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People outside of the conscious dance world get confused when I talk about “dancing fear,” because I guess they imagine ritualistic theatrics involving creepy masks and blindfolds or sitting around in circles sharing stories we would only confess to our priests or rabbis.
Maybe they envision a dictator-like teacher barking commands at us, scaring us intentionally, making us dance on our knees until they bleed, breaking us down.
That isn’t the case.
The process begins with an intention.
I remember one of my teachers commenting that a workshop truly first begins not at the designated start time but rather that moment when the student has RSVP’d. It means the individual has checked and set aside time on his calender, that he has secured the finances, that he is saying to himself, “I am committing my time, money, and energy to this occasion.”
With that commitment, the brain’s neurons begin firing—perhaps subconsciously—about intention. What was it that guided me to pay $200 to explore fear? Why did I carve out an entire weekend to do this work?
The answer might not be obvious. Some people have very clear intentions, for example: “I grew up fearing intimacy, and I want to move beyond that” or “I fear never being ‘seen.'”
For others, there may be no “elevator statement” on their reason for attending; nevertheless, the months/weeks/days leading up to the workshop involve a huge, simmering crock pot of “mental dances,” the brain working behind the scenes, knowing something big is coming up and beginning to direct energy accordingly.
As my therapist always reminds me, “Energy follows intention.”
The teacher usually helps with this process.
Here’s what Adam sent workshop registrants a week or so before the event:
So you’ve got this workshop coming up where we’re working with fear, huh?
Fear is scary. It’s particularly scary to your mind, and your mind is a tricky customer. Watch it come and go, create stories and scenarios that probably will not bear much resemblance to reality.
Your best prep for the weekend is to do what we’ll be fundamentally doing there: stay aware of your body and your breath, because those two aspects of you will stay reliably present, unlike your mind. Stay present. Breathe deep often. Take steps so you can feel your feet. And watch everything else come and go, rise and fall.
So, what happens when you first walk into a workshop on Fear?
You DANCE, of course! Throw your bags and belongings to the side, exchange hugs and kisses with your fellow dancers, tape up your toes/bandage your ankle/slip a brace on your knee, and find your way into Flowing.
In fact, the Friday night portion of a big workshop is mostly dancing and is mostly fun. It’s establishing connection with others, getting in touch with the body, warming up for the bigger work to come.
I had so much fun on that particular Friday, that I didn’t even feel an iota of fear flutter in my heart.
(Which is a bit ironic, because then the “fear” was that I was entering a Fear workshop without any connection to the main topic!)
Then that night I had a nightmare, waking up in a cold sweat. The dream was terrifically realistic and basically flung all of my real-life fears smack in my face.
That said, on Saturday I had “material” to work with.
And so the process began.
* * *
> We don’t only dance Fear-–Adam also instructs us to strike a pose of Anger, Sadness, Joy, and Compassion. We hold these postures, then find a repetitive movement to embody the emotion.
Repetition is an effective exercise because eventually our patterns emerge, clear as day. When we become aware of our patterns on the dance floor, it becomes easier to identify them in the real world.
In addition, after exploring all of the emotions above through movement, Adam asks us, “Which one felt the most authentic to you?”
I hated to admit it, but I really enjoyed the sharp vocalizations and precise martial arts-like movement I was expressing in Anger.
In fact, for most of the workshop, I continuously made the mistake of confusing Fear and Anger, bearing my teeth and flexing my muscles like a tiger when the intent was really to feel more like the prey, not the predator.
(I guess it’s clear what my “shadow”/defense mechanism is.)
> Adam is firm about not wanting us to “check out.” For example, when you feel the need to get water, before you scurry off to get your bottle, pause and see if you’re honestly thirsty and need hydration or whether it’s a built-in routine—a mechanical reaction (“Chaos just ended, so obviously it’s water time”) or perhaps something deeper (“This song/partner/rhythm makes me uncomfortable, I will ‘take a break’ now so I don’t have to face the discomfort.”).
It’s not that Adam wants us to be parched or hungry—he’s just reminding us to be aware of the unconscious mind games that unfold when we’re faced with something we’re not 100% comfortable with.
“Be aware of thirst, tiredness, music you don’t like, a partner you can’t connect with…go with it, that’s when stuff happens. Don’t check out.”
We dance each rhythm across the room several times, reminds me of going “across the floor” in dance class, when we’d practice the same steps from one end of the room to the other until perfection.
This time there are steps but not choreography, just a long path from Point A to Point B for us to dance a Flowing Fear, a Staccato Fear, a Chaos Fear, a Lyrical Fear, a Stillness Fear.
“Again,” Adam says with a simple hand gesture in our direction, compassionate fierceness in his voice. He never lets us check out.
There are chairs on the side of the room, but we are asked only to sit if we’re dealing with injury or pain. “If you’re tired, dance a tired Chaos!” Adam says.
> We dance to wordless music all of Friday and Saturday. On Friday, it barely registers in my mind. After Saturday, it becomes very noticeable that thus far we have danced to only instrumental music.
Without lyrics, the brain is able to shut off much quicker. You can’t use the words to help carry your movement; instead, movement becomes instinctual.
On Sunday, vocals began to appear in our music. Something in the air became lighter. It was like we were being pressed under water for two days, hearing only heartbeats and muffled murmuring, and now finally hearing the sweet sounds of the world sing clearly into our ears.
Here’s what Adam had to say about that, in a separate e-mail:
The intent was to take everyone into the dark at first, to encounter fear, find power, and then to emerge into beauty; though I had no idea of the exact steps we would take to do that, or what music I would choose along the way. All my music selection is totally intentional, and each track is chosen in the moment, none more than a few minutes before it plays.
> Energy indeed follows intention, even after the workshop ends and socialization begins. At a potluck dinner party after Saturday’s grueling class, I end up randomly sitting next to a woman, get into a conversation with her about mudra meditations, and then—holy coincidence!—nearly at the same time, we say, “Here’s my favorite one,” lifting our hands into the conch shell mudra.
Of all the possible mudras out there—so many combinations of finger placements and hand positions—how can this be?!
Just like having that fear-inducing nightmare on Friday night, I believe meeting “Elaine” on Saturday night was synchronicity, our work from the earlier part of the day culminating into a deeper experience to help us through the remainder of the workshop.
Turns out the conch shell mudra (which helps strengthen the throat) is so important to us because we both struggle with our voices, her physically and me energetically. In fact, our voice-related challenges are a huge part of our fear, the very reason we are at this workshop!
Well then, it should not be surprising that during the next day’s session, after a vicious, deep trip into fear—a plunge that leaves my nose running, eyes red and wet, hair askew, a dive in which I had been thinking about my voice—Adam tells us to pause, turn to the person closest to us, and that this person will now be our partner.
I open my soggy eyelids and find myself nearly arm to arm with—of course—Elaine. Energy follows intention even when there are 40+ other dancers in the room!
Adam asks one person from each pair to face the fear of fear, to place it in our bellies, to dance it out as the other partner stands off to the side and simply witnesses.
My eyes stay focused on Elaine, even as she moves among a crowd of several others. She circles and circles, her arms rising out to her sides, her mouth agape, a silent scream caught in her throat.
It is difficult to watch, knowing we share such similar restrictions. At times, I feel as though I am witnessing myself, decades in the future.
I eventually re-enter the dance floor, instructed by Adam to join our partner and stand by her side. “Not in front or in back of them, but by their side,” he emphasizes. “Be there with them.”
“For Stillness, what feels right?” Adam asks. “Taking their hand, touching, an embrace?” My one hand clutches Elaine’s hand, the other comes to back of her neck. My arms wrap her in a hug, her snotty nose in my shoulder. We make eye contact. Her eyes are glistening with fresh tears but so open.
When it is my turn out on the dance floor, I feel Elaine embodied in me, sensations of my throat being blocked off, barely able to talk. Even my movement is constricted. Yet, Elaine doesn’t have a choice. I can speak! Unlike the physical disability she has, I am only energetically impaired. What gives, Jennifer? You can speak!
I rip at my stomach, chest, throat, as though pulling a cord—maybe even a serpent—out of my mouth. Like a magician’s colorful mile-long scarf expanding from his sleeve, the snake keeps emerging as I tug. Wide open mouth.
Finally, there is Lyrical. Adam reminds us to take steps, as it is so easy to stay locked in one place after such a taxing Chaos. Such a relief to just take steps, no dancing, just walk and see what happens.
My robotic right-left-right-left pattern morphs effortlessly into something new, and with that miniscule change of footwork, I feel free, broken out of the restriction. I catch myself softly whispering “Yes, yes, yes” as my feet gradually slow down and I enter Stillness with Elaine by my side and her hand on my heart.
> I am relieved when Adam gives us time to spread across the room and journal. Finally, the energy that has been exploding out of me can collect on paper, an ink-infused take-home gift from all of this intense work. My writing is sloppy as my hands are shaking, and in this period of rest I realize I feel quite sick, a bit nauseous, extraordinarily thirsty, a throbbing headache at my temples.
But words come effortlessly from fingers to paper, and I begin to wonder whether the “illness” I feel is really just all the gunk worked up over the day trying to purge. Writing is my mental vomiting, and my sickness splatters all over the pages of my notebook.
So with that in mind, I receive Adam’s next instruction with apprehension: We are encouraged, one at a time, to stand up in this room of 40+ people and emphatically speak out our “summary statement,” a line from our journaling that represents the essence of our writing.
For some people, what they exclaim is enough, and Adam allows them to sit down and simply breathe in their classmates’ presence and receptivity. For others, Adam uses his best judgement to decide how to proceed:
– “Say it again, this time softer.”
– “Yes, now repeat that three times in a row. Make eye contact with everyone.”
– “Add just a little more softness to you voice.”
– “Where are your hands when you say that? Show me where your hands are.”
He pushes us. Offers comfort. Gently receives with a slight bow of the head. One man’s statement was so profound and gut-wrenching that Adam stood behind him in solidarity and took him into an embrace, the student enveloped in Adam’s arms.
> After the journaling purge, Adam tells us to find someone to be with. To truly, honestly just “be with” this person, whether it’s crying or dialoguing or sitting in meditation. A female dancer from New York is seated right next to me, and we situate ourselves shoulder to shoulder.
“What do you want?” she asks, and I say I just want to hold her like this—me straddling her between my legs as she leans back into my torso, my arms around her from behind. We roll on top of each other, her weight on me; the sensation of her sliding over my back and shoulders brings me to tears. I inhale her shampoo.
* * *
The workshop ends shortly thereafter, our group assembled in a huge circle, holding hands, our eyes taking in every person who has shared our fear that weekend. We all went through some pretty intense and perhaps unflattering moments, yet at this conclusion—amazingly—we all look radiant. Our eyes speak truth.
My headache is gone, and I no longer feel ill. My eyes are puffy, but they are not “sad” eyes. I am exhausted but invigorated.
As stated earlier, the workshop officially starts when one RSVPs and makes the commitment to attend. However, there is no official end to such an endeavor. The work continues even after the studio lights go out, the parking lot is empty, and Adam flies back to England.
We’ve been cracked open; now it’s time to get cookin.’
Back in March, I attended one heavy-duty Heartbeat-level 5Rhythms workshop with England-based teacher Adam Barley.
I haven’t blogged about any of it yet because I’m afraid.
Which makes sense, because the topic was FEAR.
This was not a workshop to take for shits and giggles. Like, don’t sign up for this if all you’re looking for is 15 hours of ecstatic dance. Adam is a fun teacher, and sure, we danced a lot, but it’s serious work. Adam wants you to get your money’s worth. Which means that when the workshop is being billed as “Fear,” Adam wants you to get up close and personal with that super-scary F-word.
One of the most valuable lessons I learned in this particular workshop is how the “shadows” of each of the Rhythms serve as obstacles to truly facing what scares us.
I’ve gone through each of these shadows in an attempt to blog about this very workshop. These shadows are familiar and arise often when I’m faced with something that’s going to make me vulnerable.
The beauty is that now I’m aware of these little mind games, and somehow knowing what’s going on behind the scenes makes the whole process a little less scary.
But enough of the esoteric introduction. Let’s get to the nitty gritty, shall we?
Adam split our class into 5 groups—one for each rhythm/shadow—spread out across the room. The direction was to fully dance in that shadow for some time and then—when prompted—move to another group, exploring the movements associated with that shadow. So on and so forth.
> Flowing became Sleepiness and Complacency. Instead of firmly rooting our feet into the ground, we allowed our limp bodies to topple into it, the earth as our floppy pillow rather than the solid foundation it is supposed to be. Half-open eyes, yawning—how easy it is to just rest my head here on this person’s back. Why stand up when I can just…lie…down…right…here Zzzzzzz.
This shadow felt all too familiar. I resort to it all the time when I’m afraid, because instead of facing fear head-on, it is SO much easier to say “I’m tired” and succumb to that “I-can’t-keep-my head-up” heaviness. Can’t deal with fear when you’re asleep, right?
Granted, there are times I am legitimately exhausted but how peculiar that every time I sit down to blog, I suddenly feel verrrry sleepy…
> Staccato became Anger, Rage, and Blame. When it’s too scary to step boldly into the empty spaces and be direct and honest, why not transform that intensity onto someone else? Bare your teeth, stomp in someone else’s boundaries, jut your head forward and invade their personal space. Suddenly Staccato begins resembling a kung fu movie, and no one is safe.
For me, this shadow translates to “It’s so-and-so’s fault I can’t write because he/she is [insert blame here]!!” or “There are just too many dance events, I have no time to write about them. The people who schedule every awesome event under the sun in June clearly have no respect for my schedule!!”
> Chaos became Loss of Control. Although it is important to let your head go when dancing in Chaos, it’s just as crucial to remember your feet’s connection to the ground. A room full of dancers engaged in an ungrounded Chaos will result in potentially dangerous collisions, driver-less cars hydroplaning in every direction.
This kind of movement is dizzying, exhausting, cross-eyed, flailing limbs striking others as you stumble from here to there to everywhere. A sense of panic arises—as though trying to escape a burning building—but you’re not even sure if you’re heading toward the exit.
Sometimes it’s easier to wear myself out then face anything challenging. If I mindlessly speed through a morning of working out, scrubbing the tub, pushing myself through a few sun salutations, running to the pharmacy, dancing a Wave, there’s no possible way I’ll have the time or energy to confront my fear. I’m a sweaty, exhausted mess in a matter of hours, most likely finding myself back at Shadow #1: Sleepiness.
> Lyrical became Distraction. Welcome to La-La Land, where all senses are on overdrive. You want to see, smell, hear, taste, and feel everything…but all at once and without being very mindful about what’s coming your way.
Movement is disoriented, eyes darting from one body part or person to the next, moving just to move but never feeling connection to anything you make contact with. It’s a blip on your radar, a quick Ooooh or Ahhh before something new distracts you.
I should refresh my Twitter feed. Have a bite of those brownies on the counter. Yes, I love this song! OMG, I can write my name in the dust on this table. What was that kid’s name in the movie about that monster? Lemme look that up on Wikipedia. Holy crap, it’s already 7 p.m.; I should get my work clothes ready for tomorrow so I’ll be all set, maybe make my lunch while I’m at it.
Before I know it it’s bedtime, and I’ve done everything but anything that really matters.
> Stillness became Blankness, Catatonia, Numbness. Nothing in, nothing out. When fear paralyzes you to the point of near-immobility, unable to emote in any fashion, unable to feel, locked in a state of physical and mental frozenness.
Movement is hardly movement at all, more like uncertain steps in no particular direction, eyes closed or gazing off into nowhere, moving solely because you are asked to move, not because you have any desire to.
That guy is raising his arm. Maybe I should do that too. … There, I just raised my arm. Now I will put it down.
This shadow is usually the last resort when dealing with fear, after all of the other options above have been put to the test. I’ve worn myself out, played the blame game, distracted myself into a tizzy, fallen asleep, and now have finally sat myself down at the computer, opened to a blank page, and … … …
Look at that white screen.
There is nothing.
I need to write words because that is what a blog entails.
I need to pee but I can’t even leave this seat. I am so parched but I will just sit here staring at this screen and allow my throat to get drier and drier. I can’t feel my ass now, but I will continue to sit this way and allow my legs to feel as heavy as my mind.
The computer screen is as blank as my expression.
* * *
In the heart of this exercise, Adam stopped telling us when to shift shadows and instructed us to move freely from one shadow to another when the moment felt right.
What we were really doing was experimenting with defense mechanisms, exploring the things we call “Anger!” or Sleeeeeepiness, which are really just masks for the bigger emotion: Fear.
When fear comes up–whether it entails heartfelt, authentic blogging; telling someone what you really mean; or trying out a new class/applying for a new job—the brain kicks in with excuses, overshadowing the fear.
Fear becomes blame. Fear becomes distraction. Fear becomes muteness.
Adam’s exercise was a valuable lesson: By observing these patterns and being aware of our habits, we can transform fear.
The next time you find yourself yawning at a friend or yelling at a partner, staring mindlessly out of windows or spiraling out of control, ask yourself: What is this really?
Is this fear? Am I afraid?
After all, the full title of the workshop was Fear, Power, and Beauty.
Own your fear. Give it the power to be heard and seen.
From that, beauty will emerge.
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.
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.
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.