Notes on Practice: Flying in Formation
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.Read more