Word Dance Workshop

April 29, 2014

This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms organization or teacher.

Jewel Mathieson’s Word Dance 5Rhythms workshop this past weekend was a journey that I have few words for. This is ironic since I am usually brimming with words the second a workshop ends, eager to live it again in my narrative and to mine it for beauty, pain, intensity and insight.

Again, we were at the beautiful White Wave studio in Dumbo, Brooklyn. On Friday night, the teacher Kiera lead us through an opening wave. I kept trying to figure out who Jewel was. I had only seen cropped head shots of her, and it took me awhile to hone in on the right person. Eventually, there was no question who she was because she began to speak, with tremendous animation and very playful, confident authority. She introduced herself and said that 5Rhythms founder Gabrielle Roth’s drummer and friend, Tsonga of the valley—along with his son, Tsonga of the city—would be providing rhythm while she read some of her poems. She also invited us to move if we felt inclined as she shared her words.

This is one of the poems she read on Friday night:

We have come to be danced
Not the pretty dance
Not the pretty pretty, pick me, pick me dance
But the claw our way back into the belly
Of the sacred, sensual animal dance
The unhinged, unplugged, cat is out of its box dance
The holding the precious moment in the palms
Of our hands and feet dance.

We have come to be danced
Not the jiffy booby, shake your booty for him dance
But the wring the sadness from our skin dance
The blow the chip off our shoulder dance.
The slap the apology from our posture dance.

We have come to be danced
Not the monkey see, monkey do dance
One two dance like you
One two three, dance like me dance
but the grave robber, tomb stalker
Tearing scabs and scars open dance
The rub the rhythm raw against our soul dance.

We have come to be danced
Not the nice, invisible, self-conscious shuffle
But the matted hair flying, voodoo mama
Shaman shakin’ ancient bones dance
The strip us from our casings, return our wings
Sharpen our claws and tongues dance
The shed dead cells and slip into
The luminous skin of love dance.

We have come to be danced
Not the hold our breath and wallow in the shallow end of the floor dance
But the meeting of the trinity, the body breath and beat dance
The shout hallelujah from the top of our thighs dance
The mother may I?
Yes you may take 10 giant leaps dance
The olly olly oxen free free free dance
The everyone can come to our heaven dance.

We have come to be danced
Where the kingdom’s collide
In the cathedral of flesh
To burn back into the light
To unravel, to play, to fly, to pray
To root in skin sanctuary
We have come to be danced

WE HAVE COME.

This is no joke. Seriously. And she didn’t just read it, she performed. Guttural, moving every part of her body with emphasis, her long pony-tailed hair flying, even screaming at some points. I loved dancing to her words and to Tsonga’s rhythms. I felt wild, creative and explosive and found ways to move that I had never before investigated.

After Jewel read, she told us about her remarkable life, and talked about what she imagined for the weekend. She also told us that she would never actually stop the dancing for dedicated writing time, and that we should write whenever we wanted to. The drummers played a long, rocking groove. I experimented with dancing sometimes and writing sometimes, but didn’t feel like it was working well for me. It seemed like I was half-writing, half-dancing instead of doing both or either. I loved the music, but lost the thread of the groove, digressing occasionally into vague movements.

When I got tired or distracted, I was tempted to shift into writing; but I decided to resist this impulse. I set up a rule for myself that I would not use writing as a means to escape if I was feeling checked out of the dance. Instead, I would write only when inspiration or intuition moved me to, or when I was specific and connected to my dance. In effect, this meant that I spent very little time writing. When I felt inspired and specific, the last thing I wanted to do was to stop moving and write.

This was a bit of an affront. A good one! For many years, I have thought of myself as unusually driven by and connected to words. In this case, I was much less inclined to stop moving and write than my peers. This is a subtle point, and I don’t know if it narrates well, but an assumption about myself, a component of my schema for who I am, ceased to be valid.

The founder of Shambhala, a meditation tradition with Tibetan Buddhist origins, prohibited meditators from writing during practice time. I think he believed that we need to take time to rest in awareness, without trying to produce anything or understand anything. There are stories of Alan Ginsberg sneaking his notebook into the Shambhala shrine room, but Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of Shambhala, argued that if a thought is important, it will still be there when you are done meditating.

I think this train of thought was my brain’s way of mounting a half-hearted resistance to Jewel’s methods, though it did not last very long. Part of me is afraid that if I put too much pressure on a given poem, I will frighten away my muses. After Friday’s dance, I sat with a friend who listened patiently while I blathered on about this topic. He listened so carefully and with such strong attention, that I felt guilty for barking myself up a tree I knew was not valid. I ended our conversation with, “Yeah, but it is always good to stretch yourself and try on something new. You can always reject it later, right?”

Friday, I left tired. When I got home, I showered, just in case some lingering emotion my body was done with resided in the night’s sweat and needed to be washed away.

On Saturday morning, I had to attend a required training for work, so I arrived late. I think I may have missed some key instruction, but it did not feel jarring to step into the space or to join the dancers on the lovely, sprung wood floor at White Wave Studio.

I began to move right away, feeling creative and alert. I sensed Gabrielle amongst us, and decided to ask her for a message or a sign. Instantly, it was as though a big towrope was attached to the middle of my breastbone, and I was pulled in a straight line to the other side of the dance floor. I didn’t even look where I was going, but when I got there I found Jewel and another dancer (the same who was so patient and earnest when I barked up a ridiculous tree the night before). I decided to hold off on thinking about my dancer colleague, and to consider that Jewel might be an important teacher for me.

Saturday, Jewel’s focus was helping us to find images for our poetry; and to find key metaphors. People drifted in and out of dancing and writing, often pausing to stare into space. I noticed that it was harder than usual to connect with a partner, since most of us were involved in our individual, interior journeys.

I realized that I have a great deal of faith in my ability to find meaningful things to write about. In some ways, my concern is more what on earth to do with all of the material I have generated. A quick informal inventory: more than 200 volumes of journals, 1500 or more poems, two books, multiple novellas including a book written to my son while I was pregnant with him, short stories, essays, interviews. I also do an automatic writing practice about creative work that is now hundreds and hundreds of pages long. And that’s just a quick overview from memory.

Jewel shared that she often takes several months to write a poem. This made me think hard about my own poetry practice and what I want to get out of it. Each day I write a poem. Often they are very short. Some of them are beautiful, some are not.As yet, I have not gone back and edited any of them. I love the practice because it keeps me open to poetry all day, looking for key images that stand out. At this time, however, the quantity is overwhelming. They are all on paper, in journal books. I notice that lately, I have not been writing every day. I think I don’t want to add to a bigger backlog, as I keep wanting to get them from the notebooks onto the computer.

I love the daily-ness of it, the directness of it, the rawness of it. I also love the discipline of the practice. Each day, all I ask of myself is that I show up. Once I only wrote the word “poem.” Just as with dance, I have no control over what will happen once I am in it. The work of showing up complete—I can just relax and investigate whatever arises.

At this point, however, I think I would like to process the poems further. In fact, Jewel told us we would work on a poem over the weekend, and most people worked on one piece. I, on the other hand, was pulled all apart. I worked on one at length Saturday and wound up returning to the very first version.

We sat down in a circle to share at the end of the day, and I was reprimanded for not paying attention to the reader and instead looking through my little book for something to read. The truth was, I didn’t realize we would have a chance to share and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity for an audience. The end of the day totally snuck up on me. It was like all the little bits and pieces were separate things—I wanted them to be heard together but didn’t want to nail them down and force them to commit themselves to one poem. I was like an unabashed polygamist, unwilling to marry just one.

People shared some beautiful bits of things, some shared entire poems. One woman—who clearly was a practiced reader of her own work—got up and performed admirably. Between each reader, I tried to find something I wanted to read through my many pages of notes, then put the book down again quickly as someone started to read. I wished I had asked for five minutes to organize before the arrival of this moment. This happens to me so often—that I am thrilled with the process but am caught off guard when a deadline jumps on me. I was riffling through again between readers, when I realized that everyone’s eyes were on me. I still hadn’t decided what to share, but chose:

I have been burnishing the back of my breastbone for months now
Scraping off blood, fur and muscle
With 1000’s of arcing gestures
My prostration, my prayer.

I was grateful for the supportive attention.

Leaving on Saturday, I felt zonked. I stepped out the door and looked to the left, there was sunny rain, and started to search for a rainbow. To my right, a spectacular rainbow emerged from behind the power plant across the street from the studio and disappeared again behind some buildings. I opened the door and hollered, “Come quick, all of you! There is a rainbow!”

I had just re-read a poem from 2010:

I thought of rainbows.
They came dancing in.

Sunday I actually arrived a little early. Though I feared seeming ridiculous, I decided to bring my entire set of poem-a-day journals. I crossed paths with Jewel on the way in and rushed into showing them to her before she’d even put her coat down. I needed to create a desk for myself, so I took a chair from a stack and posted up at the edge of the dance floor. I feared I was taking up too much real estate—especially since I know Elyce, the producer of the workshop, likes to keep the space as tidy as possible. However, it was a necessity and I decided to get over my shame for using as much space as I needed, and any apology or defensiveness about it.

I lit into my journals, beginning at the beginning, when the practice first organically evolved four years ago from a shared haiku game with my sister. I felt nostalgic, not for wanting to live it again, but for the sheer beauty of it. When Simon was tiny, when this practice first arose, I spent hours and hours every day while he was breastfeeding or sleeping on my lap or on my shoulder just breathing, noticing and reflecting on the awe of an exquisite new human. Before I even got through reading the first book, I was sobbing. I sought an appropriate poem to share, but couldn’t extract myself from the very emotional experience I was having. During the beginning of this practice, as well, I was in the process of leaving my relationship of eight years with the father of my son. It was the saddest, most poignant, most beautiful break up, and there it all was, pouring back into me. Snots were pouring down my lip and I had risk a trip to the Kleenex. I tried to avoid everyone, snot covered and sobbing raggedly as I was, but a friend greeted me with a tender hug and asked how I was, “Crying already,” I said, laughing softly through my tears. He commended me, I think.

Then, I put my big stack of books away and stepped into the dance. We moved through a wave, then Jewel instructed us to spend some time preparing to perform our poem, and shared some of her own process. She explained that we would work in groups using a ritual theater format favored by Gabrielle Roth. Each person would read their poem, and four others would follow their direction, either moving a certain way, repeating a gesture, or holding a particular shape. I spent another period going through poems, instead of preparing to perform one. We had a short lunch and I finally selected a poem. I went to an alley behind a big building to practice. As I ran through it, I changed it and added to it.

After lunch, we began with a wave. This was a tender and lovely room. Everyone who had been writing feverishly was in the dance now. At one point, we were instructed to look in a partner’s eyes, find a shape, then move on. I connected with one friend and was reduced to tears. Her big, shining eyes did not waver. I could tell she didn’t really want to be touched, but both of us had our hands folded in prayer and I linked our little pinkies together. Then, we rolled away from each other and I stepped right into a playful partnership, and for the first time ever, found that I could keep eye contact while turning around by tipping my head all the way back. I have attempted this maneuver many times in the past, but always found glitches around 4 o’clock and 8 o’clock if 12 o’clock is my nose. A delightful development!

Then, we assembled into groups and instructed each other about what to do. I wish I could tell you the names of the four women in my group because they were exquisite, but I must be discreet, of course.

Right before we began this part of the day, I randomly opened Jewel’s big dictionary to the word “offering.” After we prepared our parts, we all arranged ourselves in a semi-circle with the wall of high black velvet curtain behind us. I believe there were 26 of us including Peter and Jewel. The offerings were tremendous. One friend wrote about her struggles with debilitating sickness, another of her impossible ache to connect, another of how it hurts when something dies. We were the second group to present; and I felt very connected to the four members of my group during our performances. I was last, and initially delivered my poem while moving since I had—to some extent—memorized it. Peter and Jewel both asked if I could please repeat it, either much louder or without moving around. I was grateful for the opportunity, and could feel the energy of it vibrating in my throat. This time, my voice quavering but strong, I began,

Sometimes I dance the grief of spirits—
Those who no longer have bodies to dance for themselves.
Sometimes I dance the pain of the living,
Including my own.
It was not so much that I danced a healing dance for him,
But rather, that I danced as him.
I feared that my heart would shatter with grief-
(His and mine, not separate)
Instead, it broke with beauty.
Standing atop my father’s moving feet
As he teaches me
I dance now
The infinite heart of tenderness.

I felt like I was seeing myself from a little bit above and at an angle. The whole experience was intentional, precise and compressed; and to me it felt shamanic and epic.

I stepped back to my group members; who had been moving around the space as though they were dancing on their fathers’ feet; and we held hands and stood quietly regarding the audience, then returned to our place in the semi-circle to make space for the next group.

I was moved to tears many times by the integrity, inventiveness and vulnerability of my colleagues. One apparently unassuming older woman who was visiting New York from Australia stood up to speak and I thought, “this is going to be amazing.” She delivered a visceral, wrathful narrative admonition with maximum volume and intensity—a roaring witch of the highest caliber.

Instead of dancing another wave right away, we gathered in a less formal circle to share anything else we wanted to. My spot in the circle closed and I got up the courage to go and sit next to Jewel, where a spot was open. I had danced with her and spoken with her at moments, but found that I was shy around someone I respected so much. She hugged me and complimented my efforts. Many of these poems, too, were beautiful. One woman stood up and shared a compelling new song. My own last poem was:

I am too tired for poetry now
Maybe if I can just hold this pen upright.
The universe will flow through it.

Jewel then shared that she had been trying to find a metaphor about the death of her adored sister two years ago. She left the poem aside and told us the story-half poem, half narrative. She cried out her pain, and all of us cried along with her. She honored us by saying that she had been trying to get to this place for a long time, but it was the first time that she felt the kind of supportive space that allowed for it.

We officially said good-bye after this chapter, then danced one final quiet wave.

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