Conscious clubbing with a strong heart beat
It is 11am on a Tuesday morning in South East London and I am an hour into my first 5 Rhythms session, dancing my way through Chaos.
My induction to this free-style 90-minute movement class has thus far been safe, swift and relatively sanguine. After a 20 minute warm up, we move on to the main part of the class, which starts with the first two rhythms, ’flowing’ and ‘staccato’. Each is around two tracks long (playful, hypnotic and atmospheric tunes) with these first two helping participants to leave behind all their concerns, loosen their spines and hips, and tune in to a variety of different beats in readiness for the ecstatic rigours of the third rhythm: Chaos.
“Move your heads, elbows, shoulders, knees, and let your body dance you, rather than you dancing your body!” Says our instructor, Emma, who discovered 5 Rhythms in 1990 and studied for 10 years under its founder, Gabrielle Roth, before training as a teacher.
The sweat begins to drip from my nose, and I feel my heart rate rise. The class environment is supportive and encouraging, with quiet bodies moving nearby and a diverse choice of excellent music mixed skilfully together by Emma from her computer. After an initial phase of self-consciousness I suddenly find myself fully present and enjoying the dance. My entire body starts to shake as the tension moves in, out and through every muscle, leaving space for something new and more instinctive to take its place.
So different is this to taking exercise that I don’t really feel I’m trying. Firstly you don’t need any particular level of fitness – just an ability to move your limbs (at your own pace) for an hour and a half. Secondly, there’s no dancing experience required either; no steps to learn, no right or wrong.
So different is this to taking exercise that I don’t really feel I’m trying. Firstly you don’t need any particular level of fitness – just an ability to move your limbs (at your own pace) for an hour and a half. Secondly, there’s no dancing experience required either; no steps to learn, no right or wrong. Instead, we’re encouraged to work within our limits; be mindful of our bodies and respectful of niggles and injuries, and simply aware of inner resistance. Judgment and post class self-analysis are not recommended; if you’re consciously attempting to dance beautifully then you’re missing the point of 5 Rhythms’ committment to spontaneous movement.
Despite its being more like a kind of ‘conscious clubbing’ than a focussed workout, I’m made aware in my first session that 5 Rhythms is a dynamic practice that enhances blood flow (pushing lovely, oxygenated blood to the muscles, ligaments and tendons), improves heart and lung capacity and, over time I’m sure helps participants to to develop muscle tone, flexibility and stamina. The emphasis on the inner experience here also means that 5 Rhythms also helps participants to develop a lesser known element of fitness: the ability to withstand and embrace the unknown. In this way, this esoteric, meditative dance class unexpectedly shares something with the a gruelling obstacle race like Tough Mudder: participants don’t know which challenges each rhythm / race will bring, or where they will need to draw on their reserves and so resilience begins to build.
As we move from ‘Chaos’ into ‘Lyrical’, finishing off with our fifth rhythm, ’Stillness’, I realise I’m twisting and turning freely in all directions, which feels unusual. These days the average exercise session involves walking, running or cycling, squatting or lifting weights. Though these forward-and-back / up-and-down movements certainly have their uses in terms of building strength and raising the heartrate, it’s the multi-directional ones that can most easily keep the spine supple and work our small, stabiliser muscles that make for a happy lower back.
As we move slowly through our fifth and final rhythm – Stillness – I begin to feel tired and uplifted. My body is relaxed and nourished, as if I’ve had an hour’s deep tissue massage (at less than a quarter of the price) followed by a meaningful catch-up with a friend. On my way out I chat briefly to one of the class regulars, opera singer, Constance Novis, who describes the class as ‘aerobic exercise with a spiritual dimension’, adding: “Not only has my cardiovascular fitness and skin tone improved thanks to moving and sweating more but also 5 Rhythms is a fantastic, totally natural stress reliever. It gets me out of my head and into my body – the percussion grabs my hips and the rest of my body goes with it!”
All the way home I am buzzing, surprised and excited that somewhere between Chaos and Lyrical I discovered a sober freedom I haven’t felt for many years, possibly since childhood. Hours later, I regress even further, and sleep like a baby. Medicinal, magical, and at times even maniacal – 5 Rhythms is a much misunderstood fitness treasure that’s well worth searching for.
– By Lucy Fry
First appeared in Sunday Telegraph.