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May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.

This was the quote I drew from a bowl full of folded pieces of paper that sat in the center of a circle of women gathered for the Embodied Meditation program I took last month at Kripalu. The quote, from Rainer Maria Rilke, brought a smile to my lips—here I am, author of Flowtation Devices, randomly selecting a verse about allowing my essence to flow.

I re-discovered this piece of paper this weekend, tucked inside of my wallet. It was good timing—it was my birthday weekend (today’s my actual birthday!), and it reminded me about all the flowing and growing I’ve done this past year.

When I started dancing 5Rhythms two and a half years ago, I never imagined it would become a life practice. It’s a little bit like what happened with yoga—I started taking classes because I danced and thought it would help with my flexibility, and soon I was trying to learn Sanskrit on my own and reading about the yamas and niyamas. With the 5Rhythms, I was looking for a cardiovascular workout that wouldn’t further damage my aching hip, and now I use the dance as therapy, a practice in interpersonal communication, and as a means of fostering connection with not only the people I dance with but the world around me.

I was so thrilled to take a pre-birthday 5Rhythms class this past Friday, a class during which my dance really felt like a 31-year-old transitioning into her 32nd year. I had strong eye contact with others. I laughed. I was spontaneous in my movement with others. These things were once so hard for me, because back in the day I just wanted to dance; I didn’t quite grasp the connection bit yet.

At one point, I partnered up with a female classmate who usually keeps to herself. I can see she always feels the music very deeply, but it is rare for her to engage. However, during Friday’s class, something opened up between us. It was a Lyrical song, and we were both still feeling the vibrations from Chaos. The dance that emerged was new for the both of us—a very sensual, feminine, sometimes intertwined-arms partnership, our eyes locked, our sweaty hair matted on our cheeks. It felt like a motion picture version of the Visions of Arcadia art exhibit. I wasn’t trying to force this connection, but I began the dance with an intention to be radically open—to let what I do flow from me like a river—and the result was quite rewarding.

Off the dance floor, I try to move in the same manner. For instance, every morning I go walking around my neighborhood before work. I frequently pass a woman who keeps her eyes straight ahead and never gives me so much as a half-nod when I pass her and say “Good morning.” But every morning, I keep trying. “Good morning!” ::silence:: It was tempting to just give up and greet her with the same muteness, but something clicked late last week—I got a return “Good morning!” Granted, it was rather mumbled and void of much emotion, but it was connection! (And I may have given myself a little victory fist-pump after I passed her.) 🙂

My greater commitment to conscious dancing this past year (attending more classes, classes in other areas, workshops) has been so helpful in getting the real me to emerge. Sometimes I say that the dancing has changed me, but I think it has just taken what has always been inside of me and transformed it into action.

For example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been walking around with my iPod in and just wanted to break out of my stride and DANCE when a particularly powerful piece of music came on. Well, the other week, I did. I dance walked! Around the creek, with joggers and cyclists and dog walkers. I can’t tell you how awesome it felt to be outdoors, saying Yes! to dance when my body craved it so much. Instead of thinking, “Ooooh, how I love this song. It stirs my heart. Wish I could dance. Wish I could dance. Wish I could dance,” I just did it. I danced!

And then Saturday afternoon, there came a beautiful sun shower; well, a sun downpour, really. I stood in my upstairs hallway, hypnotized by the combination of brilliant sun and driving rain, soaking the tree leaves outside the window, falling on the roof. I had a sudden desire to run outside, naked, arms outstretched, and take it all in, the way characters in European avant garde movies do. The impulse was so strong that I ran to my dresser, pulled out my bathing suit (it was the closest I could get to naked without having the cops called on me), and dashed outside. Who is that girl in the Speedo, standing on her front walkway, arms outstretched? Me, and it felt amazing. Not just the sensation of standing in a downpour with the sun shining on me but the sensation of listening to the voice inside of me that craved so desperately to fully take in this meteorological display.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ikhlasul Amal

I have no reservations on my birthday today about “getting older.” With age comes practice, experience, and wisdom…and a few wrinkles and dark circles under my eyes as humble indicators of the ever-unfolding journey.

Several months ago, one of my Kripalu yoga teacher training classmates, Kristen, asked me if I’d like to write an article about yoga dance/expressive movement for the local magazine she edits.

Asking a writer/dancer if she’d like to write a piece about dance? Um, yesplease!!

Here’s the link: Yoga Living, Summer 2012. (My article is on page 22.)

In the article, I give a brief description of some of the more well-known styles of yoga dance/moving meditation/conscious dancing/insert-your-descriptor here, a general primer for someone curious about becoming a real-life Nataraja but not sure exactly what goes on when the yoga mats are rolled up and the music thump-thump-thumps.

Three of the styles I am very familiar with and have written extensively about them on this blog: 5Rhythms, Let Your Yoga Dance, and Nia.

The fourth one, Journey Dance, I’ve only done a handful of times. I feel very fortunate to have danced with Journey Dance’s founder, Toni Bergins, while at Kripalu, but other experiences closer to home have been…different. Like the time we started class on our hands and knees, instructed to crawl around like cats, purring and everything, even guided so far as to brush up sensually against our fellow felines.

Getting people to do yoga is hard. Getting people to try some form of yoga dance is even harder. Instructing students right off the bat to drop to all fours and coo and purr and crawl like cats and tigers and lions (oh my!) may not be the most appealing selling point, in my opinion.

So it’s been a while since I’ve Journey Danced.

But that has all changed, because last weekend a new class started in my neck of the woods!

We started the class with sounds, but fortunately not those of animals. I used to be afraid of making noise but have grown accustomed to it over the years, especially after studying Kripalu yoga (which is ALL about audible expressions like sighs and ahhs and ooohs and haaaaa), and even more so now after taking Bobbie Ellis’ workshop, in which we rolled around on the floor whispering sa-sa-sa-sa-sa.

Wendy, this class’ instructor, started with three distinct sounds: Oooo, Sthhhh, and one that kind of sounded like J-zhow-J-zhow. The first, which sounded a bit like Om, was all about grounding. Finding that base, the foundation. The second, very snake-like, we did while lying on the floor, and I felt like it was filling me with air and breath and the beginnings of light movement. The third was the start of movement exploration, and Wendy encouraged us to move our bodies along to this somewhat unusual sound. I’m so used to music being the movement instigator; this time, using the breath inside of me, the vibrations from my throat, and the facial expressions on my lips and cheeks and eyes gave my first “dance” a more authentic, from-the-inside-out feel.

Once I was on my feet…well, it’s hard to remember the rest. There was a great group of women dancing, from fellow 5Rhythms dancers to someone who stuck to very private, internal movement to a girl who was off the hook with happiness and exhilaration; the smile on her face was something everyone should see every day, because there would never be any wars if people saw that expression. Her movement was pure joy, and I was amazed to learn that this was her first time dancing in public like that.

Wendy admitted that a lot of her music revolved around a “praise” theme; not about praising a specific god or spirit, but just praising our time together right then and there, praising the freedom to dance and express and be. We moved across the floor with our expressions of praise, sometimes grand (jumping to the ceiling! spinning in circles!) or very introspective and reverent.

The studio was decorated with a sky/cloud photo mosaic…perfect setting for all that praisework!

Midway during class, the props were pulled out—this time, scarves. I selected a silky one with a summertime color combination of reds, oranges, and yellows. Wendy instructed us to dance as though the scarves were our hearts, and I was surprised to find my movement incredibly subtle at times, caressing and stroking the fabric so delicately as though I were a lab student in the middle of a dissection. Precise, exact, utmost attention, so careful with this fine piece of imaginary muscle. It surprised me because, well, give me a scarf and I am usually all over the place with the thing, flying it from corner to corner like it’s a kite.

But I didn’t want to be whimsical and ethereal in that dance; no, I wanted to treat that scarf like a beating organ on the operating table—chest open—veins, arteries, and, blood vessels expanding and contracting; me, the surgeon who needs to find the dance of life, the pattern of movement that will keep this thing beating. I felt like both a curious anatomic investigator—exploring this mysterious muscle in front of me—and a very dedicated surgeon, instinctually knowing all the right moves but just needing to build up the bravery to take the scalpel to the tissue.

During the post-class sharing, I mentioned this observation, the fact that this time my “heart dance” was very introspective and internally intense, not the usual “Put it all out there! Spread the love!” that I normally feel.

After class, another 5Rhythms classmate echoed my observation, noting herself that she noticed a difference in my movement. “You’ve grown a lot,” she told me. I think the last time we danced together was in April, yet even since then, she said, “It shows. Your dance has grown.”

This meant a lot to me, because emotionally I know I am growing; for that growth to be projecting through my movement and interaction on the dance floor is reassurance that my mind, heart, and dancing body are all the same thing. Tug on one, and they all follow along.

Journey Dance will be a monthly event at this particular studio, but my dance is a daily journey that is constantly in flux, an ink spot baptized by a splash of water: branching out, oozing toward the edges, growing.

More studio artwork.

(In late June, I spent 5 days at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Massachusetts. This is another installment in a series of posts documenting the experience.)

It was hard for me to leave Kripalu on Wednesday afternoon, pulling away from the sprawling green front lawn on which two students were spread wide in Warrior IIs, a woman in a red T-shirt danced through graceful qi gong movements, and another pair of women stood with notes, reviewing their YogaDance practice teach plans. This is my life, this freedom of expression without judgment or fear. How beautiful to be able to throw your arms up to the sky with a glorious Ahhhhhh!, knowing that you are more likely to have people join you in such celebration rather than shoot you sideways glances.

Kripalu is a place where in my mind the green grass becomes an aquamarine ocean, and I dance like a dolphin or orca through a cascade of waves. People walk by me, cars pass in front of me, yet I sense nothing from them but permission to be. Kripalu is a haven for silent, mutual respect—my dance receives neither cheers nor jeers, and that is all I ask. I don’t want to be shunned, but I do not want applause. With this sense of freedom, I become the mover who has always lived inside of me, dancing in the wide open because it is an expansive space of grass and sky and earth and sun, and the voice in my gut says “Dance.” So I do, and when my movement feels complete, a blue bird begins to fly around me in circles, continuous loops not very far from my body, giving me the sense that this little creature can feel the sacred energy that my being 100% pure and authentic has created.

* * *

I attended a concert one evening of my stay; John Bianculli, the musician who supported the Embodied Meditation program I was taking, was performing as part of a jazz trio. The Main Hall was set up exactly the way I had hoped: backjacks in the front of the room, chairs behind them, and then a wide open space in the back of the hall…room for movement, permission to dance.

When I arrived, a woman was stretched out on the carpet, rolling her spine back and forth, sometimes stopping to just lie in savasana, taking in the music the way her body requested it be processed. I sat down on the floor as well, sitting still in meditation first, allowing myself to sink down and feel the pull of gravity, as we had discussed earlier during our program. I let my senses take over, taking time to feel the carpet under my legs, hear the music fill the rafters, see the room glowing with soft beiges and browns, a hint of sensual red and purple from the stage lights. A light breeze came through the open windows; the long drapes danced, looking heavenly in this former chapel, so strong and fortified with its brick walls yet still so serene.

A couple next to me began ballroom dancing, and their connection and smiles and happiness were just more ingredients in this recipe of wonder. Just as people had done with my “whale dance” on the lawn, I did not stare or smirk or clap after each dip, and I did not feel the need to match their intensity or technique. It just was what it was, and having that there with me only brought more richness and gratitude into the slow and steady movement that eventually began speaking from my hips, torso, neck, and arms.

Jennifer, remember this.

Remember that place where you were given permission to roll on the carpet as a jazz trio played, moving freely, looking up at the window, your eyes fixated on the billowing beige against the unwavering brick wall, your left side moving a sweet song, your right side planted and fixed. So rooted on one side; the other half a weeping willow, a firecracker, a horse’s mane, the flow of shakti.

Remember the following day, when you were back in that same room, at the conclusion of a Shake Your Soul noontime dance class, one hand on your chest, the other extended into the center of the room, feeling the warmth of the group radiate through your palm and into your heart and vice versa, a steady loop of loving energy flowing all around you.

You looked up at the vaulted ceiling, the same ceiling you had stared at so intently in 2008 and first in 2006, when you had sneaked into the Main Hall at 1 a.m. during your yoga teacher training program, dancing in the dark, sad to be leaving soon but knowing that these memories would live on inside of you.

And here you are again, 2012, the chapel ceiling so high but feeling just a tad closer to it this time around, because you have grown and there is still room to grow.

Your two worlds—Kripalu and dance—have merged, and the union makes you weep, smile, throw your arms up, and drink in every last drop of the present moment, surrounded by strangers who seem anything but.

This is freedom.

Let freedom ring.

Let freedom dance.

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

I am usually gung-ho about attending any form of yoga-like dance classes, but I found myself growing nervous and nauseous as I drove to my local yoga studio this past Friday for a Nia class.

I have nothing against Nia. My first class was in 2008, when I danced in a large room with a beautiful Black woman at the front, leading a group of various bodies and abilities through expressive movements ranging from yoga to dance to tai chi to tae kwon do. I danced with a woman who was 8.5 months pregnant, a man in a motorized wheelchair, a focused 12-year-old with the desire to dance in her blood, and an older woman in her 70s.

I danced Nia weekly that summer and the next, when the teacher was in town. I bought some of the Nia-issued CDs and Nia’ed in my living room.

Photograph provided by Nia Technique (www.nianow.com).

I loved Nia until 2010. I had signed up for another summer series, but then life threw me a curveball.

It was that summer—after months of hobbling around in pain—that I found out I had a cartilage tear in my hip joint. And not just that; x-rays that I had gotten as part of all my diagnostic tests had shown a mysterious “thing” in my femur. I’ll never forget the look on my sports medicine doctor’s face as he placed the black x-ray film against the lightbox.

“That’s not normal?” I asked, completely clueless about the streak of white shooting from mid-femur to my knee.

“No,” he replied, eyes wide. “I suggest you see an orthopedist as soon as possible.”

And like that, no amount of yoga or meditation or expressive dance could console me. My brain completely took over, convincing me that my leg was dying, that even though I had never experienced pain in that area before, I was now in pain. In my heart, I knew I was being brainwashed by my overactive neurons, the power of suggestion consuming me. I’d constantly fight with myself, telling me this was all in my head, but my memory kept returning to that x-ray, and just like that, I’d feel stiffness, aching, throbbing. I considered seeing a hypnotherapist to delete the thought from my mind or at least tone down my fears of my leg having to be amputated.

Convinced I was going to become Peg Leg Pete.

It would be months before the “thing” was deemed by a bone specialist as a harmless entity, but in the meantime, my dance suffered. Nia, the outlet that once brought me so much joy, began to become burdensome. Of course, the labral tear in my hip caused some pain, but with each plié and kick I did in class, I imagined my femur further breaking down, the alien inside on the verge of spreading outside the bone and inhabiting my blood and muscles.

I left class one evening crying to my teacher and then never returned for the remainder of the series. She’d e-mail me periodically to check in or to tell me about an upcoming series, but even after I got the all-clear by my doctor, I never wanted to see Nia again.

The power of association is just wild. I mean, I’ve been dancing 5Rhythms now for two years, but when I finally talked myself into attending this most recent Nia class, I felt sick to my stomach. It didn’t help that I had to look up something in an orthopedics journal for work, and that—coupled with the thought of having to go to Nia that night—made those 2-year-old feelings of soreness and discomfort bubble up in my leg again. So much for time healing all wounds. It is both frightening and fascinating just how much the body holds onto memories and traumas.

Fortunately, the Nia class this past week took place in my “homebase” 5Rhythms venue, the yoga studio in which I discovered, fell in love with, and was healed by 5Rhythms. The power of association worked in my favor this time, as it was just a few weeks ago I stood on the very same floor and danced one of the most soul-stirring dances my body has ever moved.

I saw that polished wooden floor, and my heart softened, relaxed, and opened to this return to Nia.

Once the music started, the only thing that became (slightly) uncomfortable was the notion of choreography, something that 5Rhythms does not have. For the past 2 years, I’ve been following the lead of my heart, not an instructor. However, that feeling quickly subsided as the teacher reminded us to make adjustments for our body, put our own feeling into the moves, to move the way our muscles craved to move. It was satisfying to have a foundation but also the freedom to build my vision on top of it. There were plenty of breaks for free dancing, and I sunk into familiar, delicious territory, my eyes closed, my arms spinning. (Later, after class, a woman described my movement as “distractingly graceful.” “You just looked so happy,” she complimented.)

In fact, I fell so in love with the movement that during a martial arts-like kick when the instructor encouraged us to shout “NO!” along with the choreography, I almost could not speak the word. I didn’t want to say “no”! I was having a good time; I was enjoying this. I wanted to shout “YES!” (Fortunately, that was the next part of the routine.)

Even when the kick-shout exercise ended, my body continued dancing “Yes!” throughout class.

I was back in business.

Photograph provided by Nia Technique (www.nianow.com).

The other night I realized just how important it is to move the way the body calls to be moved rather than just forced through the motions of some higher authority.

That “higher authority” just so happened to be a DVD called Crunch Cardio Dance Blast.

I had come home from work feeling pretty blah but with a desire to move, dance, and sweat. I contemplated doing a solo 5Rhythms practice in the living room but had little patience to compile a playlist. I wanted someone to do the work for me, to get my heartbeat up within 2 minutes and push me through till the end. I didn’t want to dilly-dally in Flowing; I just wanted to get going, amp it up, and have a smiling fitness model tell me I was doing OK.

Netflix doesn’t have many workout DVD options on its Instant queue. The few it has have mediocre reviews, and most are outdated. Cardio Dance Blast seemed the most promising, and soon I was standing in front of my laptop getting ready to do the “Island Jam,” “Fast and Funky,” and “Diva Dance.”

To counter the “cheese” effect of the DVD, I found myself dramatizing the dances, throwing myself into each combination as though I were at the head of the class, being filmed. I made gaudy faces and exaggerated each move, trying to fake it till I make it. Soon I was sweating and admitting to myself that, Hmm, OK, I am kind of having some semblance of fun.

However, somewhere between the Island Jam and Fast and Funky, something weird started to happen. There was pain. But it wasn’t my hips or my sacrum or my back that started hurting…it was my elbows. And not just “Eeek, I hit my funny bone!” feeling but a “OMG, it really f**king hurts to lift my arms, and is there such a thing as spontaneous arthritis of the elbows, because I think I have that.”

I’ve experienced muscle spasms and post-workout soreness and achy hips, but this was pure fire-like pain directly in both elbow joints. It soon dawned on me that this was most likely the result of hyperextension, as all of the Island Jam moves had related arm motions, and there I was exaggerating every single one. My elbows are already hypermobile, and this was not helping the situation.

Because it only hurt when I lifted my arms from the elbow joints, I still continued with the DVD, focusing mostly on the lower half of the body and resorting to noodle arms for the upper half. They still ached afterward, and through the rest of the night. Brushing my hair was not fun!

What I learned that night was that my body just no longer wants to fake it till it makes it. 5Rhythms and its yogic-dance-related ilk have taught me about the importance of engaging in a movement practice in which MY body is the teacher. I sucked it up and did the repetitive “Island” arms over and over again as the DVD teacher guided me along. It hurt. However, last night in my monthly 5Rhythms class, I found myself deeply engrossed in my own kind of repetitive movement akin to Bharata Natyam, or classical Indian dance. I don’t know where it came from, but that’s the movement that emerged from my limbs. It was rapid, precise, and repetitive, yet I felt so fully into it. My heart was in it, my breath was in it. Later, I moved like an African dancer, swinging my arms and legs wildly to the drumbeat. And after that, during an exercise in experiencing release of control, I stood between two classmates who held my hand and danced me down the studio floor, my upper body succumbing to Chaos as my partners moved my arms helter skelter.

Two hours of that last night, my body letting loose to the music. I port de bras‘d my way into a waltz; later I bent and flung my arms here and there to a honky-tonk beat. Fifteen minutes of Cardio Dance Blast had me clutching my elbows and self-diagnosing myself with arthritis; 2 hours of 5Rhythms had me ending the night in a state of fulfilling exhaustion, peace and presence of mind. I’ve been doing 5Rhythms for nearly two years now, and even on my most wild, let-loose nights of wild-woman banshee dancing, never have I experienced that kind of immediate and red-flag kind of pain I got after Cardio Dance Blasting. Even 45 minutes of freestyle swimming has never caused such sensation!

The elbow experience was not enjoyable, but in a way I’m kind of glad I had it. It gave me a whole new appreciation of 5Rhythms, the simple act of–to quote Nia–to move “the body’s way.” Next time I come home feeling the urge to move, instead of scrolling through Netflix workout DVD reviews, I’ll use that time to set up a 5Rhythms playlist.

I felt a bit “oogy” this weekend…but that’s a good thing!

According to the Susan McCulley, founder of a mind-body movement practice called Dharma Dance, “oogy” is that not-quite-right (but not wrong!) sensation you feel when you do something slightly different than what you’re used to (ever try brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand?!).

Dharma Dance founder, Susan McCulley

Susan was in my area this weekend to lead a Dharma Dance workshop at a local yoga studio. I was originally supposed to be sitting in the stands at Citizens Bank Park for a Phillies game, but a day of torrential downpours led me instead to the dance floor. I was ready to boogie with my oogy!

I’m always game for any dance- or movement-based class, so I was excited to experiment with this new brand of conscious movement, which Susan describes as “a movement experience that encourages confidence, relaxation, and trust for body, mind, and spirit through movement, play, and investigation.” We were told to bring a journal as well. Dance and writing? Bring it!

One of the first things I wrote down in my notebook was the Chinese proverb Susan recited at the beginning of class: “Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.”

As someone who spends what feels like 95% of her life in a state of anxiety and tension, I immediately connected with this quote. It illustrates why every time I drive into Philly for a 5Rhythms class I am a giant ball of nerves and uptight super-seriousness, yet on the drive home (same route, just backward)–after 2.5 hours of blissful dancing–I feel like opening the windows and singing arias to the Delaware River as I cross the bridge back in Jersey. Tension says, “You are driving into the city, crossing a big and scary bridge, fighting with awful highway traffic, going through unfamiliar neighborhoods, scouring the tight streets for a parking spot.” Post-dancing relaxation says, “You are getting into your car and driving home after an invigorating dance class.” Relaxation eliminates all of those judgments, and I can finally just be!

Class began with some centering and a meditative focus on each body part, from toes to the top of the head. I was already feeling oogy at this point, because my body wanted to move! The inner dancer in me jumped around like a puppy dog desperate to go outside…which is a good indication that this centering, grounding activity was actually something I really needed. 🙂 Susan asked us to hone in on a certain part, something that was calling for attention. I decided that my pelvic/core region would be my focus; it’s an area I’m always trying to keep tight and aligned, because otherwise my hips get wonky.

Soon we were on our feet, and Susan led us as a group through choreographed movement set to about 3 or 4 different songs–Dido, Michael Franti…music that just made me feel loose, open, and free. Susan called this portion of the class “Body as Student,” a chance for us to break habits and train the nervous system by getting our limbs and trunk to move in ways it may not be used to. For example, one foot pattern she led had us stepping out to the side, back, front, back, front, back, side, together. Stepping out to the side first, rather than front, was definitely a challenge, and I could feel my brain working hard to integrate this new “oogy” pattern. Letting our hands flow like falling leaves was easy when we were told to do it with our fingers spread wide, but then trying to do it with fists felt awkward and, well…oogy, like if you’ve ever tried to switch your computer mouse to the other side. Susan continuously changed the pattern from right to left, unlike so many other dance classes in which you always start on the right and never wire the brain to execute the pattern in the opposite direction.

This portion of the class was very reminiscent of the dance modality Nia, which I’ve taken in the past, yet I seemed to enjoy this more. I felt like I had more liberty in my movement, more permission to interpret the choreography in my own way. I still followed the instruction, but sometimes I stepped to the side, back, and front with precision and power; other times I approached it with more fluidity.

Susan called the next part of class “Body as Teacher,” a time for freedance “focusing on integration and embodiment of movement guided by sensation and intuition.” In other words, let your body be your guide. This had many parallels to 5Rhythms: five different types of music that took the body from loose and fluid to precise to ecstatic to purposeful to still and quiet. I was surprised that this was one of my “better” (freer) moments of freedance, despite all of the 5Rhythms classes I have attended. I think doing the instructed portion beforehand geared me up and got me looking forward to busting out with my own thing. But you can’t have one without the other…a little bit of yin and yang, perhaps?

(See my T-shirt for the yin/yang connection!)

Class concluded with a long period of savasana. When we emerged from our cocoon of relaxation, Susan encouraged us to write any final thoughts in our journal. I was hoping to wake up from savasana with a major aha! epiphany, but when I grabbed my notebook, all that came to mind was a Mickey Mouse head, so that’s what I drew, along with the words “Dancing Fills Me Up.” But that’s one of the things I liked about Dharma Dance, that it’s “not about changing (although that may happen), it’s about getting out of our own way – and getting to our essence,” Susan describes on her site. “Dharma Dance is about becoming more ourselves.”

I am a Disney freak who just loves to dance. That’s me, my essence! (And I appreciate classes in which I am permitted to be myself, not told that I am, in fact, a goddess. Because really, I swear, I am human.)

The class did make me think more about where to “take dance,” or if I really need to take it anywhere at all. The achiever side of me feels like dancing just to dance is selfish and that I should take it to the next level, such as teaching, choreographing, or being some kind of leader. But really, what’s wrong with just dancing? I expressed this conundrum to Susan, who shared a great story about a friend who loved to dance but didn’t have the technique to do it professionally. Instead, he found a happy medium working at a dance studio, helping at the front desk. That way he was still involved in the dance world, felt a connection to what he loved, but just wasn’t on stage. I’ve already done the teaching, the choreographing…maybe it really is OK for me just to dance! Or–how wild is this– to dance AND blog about it?! How oogy–and wonderful!

So I’m still working on finding my dharma, but now I have a little more to chew on after the workshop. The class I took over the weekend was Susan’s last stop on her Dharma Dance introductory tour, and now she’s back home in Virginia developing it into something she hopes to train others in, so that Dharma Dance may one day appear in your yoga studio.

Until then, I’m going back to experimenting with some ooginess. First stop: Getting used to eating this yellow watermelon!?!?!?!

Not gonna lie...this freaked me the heck out when I cut it open!

As you may have noticed, I write a lot on here about this “5Rhythms” thing I do a few times a month. Because it’s not a well-known or widespread practice, I figured I’d provide a little background about this powerful moving meditation that has been a welcome part of life since April 2010.

Basic Description

5Rhythms is a meditative dance/movement class, described most fully in founder Gabrielle Roth’s book, Sweat Your Prayers, which I read before I even knew such classes existed and that one day there would be a class 20 minutes from me. During each class (the ones I attend are usually 2-3 hours), students are led through a “Wave” of motion. 5 distinct rhythms comprise a single Wave: Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, and Stillness, in that order. The music, which can range from classical to country to techno, is carefully selected to guide students through each segment; equal time spent in each rhythm ensures the ebb and flow of movement become natural, rather than choppy and disjointed. A typical class usually includes two or three Waves.

A Breakdown of the 5Rhythms

Warm-Up: Classes usually start with a self-led warm-up. Soft, inviting music plays as people enter the room, and students warm up their bodies however they please, whether stretching on the floor, sitting in meditation, or simply walking around the studio. There is no official “OK, class begins now; warm-up time!” People used to very regimented classes may feel awkward having to move on their own and not having direct instructions to follow; however, there are no “wrong” movements in 5Rhythms. Standing still and just focusing on your breath is just as acceptable as moving through a flowing yoga sequence.

Flowing: The swelling skirt of a dancing dervish

Flowing: Gradually the music shifts to Flowing. At this point, people who are in seated meditation usually begin to move a little more; movement may become more sweeping and airy. The pace picks up a little, and more bodies are crisscrossing throughout the room, arms circling, shoulders rolling, chests expanding and contracting.

Staccato: Washington Monument

Staccato: After Flowing, the music switches to something with a distinct beat, music you can bob your head or snip your fingers to. Frequently, this is the rhythm during which reserved students begin to smile, because the songs are usually fun and upbeat. Typical Staccato movement includes foot tapping, hip rocking, arm punching, and sometimes even clapping or vocal exclamations.

Chaos: Roller coaster

Chaos: After building energy from Staccato, the body naturally amps up to Chaos. Typical music includes fast African drumming and techno compilations. For some people (myself included), this is the “voo-doo rain dance” portion of the class, when eyes roll into the back of the head, ponytails are released and hair let down, flailing and spinning and wild hypnotic movement ensues.

Yet, at the same time, Chaos can also be very subtle; I have had very intense Chaos experiences in which all I was doing was walking very deliberately around the studio with my hands doing all of the dancing. In that sense, Chaos can be either laughing uncontrollably or experiencing one of those deep laughs where you don’t even make a sound. Both are equally as intense.

Lyrical: Swinging

Lyrical: After expending all that energy, the body gradually cools down with entrance into Lyrical, which is seen as a combination of all of the above rhythms. Synthesis would an appropriate term to describe this rhythm. Some people settle into more of a flowing pattern here, but others are still feeling the wild effects of Chaos, toning down their movements just a tad. Hints of Staccato usually return during Lyrical, even if just for a fleeting moment. People’s movements vary significantly during this rhythm, as some are growing tired and slowing down while others are still processing everything running through them.

Stillness: Buddha

Stillness: The conclusion of a Wave, Stillness is marked by music such as Tibetan singing bowls, an achingly poignant instrumental song, or a few piano keys. Movement becomes very meditative during this phase, and for some people is very sacred and profound, almost a prayer. Some people gesture up to the sky, others sink into the floor and curl into a ball. Despite its name, Stillness is usually the most “moving” of all 5 Rhythms; it is the time when everything falls into line, realizations are made, and emotions come to the surface. It is not uncommon for people to cry or get emotional during this stage.

(Real-life examples provided by Gabrielle Roth, Sweat Your Prayers. Photos are mine.)

Instruction

Instruction is very loose during 5Rhythms, and most of the class is self-led, an invitation for students to explore their own movements and personalities. As mentioned earlier, those used to detailed instruction may feel self-conscious at first, thinking they are doing something wrong or that they should be doing what that guy is doing. I find that it’s much easier to move with my eyes closed at first, pretending I am in my living room at home, dancing to the radio. Copying others’ movement is also encouraged if you’re having difficulty getting in touch with your own rhythm; sometimes doing someone else’s move for just a few seconds will create an Aha! moment in yourself, and suddenly you’ll launch into your own pattern without even thinking about it.

If the class includes mostly new students or beginners, the instructor is more likely to include more discussion about each of the rhythms and his own demonstrations of each. Other exercises include isolated movements of each body part (i.e., “Just move your hands. Explore the movements of the fingers and wrists, make the dance come from only your hands,” so on and so forth with the head and neck, shoulders and arms, hips and knees, and feet).

Sometimes you’ll be guided on the kind of movement to make; for example, “Do an ‘open’ move,” followed by “Do a ‘closed’ move,” or do an “up” versus “down” movement. As you can see, these instructions are generous and open to interpretation, allowing for authentic movement to emerge. Never in a 5Rhythms class will you be directed exactly how to move (“Grapevine to the left, pivot turn, and shimmy on down!”) or told precisely how you should feel (“You are a goddess! You are glowing and radiant!”). The purpose of 5Rhythms is to explore your OWN movement, even if it’s sloppy and you feel like crap.

Depending on the experience and comfort levels among the group, sometimes partner work is incorporated into a class; however, it’s nothing like ballroom dancing. Partner work can be as simple as pairing up with another person and doing your own thing, just being aware of the other’s movement (this post includes specifics about 5Rhythms partner work), although some people, if there’s a connection, will find themselves engaged in a very eloquent pas de deux as though they had been dancing together forever. Some couples can dance beautifully without ever touching, and others are more tactile and like to grasp hands, link arms, etc. The instructor calls for partner changes frequently so you’re able to experience working with different personalities and abilities.

Who Can Do the 5Rhythms?

People of all abilities are invited to dance the 5Rhythms. Since the class is self-regulated, students have permission to slow down when they need to, use a wall as support, or even dance while seated. My instructor has taken classes on crutches after a knee surgery; I’ve danced with people with hearing impairments, autoimmune diseases, and myself with a gimpy hip; and I’ve seen all different types of people in class, from former Navy SEALs to yoga instructors to physicians. No dance experience is necessary, and it is typically people without formal dance training who express themselves the most during class, as they are not locked into the notion of what dance “should” look like.

What Does One Wear?

5Rhythms is done either barefoot or in soft-soled dance shoes, as most classes typically take place in dance or yoga studios with very delicate floors. As for clothing, anything goes, as long as it’s comfortable. I’ve danced in sports bras, sweatshirt hoodies, and flowing skirts, yet others come to class in sweatpants and a tee; loose-fitting jeans; or glittery, fringed, Latin-inspired dance dresses. Wear what makes you YOU. Layers are important as well, because although you may start off class a bit chilly, by Chaos you may be sweating up a storm.

A Deeper Experience

As I wrote here, there is no doubt that 5Rhythms is an intense cardiovascular practice. However, once you dance the 5Rhythms on a regular basis, you begin to notice how the Rhythms are parallel to real life, the same way yoga practitioners begin to notice that yoga is more than just doing poses on a rubber mat.

For example, you may find that you are more of a “Flowing” personality and can never be clear and precise about your needs and wants. Perhaps you need to be a little more forthright (Staccato) about declaring your intentions and ambitions. Also, you begin to see the 5Rhythms in everyday occurrences, such as children playing outside (after a breathless round of playing tag [Chaos], their movement will gradually progress to Lyrical and finally to naptime [Stillness]) or the death of a loved one (in which the stages of grief are very close to each of the 5 Rhythms).

Also with experience comes a greater comfort level in dancing authentically. It can take a few classes before you begin to let go of self-consciousness and find your true movement. I also enjoy doing a Wave or two by myself at home, when no one is watching.

Finding a 5Rhythms Class

Due to the rigorous, extensive training it takes to complete 5Rhythms teacher training, not many people are certified to teach and thus classes are not as widespread as, say, yoga classes. Certified teachers are listed on the 5Rhythms website (click on the “Teachers” side tab), and I found my local classes through Meetup. Institutions such as Kripalu, Omega, and Esalen sometimes host weekend programs or intensives. Although dancing with a group and having someone else DJ is great, the 5Rhythms can easily be done by yourself at home, as Meg from Spirit Moves Dance frequently demonstrates.

Reading Gabrielle Roth’s Sweat Your Prayers is a wonderful place to start, as she offers numerous movement examples and even suggestions for music. iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, and Grooveshark technology make it easy to create and share playlists; just be sure to have your playlist ready to go before you dance rather than choose music as you go along; the smoother the transitions, the more immersed into the dance you will become.

Final Words

No two 5Rhythms classes are the same for me. Sometimes I leave feeling open, exposed, and vulnerable; other times I leave class feeling high as a kite and in love with the world. Sometimes my cells vibrate; other times I am ho-hum. More often than not, though, I leave class feeling better than when I started, both physically and mentally. I feel more aware of the people and things around me; I am able to express my thoughts more clearly; and my body is thanking me for allowing it to move naturally rather than in some forced, repetitive manner.

To close, here are some snippets of journal entries I wrote following 5Rhythms class:

• “My body was delighted to be moving naturally, sweating from dancing, not from doing 30 minutes on a StairMaster. Dancing has always felt freeing, but it was even more so last night because I’ve just felt so restricted lately. My limbs and heart felt liberated, and in turn my breath quickened, my eyes rolled back, and I attained a sense of euphoria that even running cannot provide me.”

• “What I had learned in that class last month was that ‘dance’ can be achieved with minimal movement. Sure, I love leaping and jumping and spinning and am totally obsessed with the choreography on So You Think You Can Dance, but dance is also a mental place for me. So even though I didn’t move as much in that July class, I felt like I had danced more than ever. I connected with the music and took my soul to a different dimension.”

• “Once again, I had to drag myself to the center of the room after class. I felt like I was on a different plane and that my body needed some time to settle back on earth. All that from 90 minutes of dance!”

• “When the class ended, my cells were vibrating the same way they used to vibrate after an intense kundalini yoga class. I felt like I was drunk on air and music and sweat. What a wacky, wonderful, and soul-satisfying experience.”



(Editor’s note, 1/26/13: Gabrielle Roth, the founder of 5Rhythms, died in October 2012 at the age of 71. Detailed posts about her passing and subsequent memorial can be found here and here.)

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

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

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

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

Biodanza Background

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

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

Initial Awkwardness

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

Is That a Smile I See?

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

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

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

Dancing Alone vs. Dancing with Others

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

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

Well, That Was Fun!

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

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

Lasting Impressions

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

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

Final Comments

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

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

About the Author

Name: Jennifer

Location: Greater Philadelphia Area

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

EXPAND my network of like-minded individuals,

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

FLOW and GROW with the world around me!

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