“Ouch!” one teenager cried out as another slammed her into the hallway wall, smiling not kindly, her arm shooting straight out from her shoulder as she passed, not even looking as she struck. The teen who got slammed walked not ten paces, then slammed another girl into the wall as she passed, using the same gesture she had been slammed with. Aggression seemed to be ricocheting around in rip currents.
On September 11, Daniela Peltekova taught the Sunday Sweat Your Prayers 5Rhythms class at the Joffrey Ballet in the West Village. Loving the extra space of Sunday’s class, I stretched out on the ground, rising and falling in the shape of a moving starfish. Daniela lead us through a very fast wave at the beginning of the class, wasting no time. Traveling around the room, I noted a little tourist tchotchke of the World Trade Center—part of the visuals for the class that a member of the crew had created—and remembered with remarkably little emotional charge that it was September 11th.
The music faded and Daniela began to speak, stepping into the middle of the room with all of us surrounding her, still standing. She expressed that the events of September 11 are unavoidably heavy—something that lives in our collective memory as New Yorkers whether we were actually there or not. Although I don’t recall her exact words, she also expressed that there was some aspect of beauty in it, too, something about pain and struggle that gives us grit—the inspiration to push deeper.
My own experience of September 11th feels remote by now, but it definitely marked my life indelibly. At the time, I was working in downtown Manhattan. I rollerbladed to work, as was my habit, and paused on the way to look at what I thought was a fire at the Bell Atlantic building. I even took out my sketchbook and did a few drawings, standing in the middle of the bike path that parallels the East River. Concerned I might arrive late to work, I continued on my way. It slowly began to dawn on me that things were not right. People seemed to be walking slowly in many different directions, some with white stuff (which I later realized was ash) on their hair and shoulders. Skating up Chambers Street behind City Hall, a man was yelling at the top of his lungs, “Get out! They’re lying to you! It’s terrorists! Get out! Save yourselves!” I moved more and more slowly, not processing the information fully. A few minutes after I heard the man yelling, I finally realized that I wouldn’t be going to work. I began to retreat and make my way north. Streams of people now seemed to have direction—they were also moving north, away from the World Trade Center. No one ran, no one screamed. Almost no one made eye contact. The scene devolved into silent slow motion.
I skated north, more or less. I had just given up my cel phone, believing it a passing fad that was having a negative impact on my consciousness, so I tried to use a payphone to call a girlfriend, my sister and my parents. The payphone just buzzed angrily—tied up with system overload. Skating in the East Village and on the Lower East Side while searching vaguely for a working payphone, radios were on everywhere. Many people stood beside their cars with the radio on, staring into space. Everywhere I went, people gathered in silence or walked north in droves.
Eventually, I made my way home to Brooklyn across the Williamsburg Bridge, skating slowly. Stranded and shell-shocked commuters made their way across the bridge on foot. A group of people stood silently on a section of the bridge just before the descent into Brooklyn where they could watch the two burning skyscrapers. Many hooked their fingers on the caged safety wire as they overlooked. I don’t remember anyone speaking. I went to my favorite café. There was a TV on the counter. No one was speaking. I went to the health food store on Bedford Avenue. There was a TV on the counter. No one was speaking.
I went home and climbed up to the roof. I had a full view of the burning towers from there, and stood watching as the first tower turned to toxic dust and crumpled, buckling sideways, then down. Nuns from a church on the next block stood on their own roof, also watching the building fall, their royal blue, full nun’s habits flapping in the wind, emphasizing their frozen gestures.
My mother’s hair turned white that day.
In the first wave, I had stepped cheerfully into partnership with a tall, white man. We began to dance together again just as Daniela began to speak. In concluding her remarks, Daniela invited us to turn to whoever was closest and join them. I smiled unshyly and stepped my foot next to his, by way of introduction. He stepped his foot in relation to mine. I stepped again, turning my foot and noticing how much darker my skin was than his—tanned from a summer spent outside. In this case, we moved in Stillness first, gently around each other, back to back, side to side, rising and falling in response to silent currents in and around us. Then, we moved together into Flowing and into Staccato, receding and advancing, smiling and looking into each other’s eyes.
A friend cut in then. Bereft, she clung to me, sobbing. I held her tightly and rocked with her side to side, wondering if she was feeling the post-trauma of September 11th.
The music got heavy, resistant, hard with only short bits of rest. One song lead me back and forth between dragging, clawing, harsh gestures to brief, uncompressed, spacious movement. I was deep in the hips, gyrating and jiggling. I thought of the song, “My Name is NO!” that I had spent the week dancing to along with my six-year-old son, who has developed an entire choreographed staccato routine to the tune, including a dramatic spin with a hard end-stop.
Chaos was a collective exorcism; and on this day there was no way around it but through. It went on and on and on, sometimes spiking in intensity, but holding back from Lyrical. An idea for a project I have been wanting to make burst through; and I got excited about new possibilities.
I very much wanted to dance with a friend I had met several times in an interesting pocket a few months before—a tiny, contained dance of precision and restraint. He did not seem available, and I stepped into another partnership, realizing that the same unique, quirky dance I was sharing with him came into my partnership with the woman I was then dancing with, as he continued to dance nearby. I thought about how much energy slips around, how mercurial it is, how much we are subject to the currents that race through us.
On September 11th after I watched the first tower fall, I skated to Woodhull Hospital to volunteer. There, I found empty, parked ambulances and paramedics leaning on them with crossed arms. No volunteers were needed, as there were so few survivors. I lingered for awhile, then skated to Prospect Park and looped it again and again on the bike path, watching the smoke rise across the river and hearing the rush of military fighter jets racing overhead.
When Daniela finally lead us to Lyrical, we tipped right over the edge of Chaos and found flight. It contained the beauty that can only arise from maturity, from the clarification of intense pain and perhaps from opening—instead of closing down—to grief, sadness, fear and insecurity.
September 18, 2016, Brooklyn, NYC
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.