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One of the most fulfilling elements of my 5Rhythms practice—other than the gift of meditation through movement it provides to me—is the sense of TRIBE that comes along with being a part of a community of like-minded individuals.

I’ve written before about the energetic bonds created during classes and workshops, how dancing boldly and authentically among others creates an almost transcendent state of togetherness—I am everyone, and everyone is me.

In fact, some of Adam Barley‘s final words to our class during his Philadelphia workshop this past March were: “Look closely at these people you’ve danced with; you are all of them and they are you.”

Some people may have yoga tribes, running tribes, coffee shop tribes, postpartum depression support tribes. What’s important is to find those individuals

who accept us as we are without reservation and gladly accompany us on our journeys of evolution. Among them, we feel free to be our imperfect selves, to engage unabashedly in the activities we enjoy, and to express our vulnerabilities by relying on our tribe for support. [source]

The power of the tribe becomes even more apparent in moments of vulnerability, when we find ourselves standing naked in a room of peers, our souls sweating onto the dance floor, our hands reaching out for contact and connection.

Being able to be so open can feel empowering, and you know you wouldn’t have been able to get there on your own, even if you locked yourself in a room for 24 hours straight and danced until your feet bled.

For example, back in April I participated in a 3-day workshop with a “cousin” 5Rhythms tribe in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was my first time really away from my home turf, staying with a host dancer and her family. I arrived on Friday evening, and by Sunday evening it took a lot of effort to pull me away from that group of dancers. I cried before I even left the venue parking lot, so reluctant to start the car and drive away from this group I had bonded so comfortably with.

“It’s not fairrrrrr!” I exclaimed. “I was just getting to know these people. We do all this incredible, opening work with these people, expose our hearts and souls to them, and then just like *that* we are supposed to say goodbye and leave?! I need more time with everyone!”

(That said, guess where I am now as this blog entry posts? Back in Charlottesville, for an extended workshop—5 whole days with my tribe! We’re actually at a retreat center, eating, sleeping, dancing, and dreaming together—exactly what I was longing for when I left Virginia two months ago.)

The 5Rhythms practice relies very heavily on this notion of tribe; in fact, one of my favorite teachers from New York—Douglas Drummond–held a special workshop in Philadelphia on this very topic:

Embodied Tribal.

Here is Douglas’ description of the work:

The real measure of a leader lies in their followers. At the core of this power is the relationship between the Leader and the Follower. In these modern times, we are asking so much of everyone with respect to demonstrating leadership skills even when not the formal leader. Sometimes this is hard to understand and hard to demonstrate. So we’ll MOVE with it!

To emphasize this point, Douglas had us get into a few large groups and to NOT designate a leader. The direction was for everyone to continue to dance but then—through an unspoken, organic unfolding—somebody starts doing a repetitive movement. With luck, everyone eventually picks up on this movement, not quite knowing who the leader is but being able to “feel” the leadership and sense it out, as the individuals in the group conform one by one.

A great visual demonstration of such a phenomenon can be seen in this video:
{Watch 32 discordant metronomes achieve synchrony in a matter of minutes.}

The exercise was a bit symbolic of our greater work as a tribe: everyone being in discordance, doing their own thing, and eventually all coming together for a few moments. The repetitive movement was to be something simple, too—nothing too complex—just like how the simple act of dancing together builds such cohesion among our collection of ragtag individuals.

In another exercise, Douglas split our class into three groups of at least 10 people each, each “tribe” facing each other in the center of the room.

One person from each group took on the leadership role—standing front and center—engaging in a simple movement that everyone could follow.

Douglas had us speed it up, slow it down, experiment with different tempos. We looked like three tribes about to go to war with each other, or perhaps even three military units ready to sweep in and fight the same enemy.

Eventually, Douglas made both the leader and his followers pause; the leader then turned around to view his tribe behind him. In all instances, most of the followers were standing in the same position, arms poised in same place, stances all uniform.

I was fortunate to serve as one of the “leaders,” and let me tell you, turning around and seeing my tribe standing there in unison, poised exactly how I had led them was exhilarating.

It wasn’t even a sense of power or dominance, but rather, Wow, these people have my back, we’re all in this together. When I need them there the most, they’re there. I thought about how many times I’ve really needed them, just their presence for 2 or 3 hours; they’re my family, it’s my tribe.

In an active listening discussion afterward, Douglas made us answer the question: “What does the dance of the tribal mean to me?”

Some of the words I shared with my partner were support, family, and love. Sometimes I’m not even certain of everyone’s names or what they do for a living or where they live and what they believe in, yet I still feel a deep connection with them.

"Stillness in Motion" group. Charlottesville, VA, April 2013.

“Stillness in Motion” group. Charlottesville, VA, April 2013.

On the surface, your tribe may seem to be nothing more than a loose-knit group of friends and acquaintances to whom you ally yourself. Yet when you look deeper, you will discover that your tribe grounds you and provides you with a sense of community that ultimately fulfills many of your most basic human needs. [source]

Like most children of my generation, I grew up watching Sesame Street. I loved Big Bird, I got pissed at Oscar the Grouch, and I caught on early to the fact that the cookies Cookie Monster shoved in his mouth just broke into pieces and spewed all over the place, never really being ingested and eaten.

I really loved Sesame Street. However, there were two recurring segments that actually scared me and sent me face-first into the couch cushions so I wouldn’t have to watch: (a) the “Yip Yip” martians; and (b) the shadow puppets.

I can see being disturbed by those slack-jawed martians with their hypermobile mouths and crooked antennae. They’re weird looking and speak in jibberish. But being frightened by the shadow of someone’s arm turning into an elephant or swan? I wish I could have a conversation with my 4-year-old self and figure out what exactly about that segment made me squeal in terror and cover my eyes. Why was I afraid of shadows?

Well, apparently adults are just as easily frightened by shadows as they were 20-something years ago, because when 5Rhythms teacher Douglas Drummond announced he was leading a “Light and Shadow” workshop in my area a few weeks ago, I instantly equated it with “good vs. bad,” “happy vs. sad.” I imagined us taking these five beautiful rhythms and plunging them into darkness, exposing their menacing, scary sides. I pictured my happy-go-lucky Ronald McDonald dancing transforming into Pennywise from Stephen King’s It, laughter morphing into screams. No thank you!

This wasn’t the case, of course. The workshop was called “Light and Shadow,” not “Light and Dark.” Two very different things! As Douglas explained: “The shadow should not be looked upon as a negative, rather an integral component of the bigger picture—a play with polarity.”

The five rhythms and their respective shadows are:

Flowing / Inertia
Staccato / Rigidity
Chaos / Confusion
Lyrical / Distraction
Stillness / Numbness

This wasn’t an exploration of opposites; more like an examination of our underbellies, those angles of our bodies that are difficult to see without a mirror. After all, the opposite of Stillness would probably be something more like Chaos, not numbness. We were learning to dance with the fraternal twin of each rhythm, not its evil cousin.

It’s true, the shadows listed above may, at first, seem “bad.” But Douglas was quick to explain the benefit in each of them, starting with the concept of physical shadows themselves. Ever been in the city on a hot and sunny 100-degree day? Stepping into the shadows cast by the towering buildings can be a welcome reprieve. Alternatively, stepping out of the shadows on a 30-degree day can be just as rewarding. Neither is bad; one complements the other.

Flowing / Inertia

Regarding inertia, Douglas used the metaphor of a garden hose with a kink in the tubing. What was once freely flowing is now blocked, perhaps only a trickle of water escaping from the mouth. I was reminded of the “squeeze-and-soak” concept of twisting yoga postures, where creating restriction in one area of the body will expel staleness and allow room for fresh blood to flow in once released, much like wringing out a dirty sponge.

Movement-wise, Douglas described inertia as trying to move while wearing a heavy backpack. This was a good exercise for me because I tend to be a dramatic upper-body mover, prone to always being one arm-flail away from dislocating my hyperflexible shoulders or elbows. Instilling that sense of heaviness in my upper body created a kinesthetic awareness that I would have never allowed myself to experience; inertia was a wise old sage reminding me to be cautious with flowing.

Staccato / Rigidity

It’s only appropriate that I had just watched The Hunger Games on Netflix before working with this shadow, because, as Douglas explained, rigidity is like the tension built up in a crossbow before an arrow is shot. Without tension, there is no directness and the target will never be hit.

Someone with a staccato personality will just come right out and say what’s on her mind: “Yes!” “No!” If that person becomes rigid, the staccato is brewing inside but is just never quite fully released, the way someone’s eyes will scream Yes or No but the words are stuck in her throat.

While dancing rigidity, I was reminded of my days studying ballet—specifically pointe—when my feet were jammed into tight block-like shoes, my ankles bound with satin ribbon, and my movement consisting of a series of straight lines. But that type of dance is also an art form, and at the time it meant a lot to me. My years of rigidity taught me discipline, direction, and poise. My current barefoot and dubstep-supported staccato is stronger because of my years in tights and a tutu.

Chaos / Confusion

Even in my wildest Chaos, I am usually able to maintain a sense of proprioception; whether I’m flailing, leaping, or spinning like a whirling dervish, I still have a keen sense of body awareness that keeps me from colliding with someone else or running into a wall.

Switch that to a confused state, and I may start to lose my footing. Step on another’s foot. Even with my eyes wide open, being confused will have me running into more obstacles than an eyes-closed chaos.

I think the difference lies in the role of the brain: In Chaos, there is minimal cerebral interference. Things are wild and loose and frenetic, but the body is intelligent and is rolling with the punches, so to speak. The body knows. In confusion, however, things are still wild and loose and frenetic, but the brain keeps trying to step in and control the situation. In confusion, the mind keeps questioning “Why? Why? Why?” instead of just letting things be, regardless of how messy or weird or unattractive they are.

Confusion can also be a gift, too. While walking in a bad neighborhood at night, switching the brain on to full-power and having a slight sense of panic may clue one into something amiss and save her life.

Lyrical / Distraction

So often I compare Lyrical to dessert, the sweetness that comes after supper, a sumptuous reward for making it through the rather strenuous and hearty rhythms preceding it. Lyrical is meant to be savored one spoonful at a time: licked, nibbled, sucked.

And then there’s dessert with distraction, devouring the slice of office birthday cake because it’s sitting on your desk, hurriedly shoving forkfuls of icing into your mouth while composing an e-mail in Outlook. Or excitedly finding the last strawberry-cream-filled chocolate in the Whitman’s sampler and popping the whole thing in your mouth at once, distracted by the object itself rather than focused on the sensory pleasure of taking it in.

I acknowledge that I have a tendency to slip into distraction (also described by Douglas as “spaced out”) more than I’d like, especially at the weekly farmers’ market. There’s usually a lot going on at once—cute dogs being walked, cooking demos being presented, plump vegetables and warm apple cider doughnuts being sold—and instead of taking a deep breath and becoming one with all this goodness, I tend to separate myself from it all, viewing it in a blurry haze. It feels a bit like walking around without my glasses, viewing things out of focus.

I was surprised, then, that the embodied version of distraction was not as “blurry” as I thought it would be. My fellow classmate described becoming captivated by his hands and all of their intricate movements during this portion of class; I too had a similar experience, becoming fascinated by the glowing red exit sign above the door. So, yes, we were “distracted” by these singular objects rather than surrendering our entire body to Lyrical; however, there was a notion of pointed, meditative focus involved in this distraction, which is certainly not a “bad” thing.

It reminds me of sitting in the church pew during my friends Erik and Anna’s wedding. Everyone around me was singing a hymn, eyes glued on the lyrics; I got distracted and decided instead to glance up at the two of them sitting at the front of the church. They exchanged cute smiles and expressions of love, probably not aware that anyone was looking up from their hymnals. My distraction gave me a few seconds of witnessing something very special.

Stillness / Numbness

Stillness is being open to mystery. Numbness is shutting down: Nothing in, nothing out.

There are moments for numbness, like receiving bad news at an office meeting. When you’re sitting around a conference table with the big-wigs and learn that the company is cutting employees’ salaries, it’s professionally wise to just hear the information and process it later, since it will most likely involve expletives or crying or fist pounding. Nothing in, nothing out (until after work, and probably at the bar with your colleagues).

Numbness makes me think of the chilly Decembers when my sister and I would crawl into a freezing car after Christmas dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house, screaming at the cold leather under our butts and impatiently waiting for the engine to warm up so we could too. Sometimes—instead of carrying on with all the “Brrrrrrs” and shivering and foot stomping—it was easier to just become limp inside our winter coats and go into silent hibernation mode. Nothing in, nothing out, just lifeless bodies in the backseat until the heat kicked in.

In those ways, numbness is protective, shutting down receptivity in an effort to save face or save energy.

Dance-wise, numbness was the most difficult shadow for me to embody. It felt like a “scary” place to me; not scary like Pennywise from It but scary like Robert De Niro in Awakenings, a catatonia that shut down my ability to express what I needed to express. I remember getting stuck in a shuffling kind of foot pattern—step forward, step back, step forward, step back—when all I really wanted to do was plow ahead. I remember wanting to extend my arm out but found it paralyzed next to my torso.

It was frustrating and sad. I’m glad we weren’t partnering at the time, because I can’t imagine standing in front of someone and being completely immune and indifferent to their movement. Alternatively, it would be equally as difficult to pour my heart out through movement and get nothing in return.


The format of Douglas’ class worked perfectly with our environment: The light-centric portion of class coincided with daylight, and by the time the shadow-centric Wave had rolled around, the sun had set and we were dancing by candlelight. Not only were we dancing with our metaphorical shadows but our literal ones, too! Many times I could only identify someone by the outline of his or body. Even in those conditions, no one clashed or collided or ran into walls. Again, shadows aren’t necessarily “bad”!

A fascinating coincidence was that our venue—a Friends school—still had its display up from Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a reminder about the importance of acknowledging and celebrating the shadow side of our physical existence on earth.

It brought me back to the 5Rhythms workshop I had done in October, the one Gabrielle Roth was supposed to lead. Our space was decorated in black and white, a celebration of living and dying and everything in-between.

It was a poignant event, but never “dark.” Gabrielle’s son Jonathan and her husband Robert talked about the shadows, brought them to the forefront, but never thrust us into complete darkness or misery. We danced along the continuum, at times more heartbroken than others, sometimes going from crying to laughing to crying in a matter of minutes.

* * *

I don’t know what the Children’s Television Workshop was thinking when it introduced those freaky Yip-Yip martians to Sesame Street, but I have to say, those educational researchers must have been onto something with the shadow puppets. Even though I didn’t accept it at the time, I’ve come to realize that shadows aren’t bad or scary, whether we’re talking about a hand becoming a horse or Chaos becoming confusion.

Our shadows are always with us, even (and especially) on the brightest and lightest of days. It’s about time we become acquainted with our other half so we can better understand the full spectrum of our movement, and—more important—our existence.

Light and Shadow installation

Sometimes the most inspiring component of a 5Rhythms class is not the music or the environment or the people but rather the guidance or encouragement the instructor shares mid-dance via microphone, a phrase that touches you just the right way, a combination of nouns, verbs, or adjectives composed and delivered in such a manner that words become energy in mere milliseconds.

For example, during Amara Pagano’s workshop last month, a simple, emphatic “There you go” would sometimes launch me from minimally energized to borderline explosive.

However, one phrase I never imagined would (a) ever be uttered during class, and (b) be such a catalyst for me is the following, courtesy of Douglas Drummond:

“Bust out your inner blacksmith.”

Now, I have imagined myself to take on several identifies and forms during a 5Rhythms class—a high priestess, a tiger, a lady in red, a collection of vibrating atoms—but never a dirty-faced dude wearing safety goggles and a leather apron, forging iron over an open flame.

But the command made sense at the time, as me and about 15 other dancers were in the middle of Douglas’ “Embodying the Elemental” workshop, and our Staccato—the element of fire—was getting hotter by the minute. We had just dug up the earth with our feet (my metaphor for Flowing; we were on a wooden floor the whole time), and now the music was picking up tempo and busting some bass, and it was our duty to transform this collection of dirt-speckled minerals with the fire churning from our bellies.

Even though I was physically dancing inside a church auditorium in Pennsylvania and a primary school in New Jersey, the two-day experience ended up being a journey into the center of the earth and on edge of the cosmos. Each class consisted of two standard Waves, but we approached each rhythm as an element:

Flowing: Earth
Staccato: Fire
Chaos: Water
Lyrical: Air/Wind
Stillness: Ether

The same elements are represented by prayer flags, like those hanging in the kitchen.

Connecting the 5Rhythms with the natural world brought a new level of understanding to this often complex dance. As much as I loved Amara’s Fire of Love workshop, associating the dance with heavy-duty and abstract concepts such as fear, love, and loss brought a certain degree of difficulty to the process. But water, sand, wind…how tangible these objects are, how primal.

We all know how pliable earth feels under our toes and how the threat of fire causes us to jump and react. Douglas acknowledged that everyone has had an experience with these elements, some positive and others not so much. While it is easy to associate earth with a flourishing garden or sandy beach, Douglas is from New Zealand, an area on fault lines where the constant threat of seismic activity makes this element a bit frightening. And yes, how refreshing it is to open the windows on a spring day and allow the breeze to rustle your curtains, but this same element of air and wind can also take the shape of a funnel cloud and wipe out entire towns.

At first I was perplexed about the element of water representing Chaos—Isn’t water always associated with flowing?—but the more it was explained, the more it made sense. Water is temperamental, unpredictable. I mean, heck, water can freeze, water can boil, water can turn to a solid or evaporate into steam. A heavy rainfall can turn into a flash flood in a matter of minutes, and a steady flow of water underground can turn into this the moment its container breaks:

Water main break in Center City, Philadelphia, the same day as the workshop.

To be able to actually visualize the rhythms was something relatively new to me. I loved Douglas’ example of how dancing in Staccato requires being aware of your environment: If you’re standing in tightly packed group, are you going to bust out a raging bonfire that’s going to burn others around you, or can you achieve the same heat with a simple and sharp strike of a match?

I’ll tell you, it was hard at times not to let Staccato become the blazing bonfire. Douglas’ playlist was heavy on the dubstep/psy-trance/electronica, music I seldom listen to but when I do—WATCH OUT! That genre already has that little electric “buzz” built it; my veins and arteries basically became live wires. And I love the brief moments of pause/suspension in the music—it reminded me of trick candles being blown out and then coming back to life, stopping for a breath (…) and then launching right back into the movement (!!!).

By the time Stillness rolled around, my mind was definitely in the ether; I was in a whole new dimension. Maybe it’s because I had just played with fire and water and been electrocuted, that the Four Winds had just resuscitated me with their breath of life, but during Stillness I hovered in a state of acute awareness and deep meditation, a bit scared by this near-possession but allowing it to move through me, because as Douglas had stated earlier, the element of ether is the deepest mystery, the enigmatic.

In Tibetan Buddhism, ether is defined as the regions of space beyond the earth’s atmosphere; the heavens. For me, Stillness is like looking in a mirror and seeing nothing but knowing and feeling that something is there. It is vibrating wildly like the smallest speck of matter, moments away from bursting and expanding into a vast universe, the Big Bang of my consciousness. It is also ending class with my limbs feeling like magnets being drawn down into the earth’s magma, barely able to rise from the floor and shuffle over to the center of the room for the final sharing circle.

And just as we have to share this planet, Douglas also gave us plenty of time to share our thoughts with each other. In pairs, we answered the question, “In the element of ___ (fill in the blank with the given element), I feel ___.” Douglas emphasized that this was an exercise in conscious listening—while the speaker spoke, the listener was simply to listen—no nodding in agreement, frowning, prompting the speaker in any way. Doing both workshops, what a gift it was to hear 10 different descriptions of these elements. I don’t recall everything that I stated, but I do remember snippets:

In the element of earth, I feel sludge, resistance.

In the element of fire, I feel electricity.

In the element of water, I feel like I am submerged, having no oxygen but hearing every little breath and sound my body makes.

In the element of air, I feel like a dolphin coming to the surface, the breath that connects me with the rest of the world.

In the element of ether, I feel a spiritual hypnosis, grasping for something that is always just out of reach, the beauty you feel but cannot see.

Honor and respect these elements, Douglas reminded us. They were here long before us and will exist well beyond our lifetime. Recognize their beauty, acknowledge their power, and feel the rhythms they hum, crackle, churn, whisper, and vibrate.

Element-inspired installation, Day 2.

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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