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A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how my summertime dancing has pretty much worn me down to the bone, so I guess it was a blessing that there were no 5Rhythms events on the calendar this past weekend. Instead, I was able to attend something much lighter and less intense—an ’80s-themed YogaDance class led by Nikki, who admitted to being sick and feverish but still managed to be her usual firecracker self.

To be honest, at first, the ’80s theme almost scared me away. I was born in 1980, so I never felt particularly connected to the songs that made the decade. I mean, for most of that time period, I was listening to Rainbow Brite books on tape, Jem and the Holograms cassettes, or music that came along with my Barbie and the Rockers doll. It wasn’t until the ’90s when I started to fully understand the music of my times; you know, classics like Kris Kross’ “Jump,” Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Do (I Do it For You)” (which can make 12-year-old girls in love with their classroom D.A.R.E. officer weep…true story), and, of course, “Ice, Ice Baby.”

The tipping point that got me to go to the ’80s class was the fact that a decent number of people had already RSVP’d, and, well, I’m beginning to understand and appreciate the power of a group. I’d get to dance, sneak in a “doesn’t-feel-like-exercising” workout, and be around some fun people. I realized that I genuinely wanted to be part of the party!

…And a party it was! There were scarves! We “Vogue”d! Heck, we even re-created the chair/water scene from Flashdance‘s “Maniac”!

However, it took me a while to get into the groove. The premise of YogaDance is to move through the chakra system; most classes start with the lower “feeling” chakras and work their way up into the “speaking” and “thinking” chakras. I was so much in my head at the start of class that diving first thing into the muladhara and swadhisthana chakras just didn’t feel natural. I struggled to find my sultry cat during “Stray Cat Strut” and may have let George Michael down with my half-assed rendition of “I Want Your Sex.” I’m curious how my movement may have been different had these numbers come later in class, after I worked through the mental chatter.

The disconnection I was feeling was unsettling, so I thought back to the reason I came to the class: The power of a group! I shifted my attention to everyone else, being aware of not just my own movement but of everyone around me—fully acknowledging their smiles, exuberance, and connection to the music. I loved seeing YogaDance newbies just let it all loose, watching fellow dancer Suzie rock out like Cyndi Lauper, witnessing women belt out the lyrics to “Tainted Love.” Before I knew it, I had been infected (with love!). People frequently tell me that my passionate movement inspires them to dance deeper, but that Friday night I really needed others to be my lighthouse.

Even with the ’80s theme, Nikki constructed appropriate ways to dance into the more sentimental upper chakras. She used a beautiful ballad version of “Time After Time” (by Cassandra Wilson) as music for an Irish circle dance that may have brought tears to my eyes. (OK, it did.) For our last song, Joe Cocker’s “Up Where We Belong” was the soundtrack to our individual prayer dance. I loved how some people bust out into a full-blown lyrical dance (me) and others sat in stillness but yet bursting with gratitude. Everyone’s prayer was one of love, but they were expressed so uniquely.

I didn’t even realize it at the time, but Nikki sneakily led her class for an additional 30 minutes. The hour-long class I was originally reluctant to take had grown into 90 minutes without my knowing, and I have to thank not just Nikki but every other person in that studio for showing me just how fun an evening of INXS, Michael Jackson, and The Cure can be.

My first experience with 5Rhythms was in April 2010. The class took place in a suburban yoga studio, which resides in the basement of an office building. The space is warm and nurturing, but—being in a basement—there are no windows, no view of the outside, and the ceiling hangs low enough that jumping with your arms above your head is something to do with caution.

It is a sweet spot, a second home where I have experienced moments of great tenderness. The monthly class draws a small crowd, enough to have moments of connection with everyone in the room. Metaphorically, the space is a bit like a living room fireplace—cozy, sensual, with the invitation to sink in, let go for a moment, and then return to softness before drifting to Stillness with an empty glass of wine in your hand.

And then there’s New York.

New York City is the heart of 5Rhythms, the headquarters for the practice.

If my monthly class in suburban New Jersey is a crackling fireplace, dancing with Tammy Burstein on a Friday night at the Joffrey Ballet School is a 6-foot high roaring bonfire at Burning Man.

This past Friday marked my first 5Rhythms pilgrimage to Manhattan, thanks to the transportation coordination of one of our tribeholders (I would have never gotten there myself). I was both excited (working with a master teacher, dancing with so many personalities) and terrified (little suburban girl in the big city!).

The funny thing is, to get to the 5Rhythms space, you have to climb to the 5th floor of the building, brushing past leotard-and-tights-clad Joffrey Ballet dancers. In the locker room, I change into my Target yoga pants and flowing floral shirt from Kohl’s as the young girl next to me donned in skin-tight Capezio ballet wear fixes her immaculate bun in the mirror. We walk past rehearsal spaces with girls lined up along the barre, the sound of an instructor counting off “and 1, and 2, and 3, and 4,” everyone’s movement synchronized, coordinated, legs and arms moving as one.

I realized that that terrified me more than anything—the memory of always aiming for perfection, the instant sense of competition when slipping into ballet shoes and lining up with other girls whose battements were just a little higher than yours, whose triple pirouettes looked more solid than your doubles. Being in that environment—if only for a few minutes—made entering the 5Rhythms space that much more relieving, a coming home of sorts.

The barres were pushed to the sides of the room; the only light illuminating the space was a strand of Christmas lights strung around the perimeter, the setting sun outside, and the ever-glowing lights of Manhattan at dusk. People of all shapes, sizes, races, and dance attire begin filtering in the expansive space, and like that we all knew what to do. Just get out there and dance. Music played, we moved. The feeling of being surrounded by so many people (40? 50?) who looked so comfortable in their bodies was incredible. It was a struggle at first to sink within myself and find my own dance when all I wanted to do was step back and watch everyone else. A woman sat off to the side and sketched the whole night. I wish I could have seen what her eyes saw.

I didn’t make too many connections during the first Wave, and that disappointed me. So many brilliant people were in this space, and I yearned to share a moment of movement with them. As I slowed down into Stillness, I almost let this melancholy take over me until Tammy said to the group, “Learn to be confident with yourself the way you would with another.”

Those words were all I needed to hear. As the next Wave began, I knew that I had to dance for myself first. The purpose of the practice wasn’t to seek out acceptance from others but to find it within. The magic is that once I stuck to that creed, connection began on its own. I shared a heart-thumping, fourth-chakra Chaos shake-off with one person; a theatrical Broadway-esque dance to “This Little Light of Mine” with another; and a slow and intimate linkage of hands and arms with Jason, Tammy’s husband. As I shimmied past others, there were brief but personal moments of connection, whether through eye contact, an exchange of vocal out-breaths, or fancy footwork.

The second Chaos of the evening was by far the most powerful, when it felt as though every body in that room was gasping for the same breath, sweating from the same pores. As the pulsing techno music reached its climax, everyone in the room joined in a guttural scream, arms flailing, sweat drip-drip-dripping. It felt like I was in an amusement park, riding every attraction at once—descending down the first hill of a roller coaster, spinning on the Gravitron, pulling the cord on the freefall. I was simultaneously losing control but being so acutely aware of it, dropping and spinning and plummeting yet also feeling like everything was suspended in time. It was the stillpoint in the Chaos, a moment of such madness but with a mysterious current of calmness underneath.

Crystal-clear clarity washed over me after Chaos into Lyrical, my senses open to everything around me: The clocktower next to our building chiming nine times, echoing in the cavernous streets of the city below. The pinpoint top of the Empire State Building peeking above the flat-topped buildings in front of us. The aroma of pizza wafting through the open windows, the light breeze brushing my cheek. Car horns honking, trucks idling, engines revving. The reds and greens of the traffic lights glowing. Silhouetted bodies around me moving like chess pieces coming to life. The sight of another person’s apartment across the street, a painting on the wall. The muffled sound of piano music coming from the ballet studio below. All of these things became part of the dance, the movement of just being.

I sucked in all of these elements around me as the final Stillness began, my hands caressing the floor as though it were another’s chest, coaxing them into this sweet stillness with me, my fingertips brushing over an invisible collarbone, sternum, rib cage. There was nothing but floorboards under my skin, but I felt so much life. When I walked outside onto 6th Avenue, the subway rumbled below in return, my feet vibrating from this underground turbulence: the chaos, the stillness, the musical meditation of Manhattan.

Photo Courtesy of Flickr User muckster

During the 10-week tai chi series I participated in earlier this year, there were times in between practicing the previous week’s moves and learning the next one that I would ever-so-briefly slip into ballerina mode and turn the form into a dance, secretly wishing the instructor would dim the lights a bit, turn up the volume on the pan flute music, and not care that I was giving these martial arts moves a bit of rhythm and sensuality.

Tai chi is a practice of stillness, and yet the movements moved me: The extreme attention to detail, the microscopic focus, and the repetitive nature of the practice brought my mind to such a stillpoint that it became keenly aware of all the chi (energy) moving within. At times it was difficult to contain this flow of energy. It simply wanted to dance!

That’s why when I heard about a relatively new “dance meditation system” called Wu Tao—a blend of Chinese medicine, dance, and music—I agreed to go to the introductory workshop before I even really investigated what the practice was all about. A brief video on YouTube showed a medley of free-form movement and tai chi-like choreography, and that’s all I needed.

I felt very fortunate to be a part of the class, as it was one of the first offerings of Wu Tao in the United States; the practice originated in Australia, the brainchild of former ballerina Michelle Locke, who, after a back injury, went on to study Chinese medicine and healing. Wu Tao is the marriage of her two strongest passions, complemented by a third element: music to accompany the movement, composed by her husband.

Michelle described Wu Tao as a way to restore inner peace, balance, and energy (qi) in the body, and clearly the practice has had an effect on her: She came into the studio late after being gridlocked in horrendous turnpike traffic, yet somehow remained remarkably cool, calm, and collected. I couldn’t believe how such a soft and soothing voice could emerge from someone stuck behind a steering wheel for 2+ hours.

Michelle, me, and a move from the “Wood” element dance.

What makes Wu Tao stand out from other dance meditation practices is its connection to the visceral body, specifically the body’s meridian channels, pathways that run through our bodies bringing energy—qi—to our internal organs. (These meridians are the basis of acupuncture; you know, how a needle in your back can heal pain in your toe.) Each set of movements stimulates specific meridians, but in a subtle way, so you’re never really consciously thinking “large intestine, large intestine, large intestine.” You move, you breathe, and the energy transforms naturally.

Wu Tao’s movements are based on the five elements: Air, Water, Wood, Fire, and Earth; what a magic number in dance, as it reminded me so much of the energy behind 5Rhythms. The major difference, though, is that in Wu Tao each element has choreography—a “routine” so to speak—to learn, practice, and then execute with the music. It really was like a dance version of tai chi (or qi gong)—specific moves designed to keep the life force flowing, all while adding the element of music and personality.

Because it was our first time experiencing Wu Tao, we spent a lot of time learning the moves and practicing them, but experienced practitioners can complete a series in about 30 minutes, much like going through a tai chi form or surya namaskars. During the workshop, we learned and practiced the elements of:

Air: Several upward sweeping arm movements to stimulate the lungs and large intestine, all with a theme of letting go, casting away grief, shedding fear.
Water: Performed on the floor, mostly side-to-side rocking, rolling, and forward bends, all meant to stimulate the bladder and kidneys, as well as to honor our energy, rest, and allow the natural current of the water to carry us.
Wood: A dynamic set of movements to stimulate the liver and gall bladder, starting from grounding the body like tree roots to growing tall, a feeling of moving forward, direction, and purpose.

We didn’t have time to learn the final elements of Fire and Earth, but I imagine them to be very much like the rhythms of Lyrical and Stillness, respectively: Fire, a chance to come home to the heart; and Earth, a moment of being still, receptive, and finding grace.

We ended class with a guided “river” meditation, Michelle playing soothing music in the background as she encouraged us to imagine ourselves floating down a river. I have to say, this was the most vivid portion of class for me, probably because of all the work going on inside of my body after such a powerful practice. I envisioned myself dressed all in white, a kind of water-based angel flowing effortlessly down a river that twisted through snow-capped mountains and luscious green landscapes. I saw this from both a bird’s-eye view and a first-person perspective, changing focus with each bend of the waterway. It was absolutely stunning, like I was watching a painting unfold in my mind and body.

I realized after I sat up that the essence of Wu Tao emerges after the practice. Although I enjoyed doing the moves in the moment, I didn’t actually feel their full effect until I had given the newly transformed energy time to circuit through my body during the relaxation/meditation portion. It’s very much like how I feel during tai chi: sometimes not fully appreciating what I’m doing until it’s done, and then WHOOSH. A sudden feeling of inner peace.

The practice is accessible for all skill levels; moves can be modified, and Michelle even offers special classes for adults with dementia and a chair-based class for those with physical limitations. Wu Tao for Two is a specialized practice designed for couples as a way of deepening connection and spirit:

In fact, Michelle and her husband will be offering a Wu Tao for Two class this weekend at Jaya Healing Arts in Lambertville, New Jersey. It’s a sweet spot above an antiques store in a super-cutesy central Jersey town, right across the Delaware River from New Hope, Pennsylvania. (The coffee shop a few doors down offers almondmilk for your lattes…HUGE selling point, in my book!) She’s also teaching regular Wu Tao classes Monday and Wednesday July 23 and 25 at Lucky Lotus Yoga Studio in Brooklyn before heading back to Australia.

Would I do Wu Tao again? Absolutely. It requires the attention of tai chi/qi gong but with the added element of freedom to flow and infuse your own individuality, a perfect blend of healing and moving arts. And anything that can allow me to sink into such a blissful state of relaxation afterward is definitely worth pursuing.

An interesting thing happened in 5Rhythms class last weekend: The stereo crapped out.

5Rhythms is movement meditation practice guided by—you got it—music, so you can imagine how this threw a wrench in the instructor’s plans. We were 20 minutes into a 2.5-hour long class, and now, instead of a thumping, bass-filled surround-sound, we had only the tinny whisper of music straining from the instructor’s laptop, such a small sound in comparison to the huge room we were dancing in.

Luckily, the teacher was pretty quick on his feet and miraculously found a way to teach the 5Rhythms through sound rather than music. Either he’s just really good at extemporaneous instruction or there’s a component of 5Rhythms training titled “Music Crises 101.” Either way, it worked.

For a portion of the class, we became the music, vocalizing “Flowing” sounds, so that the room became a chorus of oooohs and aaahs and sing-song laughter. We made sound together; we sang alone. I see these people dance all the time with my eyes but never before had the chance to hear their dance with my ears. Where did that deep, throaty sound come from? Was that inside you all this time?

We used clapping and stomping for Staccato, a gong to facilitate the release of Chaos, flew around the room like birds for Lyrical, and gathered close to the laptop as the subtle sounds from the speakers settled us into Stillness. At that point, the lack of music wasn’t even a factor, as sometimes silence can produce the loudest of Stillnesses for me, especially when the energy I’ve amassed from everyone else in the room is making my cells vibrate like a subwoofer cranked full volume, my pulse the underlying melody to the song that resides within.

Sometimes the energetic music we make with each other is just as powerful as the most stirring ballad. Thanks for turning a moment of Chaos into just another beautiful Wave, Richard!

“Those who dance are thought to be quite insane by those who cannot hear the music.”
~ Angela Monet

No, not the Lambada.

I’m talking about physical heat, dancing in a climate where your muscles relax and release the moment you step into the room, when the high temperature and humidity make your body want to speak with the same intensity as the fiery atmosphere surrounding your skin.

There’s hot yoga.

So why not hot dancing?

The “Dance From the Inside” class I attended Friday night was not intended to be of the hot variety, but because we came into the room immediately following a hot vinyasa flow class, that it became. The teacher opened up all the windows, propped open some doors, but still—the room never really cooled down until the final 15 minutes of class.

This “hot” theme is exactly what I was craving. Physically, my hips opened up without resistance; emotionally, I was able to let go and dance my own dance, despite being in a room full of people I’ve never met before. Even the bamboo floor was warm, so starting the practice on my back, rolling from side to side, was a little like floating out in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, my body following the natural rhythm of the sun-kissed waves.

The teacher’s instruction was just as warm, encouraging us to move from the inside. Rather than telling us “move like this” or “move like that,” she asked for us to respond to the music and listen to our body’s wants and desires. How do our fingers want to move to this music? Where does the body want to take us when the tempo picks up?

This theme of warmth and heat had me glowing. I felt myself connect with people in ways that I never would have allowed 2 years ago when I first started this journey of conscious movement/ecstatic dancing. I smiled. I made eye contact. At the teacher’s request, I danced “really silly” and didn’t have an ounce of self-consciousness hold me back. The heat was a reminder of all the warmth that I’ve built up along the way, and I felt myself wanting to share and pass it along to everyone I crossed paths with.

I danced with a man in jeans and a polo shirt, whose unusual choice of restrictive dance attire didn’t hold him back from letting loose. A grandmother seated in a folding chair who shared a happy foot dance with me. An 8-year-old girl who allowed me to twirl her and copied the moves I hoped she would follow. When the Bangles’ “Eternal Flame” come on—a song from my childhood that I remember playing throughout every roller rink in the late 1980s—my body opened up in ways that the 9-year-old me didn’t even know about yet back then, even though she had known that song was about something big and important, because of the way it made high school girls swoon and smile and hold their hands to their hearts.

That eternal flame was evident even outside, as the sun began its late end-of-spring descent. “Look at the sky!” someone had commanded during class, and when I approached the door, the clouds were ablaze with orange, and for a moment all of the heat and warmth and glowing of the cosmos consumed me, hypnotized me, both weakened my knees and made me stronger. I stood in the doorway and did my own dance version of a sun salutation in response to the fiery explosion of astronomy in front of me.

It made me think: What is stronger, the heat of the sun or that which resides in our human circuitry, waiting to be released when the right music plays?

Photo courtesy of Flickr user KellyCDB

The other night it occurred to me that I have two homes.

(No, friends, don’t get excited, we didn’t buy a shore house.) 🙂

But along with our suburban bungalow, there is another place—with smooth wooden floors and music constantly streaming from the speakers—that I’m beginning to find refuge in.

My second home is the dance floor, whether it be above an African restaurant in West Philadelphia, in a former warehouse alongside the Delaware River, or in the basement of a South Jersey yoga studio, whether for 5Rhythms, YogaDance, or Nia.

Once I remove my shoes in the entryway and my bare feet touch that floor, I am home safe. Not only do I feel physically supported by my environs, but a feeling of emotional security greets me in that moment as well. My fellow classmates and I may hug before the dance begins, and even if we do not, there is still a silent exchange of energy that is the catalyst for movement, for magic.

This past Friday night, I was “home,” in a Let Your Yoga Dance class at Yoga for Living. Teaching the class was Nikki, who had to jump some medical hurdles between late last year and now to return to teaching. I was thrilled for her return and was glad to see she had not lost any of her charming ‘tude while recovering. When her playlist clicked to Florence and the Machine’s “Shake it Out” as a workout for our solar plexus chakra, I loved her even more. Classmate Suzie and I just couldn’t resist that opening church organ music and began shaking the devil off our backs before Nikki even gave us the directions.

By the time we worked our way to the upper chakras, that feeling of safety and openness was strong—very strong. Nikki had us get in pairs and showed us some simple choreography to dance with our partner to a heart-stirring gospel song. I didn’t know half of the people I danced with, but I could feel my anahata chakra swirling in all its vibrant greenness, a flourishing vine wanting to intertwine with everything it connected to.

One of the last people I partnered with was the owner of the studio in which we were standing in. With her yoga studio as my home, she is its mother. Our dance was profound and heartfelt, and it brought us to tears. We connected foreheads during a move in which we leaned forward like arching swans, a physical gesture that reminded me of the preciousness of this second home.

During a final private dance prayer, my dance turned into one of incredible appreciation of this safe space, this home. It started as a reflection on the physical space, the floor that has supported my feet, the Sanskrit on the walls that has mesmerized me during my chaotic 5Rhythms trances. This studio is where I first discovered 5Rhythms; its physical foundation is my emotional bedrock. Oh, the places I’ve gone while dancing within these walls.

But then the prayer expanded into appreciation for a greater sense of home, the feelings of comfort and belonging that dance and movement brings to me. The feeling of leaving behind a long day of work and stepping inside the doorway—coming home—relaxing with and giving in to that which greets me.

Living here in this brand new world might be a fantasy
But it’s taught me to love….so it’s real, real to me
And I’ve learned that we must look inside our hearts to find
A world full of love—like yours and mine—
Like home
~ “Home,” The Wiz

Last week I wrote about being on my feet for 6 hours and wearing out the bottoms of my socks, but the day before that I was dancing with the palms of my hands during former Rusted Root member Jim Donovan’s Rhythm Revival drumming workshop at the beautiful Princeton Center for Yoga and Health.

As I briefly mentioned in my earlier post, the workshop was more about self-reflection, self-improvement, and interpersonal communication than it was percussion technique. Of course, it feels wonderful to let loose on a djembe and sink into the primal sound of the drumbeat, but the way we approach drumming and making music with others can also be a great tool for exploring our interactions with self and community.

Jim’s approach to drumming has changed dramatically over the past several years. While he still reviews the basic techniques of playing the djembe, his workshops revolve more now around personal transformation than percussion. “Drum circle”? More like a drumming circle of life. He titles his events revivals, “bringing back an awareness that once was.” He compared it to performing CPR on someone who is unconscious: Revival is resuscitating with the breath, breathing life back into the spirit.

Jim shared with us his favorite acronym: WWBD? What would Bob Marley do? MOVE! He encouraged us to get our body involved in the drumming, more than just the hands. Feel the music. Move the head, the torso. Tap the feet. That wasn’t hard for me, especially because at times it felt like the floor was shaking, an earthquake with an epicenter right here in little ol’ central Jersey. I was surrounded by sound, so powerful at times that I had to stop and just breathe it all in.

Jim is a powerful, inspiring leader, a kind of Wayne Dyer with more hair and perhaps a little more groove.

He knows when to make us laugh but then also when to give pause and allow us to reflect. Most important, his #1 rule is that if you “mess up,” SMILE! Stop, smile, breathe, and start again, beginning with the basic bass sound of the drum, the steady thump-thump-thump of the heart, the pulse of life.

We explored this primal sound at the beginning of class, simply hitting the top of our drum with a steady right-left-right-left, a continuous heartbeat lasting for what felt like forever (but was probably no more than 5 minutes). But I’m not complaining; the steady sound of everyone playing together as one beat, one pulse was soothing, meditative, reassuring. Afterward, Jim pointed out that it was a bit of an experiment in group dynamics, noting that we all kept in time with each other and no one felt the need to bust out in a solo and grandstand.

For those students who had never played music before, for anyone nervous about using music to learn and grow, Jim reminded us that music has been used for centuries and across the world in connection to life events. Since ancient times, song and dance is performed for births, the harvest, death, and coming-of-age celebrations. Most important, he noted, it is done by the community; it’s the fabric that holds us together. Music helps transform energy.

Transformation.

Pretending that a yoga mat in the center of the floor was a roaring fire, Jim spoke of how if we threw a piece of paper into the flames, the paper wouldn’t be destroyed, per se. It would be changed, transformed. The edges would curl and blacken, the paper would become ash. He pointed to his drum. What did this drum used to be? Before it was a drum, it was a tree. The tree is now a drum.

Thought + action = form.

With that, we moved into playing “Oja,” a song from West Africa meaning “fire.” Jim encouraged us to transform ourselves, to find a “self-improvement” word, a word and action we wanted to bring into our lives. Jim’s was “clear.” My friend Carrol shared afterward that hers was “gratitude.” I repeated the word “staccato” in my head as my mantra, a word tied to percussion, of course, but it’s also one of the forms of 5Rhythms.

Staccato, the rhythm proceeding Flowing, meaning focus, decision, clarity, exactness. I want to be direct in my life, to be more forthright, to get out of this loosey-goosey holding/flowing pattern. As I drummed, I felt staccato in my shoulders and neck, my head bopping with each tone. It was very sharp movement, a physical expression of how I strive to be personally.

When our group display of transformation ended, Jim explained that it was now time for our solo. After discussing as a group what it felt like to be faced with this challenge (Did we freak out? Did our egos get excited? Did we immediately think, “I don’t wanna!”), everyone began playing a steady, underlying beat as we went around the circle, each person taking a few moments to break out and “do their thing.”

Supported by the group atmosphere, Jim inspired us to be the change. We discussed how certain people in the room “went all out” with nothing but joy and 100% commitment, which inspired us to do the same. Make the person next to you, and next to him, and next to him, be inspired to “go all out” too, Jim said. Take that risk; go for it. Make it spread like wildfire, create the tipping point.

Closer to the end of the class, we practiced Tibetan sound healing as a way of introducing vocal vibrations into our transformation. We went through the five “warrior syllables” and their related body parts: A [head], OM [throat], HUNG [heart], RAM [navel], and DZA [root chakra]. It was a very powerful practice, and I felt myself grow deeper and deeper into a meditative state. Had Jim left the room and gone home, I still could have sat there for probably another hour, just enjoying the focus and relaxation brought about by those five sounds.

But Jim didn’t leave, and we ended the event with an invigorating rumble, using our hands and voices to speak out loud and clearly. We screamed, we pounded, we transformed energy.

Between a transformational drumming workshop on Saturday, a euphoric 5Rhythms workshop on Sunday, and an impromptu trip to the beach on an unseasonably warm Monday, a lot of really soul-stirring stuff happened this past weekend, so much that I am almost tempted to bail out of writing about it altogether because I am still processing and letting everything soak in.

As 5Rhythms master teacher Lucia Rose Horan stated after our powerful Sunday workshop, sometimes it’s best after a particularly powerful event or experience not to rush back home and gush to the world about everything that just happened, despite a longing to share and attempt to make others understand what’s circuiting through your veins. Some things you just need to keep to yourself, she advised, kept in your heart as a private moment of gratitude until you’ve had time to work through the emotions.

However, writing is one of my tools for processing—one of my “flowtation devices,” so to speak—so I am prepared to take the plunge. Are you ready to dive in with me?

***

For five hours on Saturday, I was sitting with a djembe between my knees during Jim Donovan’s Rhythm Revival at Princeton Center for Yoga and Health.

The event deserves its own blog post (which it will get eventually), but in short, the workshop was more about self-reflection, self-improvement, and interpersonal communication than it was technique. While we learned the proper way to execute bass and tone sounds on our instruments, the drum was used more as a tool for personal transformation. In fact, Jim named his workshop wisely; it wasn’t just a drum circle but rather a revival, “bringing back an awareness that once was,” he explained.

So that, combined with being in a beautiful space, in the company of my dear friend Carrol, and the fact that, weather-wise, it was just a warm and delicious afternoon, was Gift #1.

As much as I yearned to dance on Sunday, especially after sitting behind a drum and in the car all day Saturday, I was also uncharacteristically nervous about the 5Rhythms workshop that afternoon.

First, the workshop took place in an area completely new to me, on roads I had never traveled before. This is actually both a literal and metaphorical statement: I was nervous about physically driving to the place (this is nothing new) but also nervous about the workshop in general. Even though I’ve been dancing the 5Rhythms for two years, I have been reluctant to take a master class, convinced that I didn’t need a master teacher or special program to help me explore the depths of my passion.

But with some gentle nudging from fellow dancers and mentors (and the blessings of Lucia for allowing me to attend only the second day of her 2-day workshop), I suddenly found myself on new terrain.

Despite stepping into Lucia’s workshop, “A Graceful Journey: Beginning, Middle, and End,” smack in the middle—having to meet new dancers, getting acquainted with a particularly unforgiving floor, and not having the wisdom gained from the previous day—this personal “beginning” of mine was not as scary as I set it up to be.

The group was welcoming, Lucia spoke with me before class to debrief me on what I missed, and once the first few steps of Flowing began, I was so enthralled to be dancing with this mass of “my people” that I felt like a kid in a candy store, almost giddily overwhelmed being surrounded by everything I could ever ask for. Several of the attendees have years of 5Rhythms experience, and—as was suggested to me—I can only grow by exposing myself to new teachers and dancers, taking my small-fish self and diving into the big pond.


One of the exercises in the workshop was to explore in which stage of a journey you find the most resistance or struggle: the beginning, the middle, or the end? I aligned myself with the Beginning group; after all, didn’t I just write about this? Also, the sheer fact that it took me so damn long to put on my big-girl pants and even attend this workshop was a clear indication of my struggle.

So, then, it made sense that when Lucia said each group was going to collectively dance out their stage for the others to witness, my brain said, “Maybe she’ll make the End group go first, just to throw us off!” But alas, the Beginning cohort stepped up first (womp womp). Panic hit again once we all realized we were to dance without music, meaning WE would have to initiate and be the beginning. As a final test of our strength, Lucia deliberately made each group dance in their most vulnerable stage the longest: Flowing for Beginnings, Staccato/Chaos for Middles, and Lyrical/Stillness for Ends. My fellow Beginnings and I spoke afterward about how we either (a) dreaded starting the dance; or (b) just wanted to rush past Flowing into Staccato.

The silent Wave was a new experience for me, and we did it again as a whole group. Of course music has an extraordinary influence over movement, but Lucia urged us to experiment working with the most basic of sounds: ahhhing, sighing, long and deliberate inhalations, forceful hara breaths, screams, yelps, murmurs, coos, and whispers. It didn’t take long for this “silent” Wave to become not-so-silent, as the breath of 30 or so people became our music.

The music returned for another Wave, at which point I fell into the rabbit hole and slipped off to Wonderland. I was overcome with sheer fucking joy, a big goofy grin spread across my face, holding my hands up to catch whatever was falling and cascading and buzzing around me. It was euphoria in all its wild, wide-eyed glory—everything was moving so fast, yet so slow and deliberate. The glistening bodies around me moved like gypsy scarves, colorful snowflakes whipping around during a blizzard. All I kept thinking was, Everyone is So Fucking Happy! I Am Happy! Dammit, I Am Really Fucking Happy!


Gradually the hypnotic pulse and expulsion of Chaos softened in Lyrical, which is when Lucia reminded us not to drop the energy, to hold onto what we had just created. By containing that energy, not just “giving up,” the experience blossomed into something raw and intense. I found myself crying from gratitude, confusion, bliss, just being able to see people so happy and being a part of it as well.

As Stillness came upon us, I stood with a small personal perimeter around me, isolated but still feeling surrounded and supported by everyone’s energy and the colors of their skin, their clothes, their hair. I felt a tear dwell in the corner of my eye; it begin its descent down my cheek, and when I finally opened my eyes, I saw Union in front of me, a coming-together of people, experiences, life stories, scars, gains, losses, lessons, dances, falls, injuries, and healing.

So, for our final exercise, when Lucia asked us to individually step to the front of the room and speak/dance out this fill-in-the-blank—“In the journey of my heart, I find ____”—I chose Union. “In the journey of my heart, I find Union,” I said aloud three times, dancing out the associated emotions. It came easier to me than any dance “solo”; I wasn’t displaying technique or showing off; I was simply dancing my heart. I was surprised at the clarity and volume of my usually mumbling voice and felt strongly supported by the group sitting in front of me and witnessing this exercise in ritual theatre.

Lucia encouraged us to try a similar experiment at home, dancing to “our” song (that song you could listen to again and again) three times in a row. Always start and end the exercise with the feet grounded, hands on heart and belly. See how your dance changes each time: How do your Beginnings, Middles, and Ends differ?

When I left the workshop, I felt like I was leaving Kripalu after my yoga teacher training: dazed, confused, and exhausted. What day is it? Where am I driving? I had to sit in my car for several minutes and decompress, physically unable to unclench my fist, perhaps trying hard to hold tightly onto the energy created in the past 6 hours. When I finally arrived home, I realized I had danced my socks down to almost nothing. Not only had I sweated out my prayers that day but I had worn out my socks. I proudly balled up the holy cotton and hung them alongside my very first pair of satin pointe shoes, a memento of another rite of passage.

***

On Monday, with the temperature rising near an unseasonable 90 degrees, I took advantage of my pre-planned vacation day and drove to my happy place, the Jersey shore. It was the perfect getaway after two very intense days, and I welcomed the long stretch of highway and finally the expansive blue sea to listen to my internal dialogues.

When my bare feet first touched the sand, I wanted nothing other than to dance.


With a relatively empty beach (a few sunbathers here and there), I plugged my iPod into my ears and stood as Lucia instructed, feet buried in sand, grounded, hand on heart and belly. It was a solo but it was not, as I was surrounded by the spirit of not just nature but everyone with whom I danced with earlier, the energy generated, their witnessing eyes. With my eye on the ocean, I started moving slowly:

Then all of a sudden, I heard a note
It started in my chest and ended in my throat
Then I realized, then I realized, then I realized I was swimming,
Yes, I was swimming
And now I’m swimming Yes, I am swimming
(Florence + the Machine, “Swimming“)

…standing on terra firma but still flowing in the foam, rising and falling with the waves. My feet nestled in the wet and solid sand, a sturdy foundation gripping my toes. The sand had me, it’s got me, and when I needed to jump it released me, and when I landed, it welcomed me back.

After closing my dance the same way I started (hands on heart and belly), I became mesmerized by the ripples in the sand, the rolls, the creases and jagged zig-zags, the result of wind and time cutting through the sediment.

As I began to photograph this observation, a police officer approached me and asked how I was, and it very soon became clear that someone had called the cops on me because my dance frightened them. “Just got a call that someone saw you dancing for a while out here, and I just wanted to make sure you’re OK,” he reassured me, most certainly scanning my body language for any signs of drug or alcohol use.

I felt a lump in my throat, not because I had a law enforcement officer standing in front of me (I was quite aware I was not doing anything illegal), but because it pained me that someone had perceived my dance as “wrong,” that someone had taken the thing dearest to my heart and challenged it.

I felt cheapened and violated by this intrusion and struggled to hold back tears. Dance is my expression; people can run and do yoga on the beach without question, but moving to music no one but I can hear was renegade. Would I have been stopped if I sat in meditation with hands in anjali mudra? This was was prayer, my Namaste to the world, and someone was scared of it. I had never felt so much like Paulo Coelho’s Athena and never so compelled to read his book all over again. The officer apologized for having to interfere and said I was welcome to resume dancing, but the sanctity was ruined and I opted to move a few blocks over and simply sit on the dune in contemplation.

Obligatory pensive beach self-portrait

As the winds picked up and the temperatures quickly dipped, I walked mindfully along the boardwalk, my hair windblown and tousled, eyes watering from the ocean chill, salt on my face, lips red and chapped, a pinkish hue to my cheeks after a day in the sun. As with all beach excursions, I was reluctant to leave, not wanting to let go of that union I experienced the day before, the connection of mind, body, spirit, and nature (and curly fries and custard, of course).

But with the setting sun sizzling like an orange egg yolk over the bay, fizzing into the water and trees, I drove home, a steady 65 from beach grass and boards to dogwoods and freshly mowed lawns, back to suburbia for this Witch of Portobello.

I’ve been dancing the 5Rhythms for two years now, but this past Saturday’s class felt like I entered a new realm of movement and expression, as though the past 24 months have been Level 1 of a video game, and only now have I been given the key to the secret portal.

I’m really struggling to put into words the pure awesomeness of my dance this weekend. And I’m a writer, so this means I’m dealing with some intense sh*t. I just keep imagining that scene from Contact when Jodie Foster stares out the spaceship window at the golden galaxy of stars, moons, and planets swirling around her, and all she can stammer is, “They should have sent a poet.”

Yoga people, you probably understand this. You know that moment after you’ve been practicing for a few years, and then you have a yoga “experience?” And you’re like Woah. And then something even more Woah happens in your body and breath, and you’re like, “WOAH, I get this now!”

Kinda like that.

Here are the tangibles: The class was held in an amazing restored warehouse with the brightest of bright sunshine streaming through the windows, warming up the expansive studio and causing our sweat to glisten like diamonds.

The guest teacher was Daniella Peltekova, a 5Rhythms teacher from NYC whose Bulgarian heritage blessed her with an exotic accent that, for me, sounded like a saucy hybrid between Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz. Every word she spoke was a verbal expression of Flowing. Her instructions filled the studio like water filling a tub for a warm bubble bath, and I just wanted to soak it all up.

The experience was surreal. When I first entered the studio, I felt like Alice walking into Wonderland. The room was warm, radiating with sunshine, the music was already pulsing, bodies were spinning and flowing around me.

Daniella played bass-filled, earthy, sensual music, punctuated here and there by loudness and softness, just the right combination of melodies and sounds and lyrics that I exhausted myself by the end of class because I wanted so badly to dance to every song.


Halfway during class, as we all sat sweating and glistening and drunk on dance, Daniella poised herself next to a shaft of sunlight and spoke of the beautiful space, the wicked sunlight around us, the full moon, Easter and Passover and things rising and coming to life. She noted that we were out of winter’s cold and darkness, the light is here (oh my it was), and that we didn’t have to do anything but be receptive. “The light is already here; just receive it,” she encouraged us in her Flowing voice.

I felt like a born-again Christian, but not quite sure of my religion. The words comforted me so deeply, I felt them rattle my soul, I wanted to believe but didn’t know what to believe in. Everything within me screamed Hallelujah! but instead of praying we danced, danced, and danced.

(cue the non-tangibles)

Daniella began a new round of Flowing from the floor, on our backs, instructing us to move just the hands, feel our flesh, explore our body’s largest organ. We roll onto our bellies, and from there I observe my loose strands of hair illuminated in the sunshine, doing their own wispy dance to the whir of the overhead fan.

The adventure into Wonderland continued, my body gliding by others, my arms intertwining with those of strangers, our audible, sharp Staccato breaths engaged in a dual of inhalations and exhalations. Palm to palm we gently push and guide and use our single hand to initiate a twisted tango.

Over and over again in my mind, I ask, “Where am I?” The light coming in the giant windows is blinding; I squint long enough to watch a woman across the street on her front porch paint a shelf, and my arms unconsciously imitate her strokes inside the studio. Up and down. Up and down.


Every song that plays is like one of Alice’s “Drink Me” bottles, and I gulp and gulp and struggle for a breath and gulp some more. Down the rabbit hole I dance; where the hell am I going? Is this a portal to reality? Or is it my imagination?

(See this video for an idea of how I felt for much of the class.)

When Florence + the Machine’s live version of “You’ve Got the Love” with Dizzee Rascal blasts through the room, I am thrust into reality because I am dancing so hard that I realize I am gasping for air, my face flushed. OK, yes, lungs. Lungs need oxygen, and this is real.

Reality stuns me again as I briefly partner with an older woman whose overarched feet, willow-like arms, and elongated neck are a dead giveaway of her former life as a classically trained ballerina, and I suddenly feel like I am dancing in front of a mirror of time, an image of me in 30+ years projected right in front of my eyes. I see her age, wisdom, the muscle memory in her calves and shoulders and torso, and I am her and she is me. For the briefest of moments I want to cry, an innocent, profound urge coming deep from my heart, one of pure lightness.

It is a wonderful encounter, and an invitation to see all of my other fellow dancers in the same light. Although my brain had trouble processing much of the class and labeled the whole experience as some kind of wacky adventure into Wonderland, in my heart, the afternoon felt like poetry, something more along the lines of this:

Ever since the day in February 2010 when I returned from a weekend run hobbling in pain, not a day goes by that I don’t obsess about my hips. This past weekend was no different, but instead of thinking about all the anatomical components of a labral tear, I was focusing more on the girly-girl aspect of my hips; specifically, how to move and groove them!

Thanks to a dance-related group I recently joined on Meetup.com, I was motivated to join some new friends on Saturday in Center City for a dancehall class. Shamefully, I had never heard about the style until I read the description on the instructor’s website:

“…a Caribbean street dance that is all about confidence and attitude. This style of dance includes elements of African, Hip-Hop, House, Zouk, Salsa, and Jamaican Folklore. The Flava style is creative, expressive, fun, and the music takes you away. Dancehall Flava dance can be seen in videos by artists such as Beyonce, Rihanna, M.I.A., and Sean Paul.”

In short: You shake your hips. A lot.

My closest friends know that even though I am a contender for the Nerdiest White Girl of 2012 award, I have this unexplainable attraction to African-rooted dance forms and music. I love gospel music. African drumming. African dance. I think I love The Lion King on Broadway more for its African chorus than its association with Disney. I love reading African travelogues. I think I was the only one in my circle of childhood friends who so desperately wanted a black Barbie doll at age 8.

An art festival print I couldn't resist, from contemporary African artist Hussein Saidi.

I am still very white in many ways, but I’d like to think that I’ve come a long way honing my movement since my high school days studying the standard ballet, tap, and jazz at Cute Little Suburban Dance School. There was a time where I was the whitest of white girls, always on my toes, my gangly arms awkwardly akimbo, but somewhere between college and now, things changed, and I finally feel the earth when I dance. Maybe it’s all the yoga, the fact that I’ve been practicing “being grounded” for the past nine years. Maybe all that root chakra stuff, the countless tadasanas with my feet nestling into the earth, being in tune with the body’s own music (the breath) finally got me away from always wanting to be in releve, balancing on my toes. There was a time when lifting my foot in the flexed position gave me the heebie-jeebies. If it was pointed, it wasn’t right.

But now, I love being barefoot. I can flex my feet when I dance, and point them when I have to. Instead of constantly being in releve, most of my movement is in plie. My arms aren’t gangly anymore, and I can control their movement. I’m not afraid to throw back my head or swing my entire body side to side.

All that said…the dancehall class was still a bit of a challenge for me. But a fun challenge! First off, my bum hip doesn’t like to roll to the left. Everyone agrees on having a “bad” side of doing a certain move, but seriously, that is my honest-to-god bad side. I roll too much to the left, and things could get out of whack. My Shakira days are over.

Second, it’s been a while since I’ve had choreography. And not even a full-blown combination, but just someone at the head of the studio saying, “Do this move, with the arms like this and the legs like this.” The technical side of my brain needs to learn the move first before the creative side is allowed to take over and add my own flair. When that technical side of my brain is working, the creative side just shuts off. That’s when the nerdy white girl emerges, so eager to get the form right, trying to get the counts. The flow shuts off, and I am more concerned about where all my body parts are supposed to be rather than just feeling the move from the inside out.

Fortunately, the instructor was very down-to-earth, all smiles, and just there to provide us with a good sweat, a good time, and a good variety of moves to whip out at the club. At some points we just followed along with her and mirrored her movement; for the latter half of class we worked on a combination. By the end of the hour-long class, I was feeling more comfortable with the choreography and finally got a chance to feel the movement and really let myself loose. I am still very self-conscious of my balletic upper body and envied the others girls in the room whose shoulders rolled effortlessly like butter. Even though I was the minority race in the class, there was never any notion of competition or snobbery or discrimination. I was probably less nervous in this class than some of the group classes at my gym. (Ever been the newbie at a Body Pump class?!)

The few girls from the Meetup group gathered briefly afterward for a chat, and we discussed ideas for future dance events. Looks like I’ll be getting in touch with my African roots yet again next weekend for what else but…an African dance class!

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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