February 16, 2014

It is nearly noon on Sunday, February 16th, the third day of a 5Rhythms Waves workshop, titled Light and Shadow, that I have been participating in. I sent Tammy Burstein, the teacher, a request for advice: should I come to the workshop in the name of sticking with practice, despite pain, or should I stay home in the name of self-care? She was quick to say that self-care should always win out; and that, in fact, self-care is a practice, itself. Consequently, I am in bed writing, with ice packs on my right upper leg that I hope will repair a bad muscle pull. I could barely move my body in bed this morning, never mind bear weight on the leg in question.

Uncharacteristically, I am not feeling sorry for myself, however, as the two days I did attend were satisfying and filled with insight.

Friday night I arrived a little late to the White Wave Dance studio in Dumbo, Brooklyn, parked directly in front, and entered quietly. I greeted friends tenderly, happy to see who was in attendance and to imagine the journey we would share over the next few days. After the first wave, we stood in a circle and introduced ourselves, and shared why we had come to the workshop. Several people said they were specifically interested in working with the theme of Light and Shadow, especially during the grueling month of February. I offered, “I’m here because I attend every single workshop that takes place in New York City that I possibly can attend. I’m also here because of Tammy. This practice has become such a big movement, now there are teachers trained by teachers trained by teachers, but Tammy worked very closely with Gabrielle, herself. She is just about as close to the source of these teachings as you can get; and it is a great honor to study with her.”

At the conclusion of the introductions, Tammy re-iterated some of the themes. She also mentioned my remarks, but, notably, glossed over my homage to her completely, and instead thanked me for bringing up Gabrielle Roth, the founder/discoverer of the 5Rhythms practice.

The rest of the night was a struggle for me. The gas heater was like a big, roaring dragon and I tried to avoid being in its line of sight. I couldn’t seem to get the breath I needed. It was like my diaphragm was contracted. It felt like what I imagine asthma feels like. I was able to move, somewhat, but felt disconnected and tired. In a dance of partnership, I couldn’t connect at all. Tammy used a mic to suggest that we all explore “near and far” and “connected and disconnected.” At the conclusion of the dance, we had a chance to talk with our partner about whether we felt near or far, and whether we felt connected or disconnected. We both agreed that we felt both far and disconnected.

I developed all sorts of theories about what was happening to me, but in the end they were all just stories. Even as I spun the stories out, sitting with a partner in structured talking and listening activities, I tried to convince myself I could accept what was happening, and then in the next breath went on trying to figure it out so I could fix it. Tammy’s instructions in every structured talking and listening activity were very clear, “Tell your partner or partners what physical sensations you are experiencing. Then, I will tell you when to change roles.” I struggled with these instructions, but kept setting the intention to return to simply describing physical sensations. I ended the night with my back on the floor, eyes closed, and my legs crossed and elevated onto one of the two big, rough wood columns that break up the open, black-box dance studio.

Saturday, by way of contrast, was a different story. We began with an opening wave, and Tammy’s skillful suggestions that lead us to the exploration of inertia, the shadow of Flowing.

I should provide context here: the theme of the workshop, Light and Shadow, along with Tammy’s workshop description, lead me to infer that this waves workshop would be concerned with each of the 5Rhthms-Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness; and in addition would consider the shadow aspect of each rhythm.

I don’t fully understand what the shadows are, but I will offer my current understanding. The shadow is the aspect of the rhythm that describes resistance to that rhythm. It can also be the un-manifested, un-aware version of a given rhythm, for example inertia is the shadow of Flowing, and tension is the shadow of Staccato. Each Rhythm has a shadow; and it is important to note that there is nothing negative or bad about the shadows; they are simply different aspects of the same fundamental energies.

In exploring intertia—resistance to movement—I quickly found that the intertia converted into pendulous momentum. I took off my sweater and moved it from hand to hand, imagining that it was very heavy, moving slowly in circular motion. I recalled an earlier time, when I spent several years dancing more than I slept at massive underground parties; and when I would imagine that my hands and feet were weighted as a bounced and spun with explosive force to heavily syncopated jungle-music rhythms and throbbing strobe lights. During this exploration of intertia, the music was slow and attenuated, yet I found easy access to motion.

As everyone else started to get up and move and the room started to come alive, I found myself emitting jagged sobs. I cannot tell you how grateful I felt that my body would let me move, and that breath came easily, in contrast to the night before. I thought about the reality that one day, some breath would be my last. And that every one breath is so precious, so freakin’ sacred. Every single breath connects us to every other being that has ever lived. Seriously. No wonder we hold our breath. It is mind-blowing, really. It is also significant that my mother-in-law, who I love dearly, is drawing her last breaths these days. I am sitting next to the phone waiting for updates right now, as she sits gasping and writhing in a hospice facility.

Yesterday morning, my mother-in-law was very much on my mind as we entered into what Tammy called a “breathing wave.” We started to alternate between shallow breath within inertia and full breath within Flowing. The contrast was notable. It was easy to tell who was in which of the two states, based on our bodies. It was such a relief to let breath in, and I stepped eagerly forward, sweeping into space with a grace I am not always possessed of.

We explored a similar contrast in Staccato, with “barely enough breath to stay alive,” then full breaths—even sometimes with very sharp, pointed exhalations. I actually liked some of the tense, coiled-up movements that came from the shallow breath, and found power in that space, but felt like I was on fire (in a good way) when I moved with sharp, forceful exhalations. For the first time, I found a way to relate with this particular kind of breathing that felt correct for me. I have always had the impression that when teachers demonstrate the sharp exhalations that can be part of Staccato, they seem to come on the down-step, when the foot or feet contact the floor. My relationship to rhythm is different, though, at least for now. For me, the sharp exhale might come even if my feet are in the air. Rhythm’s punctuation could land anywhere—the edge of rolling kick, the sudden change of the height of an elbow, or even a shift of the back of my head.

We had another conversation—this time with three other partners—in which we were instructed to describe the physical sensations we experienced during the breathing wave. Again, I struggled to stay with physical descriptions, and to avoid spinning off into supposed implications or theories.

Next, Tammy had us line up at the end of the room, and dance the length of the room in Staccato, along with one other person. “You are having a relationship here,” she instructed. She asked that two people who had done this before start off. J. and M. were specific, unabashed, fiery. I cried because they were so beautiful. Next, a different M. and I went. Our dance was very energetic and playful, in a way. The observers laughed at one point and I decided to believe they were laughing with us. I gasped for breath at the other side, wishing I had taken it a little more slowly, as I watched everyone else make the journey across the floor in partnership. I cried several more times as a result of something I can only describe as honest and vibrant that I was witnessing.

We danced to one song to process all of that—Earth, Wind and Fire’s Shooting Star—then, Instead of sitting to talk and process what happened, Tammy staccato-ly cut it off right at the end and sent us off for lunch. She also advised us to have a conversation with someone—to connect—during the lunch break.

I spent the first half of lunch alone, drinking tea, writing and gazing out the window of Brooklyn Roasting company at the drifting snowflakes, the veiled buildings across the river, the white sky, gliding seagulls, and a full city block of power transformers directly across from the dance studio.

After I returned from lunch, despite some reluctance, I set out to follow the directions and have a conversation. I looked around to find a good candidate. Tammy and Kiera, another 5Rhythms teacher, were deep in conversation on one side of the room, and Elyce was talking animatedly on her cel phone on another side. Everyone else was in a circle to the side of the dance floor near the door, so I sat down with them.

I started to speak with K. and B. The conversation began with K’s questions about B’s tattoos, and quickly shifted to philosophical matters. B, who is from Europe and looks more like a Barbie doll than anyone I’ve ever seen, talked about how she feels that everything we are supposed to do is already set—all we have to do is wake up and see it. I humored her, but thought to myself, here is this twenty-two year old who claims to have figured out the meaning of life. I don’t happen to think there is a master plan in that way, and considered explaining my own view. Some voice in my head thankfully interfered and said, “Listen. This could be your teacher. She could be your teacher.” Indeed, she is, as I later learned. The conversation turned to past lives, and B. told a compelling story about images encountered during a past life regression. Tammy started the music to let us know it was time to start dancing again. Usually, I am very serious about not talking during practice, but I just couldn’t stop talking this time. We moved to where our water bottles were placed, and another dancer, T, became part of the conversation as well, providing additional examples for the ideas we were sharing.

After a short warm-up, Tammy had us take a partner. I stopped in front a dancer named M, who I shared many wonderful dances with during my last workshop in December (see the very first blog post, which was about the Graceful Journey waves workshop). She asked one of us to raise a hand, and M. raised hers. Then, Tammy decided to model the activity. She told us to go into a soft chaos, demonstrating as she moved. Then, she stopped in front of me and asked, “Ok, go into chaos, Meghan. Do it!” I started out softly but as she narrated, I gathered steam. Tammy said, “She is like a wild animal that I can’t contain! She is going to be totally unpredictable!” And I was! “Oh, my God!” Tammy said with humor, as she moved, trying to contain me. I didn’t really understand the objective until a different T. asked a clarifying question, and Tammy said, “She’s going to be out of control and I’m going to try to contain her.”

I was intrigued by this activity. For me, I feel rebellious when a partner joins me in chaos, and tries to find a common rhythm or movement. I feel like they are trying to define me, control me, or somehow understand me in a limiting way. It is like someone wanting to know my favorite color so they know what color socks to get me for my birthday or something. My favorite color is always changing!

When M. first started to move, my way of controlling her was to offer a repetitive motion and intend for her to do the same motion. She started to move dynamically and I stuck with her, still unsure exactly of what to do. We switched roles, and she was much more direct and clear—no surprise, as I find her incredibly direct in every way. I began to move and she tried to contain me by holding her arms up and making her body firm. She didn’t seem too concerned if we touched each other. My dance got very lively. I would pause, then spring in another direction entirely, cagey, doing everything I could to avoid this imposition. The next time we switched partners, I “controlled” her more, using the way she approached the exercise with me; and she was wild, spinning, moving around the entire space.

The last experiment of the day was a shadow dance. Tammy explained that one person would be dance the 5Rhythms, the second person would shadow them by dancing the shadows of each of the rhythms. The third would be the observer. I was near two dancers, B (the same B from the earlier discussion about past lives) and N. We turned to face each other, and decided that in the first round, I would dance the 5Rhythms, B. would dance the shadows, and N. would be the observer.

Tammy started music and said, “Just start with moving your feet.” I fell into Flowing easily, and noticed that my pace was faster than everyone around me. B. danced inertia, staying mostly behind me. Next, the music started to transition to Staccato, and Tammy narrated through the transition. Still, B. danced behind me. I was full of fire, breath, activity. Sometimes I very much wanted to dance with the shadow—with my shadow, but I continued in my dance, sinking deeply into each rhythm as I currently understand it. The music began to shift into Chaos, and I was completely abandoned, spinning, leaping, going to the edges of balance and nearly tipping over. The music had a lyric that caught my attention: something like “where did we come from” that reminded me of my earlier conversation with B. about past lives. I started to cry, again with jagged sobs. At last, the music shifted to Lyrical, and Tammy told us to turn and face each other–the dancer and the shadow. This was such a beautiful moment—there was suddenly no separation, we were overlapped. Light and shadow merged. To me, it felt like we were dancing some kind of past life that we shared. Stillness opened again into a dynamic dance, and we found ourselves at the end on our knees, embracing. My face was buried in her hair, and I cried loudly, despite the many observers I couldn’t quite get out of my mind. I don’t have adequate words, but it was surely a powerful healing.

Next, B. danced the 5Rhythms and N. shadowed, while I observed. I kept my eyes on them saying to myself, “I see you there and I am grateful for it.” B. danced ferociously, totally engaged. At once, my mind kept trying to return to understand the dance I had just experienced. Next, I was the shadow for N. I tried to be present and to stay behind her, very much working myself into strain in the shadow of Staccato. My intention was to hold the space as well as I could, but I don’t know if I was successful or not.

At the end of the last shadow wave Tammy had everyone join together with a crowd-pleasing, rocking “Ride on the Peace Train.”

I spent the entire day inside, with the exception of one slow, hobbling trip to the corner store. In the end, the experience was complete. I am glad I decided to stay home today, and glad, too, I was able to attend the workshop for the two days that I did.

Tammy was curious about how I injured myself; and my first impulse was that it must have come from jumping too quickly through transitions and exploding into chaos. The teaching of the injury is that I need to slow down and be more aware in the transitions (in life and in dance). As I reflected, I remembered that I felt a slight pop when I was dragging myself around on the floor Saturday morning in inertia, and wondered if that might actually have been the source of injury. The teaching of that injury is that inertia can take up a tremendous amount of energy—sometimes even more than Chaos. I also note that I am quick to condemn myself for leaping with abandon into what comes next. Since the injury could have arisen at either point, I have decided to consider both stories my teacher and to take in the lessons of each to consider in my next dance and in the ongoing dance of my life.