Notes on Practice: Rhythms in Waves Workshop (The Entire Universe Opens Up)

January 6, 2016 - Meghan LeBorious


The first night of Tammy Burstein’s “Rhythms in Waves” 5Rhythms workshop at the Paul Taylor Studio on the Lower East Side followed an extremely unpleasant day in my own small life. I stepped into the high-ceilinged rectangular room, with its clean, metal theatrical fixtures and foot-scuffed black floor and immediately collapsed, touching my forehead to the floor, grateful to enter the charged space of dance, and looking forward to three consecutive days of intentional moving—hoping it would provide me with some kind of antidote.

The premise of the workshop was that we would investigate not just the “pure” five rhythms: Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness; but also that we would also investigate each of the five rhythms as it is intersected by each of the other five rhythms. For example, a Flowing wave (in 5Rhythms, a “wave” is the thing that is created when we move through each of the five rhythms in sequence) might have the following sequence: Flowing, Flowing-Staccato, Flowing-Chaos, Flowing-Lyrical and Flowing-Stillness. A Lyrical wave might consist of Lyrical-Flowing, Lyrical-Staccato, Lyrical-Chaos, Lyrical and Lyrical-Stillness. If this sounds confusing, maybe we could just say that the workshop was about investigating each of the five rhythms and their many nuances.

During the first wave of the workshop, I felt happy and connected to everyone in the room. I noticed that there were many brand new dancers and wondered if that would affect the “depth” of my experience. Asked to partner, we were instructed to verbally share what rhythms felt comfortable and what rhythms felt uncomfortable for us. I said that nothing felt particularly uncomfortable, though I noted a hint of disengagement in Staccato. Tammy offered, “Where it is uncomfortable, that’s really the site of inquiry,” letting her words sink in as her gaze traveled among the dancers gathered on the floor around her.

I continued to find it difficult to connect with Staccato—the rhythm of expression, of linearity, of boundaries, of clarity, of the heart—in exercises devoted to its exploration, though felt at ease in every other rhythm. My mind offered me, “I think I need to repair my relationship with Staccato.”

On Friday, I loved being in Chaos. I noticed that I was especially in the mood for songs in the category of Chaos with grating, bass resistance that drew me toward the ground and inspired dragging, weighted gestures.   I danced with one of the brand new dancers and my questions about being in a workshop with so many new people dissolved. The new dancer and I entered into an ebullient Lyrical dance. I started with some of the gestures I have lately been investigating in Lyrical, then discovered some totally new ways to move, thanks to this wholehearted and enthusiastic partner. Next, I continued in Lyrical, stepping into a high-energy dance with an old friend, playing along with some of her favorite footwork that I have by now incorporated a version of into my own movement vocabulary.

We had tea. We danced another wave. This one ended with groups and repetitions, which I hated. We had to participate in a circle and each person had to offer a gesture the others would follow. I had a hard time picking a gesture when it was my turn. I was also resistant to some of the gestures offered by other dancers, and enacted some of them only reluctantly.

At the end of Friday’s final wave, we sat in pairs and were asked to take turns telling our own story of Chaos. I expressed that I had embraced and enjoyed Chaos during the evening’s work. I self-deprecated, saying “Maybe I just tend to be chaotic in my life,” then later circled around to my original statement, revising it, “I don’t know if it is that I am really so chaotic. I think I’m just really driven by creative energy. I hate structure. I hate the structures around me right now. I really just want to be immersed in creative work all the time.”

Saturday’s session began late. Most weekend workshops include a daytime session on Saturday, but in this case, due to scheduling constraints with the studio, Saturday’s session was from 5.15pm-10pm.

My five-year-old son, Simon, and I spent the day before the Saturday night session together. We set out to find a group of his friends in Prospect Park. Running late to begin with, we had a very difficult time finding the appointed place. As you may know, Prospect Park is big and rambling, and it can take a long time to get from one end to the other. The play area wasn’t on any version of the map, and I couldn’t figure out where to park. After much futile research, we took our best guess and headed into the park. We asked several people and no one knew what we were talking about. I was getting frustrated and feeling urgency, not wanting to let Simon down and fearing that his friends would have already gone home by the time we got there.

A gentle witness—an elderly woman on a park bench—inspired me to shift the frame. By then, Simon was getting upset, too, and I knelt down in front of him. “Listen, sweetheart,” I said. “I know we are having a hard time finding the play place. I’m getting frustrated, too. But I think we have to push the re-set button. We are in the park now. Let’s enjoy being in the park. We will still try to find our friends, but let’s decide we’re going to have fun no matter what.” We did shift, and as a result entered into a series of adventures and pleasant exchanges. We eventually found the visually discrete play area, which was tucked behind a wide field around some ancient trees that had fallen during a hurricane. Most people had already gone home, but Simon’s current favorite classmate was still there, and they were able to play together for nearly an hour.

Simon’s friend laughed when I used one of the many terms-of-endearment I have for him, “Pumpkin.” Walking back through the park, I asked him, “Simon, do you want me to not call you pumpkin around your friends any more?” “Mommy, you can call me that any time. You can even call me pumpkin in a big crowd of people and I won’t mind that at all!”

After an opening wave for Saturday’s session, in a formal discussion with a new dancer, I was asked to tell the story of my relationship to Flowing. I floundered about, beginning with, “If we really have no edges at all, no directionality, then Flowing is just air. There is nothing there.” This is a thought that has been with me for a long time now. Sometimes I feel like I need to apply just the tiniest bit of force so Flowing has responsiveness. This question is subtle and is not plaguing me, but it would be good to ask some teachers and practitioners to find out what others think. My partner offered me advice at that point, which was not in keeping with the construct; but I let it pass through me, neither leaning into it nor pushing it away.

Tammy proposed an exercise in which we partnered and alternated roles between “passivity” and “receptivity.” I stepped right into a dance with someone I find it hard to be receptive to, entering fully into the experiment regardless. “Passivity” felt uncomfortable—constrained, breathless, worried. “Receptivity” felt much more comfortable, but was difficult to enact, as I wanted to move toward and around my passive partner, which started to feel like crossing the line into Staccato, simply with the act of approaching. I noted with interest that I perceived that the passive partner was the one who drew the energy into himself, whereas the receptive partner inevitably seemed to move toward the passive one. I wondered about the implications of these insights for my relationships; and I absolutely loved moving back and forth between the two ends of this very particular continuum.

We moved in many different flavors of Flowing: Pure Flowing, Flowing-Staccato, Flowing-Chaos, Flowing-Lyrical and Flowing-Stillness. On this day, I particularly loved moving in Flowing-Chaos and found wild, uncontrolled spinning and dramatic, frozen suspensions.

We took a short break halfway through our Saturday night session. The producer had provided snacks and tea, which I gratefully gathered, then sat quietly in the massive bay windows facing a now-darkened Grand Street and the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge.

As we began the second wave of Saturday night—our Staccato wave—we entered into conscious inertia, the shadow of the rhythm of Flowing. I noted that I have a bias against inertia, and posed the question to myself, “Is there any positive aspect of inertia that I can let in?” I realized that inertia could be experienced as a kind of slow langor. At just that moment Tammy offered something about “moving in honey” into the microphone.

As we began to get into the Staccato part of the Staccato wave, my mind was deliberating on a work problem. I had a hard time shaking the inertia, as well. I had moments when I felt connected to myself and to the others in the room, but overall I wasn’t fully engaged and my energy was dipping. I remembered the previous day’s thought, “I need to repair my relationship to Staccato.” I reflected that my workplace structure causes me to suffer, and that I feel trapped and oppressed at the moment.

To explain a tribal exercise—when one person creates a simple gesture and a group of people follow it—Tammy pulled me forward to help her to demonstrate. She correctly read my resistance and called me out publicly, mimicking my gesture and naming it, saying, “That’s great! Do that again.” She was right. Tribal work is the least comfortable, least pleasant and least interesting category of 5Rhythms experiment to me at this time. Truthfully, I hate Tribal. Tammy explained that Tribal exercises are about learning to follow and learning to lead. Perhaps I have issues in these areas. I find it very hard to select one simple gesture when I am leading. It is like putting all my eggs in one basket. Choosing a favorite color. Flattening myself out to make myself easier for someone else to understand. When someone is leading, I grow bored easily with the many identical repetitions. I lose interest. I watch the clock. I also get irritated and don’t want to follow if I decide to believe that the person who is leading (and who I am following) is full of shit, for some reason.

Being enmeshed in a painful hierarchy at work might be a bigger factor than my inherent ability to lead or to follow. At any rate, I did my best. I felt no shame at being called out, nor at fumbling to find a gesture, but simply noted it. Tammy said we should each pause when we reached the other side of the room and turn to look at the phalanx of dancers moving toward us with our own created gesture and ask, “Did I create confusion or clarity?” My first go seemed to create confusion. The second go had more clarity to it, relatively speaking. Later in the workshop, when called to enter into another similar exercise, I willingly stepped up without hesitation, pushing myself, but feeling no less awkward or resistant.

Again and again the theme of needing to repair my relationship to Staccato emerged. To revamp my ability to create clean boundaries, untainted by aggression or insistence.

After the conclusion of Saturday’s final wave, we gathered briefly. One new dancer expressed that although she feels like she is very oriented toward Flowing in her life, she was surprised to discover that she could step right into Staccato on the dance floor. She wondered aloud if she might not also have the capacity to enact Staccato in her life. I love that next she asked Tammy if it is possible that dance could change how you are in life. I don’t think I could have formed a question like that in the very beginning! Such a very direct and staccato move, in fact. Tammy answered her sincerely, explaining that in her own experience, dance did just that. As things arose on the dance floor and she worked through them, she also started to change in her life off the dance floor. The new dancer seemed to like her answer, and nodded with a head-tilted look of concentration.

At the end of the session, I walked pensively to the car. Arriving home late, I did nothing but have a snack, make a few quick notes, and go to bed.

On Sunday, I headed to the Lower East Side with adequate time and no need to rush. Driving, I listened to a story on the radio that explored theories of the “multiverse,” a perspective that holds that time is not linear, as we often perceive it, but is instead curved and overlapping; and may in fact be occurring simultaneously in more than one dimension. According to the reporter, the multiverse did not start only with Einstein. The story traced the idea historically, beginning with a group of ancient Greek philosophers who believed that the entire cosmos was wiped out every 40,000 years or so, then every event, structure and being was exactly duplicated, and then enacted the exact same history until everything was wiped out again. And again. And again.

I stepped onto the dance floor quivering with awareness of the vast, unknowable cosmic mystery that is constantly unfolding around us. I lapped the room several times—exploring the perimeter, noticing things at the edges. As I write I realize that, too, when I was walking the perimeter of the dance floor, part of my intention was to help to create sacred space—a place where the false distinctions we inhabit can more easily dissolve to show us infinity and the fundamental truths of existence.

As Sunday’s wave opened, this time at noon, I found a totally new expression in Flowing. For months, I have been exploring a clock-like, radial, stuck-to-the-floor, folding-in-and-out-of-myself series of movements. Recently, these movements have gained lift and twist, becoming athletic and emphatic—with a strong influence of 80’s style breakdancing. On this Saturday, I also began to move back and forth from this radial series of gestures into a compressed, spinning little ball. Though we were just beginning the session, I was already sweating and breathing hard. It was almost like an interpretation of the early universe—when swirling dust began to coalesce as form—leading eventually to our earth and planets.

It is not uncommon to ask another dancer, “What are you working with lately in dance?” There is often a movement that presents repeatedly over a period of time. It might be a stuck memory working its way through. It might be an aspect of self that needs attention. It might be a hint of a different lifetime, or of a forgotten experience in this life. It might be a way of moving that simply feels correct at a given time. A movement itself might have something to teach us. As I write this text I ask myself, “Is there something this way of moving is trying to teach me?” My mind answers back, albeit cryptically, “As I learn to worship the ground, the entire universe opens up.”

Shortly after, I entered into an exercise in a group of three, in which we all experienced a shared event from our own point of view. The event involved one person dancing through each of the 5Rhythms in a wave and another moving in the rhythm of Chaos only. One of the trio members shared that witnessing the person in Chaos next to the person dancing an individual wave was like watching her younger self, when she danced huge all the time and felt very identified with Chaos. She also said something about “garbage” to get rid of. The other trio member shared that when one person in Chaos blazed with intensity she “Was like, enough already! Like if I had two kids and one had her ups-and-downs and the other was at maximum all the time, I would be like, that’s enough!” She also shared that she just wasn’t interested in dancing so hard any more. That it was just too much on her body.

I loved hearing their insights, but a little piece of me wanted to defend Chaos. Even as lately I have been more interested in investigating other rhythms, I note that I am still very identified with Chaos. I don’t think it is just about getting rid of garbage, but that, too, it can be about moving with full awareness in ever-changing, completely unpredictable circumstances. Groundlessness. Uncertainty. I think Chaos is a representation of the tangled, beautiful fucking mess of living—all that is in our exploding, relative reality. (And I love it for that. How do I love it for that!)

I noted with interest that while I was dancing an individual wave and another dancer was in Chaos with all the intensity she could muster, I had no problem with sharing space with her. At moments I felt concerned that she would exhaust herself, but, for myself, I was able to have my own experience. This was comforting to me, as I often fear that my sometimes-gigantic Chaos is just too much. I was happy to know that I was completely ok with offering space for another’s gigantic Chaos. It made me feel more at ease with myself, somehow. Maybe in letting myself be gigantic when it comes, I open the door for others to be gigantic when their time comes, too.

I circled back to Tammy’s guiding questions: What do the places we are comfortable have to teach us? What do the places we are uncomfortable have to teach us? I am very comfortable in Chaos and in the face of others’ Chaos. I am very happy within constant change. I love to be immersed in creative work. I love to be spontaneous, responsive, dynamic. The question of what the uncomfortable places have to teach me will have to be contemplated more over time. At this time, the rhythm of Staccato and tribal exercises seem to be the places that I find most abrasive.

We took over an hour for lunch on Sunday. I felt introverted, protective. I just wanted to be quiet and let the previous dances sink in. I ate the lunch I had prepared the night before, then settled into an edge of the dance floor to make a few notes and perhaps lay down discreetly in the dimmed room. Soaring birds in a big, curved pattern passed the light-filled high windows on one side of the studio when I happened to look up.

Unfortunately, one of the participants, who was also in the dimmed room, was listening to her headphones and began to sing loudly, a yoga-chanting type of number. I repaired to the area off the dance floor with the giant bay windows looking onto Grand Street. I sat next to an open pane, and unseasonably warm air, perhaps inspired by the El Nino current, drifted inside. Though it was just lunchtime, dusk was quickly approaching.

When the singing finally concluded I returned to the studio floor, leaning against a wall. I spent a few moments catching up with a friend, and found tears as I narrated my recent experiences, especially when I talked about work and the structures I am now immersed in.

In addition to dancing many waves during the workshop, the workshop itself followed the format of a larger wave, with early investigation of Flowing, then Staccato and Chaos. After lunch on Sunday, we moved into an investigation of Lyrical. I was weary, we were all weary, but somehow Lyrical still came through. I reveled in easy movement, smiling and connecting with many in the room. My hands caught fire, and then, too, my heart, burning a hole right through my chest to the back. My spirit entourage appeared, supporting me in every gesture as I moved intuitively, my hands still on fire.

This vision persisted through the workshop’s final investigation—of Stillness. I was so tired I left the room to eat a square of chocolate, hoping it would help to revive me, then returned to complete this final wave and to complete the larger wave of the workshop.

We ended in a semi-circle around an exquisite installation created specially for the workshop by Anahita Mekanik. It featured cantilevered ropes attached to the black velvet stage curtain behind it like flying buttresses, carefully selected texts, both ephemeral and weighed objects, and two graceful spirals, representing various aspects of each of the 5Rhythms—Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness.

Movement is my medium and my metaphor.  I know that if a wave of energy is allowed to complete itself, it yields a whole new wave, and in fact that is all I really know.” -Gabrielle Roth, Creator of the 5Rhythms

December 23, 2015, Brooklyn, NYC

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