Thoughts on Partnership in the 5Rhythms

For me the 5Rhythms has been an interpersonal laboratory, among many other things. 

This week in the “Spirit Drenched in Gold” 5Rhythms class, we’ll focus on the rhythm of Staccato, and the theme of Intention; and if it feels right, the invitation is to step into the room as an interpersonal laboratory, to investigate what is alive for each of us in partnership. I don’t know if it will be true for you, but for me, it has made a difference in my life both on and off the dance floor. 

Lately, some have been asking me about partnering in the 5Rhythms and I wanted to share a few ideas from my own embodied research.

For the first many years of my practice, partnership was a central area of inquiry. From the beginning, I was interested in dancing with others, and also knew I needed time when I wasn’t trying to relate to anyone else.

It might be interesting to note that I was in a very challenging committed relationship at this time with a lot of deeply entrenched patterns. As a result and because of previous layers of trauma, I had a lot of holding and oppression to work through in my body before I could even begin to connect with others–on the dance floor or off. I had been trying to hold myself together for so long, trying to avoid causing harm, trying to avoid setting a certain someone off, trying to keep myself under wraps. So at first I just had to collapse again and again and again and again, and twist and coil and work myself into the floor. 

After a few months of this, I started to look outward and be curious about what other dancers’ concerns were, what might be moving them. I started to pay attention to what part of the body was leading them, and to imagine what it would be like if I was led by that same part of the body. I started to find delight in the particulars of each body, and to play with mirroring, then making the movement something of my own. 

When people mirror me, sometimes I find an even deeper expression of whatever it is that I’m doing. Sometimes I notice something surprising. Sometimes we build something new together. (And sometimes I feel like they are making fun of me and might actually feel annoyed or angry.)

Personally, I love when the teacher says, “Take a partner.” The instruction is usually to turn to whoever is there, without overthinking or evaluating.

The instruction to partner tends to wake me right up and bring me into the moment, though I know that is not the case for everyone. In formally directed partnership, there is a lot to work with. Noticing if I feel pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral with a given partner. Noticing what stories come up. Testing my ability to be present and really see my partner. Considering to what degree my body believes they are seeing me. Imagining what it might be like to move in their body. Maybe finding something in how they are moving that I can experiment with, perhaps expanding my own range. 

And then the teacher says, “Change” and I’m either relieved, sad to leave them, or neutral, ready for the next interaction, turning in a new direction to whoever is there.

I love that it’s so clear. It’s easier for me to connect with this overt invitation to do so. It’s also easier to isolate the different variables and notice what’s arising for me than when I’m entering or leaving partnerships on my own.

When the teacher has not instructed us to be in partnership, partnership is still available, but there are a lot more variables. Both can lead to insight. 

From the beginning, I noticed there were some people I wanted to dance with, and some I did not want to dance with. Deciding to follow my intuition and not dance with some people freed up some of my power. I also found it empowering to dance with people I did want to dance with, again, following my intuition.

Just as interesting was deciding to stay when I felt repelled, or deciding to leave when I was feeling connected – in a way working against what felt comfortable and right. Sometimes this decision brought new insights about my own psychology. Sometimes this decision even brought new insights about the conditioned patterns I have habituated, in some cases to the point that they feel “intuitive.” Being willing to explore discomfort is just as important as learning to honor the instinctive self and move with intuition.

Both the decision to stay and the decision to leave can bring countless insights and can help us learn to discern between intuition and conditioning – a very important difference to investigate as practice deepens.

That said, there might be times when the body declares a given partnership emotionally unsafe. In those cases, it’s important to trust yourself and act on it with firm resolve. It’s also important to keep in mind that being willing to explore the uncomfortable does not include the requirement (or even the suggestion) that anyone allow inappropriate touch of any kind.

One time that I rarely like to partner is when I first enter a 5Rhythms room. I often say a ritual prayer and set an intention as I cross the threshold. I step in naked, with my soul exposed. At that moment, I don’t want a hug. I don’t want to answer “How are you?” I don’t want to relate to another’s gaze at all. I just want to step in with integrity, on my own terms.

When I first step into 5Rhythms practice, once I have bowed to the space and connected with the ground, I often move through the space, taking a moment to notice each person and silently saying, “I see you there; and I’m grateful for it” – adapted from a practice taught by the late Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn.

I don’t know if this qualifies as partnership. Perhaps there is a spectrum of partnership and this barely registers, but it is a way of connecting and seeing another. At this point, I sometimes make brief eye contact, but mostly keep my eyes lowered and soft. If someone seems very open, I might share a turn with them. If someone seems internal, I would move gently, keep my distance, keep my eyes lowered, and silently move through some form of acknowledgement.

In fact, whenever someone seems to be attending to their inner world, I try to move gently, but I don’t ignore them. For myself, at times I’ve moved with deep layers of myself and reality, and I might not seem receptive to dancing with another. Then if someone is really pushing into my experience it has been harmful. 

At other times, I’ve painfully isolated, painting myself into an energetic corner. Then I’ve been grateful when someone has been a little more assertive in connecting with me, while demonstrating that they don’t want to fix or change me but that they see me, even in sometimes-bitter pain. That has at times been healing for me. So I try to hold that possibility open when it feels right, doing my best to be sensitive, and carefully monitoring my own inner experiences, including my intentions, which, of course, can be mixed. In any engagement, I try my best to notice and to notice, and then to notice some more.

The thing about not fixing or changing people is really important. If I find that I’m trying to fix or change someone or their experience, rather than respecting where they are in their process, that’s a sign that my engagement is really about me and not about supporting them. I remind myself that I’m not practicing to prove anything about my own identity. That would be totally counterproductive.

On the contrary, I’m trying to peel back layers of identity and temporal stories so I can fully know reality. Partnership can detract from this purpose if I’m not carefully monitoring and examining my own intentions. Partnership can also support this purpose if I’m fully grounded in the mindfulness of Flowing, and am humble and curious.

The most common instruction to dancers when someone is crying or breaking down is to leave them alone to be in their process. And I’m 1000% on board with that. The freedom to express our emotions, even sometimes emotions that have been deeply buried in the body is critical for our self-healing and empowerment.

At this same time, there might be moments when to hold or be held can be life changing. I have had a very few experiences like this. One was with a beautiful young woman in a workshop. I had judgmentally dismissed her as bubbly, without deep wisdom or much to offer. In a dance of partnership, the quality of her presence shattered my heart, and she held me as I sobbed loudly, at length. I will never forget this experience. Tears spring up even as I write about it, well over a decade later.

Another time that comes to mind was when a friend, deep in her process, was crumpled into herself, crying piteously. Something told me to be close to her, and I wound up sitting behind her back, breathing with her, then wrapping my arms around her. This time, as I moved toward her and lowered myself to the ground, I used words, and asked quietly, “Is it ok if I’m here with you?” She nodded.

There are always exceptions. Having clear rules might be easiest, but in this world, in the 5Rhythms, we take responsibility for ourselves, and to some extent for the people around us and our communities. There aren’t clear rules in life either, much as we often wish there were.

There are guidelines and boundaries, teachings and prompts, but no one is going to tell us the exact rules, the steps, the checklist for waking up. That’s the expansive freedom many of us both crave and fear, and why it can be so frightening and complicated.

Occasionally someone goes into a full-on trauma response. If someone is shaking, and seems very afraid, this might be what is happening. In this case, it is important to not touch them, at all, as they are in a state of primal fear and might actually hurt you. 

The state will pass. It might be necessary and correct for it to arise so the practitioner can move through it. It might be appropriate to make sure the teacher is aware of what is happening. Another possible response is to sit a few feet away, without looking at them or touching them, and deeply embody the energy of Flowing, of connection to the ground. A nearby settled nervous system might be of some benefit. If others come over, you can say, “This person needs space. You can sit calmly with us, but please don’t touch them.” This is another time that language might actually be necessary, since it is an emergency. The state will eventually shift. 

It is always important to approach someone with the knowledge that they could potentially be in a state like this. I, myself, experienced a trauma response during a meditation retreat. It was terrifying, but I was supported skillfully by my teachers and facilitators and I moved through it, only able to integrate it after my nervous system had settled back down.

There are tiny moments of joyful partnership that live in my body. The time at a workshop at Martha Graham when I turned around and breathed someone in. Our forearms merged and we moved together in intimate connection for just a few short moments. Another time, on the last day of a five day workshop when another dancer and I swept, spontaneously and ceremoniously, onto the dance floor for our closing session, arm in arm. The time when my infant son was dancing on my shoulder and a 5Rhythms teacher played a song he recognized and he lit up with delight, wrapping his tiny arms around my neck and speeding up his quivery baby movements. A wild dance of chaotic abandon with ranging shifts and surprising turns with a friend who was my regular partner for many years, and the many times we would rush to each other and jump back into the dance we’d been having for years as soon as we spotted each other in the studio.

I’ve been dancing in partnership with my 12-year-old son, Simon, since before he was born. The times when I’ve felt the closest to him have been in dance; and we’ve explored our evolving relationship over the years inside the laboratory of dance–often getting insight into what is at play for us that isn’t as visible set inside our daily patterns.

There have also been times when I couldn’t partner. When I was locked into my own body, isolated, and lonely. There was a stretch that lasted almost two months when dance felt excruciating. The more isolated I felt, the more difficult it was to connect with anyone, and the more forced and unnatural partnership seemed. It was like I was carving a track of loneliness into my reality.

I can’t remember how it finally shifted, but remember that I started to pay attention to when partnership flowed easily and when it felt forced or unavailable.

One thing I notice is that if I step into the room with receptivity to different partners and experiences, and have a light touch, things go better. If I meet someone’s eye or move near them and they seem to quicken or orient toward me, we might share a turn, a gesture or even a dance. Sometimes one of us turns away, the dance dissolves, and we move on. Sometimes the other person is still there, and we continue to be in partnership. Sometimes I’ve even danced with a partner who was all the way across a crowded room, or even chased and followed a partner in lyrical delight throughout the entire space, sometimes even pulling other dancers into our game. 

Sometimes I feel the pull to move with my own inner experience, or to be in the collective field rather than in partnership. I might offer a gesture of gratitude to acknowledge what we’ve shared or just move on, moving in the river of practice.

Sometimes I start to feel the pull to move away once the dance gets deeper and I resist it. Sometimes I go with it. No matter what, I notice.

When I sense that someone wants to pull away from a dance with me, I notice whatever feelings come, and remind myself that it isn’t personal–that every one of us is in our own process in our own way and deserves the grace to move with their truth. 

It is interesting to notice if I am off-my-center looking for someone to partner with, roaming around the room. At these times, I have to ask myself what is my intention. The answer that comes back from my body is yet another thing to consider and work with. At other times, it’s interesting to notice if I’m very attached to being in my own private dance. And to consider my intention. Again, whatever comes back is food for thought.

There have been times when another dancer has not noticed my lack of receptivity and has continued to pursue partnership anyway, even if I have been literally backing away. This has at times enraged me. Once I remember moving into a dervish-like spin to try to get some space from someone, and he only seemed to consider it more of an invitation. Another time, an effusive dancer repeatedly entered my personal space, smiling and trying hard to make eye contact, even though I was feeling the need to be internal. It made me angry because it seemed like it wouldn’t even cross his mind that I might not be up for a dance at a given moment. I can’t imagine moving with that kind of entitlement, but I bet there are people I’ve interacted with who think exactly that way about me.

Given that consent is so important, it’s hard to explain why we don’t speak with words during the dance–to ask someone to dance with us or to accept or decline an invitation (except in extreme circumstances). In some ways, taking a break from language forces us to attune to each other and to our inner experiences in a way that may have been previously hidden by our accustomed noise. 

I’m still contemplating this, though. Maybe it’s something we should consider. Something in me wants to keep this boundary, but I haven’t yet determined if it’s because of intuition or habit. I will have to continue to move with it and notice what arises.

This week in class, we’ll focus on the rhythm of Staccato, and the theme of Intention; and if it feels right, the invitation is to step into the room as an interpersonal laboratory, to investigate what is alive for each of us in partnership. I don’t know if it will be true for you, but for me, it has made a difference in my life both on and off the dance floor. 

What else is there really? What really matters but doing everything we can to be here for our one precious, temporary dance? As Gabrielle Roth, the creator of the 5Rhythms, said, “If you don’t do your dance, who will?”

This blog is not sanctioned or produced by the 5Rhythms organization. Meghan LeBorious is a 5Rhythms teacher, meditator, artist, mother, and writer. She has been on the 5Rhythms dancing path since 2008.