5Rhythms – My Experiences
After years of practicing Gabrielle Roth’s 5Rhythms dance and movement meditation practice and writing extensively about my experiences, I have decided to create a blog to share some of my writings. This blog is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms organization or teacher, and only represents my personal experiences and reflections. Some posts will pertain to last night’s class, some will be about past experiences, and some will address broader themes. The following post is about Lucia Horan’s Waves workshop held on the first weekend of December this winter. In case an explanation of the 5Rhythms practice would be helpful, I have included one at the end of this post.
December, 2013, Brooklyn, NY
Today was the first day of a three-day 5Rhythms Waves workshop taught by Lucia Horan, titled Graceful Journey.
I bumped slowly along the exposed cobble streets of Dumbo, Brooklyn, and eventually found a parking spot in the vicinity. I set forth in the rainy, windy night to find the White Wave Dance Studio. I walked in the wrong direction initially, but soon realized it was on John Street—the last stop before the shimmering East River.
I was surprised to step directly into the studio—no antechamber, no lobby—and was ushered to the basement to store my things. I descended a ladder-like stair into the resident dance troupe’s dressing room. It was filled with mirrored dressing tables and had big, exposed beams and clean wood floors. I left my things and ventured upstairs.
As is my habit, I paused to bow as I crossed the threshold onto the dance floor. The studio had a wood floor, two white central columns, exposed wood beams in the high ceiling, and black velvet on two of the walls. There was only one visible window—above the door, and it looked onto the stacked-sphere tops of transformers at a power plant by the river’s edge. The light was atmospheric and the big gas heater whirred periodically with blue flame. One of the participants created a temporary installation for the weekend with yards of white crinoline fabric, glass cake dishes, feathers and crystal elements.
We began slowly, with tonal music. Most people lay on the floor and gently stretched or rocked. I was happy to discover that I could move with freedom and energy. I never know what will be available until I start moving, and have, at times, been painfully inert.
One thing I noticed right away is that I didn’t dislike anyone. Or hate anyone. Or even feel irritated. At all. Usually, there is at least someone who rubs my edges, but tonight I felt genuinely curious and willing to connect with anyone in attendance.
The 5Rhythms is a dance and movement meditation practice articulated by Gabrielle Roth, the recently-deceased founder of the practice. She laid out a number of themes for practitioners. The Waves theme, Lucia explained, has to do with the creative process, and with investigating how we transition between things, how we begin and end, and what we do in the middle.
I guess I thought the series would be introductory since Waves is the first workshop for most people. I had done a Waves workshop already. The last time it was powerful and interesting, but in this case it was full-on in every way from the very beginning.
Friday night we investigated the Flowing rhythm of the Wave; and I danced so hard I left nauseous. We were instructed to move through the room by moving into empty space, and allowing the body continuous motion. I felt playful and grounded, though I noticed that it was hard for me to stay in Flowing. Rather, any time a breakbeat or any other exciting sound arose, I dove straight into the rhythm of Staccato and even into Chaos. It was only Lucia’s spoken instructions that slowed me down and brought me back into the investigation of Flowing.
As I moved through the room, I began to do something I call Passing-Through Practice. It involves energetic intermingling with everyone and everything in your field. It surprised me when Lucia said, “Passing through, but not holding on.” She repeated the phrase several times, and it felt almost magically cogent to my own thoughts in that moment.
As the first wave concluded, I moved out of the center of the room and shut my eyes. Rainbows danced out of my hands, and I smiled as they arced and undulated above me.
After the first wave, we sat in a semi-circle facing Lucia. She told us that a wave is a perfect map, birthed by the adored and venerable Gabrielle Roth (the mother of her brother); and that the Waves work is particularly dear to her. She went on to say that over the years, she has developed her own way of relating to the themes. While she was moving to demonstrate Staccato she explained that Staccato has to do with how we commit to things, how we see them through, and how we apply effort strategically. She also talked about knowing how to begin and how to end things with honorability and maturity. When we don’t have 10,000 loose ends and 10,000 fucked up relationships, we can show up for things with a clean heart. We can start new things with integrity and vision. I love this way of thinking about Staccato.
During the same session, she talked about how the Graceful Journey of Waves has to do with surrendering resistance, in order to live gracefully in the face of constant change. My brain said, “but resistance is so interesting! If it were just all surrender and gracefulness, what would we work with?” I confess that edges—my own and others’—intrigue me, and are central to my own investigation of Staccato. By “edges” I mean the knots, the places of resistance, the sticky spots, the glitches, the repeated actions and the ongoing, occasionally-contentious dialogues that I have with my own mind.
I put on a sweater during Lucia’s teaching, but was downright cold by the end of the middle, and was grateful when she told us to rise and start moving again. We were instructed to look for empty space and move into it. Soon, she had us take a partner. Then, she told us to switch partners in rapid succession.
As the wave unfolded, I shared many beautiful dances. One was with a man in cheerful, printed tights named H. As I move around the room, I often try on the movement of anyone who is near me—this helps me to discover new ways of moving and to expand my own capacity. H. had his hands high in the air and was bouncing and shaking when I enthusiastically joined him.
Saturday’s session began at 12 noon. My parents arrived from a few hours away to care for my small son, Simon. I bid them good-bye and hurried to the dance studio in Dumbo, about two miles from my home. I moved through the routine of arrival easily, bowed, and set foot on the dance floor. To start, I arced and twisted and stretched on the floor. I was in high, high gear as we moved through this first wave of the day.
I found myself in a spin, slightly off to the side, cutting the air with the sides of my hands as I moved, eyes wide open, seeing everything in the room from within my spinning trance. It is peaceful for me, inside a spin. I don’t get dizzy, but feel grounded and at ease. At one point, I felt winds begin to rise along the sides of my spine, and up to my head. It was curious; and I wondered if these particular energies are what are discussed in Buddhist Vajrayana teachings.
At the conclusion of Saturday’s first wave, Lucia gathered us in a circle and asked us to introduce ourselves with a gesture while saying our name, and told us the whole group would follow. I find this very hard: distilling my expression into a single gesture. I guess that is why, as an artist, I tend to work on large projects with several component artworks that cohere to create an overarching meaning. Someone said, “M.!” and stepped forward, offering her gesture. Then, we all repeated her name while attempting to mirror her. It was funny at times. I kicked my legs forward and said, “Meghan!” muttering at the same time that I couldn’t think of anything. Everyone did their best to copy my awkward movement while calling out my name.
Lucia then gathered us and taught with greater depth on the topic of beginnings and transitions. She invited people to share their own experience of the night before, particularly how we were relating to the topic of beginnings.
I raised my hand, but never got to speak, as the conversation came to its natural conclusion before I had a turn.
Lucia asked us to experiment with how we move when we take the first step. I was enthusiastic about this exercise, but through it I was thinking about how I relate to the middle. Often, I still think I am gearing up, warming up, getting going, when I am in fact well into the middle. For example, sometimes the middle of a weeklong meditation retreat is day two, and the remainder of it is the end. If I don’t notice that the middle has arrived, I am still pacing myself when I should be sprinting for glory. The race ends and I privately have to live with the fact that I had more to give. I experienced grief for moments I’ve lost because I wasted my time thinking I was going to arrive at some other, future time and then give my all, instead of giving it up for every moment as it presented itself.
This is extra poignant because I turned forty this year. It is not like I am warming up to something. This is it. This is the middle. As Lucia said, “all that you have been and done that has brought you to this place.” I am in the middle. I am in the middle of my career as an artist, in the middle of my career as a writer, in the middle of my life, in the middle of my experience as a mother, in the middle of many friendships, even in the middle of my experiences teaching. Of all the many insights of the weekend, this was the deepest for me, this re-knowing of the tenderness of now, of the middle, of the full expression of things, as they are in this moment.
This investigation continued as we moved into Staccato and Chaos—the middle of the wave. I kept finding myself with C—a dancer who I had seen before but never danced with. As Lucia fed suggestions into the microphone, we danced with all the cagey angles and oblique approaches and stops and starts and rushing retreats and frontal advances that Staccato can be. Lucia’s words were about the commitment of being in the middle, of having the courage and ferocity and passion to engage wholeheartedly with your experience.
One thing I have not been whole-hearted about in my life is teaching high school. Last year, I applied on a whim to a rigorous, free teacher-training program. I was accepted, and, concurrent with grad school, have taught high school for the past two years.
Last year was not just bad, but traumatic. Previously, I had been a textile and graphic designer, working mostly freelance. I cried for three solid days when I accepted the fellowship. I accepted because I haven’t been able to fully support myself, especially with my small son, and have had to ask my parents for help at times. The job is much less pay, but has insurance and stability—exactly what my parents want for me, as they believe it will make me happier in the long run.
Despite all of this, I love and connect with the kids I work with. Now in my second year and at a different school, I co-teach four subjects—English, Math, History and Science. I see the same kids four classes a day. I have fallen in love with them, and work tirelessly for their success. I also find (to my surprise) that I am a competent—maybe even a good—teacher.
Still, secretly, there is this lack of commitment. It is not that I don’t want to teach. Rather, it is all the half-finished books and articles that are like little un-hatched robins in their little blue eggs, all the complex artwork projects, all the visions and dreams and collaborations that I chip slowly away at—a prisoner trying to tunnel my way out of Alcatraz with a cafeteria spoon. I am so afraid that if I lose the thread I will lose my connection to creative work, and to my heart in the process.
Engaging in anything without wholeheartedness is a lack of integrity, a secret poison that erodes peace of mind. In addition to talking about commitment and passion, Lucia talked repeatedly about developing honorability and maturity with beginnings, middles and endings. I think wholeheartedness, awareness and integrity are stars in the same constellation.
The question of teaching has still not been resolved, but at least I have found another angle of inquiry. It turns out that C, who I shared this investigation through dance with, has a daughter with special needs, who has been receiving special education services since infancy.
I had countless beautiful dances of partnership. One was with my friend T. in the rhythm of Lyrical as we investigated the middle. We spun and moved around each other—almost coy, athletic, with spun shoulders and beautiful rolling pauses—beaming smiles, and on the ground and in the air as we moved.
Another was with a woman named M. who is very beautiful and has a very big dance. I wasn’t sure about her at first, but over time I have come to trust her integrity. We came together several times during the evening, and notably, shared a huge dance moving together from Chaos into Lyrical. We were like a 100-point star, jagged and matrix-like, then spinning with abandon. It was so energetic I thought I might faint. I kept thinking “she is so brave,” with this very tender feeling. During a group discussion shortly after, I was not surprised that she made a comment about courage.
We had a break for lunch and it was surreal to step out into the cold, overcast, white afternoon. Four glowing birds circled over the river, illuminated by the first cast of sunset. I watched them in quiet amazement on the steps of the dance studio.
It is hard for me to remember when Lucia said what. Truthfully, I was in a trance for much of the weekend and a lot of the content felt like it was coming to me in a dream. She spoke several times about how important it is to let go of resistance. She did not resort to allusions, but told us repeatedly that everything changes and everything ends. That one day we will have to let go of everyone we love and will even have to let go of our very bodies. The final stop for all of us is death; and we will be much better off when the transition of death arrives if we have learned to be graceful in all transitions, including the ones in the dance.
That afternoon, we began to shift into the rhythm of Lyrical. I was ecstatic. The whole room danced as one. I reflected that the letting go of Chaos comes so naturally to me, but the letting go that lets joy come in—the letting go of Lyrical, is another matter entirely. I thought back to when Barack Obama was elected for the first time. The world would never be the same and we all knew it. I cried with joy for days, my throat tense with the wish to keen with all my volume. That Friday, in Tammy’s class, we were swept up by a huge wave of cathartic joy. I/We had to let go of many ideas about who we are and what America is to let this new experience in. I was all in: wild, ecstatic, sobbing, bouncing and twirling with the room, but I confess that it was hard for me.
My brain suspects that things will get worse after the joy comes. When my son was first born, every time we came into Lyrical during class, I had to contend with a powerful impulse to run to the phone and call home to make sure he was ok. My mind was sure he had had an accident or a seizure or some other unthinkable calamity. This lasted for many months and was almost exclusive to the transition into Lyrical. I cried all weekend during the Waves workshop, but as I moved through the space, dancing with everyone in the room in this phase of Lyrical, tears absolutely coursed down my cheeks.
Lucia had us take out journals and instructed us to begin with the prompt, “in the heart of the middle, I find….” Again, tears poured down my cheeks as wrote. “In the heart of the middle, I find…that if the middle passes without my noticing, there is grief.” I re-iterated the same idea for seven pages.
Saturday night, I had dinner with my parents and small son at a festive restaurant close to the dance studio. My parents slept in my bed and I slept next to Simon in his room. He took this opportunity to coil himself around my neck, lay on top of me, give me kisses again and again just as I was drifting off, and push me repeatedly off the side of the bed with his ardency to be close.
I woke up stiff and tired. My neck hurt bad. My knees hurt. My middle back. My lower back. The arch of my right foot. I had a cut on top of one of my toes. I even had a slight limp, thanks to a tender Achilles. Thankfully, my parents and sister, Courtney, who joined us from her apartment down the block, agreed to scrap our plan for brunch out and instead cook at my place.
After brunch, I set off once again for the White Wave Dance Studio in Dumbo, while my Dad drove Courtney to a 5Rhythms class in the West Village, and my Mom and Simon prepared for a puppet show they would attend along with my Dad.
Still, I hurt. I arrived early on Sunday, attended to all of my fluttering needs, then set to rocking and stretching to the tonal, attenuated music. I could not imagine how I would possibly move. Miraculously, as soon as the music started, I found that I had all the energy I needed, and could move with grace and joy. To my amazement, the pain and stiffness of Sunday morning never returned.
Sunday’s first wave was powerful, subtle, complex, honest….at least from my perspective. When we sat to listen to Lucia’s teaching, she remarked that she had witnessed a particularly beautiful Stillness, and even thanked us for our efforts.
She talked to us of endings. Of how in our culture, we turn away from old age and from death. The end of life. How Stillness is an investigation of the pause between things. Maybe even of the pause between lives, I thought. And how counter to our conditioning that pause is—that acknowledgement of something ending—or perhaps of something just ended. And of our culture’s achievement and activity-driven morality.
This discussion was very coherent with my own artwork. I have been working on a project called Memento Mori that has taken me by surprise. It started with the intention to place a veil between two trees in the winter woods near my childhood home, then pass through it repeatedly. It took my breath away when I realized that I was really engaging with the veil between the worlds, between flesh and spirit—the veil we pass through in birth and in death, and if we are careful, discreet and lucky, we get to peek through occasionally during the course of our lives.
The woods there are filled with the spirits of my ancestors, and I worked for many days in and out of trance. The spirits moved around me, and I titled the main artwork of the series From the Corner of My Eye. It is a reckoning with death, really. The winds rushed and clattered the leafless tree branches as I reminded myself that I can only fully live in this life—this middle—if I can accept the inevitability that it will end. That I will die. That everyone I love and everything I love will one day cease to be.
H, who became a new friend during the course of the weekend, changed the installation for the third and final day, re-arranging the elements and adding a central spiral made of salt, coiled on the black ledge, like a vision of brilliant stars, burning in the black sky.
5Rhythms is a dance and movement meditation practice discovered by Gabrielle Roth. In a typical 5Rhythms class, practitioners move through a series of “Waves.” Each Wave consists of the rhythms of Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness; and the teacher-selected music and occasional instruction guides you through. There are no prescribed steps and the only rules are that you cannot speak with words, and that you must keep moving. In Gabrielle’s own words, “it is not free dance, but rather dance that frees.” Please visit www.gabrielleroth.com to learn more.