I gave a little shudder as I stepped up onto the sprung dance floor at Martha Graham studio this weekend and gently eased my body down onto it, tears coming even in these first few moments.
I fell in love at “Heart’s Content,” the 5Rhythms Heartbeat workshop lead by Tammy Burstein at Martha Graham, this weekend. I’m not sure who I fell in love with exactly, but the answer that feels right is “with everyone.” Gabrielle Roth—the creator of the 5Rhythms practice—designed the Heartbeat Map as a way to describe and work specifically with the energy of the emotions. In the Heartbeat Map, each of the five rhythms are correlated to five of the strongest human emotions: fear, anger, sadness, joy and compassion. The weekend was an intensive investigation of how each of us relates to these different emotional states.
The first night began with a wave and also with a series of paired speaking exercises. The wave was, for me, characterized by happiness and freedom of movement. I stepped into several beautiful dances, but one in particular stands out—a bouncing, kinetic, shaking Chaos that I shared with a smiling friend. Because of its forgiving floor, Martha Graham is one of the few studios where I occasionally let myself leap straight up, an exclamation point on a whirling gesture. When we entered the speaking exercises and it was my turn to speak, the main theme was again joy, and also the stamina to sustain joy.
I shared that for the first several years of practice, I could scarcely relate to Lyrical—the rhythm associated with joy. When I practiced independently, I would move through Flowing, Staccato and Chaos, then very glancingly nod to Lyrical and to Stillness. I experienced Lyrical only in tiny glimpses—at times transported—but never really acknowledging my relationship to it. That all changed about a year ago, when the energy of Lyrical came into my experience with a sudden rush, and I began to develop confidence that I, too, like many I had admired, could walk in joy.
I got up to dance with my last speaking partner of the night, who, like me, had spoken from the depths of his heart. We soared, even moving together in a few big gestures throughout the room. My face hurt from smiling.
Stillness in the last wave of Friday night’s session found me very conscious of the pulses in my hands as I moved them slowly around myself, imagining I was healing places of energetic malady in my own physical field.
For the next session, Saturday morning, I was late. Over a half hour late. This was despite Tammy’s repeated requests during Friday’s opening session that everyone arrive early enough to start dancing right at noon. I was in pain as I waited for my parents, who had been delayed by traffic, to arrive so they could care for my six-year-old son, Simon. “What? What time does the GPS say?” I asked repeatedly, distracted from connecting with Simon on these few weekend moments we would share. In the meantime, Simon worked in his art studio, creating decorations for the front door. Remarkably, he created three drawings on small post-its, one for happy, one for sad, and one for mad. Then, he used a red marker to divide a large page into many separate boxes and drew many of the more subtle emotions that he could find images and language for. I had not shared with Simon that my weekend dance workshop would be about emotions, but somehow he managed to pull it from the air around me.
The wait continued. When my parents reported that they were close, I called a car service, as I doubted I would be able to park in the West Village on a Saturday. The car service arrived and waited for several minutes, then left with a skid since I still wasn’t ready to go. My parents finally arrived and I greeted them with strained affection, setting off down the block to try to hail a cab. Having no luck, I called another car (from a different car service) and returned to my stoop to wait. The dispatcher told me five minutes, but I waited, 10, 11, 12, 15…finally I was able to hail an unoccupied taxi.
I called to cancel the car service request and settled in for the taxi ride, trying to convince myself to shake it off. I was angry, but fighting it. I sent a text, “My parents were late and I am super late to the workshop. So upset and ashamed.” The response, “Ashamed? Go to your workshop and hold your head high. Get all that you can from it. Life happens. All is a learning tool.” Instead of trying to shake off being upset, I let it all in. I realized I was feeling sorry for myself, and, too, defensive. Then, I recalled Simon’s exquisite front door drawing installation of major and minor emotional states; and I realized that the teaching had actually been happening all along.
As I entered the studio, I made a gesture of apology to Tammy (who smiled warmly and continued to attend to the music), then, instead of stepping up onto the dance floor, this time I crawled up onto it, touching my forehead to the floor, prostrate. I sobbed quietly for a few moments, still feeling sorry for myself. The room was in Staccato as I entered; and, after a few flat footed gestures in Flowing, I, too, moved straight into Staccato. Here, I found a ferocious anger and a dance that was filled with edges and sharp angles. My repeated punctuation here was a gesture of sinking down into the hips—knees squared—and with a forced, hissing, open-mouthed exhalation, and clenched, raised fists. Chaos released me. Once again, I found uncontainable joy; and I partnered with everyone who was available to me as I soared around the room.
In a partnered exercise, we were asked to share what we were taught about the emotions. I blathered on about my parents, casting around for something with emotional charge. Sometimes these exercises can be cathartic, and a crucial insight will jump out of my mouth unexpectedly. Not so on this occasion. Later, reflecting, I was shocked at my omissions. How could I not mention the two relationships that for years dominated my emotional landscape and cost me, collectively, over 20 years of therapy? In those two important relationships, I learned distance from my own heart. I also learned how to walk on egg shells, in constant fear of the next attack.
The next wave unfurled. At its end I found myself in gentle contact with a dancer I have known for many years. Softly, we turned one another and turned around one another. Once again instructed to partner in speaking, we settled onto the floor facing each other. I gazed into his kind eyes—dark with a light blue ring around the edge of the iris—and he gazed into mine. Asked to speak to the question, “What do you fear?” his words moved me deeply. I, too, spoke of my fears, though I held back slightly for some reason.
Tammy gathered us and spoke about Staccato. Sometimes Staccato has the stigma of being officious, administrative, pushy. But on this day, Tammy talked about her love of New York City, of its creative life, of its heartfulness, of its staccato pulse. She has said on many occasions that she identifies most strongly with Staccato, and this time she said as she moved, rocking into her front foot and drawing back, “Even after all these years, I sort of have to rev myself up and back into Flowing.” This seemed like a perfect description to me. She talked about anger, too. She said, “To cut out anger is to cut out the heart,” and proposed that even anger has something to teach us.
I ate lunch in Hudson River Park alone. Leaving the studio building, one perfectly nice woman from the workshop fell into step beside me and began to make small talk. I felt non-verbal, attuned to the sacred, and a bit like I was tripping on acid. After we crossed the street to the park I said, “Have a nice lunch!” and walked to the left, then found a shady bench seat for myself. I ate the food I had packed and watched the heaving of the river’s waves, the shimmering edges as they rose up.
After lunch, we danced a short wave, then set upon an investigation of “No!” We were invited to partner, then each danced our personal version of, “No!” After each person’s dance, the other was told to share if they “believed” the dancer’s version of “No!” After my dance, my partner told me that she was convinced, and that it was a “very dynamic version of No.” For the second round, Tammy invited us to remove all of the tension, but do the same dance. This time, my partner said, “I was convinced this time, too. But this time it was like you were telling me your boundaries and inviting me not to hurt you.” For some reason, this touched a nerve and a ragged sob escaped me. This is something I have really been working on: how to create and maintain boundaries without aggression. Since my family is very symbiotic, this is a not a skill that comes naturally. After years of trying to rise to the occasion, I have finally set a healthy boundary with someone who has lacerated me again and again and again. I think I might have made a tiny bit of progress. After we each had two turns speaking and moving, my partner and I moved into a sinewy dance, with strong eye contact, approaches and retreats and a continued investigation of “No!” though as we moved it began to dissolve itself, moving into Chaos.
As we approached Chaos, I joined with another friend, echoing her swaying diagonals. I realized that I like to get very close if I can curl inside my partner, sometimes in a slow, furled spin, even in the throes of Chaos.
Tammy gathered us into a big circle and we took turns stepping into the middle, letting loose in Chaos, each seemingly responding to the question of anger in our own way. I was tired, but I had promised to dedicate a dance to someone close to me, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity, especially given that he is, at times, plagued with anger. I watched and supported my fellow dancers, then entered the inner circle, moving sincerely, but without inspiration. Moving back to the outside of the circle, I noticed that several people had not yet entered the center. I held back briefly, wanting to make space for them, then decided that I could simply let everyone be responsible for their own needs. On the third go, I found a gigantic dance that was almost demonic, with a fast flipping head and a massive range throughout the circle’s interior.
We explored a number of tribal exercises, when one person assumes a simple gesture and a group follows. I tend to lose interest during Tribal, but I tried to be a good sport and to open myself to the experiment. When we first transitioned, I was in a natural position relative to the dance floor and to the group to take the first lead, and I stepped up with only mild reluctance, finding a simple gesture that everyone easily followed. In the past, it was agonizingly difficult for me to pick one simple movement and I often blundered around at length, in complex syncopated maneuvers that no one could follow.
In another speaking exercise, we sat in a group and each person took a turn expressing what about anger they would like to transform. Someone took a breath to speak first, and I realized right away that I was the last one in the lineup. Tammy let us know when to change, but the second person went way over his time. The next person went over her time, too, and I got anxious, concerned that I might not have a turn to speak. When the second to last person was finished speaking, Tammy said, “Raise your hand if you need more time.” I raised my hand and said I had just started. I lost my train of thought and the group kindly helped me to re-gather it. I again returned to the theme of creating boundaries without aggression, realizing that “if I am confident about the boundary I am making, then I don’t have to be defensive or to police it. I can trust that it simply is, that no one can breach it without my collusion.” I realized that the grief I had about separation when I created a boundary with someone close to me had dissolved; and that I was not mad any more. I no longer needed to be furious to justify my position.
On Sunday, I arrived with time to spare. Although in the early afternoon we were immersed in the investigation of sorrow, for me the entire day was characterized by joy. At Tammy’s invitation to all of us, I sat back-to-back with a woman I had never met, and we moved together in Flowing. Then, we turned to face one another and each spoke to the question, “What moves you?” I was touched by her attention and by her words. We turned to listen to Tammy, then; and I assumed we would break for lunch. I was very hungry, and starting to get tired. I was shocked when I looked at the clock and realized we had only been dancing for two hours. Instead of sending us to lunch, Tammy set us off into another wave. This one started tiny, with the gentlest, released flowing head movements. Tammy skillfully guided us into the emotional energy of sadness, and many sobbed loudly. A few sobs moved through me, too, but as I rose slowly to my feet, I returned once again to the emotion of joy. I soared from partner to partner, as Tammy instructed us to “change” and “change again.”
I stepped up to a man I have been seeing around for some time, but had never spoken with. He was tall and athletic; and I nearly dismissed him because of it. I thought, “Ok, this guy must play a sport. I think it is something with his shoulders and diagonal movement. I am game. Let me get into this. I will swing my shoulders, too. This seems like his thing.” I sort of felt like I was humoring him. To my surprise and delight, the dance caught fire quickly and took off in several directions at once. I realized that I had totally underestimated his capacity. (This has nothing to do with any shortcoming of his, but rather with a prejudice of mine that I notice springs up around certain men.) Staring into one another’s eyes, we were suddenly very close, very connected, and very, very light. We bounded around an entire section of dance floor in loping circles, like we were figure skaters, sometimes in perfect unison, sometimes in opposite gestures. Lately, I have been finding a kick and direction change in the air, with gestures pulling strongly through my heel; and this movement repeated, in different combinations and cadences. We began to include touch in the dance, and moved around and behind each other, softly touching our forearms together and moving into looping arcs. There was a lot of creativity in the way our feet touched ground, in the leaning into each other, in the angles, in the pace changes, in the different levels we toggled through. I stood up to him gently. He led often, but I had input, too.
At one point the music shifted and I started to move away. He lingered and I realized I wanted to continue the dance, moving back toward him again. Moving from Lyrical into Stillness, our dance stayed just as beautiful, but it came back to ground, losing its bounce. We came into more contact.
Instructed to partner in speaking, we were invited to express our feelings about sorrow. I looked into this partner’s eyes, rapt with attention as he spoke. When it was my turn to speak, I barely touched on sorrow, but instead (again) spoke of joy. “I have always been very, very comfortable with sorrow, with grief. I have no problem with opening up to the sadness of the world. I have even—at times—danced the grief of spirits. For me, joy has been much more challenging. For ages, every time the music shifted into Lyrical, I would freak out. I would suddenly have an overwhelming compulsion to check my phone to make sure something terrible hadn’t happened to my small son.” I went on to say, “I also felt uncomfortable with joy, like being joyful was an affront to all the people suffering in the world.” And yet, here it was, this absolutely flowing river of joy. Drenching me completely.
I had a delightful lunch with this partner, watching the rise and fall of the shimmering river once again, and chatting mostly about our relationships to 5Rhythms practice.
Lunch passed quickly; and the final session was also very beautiful. I shared an unbridled, quivering dance with a friend. At one point, I played an invisible violin concerto, making fun of myself for my own melodramas. Later, I found a spot on the floor where I could move gently back and forth from strong sun to shadow; and I rocked between the two with my eyes closed. I also shared a playful dance with a friend who I had to step purposefully into and who pretended he was giving me the stiff arm, then walking away. I pushed against his hand in full suspension as he resisted; and we ended with laughing smiles.
At the end of the day, Tammy gathered us into a big circle, grounding the group’s energy. She offered closing remarks, then sent us back into the world, on our own to integrate the weekend in the coming days and weeks.
September 27, 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.