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RavenFeather

THE END.

It’s an interesting phrase to start off a new blog post, isn’t it? But endings are all about beginnings, and this is the time of year where that becomes most apparent. When 2012 faded into the archives, 2013 made its way onto wall calendars and desktops. Old, unhealthy habits were cast aside, making way for new resolutions. The dying Christmas trees lining the curbsides around my neighborhood will find new life within the earth soon, and with their removal comes newfound space in people’s living rooms—room for the new toys Santa delivered, perhaps.

Even what are considered “endings” in yoga and dance—savasana and Stillness—are really just gentle transitions into beginnings. When I wake up from savasana, it may be the end of class or asana practice, but it feels more like the beginning of something awesome. My body and mind are re-charged, as though those 5 minutes lying on my back were the final moments my smartphone needed in the electrical outlet before clicking over to 100% battery power.

And 5Rhythms-speaking, Stillness may mark the conclusion of a class, but internally it’s only the beginning. Great insights come from the meditative nature of Stillness, making way for new frames of mind, new awareness. It’s one of the reasons I dislike having to go to work the next day after a 5Rhythms intensive—the workshop may have ended, but my mind is just starting to process all the beginnings, all the possibilities thrown at me.

This blog post is about three recent 5Rhythms events that began with endings and ended with beginnings…and so it begins (or ends?):

Plunge to Soar

A week before Christmas, a group of dancers gathered in an elementary school all-purpose room to get unstuck from the personal lies that plagued their souls.

“Our personal lie is our most negative thought about ourselves,” read the e-mail that confirmed our attendance. “This lie was a decision we made most likely based on a reaction we had to something. Due to circumstance, this most commonly comes from our very first surroundings—typically something our parents did, felt, or said about us, anywhere from conception, to birth, to early childhood.”

Plunge-to-Soar Installation

We wrote these personal lies on squares of paper, taping them to the wall. Blank paper and markers were left out to encourage us to continue exploring these demons as we danced. Every other minute, someone would run over to the wall, furiously scribbling, emphatically taping. By the end of the first Wave, the wall looked like some kind of twisted billboard advertising self-doubt and defeat, a haphazard shower of angry black ink. How appropriate was it that the children who used our space during the week were studying the work of Jackson Pollock—they seemed to have decorated the room so fittingly for us:

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Along with dance (led by teacher Nancy Genatt), breath (led by our New Jersey 5Rhythms producer Stavros Vrahnos) was used to explore these dark, dormant places, to set them in motion. It was the first time I had ever used pranayama during 5Rhythms, instructed to stop dancing, find a place of emotional restriction, add a dimension of physical restriction to it by tightening the muscles around that area, and then begin Breath of Fire (kapalabhati breath). This breath rid me of stagnation and propelled me to move forward. One of my lies was “The need to be perpetually clenched,” and breathing in this fashion would not allow that lie to hold true in the moment. My rigidity melted, and a smile may have crossed my lips.

Halfway during class, we lay down for a session of integrative breathwork, a very intense form of breathing meant to increase energy in the body and access suppressed feelings (read about another experience with this breathwork here). The process used to be termed “rebirthing,” and I can see why—tingling and vibrating sensations started in my scalp and gradually moved down into my throat, my chest, my solar plexus, and finally my legs and feet, like I was being pushed head-first out of the womb. I didn’t experience any overwhelming outbursts of emotion, but I did feel an intense urge to move, my fingers dancing in mudras, at one point sitting straight up.

The process marked the destruction of our wall of self-loathing and the birth of new positive, affirmations. Sitting in a circle, we shuffled through the depressing pile of papers inscribed with our personal lies, reading aloud ones that spoke to us—some ours, borrowing others from our classmates. It was both comforting and disheartening to see that we all feel so very flawed and so very similarly, even in times we think we’re alone in our self-doubt.

Reading these statements took courage, caused a few tears to fall. But as we read, we also ripped and teared the paper, symbolizing the end of such thinking. In its place, our classmates wrote truths for each other, replacing the negative with positive.

Highly ritualistic but ultimately freeing, we took the scraps of ripped paper outside to burn, sprinkling rose petals in the fire as a way of adding lightness to the darkness we were shedding.

Personal lies

And then came the beginning: Learning to breathe in and fully receive my new beautiful truths, so graciously offered by my classmates.

Personal truths

Dance Out the Old

My original 5Rhythms teacher Richard’s workshop between Christmas and New Years couldn’t have been a more literal dance of endings and beginnings. Titled “Dance Out the Old,” the day included not just movement but ritualistic sharing of mementos that represented saying goodbye to one year and introducing new aspirations and dreams for 2013.

The centerpiece of the altar at the edge of the room was a raven, symbolic of 5Rhythms founder Gabrielle Roth, whose death in October was perhaps the dance world’s greatest loss (yet presented so many new beginnings—see the section below for more about this).

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Some people spoke fondly of the past year; others placed objects on the table representing grief or loss, feelings they wanted to transform in the new year. During the second round of presentations, we offered objects symbolizing what we wanted to reach toward and achieve in 2013.

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I brought in a photo of Jeanne Ruddy, the Philadelphia choreographer/dancer whose work last year moved me to my core. I saw her perform the role of Middle Age in May’s production of Out of the Mist, Above the Real, a time when I was just beginning to explore dance’s role in my growth from girl to woman. In that performance, Jeanne represented poise, both feminine/masculine confidence, and aching resilience, attributes I don’t necessarily want all at once and jammed into this new year but that I feel are necessary for me to develop and cultivate.

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One of the most powerful movement exercises during this workshop was dancing from one end of the (very long) studio to the other…while blindfolded. At first, those of us who were masked had a designated companion to ensure we didn’t bump into walls or people, but then Richard presented double the number of blindfolds so we could all move without sight.

It doesn’t really get more metaphorical than this—moving with caution and grace down an unseen path; not really seeing your way but feeling it, using intuition and the senses as a guide; bumping into a table or person and having to adjust your movement around it; ending up on the left side of the room when you swore you were headed toward the right.

Where are we going, and how can our body wisdom guide us?

Which brings us finally to…

Gabrielle Roth’s Memorial

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In this blog post from January 9, I was anxiously on my way to New York City, hoping to gain admittance to what was undoubtedly one of the most powerful 5Rhythms events of all time. I had never met Gabrielle Roth in person, yet her death in October coincided with a kind of birth for me, the emergence of a woman who’s got not just rhythm…but 5 of them.

My fellow tribe members and I sat in the lobby of the Prince George Ballroom well before the memorial started, amazed at how many people stepped through the doors to “celebrate the funky elegance of [Gabrielle’s] indomitable spirit.”

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Because a teachers’ refresher course had just ended and a Cycles workshop was about to begin that week, dancers from all over the world crammed side by side. I was able to connect with some of my international readers (Hi Caroline! Hi Deborah!), as well as spend time with my own community.

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NYC dancer Joella and me.

Tribeholder Christina and dancer friend Val.

Philly tribeholder Christina and dancer friend Val.

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Philadelphia tribeholder (and road trip planner extraordinaire) Christina and I exchange loving looks.

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Me and Richard Jerram, my first 5Rhythms instructor, without whom this blog probably wouldn’t even exist.

As you can see from the photo above, I got into the ballroom. But it was nerve-wracking! Everyone who entered the lobby had to give their names, which were eventually called in groups of 25 before the ballroom reached capacity. It was like waiting for a callback at an audition.

The ballroom itself was so fitting for Gabrielle’s memorial. It was ornate but in a colorful, funky way—somewhere between Versailles and Versace.

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Being in that ballroom was like standing on the red carpet at the Oscars—so many notable teachers and friends of 5Rhythms made their way across the floor, flaunting an array of fashion from flamboyant to fancy to free-and-fabulous. Julia Wolfermann, who teaches regularly for our Philadelphia tribe, managed to Staccato in a stunning red gown, whereas Douglas Drummond sweat his prayers in a dress shirt and pants with suspenders. Others wore Spandex, some men took off their shirts, women came dressed to the nines, others came in street clothes. Just like the practice of 5Rhythms, individuality reigns supreme.

Off to the side of the room were two tables—one with slips of paper on which we were invited to write down memories of Gabrielle and the practice she brought into our lives, and another displaying hundreds of black feather necklaces, a part of the Raven for each of us. Receiving that simple black feather and placing it over my hair and around my neck felt so symbolic, like an Olympian bowing down to receive her gold medal. It wasn’t the object itself that carried weight but what it stood for.

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The Raven has flown, but her spirit lives on.

At the front of the room, an installation by 5Rhythms’ artistic maven, Martha Peabody:

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As this event was being held in memory of someone who had died, I wasn’t sure the tone it would take on. The workshop I took part in back in October—as Gabrielle was actively dying—had very somber moments, understandably, almost feeling like a funeral at times.

However, this was a celebration, inspiration, a call to move. After Gabrielle’s husband, Robert Ansell, and her son Jonathan A. Horan (now the executive director of 5Rhythms Global) spoke, Gabrielle’s face flashed onto a large movie screen at the front of the room. It was footage from one of her last public events, recorded on Mother’s Day 2012.

It would be a disservice to try and recreate here what she was discussing on screen. But in a typical workshop format, she talked frankly about the practice, applying it to all facets of life, that after Stillness there comes Flowing, because when one Wave ends, another begins, and that’s just how it is.

And so we danced, over 300 of us, moving from a moment of prayerful Stillness to finding our feet again in Flowing, Robert and long-time drumming sidekick Sangha on percussion, Jonathan offering occasional verbal guidance that ranged from pleading passion to friendly ferocity.

My movement felt celebratory that night, hardly an ounce of heaviness in my limbs. We switched rapidly from partner to partner to partner during Staccato; during Lyrical, Jonathan encouraged us to dance with our hearts open. Just that one little suggestion instantly changed my movement, my face lighting up, my shoulders rolling back and deepening the heart-to-heart connection with whomever I was partnered with at the time.

I danced with some people for no more than 45 seconds—complete strangers!—yet our intertwined energies felt like lifelong friends. I danced with myself, closing my eyes and going inside. I witnessed others’ movements and reshaped their movement to become my own.

It was the essence of 5Rhythms, finding relationship within the movement and movement within a relationship, which Gabrielle spoke of during another round of the movie screen discussion. Again, I had never met Gabrielle, but the largeness of her face on that screen, the passion and intensity with which she spoke, and the respectful silence among all 300-some of my fellow dancers made it feel like she was really in that room.

The night ended with Jonathan waving his hand like a raven flying toward the heavens: up, up, and away. Black feathers looped around our necks, we all followed along, silently sending our raven on her way.

It was an ending, but everything about the evening felt so very strongly like a new start to me. In some respect, I felt like I was back at my very first 5Rhythms class, remembering that I was just a beginner to this practice. I think others felt similarly about the memorial—and Gabrielle’s passing in general: not to sit in Stillness too long, to find the flow once again, to make a promise to seek out and be receptive to new perspectives and pathways.

THE BEGINNING.

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By the time this entry posts, I’ll be on my way to New York City in an ambitious attempt to attend Gabrielle Roth’s official memorial. As you may remember, I was incredibly fortunate to have attended what was supposed to be the 5Rhythms founder’s final workshop this past fall. She never made it to the event; rather, we danced as she died, and her bold son Jonathan and her brave husband Robert took command of the 4-day celebration of life, death, and the movement-inspired mysteries in between.

When we stepped into the studio that Thursday night in October, no one had any idea what we were walking into. Who was teaching? Was Gabrielle still alive? Would we dance? Would we mourn?

Tonight feels very similar in that whatever is to take place behind the Prince George Ballroom doors is as shrouded in mystery as the 5Rhythms practice itself. We are told that it is a memorial and “we will dance.”

So many questions remain, though! Will someone be leading the dancing, or are we to erupt in spontaneous movement when the urge arises? Will this be a walk-through memorial, with photos and mementos, albums, and videos? Will people speak? Is this more of an “open house” memorial: As people leave, more people enter?

Admittance is not guaranteed, and “we do have a finite number of people who can be in attendance at any given time,” read an email I received from the Moving Center staff. “Bearing this in mind,” it continued, “we know you will do what your heart tells you to do.”

My heart is most likely on the New Jersey Turnpike now, beating anxiously. And if I don’t dance tonight, I’ll dance tomorrow. Or, even if my fellow tribe members and I don’t make it into that ballroom, maybe I’ll still dance tonight, but in the street or a subway station or in a parking lot somewhere in Manhattan.

Because, “we’re fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance.” (Japanese proverb)

What I Love

I love when I dance so furiously that my underwear becomes saturated—don’t know whether I peed myself.
Droplets of sweat roll down between my breasts down the fine line of hair to my navel,
Dripping drip down on the floor
Mixing with the tears that have fallen there earlier.

I love the smell of my sweat when I am in ecstasy,
Dampness under my armpits that repels some and makes others dive right in.

(Stream-of-consciousness writing from the aforementioned October workshop, when 5Rhythms instructor Lori Saltzman asked us to descriptively reflect on what we love. “Be specific,” she had instructed. “Write about the smells, sensations, and sounds that come along with this love.”)

On the last Friday of October, I set out for my monthly 5Rhythms class in South Jersey. Fourth Fridays at Yoga for Living, as I had been doing regularly for the past two and a half years. It’s an event I mark on my calendar with exclamation points and spirals; it brings an anticipation that hits me full-force at around 3 p.m. on the day of, my feet becoming restless in my office chair, my body aching to move beyond the three gray walls that comprise my cubicle.

This time, however, something felt different.

Not even a week prior, I had been in New York City dancing in what turned out to be probably the biggest celebration of 5Rhythms of all times. Four days of moving, crying, laughing, stomping, rolling, exploring, discovering, sweating, and breathing with 150 individuals from around the world, sharing this practice with some of its most devoted dancers and talented teachers. It was such a massive group that one collective inhalation and exhalation sounded and felt like Mother Earth sighing. The energy was electric, as powerful as the speeding subways that ran under our feet, the megawatts of light that illuminated the island around us.

So, I wondered, how was I supposed to go from THAT to *this*, the quaint little 5Rhythms class in southern New Jersey, held in the basement of an office building, where the low-hanging ceiling prevents any enthusiastic leaps upward, where at most maybe a dozen or so people would show up? Where on earth would the energy come from? I had taken one of the deepest breaths of my dancing life in New York; could this 2-hour class with only a handful of other individuals sustain me, or would it feel like sucking through a straw?

The doubt lingered with me as I descended into the basement. But then, as I entered of softly lit, womb-like dancing space, my eyes made contact with my teacher, Richard, and then moved across the room to the altar in the corner, a framed photo of Gabrielle Roth surrounded by flickering votive candles, an illustration of a commanding black bird perched at foot-level.

Instantly, all of my hesitations evaporated. No, dancing won’t be a problem, I thought. And with that, I spread my wings and allowed the raven inside of me to take flight.

* * *

In these funky, frenetic times, we need our feet on the ground, our instincts intact and our intuition in full force. Being true to the signs and signals that come from within is our survival art, not to mention a way to move with integrity in a world in flux.

So began the description of “Slow Moving with Chaos,” the workshop I had emphatically penned on my calendar back in the summer, when word had begun to spread that 5Rhythms founder Gabrielle Roth—who rarely made public appearances anymore due to her ailing health—would be teaching a 4-day workshop in New York City. For the longest time, there were no concrete details about the event, only dates and the fact that Gabrielle and her son Jonathan Horan would be facilitating. I checked The Moving Center’s website almost every week, waiting. TBA. TBA. TBA, all through the summer.

As a planner and stickler for details, it killed me that I didn’t have all of the 5Ws right away; nonetheless, I was going to New York, come what may. As you may be able guess from this blog, 5Rhythms is a HUGE part of my life, beginning in 2009 when I read Gabrielle’s Sweat Your Prayers. Everything I have ever felt about dancing was reinforced in that book, and it opened my eyes to a form of movement that so perfectly follows the natural rhythms of the human persona and natural world. The book is very much like a bible to me, a work that I can re-visit over and over again, sentences and paragraphs touching me in new ways with each reading as my own practice expands. The pages are dog-eared; notes are scribbled in the margin.

Gabrielle’s words, her oceans of prose from which five lighthouses guide weary sailors—Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, Stillness—had become my mantras. The wisdom she had imparted on her teacher trainees, who then passed this kinesthetic knowledge down to students like myself, was changing my life, day by day, Wave by Wave, rhythm by rhythm.

I needed to meet this woman.

As soon all the details about the workshop were released, my check was in the mail.

* * *

Hello Dancing Loved Ones,

Over the last few weeks Gabrielle has been moving into stillness. Robert [Gabrielle’s husband] and I [Jonathan] have been deeply moved by the love and support pouring in from around the world. We appreciate each and every message and have been watching her smile when we share.

We have now entered a time when we need to focus our energy on Gabrielle. We would like to ask that you all please understand that we can no longer respond to the outpouring of beautiful words via phone and the email individually. Gabrielle has asked to take refuge in stillness and solitude, and as her family, we need to honor that.

This was the e-mail I received from The Moving Center only a few days before the workshop was scheduled to begin. Gabrielle was dying, yet people from all over the world were actively on their way to New York by planes, trains, and taxi cabs to meet her.

The news rocked the dancing community by surprise. Online, prayers and songs of stillness were shared via a Facebook page set up in Gabrielle’s honor. The outpouring of love was overwhelming.

Yet, no one ever said the workshop was called off or postponed. How could we dance Chaos when our teacher was in her final breaths of Stillness? Who would lead us as Gabrielle lay in bed with her son by her side? So many questions, but with a heavy heart and an open mind about what the next 4 days would hold, I set off to the city.

* * *

Day 1, Manhattan, Lower East Side. The mood in the lobby of the Paul Taylor Dance Company studio on Thursday night was a heavy happiness; fellow dancers excited to see each other but unsure if smiling was appropriate at this time. The doors to the main studio were still closed, so many mysteries lying just a few feet away. When they finally opened, I walked into a sacred space of Sanskrit chanting, ethereal white lights glowing on the floor and ceiling, the installation at the front of the room a black-and-white homage to Gabrielle, a clothesline strung from wall to wall, decorated with images and words representative of her work. A vase of flowers, candles floating in a bowl of water.

It was like walking into a church, a Buddhist temple, a funeral home. Heads bowed, utmost reverence. Still, we were unsure of what we were actually walking into. Was this a vigil? A memorial? A wake?

Instead of asking the questions, we danced them. There was no introductory speech or Hello, How Are Yous? Thanks to the last-minute help of NYC teacher Tammy Burstein, music played, and everyone instinctively knew it was time to warm up and flow. As we moved to Staccato and then to Chaos, it was clear that everyone here knew this language, despite the international flavor of the crowd. Just moments ago, I had been in the women’s changing room, surrounded by a flurry of accents and conversations in German, Spanish, and French. On the dance floor, there was no such thing as a linguistic barrier. Different tongues, same language.

The center of the room is like a concert pit—crowded, hot, a throbbing powerhouse of either ecstasy or anxiety, depending on one’s tolerance for lack of oxygen. I am simultaneously thrilled to be moving with so many bodies but also terrified. How can I have so many people around me but feel so alone? I feel like I’m dancing in the middle of Times Square. It’s not until Tammy instructs us to walk around the room, meet the eyes of those you pass, and then brush hands with those you pass that the anxiety dissipates. The emotional and physical contact with others grounds me; I realize then how much I have grown in my past 2.5 years of doing the 5Rhythms, having gone from being reluctant at the notion of having to share my movement to needing it to be nourished.

After Lyrical, our Stillness is sitting, ears and hearts open as Robert, Gabrielle’s husband, comes to the front of the room to update us on her condition. Somewhere in an apartment in the city, Gabrielle is dying. She is in good care, Robert assures us, and her face continues to light up whenever her son Jonathan enters the room. Never a quitter, Gabrielle had exclaimed, “I gotta do that f**king workshop!” only 3 days beforehand, Robert said. This was supposed to be her retirement party, the last hurrah.

After wiping tears from his eyes, Robert took his usual place behind the tom drum and led us through another Wave, the percussion hitting me deep and creating an easy entrance into movement. We end the evening chanting Om Namah Shivaya, Gabrielle’s favorite mantra, heading out into the night with uncertainty lumped in our throats.

* * *

Over the next 3 days, we stepped into the studio each afternoon not knowing whether Gabrielle was still with us. Robert was present for most of the program, and much to our surprise, Jonathan showed up halfway through Friday’s session and remained through our final moments on Sunday.

I remember seeing Jonathan walk into the studio as we were in the middle of a Wave; I had never met him in person before but knew his face. The magnitude of his presence hit me in the gut, adding fuel to my movement. I think we had all accepted the fact that our two leaders would not be present for the workshop, and so for Jonathan to show up—and facilitate—100-some people as his mother lay dying was truly a gift.

“The Raven still lives!” Jonathan exclaimed as we gathered around him that afternoon, a collective sigh among our group. From there, he spoke candidly about living, dying, and love, his face crumpling at times, beaming at others.

He was genuinely human, a man in the throes of living with dying, talking from his heart, speaking through his body, reminding us to pay attention to the signals we get from our body as we dance. “What are you going to do with that information?!” he prodded. How can we become our own teachers? “Jonny won’t always be here to tell you to move your hips!” he reminded.

He demonstrated a stilted version of the 5Rhythms, acting out each rhythm without intention, without heart. It was a humorous but sad pantomime, a visual reminder of the two-dimensional world we often find ourselves trapped in.

“Yeah, you can say ‘I love you,’” he said in a nasal voice. “I love you [pointing to someone], I love you [pointing to someone else], I love you!” he demonstrated, charming, but no depth to his words. And then Jonathan stood tall, took a long inhalation, and bowed forward, gesturing gracefully toward the group. “I L O V E you,” he expressed, the emotion palpable. The difference in presentation was profound, and several of us gasped or awww‘ed or sighed as his words hit our heart. Without intention and passion, our words and actions are like yoga poses held without breath, going through the motions without actually being in our bodies.

“And why do restaurant servers always ask if I’m still ‘working’ on my meal?” he questioned. “No, I’m enjoying it,” he said. “My dinner isn’t a job. It’s not work. I’m loving this food.”

* * *

Food and love went very much hand in hand during the workshop. After so much dancing and sweating, our 20- to 60-minute snack breaks were a welcome reprieve, the peanut butter-filled pretzels and gluten-free ginger snaps the crew provided tasting like food of the gods. The difference between the final dance pre-break and the first dance post-break is like night and day. Nourished, hydrated, and rested with time to pee, talk, and reboot, our movement carries a new quality, wilted flowers sprouting back to life after a rainfall. I feel reborn.

* * *

Our breaks are essential. The physical act of dancing is exhausting, but so is all the emotional baggage that comes along with the practice.

I find myself against the back wall during an exercise in exploring centeredness versus uncenteredness, a dance I will not forget for a long time. I never intended to dance with that wall for so long, but I closed my eyes and fell into one of the most powerful releases of movement my body has ever endured, the wall being tender, the wall being a punching bag, the wall being a window, the wall being just a boring old wall. Somewhere in the depths of my brain, a little voice tried to pry me away from the wall, to interact with the rest of the group, to open my eyes, but I resisted the temptation to escape; my body was giving me so much information, and as violent as it looked, it needed this freedom and time to get out.

My body surprised me again when Jonathan instructed us to dance our dance of power…and then put the brakes on that and had us switch to powerlessness. Things must have been cooking in my body, because within seconds something came to the surface out of nowhere, a sudden reminder of a time of powerlessness in my life, leaving me squirming on the ground, wailing.

And then there are all the interactions with others, sometimes brief, sometimes extended moments of giving, receiving, and sharing. Engaging in unlikely partnerships, touching the hair of someone you originally were unsure of, placing trust in another to lift you off the ground. Wordless dances that speak volumes, kinetic conversations with others that stay stored in your muscles (the heart being the biggest).

* * *

Why, when we introduce ourselves to others, California-based 5Rhythms teacher Lori Saltzman posed, are we always so quick to talk about “the bad stuff”? Why do we think sharing our traumas, inadequacies, and limitations is so appealing?

What if we celebrated the things we love? she asked.

So, after dancing one of the wildest, loudest, longest periods of Chaos, Lori told us to stop. The room went from frenetic drumming and screaming to silence. We got in groups of four. Paper and pens were passed out.

Use this energy built up from Chaos to reflect on what you love, Lori instructed. And be descriptive, she added. Don’t just say you “love dancing.” Write about the smells, sensations, and sounds that come along with this love. Be specific.

It was serious work. We went to town with those pens, writing furiously. People wrote about books, nature, pets, children, spouses, lovers, friends, mentors. We knew we’d eventually have to share them with our group; that was a given. But that wasn’t the most challenging part of the exercise.

Now, Lori said, after you’ve read your list to your group, end it by saying the following: “And when the time comes, may I say goodbye with grace.”

Tears began to pool in our eyes before we even started speaking; of all the dancing we did over those few days, this was by far the hardest exercise requested.

But it was also the central theme of this emotional roller coaster of a workshop, wasn’t it? All of us had gathered to celebrate the joy that Gabrielle had brought to our lives, our love for her, whether personal or indirect. We had come to “Slow Dance with Chaos,” and now the time had come for us to say goodbye with grace.

* * *

Of course I am sad to have never met Gabrielle in person, and I was very much looking forward to doing so at this workshop, but the poignancy of what occurred in its place is just as moving. The entire event was deeply emotional, essentially turning into a vigil/memorial/life celebration. 5Rhythms teachers from across the country stepped in to help, and I feel so fortunate to have witnessed such devotion.

I stood among people like myself who had never met Gabrielle; people who did one or two workshops with her; people with strong, spiritual connections to her; newly certified teachers who had only recently studied with her; teachers who have followed her dancing path ever since Gabrielle embarked on it herself.

Being among those people with such deep ties to the practice, those so close to Gabrielle, was a phenomenon to witness. Because I didn’t have those strong associations, I found it difficult to mourn the way others were, but I didn’t want to force myself to feel a specific emotion where there was none. I accepted being neutral, a conscious witness, taking in the tears around me without getting overly empathetic. I saw the pain and loss in Tammy, Lucia Horan, and Douglas Drummond’s dances; I heard Jonathan’s voice crack; I felt the sorrow and fear that erupted from Robert’s drumming during Chaos.

I had never met Gabrielle, but being with those closest to her during these moments of vulnerability provided me a glimpse into her spirit; through their exhalations of anguish, I sucked in the air they had shared with their mentor, mother, master, Mama G.

We ended the program by again chanting Om Namah Shivaya and “decorating” blank paper tags with our prayers, whispers, sweat, kisses, breath, and love and hanging them on the medicine wheel at the front of the room.

Gabrielle died the following evening at the age of 71.

* * *

Back to the little South Jersey yoga studio—where this story all began—I’m staring at the framed photo of Gabrielle, suddenly remembering why I’m here. No, it’s not New York, and no, there isn’t an international contingent of 100 people around me, but those aren’t reasons to dance.

We dance because we can, the way classmate Michelle so eloquently commented: “I will continue to move as long as my body allows me to, what it allows me to.”

Her words echoed what Jonathan had told us about his mother’s last movements, the way Gabrielle had danced to songs of stillness with her hands during her final days, because that was the only part of her body she could move.

If that spirit can remain with someone through her dying days, then it can sure as hell ignite movement in a healthy 30-something with nothing but a diagnosis of self-doubt.

My experience in New York was a time to memorialize, pay tribute, bow my head, clasp my hands, hold my heart. Now it was time to celebrate Gabrielle’s spirit, pay it forward, lift my head high, and open my hands and heart wide to new connections.

As you may have noticed, I write a lot on here about this “5Rhythms” thing I do a few times a month. Because it’s not a well-known or widespread practice, I figured I’d provide a little background about this powerful moving meditation that has been a welcome part of life since April 2010.

Basic Description

5Rhythms is a meditative dance/movement class, described most fully in founder Gabrielle Roth’s book, Sweat Your Prayers, which I read before I even knew such classes existed and that one day there would be a class 20 minutes from me. During each class (the ones I attend are usually 2-3 hours), students are led through a “Wave” of motion. 5 distinct rhythms comprise a single Wave: Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, and Stillness, in that order. The music, which can range from classical to country to techno, is carefully selected to guide students through each segment; equal time spent in each rhythm ensures the ebb and flow of movement become natural, rather than choppy and disjointed. A typical class usually includes two or three Waves.

A Breakdown of the 5Rhythms

Warm-Up: Classes usually start with a self-led warm-up. Soft, inviting music plays as people enter the room, and students warm up their bodies however they please, whether stretching on the floor, sitting in meditation, or simply walking around the studio. There is no official “OK, class begins now; warm-up time!” People used to very regimented classes may feel awkward having to move on their own and not having direct instructions to follow; however, there are no “wrong” movements in 5Rhythms. Standing still and just focusing on your breath is just as acceptable as moving through a flowing yoga sequence.

Flowing: The swelling skirt of a dancing dervish

Flowing: Gradually the music shifts to Flowing. At this point, people who are in seated meditation usually begin to move a little more; movement may become more sweeping and airy. The pace picks up a little, and more bodies are crisscrossing throughout the room, arms circling, shoulders rolling, chests expanding and contracting.

Staccato: Washington Monument

Staccato: After Flowing, the music switches to something with a distinct beat, music you can bob your head or snip your fingers to. Frequently, this is the rhythm during which reserved students begin to smile, because the songs are usually fun and upbeat. Typical Staccato movement includes foot tapping, hip rocking, arm punching, and sometimes even clapping or vocal exclamations.

Chaos: Roller coaster

Chaos: After building energy from Staccato, the body naturally amps up to Chaos. Typical music includes fast African drumming and techno compilations. For some people (myself included), this is the “voo-doo rain dance” portion of the class, when eyes roll into the back of the head, ponytails are released and hair let down, flailing and spinning and wild hypnotic movement ensues.

Yet, at the same time, Chaos can also be very subtle; I have had very intense Chaos experiences in which all I was doing was walking very deliberately around the studio with my hands doing all of the dancing. In that sense, Chaos can be either laughing uncontrollably or experiencing one of those deep laughs where you don’t even make a sound. Both are equally as intense.

Lyrical: Swinging

Lyrical: After expending all that energy, the body gradually cools down with entrance into Lyrical, which is seen as a combination of all of the above rhythms. Synthesis would an appropriate term to describe this rhythm. Some people settle into more of a flowing pattern here, but others are still feeling the wild effects of Chaos, toning down their movements just a tad. Hints of Staccato usually return during Lyrical, even if just for a fleeting moment. People’s movements vary significantly during this rhythm, as some are growing tired and slowing down while others are still processing everything running through them.

Stillness: Buddha

Stillness: The conclusion of a Wave, Stillness is marked by music such as Tibetan singing bowls, an achingly poignant instrumental song, or a few piano keys. Movement becomes very meditative during this phase, and for some people is very sacred and profound, almost a prayer. Some people gesture up to the sky, others sink into the floor and curl into a ball. Despite its name, Stillness is usually the most “moving” of all 5 Rhythms; it is the time when everything falls into line, realizations are made, and emotions come to the surface. It is not uncommon for people to cry or get emotional during this stage.

(Real-life examples provided by Gabrielle Roth, Sweat Your Prayers. Photos are mine.)

Instruction

Instruction is very loose during 5Rhythms, and most of the class is self-led, an invitation for students to explore their own movements and personalities. As mentioned earlier, those used to detailed instruction may feel self-conscious at first, thinking they are doing something wrong or that they should be doing what that guy is doing. I find that it’s much easier to move with my eyes closed at first, pretending I am in my living room at home, dancing to the radio. Copying others’ movement is also encouraged if you’re having difficulty getting in touch with your own rhythm; sometimes doing someone else’s move for just a few seconds will create an Aha! moment in yourself, and suddenly you’ll launch into your own pattern without even thinking about it.

If the class includes mostly new students or beginners, the instructor is more likely to include more discussion about each of the rhythms and his own demonstrations of each. Other exercises include isolated movements of each body part (i.e., “Just move your hands. Explore the movements of the fingers and wrists, make the dance come from only your hands,” so on and so forth with the head and neck, shoulders and arms, hips and knees, and feet).

Sometimes you’ll be guided on the kind of movement to make; for example, “Do an ‘open’ move,” followed by “Do a ‘closed’ move,” or do an “up” versus “down” movement. As you can see, these instructions are generous and open to interpretation, allowing for authentic movement to emerge. Never in a 5Rhythms class will you be directed exactly how to move (“Grapevine to the left, pivot turn, and shimmy on down!”) or told precisely how you should feel (“You are a goddess! You are glowing and radiant!”). The purpose of 5Rhythms is to explore your OWN movement, even if it’s sloppy and you feel like crap.

Depending on the experience and comfort levels among the group, sometimes partner work is incorporated into a class; however, it’s nothing like ballroom dancing. Partner work can be as simple as pairing up with another person and doing your own thing, just being aware of the other’s movement (this post includes specifics about 5Rhythms partner work), although some people, if there’s a connection, will find themselves engaged in a very eloquent pas de deux as though they had been dancing together forever. Some couples can dance beautifully without ever touching, and others are more tactile and like to grasp hands, link arms, etc. The instructor calls for partner changes frequently so you’re able to experience working with different personalities and abilities.

Who Can Do the 5Rhythms?

People of all abilities are invited to dance the 5Rhythms. Since the class is self-regulated, students have permission to slow down when they need to, use a wall as support, or even dance while seated. My instructor has taken classes on crutches after a knee surgery; I’ve danced with people with hearing impairments, autoimmune diseases, and myself with a gimpy hip; and I’ve seen all different types of people in class, from former Navy SEALs to yoga instructors to physicians. No dance experience is necessary, and it is typically people without formal dance training who express themselves the most during class, as they are not locked into the notion of what dance “should” look like.

What Does One Wear?

5Rhythms is done either barefoot or in soft-soled dance shoes, as most classes typically take place in dance or yoga studios with very delicate floors. As for clothing, anything goes, as long as it’s comfortable. I’ve danced in sports bras, sweatshirt hoodies, and flowing skirts, yet others come to class in sweatpants and a tee; loose-fitting jeans; or glittery, fringed, Latin-inspired dance dresses. Wear what makes you YOU. Layers are important as well, because although you may start off class a bit chilly, by Chaos you may be sweating up a storm.

A Deeper Experience

As I wrote here, there is no doubt that 5Rhythms is an intense cardiovascular practice. However, once you dance the 5Rhythms on a regular basis, you begin to notice how the Rhythms are parallel to real life, the same way yoga practitioners begin to notice that yoga is more than just doing poses on a rubber mat.

For example, you may find that you are more of a “Flowing” personality and can never be clear and precise about your needs and wants. Perhaps you need to be a little more forthright (Staccato) about declaring your intentions and ambitions. Also, you begin to see the 5Rhythms in everyday occurrences, such as children playing outside (after a breathless round of playing tag [Chaos], their movement will gradually progress to Lyrical and finally to naptime [Stillness]) or the death of a loved one (in which the stages of grief are very close to each of the 5 Rhythms).

Also with experience comes a greater comfort level in dancing authentically. It can take a few classes before you begin to let go of self-consciousness and find your true movement. I also enjoy doing a Wave or two by myself at home, when no one is watching.

Finding a 5Rhythms Class

Due to the rigorous, extensive training it takes to complete 5Rhythms teacher training, not many people are certified to teach and thus classes are not as widespread as, say, yoga classes. Certified teachers are listed on the 5Rhythms website (click on the “Teachers” side tab), and I found my local classes through Meetup. Institutions such as Kripalu, Omega, and Esalen sometimes host weekend programs or intensives. Although dancing with a group and having someone else DJ is great, the 5Rhythms can easily be done by yourself at home, as Meg from Spirit Moves Dance frequently demonstrates.

Reading Gabrielle Roth’s Sweat Your Prayers is a wonderful place to start, as she offers numerous movement examples and even suggestions for music. iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, and Grooveshark technology make it easy to create and share playlists; just be sure to have your playlist ready to go before you dance rather than choose music as you go along; the smoother the transitions, the more immersed into the dance you will become.

Final Words

No two 5Rhythms classes are the same for me. Sometimes I leave feeling open, exposed, and vulnerable; other times I leave class feeling high as a kite and in love with the world. Sometimes my cells vibrate; other times I am ho-hum. More often than not, though, I leave class feeling better than when I started, both physically and mentally. I feel more aware of the people and things around me; I am able to express my thoughts more clearly; and my body is thanking me for allowing it to move naturally rather than in some forced, repetitive manner.

To close, here are some snippets of journal entries I wrote following 5Rhythms class:

• “My body was delighted to be moving naturally, sweating from dancing, not from doing 30 minutes on a StairMaster. Dancing has always felt freeing, but it was even more so last night because I’ve just felt so restricted lately. My limbs and heart felt liberated, and in turn my breath quickened, my eyes rolled back, and I attained a sense of euphoria that even running cannot provide me.”

• “What I had learned in that class last month was that ‘dance’ can be achieved with minimal movement. Sure, I love leaping and jumping and spinning and am totally obsessed with the choreography on So You Think You Can Dance, but dance is also a mental place for me. So even though I didn’t move as much in that July class, I felt like I had danced more than ever. I connected with the music and took my soul to a different dimension.”

• “Once again, I had to drag myself to the center of the room after class. I felt like I was on a different plane and that my body needed some time to settle back on earth. All that from 90 minutes of dance!”

• “When the class ended, my cells were vibrating the same way they used to vibrate after an intense kundalini yoga class. I felt like I was drunk on air and music and sweat. What a wacky, wonderful, and soul-satisfying experience.”



(Editor’s note, 1/26/13: Gabrielle Roth, the founder of 5Rhythms, died in October 2012 at the age of 71. Detailed posts about her passing and subsequent memorial can be found here and here.)

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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