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As much as I love to dance, there are in fact days (usually when I forget to drink my afternoon coffee) that I’m just not quite sure my limbs, torso, muscle, and bones are going to sync with my brain and produce some kind of coordinated movement. When I head off to a 5Rhythms or YogaDance class with a dull brain, I fear that even the most rockin’ tunes won’t get the engine going and I’ll end up wasting 2 hours sputtering in the driveway.

Most of the time, however, my inner Henry emerges.

Who is Henry, you ask?

Henry is that glorious moment when inertia suddenly switches to reaction. Henry is eyes lighting up. Henry is fingers snapping. Henry is the reminder that you can feel.

Henry also happens to be the poster child man for the nonprofit organization Music & Memory, whose goal is to bring the therapeutic benefits of personalized music to long-term care (LTC) settings nationally and globally. You may remember Henry from his spin around the social media circuit earlier this year, his wide-eyed and animated face plastered all over Facebook and Reddit video posts: “Man In Nursing Home Reacts To Hearing Music From His Era”:

What I recently found out was that Henry is just one of hundreds of older adults profoundly touched by the gift of music, and one of several featured in the up-and-coming documentary Alive Inside: The Story of Music & Memory. I had the privilege of attending an advanced screening of this documentary at my alma mater, coordinated by the Dean (who also happens to be a fellow blogger!) of my old stomping grounds, the College of Communication & Creative Arts. Both the executive director of Music & Memory, Dan Cohen, and the film’s producer/director, Michael Rossato-Bennett, were present to discuss their project.

Cohen, armed with volumes of evidence-based research on the connections between music, mind, and memory (including testimony from the renowned Oliver Sacks), is on a mission: to help all LTC residents and individuals with Alzheimer’s disease/related dementias reconnect with their joys, dreams, and passions of yesteryear using digital music players as the key to unlocking these deeply rooted memories.

The idea is simple and straightforward: Talk with LTC residents and their family members about what kind of music the residents enjoyed growing up; compile these songs in a personalized iPod playlist; place a pair of headphones on the resident’s ears; press Play.

Of course, the individuals featured in the documentary were ones with the most transformational reactions: Henry, described by his caregiver as “inert and unresponsive” suddenly began signing Cab Calloway, talking about his childhood, and waxing about love and God; Denise, who had been using a walker every day for the past two years, stood up, pushed it aside, and began dancing with the researcher; and Joe, a former performer, started singing like a Broadway star, his clearly trained voice stunning the other residents and staff. He cried afterward, stating that he was so happy to find that connection again.

Cohen pointed out that not everyone has the same reaction—for some residents, the response isn’t instantaneous; for others, it takes several attempts to narrow down just the right music that will spark something in their brains. Sometimes there is no change at all. Nevertheless, he said, there’s never been an adverse reaction to listening to some music. The video clip of Henry, in fact, was filmed 4 years ago. Today, Cohen said, Henry still has his music protocol. He’s declining physically yet remaining stable cognitively. Had it not been for the music, both domains instead of one would have most likely been on a downward slope.

This effect of music on the mind is nothing new, nor is the notion of bringing it into the lives of nursing home residents. The genius of Cohen’s vision, however, is (a) personalization and (b) high-quality stereophonic audio. With today’s technology, volunteers can easily create customized playlists for residents, adding and eliminating songs with the click of a mouse. This is one key difference in Cohen’s program versus, say, playing a record of Count Basie in the nursing home living room. Not everyone is going to appreciate Count Basie, and his music may not fire the neurons of someone who prefers bluegrass or the Beach Boys. The Music & Memory program also strives to personalize not just the music but a resident’s schedule as well. Maybe Jane likes to wake up to Broadway showtunes but functions better at bedtime with a soothing melody. With this program, residents’ music is tailored to their personal preferences, mood, and time of day.

In addition, the use of crystal-clear digital sound and the iPod headphones are crucial in a nursing home, where auditory distractions are commonplace. This way, residents get a “direct infusion of music,” said Cohen. Also, in the case of Alzheimer’s disease, one’s ability to filter out background noise diminishes, he pointed out. A stereo sitting on a nightstand may be useless for someone who is going to be distracted by a ticking clock or voices in the hallway.

While this is all very inspiring work, one of the challenges Cohen faces is convincing nursing home CEOs and potential donors that it is worth the money. It can be disheartening when facilities and insurance companies will pay millions of dollars for a treasure chest of antidepressant/antipsychotic drugs but can’t find value in spending $40 per person for a program that will rejuvenate hearts and souls, something no drug on the market can do. It is the lazy/ignorant route to point at patients slumped in the corner and claim that they are withdrawn and unresponsive, so if drugs can’t help them, how can an hour of Elvis?

As editor of two gerontological nursing publications for the past 5 years, I guess you could say I have a soft spot in my heart for the older adult population, and yes, that is partially why I attended the screening; however, I was more interested in witnessing just how magical music can be. Nearly everyone featured in the documentary had some kind of physical response to the music—tapping their feet, swaying, gesturing their arms like a conductor—a testament to how deeply music is stored and can be felt in our bodies. One woman—bedridden and catatonic—began rocking back and forth when the headphones were placed on her ears.

It’s reactions like this that make me even more appreciative of not only Cohen’s work but that of movement-based therapeutic modalities such as Let Your Yoga Dance (which has a separate teacher training for those who wish to work with special populations, including older adults), the 5Rhythms Reach Out for elders, and Wu Tao Dance for the dementia population. When the older adults in Cohen’s Music & Memory program start ditching their walkers and wheelchairs, these groups will be prepared to add safe movement to that oh-so-magic music.

Have you found your inner Henry yet? Put on some music and see if it does to you what it does to Henry:

“It gives me the feeling of love, of romance. I figure right now the world needs to come into music, singing. You’ve got beautiful music here.”

I will dance to almost any kind of music, but there are few artists whose discography I know intimately, memorizing not just lyrics but CD track numbers, knowing that she hits the high note on the studio album but sings more alto on the unplugged edition. And because I am generally not a concert-going person, it takes a pretty huge musical obsession for me to shell out the big bucks to see someone live.

Meet my current obsession:

Florence Welch. Oh, Flo, how I love you. And how appropriate, too, that her name jives so well with my blog?

Ever since I heard “Cosmic Love” in the trailer for Water for Elephants and then starting seeing more of her music being used on So You Think You Can Dance (especially Caitlynn and Marko’s routine to “Heavy in Your Arms“), Florence and the Machine has become a regular guest on my computer playlists and in my car stereo. I ordered both Lungs and Ceremonials on Amazon; by fate, they were waiting at my house the evening I came home from a wildly wonderful 5Rhythms class on a Friday night in March. The fact that I had just danced for 2 hours didn’t stop me from dancing nearly 2 more as I excitedly slid the CDs into the stereo, my hungry body inhaling and consuming every last morsel from “Dog Days Are Over” to “You’ve Got the Love”, “Only If for a Night” to “Bedroom Hymns.” Her music simply fell into my lap at the right moment, my 5Rhythms-inspired energy field attracting and trapping each song like a moth to a light.

Watching Florence’s videos, particularly “Shake It Out,” added a new dimension to my love for her. Even now, just thinking about the scene with her in that black velvet dress, being seductively dipped and flung about by the mysterious masked men in the private bedroom (minute 2:05, to be exact), I get the chills. The way her fingers grasp her partner’s hand, flutter on the back of his shoulder…every move of hers is so deliberate and precise, as clear as the notes she sings. The whole video reminds me of most of my 5Rhythms experiences, one minute drunkenly careening left and right with my wide eyes fixed on some invisible force that has possessed my gyrating body, the next minute fixed in one spot, my trembling fingers reaching out for another’s arm, the way Florence stands in curious stillness as a gold mask is placed upon her nervous-yet-open-to-experimentation face (1:33).

That said, it’s not just Florence’s music and lyrics that move me; it’s her. She carries herself with a fascinating combination of elegant confidence and poignant possession, her eyes and hands fluttering with such delicateness during one song and then widening psychotically during the next. Her videos made me as obsessed with her demeanor as I was with her music, and I wanted to see her live. I didn’t care about production value—things like pyrotechnics, fancy choreography, or special guest appearances. I simply wanted to witness an artist completely one with her music, like watching a Kripalu yogi enter Stage 3 meditation-in-motion, prana at the helm. I wanted to see and feel that energy.

I missed out on her first Ceremonials U.S. tour when she was in nearby Atlantic City, but lucky for me she returned to my backyard in South Jersey 4 months later. I bought my ticket while at work; my manager knew how crazy I was about Florence and actually rescheduled a meeting so I could be at my desk at 10 a.m. when the tickets went on sale. I scored a great seat three rows behind the pit, smack in the center.

However, in the time leading up to the concert, I started to regret my purchase. I had only bought a single ticket for myself; none of my friends were obsessed or had already seen her in Atlantic City. It was pricey, and buyer’s remorse and the fact that I’d be there alone started to eat at me. I was afraid her music would make me too emotional, that I’d have some kind sobbing fangirl reaction and not have anyone there to help me through it. I actually tried to sell my ticket!

Well, luckily, no one bought it, and I eventually grew comfortable again with the notion of going alone.

But the beauty of the night was that I was not there alone. I was surrounded with men and women who were as touched by Florence’s music as I was, who felt that raising their palms to meet Florence’s was also a way of following the heartlines in their hands. So often I took my eyes off the stage to glance behind me, amazed at the hundreds of pairs of eyes all glowing from the glory of her sound. When I looked back at the stage, I felt like Florence was singing just for us—not for money or stardom or fame or fortune—her connection with the crowd so palpable, as if each time she reached her arms outward she was collecting the energy we were exuding, transforming it, and then radiating it back in our direction, a continuous loop of musical magic.

Here’s what she offered:

• Only If For a Night
• Drumming Song
• Cosmic Love
• Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)
• Spectrum (Say My Name)
• Lover to Lover
• Heartlines
• Leave My Body
• Breath of Life
• Shake It Out
• No Light, No Light
• What the Water Gave Me
• Dog Days Are Over

As you can see in the photo above, her stained glass, art deco-inspired set was pretty impressive, the background changing with each song; however, my eyes were focused on Florence for the majority of the performance. Again, the way her body reacts to the music made the concert a bit of an art show, like she was a living, breathing sculpture. During “Cosmic Love” she teetered on her toes like a beginner ballerina, but immediately afterward during “Rabbit Heart” she was making a mad dash in the aisles, returning to the stage with burning shakti eyes, her body popping sharply as though she was having a seizure, the music reverberating from her head to her toes.

Before Florence, the only other musician to whom I gave myself fully was Alanis Morissette. When Alanis performs live, her fingers and hands curl a bit rigidly into what look like spontaneous mudras; Florence’s hands have a similar energetic reaction but look more like the hands of a Reiki healer, a nurturing, angelic quality embodied in each fingertip.

When her beautiful hands weren’t doing the speaking, it was her eyes that grabbed the audience, at times so possessed by the music that she appeared to be in a trance. “Breath of Life” was probably the most viscerally powerful song for me; the music is intense, and she progressed from commanding the stage to losing control, her body thrashing around in a hypnotic dance of chaos—my body followed along. Emotionally, I was touched most by “Heartlines”; again, when she extended her palm to the audience, I felt like she was transmitting some kind of blessing, and I raised my hand in return. (I totally cried at the end.)

I loved that the audience knew by ONE drawn-out organ note that “Shake It Out” was next, and having the chance to see “What the Water Gave Me” live turned what was a so-so song for me into a new favorite. Now when I hear that song, all I think about is Florence whipping her flame-red hair around, casting a spell on the music that comes from her mouth. She’s a magician! A witch! An alchemist!

Her concert wasn’t so much a performance as it was an act of service: I have this gift, and I need to share it with you. It was one of the first times I understood why fans throw themselves at artists’ feet; I was so touched by what she was giving me that I knew no other way of expressing my gratitude than lifting my arms to the heavens, grabbing at the invisible energy above our heads, and lowering it to my heart, saying aloud, “Oh, she’s so beautiful.”

I think there’s some kind of universal phenomenon that when you’re by yourself, wearily and contemplatively driving down an empty road in the middle of the night, whenever you decide to click on the radio, the song that comes to life will be speaking EXACTLY to you. Even if it’s Nickelback or Carly Rae Jepsen or some awful modern-day remix of a song from the ’60s you used to love…somehow, in your vulnerable and delirious state of mind, that song is suddenly the most significant ballad of your current life. You nod along, yelling an emotional “Yeah!” to the deserted road, alternating between laughing giddily at the appropriateness of every word and sobbing between the bridge and the final verse.

I’m really bad at following modern music, so I didn’t know anything about “my” song the other night/morning, except that I had heard it played a lot during the Olympics. Google has since informed me that the song was “Home,” by Phillip Phillips:

Hold on to me as we go
As we roll down this unfamiliar road
And although this wave is stringing us along
Just know you’re not alone
Cause I’m going to make this place your home

OK, so, in all honestly, these lyrics are nothing amazing. Road metaphors? “You’re not alone”? Song Clichés 101. But again, at eleventy-baglock in the morning, Phillip Phillips had become my personal troubadour. Clearly, he had worked with the universe to get his song to play on my car stereo the very moment my desperate hand reached for the radio button.

A 5Rhythms class with Peter Fodera earlier in the day (a Waves class, too. See line 3 of the song. THE RADIO GODS KNOW.) had put me in this state. Peter had spent some time using new direction with us, material from a “Threshold/Gateway” workshop he’s recently developed.

His description:

Every journey begins with the first step, and often taking that first step through the threshold is the most difficult part of the journey. Gateways are often guarded by challenges or difficulties that we have to overcome in order to continue down the path. Beginnings take a great deal of faith and surrender.

As a way of getting us to take these first steps into each rhythm mindfully and with clarity, Peter abandoned the traditional 5Rhythms structure of transitioning seamlessly from one rhythm into another and instead stopped and started the music for each rhythm, giving us specific instruction for beginning each one. With his use of the word “threshold,” I kept thinking of a house, each room being one of the rhythms. What Peter was having us do was enter each room with a new perspective, maybe opening the front door with gratitude and appreciation instead of flinging it open in a mad rush.

  • For Flowing, Peter scattered rubber snakes all over the floor as a reminder of staying grounded, the way snakes are. We were to dance only with our feet—no arms—with instruction to be aware of the snakes but not to pay attention to them.
  • For Staccato, Peter cranked up a thumping, throbbing, bass-filled song and instructed us not to move. When we were allowed to move, it was only briefly, before we were asked to come to stillness again. It was torture! However, the lesson was clear: True Staccato emerges only when you give it time to speak, when its message is fully developed and ready to scream out to the world. As much as I wanted to shift into Staccato the second I heard that music, being still and giving things time to stir inside made the eventual hip-centric dance more intensely powerful than anything I would’ve done straight out of Flowing.
  • In Chaos, we were encouraged to let go of our heads, maybe even positioning ourselves on hands and knees and just letting the head go wild. I was at first resistant to this instruction, but when the wild music started, I had a vision of me standing in front of an out-of-control train, headlight blinding me, the engine roar growing louder and louder. It was so vivid that it dropped me to my knees, and then there I was, on my hands and knees, giving in to Chaos.
  • Lyrical, a rhythm for which I tend to use my whole body, was initiated with instruction to dance from the fingers and hands. Any other day, I wouldn’t have liked this specificity, but given that Chaos had rendered me a sweaty, sprawled out mess on the gritty wood floor, I was OK with letting my torso and legs remain dead weight and my fingers do all the work. I eventually got off the ground and found myself engaged in a wonderfully lighthearted ballet guided by my hands.
  • In Stillness, the focus is on the breath. Peter instructed us to be mindful of our inhales and exhales, maybe only moving on one or the other. This was a good lesson for me, because sometimes my Stillnesses are so poignant that I hold all the emotion in my throat and forget to breathe.

So here we were, crossing these thresholds in an attempt to come home in our bodies. However, even in a house/practice you are so familiar with, sometimes entering the room/rhythm in a new way or different manner throws things askew. How refreshing it is to step into your kitchen on a Sunday morning, coffee in hand, breakfast on the table? But what if you enter that same kitchen in a distracted tizzy, grocery bags flying everywhere as you attempt to put everything away in 5 seconds before you have to rush out the door again?

Changing up the manner in which you approach a rhythm can make the whole house feel like it’s falling down. I’ve always seen Stillness as the sturdy foundation of my dance but during Saturday’s class I felt more like I had descended into the heart of my home, the basement, without a flashlight. I was still in the same place—the deepest spot of my home, an earthen room of quietness where heat and electricity originate—but without that flashlight I felt lost in my own home. I got scared. The breath didn’t flow as easily, and I could feel my body tighten and tremble. I tried to feel my way around and remind myself where I was; every now and then I got glimpses of daylight, but I allowed the fear to overcome me. My Stillness shifted into uncontrollable shaking and sweating, an unnerving vibration coursing through my center like a furnace ready to blow.

It was one of the few times during a class that I wanted to exit the floor. I was facing so much resistance; emotions and thoughts were getting the best of me. However, two things kept me planted:

1. Like the song lyrics from above, I knew that everyone there with me was on an unfamiliar road. None of was alone; we were all there for each other. It was a safe place, a space for openness and exploration, a metaphorical group home for our souls and spirits to grow, heal, and learn.

2. As a Kripalu yoga teacher, I am very familiar with the practice’s philosophy of “BRFWA“: Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, Allow, the five steps to handling any kind of strong emotions or physical sensations. I dealt with a very similar situation during a yoga class in 2006; the recommendation is to simply ride the wave.

So I stayed in the basement that Saturday afternoon in Stillness, BRFWAing through the unease rather than running out the cellar door. If I ran away, my dance—my home—wouldn’t be complete, despite its internal tremblings and instability. I simply wanted to be there to the end.

Even though the sun has been rising later and later, I’ve been pretty good at sticking to my early-morning walk routine all through the summer. In June, I’d need my sunglasses at 6 a.m.; nowadays, not so much. Still, most days I am able to catch the rising sun gleaming off the underside of airplanes descending into Philadelphia, making all jets look like red-bellied Southwest planes, metallic birds with torsos aglow.

However, not all mornings are ideal for the outdoors, including today. With the remnants of Hurricane Isaac drifting toward the Northeast, today started drizzly and gray, a reasonable and seasonable temperature of 70° but the suffocating humidity ruining any notion of comfort (or straight hair). Mother Nature had decided my morning workout: Today I would dance.

Leaving my sneakers in the porch and remaining barefoot, I lit an orange pumpkin-scented candle, bowed my head to the flame, and began to flow.

It’s hard for me to dance first thing in the morning without some kind of guidance, so I made sure to compile a playlist before diving in. One might think that starting with a high-energy techno or rock beat would help shake off the sleepies, but I always prefer to follow 5Rhythms’ gradual build-up structure of Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, and Stillness.

The 5Rhythms structure is kind on the body, the way an opulent meal is to the senses: Flowing is a bit like a glass of wine before the appetizer of Staccato, which is then followed by the hearty and chow-down main meaty course of Chaos. Finally, there is dessert, sweet-like-blueberries Lyrical, the prelude to the final course of Stillness, that moment at the table when you’re sipping coffee with eyes half-closed, smacking your lips, and inhaling the memory of your fulfilling meal.

Here’s the music I chose to represent those sensations:

  • Warm-Up: “Damascus,” Conjure One, featuring Chemda
  • Flowing: “To Zion,” Trevor Hall
  • Flowing: “La Guitarra,” B-Tribe
  • Staccato: “Black Velvet,” Bonnie Raitt
  • Staccato/Chaos: “Drumming Song,” Florence and The Machine
  • Chaos: “Greg Didge,” Music Mosaic (from the album Didgeridoo Trance Dance 2)
  • Lyrical: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” Carlos Santana, featuring India.Arie
  • Lyrical: “Pequeño Vals,” Marlango
  • Stillness: “Singapore (….),” The Candle Thieves
  • Stillness: “Swelling,” Sarah Jaffe

Most of these are songs I’ve danced to in other classes; I find that once I’ve experienced the music in a class setting, it has more weight, the same way hearing a song in a movie soundtrack makes it 10 times more intriguing. For example, every time I hear “To Zion,” I imagine gliding around the wheat-colored carpet in Kripalu’s Main Hall during Dan Leven’s Shake Your Soul class; the frenetic didgeridoo song brought me to the floor, the wall, my feet, and back on the floor again during a mid-summer night’s Dance from the Inside Out class. I remember waltzing around the spacious floor of Studio 34 with an imaginary dance partner to “Pequeño Vals,” and well, hell, I just love Florence. She had to be in there somewhere.

The sweetest thing about the practice was that after an hour of dancing, the flickering flame of the candle I had lit at the start of the dance was being upstaged by something greater: the sun!

This day—filled with thunderstorms, flash floods, and tornado warnings—had about 60 minutes total of scattered sunlight; I am happy to have experienced at least 5 of them as a sweaty, satisfied mess of a body sprawled out on the living room carpet.

”Dance is important…. It can be a reason for a person to get up in the morning”
~ Jeanguy Saintus

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

OK, for everyone out there not currently on spring break, my lord, was this week s-l-o-w or what?! Maybe it’s just because I have a super-fun weekend mapped out (drumming! dancing!) and am anticipating the excitement, but every day this week has felt like a ho-hum Tuesday.

But finally! Here we go. It’s Friday, it’s the 13th, and I have a hodge-podge list of five things that have peppered my (interminable!) week with some color and life.

(1) As if a nod to my I Am Woman post from a few weeks ago, my Old Lady Friend™ Carrol sent me the link to this video, 500 Years of Female Portraits in Western Art.

It’s a hypnotic 3-minute compilation of female art subjects through the centuries, edited artfully itself so that each image morphs into the next. To me, it’s visual art presented in a dance-like manner. It’s also just fun to see the painting styles and female figures transition as the years go by.

(2) Next isn’t a video but a blog that I am excited to add to my Google Reader: Dancemeditation.

The blog is maintained by Dunya Dianne McPherson, whose book, Skin of Glass: Finding Spirit in the Flesh, is currently on my nightstand. It’s been on my Amazon wishlist ever since I purchased Gabrielle Roth’s Sweat Your Prayers (which has essentially become my bible) and it popped up on my “You Might Like…” list.

Dunya is a former professional ballerina who turned to Sufism and now teaches her brainchild Dancemeditation™, “a unique, integrated movement meditation system for self-discovery, healing, and evolution.”

The way she writes about the human body is utterly fascinating and captivating, and it is hard not to roll my spine and rock my pelvis along to her words. They are the words of someone so at home with her body, so familiar with every tendon, vein, and cell within; some chapters have such a deep and sensual feel that they read more like erotic literature, a kind of “kinesthetic pornography,” perhaps.

This post on simple side-to-side rolling will get you moving.

(3) Switching gears, we now move to Main Street, U.S.A. for some Disney dancing!

Posted on Disney Parks’ official blog, this video features Barbara, a Walt Disney World cast member who has taken her role as Main Street hostess to a new level by just doin’ her thang during the daily parades. If I knew there was an opportunity out there for me to both (a) work in Disney World, and (b) dance my heart out every afternoon, then Barbara would be out of a job. … OK, so I’m a bit jealous, but I love Barbara for bringing dance and Disney together in the upbeat way she does. 🙂

(4) The last two items go hand in hand. First is the 2011 Emmy-winning choreography “This Bitter Earth” from Mia Michaels, which appeared on Season 7 of So You Think You Can Dance.

I’m going through a bit of a SYTYCD drought here (still more than a month to go before Season 9 starts!), so I’ve been filling the holes by watching clips of past seasons on YouTube. This particular dance about aging is just so powerful, poignant, and kind of sad. It’s a hit-you-in-the-gut piece, no doubt why it was nominated for and won the Emmy. The three variations of a simple rocking motion at 1:14 are just beautiful.

(5) Staying on that theme of aging is the video that’s been going viral all over Facebook, “Man In Nursing Home Reacts To Hearing Music From His Era.”

As a dancer, music has such a profound role in my life, and it is so comforting to know that the brain has the ability to store the passionate, joy-filled memories associated with a particular tune. This man, described as “inert and unresponsive,” comes ALIVE when exposed to music from his younger years. His reactions at 4:00 and 5:15 are a bit Awakenings…but so hopeful and smile-inducing. And I love that there’s a whole movement behind this kind of therapy: http://www.musicandmemory.org!

Now this has me wondering…what music from “my era” would make me come alive 50+ years from now? Hmm…

Comment with an online video/website/photo that’s been stirring your soul lately!

I love when music guides me into a surprise workout.

Like sitting in a patch of sunlight on the living room floor on Sunday morning, stretching around aimlessly in my pajamas, not quite sure how to wake up: Yoga at home? Yoga at the gym? A walk?

I put one of my new CDs into the stereo:

Something in the music stirs me; I rise to my feet. I am doing sun breaths facing the window, the sunlight on the white curtains like a celestial spotlight on my body. My torso sways, my legs join in. I am stretching up and down, my arms undulating like snakes. I am breathing fully, inhaling as my chest reaches upward, exhaling as I curl myself down. Now I am doing small chainé turns right and left. I am marching in place, but with grace. Before long, I realize I am dancing. The music is no longer an external factor; it has downloaded itself into my brain and spread throughout my body. I no longer think about what to do; I just let myself be, and the movement comes to me.

Still dancing, I reach for my yoga mat. I carry it to the center of the floor upright and with honor, like it is the Olympic flame. I unfurl it as the music swells. Soon I am flowing, sun salutations in the sun, my muscles coordinating themselves with the music. I have never heard this album before, but my body already feels one with it. My cobras and locusts feel so high; physically, they aren’t spectacular but inside I am flying. I am open from the crown of my head to my toes. The chorus keeps repeating “Shine.” I allow myself to do just that.

As the last track ends, the CD stops spinning and the music stops. An hour has gone by, and I no longer have to think about how to wake up. The album didn’t lie. It was certainly Automatic, an instant linkage of music to breath to movement.

I usually go to bed on Saturday night feeling guilty about all the errands/chores I never got to and all that I’ll need to cram into Sunday, but ya know what? NOT THIS WEEKEND.

It was 60-something degrees this Saturday, a rarity in the Northeast in January. After a few days of an “Arctic blast” in the region–complete with snow on Thursday morning–this kind of meteorological surprise was permission for anyone with Christmas decorations still up in their house (::cough::me::cough::) to just let it go. Tree in the living room, stockings still hanging? Let ’em stay…I’m going outside to play!

Inspired by Meg from Spirit Moves Dance, yesterday I gave myself permission to:

• Wake up naturally, without an alarm clock.

• Do yoga in my pajamas for an hour.

• Cut back on the chaturangas in the yoga podcast when my sore scapula began speaking to me.

• Feel ever-so-content standing in a super-steady and grounded dancer pose, even if my lifted leg doesn’t go as high as it did 5 years ago.

• Add not just almond butter but pumpkin butter, raisins, prunes, banana, and a handful of Kashi GoLean Crunch to my bowl of oatmeal.

• Sit on the computer for two hours, but do so writing meaningful blog posts.

• Download Foursquare on my new BlackBerry, use it to check into a handful of places, decide that I hate the application/concept, but then later reconsider its usefulness (i.e., to remember what I did/where I went over the course of time, because my memory sucks).

• Go on a long and leisurely 5-mile walk with Bryan, occasionally bumping into him as I stared skyward to look at planes.

• Decide to take the “long way” on our walk home, because it was just that nice outside.

• Stop at the Pooch Park to watch strangers’ dogs frolic and romp, secretly hoping someone would come along with a pug. (We’re satisfied with the two puggles we saw, though.)

• See the giant orange sun set on one side of the sky as the nearly full moon began to glow on the other.

• Go to California Pizza Kitchen for dinner, even though I swear every dish must have bacon fat folded into it, considering their calorie counts. (Roasted veggie salad = Amazing, and probably not so bad if you get the dressing on the side.)

• Ask my dining companion for one of his pizza crusts to fulfill my need for some kind of carb to accompany said salad.

• Use my new BlackBerry for entertainment/diversion when waiting for a table at CPK, even though minutes earlier I had blasted society for being so obsessed with their smartphones.

• Spend an hour at a music store that’s going out of business listening to/selecting discounted CDs (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides soundtrack, Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack, Radio Retaliation [Thievery Corporation], Empires, Automatic [VNV Nation] <— thanks to Meg for introducing them to me!!).

• Get frozen yogurt in January from our favorite self-serve place.

Honestly, that last one is the most accurate barometer of them all. If I’m OK eating a frozen treat in the middle of winter…yeah, it’s probably a good day.

(In honor of the 5-year anniversary of my monthlong yoga teacher training at Kripalu, I am documenting the experience as it unfolded in my handwritten journal. Day 1 can be found here. Fun fact: I just realized today that somewhere along the way I must have messed up the dates, because the events below actually happened on November 16, and now everything is off by one day. HOWEVER! Now the actual days of the week match up, and my graduation will be on a Friday, as it was in real life.)

Five years (or so) ago on this day, it is the Final Full Day. I have no sentences, no complete phrases–just raw, intense emotion.

In Shadowbrook, we do a beautiful “dance” routine to a Cherokee version of “Amazing Grace,” a circular formation with gentle hand gestures and welcoming new partners. We cry, of course. Later, the recording crew comes into the room to record and film us again, this time chanting “Ganesha Sharanam.” The product is sweaty, exhilarating, exhausting, lively, energizing. There are more people standing than ever, instruments, twirls and whirls, stomping, clapping. E. and I hold hands and twirl each other around the dancing room, our faces standing still as the world unfurls madly behind us. It’s a perfect example of my practice teach, finding the stillness among the chaos. We are spinning wildly within a crowd of wild people, but I feel so still, frozen in time. At one point, H. grooves on a cowbell, and I tune into his rhythm, just me and the cowbell–no chanting, no clapping, no harmonium. I am able to look closely.

Someone finds a box of colorful silk scarves, and they erupt into the air like a theatrical volcano explosion. Everyone rushes to grab one, and we dance with our new toys. Mine is indigo, the crown chakra. I fan it around the space, leaping through the cushions, showering the seated chanters with my silken touch. I swirl around them, fanning A., who is off to the side playing a drum. When the music slows and eventually ends, I intuitively fold my indigo scarf into a little square and hold it tight in my hands, a single tear rolling down my cheek.

Megha cranks up “Bootylicious,” and we all rub out buttocks and form a “soul train” line, each taking turns in pairs, grooving among our friends. My brain goes on slo-mo, and I immerse myself in the activity, my eyes zeroing in on each person, each face, each smile, as it parades down the line. I look at each person singularly and feel a deep connection to everyone who wiggles, shakes, and glissades past me.

We start a chanting/sadhana/out-of-this-world experience, starting with “So Hum Shivo Hum,” my affirmation. The passion I hear at the front of the room, both Megha and Rudy chanting, is sweet and beautiful and enchanting. I literally roll in it, coming to my mat and spreading my limbs in sound. I sway, crawl, squirm on my mat, the tears and snot and pain and delight coming out everywhere. It is almost torturous, like someone is dying in front of me. I am dying in front of me. The chants change, Rudy and Megha singing almost a lullaby of sorts. A dirge, a prayer, a worship celebration, a funeral, a birthday…everything. My movement just rolls and stops and rolls and pauses. Why do I continue to move, in spite of the agony? BRFWA to its extent. Roger begins leading us through asana, and I try to follow him, but I end up first just sitting, then curling into a fetal position. Sobbing, breaking, dying. Someone comes up from behind me, brushes my hair back, and props a pillow under my head. To this day I have no idea who the witness was.

Savasana. What a wild ride that becomes. My eyes are filled with pools of tears, and I ever-so-slightly crack open my eyelids to have slits of light come through. The effect is something incredible, a swirling, glowing, lake of light–all in my head! It was so brilliant, so fluid and heavenly and golden that I thought maybe I had reached samadhi. I felt crazy. I felt like I was high on drugs. Glowing swirls of liquid light, in my eyes, in my brain. I saw several visions: a Buddha figure, then a vivid image of the Dalai Lama. A mental image of F. and L. standing by the ocean, looking out at the beach from the boardwalk. I got the sensation I was sinking into the ground as the ground rose under my heavy limbs. How many times have I lay in savasana, and this is the first time I get this wild sensation of simultaneous rising and falling, the soft earth greeting my back with a gentle nudge. I sink and the whole class sinks with me, my friends, all gently sliding into the ground, kind of like the wave vision I had weeks ago. At the end of meditation, we chant Om, and I envision our entire class in white clothing. As the sound swells, I so briefly and vividly feel like we’re back in the ashram, our gurus at the front. It’s very beautiful.

All of the above is labeled as “Completions” on our schedule. Before it had started, I asked Rudy what exactly “Completions” meant, to which he responded, “We’re going to be exploring some unearthly terrain.” Huh. Touché. I emerge from the experience in a complete daze, unable to make eye contact or speak.

We end with what Megha calls a stereophonic affirmation exercise, where one person sits in the “Hot Seat,” one person serves as the Witness, and the two other people whisper into the “chosen one’s” ears good things about them. It’s jarring and reassuring, so many words and concepts. My brain went on overload trying to process the affirmations I received from my third aditham group, C. and B., as K. watched. The one moment I recall from this exercise is when all I heard was mumblemumblemumble in each ear, and then the word “grace” came out of both C.’s and B.’s lips simultaneously. K. noticed it too, and B. got overly excited, exclaiming, “Oh wow!!! That’s your new name!! Grace! Jennifer Grace!!” [Author’s note: Coincidentally, my cousin’s first child, born only a few months ago, was named Jennifer Grace.]

***

During lunch I take a leisurely stroll outside, but it feels very lonely and sad. It’s extremely mild, but the effects of late fall are evident, with most vegetation browning or dead. The difference even in one week since our silent nature walk is huge. Almost no yellow anymore. Dead trees, fallen limbs, fallen trees scatter the road I walk along. It reminds me of the Elephant Graveyard from The Lion King, but with bare tree limbs instead of elephant bones.

But I witness it all–a fallen evergreen or spruce, maybe–looks like a rejected Christmas tree. I walk behind Kripalu, on the hillside visible from the dining hall. It’s my first time seeing the place from behind. There’s the Main Hall, Shadowbrook, Marketing and Development, the dining hall windows, so small-looking from here. I stand by the trickling waterfall and fall in love again with the soft sound of dripping water. I am thrilled to be outside, in Massachusetts, in November, hardly needing a coat and not wearing socks.

I come inside and make a deep tissue massage appointment for tomorrow morning.

***

Our Celebration party kicks off at 7:30 p.m.; everyone is dressed up (jeans, blouses, makeup, jewelry) or DRESSED UP (saris, flowing ensembles). There is awesome drumming, almost KDZ-like, that gets me energized (and keeps me dancing through the night, lured onto the floor by such earthy, deep sounds. I end up dancing till 11:15, even though I’m utterly exhausted).

There is a giant (real) chocolate cake, to which we sing the birthday song, replacing “our dear friend ____” with “our dear tribe Kickasana.”

Cookies from the Kripalu Cafe (like, the real cookies), dark chocolate Hershey’s Kisses, and hot cider. A talent show of music and poetry follows, some humorous, some serious.

A. leads a chant, L. sings the Awesome Song, G. reads poetry, a group sings together, D. belts out a stunning “Amazing Grace,” L. sings a teary song from Wicked–a cappella–that gets everyone crying, and M. shows a DVD from her Cirque du Soleil show, Quidam. M. and I perform our Stage 1-Stage 3 yoga dance, which we choreographed in about 15-20 minutes the night before.

It’s amazing how well it is received, with loud hoots and hollers. Megha pulls me aside and tells me that the performer persona in me needs to “play” some time. M. and I get so many compliments, so many people approach me and tell me that I am amazing, that my movement is beautiful–so many compliments that I feel awkward a bit. M. was just talking about this, how it’s nice to hear people praise what comes naturally to you. All I did was dance my heart out, do what I do when I hear music, and so many people were blown away. I had a difficult task of accepting praise with grace and not belittling my talents.

And now, without a doubt, I know I have to move more. Everything here has pointed me to dance, to movement, to standing on my own two feet and expressing myself through my body. Even Jurian comments about the wild movement, and I am flattered. I feel like I am being praised by a professional Rockette.

We present Om mandalas to our teachers, and so then we gather around all six of them and chant Om, a continuous loop.

Rudy looks intensely serious, and I wonder what goes on in his curious, quiet mind.

The event ends with us all in a circle, singing “We Are the World,” led by A. He sings his heart out in his thick Japanese accent, and we sway while holding candles.

***

Back in the dorm, people begin packing, except me. We are hyper from all the sugar at the party, we are all friends now. We talk like we’ve known each other for years. We compliment each other, ask each other if everything’s OK, joke about snoring, burping, pooping, and D.’s expanding closet of doom. Tomorrow night I will among a new set of strangers.

***

It is so late–so late–but after I shower, I head to the second floor and dance alone in the Main Chapel because the doors were open and the carpeted floor and vastness called my name. I am beyond tired, but I soak in the old carpet scent of the hall and find myself leaping and crying and anjali mudra-ing. I feel so at home, so peaceful, so hum Shivo hum. The wind is intensely wicked, and I swear a tornado is going to bust through this place. Being in the chapel during a whirlwind is pretty scary, and it’s probably been the scariest and most blessed moments of my time here. The lights are not on, but there is illumination from outside and I can see shadows from the trees dance like ghosts. The wind creeps in this silent chapel so intensely that it sounds like someone is snoring in the corner. I’m reminded of Egypt and the way people would sleep in the mosques. I roll around a bit on the floor, my eyes on that wood-paneled ceiling. I leap, I cry. I imagine myself with a headset on, leading a DansKinetics class. I wonder how many people have rolled around on this very floor in ecstatic movement. I stand in the chapel, awed at “Wow, here I am.” This “foreign” place with the giant Om symbol and vaulted ceiling, the place I only once knew from pictures in the catalog, here I am. I am here.

When my body says that I am done, I head to the second floor lobby to write. A security guard named Dave W. checks out my little nook across from the chapel, and suddenly we’re talking for 30 minutes about his dragon tattoos, the howling wind, the animals outside (bobcats, owls, deer, coyotes), campfires, tattoo bias, the safety of Kripalu, the nice people at Kripalu, the stars, the darkness, the silence, and how many people from the cities are frightened by Kripalu’s darkness and silence. He describes to me a thunderstorm that once passed over the grounds, the rolling, low clouds flickering with lightning. I am fascinated, hungry for more stories about this place, but so achingly tired. He comes back to tell me that I am welcome to write in the silent dining room because there are newer windows in there and it’s not so noisy.

But I am too tired to continue staying awake any longer, and I head back to the dorm around 2 a.m. for a nice 3.5 hours of sleep.

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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