“Community is the next Buddha.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
I threw up in the car on the way to class while crossing the Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn into Manhattan for Tammy Burstein’s Friday Night Waves 5Rhythms class last week. I think the extreme cold tightened all of my muscles, including the muscles of my stomach. Despite this, I arrived with time to spare. Huddling with a small group of heavily bundled dancers, I waited for the elevator at the Joffrey in the West Village, all of us blowing into our cupped hands, hunching our shoulders, and discussing the weather.
Stepping through the door into the spacious dance studio, I was annoyed to discover someone blocking my way into the room, apparently a member of the crew there to greet participants as they entered. I tried to step past him discreetly, but he moved toward me. I waved him away, moved to the side, and spent several extra moments allowing myself to arrive. The greeter approached me again, leaning toward me to speak, and I surmised that he probably wanted me to place my bag in the large mountain of bags and coats. Again, I waved him away, intending to place my things in the appropriate pile momentarily.
I don’t like to be greeted on entering, in general. Stepping in to a 5Rhythms room is a big deal for me. I undergo an energetic ritual to help me to leave the baggage of a sometimes-very-stressful-life at the other side of the threshold. I don’t want to have to encounter another person’s gaze at this moment, as my intention is to sidestep my own ego and enter naked, unadorned. I love to connect with people, but at this crucial moment having to respond, to project, to make a boundary, or in any way to consider someone else’s experience of me diminishes my ability to let go into my own depths.
After adding my bag to the high pile of coats, I fell easily into motion, sometimes on the floor, sometimes on my feet. I noticed that I was slightly edgy, tightening when a dancer near me seemed to totally ignore my existence and sprawl into “my” space. I reflected that although the holidays were filled with joy and blessings, they also held a fair share of afflictive emotion, including a painful dose of self-hatred, a fact that I kept trying to talk myself out of.
My Aunt Mae, who will turn 98 this year, hosted her annual Christmas Eve party, which has been going on at the same site, in pretty much exactly the same form for nearly 80 years. The big, brick house boarded teachers before my great-grandparents purchased it, and much of the décor remains consistent, including an exquisite red pincushion with assorted pins and thread sitting on a wooden bureau, images of the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Mother, crucifixes, painted religious statues, a coarse embroidery of the three wise men en route, pictures of my grandfather and his brothers on a tractor in the fields, a still-functional cuckoo clock from one of my great aunt’s ski trips to Switzerland, and a hand-colored photo of my great great grandparents.
It was still the first wave of class when the mishaps started. The first event was a falling glass vase, shaken off a little table by the bounding floor boards as the room moved into the rhythm of Chaos. I was halfway across the room, and, like many, paused to see what had happened. Four or five people who were in close proximity moved to clear the shattered glass, and the dancing continued.
“Yes, but regardless of what a test says, anything could happen at any time, Meghan. You never know,” my spiritually advanced atheist father once told me, as I explained about developments in genetic testing for pregnancy. This insight raced through my mind a few days after Christmas. My parents had taken my seven-year-old son, Simon, to a movie, while I met up with some friends from childhood. Coming home, there was a police roadblock. “Which way should I go?” I asked the officer, “I just need to get to Church Street, where my parents live.” “There’s a big accident on Church Street. You can’t go that way. You have to go around,” he said, indicating a detour. I pulled over to call my parents. This was just about the time they should be arriving. It was arctic cold. And Church Street is a small side street in a nearly rural town. There would be very few cars. What if it was them? “Don’t freak out,” I told myself. I called my mom’s phone. No answer. My Dad’s phone. No answer. The home phone. No answer. I started on the detour, a seven-mile loop, calling them again and again, still no answer. And by then I was starting to freak out. And starting to picture a gory accident. My son. My parents. Please Gods, let them be OK, I pleaded. I was driving too fast, but held myself back from maximum. Finally, I arrived at the intersection of Church and Main Streets, where a fire truck blocked the road in both directions. “Please, please let them be ok,” I prayed again and again, “And if it isn’t them, please let whoever it is be ok. Let them be ok.” I parked and ran to the site, my overactive mind full of horrific images.
The crushed cars were not theirs. I relaxed a little. I squeezed past the fire truck, parked at my parents, then ran back to the accident, sucking in huge breathfuls of frigid air. “Were there only two cars?” I asked a fire fighter. “Yes, just two.” It took me another hour to calm down and begin to release my muscles. I also kept thinking about how for someone somewhere this accident, when one of their family members was hurt, wasn’t just a projected nightmare, but was reality. I watched as a Life Star helicopter landed in a nearby field, praying silently.
The next mishap at Tammy’s class was more serious than the previous. A fellow dancer and friend slipped backward and hit her head on the corner of the heavy folding table where Tammy stages the music. There was a very loud clonking sound. Tammy had just instructed us to partner, but everyone paused in horror, realizing what had happened, forgetting about our partners. Seeing that the fallen dancer was in good hands, I realized that to rush over would not help the situation, would help only me, so I held back, my forehead constrained and furrowed. I caught my partner’s eye, trying to let go of constraint. We made an effort to move in tandem for a few moments.
Tammy shifted the group into a Tribal exercise, gathering everyone to one side of the room. She asked one experienced dancer to step forward and create a clear, simple gesture that everyone could follow. This had the effect of keeping us moving, and of taking the focus off of the dancer who had been injured, who was still sitting on the floor, holding her head. Though I historically have a hard time leading tribal movements, I stepped up to take a turn to lead. It was during a part of the song with no obvious beat and I was spastic. “With the beat,” Tammy said into the microphone, and I settled onto the most obvious beat as the song’s percussion returned, trying to keep it simple, relieved when the leader changed and someone else stepped up.
Soon, we switched back into moving throughout the entire room.
Just as the energy of the room was rising again, another mishap arose. This time, the table that the dancer had hit her head on, and that held Tammy’s computer and mixer, crashed to the ground, its legs crumpling on one side, dumping the equipment. Again, several people in close proximity moved to help and the situation was righted quickly. “What is happening? Are we cursed or something? Is there some prankster spirit messing with us?” I asked internally.
“Does anyone feel like stopping?” Tammy asked the room. “Yes,” I nodded softly. But instead of stopping, Tammy gathered us in another collective exercise, and kept instructing us to partner.
I wasn’t sure which rhythm we were in at a given time, but I moved in deep connection with Chaos when it came. Bounding, leaping, touching ground and soaring, “Softer, softer, softer,” I kept telling myself, letting any edges express, but not specifically intending to engage or explore them. Not having danced for two weeks because of the holidays, some of my ongoing experiments seemed to have evaporated, a gestural re-set button. I tried to find my recent big, pelvis-rocking, momentum-coiled back step but instead found new expressions, spinning in a matrix.
When the first wave finally concluded, I had another rush of Chaos and followed its impulse, with energetic arms and released head, moving to the edge of the group as Tammy gathered the class for an interim talk between the first and second waves. She addressed the multiple mishaps, and said that she knew the dancer who was injured was in good hands. She also expressed that each episode had been subject to causes and effects, and that individual members of the community responded appropriately in every instance. She went on to evoke the founder of the 5Rhythms practice, Gabrielle Roth, who emphasized again and again the importance of both individuality and community, especially in the final years of her life.
Just before Tammy’s Friday Night Waves class the following week, on January 5th, I was under a warm comforter with my son, Simon, watching the 1939 version of the Wizard of Oz, wincing occasionally at the 1939 representations of identity, yet singing along, even drowsing off at intervals. “Mommy, why do they have to sing a song for everything?” Simon complained. Instead of going to his after-school program, I had left work early and picked him up at school myself, so he wouldn’t have to walk the mile with his afterschool group in sub-zero windchill. We had dinner at a steamy café with dripping glass windows and wet floors in our Brooklyn neighborhood, then repaired to movie time. I couldn’t imagine how I would possibly have the energy to unfurl and move, but figured I could just go to class and lay down on the floor, perhaps moving a finger or an arm or an eyelid or something. I would probably keep my heavy coat on the whole time, too, I projected.
Dressing, I pawed through my big bin of crumpled dance clothes, looking for something that would enliven my cold mood. I pulled out an orange tank top, and a tiered orange skirt with sequins on the horizontal seams, much like the kind of skirt worn by the faded figurines topping display wedding cakes at low end bakeries. I nearly changed into black leggings and a black tank instead, but talked myself out of it in favor of the orange outfit, though I packed the discreet black articles in my dance bag in case I wanted to change once I got to class.
There were very few cars on the icy, grey-slushed roads in Manhattan, and I arrived at the Joffrey in the West Village within 20 minutes. On the way, I listened to an alarming interview with author Michael Wolff, who had published the book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” earlier that day, yet another presidential event that has caused anxiety and distress in recent months.
Joining as usual with a small group to wait for the elevator, we hunched our shoulders and remarked about the weather, noting the shared experience.
Stepping out at the fifth floor, one of the first people I encountered was my friend who had fallen and hurt the back of her head during the previous Friday class. “How is your head?” I asked. “It’s fine,” she answered, smiling. “I’m so glad,” I said, leaning forward and kissing her forehead.
Stepping into the studio, I noted with slight irritation that there was another crew member greeting people on entry, and was relieved that a distraction arose and I didn’t have to worry about how to manage our interaction.
Settling my bag, coat, hat, gloves and scarf by the already jacket-laden ballet bar in the corner, I began to move, still wearing three shirts, and was sucked immediately into a rhapsodic flowing track, the loud orange skirt twirling heavily around my ankles. Spinning low, I repeatedly brushed my fingertips onto the floor in an arc. Tammy left the teacher’s table and danced throughout the room. I felt her energetic self brush mine as we moved briefly in proximity, experiencing myself as a rotating matrix, undulating luxuriously into and across and out from the center line of my body, rising and falling in hoops, gracing the space above, touching the earth below, my shoulders open and generous.
I peeled off one shirt and then another, leaving them by an open window that was pouring in cold air, and revealing my entire bright-orange outfit. I noted a ferocious pain in my right heel. Flowing low and effortlessly again, I intersected painfully with another dancer, whose toenails dug into the top of my foot as he moved his own foot in a low circle. My face contorted, and I rushed to one side of the room and massaged it, hoping my pleasant flow had not been chased away. Soon, the pain passed and I regained a similar momentum, moving through the room.
I exhaled gratitude and lowed softly, the magic of being in a 5Rhythms room coiling around me and moving me, despite myself, once again.
During the week, I had heard two interviews, one a country music singer and the other a conservative pundit, both talking about white privilege. Both men expressed that before the election of President Trump, they had been blind to the kind of white privilege they enjoyed, and that they hadn’t realized the depths of racism in America. I could relate completely, and reflected on what a painful and important journey it has been, to begin to reckon with my own experience of white privilege. The conservative pundit expressed that he is no longer a member of the Republican party, as it is now characterized by “white nationalist populism,” and for the time being is politically “homeless.”
Tammy invited us to partner again and again, but challenged us to pair lightly, with the reminder that “it’s about being with everyone.” I stepped into several successive dances, many with people I hadn’t encountered before, moving in decisive lines between partnerships, embodying Staccato. Entering into Chaos, still in partnership, I stepped in to a man with glasses, and we moved in a low, carved Staccato Chaos, approaching and retreating, spinning, and presenting our inner knees, moving from the back of the pelvis, the heavy tailbone. “Give your partner your full attention,” said Tammy, and we met each other’s gazes, beaming. Meeting two friends of many years, I attempted a curved orbit, my head leading me, and hit a stopping point a few times before momentum flung me around it, in weightless, inspired circles.
In Lyrical, I moved with the same two friends, never out of breath, finding surprising twists and leaping from released inner legs. Tammy put on the tender, uplifted track “Follow the Sun” by Xavier Rudd and I soared without effort throughout the space, joining briefly with anyone who was open to me. Finding another new partner and settling in, I mirrored him, rolling my shoulders enthusiastically, and opening my throat and palms to the sky, unbridled, as he grinned with his mouth open, the arches of his feet smiling, and lifted off, too.
In Stillness, I traveled. I imagined that I walked up the stairs at my Aunt Mae’s house – the same site of the Christmas Eve party a short time before – turned left briefly, then right, then opened a door into a cold, disused hallway, and another door into a room that I have visited in dreams throughout my life. Inside the room, I passed through another door, and stood at the end of a diving board, gazing out at the cosmos, wondering if I had the courage to step off the board and into limitless space. A shadow-like male ancestor spirit who is familiar to me came to offer support, overlapping with me, encouraging me to move forward, though part of me wondered if I could actually die, could actually cease to be if I did. When I did take a step, my body seemed gigantic. Clouds swirled below eye level. A large flock of birds passed through my chest, calling out. I flickered back and forth between wondering about “my” experience and being subsumed by it.
Tammy gathered us around a lovely class centerpiece that one of the members of the crew had created, next to the room’s quietest wall. It featured transparent fabric with coils of light underneath it as though underground, a little elf-scaled tree that seemed above ground, and crevices of dried flowers tucked into the rolling curves of this tiny representation of earth. She couldn’t but speak about the strident cold, even remarking that the space heater in her office had broken down alarmingly that afternoon. She shared the insight that the state of being frozen significantly slows down the ground, and that some seeds need to freeze in order to be able to sprout at a later time, hinting that this moment of weather intensity is part of a natural cycle, and perhaps that dormancy does not imply the death of movement.
This was a welcome perspective, as news reports I had absorbed that day seemed more dire. For example, CNN reported that the cold is “causing frozen iguanas to fall from trees in Florida.” I also read a news story about thresher sharks getting trapped in the waters off of Cape Cod and washing up dead onto ice-crusted beaches.
By the end of Tammy’s talk I was cold again and didn’t feel like moving more. I stepped out to use the bathroom, and when I came back the room was already transitioning from the first rhythm of Flowing into Staccato. I was disengaged, a little hesitant, and afraid that I might crash someone or that someone might crash me, noticing how different I feel when I am not grounded.
I wandered distractedly for a few moments, then a man I hadn’t danced with before engaged me in partnership. He was very enthusiastic, and I found a little bit of movement with him, visiting some of the gestures I learned while dancing at house music events in the 1990’s. From there, I gathered momentum, and was able to come back into myself and into the room. I joined with a friend in a quirky Staccato dance, tucking my thumbs into my hip creases, jigging my hips, with fully available energy. A community Chaos erupted and I continued to change partnerships, still occasionally letting loose on my own. In Lyrical, I again found a cherished friend, and was overtaken by delight, smiling to my edges. Later, she told me, “I was so happy when you came over in the last wave. It was like, ‘OK, the light can come out and play now!”
In Stillness, I again passed through the door beyond the door beyond the door at my Aunt Mae’s house, merging with limitless space.
Tammy invited us to set an intention. I closed my eyes and thought of my seven-year-old son, Simon, wishing that he would live long, be happy, and know his own goodness. Without contriving it, I also wished that every mother’s seven-year-old would thrive, just as I hoped for my own child – a new default I am noticing recently, as with the car accident scare at my parents’ house, that even in the throes of strong emotions, awareness can automatically consider the collective experience.
In both of these classes, Chaos presented itself again and again, a beautiful marble to inspect every aspect of, not simply catharsis, but too, patient, deep and luminous, demonstrating perhaps that with the help of community we can endure and thrive even in this decidedly tumultuous era.
“It is probable that the next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community, a community practicing understanding and loving kindness, a community practicing mindful living. This may be the most important thing we can do for the survival of the earth.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
January 6, 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.