“It’s 2019. Just thought I’d let you know that,” jokes Tanya Goldman, who is leading the first Sunday Sweat Your Prayers 5Rhythms class of 2019 in New York City. She doesn’t specifically mention New Year’s resolutions, but she does say, “One thing I’ve learned is if you want to change, you have to move. Physically, mentally and emotionally. It doesn’t just happen.”
Tanya doesn’t talk much during class but somehow manages to bring out the best in people. For this Sunday morning class, the big dance studio is jam-packed and notably porous, the many selves melting in and out of each other, part of a big, collective self.
As the class begins, Tanya leads us in a long, patient Flowing. She seems confident that we’ll stay with her, even if she doesn’t rush to entertain us. In Staccato and a wild Chaos, I dance with a friend who’s seated in a chair, bringing me down low. I also share several dances with a friend who has been a frequent partner over ten or more years. In contrast to our usual ebullient, wide-ranging partnership, we tuck into a pocket, sustainable, riding energy patiently. In Lyrical, I join with another friend, leaping into flight with my shoulders and chest wide open, tears streaming down my face.
At the height of joyful intensity, Tanya plays the 90’s club anthem ’Last Night a DJ Saved My Life with a Song‘. I recognize it immediately, sinking low in a pumping warrior cry as the room explodes.
Tanya has a way of doing this. Of building things up and building things up, then dropping the exact perfect song at the exact perfect moment; and if I had had any sort of conscious thought, it probably would have been: This is heaven. Life could not possibly get better than this.
At the end of the class, I pause to chat with one of the friends I’d partnered with. “That was just amazing,” he says, wide-eyed. I nod. “She is incredibly trustworthy. I feel like it’s safe to totally let go. Like she is holding space and witnessing what is unfolding in, like, a clean way, or something.”
I think back to a Heartbeat workshop that Tanya and I both attended ten years before. I was having a joyful and pleasant experience, but it shifted when we were placed into groups of three for an exercise. One person was to move with a certain prompt in mind and the other two would witness the person who was moving, then we would change roles. One of my partners was this very expressive woman who had a huge dance. I had cheerfully joined her in partnership many times during the workshop, but this time when she was supposed to witness me, I didn’t feel like she was seeing me at all. Like she was just totally wrapped up in her own awesomeness. I’m pretty extroverted and don’t feel invisible very often, but somehow this really hurt me.
Thankfully, Tanya was my other partner. Curiously, it wasn’t until I reflected later, still nursing wounds from the experience, that I realized that although one partner had failed to see me, Tanya had very much seen me. I realized what a valuable friend she is and hoped that I could return the favor of her clear-seeing, something I continue to try to live up to.
Tanya, who has been a 5Rhythms teacher since 2014, sat down with me last spring to share some thoughts on her life and process. We planned to get together after a different Sweat Your Prayers class in the West Village for this interview. I hadn’t really thought through where we would set up but considered a few local restaurants without fully appreciating how much Tanya has to think things through in advance. Tanya has a disability that affects motor ability and uses a walker to get around, so accessibility is an issue, and she also let me know that she is not able to eat solid food. So instead of a restaurant, we went to a smoothie place at the corner, then sat down together at the closest Starbucks.
Once settled, Tanya patiently blinked her clear, blue-green eyes, and sipped at her smoothie, inviting the first question.
“When did you start practicing the 5Rhythms and what brought you to 5Rhythms for the first time?” I asked.
“I started practicing in 2008,” she began. “I’d already been doing Contact Improv for many years, since college.”
Tanya shared that she went to Oberlin, where Contact Improv was invented, and in fact practiced in the very studio where Contact Improv originated.
“I loved it, and learned that I could really be there, could really be in it despite my limitations. As my disability progressed, it got harder to do Contact Improv. It’s really all about partnering. In partnering, it was like my partner shared my disability, so it would limit what they could do, and not everyone was ok with that.”
She also shared that she didn’t always feel like she was included in the community, and added, “I decided I needed to find another dance community where it would be ok to dance on my own.”
Next, she became part of the Dance New England community and someone there suggested she try the 5Rhythms.
“For my first class, Jonny (Jonathan Horan, the director of 5Rhythms and son of its creator, Gabrielle Roth) was teaching. I didn’t understand it at all, but I felt accepted. Then, it was many years before I started to learn what it was all about.”
The next question I asked was, “How has your practice changed over time?”
“Well, my body has changed. The biggest change is that I now use a walker. That’s been in the last six-to-eight months. In the beginning, my balance was so much better. I could skip and run. Particularly after I got the walker, I was aware that my balance was really changing. For a while, I was falling all the time. My mind wanted to dance faster than my body could handle. The mind doesn’t want to accept the body’s limitations, but once you can go with the changes, then it’s so much easier. And now I’m not falling! But I’m definitely still moving.”
“Do you feel more comfortable with being off balance?”
“I don’t feel out of balance. I’ve come to accept and find the grace within my own dance. But it’s not a definite. One day it’s there and the next it’s like ‘where is it?’”
Then, I asked, “Do you have a ‘home’ rhythm?”
“Not really. For me, it’s all about change. We’re always changing and life is always changing.”
“Tanya, what made you decide to become a 5Rhythms teacher?”
“I did a class with Sylvie Minot and she talked about teaching 5Rhythms to inmates in prisons. I thought that was amazing. Not that she was teaching in prisons, but that she was bringing the work to disadvantaged people. I’m trained as a social worker. I always wanted to help people, to change lives for the better. In fact, when I started the teacher training, I was still working as a social worker. Halfway through the teacher training, I got laid off from my job, along with my social worker colleagues. After, I was too exhausted to go back to work, but I feel like being a 5Rhythms teacher is my offering, my contribution.”
“Did you have to overcome significant obstacles to undergo the teacher training?”
“I definitely had to overcome obstacles. The first was financial, especially after being laid off after the first module. Maybe even more significant were the mental obstacles. I had an internal story that I wasn’t even fully aware of that I had nothing special to offer. At an Open Floor workshop with Andrea Juhan this story came out and I was finally able to deal with it. That was a big turning point for me.”
“While I was going through this, though, I felt supported by Jonny (Jonathan Horan). During the training, we had to learn a kind of two-step pattern, which was obviously pretty hard for me, but I did it.”
She also shared that Jonathan said, “When you do this with Tanya, hold her hands,” and how much she appreciated that Jonathan seemed to get her needs.
“What, in your opinion as a 5Rhythms teacher, is the essence of 5Rhythms practice?”
“For me, it’s about permission and possibility; and it’s about getting out of your own way.”
“What, if anything, makes your perspective on the 5Rhythms unique?”
“I think as a person with a disability, I give a lot of permission to people in general. And, as a person with a disability, I also bring a lot about being willing to be vulnerable. My experience is about being very vulnerable every day. I wear my vulnerability on the outside.”
Tanya and I shared a workshop this weekend that was focused on the 5Rhythms emotional map, Heartbeat. At one point, we were working with the emotion of anger, and the room was explosive. We were instructed to line up at one end of the room and several sets of partners at a time would cross the floor to the other side, expressing the emotion of anger with our bodies.
One issue I’ve personally been working with is how to know when to help people and when not to, and how I relate internally to those two options. In fact, in a Sunday class the week before, a man had come in with a walker and paused at the side of the dance floor. I happened to be near him and asked if he wanted a chair. He was irate: “Why would I need a chair? There’s nothing wrong with me!”
Although I have never discussed it with Tanya, I wonder if, because of her disability, she has to contend constantly with people projecting their ideas of what her experience is and should be onto her. When I was pregnant in 2009-2010, I struggled with the visibility of my pregnant body and how much people wanted to tell me about my experience. I felt like a walking screen for everyone’s projections, and that if I heard one more birth horror story I might possibly harm someone.
With Tanya, I want to be available to help, but also don’t want to insult her by offering, and sometimes I get myself tangled in stories about helping/not helping instead of simply trusting myself to communicate effectively and do what’s needed. When we were lining up in the anger exercise, Tanya, who happened to be next to me, turned to me and shook her head, blinking her eyes and looking unhappy. “Does this feel like too much?” I asked. She nodded. “Do you want me to get you a chair?” She nodded again. I carried a chair over, placed it off to the side, and she sat down. The week before, I’d shared a dance with a broken-ankled friend who needed to stay seated, and, deep in a vigorous chaos, she had traveled laterally at least ten feet without harming the floor surface at all. Recalling this, I asked,
“Tanya, do you want me to push you across in the chair?”
Her eyebrows raised and her face lit up. “Really?”
She gave a clear “Yes” nod, so I moved behind the chair and pushed her forward. Tanya seemed delighted as I gently zigged and zagged across. My own dance had vigor and specificity, a Staccato I’ve been searching for lately – a self I’ve been searching for lately –especially as my roles in the world become more complex and I step into more positions of leadership. When we were almost to the end, I signaled to another dancer to please take over and she got the message immediately. I ran back to the first side of the room and crossed again, on my own this time, in an individual anger dance, unselfconsciously ferocious, owning my power without insisting on it.
The next time across, I asked a mutual friend to join Tanya and me. We were just as wild, zigzagging across both in partnership and as a trio, and changing roles halfway across.
I’m sure I benefited much more than Tanya in this exchange, and remain grateful to her for her willingness, courage, and openness.
The next and final day of the workshop, when we greeted each other, Tanya took the time to say, “I feel seen.” I recalled my resolution following a Heartbeat workshop more than a decade before to return the favor of Tanya’s clear-seeing when I had felt painfully unseen by one dancer, but seen by Tanya.
I don’t know if she meant specifically seen by me, but however she meant it, I looked at length into her light eyes and my heart flooded up. So many of the lessons Tanya teaches me are the ones that we already know deep down but conventionally forget, such as the fact that one of the deepest human needs is to feel seen, and that one of the greatest gifts we can offer is to see each other.
“Do you have any advice for new dancers?” I asked as our interview drew to a close.
“Have fun! Try not to take yourself too seriously and don’t worry if you don’t ‘get it’ at first. I tried to read one of Gabrielle Roth’s books in the beginning and I didn’t understand it. I couldn’t really hear what the teachers were saying at first, either. I’m very kinaesthetic; I learn through the body. I had to practice before I could get it intellectually.”
“And do you have advice for experienced dancers?
“Same thing! And also keep your mind open, keep your eyes open, and don’t get fixed on a certain idea.”
The final question was, “In closing, do you have a favorite quote or passage from Gabrielle’s teachings?”
“Waves move in patterns. Patterns move in rhythms. A human being is just that – energy, waves, patterns, rhythms. Nothing more. Nothing less. A dance.”
by Meghan LeBorious, based on an interview with 5Rhythms teacher Tanya Goldman on May 27, 2018, and journal notes from 2008-2019.
Originally published in the 5Rhythms Tribe newsletter on April 16, 2019. Photographs courtesy of Tanya Goldman and Jonathan Horan.