I’m shaking my pelvis with brio, when a goldendoodle ambles up. Don’t you poo, I think. Then again, doing what comes naturally is the point of today. My friend Beth has invited me to try 5Rhythms: a silent disco movement meditation class on Clapham Common. I didn’t understand any of those words, but said yes, because this column has turned my life into a second-tier Jim Carrey film. Now I’m in deep with the hippies. To my left, a man in socks and a bandana is romancing a tree. A nearby game of touch rugby has paused so its players can laugh at us. This is my nightmare.
5Rhythms was developed in the 1970s by Gabrielle Roth, a New York theatre artist, but moved mainstream in the last 15 years, adopted by the wellness crowd. The practice involves dancing to five distinct moods of music, in a specific sequence known as the wave, which corresponds to different aspects of the self. The resulting “soul journey” is designed to unlock unlimited creativity and wholeness in the psyche of the dancer. Assuming they buy into the new-age framework, that is. My own personal five rhythms are lazy, dissatisfied, hungry, laughing and a freeform malaise I refer to as Kenneth.
My slapdash attitude scuppers me early doors. Chill EDM commences, and facilitator Nikki Ashley instructs us to move. We are in a park. I immediately start to sweat from embarrassment. I overcompensate, to show willing. I slow worm, I slender boogaloo, I do the Korean Charleston. (I don’t “know” the proper “names” of these dances.) Looking around, I realise I’ve got this wrong. 5Rhythms is about spontaneity, not learnt moves. In the other participants’ bags, left at the edge of our area, I see copies of Roth’s book, Sweat Your Prayers. (“Sweat is holy water, prayer beads … that release your past.”) Adjusting my headset – and my mindset – I writhe and spin to the point of exhaustion, face streaming, for 45 minutes, at which point Ashley announces the warmup is over. Warmup? I thought we’d started. I feel as if I’ve turned up to a Slint concert and started moshing during the soundcheck.
‘I feel as if I’ve turned up to a Slint concert and started moshing during the soundcheck.’ Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian
“Let’s dance the wave,” Ashley purrs into a microphone and direct to our ears, her means of guiding us through the sequence. The first, most enjoyable rhythm is flowing, involving circles and fluid movement. A blond boy, with a sternum tattoo and 0% body fat, smiles at me. If the wave takes an hour, we presumably dance each rhythm for 12 minutes, I calculate. This is not being “in the moment”. We move into the staccato rhythm, basically robot; very cool. I’m still struggling to be in the moment. Why is Beth avoiding me? Maybe she thinks my knees are weird.
Many of the group – ranging in age between 20 and 70 – are ex-ravers, says Richard Wiltshire, who is assisting the facilitation today. When I think of ravers, I picture wreckheads incessantly blowing whistles and a man in a bucket hat congratulating me for nothing, not soul-seekers. Yet the notion of ecstatic dance is as old as humanity. After the session there will be astral plane, aura and chakra-chat for anyone who wants. During all this, Ashley keeps things accessible, inviting us to let mental associations swirl, or simply enjoy moving however the body wants. Your spiritual mileage may vary, but this must be good for the joints. The 70-year-old looks 30 years younger, and moves like a jewel thief.
During the chaos rhythm section, I stomp arrhythmically and shake my head. A couple of City types settle on a blanket with beers, to watch. I feel both self-conscious and distracted. Many devotees experience 5Rhythms as an intensely emotional process. Why don’t I? It’s nearly 9pm, and I’m worrying about dinner. I have pizza in the freezer. Then I see the blond boy and think, maybe just salad?
The lyrical rhythm follows, which feels like flowing again. We’re invited to dance with others if the vibe is right. A man in a sarong smiles beatifically at me. I smile back, ignoring the cackling rugby players nearby. Eventually, we arrive at stillness, the final rhythm. The music turns tranquil. I lie down, frankly knackered, and watch a dead leaf falling from a tree. I turn on to my front and smell the grass. I imagine the microbes and insects deep in the earth, and think that, to them, we are all just thunder. I’ve got so far to go.
After the class, we sit in a circle and say our names, followed by a word that comes to mind, as instructed by Ashley, who is now sans microphone. “Blessed”, “blissful” and “released” come up a lot. “Insects,” I say. I can hear Beth laughing, probably at my knees. The hippies aren’t the problem, it’s me. I prefer to move like this alone in my flat. I find it easier to dance like nobody’s watching when nobody is watching. But if my soul didn’t get healed, my bones do feel free. Ecstatic dance is a high bar, anyway. Pretty fun dance is good enough.
If I’m wearing a chunky jumper because it rained this morning, but now it’s baking and I’m overdressed, is my sweat still holy water?
Smugness is not one of the 5Rhythms. 1/5