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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.”
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:
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.
And then came the beginning: Learning to breathe in and fully receive my new beautiful truths, so graciously offered by my classmates.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
At the front of the room, an installation by 5Rhythms’ artistic maven, Martha Peabody:
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.
When Bryan and I decided to go to Washington, DC this past Saturday, my #1 priority was to get to the National Gallery of Art to see Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life. It is the four-part series of paintings that inspired Jeanne Ruddy’s Out of the Mist, Above the Real, the dance piece I saw a few weeks ago. The piece moved me greatly, and how fortunate am I that a day trip to DC allowed me the opportunity to see the original artwork behind the choreography?
Once I got that off my chest, we moseyed around the museum and admired Manet, Monet, Renior, and Degas, among others, including a visually striking photography exhibit on the circa-1984 New York City subway. Although snaking through an art museum without a guidebook or plan of action makes me a bit discombobulated (I feel like I need a trail of breadcrumbs to remind me where I’ve been), the act of turning a corner and coming face to face with something surprising, stirring, or moving is what the museum experience is all about.
I hesitate to interrupt this artistic discussion with talk of food, but I feel it is my duty to share with everyone my love for the Mitsitam Cafe in the National Museum of the American Indian. If you need to break for lunch at one of the Smithsonian museums, this is the one to do so.
The food court is broken down into stations representing the various regions of the Americas and the foods indigenous to that culture: Northern Woodlands, Mesoamerica, South America, Northwest Coast, and Great Plains. You can mix and match food items, creating one melting pot of a meal. It reminds me of World Showcase in Epcot, but without the need to walk a mile in the central Florida sun to collect your global cuisine.
Our meal, clockwise from upper left: Indian fry bread; buffalo chili; cedar-plank fire-roasted salmon with wild berry glaze; pumpkin cookies; red beets, candied apples, toasted walnuts, cherry vinaigrette; braised chard; and quesadilla with chihualua cheese, spinach, mushroom, and huitlacoche.
We did a lot of walking, probably close to a half marathon (13 miles) by the end of the day, including a ridiculously strenuous climb up a non-working escalator in the Woodley Park-Zoo Metro station as other (sane) people watched us from the functioning one. The ascent was steep and loooong; it looked like a fun challenge at first but then just got hard. We further punished ourselves by standing in a 20-minute line at the Zoo to see a panda bear that was dead asleep and then walking through every twist and turn of the Asia exhibit hoping to catch sight of the sloth bear that was nowhere to be found.
One thing I did find, though, was each of the 5Rhythms. Even when I’m trekking around the nation’s capital, my mind is never far from dancing and the rhythms that tie us all together. For example, I witnessed kites soaring high above the National Mall lawn (Flowing), a flock of Canada geese audibly pecking the grass under their webbed feet (Staccato), a group of hyper schoolchildren in matching T-shirts and hats scramble onto their tour bus (Chaos), a young girl in a cream-colored dress run with her same-colored dog up a grassy hill (Lyrical), and a group of veterans in wheelchairs being pushed slowly around the Vietnam Memorial (Stillness).
I think the practice of 5Rhythms, coupled with yoga and meditation, has helped sharpen my senses and my awareness of all the little dances taking place within the larger dance. When you look at a satellite map of a city, everything looks either gray, green, or blue. Look closer, and you see, hear, and feel the rhythms:
I have been moved by dance before. I recall seeing Alvin Ailey’s Revelations and getting goosebumps, my heart feeling light and stirred, the gracefulness and power in the dancers’ bodies so striking that I fell into the dance with them.
However, the dance piece I saw this weekend moved me, not just visually but viscerally. It was a 25-minute long painting come to life, every step stroking my soul to the point where what I was seeing on stage translated to a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.
The piece, Out of the Mist, Above the Real (a video excerpt is available here), was part of the penultimate performance of the Philadelphia-based Jeanne Ruddy Dance company, founded in 1999 and discontinuing this year. The work was first performed in 2004 but was obviously so well received that it was selected to be a part of the final season.
In short, the piece is a moving representation of artist Thomas Cole’s series of paintings, The Voyage of Life, which depict the four stages of life: childhood, youth, middle age, and old age. The score commissioned for the work was a combination of choral and Irish chamber orchestra music, both joyous and haunting.
The dance begins so colorful, a chorus of dancers guiding a beautiful blond 3-year-old as she leaps, runs, and skips across the stage. The scene is absolute innocence, this fair-cheeked cherub audibly laughing and giggling as she is guided from dancer to dancer. The ensemble is her support system, and they carefully watch over her, lifting her when she needs to be lifted, directing her where she needs to go. The little girl is dependent on these dancers but follows the voice of her heart. A woman dressed all in white—the girl’s guardian angel—stays close by the child’s side, a heavenly maternal figure keeping a constant, loving watch over the child.
In the second stage of the piece, the child has now developed into a 10-year-old girl. She has still retained much innocence, but her movement is now more refined; she is trying to find her place in the world and uses her support system for guidance. She dances with the ensemble, copies their moves, but is now able find her own dance as well. It is her time to seek out autonomy, testing the waters between being led and being a leader. The woman in white remains present.
There is a marked shift in energy between youth and middle age. Company namesake Jeanne Ruddy performs the role of Middle Age, and she is absolutely striking. There is no doubt the woman has become independent; she is a leader, and she is captivating. She commands the stage like a balletic bull fighter, a motherly matador with a subtle sense of sorrow imbued in her movement. Much of her dance is performed as a solo, but the colorful ensemble still emerges to dance by her side, and the guardian angel is never too far away.
When the woman of Old Age takes the stage, there is a profound difference between Middle Age’s dance of independence and Old Age’s soliloquy of alone-ness. With her long gray hair and thinning arms, the woman dances in front of a black backdrop, nothing but stars to guide her movement, the lack of others—the support system—so loud in the silence. Her dance is so much more subtle than the earlier movements of youth and middle age but is so emotionally heavy and laden with wisdom. When the chorus finally enters the stage, their brightly colored clothes are now draped in black. Instead of nurturing the dancer, their role is now to guide her into the end of existence. The woman in white—the guardian angel—offers her loving presence one last time, a reminder that during a time of great loss—family, friends, independence, home—the spirit is always there.
Why was I so moved?
A longing for that youthful innocence that never dictates movement, being able to prance freely in the park or wildly on the beach and being encouraged rather than scorned.
A recognition that the journey between age 10 and middle age is a long one, and at times I am still so very much a little girl trying to find her place in the big world.
A reinforcement that one day my dance will rise to its pinnacle, knowing it has only reached that magnitude through lessons learned, lives lost, and experiences treasured.
A reminder that we are infinite but not immortal, and although the spirit carries us throughout life, the dance will eventually slow into silence and stillness.
The dance reminded me of a 5Rhythms class I attended a while back, during which two new students showed up, two high school girls who looked about 15. Before class started, they stood in the center of the studio and practiced their kicks and extensions and straddle jumps and pirouettes in front of the mirror. I was nervous, because clearly these girls had no idea what this class was about. They were concerned with their form, and even when class commenced and we were all slinking over the entire studio floor, eyes closed, back, forth, up, down, right, left, the girls remained fixed in the “front,” eyes on the mirror, moving only the way they were taught in class and making sure it looked correct in the reflection. I think they got a little freaked out during Chaos, when myself and the other students have a tendency to go kind of trancey and spin around like whirling dervishes. They sat out for a while, then joined back in, only to stand in the back and do a silly line dance.
My first instinct was to be really annoyed with these girls: They clearly didn’t get it. They were too young to understand. I had a bit of this holier-than-thou attitude, like I was Queen of 5Rhythms, and they should be abolished from my kingdom.
But after I had more time to reflect, I realized that, 15 years ago, I was them. I came from a dance studio background, where jumps and turns and splits and extensions were only as good as they appeared in the mirror. When I first got to college and had time alone in the dance studio, I didn’t close my eyes and lose myself in the music: I stood in front of the mirror and watched myself jete across the room, making sure my back leg was in line with the front. That my penchee arabesques sunk low enough, that my back was straight and leg was aiming toward the ceiling.
And still, I realize I’m not even halfway there in discovering my true dance. Certainly, what I feel now feels authentic, the same way whatever those girls were doing during class felt authentic to them. However, what do I look like to the 60-year-old 5Rhythms instructor? Is it possible that to him, I am just as naive as those 15-year-old girls are to me?
Life experiences, challenges, wisdom are the foundation of any form of artistic self-expression, and it would be silly for me to expect those 15-year-olds to have some profound sense of self that is comfortable expressing itself through dance. Heck, even though I was one hell of a contemplative teenager, I didn’t express my emotions through frenetic ecstatic dance at the time. And what will my dance be 20 years from now? 40?
As I wrote earlier in this post, “It’s a bit cruel that by the time we reach an age of such wisdom and experience—a time when our dancing would reflect decades of memories—our bodies are breaking down. If only an 80-year-old could dance in an 18-year-old’s body!”
One of the beautiful things about practicing 5Rhythms is that I get to witness so many stages of life, as expressed through dance. On the floor are fresh-faced 20-somethings with clear skin and luscious locks, 70-somethings for whom each wrinkle and gray hair represents a story.
Individually, each of us is the main character in Out of the Mist, Above the Real, whether we are young, middle-aged, or old.
Collectively, we are the ensemble, the support system that encourages the dance and watches each other’s back.
The energy generated during this time together is the nurturing Spirit, and that is what remains in our flesh and bones even after class is dismissed.