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After waiting patiently for 2 years for Maryland-based life dance coach Michelle Dubreuil Macek to return to my home turf, this past April I was finally able to dive back into Biodanza.

Biodanza's back in town!

Biodanza’s back in town!

With a nickname like the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia seems to be a perfect setting for Biodanza, as the practice—“a movement-based system that integrates music, dance, and authentic relationships with self, others, and the world to support health, joy, and a sense of being fully alive”—is all about exploring the capacity to connect with your classmates, your neighbors, and the human race as a whole. Bring on the love, yo.

LOVE statue

The practice of Biodanza reminds participants what it’s like to feel human—to breathe, to move freely, to embrace the vulnerability that comes with eye contact and individual attention, to brush past another’s arm or hand without getting flustered and feeling the need to apologize profusely for—heaven forbid!—having a fleeting moment of skin-on-skin contact with a fellow human being.

When I took my first Biodanza class in March of 2011 (detailed recap here), I was just starting out on my quest to explore my kinesthetic curiosity (alliteration intended). I had been dancing 5Rhythms for a year at that point, but was still relatively new to allowing myself to be fully present with others on the dance floor. I hadn’t done any 5Rhythms workshops or intensives at that point, and the videos of Biodanza that Michelle had posted on her website intimidated me, with all of the smiling and touching and laughing and dilated pupil moments.

I was used to dancing with myself, telling my story, with others in the background or as complementary characters. Biodanza was now asking me to incorporate these other people into my story, to make them part of my world too!

The first couple of minutes were hard for me. Then things got easier. Fun, even! That class 2 years ago was the first time I met (a different) Michelle, who has since become one of my closest dancing sisters, in that our souls have a secret and profound way of communicating with each other whenever we meet on the dance floor.

I hadn’t danced Biodanza since then, but if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I’ve amped up my 5Rhythms practice significantly during the past 2 years. 5Rhythms isn’t Biodanza and Biodanza isn’t 5Rhythms, but the two modalities work extremely well together in terms of exploring authentic movement and intentional connection.

In fact, both practices are based around “5s”: The 5Rhythms are Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, and Stillness; in Biodanza, the “Five Lines of Vivencia” are Vitality, Sexuality, Creativity, Affectivity, and Transcendence. Imagine both of those frameworks being written on transparent paper and placed on top of each other: Can you see the overlap?!

The class last month was two hours long and included several exercises that transformed our group of 11 from mostly strangers and acquaintances into a pretty tight gang (in fact, several of us went out for a group dinner afterward to prolong the friendship).

BiodanzaGroup_Regular

In the spirit of that magic number, I’ll discuss the 5 exercises that impacted me the most and which I think are good representations of the Biodanza practice.

WALKING vs. DANCING
One of the first exercises we did after introducing ourselves was pair with a partner, hold hands, and walk around the studio to music. Seems easy enough, but the tricky part was being reminded to simply walk with our partner, not dance. Michelle instructed us to hold eye contact with our partner, to just be there with him or her without feeling the need to entertain or do something together. It’s one of the few times that walking became more challenging than dancing; the utter simplicity of being versus doing (with someone we just met!) somehow felt more intimate than slow dancing at the junior prom.

SENSATIONS and SOUNDS
Imagine someone standing behind you, placing their hands lightly on your ankles, and then sweeping their hands upward, passing over your calves, thighs, buttocks, spine, neck, and finally—with a grand flourish—through your hair or over your scalp. What would the soundtrack to that elongated caress sound like? Would it be “WooooooooooOOOOO!” or “AhhhhhHHHHHHH!” or “EeeeeeeeeeEEE!“?

As the receiver of this touch, are you able to fully tune into where your partner’s hands are in relation to how quickly or slowly you are vocalizing? Are you making noise just to make noise, or are you truly feeling the marriage of touch and sound?

As the “sweeper,” are you paying attention to your partner’s body or just quickly going through the motions? Is your partner wearing pants, or do you feel the skin of his/her calves? What does the fabric of your partner’s shirt feel like? Did your hands explode through a thick mane of wavy locks, or did your fingertips glide over a bald scalp?

Now, imagine your partner giving a gentle poke to your nose. A firm tap on your shoulder. Another nose poke, nose poke, nose poke, followed by a quick pat on your head. What does that sound like? Maybe that combination of touches sounded something like “Meep! Hmm. Meep! Meep! Meep! Ahhhh.

This exercise turned our bodies into instruments, and the “receivers” had very little time (milliseconds!) to emit a sound that paired with their partners’ exploratory taps, touches, brushes, pokes, and pats. It was fun for both the giver, for whom the exercise was a bit like playing the game of Simon without rhyme or reason, and for the receiver, who was often surprised by what came out of his or her mouth.

With five pairs doing this exercise at once, the studio sounded like a bunch of robots gone haywire, blipping and beeping, meeping and squeaking. I don’t think there was anyone who didn’t break out laughing at one point or another.

BE and BREATHE
After all that entertainment, we had a bit of a serious moment with our partner, as one person lay down on his/her back and the other person simply rested a hand on the other’s belly. For about 3 minutes, all we did was be quietly present with our partner, either relaxing into the ground and being receptive to the human hand resting on our rising and falling bellies or being completely enamored with nothing else but our partner’s inhalations and exhalations.

The exercise was simple but profound, a tactile reminder of the breath of life. My partner was moved, commenting that the exercise reminded her of her mother’s passing and the gratitude of being able to be present for those last precious moments.

HEART DANCE
During one of the few exercises in which we partnered with ourselves, we all found a spot in the room in which we felt comfortable, closed our eyes, and allowed our bodies to unfold to slow, sensual music. Michelle reminded us to stay close to our hearts for this one, to feel the movement begin in the heart and radiate outward, not to get too caught up in grand choreography. We had just done so much work being present with partners; this was the time to get intimate with our own hearts.

It was hard for me to stay in one place, as the swelling music was just tempting me to dive into the dance floor. What I didn’t realize was that that part was coming up next; the point of this particular exercise was to contain the movement, to feel it deeply in yourself before passing it along.

In the proceeding exercise, Michelle invited our heart dances to move outside of their confined spaces and among the group. The gradual build-up beforehand allowed my movement to grow, expand, and finally be fully shared with others. The light and airy weaving of bodies in and around each other reminded me of the rhythm of Lyrical, our arms and hands extending like kites dancing in a gentle spring breeze.

RELATIONSHIP
Partner dancing with someone when both of your eyes are open ain’t no thang, but what happens when you turn off the sense of vision and have to rely primarily on touch? This was the basis of the dance of relationship, joining palms with a partner, closing the eyes, and feeling where the dance would go next. Movements had to be slow, deliberate, and incredibly mindful; if your partner shot his arm upward without any warning, you’d be left standing there with an empty palm, the connection broken due to lack of kinesthetic communication.

The challenge of this exercise was to strike a balance between awareness and attention, to sink into a soft dance without being obsessed with or hyperaware of every gesture. How much do you trust your partner, and how willing are you to let go and have faith in this mutual movement?

~ ~ ~

Much like my last class two years ago, I left this most recent Biodanza class feeling very deeply for my fellow dancers. I may not have remembered everyone’s names, but I sure did remember their eyes, their smiles, their particular body language. It was hard to part ways immediately after the workshop, and that’s why a few of us extended the evening and went out to dinner. The desire to stay connected was palpable in the post-class atmosphere.

However, I also learned that night as I left the city that the essence of Biodanza ends on the subway platform, where “human encounter” is seldom poetry but rather a short story, sometimes nothing but a trifold pamphlet.

My eyes were wide open when I entered the train, willing to make contact with another, eager for my personal verse/stanza to be joined by another’s until the entire train car was a collaborative poem of human encounter. But no one wants to make eye contact on the subway; the M.O. is head down, earbuds in place, hands in pockets.

Let’s work on this, shall we?! Michelle has plans to return to Philadelphia on June 8 at Mama’s Wellness Joint in Center City. Will you help the City of Brotherly Love become just a little more, well, loveable? Like this happy group of folks?

BiodanzaGroup_Silly

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Thursday was my office birthday celebration, which meant my manager brought in the treat of my choice (brownies!) and decorated my cubicle with the “Happy Birthday” confetti.

This time last year I felt anything but happy. I had never associated turning 30 with “getting old,” but then right before my birthday my hip situation worsened and an MRI revealed a torn labrum. At the same time, an x-ray of my leg revealed a mysterious “thing” in my femur, and I went for three agonizing months not knowing for sure what it was. Before I had a specialist deem it a harmless “bone island” (a true medical term, not the next FOX reality show, I swear), I spent my days making orthopedist and bone scan appointments, experimenting with antidepressants (which lasted for a week; I couldn’t stand the side effects), and having to take anxiety medication to go to sleep. The timing was awful, and I felt like my body was a cruel prankster, making everything break down at such a milestone year of my life.

Yet, even with those setbacks, being 30 turned out OK. The hip thing makes my body slightly more fragile, but I have learned to cope with it, taking my time getting in and out of cars, avoiding pigeon and related yoga poses, and always toting around an ice pack to strap on my side after a long day of walking or a cycling session at the gym.

I know I look older; I can no longer mask a night without sleep–the dark circles under my eyes give it away. I have a few more wrinkles on my face, and I am oh-so-crotchety. I am a 30-something, female version of the “Get off my lawn!”-yelling grandpa. Or a cuter version of Larry David. Either would be correct. Just ask my husband.

But, before I go grab a frying pan and yell at the local youth walking across my grass, here’s a look back at the high points of Year 30:

• I celebrated the big 3-0 down the shore with my sis. It was a great lil’ getaway; we went to Wildwood, a shore town we used to frequent annually as kids but then hadn’t been in years. We did some rides, strolled the boards, took goofy pictures, scared ourselves silly riding ducks suspended on an overhead track, took the “back roads”-way home to avoid an accident that left us thinking we accidentally drove into Kansas, and then sat our sandy and sweaty beach butts down at IndeBlue back home for dinner.

I dorked out seeing Morey's Pier after such a prolonged absence.

Even mannequinns get heatstroke.

Heads up!

I've been on countless roller coasters, but returning to the Sea Serpeant fuh-reaked me out! I'm Death-Grip Donna, fourth row from the top.

• 30th birthday celebration II: Surprise Riversharks baseball game with friends. Bryan coordinated the event with a respectable number of guests; any more and I would have cried. I made it very clear to him that I did not want any big birthday surprise parties!

My kind of crowd!

• Birthday celebration III: Another outing with my sis, which included mango mimosas and omelets for brunch, a random African flea market, and a friend’s production of the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, during which I was asked to be a part of the cast!

• Birthday celebration IV: A trip to Atlantic City, to redeem Bryan’s birthday gift to me: Tickets to the Season 7 So You Think You Can Dance tour!

Robert and Dominic!

• One of the greatest moments of my 30-year-old life was visiting a Disneyphile’s Mecca: Disneyland! Walt Disney World in Florida is my home base, but our trip to California last September allowed us the opportunity to walk in Walt’s footsteps.

The very first Disney castle!

As an East Coaster my heart will always belong to WDW, but the trip allowed us to see lots of cool things original to Disneyland:

An outdoors "It's A Small World"!

The Matterhorn!

A Monorail that runs through the park!

A Haunted Mansion that switches over to a "Nightmare Before Christmas" theme!

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride (does my shirt scream "Geek"?)!

A whole new Disney park–California Adventure!

Totally awesome evening show: World of Color!

• Being in California also meant seeing some really cool sights in the LA area:

Hollywood from the hills

LA traffic

The Walt Disney Concert Hall

A frozen yogurt junkie's heaven

The beautiful Getty Center

Sepulveda Dam, which I thought was so lame at the time. (I have a new appreciation for it, now that I know it was featured on "24" and "Alias.")

• My 30th New Year’s celebration included some awesome rooftop fireworks over Philly, which we may never see again now that our friends who lived in the high-rise apartment complex have moved.

• After maintaining a fairly private blog since 2003, I started this here Flowtation Devices in March!

• After being without a “yoga home” for more than a year, I find a studio right by my office–and a teacher whose classes I love!

• I took time to polish up my resume, reminding myself that I done good.

• I put on my big-girl shoes and drove to Philly by myself so I could start attending 5Rhythms classes in the city.

• 30 became the year of fanatic plane watching:

• One of the best places to watch planes is Red Bank Battlefield Park, which became a go-to spot for Bryan and I on nice days:

• My dad won tickets to a Phillies game–my first time at Citizens Bank Park, and some SWEET seats, too!

• I finally got to bang on my djembe a little more at some rockin’ drum circles:

Facilitator Jim Donovan and Old-Lady Friend Carrol.

• Bryan and I spend the evening with fellow NPR nerds at a live recording of Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me at the Academy of Music. Things get even better after Christmas, when Bryan gets me a shiny red iPod Nano and I can finally listen to the podcasts!

• I enter my first sporty competition and complete the swimming portion of a team duathlon.

• A railroad crossing near our house that has been closed since the dawn of time OPENS, meaning we can drive from one side of town to the other without having to make a giant u-turn. I consider this 30th Birthday Celebration V; it was a huge victory in our town!

• Bryan gets a new job that allows him to work from home–more husband time! And weeknight dinners together, too–a brand new concept for the wife of a former newspaper photographer!

• I supervise some kick-ass interns at work. It feels good to work with young, intelligent minds…and even help one score a full-time gig!

Round II of physical therapy for my hip includes some odd moments (nothing like having a male PT assistant glue electric nodes to my “underwear” area), but I walk away from the 2-month endeavor feeling better and armed with some incredibly useful hip and back exercises.

• I take blogging to the next level by joining an online community. Ahhh, commitment!

• While delving into all kinds creative movement, I fall head-over-heels in love with Biodanza during an introductory workshop. (It’s returning to Philly in August!)

___________________________

…So there you have it, kiddos. 30 was such an odd year for me, because I do the pee-pee dance when I see Donald Duck dressed as a pumpkin (and break down in tears when he walks away before I get a picture), yet I grumble and scowl like an old lady when kids go splashy-splash in the pool during my lap time at the gym. How one can be so much like Dora the Explorer and Dorothy Zbornak at the same time is a mystery…but–yes, thank you Lady Gaga–dammit, I was born this way!

A real-time photo of me transforming from age 30 into 31.

I loved Biodanza before I even stepped foot into the introductory workshop this past weekend, for three reasons:

1) The name alone. It translates to “dance of life.” Adding “bio” onto something makes it sound essential to life, like dance is essential to our biological existence, just as important as eating and breathing. Yes!

2) Biodanza’s tagline is “the poetry of human encounter.” Beautiful!

3) A quick definition of Biodanza is “a movement-based system that integrates music, dance, and authentic relationships with self, others, and the world to support health, joy, and a sense of being fully alive.” Bring it!

Biodanza Background

Without getting too much into the history, Biodanza originated in Chile, developed by Rolando Toro Araneda, a clinical psychologist and anthropologist who noticed the positive effects of music and dance on his patients. Biodanza as a movement/healing modality is found mostly in South America, Europe, and the U.S. West Coast. The instructor from Saturday’s workshop, Michelle Dubreuil Macek, is in the process of opening a Biodanza school on the East Coast; she is located in the Maryland/DC area but expressed interest in coming to the Philadelphia region regularly if the interest is there. (I’m raising my hand now, but you can’t see it!)

Despite my excitement about the workshop, I’ll admit I was a bit nervous. The instructor posted a video of a sample class online beforehand, and there was a lot of partner work. Touching. Looking eye-to-eye with other students. Now, we do do some partner work in 5Rhythms, but there’s generally no “forced” contact, and much of the class is a private experience with the added benefit of using others’ energy to enhance or energize your own dance. Connections are made during 5Rhythms, but they are somewhat indirect, whereas the entire purpose of Biodanza is to experience a meaningful connection with everyone in the room. This is done through various exercises, such as walking around the room holding hands with a partner while looking at them in the eyes, or sitting in groups of four, closing your eyes, and weaving your hands up and down with the others in your circle: fingers, thumbs, and wrists gently stroking and brushing each other. Several solo exercises are incorporated throughout, to strengthen your connection to self. It wasn’t that I was opposed to the partner/group work; I just had reservations about delving into them in just a 2-hour program. It sounded like something that would require time: Would it be possible for connections like that to develop in just 120 minutes?

Initial Awkwardness

I was afraid of being the “unfeeling” one in the class, the student whose smiles and enthusiasm about holding hands were fake and forced, self-consciously trying to enjoy all of the exercises with as much gusto as the folks around me. And yes, the first exercise—getting into a big circle, holding hands, and dancing around like hippies without the “Kumbaya”—was a bit awkward. People started smiling from the get-go, but I just wasn’t feeling the love right away; I felt like I was being pressured into an adult version of Ring-a-Round the Rosey.

Is That a Smile I See?

The next exercise had us in pairs, holding hands, and walking around the room to upbeat music. We were directed to look into each others’ eyes during the process. I started to break out of my shell here, only because the combination of the fun music plus our goofy walking/dancing/skipping moves and the direction to  communicate only through our eyes and face (with the exception of the teacher’s talking, the entire class is nonverbal) made me feel like I was dancing in a GAP commercial. In fact, if you had put us all in khakis and blue button-down shirts, we were a GAP commercial.

Other partner/group exercises included the “Airport Greeting,” where we partnered up and had to approach our partner from across the room as though we were seeing them for the first time in years. My partner was a middle-aged black woman named Michelle, who was just the most ebullient person in the room. Her eyes twinkled and her entire faced glowed, and when we finally met up at the “airport gate,” we exploded in giggles and embraced as though we had really known each other, even though I had only just met her an hour ago.

There were times, no doubt, we all looked like a bunch of freshmen college students in Acting 101 class. If I let myself think too much about what was going on, surely I would cringe. But the fact was, I was having fun, I paid to be here, and everyone else around me was there for a reason too.

Dancing Alone vs. Dancing with Others

What made the class work was the balance between dancing with others and dancing alone. So for all of the partner exercises, there were the same number of private moments, when we could escape into our own movement. We walked to boogie-woogie music, and then tried walking to a very different song with a strong downbeat. We danced from our hips, and then from our heart. We were instructed to “dance our breath.” The music picked up, and we danced with no boundaries, much like the rhythm of Chaos.

However, as someone who generally shuns group/partner work, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed working with others. One of most moving exercises for me was the “seaweed arm dance,” in which we s-l-o-w-l-y traveled through the room while letting our arms dance like seaweed. The teacher told us that if we happened to bump into someone, turn it into a meaningful connection instead of shying away. It happened a few times to me: I’d “bump” into someone with my arms; my gut reaction was to apologize and draw away, but instead I’d try to avoid flinching and just stay connected to them (much like the basis of contact improv).

Well, That Was Fun!

The workshop ended the same way it started: with all of us in a circle, hands clasped, doing the ol’ Ring-Around-the-Rosey, but this time to Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy,” and far less awkward. Our smiles were relaxed and genuine, and we pulled and tugged and skipped and laughed like first graders out at recess. Just the day before, I had commented in 5Rhythms class that it’s so hard to get my face to become part of the dance; I can make my elbows dance, I can make my knees dance, but everything from the neck up is a struggle. But that afternoon in Biodanza, I could finally feel my face start to dance: My eyes widened and winked; I exchanged goofy bug-eyed, tongue-out expressions; I pouted my lips, I made monster faces; and for once my teeth saw the light of day. The super-serious military sergeant mask finally gave way.

The 2-hour class flew by, and I felt so humble and content afterward. I lingered around, chatting with a girl who looked slightly younger than me and was there with her mother-in-law to be, and then with Michelle, the enthusiastic black woman I had paired with earlier. She confessed that she was actually very shy; I was stunned–she looked like a pro!

Lasting Impressions

For the rest of the weekend, every time I closed my eyes I saw the faces of those with whom I danced that afternoon. After looking at people directly in the eye for a prolonged period, their faces really become emblazoned in your mind. And vividly, too. Even today, three whole days later, I can close my eyes and picture every one of those in the studio with me. It reminded me of our YTT graduation at Kripalu, when we walked down the “receiving line” and made direct eye contact with each of our classmates.

Physically, I felt wonderful too. Between doing 5Rhythms on Friday, Biodanza on Saturday, and then some simple swimming on Sunday, my body was so happy–allowed to move as it needed, with plenty of “self-regulation” (a term the Biodanza teacher reinforced) whenever the hip needed a break.

Final Comments

(a) A Biodanza group has to be fairly large, at least 10 people. Any less, and then you’re stuck dancing with the same people over and over again. The good thing about Saturday’s class size was that there were so many people to partner with and several personalities to explore.
(b) If a regular class were to be offered, it would be preferable to have the same group each time, rather than the class as a drop-in offering. Otherwise, newcomers may potentially feel left out if they drop in on a group that has established a deep connection already.
(c) You can’t have any reservations about germs and hand-holding.
(d) Yes, several of the exercises are goofy and silly. But so is sitting around someone’s living room watching them play Guitar Hero.
(e) I was amazed at how much I was sweating. It felt like more of a “cleansing” sweat though, than a “workout” sweat.

In conclusion, Biodanza (or as my husband calls it, Tony Danza) is something I would like to do again!

About the Author

Name: Jennifer

Location: Greater Philadelphia Area

Blog Mission:
SHARE my practice experience in conscious dance and yoga,

EXPAND my network of like-minded individuals,

FULFILL my desire to work with words in a more creative and community-building capacity;

FLOW and GROW with the world around me!

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