Updated: Jun 22
“Never give a sword to a man who can’t dance.” -Confucius
Without question, dance has been one of my greatest teachers.
I’d been dancing for years before I’d ever heard of David Deida, sat in my first men’s circle, or braved an initiatory weekend in the company of other men.
Without question, men’s work saved my life. But it was dance that first prepared me, psyche and soma, for the chance to be saved in the first place.
These days, when I find myself lost in my head, smothered in nihilistic daze or existential crisis, my prescription is automatic:
But not just any dance.
A very special kind of dance - a moving meditation, known as “5Rhythms”.
Losing my in-person conscious dance practice was perhaps the greatest challenge for me to overcome during the pandemic, including getting COVID last April.
I tried dancing by myself or with my partner here in the house.
I tried zoom classes, but it's just not the same.
There is nothing that can recreate the sensation and experience of pressing yourself close against a sweating, heaving throng of humanity pulsating to the same rhythms, moving to the same sounds and impulses that pump and swerve through your bodies—the subliminal connection; the hive-mind; the embodied sense of irrefutable community that emerges in the center of the chest as the music crescendos and falls, and you have no choice but to be elevated along with the rest.
Yeah. It’s like that.
It’s a dopamine/oxytocin/anandamide/serotonin cocktail, au-natural.
And maybe that sounds like some made-up fruity bullshit because you’ve never been in a dance that lit you up like that, or moved your body until your body was moving you.
But I’ve been higher on dance floors than I’ve been in plant-medicine ceremonies.
Because dance is medicine.
Anthropologically speaking, every culture ever studied on planet earth has utilized dance for celebration, ritual, rite of passage, and as a specific pathway to Ecstasis.
Ecstasis is a Greek word. It means “stepping beyond oneself”.
Music and dance are just two of the many pathways I utilize to “step beyond myself” and into the ecstatic state, spoken about in detail in one of my favorite books in recent years, Stealing Fire, by Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler.
Some other paths they reference in the book include group coherence and flow state induction via nootropics, athletic exertion, meditation, chanting/vocalization, breath-work, sexual experience, and psychedelics.
As they describe in great detail, there are many paths human beings can take to achieve altered states of consciousness -- but the most reliable for me throughout the years, even more than psychedelics, is the combination of dance, music, breath, and community that happens on a 5Rhythms dance floor.
To that end, there is a saying that often makes it's way around Tribe Men’s Community:
"The Mind was made to be still, and the Body was made to Move."
In the era of hyper-Yang, constantly consuming, information overload, choice-paralysis, mental prioritization, and outcome overdrive, I’ve found dance to be the perfect “feminine” counterpoint to many of the more traditional “masculine” practices employed in traditional “men’s work”.
Stilling the mind is a profound skill, one that does not come easily to many in the West. For most of us, the inanity of thinking we can instantly down-shift from our high-velocity lives of constant moving-doing-thinking to sit on the cushion and induce a meditative state is absolute nonsense.
It can be seriously challenging to simply sit down and try to meditate, cold turkey. But dance, along with many other forms of intentional movement, can become entry points to the meditative state and pave the way for success in traditional sitting practice.
And, while there are many different versions of “conscious” or “ecstatic” dance out there these days, all of which bring their own unique opportunities, they are all essentially base-line off-shoots of 5Rhythms, but without the technique, the teaching, or the technology.
So what exactly is 5Rhythms?
“5Rhythms” is the creation of Gabrielle Roth, one of many contributors of the Human Potential Movement, originating at the Esalen Institute near Big Sur in the 1970’s. It is a movement meditation practice, drawing from global dance traditions and the tenants of shamanistic, mystical, ecstatic eastern philosophies, along with transpersonal psychology and Gestalt therapy.
Roth, who passed away in 2012, described the practice as a soul-journey, where moving the body, freeing the mind, and releasing the heart could connect a practitioner to the very essence of themselves, and the unlimited well of inspiration, individuality, and potential residing within.
Interestingly, in my view, the unofficial predecessor and possible source of (unverified) inspiration for 5Rhythms came from none other than Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, AKA Osho, of Wild, Wild Country documentary infamy, and his equally infamous “Dynamic Meditation”. The practice involves dancing, shaking, screaming, and generally doing just about anything to “lose one’s mind” by asserting maximal physical/emotional effort for a set amount of time before coming to stillness and then more easily engaging meditation from a state of near-physical exhaustion.
In Bhagwan’s estimation, the western mind, which had not grown up with traditional contemplative sitting practice more common in the East, could not be expected to achieve meditation through the same traditional pathways as Eastern practitioners who had grown up in a very different cultural milieu. Ergo, he pioneered Dynamic Meditation as a way to meet the "handicap" of the typical Western mind.
5Rhythms builds on this hypothesis. And then some.
The first 5Rhythms movement map Gabrielle created is called "Waves" -- it is the embodiment of the five distinct rhythms she identified as falling within the potential of all human movement -- flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical, and stillness.
Generally, most 5R classes are of this variety, but there are also several longer workshop-style explorations in the dance to discover:
“Heartbeat” teaches the embodied expression of the major afflictive emotions of fear, anger, sadness, joy, and compassion -- the "issues in the tissues" that move through or get trapped in the body, and the shapes those experiences mold us into. "Cycles" dives deep into understanding the internalized relationships and conditioning that drive us throughout the life cycle -- birth, childhood, puberty, adulthood, and death. “Mirrors” is all about ego -- the building up, the breaking down, and the general-to-specific mapping the psyche through our relationship with self and other. “God, Sex, and the Body” is about… well…. Gabrielle even built a Medicine Mandala to demonstrate the synthesis of all maps joining together.
In addition, 5Rhythms teachers undergo an incredibly rigorous, multi-year training process to become a certified “5Rhythms” teacher. They lead each class or workshop as not only the DJ/song master, but as your spirit guide, encouraging and leading you into the dance with words, sound, and demonstration. They are true masters of their craft.
It is a brilliant technology for reliably reaching “Ecstasis”.
It can be used to confront our darkest shadows, and our highest peaks.
Trust me, you haven’t really danced until you’ve danced your deep grief to live African drumming, or danced your death to a Maori war song...
In Gabrielle’s own words: “To sweat is to pray, to make an offering of your innermost self. Sweat is holy water, prayer beads, pearls of liquid that release your past. Sweat is an ancient and universal form of self healing, whether done in the gym, the sauna, or the sweat lodge. I do it on the dance floor. The more you dance, the more you sweat. The more you sweat, the more you pray. The more your pray, the closer you come to ecstasy.”
Make no mistake, meditation and breath-work are essential. But so is movement. And 5Rhythms is the best movement practice I’ve found for developing the other side of the equation.
On a personal note, I don’t honestly remember the exact date I first encountered 5Rhythms, but I do know it had to be at Cosm -- AKA, “The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors” -- a trans-denominational church built by Psychedelic artist power-couple, Alex and Allyson Grey, in the middle of the nightclub/art gallery district of Chelsea, NYC, circa 2004. Walking into this place was like walking into another dimension on 6 hits of acid. If you don’t know Alex Grey’s work you seriously need to change that IMMEDIATELY.
I wrote the following poem directly after that first 5R class at Cosm, seated and leaning against a wall, drenched in sweat, shaking/smiling uncontrollably. It was absolutely life changing, and I’ve been dancing ever since:
"Stepping onto the floor
I wondered if I could be Brave enough
to be the Free Spirit I am --
MIND turns-off &
to the point that each move I make
takes me by surprise,
bubbling up from some ancient chasm deep within me
that is un-divorceable from rivers, avalanches,
volcanoes and shooting stars,
and as the music builds, thick and unctuous,
She begs my body to untie its tensions,
unlock its blockages,
& commands my honorable submission
as willing sacrifice to the ancient, undulating joy of motion.
‘Can you Dance like no one's watching?’ she whispers ...
as I move across the floor, weaving through the heaving
the singular entity WE’ve become,
made of every gorgeous soul
I have the pleasure of not
Knowing -- strangers, new friends, potential lovers,
allies all throbbing through driving drums
Beating me open
through the eyes of every gaze I meet
Our eyes gleam together
To dare me Man enough to hurl myself free from doubt
into mindless movement
that those around me have no choice
but to drop their doubts,
forget their fears, cancel
their criticism, jettison their judgments
and join in this glorious Dance,
the Queen to which we pledge
juicy fealty- knees bent, flashing feet,
swaying hips, dervish whirling,
our prayer to the Pantheon,
feeling the Spirit, tongues speaking
To Save our souls & each other
from the need to be saved
By anything other than our Feet
To the One in us all.
-Mikaal Bates, 2005
Ok, enough of the hippie feels.
My challenge to YOU is to find a class or workshop near you, and just GO.
Wear comfortable clothes, bring water, and a towel.
5Rhythms isn’t about looking good.
There are no steps, no moves, no partner-work.
It is simply the practice of allowing the body to move itself, rather than the mind.