Reviewed by Victor Anderson
To say that Gabrielle Roth is a dance teacher is a bit like saying Holy Communion is about giving out free wine. Gabrielle Roth does teach dance, and teaches teachers of dance, and she is also at the centre of a growing international movement which is exploring the meanings and spirituality of dance. Or perhaps she would say she doesn’t teach dance at all, she just encourages people to teach themselves, to get in touch with their own dance, the dance uniquely right for each person at each time and place.
Gabrielle Roth’s dance system or ‘the five rhythms’ isn’t about definite steps, but about responding directly to music and moving however you feel. The five rhythms are supposed to be the five basic types of process which underlie all music, even though they are often found mixed together. These five are like five colours to hear: flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical, and stillness. Put them together in that order and dance them, and you have what Gabrielle Roth calls ‘a wave’, which is what this book is about.
It is only partly concerned with dancing, because most of what she has to say is psychological advice and spiritual wisdom, based around each of the rhythms. “Each rhythm holds specific teachings for us. In flowing we learn how to be sensitive to the flow of our unique energy, to follow it and be true to it … In staccato we learn how to organize our energy, to focus and direct it … Chaos teaches us how to hang in the unknown and dig it.” Lyrical is the lightness and playfulness of movement which happens after going through chaos. Stillness explains itself.
Dancing the five rhythms gets us in touch with our bodies and feelings, and our spirituality. “In a thousand ways it has been revealed to me that God is the dance and we only need to disappear in the dance to liberate the sexual, creative, and sacred aspects of the soul…Sweat is holy water’…The tradition of dancing into ecstasy may have been burned at the stake, but its spirit is rising from those same ashes like a Phoenix. You and I were born at the right place at the right time to once again sweat our prayers.” The writing in Sweat Your Prayers is cool and cute. “In the womb, the first sound we hear is the beating of our mother’s heart. Her body is our first jukebox.”
Much of the book consists of episodes from Gabrielle Roth’s life, told like scenes from a beatnik novel. “Sometimes I track my thoughts and feelings in writing. Most often I light a candle and wait for nothing to happen.” Most of the scenes take place in New York, around food just as much as music. Spiritual wisdom emerges out of bagels in Brooklyn and sushi in Manhattan. It might be irritating if you didn’t start from a basic empathy with what she is saying, but I found it a lot of fun to read.
All this has something to do with creation spirituality, because dance is potentially one of its main practices. This book is a reminder that it doesn’t have to be circle dancing – which personally leaves me cold, both metaphorically and literally. The Wave is a generally more lively alternative which some are likely to find suits them better. And you will find on the back of the book that the first of the quotes praising it comes from Matthew Fox. For anyone who has ever experienced Cartesian dualism as a personal problem, dividing mind from body, spirit from matter, attentive dance can be a way of exploring the overcoming of that division. And Gabrielle Roth is a very good dance teacher.
Addendum: Sadly, Gabrielle Roth danced her way out of this life in October 2012. She is sorely missed by all who knew her but her work will continue to inspire thousands of people, long into the future.