Tuesday, March 12, 2013

What I Learned from Gabrielle Roth

Her music was the background of my life for many years. Her rhythms affected how I moved through the world. Eternal Dance was the rhythm of my days. Refuge was the music I used to clean my home. Yet, when Gabrielle Roth passed away on October 22, 2012 I didn’t know about it. Her passing was not noted in anything I read or saw, I only learned that she was gone when Eve Ensler, speaking at TEDxWomen in December 2012, said that she was no longer with us.

I was saddened to know that I had lost touch with Gabrielle, with her teachings, with my own sense of self. Her work has been called meditative dance, sacred dance, trance dance. I called it ecstatic dance, a call to leave my own limitations and connect with the natural rhythms of my body. When I ceased listening to her rhythms, I ceased listening to the rhythms of my own body, my own soul.
Then Eve called on us to dance on V-Day, February 14, 2013, and I knew that I would have to join, not only to stand with all the women who had been harmed by violence, but also to honor Gabrielle, the teacher of my way of being in the world.

I learned many lessons from her, lessons that can apply to all of us, lessons that are well-suited to women’s understanding of their place in the world. My first lesson began on a sultry night in August at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY.

I already knew Gabrielle’s music, I had read her books, I wanted to find myself in movement and freedom, but I had gotten stuck. So I had set out on what seemed like an impossible journey towards transformation.  I found myself one evening sitting in a large room with several hundred others, a huge blister on my heel, preparing for a weekend of movement and probably torture.
We sat patiently, waiting. None of us had done this before. No one knew what to expect. Then the music started, a slow steady beat. We looked around. We stood. A few of us tentatively moved in place. A clumsy disco by bodies unaccustomed to movement. Then little by little a petite dark woman moved through our midst. Our bodies began to move together, the dance began to take form. We moved—danced would be too grand a word for what we were doing—for an hour perhaps—maybe more, maybe less. Time had disappeared, and we were moving as one and not one word had been spoken. And yet, she was so slight, her movements so contained, so powerful, so compelling.

That was my first lesson. That presence is all. She didn’t have to shout, to exaggerate, she just had to be totally herself and it affected all of us, each of us. How often are we that totally in our bodies, knowing who we are and how to be who we are? It didn’t require fancy movement, or even knowledge of any particular steps, it just required being in the moment. That way of being, that total self-absorption has become foreign to us. As women, in particular, we often look outside ourselves to see how we affect others. This was a time of just being, of finding our own way through the movement.
The next day we began with the five rhythms and I began to sense the next lesson—that each of us has an innate personal rhythm. The Five Rhythms are flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical, and stillness, but we are not all equally comfortable with all of them. I flowed through flowing and jerked through staccato, but chaos eluded me and lyrical just seemed unnatural. I was unaccustomed to stillness, but in the beauty of Omega I was surrounded by itin the meditation of the labyrinth and the rustling of the trees; in the placid surface of the lake and the glistening of the morning dew.

And that’s the other part of the lesson—the rhythm of place. Each place has a rhythm, each city a heartbeat. I thrive in New York and Tel Aviv—staccato cities with rhythms that match my own. I am calmed in London, a city both staccato and flowing. But I was living in a place that was still and lyrical and for me totally foreign. My body and my environment were continually in conflict. How could my need for movement be met in a place that stood still, that hibernated and refused to engage.
People, too, have rhythms that come in conflict with our own. I know too many who live in chaos and when I am with them I am always uncomfortable. I retreat into stillness, and we are totally at odds. There is no way for us to bridge the gap, so we pretend to be friends, but all the time we are wondering what we have in common. Conversation is stilted, contrived. Psychology has fancy names for all this, but if I stop thinking about what is going on, stop analyzing who is doing what and why and just tune into how my body feels, I begin to understand relationships in a whole new way. And I start to look for relationships that match my rhythms and allow me to flourish rather than hold back. 

As women we have learned to mistrust our bodies as much as we mistrust our minds. Sometimes we know that something just feels wrong; we over analyze it, make us or them at fault, and let ourselves stay in places that are just wrong for us. Asking ourselves how something feels is foreign to us, it seems self-indulgent. We should be able to overcome what we’re feeling and just get on with things. But there’s something to be said for tuning in to our bodies, honoring what they are telling us, allowing ourselves to be guided by their messages. In hindsight, if I had paid more attention to what I was feeling instead of what I was thinking, I might have avoided a lot of bad purchases and several difficult relationships.
The last lesson was perhaps the most valuable. As we stood to move around the crowded room and claim our space so that we could practice the rhythms, we kept bumping into each other. And then Gabrielle said the magic words—Go towards the empty spaces. Suddenly the room opened up. There was plenty of space for us all. We no longer danced into each other, we found our places around each other. Others were no longer a hindrance; they were simply sharers of the space.

And this is the lesson that has resonated through my life. If I look for the empty places—then there is plenty of room for me. I can apply this in many ways. If I want what you have, we will be in conflict—if I want to be in your place, your space, there seems not to be enough room for both of us. We both can’t have the same thing at the same time. But if I don’t worry about you and look for my place in the world, then we can co-exist. There is plenty for each of us.
It also means looking for the vacuums that exist around us. Where can I fill a gap that can help the world as well as satisfy myself? If I don’t move towards that empty space it may remain empty, or it may be filled with something less appealing. Perhaps it’s my obligation to look for those empty spaces and find a way to fill them productively. The same can be true for my own personal world—how are my days spent? What do I do with the empty spaces?

For women, perhaps, if we stop trying to claim that places that men have already staked out for themselves but instead look for the way we can fill the gaps in the world, we might start working towards creating a different world—one of our making and not someone else’s.
I know that’s a simplistic view of the world, but if instead of trying to be equal in all things—instead of trying to play tackle football or shoot a gun, instead of becoming workaholics or heroin addicts—we look at ways in which we can fill the empty spaces around us with the things that fulfill us, there might be other options we haven’t even considered that will add to our own lives and the lives of those around us.

If I fill those spaces with music and dance, with happiness and joy, with commitment and passion, I will feel better in myself and in the world around me, and maybe the world will be just a little better too.



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