Like most children of my generation, I grew up watching Sesame Street. I loved Big Bird, I got pissed at Oscar the Grouch, and I caught on early to the fact that the cookies Cookie Monster shoved in his mouth just broke into pieces and spewed all over the place, never really being ingested and eaten.

I really loved Sesame Street. However, there were two recurring segments that actually scared me and sent me face-first into the couch cushions so I wouldn’t have to watch: (a) the “Yip Yip” martians; and (b) the shadow puppets.

I can see being disturbed by those slack-jawed martians with their hypermobile mouths and crooked antennae. They’re weird looking and speak in jibberish. But being frightened by the shadow of someone’s arm turning into an elephant or swan? I wish I could have a conversation with my 4-year-old self and figure out what exactly about that segment made me squeal in terror and cover my eyes. Why was I afraid of shadows?

Well, apparently adults are just as easily frightened by shadows as they were 20-something years ago, because when 5Rhythms teacher Douglas Drummond announced he was leading a “Light and Shadow” workshop in my area a few weeks ago, I instantly equated it with “good vs. bad,” “happy vs. sad.” I imagined us taking these five beautiful rhythms and plunging them into darkness, exposing their menacing, scary sides. I pictured my happy-go-lucky Ronald McDonald dancing transforming into Pennywise from Stephen King’s It, laughter morphing into screams. No thank you!

This wasn’t the case, of course. The workshop was called “Light and Shadow,” not “Light and Dark.” Two very different things! As Douglas explained: “The shadow should not be looked upon as a negative, rather an integral component of the bigger picture—a play with polarity.”

The five rhythms and their respective shadows are:

Flowing / Inertia
Staccato / Rigidity
Chaos / Confusion
Lyrical / Distraction
Stillness / Numbness

This wasn’t an exploration of opposites; more like an examination of our underbellies, those angles of our bodies that are difficult to see without a mirror. After all, the opposite of Stillness would probably be something more like Chaos, not numbness. We were learning to dance with the fraternal twin of each rhythm, not its evil cousin.

It’s true, the shadows listed above may, at first, seem “bad.” But Douglas was quick to explain the benefit in each of them, starting with the concept of physical shadows themselves. Ever been in the city on a hot and sunny 100-degree day? Stepping into the shadows cast by the towering buildings can be a welcome reprieve. Alternatively, stepping out of the shadows on a 30-degree day can be just as rewarding. Neither is bad; one complements the other.

Flowing / Inertia

Regarding inertia, Douglas used the metaphor of a garden hose with a kink in the tubing. What was once freely flowing is now blocked, perhaps only a trickle of water escaping from the mouth. I was reminded of the “squeeze-and-soak” concept of twisting yoga postures, where creating restriction in one area of the body will expel staleness and allow room for fresh blood to flow in once released, much like wringing out a dirty sponge.

Movement-wise, Douglas described inertia as trying to move while wearing a heavy backpack. This was a good exercise for me because I tend to be a dramatic upper-body mover, prone to always being one arm-flail away from dislocating my hyperflexible shoulders or elbows. Instilling that sense of heaviness in my upper body created a kinesthetic awareness that I would have never allowed myself to experience; inertia was a wise old sage reminding me to be cautious with flowing.

Staccato / Rigidity

It’s only appropriate that I had just watched The Hunger Games on Netflix before working with this shadow, because, as Douglas explained, rigidity is like the tension built up in a crossbow before an arrow is shot. Without tension, there is no directness and the target will never be hit.

Someone with a staccato personality will just come right out and say what’s on her mind: “Yes!” “No!” If that person becomes rigid, the staccato is brewing inside but is just never quite fully released, the way someone’s eyes will scream Yes or No but the words are stuck in her throat.

While dancing rigidity, I was reminded of my days studying ballet—specifically pointe—when my feet were jammed into tight block-like shoes, my ankles bound with satin ribbon, and my movement consisting of a series of straight lines. But that type of dance is also an art form, and at the time it meant a lot to me. My years of rigidity taught me discipline, direction, and poise. My current barefoot and dubstep-supported staccato is stronger because of my years in tights and a tutu.

Chaos / Confusion

Even in my wildest Chaos, I am usually able to maintain a sense of proprioception; whether I’m flailing, leaping, or spinning like a whirling dervish, I still have a keen sense of body awareness that keeps me from colliding with someone else or running into a wall.

Switch that to a confused state, and I may start to lose my footing. Step on another’s foot. Even with my eyes wide open, being confused will have me running into more obstacles than an eyes-closed chaos.

I think the difference lies in the role of the brain: In Chaos, there is minimal cerebral interference. Things are wild and loose and frenetic, but the body is intelligent and is rolling with the punches, so to speak. The body knows. In confusion, however, things are still wild and loose and frenetic, but the brain keeps trying to step in and control the situation. In confusion, the mind keeps questioning “Why? Why? Why?” instead of just letting things be, regardless of how messy or weird or unattractive they are.

Confusion can also be a gift, too. While walking in a bad neighborhood at night, switching the brain on to full-power and having a slight sense of panic may clue one into something amiss and save her life.

Lyrical / Distraction

So often I compare Lyrical to dessert, the sweetness that comes after supper, a sumptuous reward for making it through the rather strenuous and hearty rhythms preceding it. Lyrical is meant to be savored one spoonful at a time: licked, nibbled, sucked.

And then there’s dessert with distraction, devouring the slice of office birthday cake because it’s sitting on your desk, hurriedly shoving forkfuls of icing into your mouth while composing an e-mail in Outlook. Or excitedly finding the last strawberry-cream-filled chocolate in the Whitman’s sampler and popping the whole thing in your mouth at once, distracted by the object itself rather than focused on the sensory pleasure of taking it in.

I acknowledge that I have a tendency to slip into distraction (also described by Douglas as “spaced out”) more than I’d like, especially at the weekly farmers’ market. There’s usually a lot going on at once—cute dogs being walked, cooking demos being presented, plump vegetables and warm apple cider doughnuts being sold—and instead of taking a deep breath and becoming one with all this goodness, I tend to separate myself from it all, viewing it in a blurry haze. It feels a bit like walking around without my glasses, viewing things out of focus.

I was surprised, then, that the embodied version of distraction was not as “blurry” as I thought it would be. My fellow classmate described becoming captivated by his hands and all of their intricate movements during this portion of class; I too had a similar experience, becoming fascinated by the glowing red exit sign above the door. So, yes, we were “distracted” by these singular objects rather than surrendering our entire body to Lyrical; however, there was a notion of pointed, meditative focus involved in this distraction, which is certainly not a “bad” thing.

It reminds me of sitting in the church pew during my friends Erik and Anna’s wedding. Everyone around me was singing a hymn, eyes glued on the lyrics; I got distracted and decided instead to glance up at the two of them sitting at the front of the church. They exchanged cute smiles and expressions of love, probably not aware that anyone was looking up from their hymnals. My distraction gave me a few seconds of witnessing something very special.

Stillness / Numbness

Stillness is being open to mystery. Numbness is shutting down: Nothing in, nothing out.

There are moments for numbness, like receiving bad news at an office meeting. When you’re sitting around a conference table with the big-wigs and learn that the company is cutting employees’ salaries, it’s professionally wise to just hear the information and process it later, since it will most likely involve expletives or crying or fist pounding. Nothing in, nothing out (until after work, and probably at the bar with your colleagues).

Numbness makes me think of the chilly Decembers when my sister and I would crawl into a freezing car after Christmas dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house, screaming at the cold leather under our butts and impatiently waiting for the engine to warm up so we could too. Sometimes—instead of carrying on with all the “Brrrrrrs” and shivering and foot stomping—it was easier to just become limp inside our winter coats and go into silent hibernation mode. Nothing in, nothing out, just lifeless bodies in the backseat until the heat kicked in.

In those ways, numbness is protective, shutting down receptivity in an effort to save face or save energy.

Dance-wise, numbness was the most difficult shadow for me to embody. It felt like a “scary” place to me; not scary like Pennywise from It but scary like Robert De Niro in Awakenings, a catatonia that shut down my ability to express what I needed to express. I remember getting stuck in a shuffling kind of foot pattern—step forward, step back, step forward, step back—when all I really wanted to do was plow ahead. I remember wanting to extend my arm out but found it paralyzed next to my torso.

It was frustrating and sad. I’m glad we weren’t partnering at the time, because I can’t imagine standing in front of someone and being completely immune and indifferent to their movement. Alternatively, it would be equally as difficult to pour my heart out through movement and get nothing in return.

Impressions

The format of Douglas’ class worked perfectly with our environment: The light-centric portion of class coincided with daylight, and by the time the shadow-centric Wave had rolled around, the sun had set and we were dancing by candlelight. Not only were we dancing with our metaphorical shadows but our literal ones, too! Many times I could only identify someone by the outline of his or body. Even in those conditions, no one clashed or collided or ran into walls. Again, shadows aren’t necessarily “bad”!

A fascinating coincidence was that our venue—a Friends school—still had its display up from Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a reminder about the importance of acknowledging and celebrating the shadow side of our physical existence on earth.

It brought me back to the 5Rhythms workshop I had done in October, the one Gabrielle Roth was supposed to lead. Our space was decorated in black and white, a celebration of living and dying and everything in-between.

It was a poignant event, but never “dark.” Gabrielle’s son Jonathan and her husband Robert talked about the shadows, brought them to the forefront, but never thrust us into complete darkness or misery. We danced along the continuum, at times more heartbroken than others, sometimes going from crying to laughing to crying in a matter of minutes.

* * *

I don’t know what the Children’s Television Workshop was thinking when it introduced those freaky Yip-Yip martians to Sesame Street, but I have to say, those educational researchers must have been onto something with the shadow puppets. Even though I didn’t accept it at the time, I’ve come to realize that shadows aren’t bad or scary, whether we’re talking about a hand becoming a horse or Chaos becoming confusion.

Our shadows are always with us, even (and especially) on the brightest and lightest of days. It’s about time we become acquainted with our other half so we can better understand the full spectrum of our movement, and—more important—our existence.

Light and Shadow installation

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