I wasn’t sure if would attend today’s Sweat Your Prayers class or if I would practice yoga closer to home instead. When I learned that the class would be held at Martha Graham studio in the West Village, rather than at its usual home at the Joffrey, and that 5Rhythms teacher Ray Diaz would be leading, I decided to make the trek. At the last Sunday Sweat Your Prayers class that Ray taught, I was thoroughly transported, windswept to different dimensions, and I was eager to see where class might lead me today.
Parking on Bethune Street right in front of the Westbeth Arts Building, where the Martha Graham studio is located, I briefly considered bringing in the laundry detergent that I would need later in the day, wondering if the strident cold might cause the detergent to freeze as it had the last time I attempted to use it.
There was a short delay with letting people enter the 11th floor dance studio, and it had the effect of pooling water behind a damn before a high water release. One friend embraced me, picking me up off my feet and cracking my back enthusiastically as she shook me from side to side, her own pony tail bouncing animatedly. Many ebullient conversations intersected and wove together in the foyer space while we waited for the door to open, inviting us into the studio.
When the door opened, we streamed inside, lodging our bags and backpacks on the wooden bench by the west wall. I paused for a moment on the low floor before taking a breath and stepping up onto the much-beloved, forgiving, sprung dance floor. Then I moved through an energetic ritual to help me arrive, closing it with a low bow and moving into the wide room. I began to lightly drag my feet over the soft grey linoleum. The dance floor at Martha Graham is a shaped like a large square, with no columns or impediments of any kind in the middle. There are big industrial windows on the east and west sides, opening to a spacious vistas of New York City.
The big room was at maximum capacity; and I found a spot on the floor to luxuriate in circles, beginning to stretch and wind up. A cherished friend who I had spent meaningful time with the previous day appeared upside down in the frame of my vision as I stretched, and as I shifted to one leg and began to right myself, she knelt down and curved herself around my back, embracing me and laughing delightedly. I rubbed her forearm and her ankle, and made a sound like a contented baby, touching my cheek to her lower leg. Before long, my attenuated circles, sometimes expressing the maximum plane of my prone body, led me to move through the room.
A friend who I had greeted excitedly in the foyer with a twittering, shimmy-stepping “I’m-so-happy you’re-here-and-I-will-get-to-dance-with-you” dance crossed my path and we began to move together in Flowing. For some time I continued to engage from the floor, though he was upright, curling and rising up onto the back of my head, or up into my raised heel, curving and arcing. I have been exploring the limits of possibility with this friend for ten years now. For the first many years, we joined most often in Chaos, following each other in the most erratic and creative of patterns, then bursting into an entirely new expression, wordlessly supporting and encouraging one another to be wholehearted, free and wild. Today, for the first time ever, as I got to my feet, we joined in a soft version of Flowing, tiptoeing and placing our feet down with the utmost mindfulness as we crept in circles around each other. Before long, we began to trust that we had paid significant homage to the ground, and let ourselves lift off, in a booming and articulate Staccato, with leaping, marching, lateral gestures, and expressive elbows and upper arms. When the song shifted, he made a gesture like tipping a cup up to drink, and took his leave.
Noticing how much heat I had raised with the breath, I began to move throughout the space, joining with anyone who seemed open to it, testing out many different people’s movements for myself. I joined two friends and, observing the character of their dance, began to roll forward from the shoulders, moving my upper body in an angular plane, then moved to bouncing and coiling from the knees, dipping them sideways like a skier working moguls on challenging terrain.
In Chaos I let loose, occasionally slowing to Still Chaos as I passed through different pockets in the room, often ferocious, delighting in many brief partnerships. I let myself find edges, sometimes even awkward, clipped resistance; sometimes expansive and swirling. Occasionally, I would raise my rolling and released head to observe the room, breathing it in, this big energy, this surrender, this gorgeous, sweat-drenched ugliness that feeds me, that feeds the world.
In Lyrical I grazed my hands on the ground, sinking low, then glided and soared, sometimes slipping between the tiniest of openings between bodies, between knees, in the triangular spaces of curved elbows, above heads.
In Stillness I joined with three others, soft and porous. I saw sky and clouds beyond the ceiling, then the four of us grew large, rising to the level of the clouds. I let the bottoms of my feet go and soon we moved among the clouds. Cloud forms coalesced as castles, as dragons, as pathways, my second grade teacher, my son’s second grade teacher, an image from a film–the ever-shifting display, form and its opposite, dispersing again as mist, returning to formless space, my body boundless, extending far beyond its tiny edges, overlapping with everything.
Ray called us together, and I softly thanked this little group before moving away, nuzzling them and kissing fingertips, touching our foreheads together. On this day before the holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Ray rattled off his impressive bio. “I came to this country in 1974,” he began. “I’ve been earning six figures since I was 25 years old; and I’m in the 48% tax bracket…and yet I still come from a ‘shithole country.” This phrase, as most are well aware by now, is a direct quote from the current president of the United States, who, in the context of an immigration policy meeting this week, described Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries.”
Two days before, I had been taken apart in a conversation about code switching by a person of color. He challenged me to both act to end racism, and to be sure to act with precision and sensitivity. He also challenged me to get past my own ego so I would be able to see more clearly.
On the note of letting go of my ego constructions—even the positive and productive constructions I have created for myself—I thought about an incident that took place during a meditation retreat I was staffing several years ago. We were sitting on meditation cushions in a small group of perhaps ten people, engaged in a formal discussion. We were talking about aversion—the Buddhist concept of pushing away what is unpleasant or uncomfortable. In response to one of the comments about the aversive energetic shell humans create to keep ourselves safe, I said, “Well, you know. It would be one thing if shutting down or pushing away actually worked to make us happier or keep us safe. The thing is that it really doesn’t work. If it did I would be all for it, but it doesn’t.” I’m not exactly sure how it was framed, but I said something about, “It’s not like it’s the subway in the South Bronx at 2AM in the late 1980’s, when you might actually need a shell around you.” A flash of raw anger shot around the circle; and every single person felt it before even a word was said. One woman spoke up, expressing that she felt that what I said was racist. Man, that hurt. Shame of the most intense possible quality flooded me. My heart started beating like crazy. My partner of many years at the time was a black and latino man. We had shared hundreds of hours in discussion about racism, ranging through many different levels. Secretly, I had always been terrified that on some deep level I was actually a racist. Though I was afraid, I approached the woman during the next break and asked her to talk with me about her feelings. She was very receptive; and after, I understood how she could see my comment as racist. She also thanked me, saying that she was always calling people out for racist comments; and that I was the first person who had ever come and asked her to talk about it.
This terribly painful experience gave me great insight; and a rush of relief flooded me with another set of powerful chemicals. I realized I had been afraid that there was some essential part of me that was racist. Every other *essentialist part of my psyche had been rigorously interrogated, but this part remained hidden, obscured by shame and fear. I realized that just as there is no essential self; too, there is no essential racism. As I currently understand it, racism is a process—one that affects every single person who lives in this culture. Fundamentally, it is our flawed human tendency to separate the world into “us” and “them” that lays the foundation for racism, not an intrinsic hidden evil; though there is no denying the intensity and complexity of racism as it now functions.
It would be impossible to overstate the importance of this insight for my personal path. Even my firmly-held idea that I was a not-racist was limiting my perception of phenomena, and, as such, needed to be interrogated, as much as any other part of me, in the interest of uncovering the deepest truth.
Since Donald Trump was elected, I have been forced to reckon with my naïve underestimation of the power of white privilege.
I looked around the room as Ray spoke, and although I can’t necessarily know how people identify just by looking, it was apparent that a very small percentage of the class participants were people of color.
Before last November, on some level I believed in the fundamental vision of this country, that eventually, incrementally, everything would shake out fairly. I no longer hold that view. In the past two weeks, I have heard a white male conservative pundit and a white male country music singer speak on white privilege, phenomena I found heartening, though still small steps on the national reckoning we must undertake.
Ray shared that he had done a workshop with a movement teacher during which the participants had examined many documents from the Civil Rights Era. I thought of a historic photo of the lunch counter protests, of two activists seated at a lunch counter, totally surrounded by jeering white men, who were pouring food and drinks onto the heads of the protestors. These images are not symbolic. People were hurt and abused. Some went to prison. Some gave their lives.
In one of the photos Ray had examined with his teacher, there was a bearded white-seeming man who Ray had taken the time to research. It turns out that the man was Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a devoted Jewish Civil Rights activist. According to Ray, at one point, the Prime Minister of Israel asked Rabbi Heschel what he was doing, given the danger he was placing himself in. “I’m praying with my feet,” was his response, and he continued to walk resolutely forward.
Ray used this an example to demonstrate that racism is a human problem, not just a matter for people of color. Emotion rose through my throat, gasping upward in pockets of air.
The ebullience of the first wave gave way to subtle reverence, as Ray put on one of Dr. King’s famous speeches mixed with a dance track. Erratic gasps arose now and I made no effort to hide my tears. One woman who danced deep in her hips looked into my eyes, and it was not easy to return her gaze, as I felt raw and vulnerable. I continued to move through the room, but felt more private, energetically overlapping but psychologically contained, coping with the grief, fear, profound sadness, anxiety and anger that coursed up through me from the ground, a boiling geyser.
Ray also played a song with lyrics about how the measure of a country is how its women and girls are treated, then a closing song with a plaintive call to action.
Gabrielle Roth, the mother of 5Rhythms, believed that movement could heal us both individually and collectively. I think she would have approved of Rabbi Heschel’s explanation to the Israeli Prime Minister, “I’m praying with my feet.” As we enter this new year, there can be no question about the need for all of us to step up for justice and fairness, beginning first with what’s inside, but not stopping there. Let us all take a lesson from Ray and from Rabbi Heschel. Let us all pray with our feet!
*As you probably know, from the perspective of some Buddhist philosophy “essentialism” is the belief that there is a separate and definable “self” and too, implies that reality has some logical kind of coherence or definability.
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.
“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.
“Dance like this is your last dance,” Ray Diaz, who is teaching this morning’s Sweat Your Prayers class at the Joffrey in the West Village, tells us. “Because you never know when that last dance could be.”
Stepping in to the studio, the room is very full. People are sprawled all over the floor, beginning to stretch and unfurl. A little current of wind turns me right away, and I rise and fall, one hand touching ground the other reaching to sky, my shoulder rolling open and turning me in the opposite direction – big, weighted circles on the ground’s plane and on every diagonal, my head blissfully released.
Ray encourages us to move slowly and softly, and to begin to “fill up the inner reservoir.” I find a spot near the middle of the room and stretch to my full length, rolling over the back of my head, stretching my hips, leg muscles, pressing my chest down to stretch the front of my shoulder. Before long I am on my knees, with a raised leg that crosses behind me and drags me into a spin, sinking to the ground again, coming up onto my shoulder blade and using its momentum to pull back up into my hip and raise my heel high up behind me, undulating back again, and beginning to move toward rising.
Before class, I filled myself with inspiration. I listened to a Buddhist talk on stillness, that included the idea that although the positive behaviors and habits we cultivate are an important part of the path, ultimately, even these are a mask, and if we are to fully wake up, we have to let go of even these positive stories that we tell ourselves. In the morning also, I read some selected excerpts on Dzogchen, a spiritual system that emphasizes opening to bare, naked, luminous, absolute reality, on the spot. Here. Now.
Staccato’s appearance is unmistakable, and Ray encourages us to let go of the hips. The room is wild, expressive. I move around, connecting with many successive dancers, including my favorite dance partner of all time, who I circle in a twittering lasso, my hands grazing the ground as I greet him, entreating him to dance. After my first turn with him, I partner with a young woman who I haven’t seen before, and she teaches me a new way to engage my knees, opening possibilities for moving. “Go even deeper, with breath,” Ray offers. Next, I join with an exuberant dancer who seems to move from her inner thighs. I imagine that I am moving in her body, exchanging myself for her, exchanging self for other.
Chaos appears exactly when it should; and it is everything. Sometimes it is hard work for me to be in Flowing and leave the edges out. I am grateful to be in Chaos, where anything goes, and I can be as sharp as I want to be, as soft, as tense, as released, as gigantic, as minute. The room continues to be dynamic, with some people dancing in a given spot, and others moving quickly around the space. A thought comes and I say “thinking” and return to awareness, moving totally creatively and as part of the entire organism at once. I imagine that I remove my skin, hang it on one of the room’s center columns and dance around in my bones. The outer boundaries of me are not so clear, the other bodies might be my body, too. I dance my friend’s heart, feeling the pain of her heartbreaks, feeling her incredible tenderness, her magic, her power. Chaos and Lyrical dance back and forth with each other as the wave finds its closing expression. In Stillness, cold wind from the window causes a strong sensation on my exposed skin; and I turn to dance with it, beginning with the rocking and bouncing tree branches below the height of the window, then with the wind itself. Turning toward the room again, I move with inner winds that swirl around inside and near my body, especially along the sides of the spine.
After the first wave, Ray pauses us only briefly, not calling us to sit around him, but instead inviting us to stay where we are and just turn toward him for a moment. “We have to dance like this could be our last dance,” he says, “because you never know.” He goes on to say, “I’m going to share something with you. Almost exactly twelve years ago, I lost my wife.” He shares that this tragedy is what compelled him to step over the line into 5Rhythms. He goes on to say, “Hold nothing back. Just give it all you’ve got,” and “I invite you to dance, too, with those who are no longer with us.”
Ray appears to be in a place of humility and strength, of vulnerability and clarity, and capable of transmitting this clarion call, this urgent message, in a way that we can hear. Hold nothing back, his entire self communicates, hold nothing back, you have no time to lose, you might not get another chance to give more, to give better, to give fully, this could be your only chance.
I feel a gasp of sadness rise up into my throat and the woman next to me starts to sob. I don’t know her and I don’t want her to think I’m trying to fix her, but after a momentary hesitation, I reach out and put my hand behind her upper spine. She turns and hugs me, still shaking. She smiles through her tears, eyes shining, mouth closed, and puts her palm on my cheek.
I think of a work colleague who died this summer, young, in a car crash. In a circle discussion at work, we each had a chance to offer our thoughts. “If my time comes,” I said, “I only pray that I have emptied my whole self out. That I have been of service. That I have offered everything that I have in me to offer.” Breath snagged on something inside; and I cried for several aching heaves.
Ray starts the music again, and I check out for a few short moments, then say “thinking” and come back in. Energy flags slightly, I note slight inertia in Flowing. We glance through Staccato and then dive fully into Chaos again. “Release!” Ray cries out from the teacher’s table, and the room explodes. Chaos keeps going and going and going, rings of a tree, going back to its start as a sapling, as an acorn, when the tree was already contained in it. I connect with a dancer I’ve never seen before, delighted by her unique expression. I remember my maternal grandmother and cry, wishing I could have loved her better. I think of my paternal grandmother, who just died this past spring, and how she left in a whisper. Friends of similar age to me who have died come next. My friend Gerard, who died at 36, tells me again, you just have to do it, Meg, just open up, step up, let it in, you don’t need anything but what you already have. Howard, another dear friend, who died just a few weeks before Gerard also comes to mind. When I got the phone call about Howard’s death, I was with my son Simon, then an infant, dancing to the flights of birds from a rooftop pigeon coop who swoop in a rolling loop over Wythe Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, while Simon watched me from his stroller, the reflections of clouds rushing over the planes of my eyes, my arms raised and turning all of the planes of me.
As I move through the room, the energetic bodies that extend beyond the skin pass through me.
The sky beckons me. I ache for it. I start to climb up over the ballet bar, but am sure it’s against the rules and withdraw my leg. A new friend seems to think I need help and holds my elbow, unwittingly encouraging me. I know I’m going to get into trouble, but I just have to. I mean I have to, so I climb up over the bar, through the window, onto the cold metal fire escape. I keep my feet planted and soar up into the sky. I think of the Dzogchen teaching of open sky, the principle of space, of unrestricted awareness. My movements are unmoored from intentionality, totally intuitive. Tears pour down my face, drawing around the curve of my chin and neck. I am barely visible, with my back to the bricks, my feet on the cold metal, but a member of the crew spies me and comes and says, “This is not safe. Sorry, but you have to come down from there.” I climb down into the room and continue to move, near the window, to the wind, the sky, with space. I move again throughout the room, whispering through, not separate. I find one dancer sitting in meditation, and lower myself down next to him. Thoughts come but awareness dominates. I reflect that I can wake up fully in this lifetime, that I am destined to, that all of us are. The room is luminous, bodies alive. Ray mixes a tonal track with a recording of Gabrielle Roth, the revered creator of the 5Rhythms practice, speaking. She says, we believe that if we keep dancing, over years and hundreds of dances, we can shed what doesn’t serve, we can let go of what no longer serves. Tears are a river down the whole front of me.
Ray brings us all into a circle that completely fills the spacious studio, and enacts a closing ritual that allows each person to be heard and seen, re-membered after having been shattered and scattered and taken apart during the course of this Sunday morning 5Rythms class.
If this was my last dance ever, I know that I stepped up with everything I had to give. What else is there, really? Nothing but boundless love, the cessation of all that blocks it, and the chances we are given to live it. Nothing but this tiny life and what we choose to fill it with. Ojala, gods-willing, let me choose well, let me not die wishing I hadn’t held back during my very last dance, let me empty out my whole heart first, in service and in love.
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher. Unedited Image “Riskall” copyright Meghan LeBorious
Daniela Peltekova, who moved from NYC to Los Angeles a year ago, taught the Sunday Sweat Your Prayers class at the Joffrey in the West Village today. For her, a homecoming, for me, an occasion of unbridled joy and unflagging engagement. I asked Henya, the class producer, “Daniela’s teaching today, right?” just as a friendly hand rubbed my back, which, it turned out, belonged to Daniela, who sort of waltzed into the studio wearing a long, red dress.
In part because I have been teaching mindfulness to teens, I have been reading “Mindfulness in Plain English” by Bhante Gunaratana. He writes that although at a high degree of attainment, compassion will arise spontaneously, for most of us we need to enact some intermediary steps, when we consciously cultivate compassion to help us along. He writes that resentment is by far our biggest relative impediment, and implies that we need to divest of resentment at all costs if we want to progress on our paths.
Stepping into the room, I move through a Tibetan practice, then offer, “May I be of service” and bow deeply, acknowledging the sacred space of the practice room. I take a slow lap around the room’s perimeter, carving around the piano, pausing by the teacher’s table to share a softer and more flowing hug with Daniela, then continuing my lap, carving around the speakers, and around the occasional edge-hugging bodies who are warming up slowly on the floor.
An installation has been created especially for the class. It includes a table draped with several shades of red fabric ranging from tomato to almost-purple red. There is also a large, red glass Buddha head, and several other sparkling red objects. Shambhala teacher Irini Rockwell has written extensively on the idea of the Five Buddha Families, including the idea that we each tend more toward one of the five. “Amitabha,” she writes, “the Buddha of the Padma family, is red and represents discriminating-awareness wisdom and its opposite, passion or grasping.”
A practice intention to rid myself of a difficult-to-extinguish thread of resentment began to form.
After my opening lap, I lowered myself to a spot on the floor to the left of Daniela’s table. A tonal version of the mantra of the sort-of-Tibetan-deity, Tara, pulls me into coiling motion as I circulate, extending the side of my body, stretching my ribs, grabbing my toes as I rise and turn around, stretching the big muscles of my upper legs. I sprawl out flat on the floor, both on my back and stomach as I continued to move through every spoke of a great wheel.
Not sure I was ready to let the ground be so far from my heart, I drew myself up to my feet with slight hesitation. A woman who has triggered resentment for me over the last few years danced exuberantly, taking up space. Resentment first snagged at a workshop, when the teacher invited us to partner and I joined with the man closest to me. We began to move together, but this woman very boldly stepped sideways right between us, facing him and casting her hand up, her back to me, seeming to totally disregard me. I felt annoyed, but moved away and found a new partner, enjoying an overall delightful workshop. In the years that have followed, though, whenever I see her, I remember that experience, and I just can’t be happy for her when she is exultant. I rehearse what I want to tell her about how she wronged me. I notice her in the room. It is a perfect manifestation of resentment, that harms no one but me. Intellectually, I know that resentment doesn’t give me more power, but some part of me still seems to believe that it does.
My mother-in-law used to tell an allegory about a churchgoer. The woman would say again and again on her knees, “Lord heavenly Father, please remove these hateful spider webs from my heart. Lord heavenly Father, please remove these hateful spider webs from my heart.” After years of this prayer, another churchgoer finally said to her, “Sister, I don’t know about all this praying about the spiderwebs. I think what you need to do is get that old spider out of your heart!”
The wave carried me along delightfully, delivering perfect energy. Moving with open, expressive hips and leading shoulders, I noticed the friend who had reminded me Daniela would be teaching this day. She was beaming, casting her arms behind her as she leaned deep forward, her released head keeping the beat, deep in her hips, too.
As we moved from Staccato to Chaos, I shared several brief dances, thinking I would dance with the whole room, then unexpectedly found myself in partnership. Another excellent friend, my favorite dance partner of all time, appeared as I was starting a swooping lap, and I leapt into movement with him. We were wild as Daniela mixed a track with a house club anthem from the 1990’s that I love. We were also totally available to each others’ surprises, extending and falling, wiggling and rolling energetically on the ground. He started to move around me in a circle, and I started to follow right behind him, laughing, changing direction abruptly to meet him face-to-face in his arc, then both of us spinning out, extending the space our dance took place in. I felt incredibly stable on my legs and feet for some reason, and did a lot of experiments with raising, twisting and engaging my knees, sometimes on one leg for long stretches, reaching my fingertips to the ground, my knee and leg up.
Soon, I found another friend, and we shared a subtle dance in Lyrical, carefully carving the air around us and tracing designs on the linoleum floor with our toe tips.
Instead of stopping everyone and sitting down between the first and second waves, as often happens in two-hour classes, Daniela kept us moving, speaking briefly as she moved among us, talking about “picking up the many pieces of ourselves” as we moved. I didn’t know how to relate to a few of the tracks in this middle transition, and engagement flagged slightly, but very soon I was swept away again by the second wave. I danced with the entire room, tunneling through avenues of legs, soaring and gliding into the spaces above and between.
The spider in my heart grew transparent, a white line drawing. I directly invoked the spirits and asked for help, not for getting rid of the spider webs, but for help with eradicating the spider completely forever, asking for an end to resentment, letting the dissolve and then realizing it needed a more dramatic gesture, and envisioning it being blasted instead.
In Lyrical of the second wave, I joined with another good friend, released, joyful, creative, digging into tiny details on the ground, and alternately extended in flight.
A rain of gold leaves came down, landing on the upward planes of me, then entering and filling the volume of my body, cancelling out the spider. I looked to their source and saw only vast, endless space and the glittering of falling blessings.
November 12, 2017
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher. (Images copyright Meghan LeBorious, 2007)
“Moving with the spirit has taught me all I know.” -Gabrielle Roth
I didn’t have much time to contemplate what I might experience when I signed up for “Journey into Trance,” a two-day workshop with Jonathon Horan, who is both an experienced 5Rhythms teacher and the current holder of the entire 5Rhythms lineage. Stepping out of the elevator onto the 5th floor at the Joffrey in the West Village, I happily greeted many friends and prepared to step in to the studio, bringing many ongoing narratives into the room with me. Right before I entered, I ran across Jonathan and embraced him in greeting. Immediately after, I wished I had been more discreet, thinking that he probably has people coming at him from all sides, and may not have actually wanted to be hugged. I let that go and moved across the threshold of the studio, feeling a knot of emotion in my throat, along with a rush of gratitude.
A few days before I’d had a conversation with my seven-year-old son Simon about the difference between brain and mind. The brain, I shared, is a thing in your head with complex electrical wiring to the rest of your body. The mind is your brain, but also stretches past just your own head. Because all that you think and perceive and experience is influenced by things outside of your body, you could say that your mind also includes everything that ever is or ever was. After that, he asked several profound questions about the nature of existence and consciousness. Then he said, “Mommy, can we still get that book to hold all my Pokemon cards?”
Another thing I carried into the studio was the experience of teaching Mindfulness to teens. I have been dabbling for several years now, but this is the first year it has become a significant part of my schedule. The technique I taught students this week was “First Thought,” when you watch for a thought, then when one appears, simply label it “thinking” and return to the object of meditation. My experiences with the students (and also some with the adults) crowded my mind, and I kept reviewing my inspirational speeches, past and future. Then, I would catch myself and say, “thinking” and return to the experience of feet, breath, body, rhythm. Truly, I gave myself few escapes this weekend. A fortunate thing, because it doesn’t seem like Jonathan would have accepted less.
I started most sessions with laps around the perimeter of the room. I felt like it helped me to arrive in the space. I also imagined I was helping to establish an energetic container. On my first lap, as I walked past the beautiful black-feather-themed visual presentation created by Martha Peabody Walker and Peter Fodera, I discreetly dipped my hand into a metal washtub of salt that was part of the installation, scooped up a small amount, and rubbed it onto the soles of my feet. Initially, I moved gently around the space, saying internally, “I see you there; and I am grateful for it,” as I encountered each person.
As the wave progressed, drenched with sweat and thirsty, I paused to drink water, facing out the 5th floor window onto Sixth Avenue. For the first time ever, I saw people high up on an outdoor walkway by the clocktower of the historic church across the street. Smiling, I raised my hand in greeting. One woman waved back, and nudged a man next to her, who did the same. Delighted, I continued to be strongly connected to everyone in the room, and also to the world outside the studio throughout the weekend, often picturing the sky on the other side of the ceiling, and occasionally, the curving, vast earth. Once in Stillness I sent energy from one hand to another, but it took a long route, traveling not just across my hands, but around the entire sphere of the earth to arrive in my other hand, creating a long, circular arc that I completed into a circle with my own body.
In this opening wave, I danced a ferocious Chaos. At times, I wasn’t sure which rhythm we were in. Lately, I have had work to do in Staccato, and have been deliberately holding myself in Staccato rather than charging on directly into Chaos. During “Journey into Trance” there were times that I suddenly realized we were already moving into Lyrical without ever having really let loose in Chaos. As a result, my neck was very sore the first day.
Continuing to reflect on my own students, who are mostly people of color, I thought also of the courage of people of color who are part of the 5Rhythms community. That week, I had led circle discussions about the events in Charlottesville. During the same week, a student in a different class spoke out hotly during a reading, “This is making me feel a certain type of way!” he said. “How are you feeling exactly?” I asked. He started to explain that a character’s remark seemed racist. A teacher, who identifies as white, like me, and who I share the class with, tried to talk him out of it. “Well, I have a neighbor who…” I let her talk for a few moments, then said, “You could definitely read that statement as racist.” “Thank you!” gasped another student. I thought about how many times I’ve been in full 5Rhythms rooms where there has been just one apparent person of color. I thought about how incredibly important diversity of all kinds is for the integrity and vitality of the 5Rhythms community. I thought, too, of the incredible courage of my fellow dancers. How despite the daily ravages of racism, how somehow many people of color have managed to step up to be courageous, surrendered and vulnerable, fully in the dance. And how remarkable and valuable that is. And how inspiring. A point of hope in this ugly world that seems to grow uglier daily.
We took a break in the late afternoon. I didn’t feel like socializing, and ate in the nearly empty studio. I made a few notes about the morning in my journal, then followed the suit of another dancer and sat in meditation with my back to a column. Then, I lay myself down and entered a chthonic, deep relaxation, falling into the floor, the earth and darkness. As people returned from the lunch break, they thundered by me with their pounding footsteps, but I continued to rest until the music started again.
Instead of leading us into a wave right away, Jonathan gathered us together and began to speak. He talked about Gabrielle Roth, the founder of the 5Rhythms, first. He said that witnessing her dance, she was so transparent and embodied, you could just cry looking at her. Gabrielle Roth was also Jonathan’s mother, and he spoke of growing up with her at spiritually radical Esalen Institute in California, then moving to New Jersey at the age of 7, where he felt out of place.
At this point, he switched from his own experience to ontology. He argued that we have all pretty much entered into a fool’s agreement, “That I won’t see you, and you won’t see me.” Why be half-hearted? He posited. Gabrielle, herself, was not a rule follower. Instead, she relentlessly sought what was real and true and beautiful. What I heard was, Wake up! Wake up! Your very life is at stake. I’m making it all sound funny because it is, but we don’t have time to languish in generalities. Let go of the many limiting ego stories that are stifling you. Life is passing so quickly. Before we know it, we will die. Jonathan said later, “After all, we may only live once.”
Next Jonathan invited us to consider the frame of “Journey into Trance” and reflected that trance might look differently for different people. He also suggested that we approach the weekend with curiosity and an attitude of spaciousness, accepting that some might need to roll around on the floor screaming, make odd noises, or act in other socially unacceptable ways.
After Jonathans’ talk, we began with simply walking around the space. We experimented with allowing ourselves to be led with our bellies, and then with allowing ourselves to be led by our heads. I noticed that I had a much lower center of gravity when the belly was leading, and that I felt like part of the collective field, as opposed to when the head was leading. Despite a sore neck, I danced a very athletic wave. Every time a thought arose, I said, “thinking” internally and returned to the physical experience of my body, finding endless new ways to move: big back steps, a new complication of low-weighted spinning with open shoulders moving my hands up and over me like coiling carnival rides, deep front and back movement in the pelvis and sacrum, sunken with my heels touching the backs of my knees and then stepping forward, my heart bursting open, then coiling my entire abdomen back inside, then bursting my heart forward again, sometimes continuing this arcing in the space in front of my spine, and through the hips and pelvis.
“Are you in or out?” Jonathan asked. “And if you’re out, can you come back in?”
At a moment when my energy dipped, I encountered a friend at the outer edge of the moving room. She, too, seemed tired, and somehow we fell into each other, quivering, shimmying, small, precise. We rolled inside discreet shoulders, cascading forward and back. Making oblique eye contact, we both smiled. Moving from our bellies, I recalled images of Fela Kuti’s many wives who accompanied him onstage, dancing with vibrancy, the rhythm of the body pouring out at the heart, with arcing, arching intensity.
At day’s end, I was thoroughly exhausted, and my neck was very painful. I recalled that not only had I perhaps not given myself fully over to Chaos, but also that Simon had woken up very early and put on a movie, which I half-watched along with him, my neck propped awkwardly onto pillows and twisted for the duration of the three-hour film. I darted out, making my way to the subway, where I made the happy discovery that I had a little bag of snack food in my bag, then spent several minutes trying to open it. Struggling, I finally resorted to attempting to pierce the bag with one of the sharper keys on my keyring, when I finally looked around. Just across from me on the same platform stood Jonathan, two blazing sapphires staring out of his face, his arms crossed over the railing, one forearm over the other, grinning and giving off sharp little glints of light.
My parents were in town to care for Simon, and I met up with all of them. I was too tired for intelligible conversation. I went to bed as soon as I got Simon organized, tucking a sheet onto the couch in the living room since my parents would sleep in my bed, and settling in as quickly as possible.
Saturday night I slept very deeply, and, miraculously, woke Sunday with no pain in my neck. I went to brunch with my family, then made my way back to the Joffrey for the second day of “Journey into Trance.” As I pushed open the glass door from Sixth Avenue into the Joffrey, Jonathan was entering too.
As the music started, I did a few laps of the perimeter, then found Flowing easily. I was gentle, small, with my arms close to my torso, totally fluid, slotted in among the many prone dancers, almost crying, connected to the entire field, not separate. Moving around the space, I did what I call “Passing Through Practice” where I sort of energetically whoosh through everyone and everything–even the columns–and let them all whoosh through me.
Jonathan spoke of a “deep inquiry into the interior self.” Listening carefully to the teacher’s talk is a practice itself, and every time my mind drifted, I directed it quickly back. “Are you in or out?” he asked again, “and can you know when you’re out? Can you stay in?” I rebelled internally, thinking it would be better not to grasp and push, and instead to just notice. But maybe this is a different level of practice, I thought, maybe it is possible to stay in the entire time. Maybe even all the time, on and off the dance floor. Jonathan also suggested that we experiment with “soft eyes” rather than direct gaze, to support the experiment of working with trance.
eHe also said to the group, “If I were you, I might have come in with resistance today after dancing like you danced yesterday.” I reflected that I have, in a way, encountered very little resistance to 5Rhythms over the years. Even when I am aware of how vulnerable I am, how torn to bits, how connected, how surrendered, how energetically porous, even when I have felt judged or left out–even at these times I am not late on purpose, I don’t lie to myself and blame others when I don’t feel good (even when I do), and I always step into each rhythm with the sincere willingness to fully bring it to bear. It is a curious thing. In other practices, such as yoga, I have encountered much more resistance. Sometimes the edge is razor sharp, though, and when I go very deep I may spend ensuing days feeling irritable or otherwise “off,” perhaps my ego’s desperate attempts to re-assert itself.
At one point, Jonathan said something about how ridiculous it is to pay attention to how you look in the mirror. Here, too, I rebelled, realizing I had been so intent on not looking in the mirror, that it had acquired the flavor of aversion. So I spent a little time right next to the mirror, turning to the side so I could fully examine the complicated sways and arcings of my stomach, lower back and pelvis.
After the talk, I glued my belly to the floor and moved with weight, pulling myself around with my arms and coiling spine. I pulled up onto my knees and set about finding as much movement in my spine as possible, my head forward and simply following and completing the many ratcheting, twisting and undulating gestures of the spine. I stayed deeply connected to myself as new forms arose in Staccato. At one point as we moved from Staccato into Chaos, I played with balance, staying on one foot, and swinging, bounding and descending with the other, looking for the farthest edges of balance.
I recalled that when I first started dancing, I pretty much always kept “soft eyes” as it seemed rude or intrusive to look straight at anyone. Back then, almost a decade ago now, I often stayed inside a heavy trance for the duration. For me, it became most intense during Chaos. I was kind of a trance junkie–craving that depth, that intensity, the shamanic glimpses, the sense that life is deeply meaningful, that “this” layer of reality is just a tiny piece of the picture. Then, I started to open my eyes more, literally. I found the ground, I met people’s gazes more directly, more often. I felt like instead of privileging transcendence, I was connecting with greater awareness to the world. Trance would still come in pockets, spirits would visit, ancestors would soothe me, visions would present, energy would move tangibly and visibly. But I never experienced the sustained trances that I did in the first two years of dancing again. To my surprise, “Journey into Trance” was, for me, an opportunity to re-integrate those early experiences, and to enter into other dimensions with the full support and protection of my spiritual community and teachers.
Call on your guides, your ancestors, your spirit animals, your lineages, Jonathan invited at one point. I spread my arms as wide as the room and grew very tall, regal, a great trailing cape rushing from my arms as I moved in sweeping ribbons through the space, my spirit entourage in a phalanx beside and behind me–my emotional support system, my protectors.
During this wave, I was very released in Chaos, unleashing a massive proliferation of forms, including everything, somehow, leaving nothing out. In Lyrical, I again moved through the room, passing through people and objects, feeling the whoosh of merging. In Stillness I had a vision of eyes on the palms of my hands. Even with my eyes shut, I could see everyone in the room, could see the sky through the ceiling, and could see inside of my own body and the interior bodies of people in the room.
Before Sunday’s break, Jonathan lead us in a guided meditation. Laying with my full back on the floor, my arms and legs extended, he spoke into the microphone, suggesting an image for the cessation of ego defenses. At its conclusion, I had to remind myself where I was.
I floated down the elevator, avoiding eye contact, not wanting to dissipate, not wanting to disperse. I went to a local health food store, and chose food as efficiently as possible, thinking that I would write after eating. Unfortunately, I had forgotten my journal on the bench in the locker room at the Joffrey, so I didn’t have any way to write. Instead, I listened to the most curious, avant-garde recording of two older women in a fascinating conversation about movie stars from the 1980’s that was playing on speakers in the dining area. Slowly, I realized there was also music playing. Then, I realized that only music was playing, and the conversation I was listening to was actually taking place in real time, between two women just a table away from me.
I thought of a story about a conversation between Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of the Shambhala Buddhist tradition, and His Holiness Dilgo Kyentse Rinpoche, who was the head of the Tibetan Nyingma lineage. As the story goes, the two friends were sitting in contented silence on a bench in a garden, enjoying a pleasant afternoon. After some time, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche pointed and said to the other, “They call that a tree!” at which point they both broke into peals of laughter, which went on for some time.
After lunch, Jonathan started us off with intentional self-care, guiding us as we massaged our necks. Most stood up for this, but I remained on the ground, sticking various parts of me to the floor emphatically. At this point, I moved around the room in Flowing, my eyes soft, saying, “I feel you there, and I am grateful for it,” rather than what I often say internally in Flowing, “I see you there, and I am grateful for it.” During this wave, I partnered less, turning more and more inside, “cruising the emptiness” as Jonathan said, quoting Gabrielle.
“What’s real, what’s true, what’s deep, what serves the big dance of love,” Jonathan chanted, ever suspicious of sanctimonious bullshit, calling out our egos stories, our feeble escapes, our neurotic self-making again and again. In Chaos, I moved with total engagement and energy, released, erased. I hung my skin onto a nail while I danced around in my skeleton, near a friend who always inspires me, both of us totally plugged in, but on different journeys. Moving into Lyrical, my bones glowed with ancient writing, light on every bone’s surface, the plane of my shoulder blade, the big femur bone of my leg, on every separate link of my spine. Then, a spirit visited me (or so I imagined). I remembered him from many years ago, when he came to dance and overlapped with me, weaving in and out of me as I swooned and tears poured down my cheeks, teaching me the Passing Through practice. This time we danced again, becoming one body and then separating, ending with swaying, my hands pressed to his hands.
Jonathan selected a soaring, tender song with the lyric, “There is a place I know. Only I can go there,” that I associate with the passing of his mother, the beloved Gabrielle Roth. A low, grazing groan of grief dragged out of me, a deep-bass lowing. I moved in a gesture that finds me nearly every time I am in Stillness, looking down, moving my hands slowly to the left, turning my body around, and felt I could see the origin of this gesture, many lifetimes ago, in a scene of trauma and destruction. I was a gigantic, swooping, flapping vulture, and the air displaced as I beat my wings. Still groaning, crying, breath totally moving me, not separate. Even as I gasped, every muscle echoed it.
Though I was totally lost in this place, I gently settled back in, like a feather landing.
At the end, my breath was rich and resonant. Like some ancient grief had cleared. In the coming days, I would experience the irritability and emotional volatility of an ego that feels seriously endangered after it has managed to step into the sky, into the vastness of experience, where its tiny stories are drowned out by the deafening hum of existence.
At the end of the day, I made to leave, still feeling private. I changed my mind and lingered for a little while, talking with several friends with whom I had shared gestures or insights. I made my way to Jonathan, remembering that my earlier hug might have been overkill, and stood with my hands in prayer, touching them to my forehead as I made a tiny bow, my eyes smiling. “Thank you. This has been so beautiful.” He gave me a generous hug and a kiss on the cheek.
The five-year anniversary of the death of Gabrielle Roth was just a few days after the “Journey into Trance” workshop. I hope we honored her memory this weekend. I hope we served her vision. I hope trance continues to unfold for all of us, in Jonathan’s words, inside this “cathedral of bones” this “wilderness of the heart.”
October 16, 2017, Brooklyn, NY
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher. Images are copyright Meghan LeBorious.
My close world is torn apart with natural disasters – hurricanes in Texas, and in Florida & the Caribbean, earthquake in Mexico – at the same time, it is a spectacular day in New York. Temperatures in the 70’s, low humidity, blue skies with the kinds of clouds that are easy to see as friendly animals or as elaborate castles. In the Sunday morning Sweat Your Prayers class at the Joffrey Ballet in the West Village, taught today by Jason Goodman, I held both realities.
I have been teaching high school students for the past few years and the beginning of the year makes me feel joyful. Meeting new students, I can’t wait to find out what they can do. I’m twittery, imaging all the great structures we will co-create, thinking about how to set things up for them, reviewing my inspiring speeches and clear explanations. Imagining all of us having fun together at the first dance. Having done this for a few years, I also know how much I will come to love them by the end of the year; and I can feel it already. I’m choked up in advance just thinking about it, even as I write.
At the same time, sadness and fear visit me. People all over are suffering terribly, in particular as a result of the hurricanes and earthquake. I keep feeling wracked by sadness. And I am afraid. As of late, the Christian concept of apocalypse no longer seems as far-fetched as I once believed. As a human community, we really don’t seem to be moving in a good direction.
There was a time when I wouldn’t have let myself have access to joy in the face of this suffering. I would have thought that feeling joy would be an affront to others’ pain. Now, I feel differently, though. I realize that if I am suffering too, I haven’t actually helped anyone. There are just more of us suffering.
Stepping in to the fourth floor dance studio, movement nuzzled me from all sides and I felt free and inspired. I delighted in the clear blue sky pouring in the windows, smiled to greet many friends, and found myself a spot on the floor. There, I moved in big, arcing circles, attenuating my body in long gestures to stretch at the same time, pulling my feet up to warm up my quadriceps along the floor, rolling over my shoulders and over the crown of my head.
I wore wide-legged pants with a tucked-in tank top, which allowed me a full range of motion, and that I exploited with every angle, level and gesture. Lately, I have a good relationship with Staccato, and I sunk deep into my hips, playing with rocking my pelvis and taking big backsteps – at times holding my leg up and rocking my knee forward and back before placing my foot emphatically on the floor, garnering tremendous momentum and force in the process. Jason spoke of the need for Staccato, sometimes for ferocious and sudden action, since staying in Flowing all of the time would, at minimum, mean we might get nothing done; and at maximum, might mean we fail to act to save our own life or the lives of the people we love. Sometimes we don’t have the luxury of a patient warm-up, instead when the situation calls for it, we have to step into Staccato instantly, as warriors, with all of the power and force that is required of us.
We seemed to spend more time in Chaos than in any other rhythm today. Jason spoke directly of the devastating hurricanes and earthquake; and also reflected on the tragedy of September 11th, 2001, which he, like me, personally witnessed. I recalled a class Jason taught in the same room just three days after the election of Donald Trump, when he also kept us in Chaos for song after song after song. I reflected on the words of my yoga teacher, Maria Cutrona, in the days after the election, “As painful as this may be, as hard as it may be to take, this is exactly what we have been practicing for over all of these years. This is it. Right now.”
The ultimate test of our practice is to keep moving even inside a swirling maelstrom of Chaos. To find a way to ride the Chaos so it doesn’t destroy us. As the rhythm of Chaos unfolded, I was often low, finding a growling thread of Staccato, realizing the need for action. Deep in my knees and hips, I held my arms cactus-like and rocked and cracked into my upper spine at great velocity. I joined two friends, including the very woman who brought me to a 5Rhythms class for the first time over ten years ago, and we leapt and twisted and spun, inspiring me into a whole new set of gestures and ways of working with weight and extension, every minute muscle of my feet steering me into unending expression. I moved around the room and joined with several others in sequence, including with a man I hadn’t seen before whose lyrical expression of Chaos softened me into joy.
This school year, I will be teaching mindfulness & meditation to nearly my entire school community, going into many different classrooms for 20 minutes each week. I thought about how I would introduce the work. “Dear Ones, this world is crazy,” I rehearsed in my head, “We have hurricanes, earthquakes, racism. Donald Trump. There is pretty much nothing in the external world around us that we can count on. Even if you are lucky enough to have a safe home, enough money, classrooms where you feel respected and valued. Even if you have all that stuff, at some point, you, too, are going to feel like the world is crazy. Because that’s what the world does. It’s always changing and throwing new stuff at us. Since the external world is so crazy and is constantly shifting and changing, we can’t rely on it for our sense of peace and safety. Our only hope is to develop our internal world, what’s inside, so that we have at least one place of refuge we can count on, that’s always available to us, regardless of our shifting circumstances.”
In the second wave, I grew slightly distracted as a result of rehearsing my speech in my head. I forced myself to return attention to my feet, telling myself my speech would all still be there later on, after it was no longer time to practice; and I moved around the room in Flowing. I met the blue-green eyes of a woman who was close to my own diminutive height and felt flooded with sadness, receiving, feeling the emotions around me. I noted that I had hunger pangs and put my hand to my lower stomach. My energy dipped slightly. Playful regardless, I knelt with my forehead down next to two friends who were back to back, and they inched their feet apart, delighting me by making a little bridge for me to crawl under. I squirmed to the other side of them, then pushed hard on the ball of my right foot, leaping high into the air and curving into emphatic motion like a cartoon wizard casting a lightning spell.
I had another wind during the closing gestures of the class. In Lyrical, I, like many others, swooped throughout the room, joining other dancers in brief partnerships. In Stillness, I keyed into tiny articulations of my coccyx and lower spine, closing my eyes and feeling the movement of energy throughout my body, moving my hands in space as these quiet modulations swept to my edges. Jason gathered us into a big circle where we continued to move in Stillness, ending at last with several deep, collective breaths.
At the end of the class, I chatted for a moment with an effusive, beaming first-time 5Rhythms dancer who I had helped to greet. Then, I spoke with a friend who had seemed interior during the class, and learned that many of her family members live in the southern part of Florida, where they were being pummeled by Hurricane Irma even as we spoke, her eyes pinched in pain, her shoulders raised, her tone incredulous.
September 10, 2017, Brooklyn, NYC
( First image: of St. Thomas after Hurricane Irma from nydailynews.com. Second image: nbcnews.com of Florida during Irma)