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I’ve been dancing the 5Rhythms for two years now, but this past Saturday’s class felt like I entered a new realm of movement and expression, as though the past 24 months have been Level 1 of a video game, and only now have I been given the key to the secret portal.
I’m really struggling to put into words the pure awesomeness of my dance this weekend. And I’m a writer, so this means I’m dealing with some intense sh*t. I just keep imagining that scene from Contact when Jodie Foster stares out the spaceship window at the golden galaxy of stars, moons, and planets swirling around her, and all she can stammer is, “They should have sent a poet.”
Yoga people, you probably understand this. You know that moment after you’ve been practicing for a few years, and then you have a yoga “experience?” And you’re like Woah. And then something even more Woah happens in your body and breath, and you’re like, “WOAH, I get this now!”
Kinda like that.
Here are the tangibles: The class was held in an amazing restored warehouse with the brightest of bright sunshine streaming through the windows, warming up the expansive studio and causing our sweat to glisten like diamonds.
The guest teacher was Daniella Peltekova, a 5Rhythms teacher from NYC whose Bulgarian heritage blessed her with an exotic accent that, for me, sounded like a saucy hybrid between Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz. Every word she spoke was a verbal expression of Flowing. Her instructions filled the studio like water filling a tub for a warm bubble bath, and I just wanted to soak it all up.
The experience was surreal. When I first entered the studio, I felt like Alice walking into Wonderland. The room was warm, radiating with sunshine, the music was already pulsing, bodies were spinning and flowing around me.
Daniella played bass-filled, earthy, sensual music, punctuated here and there by loudness and softness, just the right combination of melodies and sounds and lyrics that I exhausted myself by the end of class because I wanted so badly to dance to every song.
Halfway during class, as we all sat sweating and glistening and drunk on dance, Daniella poised herself next to a shaft of sunlight and spoke of the beautiful space, the wicked sunlight around us, the full moon, Easter and Passover and things rising and coming to life. She noted that we were out of winter’s cold and darkness, the light is here (oh my it was), and that we didn’t have to do anything but be receptive. “The light is already here; just receive it,” she encouraged us in her Flowing voice.
I felt like a born-again Christian, but not quite sure of my religion. The words comforted me so deeply, I felt them rattle my soul, I wanted to believe but didn’t know what to believe in. Everything within me screamed Hallelujah! but instead of praying we danced, danced, and danced.
(cue the non-tangibles)
Daniella began a new round of Flowing from the floor, on our backs, instructing us to move just the hands, feel our flesh, explore our body’s largest organ. We roll onto our bellies, and from there I observe my loose strands of hair illuminated in the sunshine, doing their own wispy dance to the whir of the overhead fan.
The adventure into Wonderland continued, my body gliding by others, my arms intertwining with those of strangers, our audible, sharp Staccato breaths engaged in a dual of inhalations and exhalations. Palm to palm we gently push and guide and use our single hand to initiate a twisted tango.
Over and over again in my mind, I ask, “Where am I?” The light coming in the giant windows is blinding; I squint long enough to watch a woman across the street on her front porch paint a shelf, and my arms unconsciously imitate her strokes inside the studio. Up and down. Up and down.
Every song that plays is like one of Alice’s “Drink Me” bottles, and I gulp and gulp and struggle for a breath and gulp some more. Down the rabbit hole I dance; where the hell am I going? Is this a portal to reality? Or is it my imagination?
(See this video for an idea of how I felt for much of the class.)
When Florence + the Machine’s live version of “You’ve Got the Love” with Dizzee Rascal blasts through the room, I am thrust into reality because I am dancing so hard that I realize I am gasping for air, my face flushed. OK, yes, lungs. Lungs need oxygen, and this is real.
Reality stuns me again as I briefly partner with an older woman whose overarched feet, willow-like arms, and elongated neck are a dead giveaway of her former life as a classically trained ballerina, and I suddenly feel like I am dancing in front of a mirror of time, an image of me in 30+ years projected right in front of my eyes. I see her age, wisdom, the muscle memory in her calves and shoulders and torso, and I am her and she is me. For the briefest of moments I want to cry, an innocent, profound urge coming deep from my heart, one of pure lightness.
It is a wonderful encounter, and an invitation to see all of my other fellow dancers in the same light. Although my brain had trouble processing much of the class and labeled the whole experience as some kind of wacky adventure into Wonderland, in my heart, the afternoon felt like poetry, something more along the lines of this:
A few nights ago when I had the house to myself, I decided to bust out (OK, by “bust out,” I mean play via Netflix streaming, even though I own the DVD, because sometimes I am just that lazy) one of my favorite movies of all time: Contact.
The movie was released in 1997, not too long after Independence Day hit the theaters. The trailers made it out to be another alien movie, perhaps with less stuff blowing up. I remember going to the theater expecting one thing and coming out very confused. Not confused about the plot line or the ending but more bewildered with my own thoughts about believing in stuff that can’t be seen.
In a nutshell, Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s novel, is about an astronomer (Ellie Arroway), an atheist committed to searching for extraterrestrial life. She is a woman of science and makes it clear to her romantic interest (Palmer Joss) that she needs physical, factual proof to believe in something’s existence, even though Palmer, a religious writer and highly spiritual man, doesn’t share her viewpoint and constantly challenges Ellie about being devoted to a phenomenon that can’t be seen. One of the most provocative exchanges in the movie occurs when Palmer asks Ellie if she loved her father, who passed away when she was 9:
Palmer: Did you love your father?
Palmer: Your dad. Did you love him?
Ellie: Yes, very much.
Palmer: Prove it.
Ellie eventually makes the discovery of a lifetime, a message coming from outer space that provides blueprints for a transportation device to the aliens’ home turf. During her journey to outer space, she witnesses celestial sights that can only make her weep, and she has a highly emotional encounter with an alien that changes everything she ever thought she knew. However, she returns from the mission proof-less, with no recordings, artifacts, or shreds of evidence that corroborate her story. No one believes her; in fact, the government insinuates that she is making up the whole story, that it’s a delusion of grandeur:
Panel member: Doctor Arroway, you come to us with no evidence, no record, no artifacts. Only a story that to put it mildly strains credibility. Over half a trillion dollars was spent, dozens of lives were lost. Are you really going to sit there and tell us we should just take this all… on faith?
Ellie: Is it possible that it didn’t happen? Yes. As a scientist, I must concede that, I must volunteer that.
Michael Kitz: Wait a minute, let me get this straight. You admit that you have absolutely no physical evidence to back up your story.
Michael Kitz: You admit that you very well may have hallucinated this whole thing.
Michael Kitz: You admit that if you were in our position, you would respond with exactly the same degree of incredulity and skepticism!
Michael Kitz: [standing, angrily] Then why don’t you simply withdraw your testimony, and concede that this “journey to the center of the galaxy,” in fact, never took place!
Ellie: Because I can’t. I… had an experience… I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever… A vision… of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how… rare, and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater then ourselves, that we are *not*, that none of us are alone! I wish… I… could share that… I wish, that everyone, if only for one… moment, could feel… that awe, and humility, and hope. But… That continues to be my wish.
This movie hit me hard when I first saw it, and it still does today. It stirs me, it makes me cry, yet I’m not fully sure why. My heart aches for Ellie, yes, but I feel something much deeper than sympathy for a character.
I’m not a religious person, but I guess you could say I am spiritual. Perhaps this movie resonates with me because I am a bit on the fence about everything “out there” that we cannot see. Having to go to full Catholic mass weddings makes me cringe and feel uncomfortable, yet I sometimes listen to gospel music on my commute to work because it just makes me feel so damn good. I’m confused by people who go from not caring a lick about religion to talking about Jesus as though they were BFF in college, yet the moment I emerged on the rooftop of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet and looked out at the Dalai Lama’s former residence, I felt something unworldly course through me and was moved to tears by a power that could not be seen, smelled, or measured.
I squirm when I am at a funeral and the priest reassures us all that “the departed is now with God,” and yet sometimes I find myself in the same position as Ellie, trying to convince people what I experienced is real, for real! Like the time I had an out-of-body experience during savasana after a particularly powerful yoga class. Or during that one crazy-intense yoga class at Kripalu, when every hair on my body stood on edge as I lifted into Vrksasana. Or, I swear, one time during a meditation sit during YTT, I could actually “hear” all of my classmates’ energies buzz above our heads.
Could I prove it? Absolutely not. Perhaps one could physically see the hairs on my arm sticking up during that intense tree pose, but would it be attributed to some higher power? Maybe I was just cold. Maybe I was aroused. And during that out-of-body savasana experience; well, to others, I was simply lying in corpse pose. But to me, I was floating above my own body. Try explaining that to someone who does yoga simply to get a toned butt!
A lot of what I do is hard to explain to others. For instance, just this morning, after a long and sweaty yoga practice at home, I arose from savasana with an overwhelmingly intense urge just to sit in meditation. After a dance of swirling colors swam before my eyes, the world turned to a deep indigo, and I felt like I was transported to a vast amphitheater of nothing but pulsing purple. It went from being isolated to just my head to surrounding my whole body. For a few moments I felt like I was on the verge of entering another dimension. I’ve tried to explain this to other people who meditate; some have also experienced the indigo bubble, others say meditation is just time to sit and be quiet. No colors, no shapes, no mysticism.
I’ve had trouble understanding the people who come to 5Rhythms who just kinda bob along to the music, not really getting into it. Like me. Like the way I do. And yet they come to class week after week after week. Why?! They’re not doing it my way, so clearly they’re not getting it. Do they need it explained to them?! And how can I possibly try to describe some of the intimate exchanges that occur between myself and other dancers, how we link arms and hang over each others’ backs, skin on skin, side by side, a theatrical pas de deux of sorts? Some of the exchanges we do are so eloquently executed, it looks like they have been choreographed. We are keenly aware of each others’ moves and presence, and the give and take of our motions looks anything but spontaneous. I tell ya, sometimes it’s hard to convince others that this is what all dance should be like. (Note: If you are a dance enthusiast, the link is worth watching. It’s a beautiful display of an improvisational duet between two dance students.)
It’s human nature for us to want to share what has happened to us, but it’s foolish to think that the world is going to drop everything and join our team. Maybe the movie was and always has been a gentle nudge for me to at least be respectful of others’ beliefs and values, rather than roll my eyes at the mere notion of something I “don’t get.” As the alien explains to Ellie:
You’re an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.
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!
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?
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!
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.
(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!