Word Dance (Radical Summons)
The days leading up to the 2016 Word Dance workshop were exceptionally delightful. I went on something of a walkabout with my now-six-year-old son, Simon. He is in a lovely phase at the moment—cooperative, funny, insightful and affectionate—and I thoroughly enjoyed our time together, making a big loop to visit friends from Brooklyn to Tarrytown to Newburgh to Kingston, north to Burlington, Vermont, and then to my parents’ in Northern Connecticut. My parents had agreed to look after Simon Friday afternoon and Saturday while I was at the Word Dance workshop, then bring him back to Brooklyn Saturday night. While I was waiting for my mother to arrive to care for Simon so I could leave, I looked online to see if I had any outstanding parking tickets. I found several, including a “Bus Lane Violation”—something I had never heard of—for 115 dollars. My humor darkened. Simon said lightly, “Well, that’s how it is, Mommy. If you break the rules you have to take the consequences.” I had to admit that he was right, though I continued to feel disempowered and irresponsible.
Because I did not plan properly, there was a mix up about times. I did not set out until 4pm for a journey that typically takes over three hours. In this case, it took four hours. As it was, I did not arrive until 8pm at Paul Taylor Studio on Grand Street in Lower Manhattan, though Friday’s initial session of the Word Dance workshop had begun at 6pm.
In the car, I turned on myself, becoming extreme in my thinking. It started because I was angry with myself for not taking my own needs seriously and for not planning properly; and the trajectory continued to gather steam. Recalling it now, I can’t understand what all that suffering was all about. At the time, though, it just felt like misery.
February 19-21, the dates of the recent NYC Word Dance workshop, had been marked on my calendar for many months. The Word Dance workshop that was held in Brooklyn in 2014 by Jewel Mathieson—poet celebrated and beloved by Gabrielle Roth, the creator of the 5Rhythms practice—was very moving for me. This time, she was joined by Amber Ryan, another teacher who I hold in high regard.
(Note: To read what I wrote about the 2104 Word Dance workshop, visit http://wp.me/p4cEKe-N)
I stepped into the spacious studio long after dark. The room was lit by ropes of white lights tucked into the edges between the walls and floor, and by dimmed, ambient floods. Despite my late arrival, I paused to bow patiently as I stepped into the charged space of the room. The music indicated the rhythm of Stillness, but I found energetic movement, letting myself out of the gate, perhaps, after such a long press toward arrival. I continued to explore a dance that first arose at Paul Taylor studio during a previous workshop—on the floor, radial, turning in all directions with some part of me pinned down, often as my limbs marked a big circle around me. In addition, on my hands and spinning on one knee, I stepped my free foot as far as possible across behind me, taking me into yet another stretching and spinning circle.
The formal moving ended shortly, and we assembled in a semi circle. Arriving late, I still hadn’t entered fully into the construct of the workshop. Jewel performed her signature poem “We Have Come To Be Danced,” a primal, visceral rallying cry to the ragged depths of spirit. Then, a dancer named Nilaya came to the center of the floor to perform while Jewel read a selected poem. Nilaya moved with great energy. Even her facial expressions responded to Jewel’s words; and I admired her abandon. Nilaya was beautiful, undoubtedly, but I couldn’t understand why her dancing was a performance, and the rest of us dancing was just…well…dancing. Is she a “better” dancer than me? Than the others in attendance? Is she some kind of professional? If 5Rhythms isn’t about being a “good” dancer, then how could I make sense of this?
Soon, we were also invited to select one of Jewel’s poems from a bowl, then to move to it as Jewel read. For the last piece, having to do with Jewel’s experience of motherhood, Jewel invited all of the mothers in attendance to join Amber, who had selected the poem. I hesitated, perhaps wanting to remain in doubt, but let go of my questions and stepped forward, along with several others, moving quickly into Chaos. At the end, Jewel explained that she had had a dream of Nilaya “flying” to her words; and I let my questions dissolve. Sometimes I just have to respect the logic of dreams.
The session ended. Over the course of the weekend, I found myself wishing, again and again, that we had much more time. For example, in this case, I would have loved to dance a short wave to take in all I had witnessed and to let it out again.
I greeted Jewel and apologized profusely for arriving late. She generously complimented my work on this very blog. She couldn’t realize how much her kind words meant to me, as I have felt called recently to evaluate what, exactly, my intentions have been with this writing, and what, to the extent that I can know, this writing has meant in the world.
Because Simon was with my parents, I had plenty of time to linger. I offered to drive Jewel and Amber home since both were nearly on the way. Both teachers have given me considerable food for thought in the few years that I have known them—through public teachings, writings and conversation; and I felt blessed to have a few moments with them apart from the larger group.
In a conversation I had that night, I spoke of how much I love opportunities to express what comes up in 5Rhythms work as form—such as poetry, in this case. 5Rythms is so very ephemeral—necessarily so—as it leaves the ego little material to build with. But at the same time, there is so much form available! The person I was speaking with said, “Maybe sometimes it is OK to attach, if briefly, to let it find a form, to say, this is exactly who I am, right in this minute! This is me!” The world of pure energy, of total non-attachment beckons us, but the fact is that most of us are not pure energy. We are not Buddhas. We live mostly in the relative world, of red tape and emotional messes and mundane joys and pyrrhic victories and debt and defensiveness and tiny steps toward love.
As an artist, something I think about a lot is that when we make something external—when we give it a form—we can then respond to it. This now-externalized relationship to something previously only interior can be very fruitful. Creating form, especially in such close proximity to formal practice, runs the risk of ego-aggrandizement, but I wonder if we could see the forms we find as simply part of the spectacular arisings that comprise our humanity—the light show that is our life, the beautiful, dynamic display, arising from the primal everything.
I stayed up late reading and writing, and slept until the decadent hour of 9.30 AM—a rare treat. With plenty of time, I stepped out to get something to prepare for breakfast. Thinking I would light a candle and have a nice, long sit before I left the apartment, I suddenly realized it was 11AM; and that I was in danger of being late again! I collected myself quickly and headed to Paul Taylor Studio, arriving just five minutes before the noon start time.
I was one of the first to arrive on the dance floor, and took full advantage of all the space. First, I explored the perimeter. With my hands behind my head, I experimented with how I had to twist when I moved close to the wall to make space for my elbow. Further along the perimeter, I rubbed against the towering black velvet stage curtains, grounding myself in the pure sensation of the soft fabric on my skin—my exposed cheek and arm.
As others joined the dance floor, the wave carried me on top of it. First, I found the energetic, radial dance of the ground again. Before long, I was sailing around the room, enraptured, with the perfect amount of energy, no physical pain, and no self-abusive thoughts that persisted. I moved into empty space, making a conscious choice to see and feel everyone around me. I said internally, again and again, “I see you there, and I am grateful for it,” an adaptation from a practice taught by the Zen Monk Thich Nhat Hanh that I frequently employ.
People did not seem inclined to meet my eye as I moved around. I remembered that in the last Word Dance, too, it had seemed that people were less inclined to partner than usual. I wondered if this might be, in part, because we were more focused on the words taking shape in our minds than on our interactions. People seemed to keep getting seized by inspiration, then sitting down to write, then returning to dance. We were told to keep our books near the dance floor and that we could write at any time. Jewel also advised us to keep some part of our body in the dance, even when we were writing. At times, I wished for more partnership, but in this construct, dance was more like the warm-up—the deepest intimacy actually came later, in sharing our spoken words with each other.
I noted, as in the past workshop, that I was disinclined to leave the dance to write. You would think I would be thrilled about moving in and out of dance and writing, especially since they are so closely linked for me, but that wasn’t the case. In the Buddhist tradition I am trained in, we are taught to never pause meditation to write. If the words that come up during formal practice are important enough, they will always come back again after. During classes and workshops, I don’t write during the sessions. Often I make skeletal notes about what happened and what associations I had that evening or the next day, but the writing usually takes place 2-9 days after the events I describe.
Jewel and Amber gathered us for verbal teachings. Jewel requested that we offer something lasting “two seconds to two minutes.” She told us how Gabrielle used to have practitioners pick a word, then talk about it in front of the class—relating it to their personal experience—for two minutes. Noting the tenor of anxiety, Amber offered several preliminary practices to get us ready for this kind of sharing. Remarkably, I was nearly un-frightened, and instead felt eager and confident.
Although Jewel created the Word Dance construct and many people attended because they wanted to do the Word Dance work, it seemed that some of the participants had come because they had worked with Amber in the past and wanted to work with her again. Throughout the weekend, Amber endeavored quietly and diligently to support the work taking place in the room, both as the DJ and through selected exercises.
I hadn’t attended to writing at all during the opening wave on Saturday, but it was clear that some had already developed elaborate poems. I think I sort of misunderstood Jewel’s direction. It seemed like she was asking us to share a poem, but didn’t want to put too much pressure on us. Or to pick a word and talk about it? Like in the practice she had talked about with Gabrielle? I decided to work with two words I had randomly opened to in the dictionary, “radical” and “summons”. I was the fourth or fifth person to get up, and said, “My word is summons.” I paused, then said with quavering power, “At what point does the mandate of patience give way to the calling of destiny?”
The notes in my book that I had distilled this phrase from included, “patience balanced with wanting, drenched, moving toward.”
Remarkably, the phrase I offered planted the seed for what I would produce and share over the course of the weekend. This delights me, in retrospect, for some reason. I also notice that in some cases, conversations I’d shared with other practitioners came up in their writings; and I reflected on how very woven together we all are—bound in the fabric of our shared destiny—especially visible to us inside the beautiful construct of this workshop.
Tears swelled in me many times during the morning’s share. They are not mine to offer here and I must be discreet, but know that the stories, words and poems that came up were without exception compelling.
Jewel taught us many practices and writing tips over the course of the weekend. This barely scratches the surface of what she shared, but here is my own attempt to summarize her teachings and create a list of “Jewel’s Rules for Writing:”
- Always have your book available.
- Speak the words you are writing.
- Write from your heart.
- Dance before you write; and keep something moving even when you are writing.
- Find a gesture you can write from.
- Give your breath to whatever emotional field you are in.
(“The more emotion you give it, the more amplitude to carry it out!”)
- Don’t be satisfied with your first draft.
- Leave space on your page to add lines and edit.
- Don’t be afraid to be melodramatic.
- When you think you are lost, you are there.
After Saturday morning’s period of sharing words and receiving teachings, we took a break for lunch. I stayed in the studio, eating the lunch I had with me, then settling into a comfortable corner of the dance floor to write and reflect. A poem began to emerge, but I left it as soon as Amber started the music again, eagerly stepping into joyful movement, once again one of the first people to begin the wave.
Knowing that we would have another opportunity to share work, I complied when the wave concluded and everyone repaired to their chosen spot to write. This time, I wrote feverishly, pressing to get the words out even after we had been called on to begin the share.
Nearly every person stepped up to offer something; and the offerings were even more powerful this time, as themes and context for each person’s writing had by then begun to emerge. The practice of mindful listening is as important, if not more important, than what we offer when we stand up; and I worked hard to meet my responsibility of listening and seeing each person when it was their turn.
The energy and attention of the group grew and grew over the course of the weekend; and I felt a great surge when I stood up to offer my own poem—a notably dark exploration of my psyche and personal history.
(Note: you can read the poem at the end of this text.)
During a brief bathroom break, one practitioner took a moment to tell me that it was a shock to hear me speak. She said we had shared four or five workshops now; and this was the first time she had heard my voice. (That right there was interesting feedback! I can be such a know-it-all! I love to hear myself talk. I love the sound of my voice. Is it possible that something has shifted slightly?) She felt like there was a big difference between my speaking voice and how I seem on the dance floor. I said, “That is fascinating! I will have to contemplate that. Maybe there is some sort of a disjunction? What do you mean? Can you say more about that?” She said, “I don’t know how to say it. I guess I have to think about it a little!”
On Saturday evening I hadn’t lingered, as my parents were arriving with Simon. Because I left so quickly, I did not receive any feedback at all. That night I was unsure about what I had offered. Was it really skillful to take myself into such afflictive territory? Did I really want people who had never met me before to see me this way? Did I want to share this part of me with people who already knew and liked me? On Sunday, though, one woman went out of her way to acknowledge me during the first wave. She held tight to my hand, gazed into my eyes, and said “Goddess.” She thumped her hand over her heart and nodded. I was very moved by her gesture and by her insistence on communicating it. Others were kind enough to express their support over the course of the day. Though part of me understands that others’ approval must not be central to my need for expression, the support felt crucial to my process. Above all, I truly appreciated the non-rejection, even in the face of this ugly aspect of myself.
I danced Sunday morning’s wave with wild abandon. Still wishing for more partnership, I joined whoever might be receptive. I had given some thought to what I would share that afternoon, and had printed poems written during January and February of this year, along with one related poem from nearly twenty years ago. During the wave, I didn’t visit my writing book even once. Jewel explained that we would have one more chance to share something—from two seconds to two minutes of content—and that in this case we would be grouped with four other people, and would take turns enacting ritual theater gestures for each other’s pieces. Because I had attended the previous NYC Word Dance workshop, I was put forward as someone who could help explain the ritual theater work for our group, and I all-too-eagerly stepped into leadership.
I was not ready! I had no idea what to offer. I needed time! We were given the option to meet as a group and plan our skits before lunch, or to have lunch first, then gather with our groups to plan and rehearse. I argued for lunch first, and most of the group agreed and drifted off. One member of our group disagreed strongly. She very much wanted to meet first, then have lunch. I and one other group member offered to re-gather the group and rehearse her piece before breaking for lunch. Reluctantly, the offer was declined.
The woman who told me my voice surprised her paused me in the foyer and elaborated on her previous remark. “It is just like, in dance, you are so ready to hold your space.” She made a strong, closed fist gesture. “But in speaking, you are…well. You are, like, quiet. And thoughtful. It is like a totally different experience.”
On Sunday I had come prepared for long periods of sitting on the floor with a meditation cushion from home; and I posted myself up to review and prepare. I had several different options in mind, but finally settled on two poems—one from the distant past, and a related, new poem. I re-cast both several times, and timed and practiced my delivery for a few moments before internally declaring myself ready.
Our group had planned to work together from 3.00-3.30 in preparation for the presentations, which were to start at 3.30, but we didn’t succeed in gathering until 3.10. It was my idea to meet after lunch (mostly because I wasn’t ready), but I felt nervous when we were so slow to convene. I became staccato, urging us through the first two people’s rehearsals while watching the clock, fearing that I would be the one whose piece was neglected; and, too, fearing that we would all lose this chance to stand in our power and instead be fumbling on the “stage”. The member who wanted to meet before lunch pushed back hard, saying that she didn’t like to be rushed. I backed up but continued to watch the clock. When it was my turn to direct the other four, I recited, explaining the gestures I wanted them to take during key moments in my poems. Then, we moved quickly on to the next person. We were given an extra ten minutes of preparation time, and were able to prepare for each person’s piece. The group encouraged the slightly disgruntled person who had wanted to eat lunch after our rehearsal to set the presentation order, and we declared ourselves ready.
Amber and Jewel asked a few questions about the best way to set up for this final ritual, adjusting lights, music and audience placement. One member of our group who had been in the bathroom asked me where she was in our five-person lineup, and I quietly explained. The group member who had wanted to rehearse before lunch shushed me with an angry expression on her face, “Can you please be quiet so I can hear what she is saying?” I daggered her with my eyes, and allowed my mind to be briefly dragged into anger. Fortunately, the power of the room drew me back quickly, and though the sensation of anger lingered for a few moments, it did not hijack me.
At last, the first group rose and moved in front of the room’s biggest white wall while the rest of us sat at attention facing them. Again, each person’s offering was very moving. The room boomed with powerful words, raw presence, honesty, theatricality and intensity. The first group had practiced extensively and the transitions between each person’s piece were so seamless that it was almost like one integrated performance. I was moved to tears and even to jagged sobs again and again, my heart swelling up. I felt so close to everyone, and so deeply invested in each person’s process.
When it was our group’s turn, I did my best to support my group members and to stand in my own power. When it was my turn to step forward, I again felt the surge of power that comes from pushing myself past my comfort zone, and from stepping up in a room so saturated with presence and creative energy. My voice quivered a little, but I felt very comfortable with the spotlight, moving close to the audience. I said, “These are two poems in the key of Stillness. One written almost twenty years ago, another a recent fragment, with an image that has persisted again and again.”
My group members did not remember some of the gestures I had requested, but—at least from my perspective—it didn’t seem to matter that much. Though I was grateful to them, I was focused on the audience and nervous, so I barely noticed their part of the performance. As I finished and stepped back to support the last two pieces, my heart throbbed in my chest and adrenaline rushed into my legs. Within a minute or less, it passed, and I supported to the best of my ability, trying to remember the indicated gestures and intending to hold space with integrity.
Usually when each person in a big group shares an individual piece, the time begins to drag toward the end; but in this case, when we finished and everyone had presented, I looked around, wondering which group would go next, not realizing that we were already done. I was that captivated by the process and by the products people shared.
We moved very briefly, breaking the biggest rule of 5Rhythms by dancing and speaking at once, elated by the wave of creative work we had lived. Soon, we gathered into a final, seated closing circle. Jewel invited us to offer anything else that lingered. This final share featured few planned products, but many life stories, and many testimonials to the power of the 5Rhythms. Although wonderful friends sat on both sides of me, I didn’t even take in that they were there, as I was feeling totally part of the group, of the field of participation. I had sat down with some crumpled poems in hand, eager to speak my own words again, but realized that what was called for in the moment was a different way of witnessing, of knowing, of speaking. Thanks to the space created by Jewel and Amber, and to the teachings of Gabrielle Roth—who is my Buddha, the woman who opened the doors to everything—I was able to notice and to respond appropriately, gratefully.
“You listen me into speaking.” –Unknown Spectacular Human
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.
The un’s page of the dictionary surprised me.
It seems you can add “un” to just about anything
And come up with a legitimate word:
The mayor’s daughter,
I wanted so much to be bad, abject
(somehow I had tricked myself
into believing that was freedom,
affront to convention)
I piled on trauma
And added more trauma in trying to undo it
Fucking everyone around me
Secretly I craved love
But everything I did moved me
Further and further from it
More and more alcohol
More and more of everything
And soon, I moved in worlds more abject than I’d ever dreamed
Pierced, sharp, fierce,
I enjoyed a short reign as the queen of a small-city drug-addled rave scene,
Dancing more than I slept.
Flawed, damaged, broken
Afraid if I was gigantic it would cause harm.
I contained myself,
To the extent that I could
Patience has been an antidote to my defensiveness,
My flagrant temper, my hot ego, my edges.
Yes, patience has served me.
The beauty of quiet moments seeps in through all the cracks.
My now-dead teacher sought to turn us inside out,
Always asking us to dig deeper.
I have held myself back,
Afraid of me
Afraid that ego’s craving
Would cast me on treacherous rocks
At what point can I just unravel it back to clean
At what point, despite my many flaws,
Does the mandate of patience
Make way for the calling of destiny?
When do I cry out
I want it
I want it
I want it-
I want to be turned inside out
I want to stand in the full light of love
I want to be free
“100 Black Birds” (written sometime between 1997-2001, edited 2016)
Let me not flatten you out
For my own comfort, my love.
If you call yourself a morning person,
Then dance all night
I’ll not consider it defection.
An old pattern twitches in my mind,
Like birds pointed south.
I watch an airplane
As it threads through different layers of opacity
Moving from invisible to ghostly to clearly seen,
Then flickering again.
A hundred black birds
Swoop and arc as one
Their gesture, a huge trick kite.
I once saw their conductor,
A man with a huge swath of fabric
Dancing on the rooftop
A hungry ghost, an aching spector,
Directing the birds’ gestures.
I realize now that I dreamt him.
“Birds on a Foggy Morning” (2016-work in progress)
Leafless trees create a seamless arch over Eastern Parkway.
White fog weights heavily on top of them.
A flock of black birds circles in unison—
They are a group of little black shapes
When their bodies are flat to me,
And when they turn to complete the circle
Become thin black lines
And disappear into the flog,
Then re-appear as shapes,
Again and again.