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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.

During the 10-week tai chi series I participated in earlier this year, there were times in between practicing the previous week’s moves and learning the next one that I would ever-so-briefly slip into ballerina mode and turn the form into a dance, secretly wishing the instructor would dim the lights a bit, turn up the volume on the pan flute music, and not care that I was giving these martial arts moves a bit of rhythm and sensuality.

Tai chi is a practice of stillness, and yet the movements moved me: The extreme attention to detail, the microscopic focus, and the repetitive nature of the practice brought my mind to such a stillpoint that it became keenly aware of all the chi (energy) moving within. At times it was difficult to contain this flow of energy. It simply wanted to dance!

That’s why when I heard about a relatively new “dance meditation system” called Wu Tao—a blend of Chinese medicine, dance, and music—I agreed to go to the introductory workshop before I even really investigated what the practice was all about. A brief video on YouTube showed a medley of free-form movement and tai chi-like choreography, and that’s all I needed.

I felt very fortunate to be a part of the class, as it was one of the first offerings of Wu Tao in the United States; the practice originated in Australia, the brainchild of former ballerina Michelle Locke, who, after a back injury, went on to study Chinese medicine and healing. Wu Tao is the marriage of her two strongest passions, complemented by a third element: music to accompany the movement, composed by her husband.

Michelle described Wu Tao as a way to restore inner peace, balance, and energy (qi) in the body, and clearly the practice has had an effect on her: She came into the studio late after being gridlocked in horrendous turnpike traffic, yet somehow remained remarkably cool, calm, and collected. I couldn’t believe how such a soft and soothing voice could emerge from someone stuck behind a steering wheel for 2+ hours.

Michelle, me, and a move from the “Wood” element dance.

What makes Wu Tao stand out from other dance meditation practices is its connection to the visceral body, specifically the body’s meridian channels, pathways that run through our bodies bringing energy—qi—to our internal organs. (These meridians are the basis of acupuncture; you know, how a needle in your back can heal pain in your toe.) Each set of movements stimulates specific meridians, but in a subtle way, so you’re never really consciously thinking “large intestine, large intestine, large intestine.” You move, you breathe, and the energy transforms naturally.

Wu Tao’s movements are based on the five elements: Air, Water, Wood, Fire, and Earth; what a magic number in dance, as it reminded me so much of the energy behind 5Rhythms. The major difference, though, is that in Wu Tao each element has choreography—a “routine” so to speak—to learn, practice, and then execute with the music. It really was like a dance version of tai chi (or qi gong)—specific moves designed to keep the life force flowing, all while adding the element of music and personality.

Because it was our first time experiencing Wu Tao, we spent a lot of time learning the moves and practicing them, but experienced practitioners can complete a series in about 30 minutes, much like going through a tai chi form or surya namaskars. During the workshop, we learned and practiced the elements of:

Air: Several upward sweeping arm movements to stimulate the lungs and large intestine, all with a theme of letting go, casting away grief, shedding fear.
Water: Performed on the floor, mostly side-to-side rocking, rolling, and forward bends, all meant to stimulate the bladder and kidneys, as well as to honor our energy, rest, and allow the natural current of the water to carry us.
Wood: A dynamic set of movements to stimulate the liver and gall bladder, starting from grounding the body like tree roots to growing tall, a feeling of moving forward, direction, and purpose.

We didn’t have time to learn the final elements of Fire and Earth, but I imagine them to be very much like the rhythms of Lyrical and Stillness, respectively: Fire, a chance to come home to the heart; and Earth, a moment of being still, receptive, and finding grace.

We ended class with a guided “river” meditation, Michelle playing soothing music in the background as she encouraged us to imagine ourselves floating down a river. I have to say, this was the most vivid portion of class for me, probably because of all the work going on inside of my body after such a powerful practice. I envisioned myself dressed all in white, a kind of water-based angel flowing effortlessly down a river that twisted through snow-capped mountains and luscious green landscapes. I saw this from both a bird’s-eye view and a first-person perspective, changing focus with each bend of the waterway. It was absolutely stunning, like I was watching a painting unfold in my mind and body.

I realized after I sat up that the essence of Wu Tao emerges after the practice. Although I enjoyed doing the moves in the moment, I didn’t actually feel their full effect until I had given the newly transformed energy time to circuit through my body during the relaxation/meditation portion. It’s very much like how I feel during tai chi: sometimes not fully appreciating what I’m doing until it’s done, and then WHOOSH. A sudden feeling of inner peace.

The practice is accessible for all skill levels; moves can be modified, and Michelle even offers special classes for adults with dementia and a chair-based class for those with physical limitations. Wu Tao for Two is a specialized practice designed for couples as a way of deepening connection and spirit:

In fact, Michelle and her husband will be offering a Wu Tao for Two class this weekend at Jaya Healing Arts in Lambertville, New Jersey. It’s a sweet spot above an antiques store in a super-cutesy central Jersey town, right across the Delaware River from New Hope, Pennsylvania. (The coffee shop a few doors down offers almondmilk for your lattes…HUGE selling point, in my book!) She’s also teaching regular Wu Tao classes Monday and Wednesday July 23 and 25 at Lucky Lotus Yoga Studio in Brooklyn before heading back to Australia.

Would I do Wu Tao again? Absolutely. It requires the attention of tai chi/qi gong but with the added element of freedom to flow and infuse your own individuality, a perfect blend of healing and moving arts. And anything that can allow me to sink into such a blissful state of relaxation afterward is definitely worth pursuing.

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;

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