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Last week I wrote about being on my feet for 6 hours and wearing out the bottoms of my socks, but the day before that I was dancing with the palms of my hands during former Rusted Root member Jim Donovan’s Rhythm Revival drumming workshop at the beautiful Princeton Center for Yoga and Health.
As I briefly mentioned in my earlier post, the workshop was more about self-reflection, self-improvement, and interpersonal communication than it was percussion technique. Of course, it feels wonderful to let loose on a djembe and sink into the primal sound of the drumbeat, but the way we approach drumming and making music with others can also be a great tool for exploring our interactions with self and community.
Jim’s approach to drumming has changed dramatically over the past several years. While he still reviews the basic techniques of playing the djembe, his workshops revolve more now around personal transformation than percussion. “Drum circle”? More like a drumming circle of life. He titles his events revivals, “bringing back an awareness that once was.” He compared it to performing CPR on someone who is unconscious: Revival is resuscitating with the breath, breathing life back into the spirit.
Jim shared with us his favorite acronym: WWBD? What would Bob Marley do? MOVE! He encouraged us to get our body involved in the drumming, more than just the hands. Feel the music. Move the head, the torso. Tap the feet. That wasn’t hard for me, especially because at times it felt like the floor was shaking, an earthquake with an epicenter right here in little ol’ central Jersey. I was surrounded by sound, so powerful at times that I had to stop and just breathe it all in.
Jim is a powerful, inspiring leader, a kind of Wayne Dyer with more hair and perhaps a little more groove.
He knows when to make us laugh but then also when to give pause and allow us to reflect. Most important, his #1 rule is that if you “mess up,” SMILE! Stop, smile, breathe, and start again, beginning with the basic bass sound of the drum, the steady thump-thump-thump of the heart, the pulse of life.
We explored this primal sound at the beginning of class, simply hitting the top of our drum with a steady right-left-right-left, a continuous heartbeat lasting for what felt like forever (but was probably no more than 5 minutes). But I’m not complaining; the steady sound of everyone playing together as one beat, one pulse was soothing, meditative, reassuring. Afterward, Jim pointed out that it was a bit of an experiment in group dynamics, noting that we all kept in time with each other and no one felt the need to bust out in a solo and grandstand.
For those students who had never played music before, for anyone nervous about using music to learn and grow, Jim reminded us that music has been used for centuries and across the world in connection to life events. Since ancient times, song and dance is performed for births, the harvest, death, and coming-of-age celebrations. Most important, he noted, it is done by the community; it’s the fabric that holds us together. Music helps transform energy.
Pretending that a yoga mat in the center of the floor was a roaring fire, Jim spoke of how if we threw a piece of paper into the flames, the paper wouldn’t be destroyed, per se. It would be changed, transformed. The edges would curl and blacken, the paper would become ash. He pointed to his drum. What did this drum used to be? Before it was a drum, it was a tree. The tree is now a drum.
Thought + action = form.
With that, we moved into playing “Oja,” a song from West Africa meaning “fire.” Jim encouraged us to transform ourselves, to find a “self-improvement” word, a word and action we wanted to bring into our lives. Jim’s was “clear.” My friend Carrol shared afterward that hers was “gratitude.” I repeated the word “staccato” in my head as my mantra, a word tied to percussion, of course, but it’s also one of the forms of 5Rhythms.
Staccato, the rhythm proceeding Flowing, meaning focus, decision, clarity, exactness. I want to be direct in my life, to be more forthright, to get out of this loosey-goosey holding/flowing pattern. As I drummed, I felt staccato in my shoulders and neck, my head bopping with each tone. It was very sharp movement, a physical expression of how I strive to be personally.
When our group display of transformation ended, Jim explained that it was now time for our solo. After discussing as a group what it felt like to be faced with this challenge (Did we freak out? Did our egos get excited? Did we immediately think, “I don’t wanna!”), everyone began playing a steady, underlying beat as we went around the circle, each person taking a few moments to break out and “do their thing.”
Supported by the group atmosphere, Jim inspired us to be the change. We discussed how certain people in the room “went all out” with nothing but joy and 100% commitment, which inspired us to do the same. Make the person next to you, and next to him, and next to him, be inspired to “go all out” too, Jim said. Take that risk; go for it. Make it spread like wildfire, create the tipping point.
Closer to the end of the class, we practiced Tibetan sound healing as a way of introducing vocal vibrations into our transformation. We went through the five “warrior syllables” and their related body parts: A [head], OM [throat], HUNG [heart], RAM [navel], and DZA [root chakra]. It was a very powerful practice, and I felt myself grow deeper and deeper into a meditative state. Had Jim left the room and gone home, I still could have sat there for probably another hour, just enjoying the focus and relaxation brought about by those five sounds.
But Jim didn’t leave, and we ended the event with an invigorating rumble, using our hands and voices to speak out loud and clearly. We screamed, we pounded, we transformed energy.
Between a transformational drumming workshop on Saturday, a euphoric 5Rhythms workshop on Sunday, and an impromptu trip to the beach on an unseasonably warm Monday, a lot of really soul-stirring stuff happened this past weekend, so much that I am almost tempted to bail out of writing about it altogether because I am still processing and letting everything soak in.
As 5Rhythms master teacher Lucia Rose Horan stated after our powerful Sunday workshop, sometimes it’s best after a particularly powerful event or experience not to rush back home and gush to the world about everything that just happened, despite a longing to share and attempt to make others understand what’s circuiting through your veins. Some things you just need to keep to yourself, she advised, kept in your heart as a private moment of gratitude until you’ve had time to work through the emotions.
However, writing is one of my tools for processing—one of my “flowtation devices,” so to speak—so I am prepared to take the plunge. Are you ready to dive in with me?
The event deserves its own blog post (which it will get eventually), but in short, the workshop was more about self-reflection, self-improvement, and interpersonal communication than it was technique. While we learned the proper way to execute bass and tone sounds on our instruments, the drum was used more as a tool for personal transformation. In fact, Jim named his workshop wisely; it wasn’t just a drum circle but rather a revival, “bringing back an awareness that once was,” he explained.
So that, combined with being in a beautiful space, in the company of my dear friend Carrol, and the fact that, weather-wise, it was just a warm and delicious afternoon, was Gift #1.
As much as I yearned to dance on Sunday, especially after sitting behind a drum and in the car all day Saturday, I was also uncharacteristically nervous about the 5Rhythms workshop that afternoon.
First, the workshop took place in an area completely new to me, on roads I had never traveled before. This is actually both a literal and metaphorical statement: I was nervous about physically driving to the place (this is nothing new) but also nervous about the workshop in general. Even though I’ve been dancing the 5Rhythms for two years, I have been reluctant to take a master class, convinced that I didn’t need a master teacher or special program to help me explore the depths of my passion.
But with some gentle nudging from fellow dancers and mentors (and the blessings of Lucia for allowing me to attend only the second day of her 2-day workshop), I suddenly found myself on new terrain.
Despite stepping into Lucia’s workshop, “A Graceful Journey: Beginning, Middle, and End,” smack in the middle—having to meet new dancers, getting acquainted with a particularly unforgiving floor, and not having the wisdom gained from the previous day—this personal “beginning” of mine was not as scary as I set it up to be.
The group was welcoming, Lucia spoke with me before class to debrief me on what I missed, and once the first few steps of Flowing began, I was so enthralled to be dancing with this mass of “my people” that I felt like a kid in a candy store, almost giddily overwhelmed being surrounded by everything I could ever ask for. Several of the attendees have years of 5Rhythms experience, and—as was suggested to me—I can only grow by exposing myself to new teachers and dancers, taking my small-fish self and diving into the big pond.
One of the exercises in the workshop was to explore in which stage of a journey you find the most resistance or struggle: the beginning, the middle, or the end? I aligned myself with the Beginning group; after all, didn’t I just write about this? Also, the sheer fact that it took me so damn long to put on my big-girl pants and even attend this workshop was a clear indication of my struggle.
So, then, it made sense that when Lucia said each group was going to collectively dance out their stage for the others to witness, my brain said, “Maybe she’ll make the End group go first, just to throw us off!” But alas, the Beginning cohort stepped up first (womp womp). Panic hit again once we all realized we were to dance without music, meaning WE would have to initiate and be the beginning. As a final test of our strength, Lucia deliberately made each group dance in their most vulnerable stage the longest: Flowing for Beginnings, Staccato/Chaos for Middles, and Lyrical/Stillness for Ends. My fellow Beginnings and I spoke afterward about how we either (a) dreaded starting the dance; or (b) just wanted to rush past Flowing into Staccato.
The silent Wave was a new experience for me, and we did it again as a whole group. Of course music has an extraordinary influence over movement, but Lucia urged us to experiment working with the most basic of sounds: ahhhing, sighing, long and deliberate inhalations, forceful hara breaths, screams, yelps, murmurs, coos, and whispers. It didn’t take long for this “silent” Wave to become not-so-silent, as the breath of 30 or so people became our music.
The music returned for another Wave, at which point I fell into the rabbit hole and slipped off to Wonderland. I was overcome with sheer fucking joy, a big goofy grin spread across my face, holding my hands up to catch whatever was falling and cascading and buzzing around me. It was euphoria in all its wild, wide-eyed glory—everything was moving so fast, yet so slow and deliberate. The glistening bodies around me moved like gypsy scarves, colorful snowflakes whipping around during a blizzard. All I kept thinking was, Everyone is So Fucking Happy! I Am Happy! Dammit, I Am Really Fucking Happy!
Gradually the hypnotic pulse and expulsion of Chaos softened in Lyrical, which is when Lucia reminded us not to drop the energy, to hold onto what we had just created. By containing that energy, not just “giving up,” the experience blossomed into something raw and intense. I found myself crying from gratitude, confusion, bliss, just being able to see people so happy and being a part of it as well.
As Stillness came upon us, I stood with a small personal perimeter around me, isolated but still feeling surrounded and supported by everyone’s energy and the colors of their skin, their clothes, their hair. I felt a tear dwell in the corner of my eye; it begin its descent down my cheek, and when I finally opened my eyes, I saw Union in front of me, a coming-together of people, experiences, life stories, scars, gains, losses, lessons, dances, falls, injuries, and healing.
So, for our final exercise, when Lucia asked us to individually step to the front of the room and speak/dance out this fill-in-the-blank—“In the journey of my heart, I find ____”—I chose Union. “In the journey of my heart, I find Union,” I said aloud three times, dancing out the associated emotions. It came easier to me than any dance “solo”; I wasn’t displaying technique or showing off; I was simply dancing my heart. I was surprised at the clarity and volume of my usually mumbling voice and felt strongly supported by the group sitting in front of me and witnessing this exercise in ritual theatre.
Lucia encouraged us to try a similar experiment at home, dancing to “our” song (that song you could listen to again and again) three times in a row. Always start and end the exercise with the feet grounded, hands on heart and belly. See how your dance changes each time: How do your Beginnings, Middles, and Ends differ?
When I left the workshop, I felt like I was leaving Kripalu after my yoga teacher training: dazed, confused, and exhausted. What day is it? Where am I driving? I had to sit in my car for several minutes and decompress, physically unable to unclench my fist, perhaps trying hard to hold tightly onto the energy created in the past 6 hours. When I finally arrived home, I realized I had danced my socks down to almost nothing. Not only had I sweated out my prayers that day but I had worn out my socks. I proudly balled up the holy cotton and hung them alongside my very first pair of satin pointe shoes, a memento of another rite of passage.
On Monday, with the temperature rising near an unseasonable 90 degrees, I took advantage of my pre-planned vacation day and drove to my happy place, the Jersey shore. It was the perfect getaway after two very intense days, and I welcomed the long stretch of highway and finally the expansive blue sea to listen to my internal dialogues.
When my bare feet first touched the sand, I wanted nothing other than to dance.
With a relatively empty beach (a few sunbathers here and there), I plugged my iPod into my ears and stood as Lucia instructed, feet buried in sand, grounded, hand on heart and belly. It was a solo but it was not, as I was surrounded by the spirit of not just nature but everyone with whom I danced with earlier, the energy generated, their witnessing eyes. With my eye on the ocean, I started moving slowly:
Then all of a sudden, I heard a note
It started in my chest and ended in my throat
Then I realized, then I realized, then I realized I was swimming,
Yes, I was swimming
And now I’m swimming Yes, I am swimming
(Florence + the Machine, “Swimming“)
…standing on terra firma but still flowing in the foam, rising and falling with the waves. My feet nestled in the wet and solid sand, a sturdy foundation gripping my toes. The sand had me, it’s got me, and when I needed to jump it released me, and when I landed, it welcomed me back.
After closing my dance the same way I started (hands on heart and belly), I became mesmerized by the ripples in the sand, the rolls, the creases and jagged zig-zags, the result of wind and time cutting through the sediment.
As I began to photograph this observation, a police officer approached me and asked how I was, and it very soon became clear that someone had called the cops on me because my dance frightened them. “Just got a call that someone saw you dancing for a while out here, and I just wanted to make sure you’re OK,” he reassured me, most certainly scanning my body language for any signs of drug or alcohol use.
I felt a lump in my throat, not because I had a law enforcement officer standing in front of me (I was quite aware I was not doing anything illegal), but because it pained me that someone had perceived my dance as “wrong,” that someone had taken the thing dearest to my heart and challenged it.
I felt cheapened and violated by this intrusion and struggled to hold back tears. Dance is my expression; people can run and do yoga on the beach without question, but moving to music no one but I can hear was renegade. Would I have been stopped if I sat in meditation with hands in anjali mudra? This was was prayer, my Namaste to the world, and someone was scared of it. I had never felt so much like Paulo Coelho’s Athena and never so compelled to read his book all over again. The officer apologized for having to interfere and said I was welcome to resume dancing, but the sanctity was ruined and I opted to move a few blocks over and simply sit on the dune in contemplation.
As the winds picked up and the temperatures quickly dipped, I walked mindfully along the boardwalk, my hair windblown and tousled, eyes watering from the ocean chill, salt on my face, lips red and chapped, a pinkish hue to my cheeks after a day in the sun. As with all beach excursions, I was reluctant to leave, not wanting to let go of that union I experienced the day before, the connection of mind, body, spirit, and nature (and curly fries and custard, of course).
But with the setting sun sizzling like an orange egg yolk over the bay, fizzing into the water and trees, I drove home, a steady 65 from beach grass and boards to dogwoods and freshly mowed lawns, back to suburbia for this Witch of Portobello.
It’s Saturday, it’s sunny, and things are a bit synchronous.
It started with a recollection of a dream I had last night. This was one of those dreams that you don’t remember you even had until something innocuous sparks the memory. I was doing my usual morning stretches and general rolling around/yoga/dancing in the living room when the Grooveshark playlist I had on switched over to Tina Malia’s “Heal This Land.” The first time I heard this song was back in October, during a Let Your Yoga Dance (LYYD) class. The instructor, Nikki, was training to become a certified LYYD teacher and was doing the practice teaches required before returning to Kripalu.
When Nikki played that song, it reminded me instantly of Megha, LYYD’s founder and director, especially in relation to the workshop at Kripalu I attended back in 2008. The program was titled “Let Your Yoga Dance: Heal Yourself, Heal the Earth,” and many of our sessions revolved around the importance of not only keeping ourselves healthy but the earth as well.
We danced barefoot in the grass outside. Planted sunflowers. Went out as a group to the labyrinth to move meditatively through the never-ending rock-lined loops, claps of thunder sounding in the distance. So hearing a song with lyrics like “My body is the mountain, the ocean, the river / The sand and the soil, the life giver” was just so, so Megha.
When the song played for me this morning, it hit me. The dream. I had dreamed last night that I was back at Kripalu, awaiting my chance to once again dance with Megha. In the dream, I had been promised a chance to review some of my choreography with Megha, and I couldn’t wait to show her my work. (This dream is also an embarrassing indication of how much Dance Academy I’ve been watching.) But the timing was never right. Our schedules kept interfering, and I never had the opportunity demonstrate my dance for her. The most I was able to do was meet with her briefly, stroke her face, and reassure her that she was “a wise woman.” (And all of this is completely normal, of course, in dreamland.)
So with that memory in mind, my dance to “Heal This Land” this morning was passionate, soulful. I felt connected to Megha, to LYYD, to the way dancing at Kripalu makes me feel…
…which then led to me opening my e-mail and finding a new Google Alert, which I have set up to let me know when the term “Kripalu” pops up on the Internet. The link led me to this YouTube video:
created by one of the musicians from KDZ, the drumming group that performs at Kripalu. Coincidentally, Megha usually leads the dance portion of these Saturday-at-Noon jams. It’s not an official Kripalu-affiliated video or anything, but it was so exciting to remotely be immersed in the sights and sounds of the dancing and jamming that goes on over there in the Berkshires. I’m not sure what I enjoyed more about my yoga teacher training, getting a 200-hour certification or spending my free Saturdays dancing with live drumming! 🙂
So now that I’ve found this great video, man, do I miss me some good drumming…
…oh! What’s this other e-mail in my inbox?
A day-long drumming retreat right here in New Jersey? With Jim Donovan, who I had just written about in this blog post?! You don’t say!
Thanks for the synchronicities, Saturday! You’ve reminded me that somewhere underneath all the commotion and chaos of life, there is a universal hum that keeps us all singing and dancing together.
I went to a drum circle this past weekend and was really looking forward to sitting down at the computer and writing about what an awesome time it was, how I was transformed, how I sweated the afternoon away dancing around the room from djembe to djembe.
But instead of BOOM POW BAM BASS TONE SLAP WAHOO!, all I’ve got is: meh.
I’ve been to drum circles that had me hooting and hollering, throwing my head back and forth, and shaking my shekere till the cows came home (read: My First Drum Circle). When I left this particular event, I kind of felt like I wanted to take a nap.
But who am I to judge a drumming class? I’ve been calling my doumbek a djembe for the past several years. So I did come home slightly more enlightened.
And truthfully, I am no expert. I don’t have any formal education in percussion (aside from a hula dancing stint during which I mastered the ipu and pu’ili), and I attend maybe 3 to 4 drumming events at most per year. But my Old Lady Friend Carrol and I like to think of ourselves as drumming enthusiasts, and we are usually in agreement about whether an event was asi-asi or que bueno!
That said, here are my top 7 qualities that make for a rockin’ drum circle:
1. A play buffet.
Although drums are the pulse of a drum circle, having an assortment of percussive and other complementary instruments lying around can really liven up an event. A bass sound gets the feet stomping, but shake a shakere or maraca in my face and my hips won’t sit still.
When your hands need a break from drumming, you can still chime in by playing a cowbell, wooden block, or dancing around with foot bells. At the most recent event, someone had brought along the simplest of instruments: a set of spoons for clicking and a plastic bag, which when rubbed back and forth makes a light “scratchy” sound. The key, however, is to make it known that these instruments are here for everyone to experiment with and maybe give a quick lesson in how to use them. I saw the plastic bag lying around, but until the owner used it during the last song, I had no idea it could be used as “music.”
An assortment of drums themselves also switches up the sound and provides a range of percussion. Most people bring along their own personal djembe (or doumbek), but having additional drums available gives students a chance to try a different model or size.
For example, when Carrol and I attended a workshop with Rusted Root founder Jim Donovan, we borrowed some of his impressive djembes with intricate carvings and awesome sound. They were for sale, too!
In addition, frame drums, congas, and bongos are all super-fun. (Especially congas. Oh man, the congas!)
2. Nontraditional sounds.
Every now and then at a drum circle, someone brings along an nontraditional instrument that adds a new kind of aural energy to the atmosphere.
For example, the Australian didgeridoo. This instrument has such an intense, haunting sound, such a primal noise that feels like it encompasses the heaviest, hardest, most indigestible and raw emotions that lie in our gut. What a treat when someone brings it along!
I’ve also been to circles that involved a flute, a guitar (which led a stirring acoustic version of “Let It Be”), and the simplest of unique instruments: the human voice. Jim Donovan’s workshop involved a drumming/chanting combo, where we did things like chant the vowels of the alphabet (A-E-I-O-U) and exploring where we felt each sound’s vibration the most (i.e., chest, head, throat). We split the universal sound (“Om, “Aum”) into four parts and chanted that over and over (A-O-U-M). We also worked with the kundalini mantra Ra-Ma-Da-Sa/Sa-Say-So-Hum. For most of the chants, we’d start with just our voices, gradually add some light drumming, and then allow the drumming to get louder as we also chanted louder.
A word of caution: If you bring an instrument that is likely to drown out everything else in the room (e.g., snare drum), just be courteous and play it at 50% rather than its full roof-blowing volume.
3. Strong leadership.
Sometimes even a large crowd of eager drummers will fall flat as a pancake with no one at the helm. Having at least one person in the leader role is essential to get things going (and then calm them down when things get out of control), otherwise (a) cacophony ensues, or (b) the rhythm just keeps falling like a plane unable to lift off the runway.
One of the regular circles I used to attend was wicked cool month after month…until the day the two conga-playing men who had assumed the leadership role weren’t there. We were essentially the same group of people with the same instruments in hand, but we just could not get our act together.
Offering a little lesson in technique is a great way to corral a group. At one circle, the facilitator reviewed with us the bass, tone, and slap; we then experimented with various rhythms, learning to play one thing while the rest of the group played another. We worked a lot with repetition–bass, bass, tone, tone, bass, bass, slapslap–trying to get our brains and hands in sync.
As I detailed in this review of a past drumming workshop, one of the leaders was a grandmotherly figure who preached about the importance of self-healing, connection to spirit, and being in tune with the universe. She was a vibrant being from head to toe: poised, passionate, and provocative.
4. Integration of mind, body, and soul.
Like yoga or dance or singing, drumming can be a deeply personal and meditative experience. For me, a good drum circle is one where my mind gets out of my hands and the division between the music and my soul reduces to nothing. When I am compelled to get up from my chair and dance, getting lost in the music, stamping, rocking, swaying, spinning, I have found seamless integration between mind, body, and spirit.
Movement is such an important part of drumming; I get nervous if I see someone playing a drum while sitting perfectly still. The drum sound is our heartbeat; how can it not stir you?! At one summer evening event, our class took some time to walk outside, soaking up the good vibes of the earth, feeling the grass beneath our feet, the full moon glowing on our faces, and eventually coming back indoors for a Mother Earth-related tribal beat.
Even something as simple as breathing can create a deep mind-body connection. At Jim Donovan’s workshop, we started every activity by taking a deep breath and centering ourselves. Even more important, after playing for several minutes, Jim would signal us to stop and then have us sit in silence for a few moments to soak up the lingering vibrations we created. Jim’s workshops also tend to lean a bit on the philosophical side, much like a yoga intensive. Who knew that how one approached drumming could relate to life
off the mat outside the drum circle?
Finally, if drumming makes you feel good, express it! During a “Healing, Feeling” drumming event I attended, the leaders infused the class with lots of self-respect, self-care talk. The one woman, Marcy, reminds me of a gospel singer and will just bust out singing things like, “Feeeeel the love!” after a vigorous round of drumming. It’s hard not to throw your hands in the air and follow along with her.
5. Time to train the brain.
I don’t want every drumming event I attend to be a rigid formal lesson in technique, but a good drum circle is one that provides an opportunity for a mental workout. The brain is “plastic” and has the ability to re-wire itself as it absorbs new knowledge, and what better way to get the neurons firing than by learning an unfamiliar pattern and then playing it as part of a three-part round? Bonus points if you don’t hold your breath and/or grimace as you go along. 🙂
Other mentally challenging exercises I’ve done were trying to sing and drum at the same time and being part of a call-and-response during which we were instructed to keep our eyes closed and use our ears—not our eyes—to pick up the rhythm.
6. Inspiring environment.
A cramped conference room with metal folding chairs is not an ideal location for drumming. Although I’m sure it’s very possible to conduct an energetic drumming event in such a spot, people will feel more comfortable busting out in a open and airy environment.
The yoga studio I used to attend was situated on the main road in town, and during the summer we’d draw back the curtains, open the front door, and play as the sun was setting, the overhead fan creating a peaceful breeze. Our music attracted curious stares and smiles from dozens of passersby strolling along the avenue. Drivers stopped at the red light on the corner rolled down their windows and craned their necks to see what kind of craziness was brewing inside.
Even locations off the beaten path can be turned into welcoming ones by making sure the lighting isn’t too harsh or too dim, that chairs and blankets are cozy but not on top of each other, and that people have enough space to get up and move around a bit.
7. A rumble!
Every drum circle should end with a rumble; basically, a time for everyone to frenetically pound on their drums and scream. It is loud and obnoxious and infectious and absolutely exhilarating!
Have you ever been to a drum circle? What was your favorite part?