were shared via a Facebook page set up in Gabrielle’s honor. The outpouring of love was overwhelming.

Yet, no one ever said the workshop was called off or postponed. How could we dance Chaos when our teacher was in her final breaths of Stillness? Who would lead us as Gabrielle lay in bed with her son by her side? So many questions, but with a heavy heart and an open mind about what the next 4 days would hold, I set off to the city.

* * *

Day 1, Manhattan, Lower East Side. The mood in the lobby of the Paul Taylor Dance Company studio on Thursday night was a heavy happiness; fellow dancers excited to see each other but unsure if smiling was appropriate at this time. The doors to the main studio were still closed, so many mysteries lying just a few feet away. When they finally opened, I walked into a sacred space of Sanskrit chanting, ethereal white lights glowing on the floor and ceiling, the installation at the front of the room a black-and-white homage to Gabrielle, a clothesline strung from wall to wall, decorated with images and words representative of her work. A vase of flowers, candles floating in a bowl of water.

It was like walking into a church, a Buddhist temple, a funeral home. Heads bowed, utmost reverence. Still, we were unsure of what we were actually walking into. Was this a vigil? A memorial? A wake?

Instead of asking the questions, we danced them. There was no introductory speech or Hello, How Are Yous? Thanks to the last-minute help of NYC teacher Tammy Burstein, music played, and everyone instinctively knew it was time to warm up and flow. As we moved to Staccato and then to Chaos, it was clear that everyone here knew this language, despite the international flavor of the crowd. Just moments ago, I had been in the women’s changing room, surrounded by a flurry of accents and conversations in German, Spanish, and French. On the dance floor, there was no such thing as a linguistic barrier. Different tongues, same language.

The center of the room is like a concert pit—crowded, hot, a throbbing powerhouse of either ecstasy or anxiety, depending on one’s tolerance for lack of oxygen. I am simultaneously thrilled to be moving with so many bodies but also terrified. How can I have so many people around me but feel so alone? I feel like I’m dancing in the middle of Times Square. It’s not until Tammy instructs us to walk around the room, meet the eyes of those you pass, and then brush hands with those you pass that the anxiety dissipates. The emotional and physical contact with others grounds me; I realize then how much I have grown in my past 2.5 years of doing the 5Rhythms, having gone from being reluctant at the notion of having to share my movement to needing it to be nourished.

After Lyrical, our Stillness is sitting, ears and hearts open as Robert, Gabrielle’s husband, comes to the front of the room to update us on her condition. Somewhere in an apartment in the city, Gabrielle is dying. She is in good care, Robert assures us, and her face continues to light up whenever her son Jonathan enters the room. Never a quitter, Gabrielle had exclaimed, “I gotta do that f**king workshop!” only 3 days beforehand, Robert said. This was supposed to be her retirement party, the last hurrah.

After wiping tears from his eyes, Robert took his usual place behind the tom drum and led us through another Wave, the percussion hitting me deep and creating an easy entrance into movement. We end the evening chanting Om Namah Shivaya, Gabrielle’s favorite mantra, heading out into the night with uncertainty lumped in our throats.

* * *

Over the next 3 days, we stepped into the studio each afternoon not knowing whether Gabrielle was still with us. Robert was present for most of the program, and much to our surprise, Jonathan showed up halfway through Friday’s session and remained through our final moments on Sunday.

I remember seeing Jonathan walk into the studio as we were in the middle of a Wave; I had never met him in person before but knew his face. The magnitude of his presence hit me in the gut, adding fuel to my movement. I think we had all accepted the fact that our two leaders would not be present for the workshop, and so for Jonathan to show up—and facilitate—100-some people as his mother lay dying was truly a gift.

“The Raven still lives!” Jonathan exclaimed as we gathered around him that afternoon, a collective sigh among our group. From there, he spoke candidly about living, dying, and love, his face crumpling at times, beaming at others.

He was genuinely human, a man in the throes of living with dying, talking from his heart, speaking through his body, reminding us to pay attention to the signals we get from our body as we dance. “What are you going to do with that information?!” he prodded. How can we become our own teachers? “Jonny won’t always be here to tell you to move your hips!” he reminded.

He demonstrated a stilted version of the 5Rhythms, acting out each rhythm without intention, without heart. It was a humorous but sad pantomime, a visual reminder of the two-dimensional world we often find ourselves trapped in.

“Yeah, you can say ‘I love you,’” he said in a nasal voice. “I love you [pointing to someone], I love you [pointing to someone else], I love you!” he demonstrated, charming, but no depth to his words. And then Jonathan stood tall, took a long inhalation, and bowed forward, gesturing gracefully toward the group. “I L O V E you,” he expressed, the emotion palpable. The difference in presentation was profound, and several of us gasped or awww‘ed or sighed as his words hit our heart. Without intention and passion, our words and actions are like yoga poses held without breath, going through the motions without actually being in our bodies.

“And why do restaurant servers always ask if I’m still ‘working’ on my meal?” he questioned. “No, I’m enjoying it,” he said. “My dinner isn’t a job. It’s not work. I’m loving this food.”

* * *

Food and love went very much hand in hand during the workshop. After so much dancing and sweating, our 20- to 60-minute snack breaks were a welcome reprieve, the peanut butter-filled pretzels and gluten-free ginger snaps the crew provided tasting like food of the gods. The difference between the final dance pre-break and the first dance post-break is like night and day. Nourished, hydrated, and rested with time to pee, talk, and reboot, our movement carries a new quality, wilted flowers sprouting back to life after a rainfall. I feel reborn.

* * *

Our breaks are essential. The physical act of dancing is exhausting, but so is all the emotional baggage that comes along with the practice.

I find myself against the back wall during an exercise in exploring centeredness versus uncenteredness, a dance I will not forget for a long time. I never intended to dance with that wall for so long, but I closed my eyes and fell into one of the most powerful releases of movement my body has ever endured, the wall being tender, the wall being a punching bag, the wall being a window, the wall being just a boring old wall. Somewhere in the depths of my brain, a little voice tried to pry me away from the wall, to interact with the rest of the group, to open my eyes, but I resisted the temptation to escape; my body was giving me so much information, and as violent as it looked, it needed this freedom and time to get out.

My body surprised me again when Jonathan instructed us to dance our dance of power…and then put the brakes on that and had us switch to powerlessness. Things must have been cooking in my body, because within seconds something came to the surface out of nowhere, a sudden reminder of a time of powerlessness in my life, leaving me squirming on the ground, wailing.

And then there are all the interactions with others, sometimes brief, sometimes extended moments of giving, receiving, and sharing. Engaging in unlikely partnerships, touching the hair of someone you originally were unsure of, placing trust in another to lift you off the ground. Wordless dances that speak volumes, kinetic conversations with others that stay stored in your muscles (the heart being the biggest).

* * *

Why, when we introduce ourselves to others, California-based 5Rhythms teacher Lori Saltzman posed, are we always so quick to talk about “the bad stuff”? Why do we think sharing our traumas, inadequacies, and limitations is so appealing?

What if we celebrated the things we love? she asked.

So, after dancing one of the wildest, loudest, longest periods of Chaos, Lori told us to stop. The room went from frenetic drumming and screaming to silence. We got in groups of four. Paper and pens were passed out.

Use this energy built up from Chaos to reflect on what you love, Lori instructed. And be descriptive, she added. Don’t just say you “love dancing.” Write about the smells, sensations, and sounds that come along with this love. Be specific.

It was serious work. We went to town with those pens, writing furiously. People wrote about books, nature, pets, children, spouses, lovers, friends, mentors. We knew we’d eventually have to share them with our group; that was a given. But that wasn’t the most challenging part of the exercise.

Now, Lori said, after you’ve read your list to your group, end it by saying the following: “And when the time comes, may I say goodbye with grace.”

Tears began to pool in our eyes before we even started speaking; of all the dancing we did over those few days, this was by far the hardest exercise requested.

But it was also the central theme of this emotional roller coaster of a workshop, wasn’t it? All of us had gathered to celebrate the joy that Gabrielle had brought to our lives, our love for her, whether personal or indirect. We had come to “Slow Dance with Chaos,” and now the time had come for us to say goodbye with grace.

* * *

Of course I am sad to have never met Gabrielle in person, and I was very much looking forward to doing so at this workshop, but the poignancy of what occurred in its place is just as moving. The entire event was deeply emotional, essentially turning into a vigil/memorial/life celebration. 5Rhythms teachers from across the country stepped in to help, and I feel so fortunate to have witnessed such devotion.

I stood among people like myself who had never met Gabrielle; people who did one or two workshops with her; people with strong, spiritual connections to her; newly certified teachers who had only recently studied with her; teachers who have followed her dancing path ever since Gabrielle embarked on it herself.

Being among those people with such deep ties to the practice, those so close to Gabrielle, was a phenomenon to witness. Because I didn’t have those strong associations, I found it difficult to mourn the way others were, but I didn’t want to force myself to feel a specific emotion where there was none. I accepted being neutral, a conscious witness, taking in the tears around me without getting overly empathetic. I saw the pain and loss in Tammy, Lucia Horan, and Douglas Drummond’s dances; I heard Jonathan’s voice crack; I felt the sorrow and fear that erupted from Robert’s drumming during Chaos.

I had never met Gabrielle, but being with those closest to her during these moments of vulnerability provided me a glimpse into her spirit; through their exhalations of anguish, I sucked in the air they had shared with their mentor, mother, master, Mama G.

We ended the program by again chanting Om Namah Shivaya and “decorating” blank paper tags with our prayers, whispers, sweat, kisses, breath, and love and hanging them on the medicine wheel at the front of the room.

Gabrielle died the following evening at the age of 71.

* * *

Back to the little South Jersey yoga studio—where this story all began—I’m staring at the framed photo of Gabrielle, suddenly remembering why I’m here. No, it’s not New York, and no, there isn’t an international contingent of 100 people around me, but those aren’t reasons to dance.

We dance because we can, the way classmate Michelle so eloquently commented: “I will continue to move as long as my body allows me to, what it allows me to.”

Her words echoed what Jonathan had told us about his mother’s last movements, the way Gabrielle had danced to songs of stillness with her hands during her final days, because that was the only part of her body she could move.

If that spirit can remain with someone through her dying days, then it can sure as hell ignite movement in a healthy 30-something with nothing but a diagnosis of self-doubt.

My experience in New York was a time to memorialize, pay tribute, bow my head, clasp my hands, hold my heart. Now it was time to celebrate Gabrielle’s spirit, pay it forward, lift my head high, and open my hands and heart wide to new connections.

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