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While I have been diving into 5Rhythms lately, attending as many classes as possible, simultaneously swimming and drowning in Wave after Wave, I’ve only just begun to skim the surface of another movement modality, Nia.

Last week was my first Nia class in nearly two years, and—as I described here—it.was.GREAT! I overcame a mental barrier to get there and gave myself fully into the class, despite it not being 5Rhythms. Yes, it was different than what I am used to, but the bottom line was that I had fun. I couldn’t wait to return.

What I wasn’t expecting this past Friday was how open my heart would be. But there was a lot going on: I had just come from dinner with the widow of my former middle school principal, whose anguish over her husband’s death was still very evident; the “supermoon” was hours away from its monthly fullness; and a lightning storm was buzzing through the clouds. It was the perfect backdrop for an evening of raw, uninhibited movement.

Suzanne, the instructor, structures each class around a theme; this time, the focus was resistance, the dance of fear between holding on and letting go. To demonstrate, she had us clasp our hands together, fingers clutching onto fingers, pulling, grabbing, tension. Then, she told us, “let it go.” Feel the freedom in your hands and arms. What are you holding onto that doesn’t serve you anymore? she asked. Suzanne invited us to think simply, maybe in terms of your kitchen junk drawer. If you keep holding onto something you don’t use, there will never be any space for new, more functional items.

In a very staccato fashion, we executed chopping motions with our hands, banged on drums near our heart center, made punching motions with our arms. As we thrust our legs forward in martial arts-like kicks, I realized I haven’t kicked like that in a while, maybe because I’ve feared hurting my hip or because nothing like that has come up in 5Rhythms. I felt the motion coming from my core, my powerhouse. I felt like a warrior: Grounded, focused, steady. I was onto something.

Photograph provided by Nia Technique (www.nianow.com).

What I think I was doing was letting go, breaking loose the rigidity that often surrounds my heart. I was giving into the moment, immersing myself fully, no commentary about my insecurities running through my mind. It was at this point I began to feel empowered, surrounded and supported by my fellow classmates, my sisters. It was an all-women class, something that doesn’t occur often in 5Rhythms (especially since my main teacher is male). As much as I love exploring masculine-feminine energies through dance, I think the moment a man enters the room, women slip into a bit of a caricature: shoulders back, chest out, come-hither eyes, no matter how subtle and perhaps even unconsciously. But there was none of that Friday night in Nia. I felt unabashedly female.

As the class winded down, we all stood in a circle, swooping down to the earth, gathering gratitude, then releasing it up the sky with a nurturing “Ahhh” sound. I was standing across from an older woman who, during the previous class, was dressed in a blue sweatsuit and mentally struggled with the movements, still profoundly affected by the death of her mother. This time, she wore a short-sleeved pink shirt with sparkling sequins, and every time she lifted her face to the sky, I saw more light entering her spirit. It was beautiful to witness. It made me think of the woman I had just met for dinner, how much she would’ve loved this class; she wanted to attend but was hindered by a knee injury. When I lifted my arms to the sky, I sent my love her way. All I felt at that moment was love, love, love. I wanted to take the yoga studio owner—also a 5Rhythms classmate—in my arms and swoop her around the floor.

Photograph provided by Nia Technique (www.nianow.com).

Before our final moment of stillness, Suzanne closed class by guiding us backward through the “5 stages” of human life: walking, standing, crawling, creeping, and embryonic. We stayed in our “embryos” for a while, invited to move as though we were suspended in time. There on my back, I sunk deep into my essence, floating down, down, down into my true self, my root, my beginning. It was only appropriate, then, that this was when the playlist switched to the final song: Sarah McLachlan’s “Rainbow Connection,” a song with deep personal meaning for me, the song played often during my yoga teacher training, the song that always made me wonder, “Why am I studying yoga when all I want to do is dance?”

Like that, the theme of the class hit me smack between the eyes: Why are you holding onto all that junk instead of making room for new things?

The class stirred up a lot, and the longer I hung around the studio, the more intense things got. The studio owner must’ve sensed this “stirring,” looking me in the eyes point blank and asking, “So, what are you going to do?” as though she knew I have been longing to fly but afraid to take down the runway. She reminded me that my presence is strong, that she felt me in the room during 5Rhythms class last week (even though I was dancing elsewhere), that my “spirit has touched so many people.” The woman in the pink shirt was there as well, and she looked at me closely, as though she were examining my aura. “You have good energy,” she assured me. “I can feel it. Whatever you do, whatever class or practice you conceive, the energy is there. It will work.” And that’s what she said, just like that. Just like that? Just like that.

And just like that, I walked outside into a lightning storm, electricity circuiting through the sky every 20 seconds, a glimpse of the full moon captured with each burst of light. I could smell the ozone, I could feel the storm, and when I finally reached home, the thunder began rumbling the earth beneath me.

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Tonight I’ll be dancing the 5Rhythms, so while I’m moving through Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, and Stillness, here are five things from me for you to do!

(1) Laugh!

Growing up, my sister always had a knack for saying funny things to ease the awkwardness at family gatherings, so after one too many “You’re so funny! You should be a comedian!”, my sister finally said, “OK!” She’s a marketing coordinator by day and stand-up comic on nights and weekends. She’s got at least one gig every week, plus she co-hosts a weekly open mic night in Philly and just got back from the Bridgetown Comedy Festival in Portland, Oregon. My lil’ sis is such an inspiration; she just gets out there and does it, even if that means starting at the bottom of the ladder (read: redneck beef ‘n’ beers; small-town coffee shops) and working bit by (comedy) bit through the muck.

(2) Cry!

With the 100-year anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking a few weeks ago, the Internet and radiowaves were buzzing with news about the epic disaster. One of the stories I happened to catch was that of Wallace Hartley, the conductor of the Titanic’s orchestra, who led his musicians in song as the ship sank. This quote from historian John Maxtone-Graham was particularly stirring: “He was taking care of [the musicians’] spiritual needs near the end of their lives by giving them a job they could do that would fill the time. My conviction is it gave as much comfort to the men who were playing as to the people who heard them.”

The movie Titanic has some cheese-factor moments, but the clip above is a tearjerker. Now I’m wondering, if my world was ending before my eyes, would I dance to the death?

(3) Move!

I’m still not sure what exactly this is, but TaKeTiNa looks pretty awesome. Come to the East Coast (read: Philly) soon, please!

(4) Dance Walk!

I get the cops called on me for dancing on the beach, but this guy turns into an Internet sensation for chasseing through the streets of Manhattan. I love the concept, though; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been walking around town listening to my iPod and have wanted to dance walk along to the music. (Secret: Sometimes I sneak into the wooded trail area of the local park and do just this! Shhh!)

(5) Read!

Photograph provided by Nia Technique (www.nianow.com).

While doing some research for my post about Nia earlier this week, I came across this story by Nia teacher Amy Podolsky. She writes about recovering from surgery and being instructed by her doctor not to do aerobic activity for a month. This was devastating news to a dance teacher, and her story here is how this limitation actually brought her closer to her body and spirit.

It reminded me a lot of what I experienced during one of my early 5Rhythms classes, on a night my hip was acting up and I couldn’t move the way my mind envisioned. I still had an amazing experience, though, as I documented in my journal:

I did not move as much as I normally do, but I was very aware of every movement I did make. Every finger flick, head roll, and spinal flexion was done with intention, and I became immersed in my breath. In fact, the teacher lined us all up at the one end of the studio and told us to allow our breath to carry across to the other side. “Move as though you are your breath,” he said. That was one of the most intense experiences of the night, and when I reached the other side, turned around, and saw the other students breathing their way toward me, I felt this surge of energy wash over me, like everyone’s oncoming energy was meshing with mine and making me feel kind loopy. I felt a deep connection with everyone for the rest of the class, and I became more open in my movements, more welcoming to the other students.

That said, I can’t wait for my own Friday 5 (Rhythms) tonight! Have a great weekend!

I am usually gung-ho about attending any form of yoga-like dance classes, but I found myself growing nervous and nauseous as I drove to my local yoga studio this past Friday for a Nia class.

I have nothing against Nia. My first class was in 2008, when I danced in a large room with a beautiful Black woman at the front, leading a group of various bodies and abilities through expressive movements ranging from yoga to dance to tai chi to tae kwon do. I danced with a woman who was 8.5 months pregnant, a man in a motorized wheelchair, a focused 12-year-old with the desire to dance in her blood, and an older woman in her 70s.

I danced Nia weekly that summer and the next, when the teacher was in town. I bought some of the Nia-issued CDs and Nia’ed in my living room.

Photograph provided by Nia Technique (www.nianow.com).

I loved Nia until 2010. I had signed up for another summer series, but then life threw me a curveball.

It was that summer—after months of hobbling around in pain—that I found out I had a cartilage tear in my hip joint. And not just that; x-rays that I had gotten as part of all my diagnostic tests had shown a mysterious “thing” in my femur. I’ll never forget the look on my sports medicine doctor’s face as he placed the black x-ray film against the lightbox.

“That’s not normal?” I asked, completely clueless about the streak of white shooting from mid-femur to my knee.

“No,” he replied, eyes wide. “I suggest you see an orthopedist as soon as possible.”

And like that, no amount of yoga or meditation or expressive dance could console me. My brain completely took over, convincing me that my leg was dying, that even though I had never experienced pain in that area before, I was now in pain. In my heart, I knew I was being brainwashed by my overactive neurons, the power of suggestion consuming me. I’d constantly fight with myself, telling me this was all in my head, but my memory kept returning to that x-ray, and just like that, I’d feel stiffness, aching, throbbing. I considered seeing a hypnotherapist to delete the thought from my mind or at least tone down my fears of my leg having to be amputated.

Convinced I was going to become Peg Leg Pete.

It would be months before the “thing” was deemed by a bone specialist as a harmless entity, but in the meantime, my dance suffered. Nia, the outlet that once brought me so much joy, began to become burdensome. Of course, the labral tear in my hip caused some pain, but with each plié and kick I did in class, I imagined my femur further breaking down, the alien inside on the verge of spreading outside the bone and inhabiting my blood and muscles.

I left class one evening crying to my teacher and then never returned for the remainder of the series. She’d e-mail me periodically to check in or to tell me about an upcoming series, but even after I got the all-clear by my doctor, I never wanted to see Nia again.

The power of association is just wild. I mean, I’ve been dancing 5Rhythms now for two years, but when I finally talked myself into attending this most recent Nia class, I felt sick to my stomach. It didn’t help that I had to look up something in an orthopedics journal for work, and that—coupled with the thought of having to go to Nia that night—made those 2-year-old feelings of soreness and discomfort bubble up in my leg again. So much for time healing all wounds. It is both frightening and fascinating just how much the body holds onto memories and traumas.

Fortunately, the Nia class this past week took place in my “homebase” 5Rhythms venue, the yoga studio in which I discovered, fell in love with, and was healed by 5Rhythms. The power of association worked in my favor this time, as it was just a few weeks ago I stood on the very same floor and danced one of the most soul-stirring dances my body has ever moved.

I saw that polished wooden floor, and my heart softened, relaxed, and opened to this return to Nia.

Once the music started, the only thing that became (slightly) uncomfortable was the notion of choreography, something that 5Rhythms does not have. For the past 2 years, I’ve been following the lead of my heart, not an instructor. However, that feeling quickly subsided as the teacher reminded us to make adjustments for our body, put our own feeling into the moves, to move the way our muscles craved to move. It was satisfying to have a foundation but also the freedom to build my vision on top of it. There were plenty of breaks for free dancing, and I sunk into familiar, delicious territory, my eyes closed, my arms spinning. (Later, after class, a woman described my movement as “distractingly graceful.” “You just looked so happy,” she complimented.)

In fact, I fell so in love with the movement that during a martial arts-like kick when the instructor encouraged us to shout “NO!” along with the choreography, I almost could not speak the word. I didn’t want to say “no”! I was having a good time; I was enjoying this. I wanted to shout “YES!” (Fortunately, that was the next part of the routine.)

Even when the kick-shout exercise ended, my body continued dancing “Yes!” throughout class.

I was back in business.

Photograph provided by Nia Technique (www.nianow.com).

I felt a bit “oogy” this weekend…but that’s a good thing!

According to the Susan McCulley, founder of a mind-body movement practice called Dharma Dance, “oogy” is that not-quite-right (but not wrong!) sensation you feel when you do something slightly different than what you’re used to (ever try brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand?!).

Dharma Dance founder, Susan McCulley

Susan was in my area this weekend to lead a Dharma Dance workshop at a local yoga studio. I was originally supposed to be sitting in the stands at Citizens Bank Park for a Phillies game, but a day of torrential downpours led me instead to the dance floor. I was ready to boogie with my oogy!

I’m always game for any dance- or movement-based class, so I was excited to experiment with this new brand of conscious movement, which Susan describes as “a movement experience that encourages confidence, relaxation, and trust for body, mind, and spirit through movement, play, and investigation.” We were told to bring a journal as well. Dance and writing? Bring it!

One of the first things I wrote down in my notebook was the Chinese proverb Susan recited at the beginning of class: “Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.”

As someone who spends what feels like 95% of her life in a state of anxiety and tension, I immediately connected with this quote. It illustrates why every time I drive into Philly for a 5Rhythms class I am a giant ball of nerves and uptight super-seriousness, yet on the drive home (same route, just backward)–after 2.5 hours of blissful dancing–I feel like opening the windows and singing arias to the Delaware River as I cross the bridge back in Jersey. Tension says, “You are driving into the city, crossing a big and scary bridge, fighting with awful highway traffic, going through unfamiliar neighborhoods, scouring the tight streets for a parking spot.” Post-dancing relaxation says, “You are getting into your car and driving home after an invigorating dance class.” Relaxation eliminates all of those judgments, and I can finally just be!

Class began with some centering and a meditative focus on each body part, from toes to the top of the head. I was already feeling oogy at this point, because my body wanted to move! The inner dancer in me jumped around like a puppy dog desperate to go outside…which is a good indication that this centering, grounding activity was actually something I really needed. 🙂 Susan asked us to hone in on a certain part, something that was calling for attention. I decided that my pelvic/core region would be my focus; it’s an area I’m always trying to keep tight and aligned, because otherwise my hips get wonky.

Soon we were on our feet, and Susan led us as a group through choreographed movement set to about 3 or 4 different songs–Dido, Michael Franti…music that just made me feel loose, open, and free. Susan called this portion of the class “Body as Student,” a chance for us to break habits and train the nervous system by getting our limbs and trunk to move in ways it may not be used to. For example, one foot pattern she led had us stepping out to the side, back, front, back, front, back, side, together. Stepping out to the side first, rather than front, was definitely a challenge, and I could feel my brain working hard to integrate this new “oogy” pattern. Letting our hands flow like falling leaves was easy when we were told to do it with our fingers spread wide, but then trying to do it with fists felt awkward and, well…oogy, like if you’ve ever tried to switch your computer mouse to the other side. Susan continuously changed the pattern from right to left, unlike so many other dance classes in which you always start on the right and never wire the brain to execute the pattern in the opposite direction.

This portion of the class was very reminiscent of the dance modality Nia, which I’ve taken in the past, yet I seemed to enjoy this more. I felt like I had more liberty in my movement, more permission to interpret the choreography in my own way. I still followed the instruction, but sometimes I stepped to the side, back, and front with precision and power; other times I approached it with more fluidity.

Susan called the next part of class “Body as Teacher,” a time for freedance “focusing on integration and embodiment of movement guided by sensation and intuition.” In other words, let your body be your guide. This had many parallels to 5Rhythms: five different types of music that took the body from loose and fluid to precise to ecstatic to purposeful to still and quiet. I was surprised that this was one of my “better” (freer) moments of freedance, despite all of the 5Rhythms classes I have attended. I think doing the instructed portion beforehand geared me up and got me looking forward to busting out with my own thing. But you can’t have one without the other…a little bit of yin and yang, perhaps?

(See my T-shirt for the yin/yang connection!)

Class concluded with a long period of savasana. When we emerged from our cocoon of relaxation, Susan encouraged us to write any final thoughts in our journal. I was hoping to wake up from savasana with a major aha! epiphany, but when I grabbed my notebook, all that came to mind was a Mickey Mouse head, so that’s what I drew, along with the words “Dancing Fills Me Up.” But that’s one of the things I liked about Dharma Dance, that it’s “not about changing (although that may happen), it’s about getting out of our own way – and getting to our essence,” Susan describes on her site. “Dharma Dance is about becoming more ourselves.”

I am a Disney freak who just loves to dance. That’s me, my essence! (And I appreciate classes in which I am permitted to be myself, not told that I am, in fact, a goddess. Because really, I swear, I am human.)

The class did make me think more about where to “take dance,” or if I really need to take it anywhere at all. The achiever side of me feels like dancing just to dance is selfish and that I should take it to the next level, such as teaching, choreographing, or being some kind of leader. But really, what’s wrong with just dancing? I expressed this conundrum to Susan, who shared a great story about a friend who loved to dance but didn’t have the technique to do it professionally. Instead, he found a happy medium working at a dance studio, helping at the front desk. That way he was still involved in the dance world, felt a connection to what he loved, but just wasn’t on stage. I’ve already done the teaching, the choreographing…maybe it really is OK for me just to dance! Or–how wild is this– to dance AND blog about it?! How oogy–and wonderful!

So I’m still working on finding my dharma, but now I have a little more to chew on after the workshop. The class I took over the weekend was Susan’s last stop on her Dharma Dance introductory tour, and now she’s back home in Virginia developing it into something she hopes to train others in, so that Dharma Dance may one day appear in your yoga studio.

Until then, I’m going back to experimenting with some ooginess. First stop: Getting used to eating this yellow watermelon!?!?!?!

Not gonna lie...this freaked me the heck out when I cut it open!

Every so often I’ll pass a flier for a Zumba or Jazzercise class and think, “Hmm, I should try that.” I love to dance, I love groovy music, and I’m always looking for new avenues of fun fitness.

But here’s the problem: 5Rhythms has completely altered my perspective about dance. It’s changed my whole approach to dancing, even though the kind of movement done in 5Rhythms class is what my body has always been asking for.

When a Zumba class starts, it starts. The music is thump-thump-thump-thump right away, and the body is pushed to go quickly from ahhhhh to AHHH! It reminds me of highway construction that shuts down merging lanes and replaces them with stop signs, so cars coming onto the road must come to a complete standstill and then gun it to 65 miles per hour in an effort not to get hit.

On the flip side, a typical 5 Rhythms class starts off with the rhythm of Flowing. Think Enya songs, music with an ebb and flow, neck and shoulder rolls, heavy sighs, aimless gliding around the room. Warming up the body, moving it naturally, like starting off a lazy Sunday morning drive down a country road.

Sure, Zumba classes are meant to be cardio-intense, but 5 Rhythms can be deceivingly just as heartpounding. Aerobic dance classes generally have a pattern of:

–++!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!++–

(that’s my way of denoting intensity through punctuation).

5Rhythms classes look more like:

~~++!!**__~~++!!**__~~++!!**__

It’s a bit like interval training, and the more Waves (Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, Stillness) the class contains, the more the body is challenged. I get totally breathless at times during 5Rhythms, but when I leave a 2-hour class my body feels so at peace with itself rather than defeated. I took a 1-hour Zumba class last summer, didn’t get nearly as cardiovascularly challenged, and woke up the next morning with sore knees and joints.

Self-regulation–the freedom to take it easy/rest when the body calls for it–is a major component of 5Rhythms, the element that keeps drawing me back…and keeps steering me from Zumba or Jazzercise (and even at times from returning to studio classes like ballet or jazz). Now I know Zumba teachers aren’t boot camp drill sergeants and won’t push anyone to do something potentially injurious, but it’s the nature of the class to “Push it!” “Amp it up!” “C’mon, feel the burn!” A student who needs to take it down a notch may feel self-conscious if she has to stop shaking her hips with the rest of the class and stick only to arm movements.

Imagine loving to move and dance but living with a painful foot condition that made standing for long periods of time unbearable. One of my fellow students in last week’s 5 Rhythms class faced that challenge, but because of the self-regulating principles of the style she was still able to dance the entire time.

For a good portion of the class, the woman danced like this, from the floor. And it was absolutely beautiful. She sat cross-legged, she sat on her knees, she writhed and wiggled on her back. Her hands moved like feet; her arms shook and made circles and slithered like snakes; and some of her facial expressions were dances in themselves. I slid up to her at one point–she appeared open to partner work–and was surprised to see that her seated Chaos was just as powerful and passionate as those of us on our feet. Both of us now on our asses, we engaged in some of the wildest Chaos moves I have ever performed.

It very much reminded me of yet another style of meditative movement, Nia. A few summers ago I took a 6-week class series in which one of the students was a 20-something man in a motorized wheelchair. When the other students grapevined across the floor, he powered his chair along with us. When we kicked our legs like karate chops, he did the same movement with his arms. When we spun, he put one arm in the air and the other on his togglestick and circled around like everyone else.

How wonderful is it that these forms of movement exist, where people who are tired or sick or just need to sit down for a few minutes can still be a part of the dance, where flicking a finger or wrist can be as freeing as shaking the hips in a double-time samba?

I’m not discounting other forms of dance; hell, I just heard a dance studio was opening three blocks from my house and instantly thought, “Hmm, I hope they’ll offer adult classes!” Studio dance is a huge part of my life, and every now and then I just want to learn some awesome choreography and bust it out on a sprung floor. I love learning dance, I love watching dance (I’m actually watching So You Think You Can Dance as I type). But the truth of the matter is that sometimes my body just wants to stay in ahhhh even though others may be in AHHHH!, and it’s so nice to be in a place that supports listening to both the music and the body.

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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