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How Healthy is the Five Rhythms Dance Craze?

Updated on January 21, 2020
Sue Adams profile image

Dancer, choreologist (movement notator), author on fitness and health, and Fellow of the Benesh Institute at the Royal Academy of Dance.

My twin sister and I were reminiscing about our mutual careers in choreology (Choreology is the study of the aesthetic and science of human movement by movement notation.) and dance movement therapy (Movement therapy is the psychotherapeutic use of movement and dance in a clinical setting.) respectively. We fervently agreed, yet again, how important movement is for one’s health.

‘What do you think about this Five Rhythms dance craze?’ I asked my sister. She had never heard of it but being a professional movement therapist she wanted to know more about it and so did I. Together we did the research and came up with some important facts.

What is Five Rhythms?

For those of you who are not hooked yet, Five Rhythms is a moving meditation that purports to have had a global impact on healing. Its main premise is to allow participants to delve into their emotions through movement improvisation to music following a set of the following five different dynamic qualities.

  1. Flowing
  2. Staccato
  3. Chaos
  4. Lyrical
  5. Stillness

Apart from that, Five Rhythms is a form of what is called ‘Ecstatic Dance’.

Ecstatic Dance

Ecstatic Dance is a form of dance in which the dancers abandon themselves to the rhythm and move freely as the music takes them, leading to trance and a feeling of ecstasy. Almost every culture in the world has a variation of ecstatic dance. The Ancient Greeks were already using it in their rites, which they called orgia, to honor Bacchus, the God of wine. Shamanism also makes use of ecstatic dance to reach an altered state of consciousness.

Gabrielle Roth - Founder of Five Rhythms

Gabrielle Roth (1941 – 2012) was a dancer whose career was cut short by a ski accident. She revived ecstatic dance in the late 70’s and formed the Five Rhythms practice. Roth developed her movement theories at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. She was influenced by eastern philosophies and new age doctrines such as Gestalt therapy which in turn is part of the Human Potential Movement.

Is Five Rhythms Authentic?

Here we were, thinking that Five Rhythms was something new, something authentic, but delving into the world of Five Rhythms felt to us pioneers like traveling back in time, back to the 60’s. Insulated by youth from the seriousness of adulthood, our generation congregated around camp fires, looking up at the Northern Lights, imagining the giant celestial dance. Before the AIDS epidemic real safe sex without condoms was so simple, one of the ways to feel connected rather than E-dating or Facebook. The young discovered Eastern culture, imported countless Gurus, meditated and revered all-time heroes like Timothy Leary, Aldous Husley, Gurdjieff and the Maharishi. To some, LSD became a mental salvation.

Yoga and Pilates in the Sixties

During the sixties Yoga had not gone mainstream yet and was practiced by skeletal looking yogi’s in loincloths, sitting on a bed of nails. Pilates was this weird form of exercise involving pulleys and ropes, only practiced by a handful of super fit dancers to help them recover from injuries.

Who Were Our Mentors?

We were young avid consumers of old ideas. We were students searching for the therapeutic effects of dance and movement. In the hope of increasing body awareness towards mental and spiritual satisfaction we chose our mentors in living elders, people like Irmgard Bartenieff, Rudolf Laban, Rudolf Benesh (effort/shape - choreology), Moshé Feldenkraiss, Mary Starks Whitehouse, and Steve Paxton (contact improvisation). The music, the dance, the art we followed came from people who were no longer young. We were not trying to be authentic but we were authentic to the core by the sheer force of experimenting with various growing disciplines in the field of dance movement therapy. Almost everything that is considered ‘alternative’ today has its roots in the 60s.

Examples of True Movement Therapy by Madeleine Kando M.Ed

“I have vivid memories of sessions during my training, when co-therapists in the make suddenly burst out crying, rolled themselves up into a foetal position while groaning and moaning. It took guts to let your defences down to reach that point of vulnerability.

At the rehab hospital where I worked as a movement therapist with brain injured patients. They were like children because their memories were gone and often didn’t know who they were. But they loved to dance. They were authentic. They lacked purpose, so I tried to incorporate a lot of directness in their movements. Follow my hand, mirror my foot steps, find that corner over there, etc.”

How Familiar Are You with Five Rhythms?

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Big Business

The Five Rhythms phenomenon, as popular as it is, has the authenticity of a counterfeit dollar bill. Roth died in 2012 and the family business is now headed by her son Johnathan Horan. His sister Lucia Horan is also part of the Five Rhythms empire. And an empire it is, complete with the sale of expensive courses, clothing, music CDs and promotional merchandise. It has been fantastically packaged, sent around the world and has conquered every corner of it. Worldwide, there are over a 100 workshops each month, as far away as Japan and Russia. Five Rhythms is now the Starbucks of remedial movement. Isn’t that good news?

Our Critique

My sister as a dance movement therapist and I as a choreologist should be overjoyed that ‘movement’ has gone mainstream. Isn’t that why we chose our careers? To use movement as a healing art?

What concerns us is that the sources of inspiration, the foregoing teachings by prominent experts who were not into it for profit have been ignored, oversimplified and distorted to launch a craze, a mere fad possibly unfit for its purpose. Sheeplike masses are sold a poor and incomplete menu of the essentials of true movement therapy and choreology. It's like cooking a dish with a recipe of many ingredients but only giving the salt and pepper. It lacks most of the many required factors needed to move well. It lacks physical intelligence.

Movement Factors

Considering that the full scope of healthy movement requires

  • A favourable location / environment
  • Sufficient space for the body to move without bumping into objects or people
  • Fresh air to fill the lungs with power to provide
  • Strength and endurance
  • Flexibility - for vocabulary enhancement and for safety when falling
  • Balance against the fight with gravity comes from
  • Postural Awareness 24/7
  • Coordination for full control of intentions
  • Grace found in the correctness, timing and flow of the movements
  • Dynamics (Five Rhythms) is the emotional quality or mood of a movement

It appears that Five Rhythms core ingredient is dynamics. But as shown above, dynamics is but a very small part, a mere consequence of all of the above movement factors.

Let the Body Chose

The Danger

Real movement therapy uses Authentic Movement, started by Mary Starks Whitehouse in the 1950s as "movement in depth”, a much safer way of expressing feelings through movement. Dance improvisation and pure ecstatic dance does not impose any dynamic qualities upon its users. It lets the body speak for itself which is what the body wants. The body is by nature self correcting if only allowed to express itself freely.

So by guiding the users through given dynamic qualities equal for all, ignoring individuals' personal conditions and abilities, Five Rhythms could have adverse effects on those who may be mentally unstable or physically ignorant (which comprises the majority of the non-moving, obese population today).

Good and Bad Movement

We watched many Five Rhythms videos. No direction, all free flow, quick/slow, bound/free, strong/light, no direct, lots of indirect. What happened to focus, intention, attention, decision, action, awareness, body intelligence? Those are all part of using space in a direct way. If you want to do something, you have to pay attention first, then focus with intention, decide what to do and then do it.

Even in improvisation classes a teacher must, first of all, make the students aware of the difference between “good” movement like reaching up high and wide and bending backwards to counteract the daily grind of “bad” movement and poor posture: an overwhelming slant towards forward and down bending as seen in so many of the five rhythms followers' performances. Ecstatically jumping around dangling the arms in front of a forward bent body, eyes focussed on the ground for hours on end is going to be very damaging to the body. There is much more to moving well than applying a set of dynamic qualities to the same narrow and often harmful set of movement patterns.

The vocabulary, the content of the movements matter more than the way the movements are performed.

Watch and Observe

Final Verdict

Dancing is to a human as natural as breathing. In an ideal world it would of course be free. Even if you don’t find your inner soul after having sweated on the dance floor or with friends at a party, dancing will still leave you better off than before. Maybe a few pounds lighter, stronger bones and if you are lucky you have momentarily forgotten about the spreadsheets that are waiting for you at the office.

The current Five Rhythms dance craze may awaken many souls to get their bodies moving but is it really therapeutic? Is it truly healing? Will it make its followers better movers? By leaving out the main ingredients for healthy movement behaviour the current Five Rhythms dance craze may put followers into a brief trans-like state but are their bodies going to endure the stresses of moving badly? How can a non-corrective method which enables, even encourages poor, damaging movement habits to fester be healing?

Conclusion

If you are a good mover with a good posture and a happy, rich and healthy movement vocabulary you will benefit from Five Rhythms. But if you are, like the majority of the population, misaligned, overweight, stiff, and unfit, then the Five Rhythms practice may aggravate what is already wrong with your body. Finally, the question has to be asked: will the Five Rhythms craze ameliorate the abysmal day to day physical behaviour of the majority of the population in the long run? Our answer is: Not likely.

Credit

Credit is due to my twin sister Madeleine Kando M.Ed. Dance Movement Therapist who has co-authored this article.

Further Reading

Dancing for Living

Dance Improvisation

What is Choreology?

Please leave comments and questions below.

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