“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.
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)
At Riis Park, the solitary birds are my first dance partners this morning. Before long, however, I join with an entire flock, soaring as they soar, holding my arms out wide, twisting in an arc as they move to the farthest edge of an orbit, sinking deep and looping one arm through the other as they change sides, rising suddenly and falling back into my edge, my feet grinding circles in the cold winter sand, covering vast distances on the deserted beach. Seeking solace and insight in these deeply troubling times, I planned this artwork performance—a ritual, of sorts—hoping to find some clues to show me the way forward.
Another place I go to seek solace and insight are 5Rhythms classes and workshops. Created by Gabrielle Roth in the 1980’s, 5Rhythms is a dance and movement meditation practice that embodies Gabrielle’s vision, “A body in motion will heal itself.” The five rhythms are Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness. Each rhythm has its own character, which becomes territory for endless experiments. To dance a wave is to pass through each of the 5Rhythms in sequence. In a typical two-hour class, we move through two waves. On first glance, a 5Rhythms room would probably just look like a wild dance club, but for most people it is also much more. For me, it is laboratory for life, encompassing psychological, emotional, philosophical, interpersonal and shamanic levels.
At a 5Rhythms class just a few days before the performance at Riis Park, 5Rhythms teacher Tammy Burstein says, “We don’t have to just be at a loss, because we have a map,” remarking that many people seem to be stepping into the class “still carrying a lot.” In having a map, we have the comfort of knowing that we have a way forward that doesn’t rely solely on our own initiative or motivation. This is particularly useful when we feel stuck or overwhelmed, as many, including myself, have felt for the last several months.
Waiting in line for the bathroom before class, a woman I had shared a dance with the week before says, “I love your dance. It is like you are always weaving, somehow.” I think she is talking about the way I move through the room, sharing dances, winding gestures inside the empty spaces, and following the currents caused by the many moving bodies. I introduce myself and smile, thanking her for the compliment and for the feedback.
Just two days later, I find myself weaving the air with my arms as I undertake the performance artwork at Jacob Riis National Seashore. I had been thinking of doing this performance for many months, but when I finally decide to actually do it, I have less than a week to prepare. I send an invite to a few close friends, but I send it late at night, just a few days before; and I anticipate that it might be just me and the photographer.
In frigid temperatures, my hair a taut flag in the caustic wind, I set up a wooden box as a table, a dozen glass bottles with corks, a pen, and a ream of paper—barely held in place by a jagged piece of brick. Then, I begin to move with the ocean birds as they appear in the sky. I watch them carefully, doing my best to revive the lost art of augury—an important ritual for several groups of ancients—divination, or fortune telling, by the flights of birds. I hoped to draw some meaning from the sky that might offer hope and direction in the coming months, especially since the political situation has grown increasingly worrisome of late.
Stepping into the 5Rhythms class a few minutes late, I do not start down on the floor, as is my usual custom, but instead stay on my feet and join the group in moving my attention slowly through different body parts, as led by the teacher. I find vibrant movement quickly, releasing the shoulders, releasing the spine and releasing the head’s weight, which cascade me into circular motion in the first rhythm of Flowing. Flowing is characterized by rounded, unending motion with a strong emphasis on the feet; and I move softly, with weight, the soles of my feet in in close contact with the floor.
Still engaging in the Body Parts exercise, we segue into the second rhythm of Staccato, and I begin to move around the room. Staccato is characterized by sharp, clear movements with an emphasis on the hips; and I sink low, my knees sharply bent, moving forward and back, my elbows forming pointed triangles and leading me into movement. Tammy suggests that we could make a choice to just let go of everything we are carrying. I stop thinking of things outside of the dance and step into many successive, brief partnerships. Wondering if she perhaps prefers to be left alone, I nonetheless join with a friend who often favors the periphery. As I move toward her, she smiles and steps forward to dance with me. Another friend joins us, seeming to boing upward as he approaches, then twisting and weaving around us. We both become even more activated, the three of us moving in an elastic matrix, swapping places and moving around the edge of our small group, and taking turns moving through the middle.
The third rhythm of Chaos and the fourth rhythm of Lyrical reveal the miracle of being totally unique and totally universal, at once. I join with a woman in Lyrical with whom I have shared many dances of rolling shoulders and circling hips, each of us bending forward in turn as our shoulders descend and cross downward, losing eye contact, then rising again as the shoulder pulls back from blocking the jaw, smiling, and moving similarly around each other’s backs, always arriving again at smiling eye contact. This time we find new patterns—intricately-syncopated steps inside of steps—as a playful, remixed disco song booms from the powerful speakers.
I learned that the Ancient Roman augurs—the ritualists who read the flights of the birds for official purposes—would have had a great deal of say in who would lead Rome. If the signs were interpreted favorably, a king or emperor would be crowned—the origin of the word “inauguration.” It was believed that the birds transmitted the will of the Gods, and reflected the relative chaos or harmony of the larger cosmos. I wondered what would have happened if anyone read the birds’ flights on January 20, 2017; and if dire predictions would have mattered.
Total porousness comes a little easier after so many years of practice; and it’s been awhile since I’ve had the pleasure of being totally shattered as a result of feeling integrated into the collective field. In this case, during the fifth and final rhythm, Stillness, I move through the room gently, like breeze, passing through people’s energy fields and allowing them to pass through mine.
Again on the beach in the performance ritual, as words arise, I kneel in front of my little table and write down any phrases that come to mind. Then, I roll up the paper I have written on, push it into a glass bottle and cork it. It is very cold and I have to sustain vigorous movement, but I do this a dozen times, quickly, preparing the bottles that will be thrown into the sea at the conclusion of the ritual. Of my attempts at divination, one stands out:
“In times of fear,
Turn to community-
Fly in formation.”
The following week at class, the experience of having undergone the performance ritual with the birds works its way into my dance.
This time I begin with my body in full contact with the floor in the first rhythm of Flowing, moving in concentric circles in every direction, edgeless, finding tension at the most extended points to stretch my muscles, arcing through my side, shifting over the back of my head onto the spine, then back around. Still moving in concentric circles on the floor, I begin to move through the room, one leg reaching far behind me and pulling me into another level of circling. While rolling over the back of my head, I gaze up at the standing people around me, finding empty space as it opens up and moving into it, still on the floor.
I’ve been working with a therapist lately; and we begin each of our sessions with five minutes of movement. Recently, I started with my ear on the soft oriental carpet. Hums from the building became audible; and I heard two voices from the floor below in conversation. I thought of 5Rhythms teacher Kierra Foster-Ba, who has often said, “Just like any other animal, we receive a lot of information from the ground.” With my ear to the ground, literally, I felt like I could listen for danger, read the signs, and respond appropriately—engaging my primal instincts during a time when I might otherwise be tempted to rationalize the signs of danger to convince myself I am safe.
A recurring dream came up then, too. I am at Cape Cod in a rented cottage on a cliff by the sea with several members of my family. The ocean has receded by miles, exposing the sand beneath; and an eerie quiet had arisen. Although when I first had this dream I didn’t know the early signs of a tsunami, somehow I knew that a gigantic wave was about to erupt from the silence. Walking through the screen door, I plead with my mother and sister to leave with me, to flee to high ground. They decline, peacefully resigned. I get into a car and drive uphill, overtaken by complex emotions—a sharp desire to live, both grief and admiration for my mother and sister, and fear that the massive wave will overtake me.
On the way in to class, I feel annoyed and unreceptive. There is someone in attendance I always have a lot of mind chatter about, believing she is superficial for some reason that surely has little to do with her. But before long, the music hooks me and I am moving through the room. A dance version of Erykah Badu’s “On and On” offers me a Staccato door to enter through, and I step into multiple partnerships, moving low and backward, ratcheting different body parts, and articulating movements with precision and thoroughness.
Before dance that night, my seven-year-old son, Simon, uses the phrase “magical sweat” in relation to some wet socks that have surprised him by drying quickly. The phrase “magical sweat” repeats for me several times during the class, and particularly as Staccato gathers fire. As Staccato transitions into Chaos, I let loose, grateful for a reserve of easily available energy. My hair falls over my face and eyes as my head whirls freely, leading my entire body in spinning. I note the woman who I had judged as superficial dancing right next to me, and realize the smallness of my petty resentment. The truth is that we are all superficial to some extent, myself included. As I let go, I inwardly celebrate that she lets go, too, and move with many emphatic and wild dancers in close proximity.
In Lyrical and then in Stillness, I spin and leap in the center of the room, my wings held wide, recalling the movements of my many bird partners the week before. Several successive dancers join me in flight, each seamlessly integrating into my dance of sky, swooping and soaring very close to me, then spinning off into new partnerships.
Realizing that my feet will get wet when I go to the edge of the sea to throw in the bottles, I know I have to move quickly or risk frost bite. I make three trips, carrying several bottles at once, and toss the bottles into the waves. As soon as the last one hits the water, I sprint to put on my boots and winter jacket, considering the performance complete.
Regardless of whether the signs I have divined in any way foretell the future, and, too, regardless of the direction the map may or may not take me, I am grateful to have a map, grateful for a way forward, and grateful for the unlikely blessing of this life, this tiny glimmer that reflects the magnitude of infinity.
“Good hope is often beguiled by her own augury.” -Ovid
March 19, 2017, 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.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.
“There is only one of us here.” –Gabrielle Roth, creator of the 5Rhythms practice
Packed body-to-body with the many hundred thousand protesters who attended the Women’s March in NYC on Saturday, one friend led the way as we tried to squirm across 2nd Avenue to join our group on the other side. When I reached behind me for my other friend’s hand, someone squeezed my hand enthusiastically and I turned around to meet the shining eyes of a stranger, who continued to hold my hand lovingly for several seconds. This was the first time of many that I was moved to tears during the massively attended event. Then I took my friend’s hand and, holding onto the friend who was leading, continued to make my way through the dense crowd.
I was reminded of how proud I am to be a New Yorker as I joined with my city, witnessing inspiring humanity all around me: the “Angry Grannies” group, the spectacular hand-made signs including the one with a Dr. Seuss-style poem lampooning the new president, the handsome Russian-speaking man who carried a sign that said, “I am you. I fight for you,” the wearable sculpture with the raised-fist, black-power iconography of the Black Panther activists rendered in rainbow colors, the golden uterus hand tattoos of the Lady Parts Justice League, the signs reminding us of an American vision of social justice—though never perfectly manifested—an American vision every bit as real as the vision framed by the new administration. Even our mayor joined the event, carrying his own sign of protest.
Peter Fodera led Tammy Burstein’s Friday Night Waves class this week. I hadn’t realized that Tammy would be out of town, but sighed happily as I entered to see Peter at the teacher’s table. Tammy once shared publicly that when she first met Peter, he seemed like such an angel that she almost didn’t believe he was human. When The Moving Center organized a series of one-day workshops each on one of the 5Rhythms—Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness—Peter was, of course, called upon to teach the Flowing workshop.
Since the election, I have found comfort in the rhythm of Flowing. It reminds me of my formative experience of perfect love—when my father would sing to me and rock me in a special rocking chair. On several occasions I have felt resistance when the music shifted from Flowing into the next rhythm, Staccato. Analogously, during the week, I had trouble deciding which creative work to focus on, and what to do with my small ration of discretionary time. I had been finding and embracing pockets of joy wherever I could since the election, but the actual inauguration was a sobering reality. I listened to the new president’s speech in the car on the way to class and bellowed with grief. I was happy to see Peter because I was sure he would guide us in the grounding energy of Flowing, where I would find comfort and belonging.
To my surprise, Peter kept us in Flowing for just a brief period without any real earthy snuggle, then, in what seemed like a short time, he began to shift us into Flowing Staccato and into Staccato. I groaned inwardly as the music shifted. The majority of this hour-and-a-half long wave was spent in Staccato and in Chaos.
That week, I had entered a deep investigation of some chronic tension in my right shoulder with my therapist. Several images came up, including that the shoulder was a key player in how my body expresses fear and defensiveness. I also noticed that my right side was much less alive than my left side, and that my right foot seemed remote. My therapist said, “There was a different kind of movement today. Often, you move kind of like water in a container, close to the core, but today, there was something about the way you integrated your arms and raised them up that felt more expansive.”
The first wave gave me many chances to use the dance floor as a laboratory for this new physical information about my shoulder. I connected with a friend in Staccato who seems to be led by her shoulders, and I twisted and tumbled with her, letting my rolling shoulders pull me down and into motion. I also enjoyed a gentle staccato turn with a tall friend who rolls easily out into his extremities and inspires me to do the same, still noticing the role of the shoulders in my gestures. Next, I joined in an inspired Chaos with a friend of many years, remembering a time when the two of us let loose in the middle of a giant Chaos circle, amidst whoops and cheers. More than once, I encountered a new dancer who easily matched my high energy level, bounding, up on our toes, and twisting backward into the hips as Lyrical delighted us into beaming connection, my arms rising up from underneath, the shoulders as released as they can be at this time.
At the end of the class, Peter brought spoke briefly. I left with the message of a strong call to action, though I can’t remember his exact words. If even Peter, who seems to have an especially strong connection to Flowing, seemed to be urging us toward Staccato and toward action, well, I really have to take that in. Maybe I need to stop wallowing in the harsh reality of circumstances and get on with it. At some point, I have to pick a point to move toward, and commit myself to goals and the specific actions they require.
A close friend responded to my rhetorical question, “How to work with anger, and yet to act with love?” She sent copious resources, and though I found the resources helpful, I realized that many of us have been training for years in preparation for this very moment. I have a practice and a community that will carry me and that I have a responsibility to carry. It is only when things get hard that the integrity of practice is truly tested. Practice has become—now more than ever—an emotional, political, and spiritual imperative.
As we made our way to the march from the subway, I nudged my friends to notice an elder of advanced years, who sported a pink coat, the trademark pink pussycat hat, and a cane with a chair feature. I was moved by her participation, and, you will not be surprised to learn, found myself crying. During the day, I saw many other elders, who could not have had an easy time of being on foot for many hours in the huge crowds.
Standing in the solid-packed crowd for hours before the start of the Women’s March, I was grateful for the teachings of Flowing. Though I am just five feet tall and could not see beyond the bodies immediately thronging me, I felt fine about being so close. I enjoyed breathing the people around me in, though it kept bringing me to tears, touched as I was by so many images, overheard comments, and exchanges. It was a powerful antidote to Friday’s speech, which made me feel afraid, sad and angry.
Saturday after the march I sat talking politics for hours with a friend whose political leanings tend toward anarchy, grateful for the opportunity to discuss politics in depth with someone I both agree and disagree with. In her opinion, America has never been a functioning democracy. I see her point, but I am an American, too. My deeply committed, progressive parents who have worked for social justice causes throughout their lives are Americans, too. The thousands and thousands of beautiful humans of all colors, orientations, nationalities and abilities who stepped into the march on Saturday are all Americans, too. We are also America. I don’t think it is fair to call America a completely failed project.
On Sunday morning, I attended the Sweat Your Prayers class at the Joffrey Ballet, where today’s teacher, Jilsarah Moscowitz, wove in similar themes. As with Friday’s class, I was right on time, anticipating a long, patient Flowing. After some exploratory strolling, I lay on my back on the floor where I continued to tune in to my right shoulder. Before long, I moved into a curling matrix, pausing to arc from the side of my foot and up the rib cage into my extended arm, and to stretch in my hips, hamstrings, quadriceps, and in the fronts and backs of my shoulders. Continuing to moving in a patient swirl on the ground, rising occasionally from the back of my hips with my hands and feet still down, I began to make my way through the space, still on the floor. After a loop or more, I moved through the room on my feet, silently acknowledging every person in the space and saying internally, “I see you there; and I am grateful for it.”
Jilsarah gave us a tiny bit more time in Flowing than Peter had on Friday, but still moved us into Staccato much earlier than I wanted. One low, slow staccato song inspired me and I danced deep into the hips, pressing my backside far behind me, my shoulders forward, feet dragging and rising.
Jilsarah narrated as Stillness of the first wave transitioned into Flowing of the second wave. “Some say that we are in a time of Chaos. Gabrielle Roth, the creator of the 5Rhythms practice, said that Chaos is a combination of both Flowing and Staccato — the combination of masculine and feminine energies.” Although Gabrielle did not express this, Jilsarah indicated that we could experiment with Chaos as grounded action. She invited us to “add breath” to the rhythms as a way to express the purity of each rhythm. She said she hoped we might find a way to be both grounded—Flowing, and in action—Staccato, both on and off the dance floor.
In Chaos, I tipped sideways and lightly touched one of my favorite dance partners on the upper leg with the top of my foot, playfully inviting him to partner. Our exchange was marked by dramatic cross-overs, weirdly-timed stops, collapses, flings, bursts, keeling spins, top rocking, and even by rollicking, back-and-forth running motions. We laughed and laughed.
Lyrical was pure, weightless joy. It continues to amaze me that Lyrical is available no matter what. That deep acceptance is available even with the necessity for resistance. The Dalai Lama, for example, is downright mirthful despite the many traumatic events he has experienced. I moved in a flat plane, twittering up and sideways in my feet and hands, still opening the shoulders, letting air fill my underarms, flying, barely touching down.
I was at the march from 11am until about 4pm. Though I had no phone reception during the event, I learned that almost everyone I know in NYC was in attendance, that my father attended the Women’s March in Hartford, Connecticut, and that my mother attended the march in Sacramento, California, where she was on a work trip. The march went until at least 9pm, with fourteen city blocks packed solid with people called to action, streaming throughout the midtown Manhattan route for upwards of ten hours, with good humor, patience, righteous anger, and, too, with love—all the necessary ingredients for a true revolution, the one that must by necessity start from within, but must, by necessity, not stop there.
January 23, 2017, 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.
“Imagine the conversation we’d be having if we weren’t debating facts.” –Masha Gessen
“The impulse to normalize” was the subject of a radio interview I heard in the car on the way to class at the Joffrey in the West Village. In the interview, Masha Gessen, author of “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” encouraged the press to continue to report lies and inaccuracies, but at once to analyze language and missives for hidden intentions, and to include reporting on the deeper stories at play. In my mind, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, economic opportunism, and hatred should never be seen as normal.
These thoughts preoccupied me as I stepped in to the Sunday Sweat Your Prayers class, taught today by Mark Bonder. I began to move in looping circles, occasionally changing level or direction with a drop or rise of weight, absorbed in gentle movement, my entire body released before Mark even stepped into the room. One song brought me to the floor to stretch and move in continuing circles and arcs, then I was up again, continuing an endless, weighted spin.
During Flowing, Mark put on the Herbie Hancock version of Bob Dylan’s 1964 protest song, “Times They Are A’ Changin” with the female vocalist Lisa Hannigan. Her gentle voice broke my heart as I considered that in 1964, though there were many challenges and obstacles, times seemed to be changing for the better, at least in terms of prospects for oppressed communities. Now, in post-election 2016, times are again changing, though from my perspective, not for the better. I encountered a friend and remembered the powerful tide of emotion she expressed during a discussion at a spring workshop because of the outbreak of overt misogyny directed toward Hillary Clinton. Hugging each other softly and rocking from side to side, we both cried, understanding each other’s grief without any need for words.
According to the 5Rhythms Heartbeat Map that was created by Gabrielle Roth, the originator of the practice, each of the rhythms corresponds to a fundamental emotion. For example, Flowing corresponds with fear, and Chaos corresponds with sadness. For me, however, these two are reversed. In Chaos, I find relief from fear, the release of trapped emotions, and the expression of previously repressed energies—which might include grief. The sadness and grief that are intrinsic to human experience, or that occur in current events—both personal and collective—for me, that all finds its expression in Flowing.
Flowing—of the five rhythms, the rhythm that is perhaps most foreign to my nature—has been a solace for me lately. Once I begin to move in circles and feel my feet on the ground, I often move around the room, awash in humanity, floating in a sea of gestures. There is a brushing, touching kind of seeing-and-being-seen. It is not the direct, individual eye contact of Staccato, but rather the humble seeing-and-being-seen that drifts gently, letting in without judging, framing or resisting. I move patiently, saying to each person (whether I meet their eye or not) “I see you there; and I am grateful for it.”
When Staccato arrived, I groaned inwardly. Lately, I have not wanted to move into Staccato. My mind wants to argue, “Isn’t it enough to be alive now? To be moving and finding some small joy? Must I find direction on top of it all? Do I really have to act?” My yoga teacher yesterday delivered a staid, yet impassioned call to arms about the state of the union. In principle, I totally agree with her. Yet the fact is that I have no direction at the moment. At some point, I have to stop reeling and pick a point to move toward. In Staccato, the music featured big, clear beats, then some small skirmishes. I focused my attention and tried to step directly on the big beats—no small accomplishment, given my affinity for syncopation. I had a useful insight as a result: in addition to being expressive, bold and sometimes uptight, Staccato can be methodical.
In a culture where we are encouraged to live from the heart in a hallmark sense—to be bold in flashy gestures—the heartfulness of methodical action—of discipline—is often overlooked. In the last couple of weeks, I have been seriously considering quitting my current work and finding a way to earn a living as a healer. I very much want to be immersed in practice and in work of spirit. However, I realized within today’s Staccato dance that chucking everything and starting a new path wouldn’t necessarily be the most skillful way to follow my heart. In fact, in my current work I am very much a healer already. If I continue to water the seeds I have been planting, I will realize my dream within my existing context, without even having to defect from my profession.
Staccato, Chaos and Lyrical toggled back and forth in the first wave. I joined forces with a new friend and we leapt and flew, including dramatic stops, extensions and emphasis at the far edges of our gestures.
In Stillness, I drew inside. My eyes nearly shut, a litany of symbolic gestures arose. I imagined that I spun a thick cocoon around myself, then created an exit, stepped out of it, and left it on the floor. Revealed, exposed, I felt as though the Gods could fully see me, dancing in a light body, though I told myself that if I needed it, I could always re-gather the cocoon, which was laying close by on the floor.
In the second wave of the class, Chaos and Lyrical were braided together. A few days previous, in the elevator with a friend, we talked about the current political situation. “We’re fucked,” she said, trying to sound casual. I said, “Lately, whenever I have had a moment of Lyrical, of joy, amongst the Chaos, I’m like, ‘Wow! I’m actually happy! Let me just appreciate this!” I was delighted to find pockets of Lyrical even inside of intense, prolonged Chaos. At one point, Mark played a rollicking, jig-like song by the Swedish band Hedningarna and I soared, along with many others, sailing, flicking, fluttering—with every possible pattern of ball change, high up on my toes, then we moved back into heavy Chaos—clearly, the rhythm of our time, reflecting that the only thing that seems “normal” to me at the moment is the inevitability of Chaos.
December 4, 2016, Brooklyn, NYC
(Image of Bob Dylan on winning the Nobel Peace Prize from consequencesofsound.files.wordpress)
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.