When I learned by text message last October that Gabrielle Roth was passing through the veil of death, I sat in silence, cradling the phone in my hand. I remembered that my first meeting with her was like meeting the Buddha. She had an inspiring presence backed up by a body of teachings shared by followers around the world. I had come to think of her as immortal even though I knew that she was growing frail with stage four lung cancer. As I processed the news, I realized that from the moment that I first walked into one of Gabrielle’s 5Rhythms classes she was preparing me to handle this grief.
Gabrielle Roth is renowned for her dance and movement meditation practice 5Rhythms. Her ideas were spread through books such as Maps to Ecstasy (1989), Sweat Your Prayers (1997), and Connections: the Five Threads of Intuitive Wisdom (2004). She also recorded over twenty albums, mainly as Gabrielle Roth & The Mirrors. Many of these albums are popular in yoga classes. In 2007, she founded the non-profit 5Rhythms Reach Out to offer her movement practices to prisoners, inner city children, the elderly, and other special needs communities.
The 5Rhythms moving awareness practice that Gabrielle Roth created is my own core spiritual practice—my way of investigating, healing, connecting, questioning and celebrating the experience of my life. Her refrain was, “A body in motion heals itself.”
The 5Rhythms are movement frameworks called Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness. There are no prescribed movements, only guiding principles for one’s creativity. When one moves through a sequence of the 5Rhythms, it is called a Wave. Gabrielle laid out additional maps for the 5Rhythms practice, including guided workshops. Even so, Gabrielle encouraged each person to find his or her own way, because the 5Rhythms is a way of describing the energy of the creative process, not a prescription of a particular form of dance. “This is just the little black dress I put on for you,” she said.
Our first meeting
The editor of A Journey through NYC religions accepted my proposal to write about Gabrielle Roth and 5Rhythms, so I contacted her assistant about an interview. I was thrilled when she accepted my request; and we booked for several weeks ahead.
I remember the struggle to get to the interview. I was caught out of town in a blizzard that came days before our appointment. My father drove my son and me through the frigid morning to an outdoor train station. The train arrived late, having to shove the deep snow aside into piles along the sides of the tracks. The trip was a slow motion of frustrating delays and obstacles. Finally, we came to a stop, and the train was pulled out of service. A bus finally came to take us to another station and a viable train. Unbelievably, I made it back in time for the interview, but then got a message that Gabrielle’s voice was so weak that she would have to re-schedule our meeting.
A few weeks later, we finally did meet for the first time at her apartment in the Village. I arrived early to hover nearby in order to arrive exactly on time.
Gabrielle’s assistant ushered me to one of the stylish, oversized couches. I perched formally upright like an attentive bird on the edge of the cushion to show my respect. Gabrielle came down the hall to the room and greeted me warmly, though with a scratchy, hoarse voice. She had a distinctive presence that seemed to be like that of a human raven, which she called one of her alter-egos. She was tall, thin, and almost fluttery. She folded herself into a little nest of angles on the couch across from me, poised and at ease. Her dark hair folded into protective wings covering her face with slight shadows. She was all drawn lines with no obtrusive form. She seemed like pure presence.
A week or so after our first meeting, an acquaintance approached me after dance on a Friday night. She was working with Gabrielle to get 5Rhythms Reach Out, the non-profit aspect of 5Rhythms, into higher gear. Gabrielle had mentioned to her that I was a writer who might be able to help. I agreed immediately.
Like my first trip to meet Gabrielle, I again had to surmount significant obstacles to attend the Reach Out meeting. This time, I was unemployed and had to wring out some dollars to pay for a babysitter during the meeting. I took a leap of faith that it would be worth the sacrifice, but my stress level was high. I was feeling deflated, hassled and incompetent. Yet, after a short time, I began to relax and laugh. Then, remembering that I had a small son, Gabrielle offered to pay for a babysitter during the meetings. The good time of being with Gabrielle and this gesture reminded me of my own value and made me eager to work at bringing Gabrielle’s work to the attention of people who could benefit from it.
The memorial service for Gabrielle was held at the Prince Edward Ballroom in New York City on January 9th, 2013. We were told that only family members were guaranteed entry. So, joining hundreds of people, I arrived early to wait for the privilege of honoring my teacher and to share my experience of grief.
That night we danced our grief and also our joy of life. The ballroom was baroque with painted images, gilding and swirling plaster details. The people were dressed elegantly, dramatically and creatively. There were folds of satin fabrics, ornate hats, jewels and brooches, capes and trains. I moved around the big rectangular room, not sure what to expect.
Near a table with bottled water and necklaces in honor of Gabrielle, I shared a remarkable dance with an elder. We looped and dipped and spun into the space, using the magic of gravity to defy its limits.
The necklaces on the table encapsulated the feathery lightness of dancing grief. Each was made of a single black feather dipped in silver paint tied on a black silk cord. I picked up one to put around my neck, thinking that I would put it on my personal altar.
Gabrielle’s husband, Robert, gave us encouragement to do what Gabrielle had trained us to do. “Gabrielle and I talked about what this memorial would be,” he said. “So, I’m not going to talk about how I adored her. I’m not going to talk about anything.” He pointed out that she wanted us to dance.
As I write this, my eyes are becoming like a spring for tears. Grief is coming in waves. When I let the loss into me fully, it is unbearable. The only thing I can do is to dance it, just as Gabrielle taught me.
A son’s remembrance
From a stage dressed with a black transparent material thronged with little sculpted black birds , Jonathan Horan, Gabrielle’s son, acted as our guide and Master of Ceremonies. He recounted an unusual event during a workshop that Gabrielle had led in Los Angeles sometime in the early 1990’s. She had assigned each of the five rhythms a color as part of the weekend exploration. For Stillness, Gabrielle snapped and cried out, “Black!” Suddenly, the lights were extinguished.
Jonathon assumed that his mother had arranged a special effect in advance. The workshop producers lit some candles and continued to dance as if it was part of the plan. At the end of the day, everyone went outside and discovered the entire block was dark. Looking further out, Jonathon saw that the lights of the entire city were out. Later they learned that the massive blackout actually had affected the entire state of California. “Black!,” Gabrielle had said. Such was her power!
The room became fiery with spirit. Gabrielle’s husband and a friend from the music group The Mirrors pounded out a rhythm that shook the stage. I literally knocked myself over with fervor during the rhythm of Chaos.
Jonathon instructed us to partner with the person closest to us. Then, he told us to take a new partner again, and again, and again. As I traveled around the room in a big circle, I glimpsed close friends in the crowd.
The End of Times, The Beginning of Times
It is not hard for me to believe Gabrielle is gone now because I think it is a miracle that she was ever here in the first place. Even listening again to our interview, I hear so much more. I realize that I have only been able to understand a tiny percentage of what she told me. The maps of life and movement that she has sketched will take humanity a long time to fully fathom.
On New Year’s Day, 2012 Gabrielle taught a Waves class focusing on the rhythm of Chaos. She said that she believed that New York is a city that is characterized by the rhythm of chaos. Anything can happen at any time here.
She then expanded the scope of her observation. Humanity itself is in a time of chaos. Fundamentalist preachers claim that chaos is a call to repent before the end of the world. But Gabrielle said that being in an age of chaos means that we are “smack in the middle of the most creative time humanity has ever experienced.”
So, instead of dwelling on my deep fears about climate change, human conflict and the end of the world, I have started experimenting with the idea that apocalypse might be perfect, correct and inevitable.
Thank you, Gabrielle!
“Imagination is powerful. Imagination is healing. All you need is the courage to visualize what should be, and then give yourself to its creation. The result may not be what you expected, but it will be right.”
-Gabrielle Roth, February 4, 1941 - October 22, 2012