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One of the biggest differences between a conscious dance practice (e.g., 5Rhythms®, Journey Dance) and, say, ballroom dancing or ballet is the absence of choreography and the sense of knowing precisely what to do and when.
Most of my youth was spent in a dance studio, traveling across the sprung floor with hitch kicks or chainé turns or a tombé–pas de bourée–glissade–grande jeté grand allegro combination.
I performed in choreographic endeavors in which at time point 1:52, when the gong rang its third chime, I was to drape my arm around my partner and slink to the floor. Right leg extended, left leg bent.
Later, at time point 2:36, I exited stage right with a pique arabesque, face turned toward the audience. Smile.
In other words, most of my movement prior to delving into conscious dance was very organized, deliberate, and painstakingly rehearsed repeatedly into memorization.
I am very grateful for this training. Hours of studio practice and dress rehearsal instilled in me discipline, poise, an uncanny ability to follow directions, and an astute understanding of proprioception.
This training, ingrained deep in my muscles and mind now, has also made for a challenging transition into conscious dancing.
Without steps, what do I do with my body?
Without choreography, what happens when two people enter the same space?
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in the 4 years I’ve been actively engaging in conscious dance is to surrender to the mystery and allow things to unfold without force.
In one of my earlier posts describing a 5Rhythms class, I wrote about a partnering exercise in which the instructor told us to move freely but always remain in contact, in some way, with the other person.
He cautioned us that not every move was going to look picture-perfect and that odd moments may come up when we do something that we think might work but ends up feeling weird and stilted. But that’s normal and OK, he said. Just keep moving.
I’ve taken his instruction to heart again and again since that class, because what I have learned is that for every uncertain move and trepid gesture, there is usually an A-ha! moment or soul-tickling connection right around the corner.
It may take time and exploration, but the trick is to be inquisitive and not try so hard.
For example, every now and then I take a class with Group Motion in Philadelphia. One night, I found myself standing next to another dancer, snapping and humming like we were performance artists on a subway platform. In just a few moments, several other dancers had latched onto our rhythm, some clapping, some making quirky vocalizations.
Without guidance or very much thought, our little amoeba had quickly grown into a complex multi-celled organism. It was quite impressive!
I’ll also never forget the moment in a 5Rhythms class I was dancing in a group of four. We were flitting about here and there, weaving under arms … the usual. But then, the configuration shifted without warning so that three of us were circled, holding hands, around our fourth member, Karen, who opened her eyes, found herself standing in the middle of this spontaneous circle, and gasped aloud in awe.
The moment affected all of us, because what had been a random assortment of curious movement had—without planning—taken on a solid and significant shape, one that crackled with energy and sent shivers down our spines.
Or there was the time I sitting on the floor, when suddenly I leaned back and rocked into someone’s arms. When I was pushed forward, there was someone else, reaching for me with extended arms.
The choreographer in me could have jumped up and began actively engaging my supports. But the conscious dancer in me wanted to feel out this mysterious threesome, so I allowed myself to sway like a hammock, rocking back and forth between the two.
I had no idea where it was going or how it would end. But … I liked the uncertainty. The moment and movement felt soooo right. There was no big A-ha! moment that time like there was with Karen’s spontaneous circle, but there was certainly a collective feeling of inclusion and cohesion among the three of us.
And I can’t even count all of the times I’ve danced with someone and my calf happened to slide right under someone’s head before it touched the floor or when the two of us spun in a circle at exactly the same moment, a synchronous spiral that we both happened to conclude with a jump.
What this practice has helped me do is to find comfort (or at least less anxiety) in choreography-less real-life situations.
I have learned to trust the process.
I ventured into New York City one weekend this past fall to meet my sister for dinner. She had just moved to the city, and we found ourselves standing in the middle of Manhattan with nary a clue where to dine. Every other establishment in NYC is an eatery, which made the decision overwhelming as we passed restaurant after restaurant.
It would have been easy to just say, “Let’s go here!” and slip into a sushi joint, but there was something intuitively telling us to keep walking and exploring. We turned left, then right, and into what looked like a residential area.
“I feel good about this,” my sister said, even though we had gotten off the main strip and our stomachs growled with ferocity.
And, just like the magic circle that had formed around Karen, we suddenly found ourselves standing outside Friend of a Farmer, a cozy Gramercy Park restaurant with a warm farmhouse feel … and the most amazing fall cocktails and seasonal soups. We had walked in just as they opened for dinner and were seated right away.
An evening that had started with no map, no plans, had developed into one of the most satisfying gastronomical experiences of the year!
Life, by nature, is unpredictable, but I am at a time where my “map” of the future is more a collection of zig-zags and spirals and crisscrossing arrows than a land mass marked “A” and a mass marked “B” and a straight and solid line connecting the two.
I have found myself in a life-dance with no steps, no choreography, but the lessons I’ve learned from 5Rhythms (and the body wisdom gained from my earlier years of formal dance) keep me trusting my gut, being aware of others in space (physically and emotionally), surrendering to the mystery, and trusting that the curiosity will eventually melt into certainty, even if only for a blip … until the process begins all over again.
One of the gifts of dancing with the same group of people over time is being able to see them grow, to watch their dances make the metamorphosis from lack of groundedness to firmly rooted feet, from insecurity and timidness to confidence and direction.
The youngest dancer in my Philadelphia home tribe is 17, but I first met her when she was 15. In her movement I see my own teenage self, a contained package of passion being called to open and unfold, an intricate, tightly bound origami creature unraveling crease by crease from its predetermined, tightly bound structure.
She wore orthodontic braces back in 2012. Now her teeth are smooth and straight, and I see them a lot more because she never holds back a smile.
One weekend, she danced till 10 p.m. at a Friday night workshop, took her SATs early the following morning, and then came back on Saturday afternoon to dance another 10 or so hours of an advanced workshop centered on the notion of fear.
She’s skipped out on normal high school kid diversions so she could travel to Virginia with a bunch of adults for the weekend and write poetry, sweat her prayers, and wrap her compassionate arms around crying strangers.
Not even a year after getting her license, she was using her driving privileges not to cruise aimlessly on open roads with her friends but to make the hour-long commute to and from the church where we dance.
These changes are beautiful and poignantly unusual for a young woman her age, but they are obvious to the naked eye.
Most of us have all made the transition from crooked teeth to braces-free, from fretting about midterms to reveling in getting accepted into our first-pick college. We’ve all struggled with breaking away from adolescent antics and moving toward activities that bring us a sense of purpose.
However, one of the gifts of being part of a conscious dance collective is being able to see deeper than the surface, to see that our youngest tribe member isn’t just growing up … she’s growing.
During our earlier dances, she moved to the music. Now, the music moves her.
The changes are subtle and sometimes can’t even be seen, but rather felt. There’s a different energy in her presence. Her movement, once a random and uncertain compilation of powerful words, is now a poem, those same potent words now mindfully crafted into compelling verse and stanza.
I’m picking on this particular person because I admire her teenage tenacity and find it hard not to watch her pop out of her old girl pupa and flutter her young woman wings, but she is just one of many of us who are being witnessed as we move, who have taken that leap to dance our hearts not just in our living rooms but in the presence of others.
We could so easily pop on Pandora at home and thrash our bodies behind closed doors, but instead we choose to step out into the open, to do our most raw expressions of movement in front of a teacher and in the middle of a mass of messy bodies.
There’s a certain vulnerability in that, but also a plea:
Please, see me.
Unlike an audition or competition, we’re not dancing to impress but rather to express. We don’t ask for the teacher’s approval but wish only for acknowledgement, a bow of the head that says “I see you.”
The teacher’s role in a 5Rhythms® or similar movement meditation class is not to push perfection but to observe and encourage.
A teacher would rarely force a student to move her hips a certain way, but might instead say, “Are your hips moving? Maybe add more breath to them and see how that feels.”
In that sense, there’s not much rigid instruction in these types of classes. More important than getting a student to move is to give her the space to be moved … and to honor it when it happens.
For example, Lucia Horan noticed an overreliance on our arms for the rhythm of Flowing and reminded us that this rhythm is about rootedness, finding our feet, to dig the movement from the earth up rather than try to grasp for it with flimsy arms.
I remember Amara Pagano closely watching a woman travel across the floor and being disturbed by the dancer’s lack of breath. She put a hand on the woman’s belly and reminded her to breathe, to use inspiration—rather than brute strength—to carry her across the floor.
During his workshop on fear, Adam also pointed out that many of us were confusing this concept with anger. So many of us were trying to dance fear with enraged eyes and martial arts-like strikes and jabs. “That’s anger, not fear,” he reminded us.
Kathy Altman noticed many of us had a tendency to gravitate toward where the most bodies were gathered and that we weren’t being bold and stepping into the empty spaces.
As students, we are permitted that opportunity to witness as well. Many times, especially in a workshop setting, we are paired up with a fellow dancer for an extended time. We take turns dancing and witnessing, moving through our current heartsong or emotional conflict as the other person simply steps back and gives us the gift of presence.
It is not a performance, nor is it a judges’ panel.
We are simply being ourselves and being seen.
In that sense, it is much scarier than performing because now we are being our true selves.
It’s showing a teacher a page of your diary versus a fictional short story you have created.
It’s about dancing your dance, not a teacher’s choreography.
It’s not caring whether you have two left feet but acknowledging that you have one big heart, and dammit, you’re going to let it speak. And sing. And grow.
Now … can I get a witness?
The photo above is a magnet I bought several years ago from the Japan pavilion at Epcot in Walt Disney World. It was a moment of Zen amid an otherwise less-than-tranquil experience in one of the busiest, dizziest (and most humid) tourist destinations on the East Coast. Who knew the House of Mouse could offer such sage wisdom?
“On rainy days, be in the rain. On windy days, be in the wind.”
I understood the maxim’s message right away, as I was still in my honeymoon phase of my yoga and meditation practice and was obsessed with perfecting presence of mind.
What the magnet means is that when you are standing in rain, see it as just rain. No judgement, no attaching “good” or “bad” or “miserable” labels to the meteorological phenomenon. When it rains, be present; see it at its most basic state: water falling from the sky. And then just experience it in all its wet glory.
Same goes for the wind: I feel a strong rush of air pushing at my body and causing my hair to whip around my face. Wind is neither good nor bad; it is wind, and I am standing in it.
The thing is … it’s really hard to master that philosophy, mainly because of something called feeling.
Feeling is something humans are really good at. We have a deep capacity to love and fear and want and reject.
When we’re presented with a simple phenomenon, be it weather or meeting a new person or watching an animal out in nature, the act of observing is usually upstaged by our tendency to want to assign it an emotion or metaphor.
There is nothing wrong with this, but making the leap from observing to feeling can be tricky.
As 5Rhythms® teacher and Open Floor co-founder Lori Saltzman said, “Adding feeling and making meaning is the part that can bring us together … but also the part that gets us into trouble.”
Perspective is powerful.
I and several other dancers got to play around with this concept recently with Lori at her “Write of Passage“ dance/writing workshop, which I attended in Charlottesville, Virginia.
For example, she offered: Imagine a young man in his 20s walking down the street in a hoodie. That’s the baseline, the observation. But one person may see this man as dangerous. Another person thinks, “Oh, what a hottie! I’d like to hook up with him.” And yet another person sees the same man and with a heavy heart thinks, “That’s my son.”
With that, Lori had us put on our “sacred reporter” hats, pull out our notebooks and pens, and observe a volunteer dancer posed in the middle of our circle.”Describe what you see,” Lori instructed, “but only what is right in front of you. I’m talking simple descriptions here—‘white legwarmers, tight ponytail.’ None of this ‘eternal feminine goddess’ stuff.”
We shouted out basic nouns and adjectives, phrases like “bent arms,” “aqua midriff,” “turned-in feet.”
The next step was to describe the volunteer dancer through verbs, action words: “sliding across the floor,” “reaching upward,” “undulating.”
A couple both dressed in purplish hues stepped into the circle. “Now, use metaphors to describe what you see,” Lori instructed. These dancers soon became “two loose grapes rolling around in the fruit bowl” and “grown-up children prancing outside on the playground.”
The final volunteer to step inside the circle was subject to four types of our reporting: basic description, action words, metaphors, and the delicate element of feeling. What type of feeling does this woman’s movement evoke in you? When you watch her move, what is she expressing?
Lori pushed us to be brave, to dare to be wrong in our interpretation. The human race in general can be so afraid to find feeling in another’s expression, because we are afraid of getting it wrong. Of thinking someone is sad when she isn’t really sad.
However, taking the leap and noticing that someone is mourning a loss or experiencing profound happiness—and letting him know that you see what he feels—can be liberating for that person. To be fully seen is a gift!
We drew a table with nine cells in our notebooks and as our volunteer danced, we filled each cell with one of those four types of observations. At the end of the exercise, we had a kind of “tic-tac-toetry” in front of us, short poetic verses compiled from a row of squares:
“Hard-soled shoes tapping on the wood / ball of tenderness yearning to crack open / eyes begging.”
Eventually, we all became the moving volunteer, dancing our dance in groups of three as the two other group members took notes in the same fashion, this time on index cards.
When I was done dancing, my fellow group members slid several cards my way, each piece of paper containing a description of how my classmates saw me. There was my dance—me at my most honest—spread out in front of me.
Lori gave us time to sort through the cards, rearrange them a bit, remove a few, and edit slightly. The result was our poem. Here’s mine:
Here I Am.
Rolling it out, shaking it loose.
I am integrated,
A wild child transformed into an aligned woman.
I Am Here.
The day’s lessons and exercises put me in such “sacred reporter” mode that my poetic perspective was in high gear, even off the dance floor.
When I returned to my host’s house that afternoon, I delighted in the fact that the blanket in the guest bedroom had been elegantly twisted and tucked into an abstract figure of the female form, a pear-shaped flow of fabric starting slender at the top and expanding into wider curves at the bottom.
I smiled and snapped a photo, thanking my partner for creating such a lovely work of bed art. He laughed.
“I didn’t do anything,” he said. “All I did was take a nap, and that’s how the blanket ended up.”
Rain can be rain and a blanket can be a blanket. But sometimes the blanket is an abstract goddess, and we shouldn’t be afraid to say it how we see it.
The power of perspective.