Once upon a time, Michael Stone was caught up in the corporate rat race. Then, he discovered the magic of movement. Now, he helps seekers find enlightenment through physical motion.
Torsos swaying, mouths agape, hands gesturing, arms flying, legs springing, bodies wild. A yelp of glee escaped someone’s throat, and three joyous calls echoed back, each with a unique timbre and tone.
It appeared almost ritualistic, the loosening of energy, the letting go of daily cares to embrace the rhythms pulsing around the bodies. The music was loud: Latin, hip-hop, world beat and rock ’n’ roll. Then, all at once, the room became calm.
Multi-colored swirling shapes gently succumbed to inertia, and the energy became more centered, contained and controlled. Fluid instrumentals, soft soothing vocals, some East Asian-inspired music and an aria lent a slower pace, a gentler energy to the group.
A tribal ritual caught on film by National Geographic? Nope. This was a class offered by the Sacramento Department of Parks and Recreation. Stripped of their workaday personas, the two dozen or so Sacramento residents were losing themselves in movement on a Thursday evening at Clunie Community Center. Dressed in everything from blue jeans and bare feet to flowing skirts wrapped with colorful sarongs, this group was carried away by a music-propelled practice named the 5 Rhythms.
“Moving into lyrical,” 57-year-old instructor Michael Stone directed from the front of the room, guiding the class from one rhythm to another. There was less interaction, more reflection. Bodies moved more deliberately, faces were pensive.
“Breathing!” Stone reminded the class from his microphone by the stage. Sporting tight, black dance pants and a black T-shirt emblazoned with the word “EARTH” in capital letters, Stone was like a gray-haired DJ at a sober rave. Occasionally, he left his post behind the turntables to join the dancers; but mostly, he stayed at the front of the room, watching, spinning tunes and guiding the class.
In the cavernous community auditorium, complete with empty stage and high, chandeliered ceilings, one could not help but recall dry public-school assemblies. But every Thursday evening, Stone and his class of 30 transform the space into a place of healing, discovery and just plain fun.
Aside from the obvious pleasure participants get from moving like air particles in an enormous fan—laughing, clapping and interacting as spontaneously as preschoolers in a sandbox—there are serious underpinnings to this activity. Based on the 5 Rhythms concept developed by movement pioneer Gabrielle Roth more than three decades ago, Stone’s “Rhythms of Change” class is what he terms a “moving meditation.”
“The rhythms are really about energy,” Stone explained. “Energy moves in waves, waves move in patterns, and patterns move in rhythms. And isn’t that what we are as human beings, waves of energy moving in patterns and rhythms? You begin to recognize the patterns in your dance correspond to the patterns in your life.
“It’s not really dance. This is movement,” Stone added. “It’s a movement practice, so there are no steps to learn, there’s no structure. It’s really about tapping into the inner dance that everybody has.”
Stone used relationships as an example. “How I approach a woman,” he explained, “how I approach a man, my posture when I’m afraid, when I’m sad: We’re working on the mental, the physical, the emotional and, ultimately, the spiritual element. When you see someone drop into their dance, and there’s nothing but the dance, it’s really an amazingly beautiful thing. You’re really getting into a spiritual place.”
Stone, who has been leading classes and workshops based on Roth’s 5 Rhythms concept for three years in Nevada City, began offering similar activities in Sacramento this past January. Currently, the class meets Thursday evenings from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in Clunie Community Center in McKinley Park, which allows participants to build a basic vocabulary in the 5 Rhythms concept. Stone also conducts weekend “spirit dances” at the same location, which introduce the community at large to this unique movement experience.
The rhythms developed by Roth are: flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical and stillness. Each corresponds to a specific energy, much like tempos in music do. For example, staccato is often expressed in four-four time—like rock ’n’ roll—whereas the rhythm of chaos has more of a trance-dance feel.
Measurements and exact syncopation aside, the rhythms are, in Stone’s words, “energetic maps of consciousness.” The Thursday-night class is a blend of movement, poetry and dialogue that Stone hopes will enable participants to become more in touch with their own ways of living and interacting. The Rhythms of Change Web site (www.rhythmsofchange.com) states: “By getting in touch with the patterns locked in our bodies, we can release old habitual ways of being in the world and integrate new ways to relate to others, our communities and ourselves.”
Roth and Stone attribute certain characteristics to each rhythm. Flowing is about being flexible, smooth and loose. Staccato is the rhythm of action, passion, performance and clarity. Chaos is about letting go of linear rationality and breaking patterns of attachment like guilt, anxiety, bitterness and fear. Lyrical is about self-acceptance, an airy playful quality that has no predetermined direction or definition. Stillness is a state of tranquility, serenity, emptiness and true presence. Hidden in the rhythm of stillness can be wisdom and inspiration.
On this night, it was 44-year-old Angela Noles-Milton’s first class, but she admitted to being hooked already. “Most places you go, people are making comments about you, and there’s no sense of freedom,” she explained, glad to have found a place where she could dance without worrying about getting it “right.” “No steps!” she laughed.
Getting away from “steps,” from too much analytical thinking at the expense of a deeper knowledge and awareness, is one reason Stone left his lucrative career as a corporate consultant seven years ago to become a dance instructor. “In the corporate world, it became more and more that I was a talking head working with talking heads,” he said.
“As a culture, we really don’t live in our body,” Stone continued. “That’s a lot of what this work is, to seduce people into their body.”
Even as a behavioral consultant for such large corporations as Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Prudential, Stone said, his work was always about bringing connection and meaning to people’s lives. “Developing people, for me, was always about having happy, healthy, successful employees,” said Stone.
Unfortunately, in recent years, Stone became disillusioned by the way his client corporations were run and where they put their priorities. “I felt like my work used to make a difference,” said Stone of his 25 years teaching conflict resolution and communication in the business world. “But in the structure of consumerism and perpetual growth, you don’t spend money on training people for the long run. Now, people are expendable resources.”
Stone’s lifestyle change has come with sacrifices. “I’ve gone from making a fairly large income to, umm, well, it’s certainly not paying for itself yet. I have been living on savings,” he confessed. His voice betrayed fear of the unknown. He seemed less assured than when he spoke about the 5 Rhythms in theoretical terms. His confidence quickly returned, however. “I trust that it’s the right thing to be doing,” he said, sounding grounded once again. “But it’s pretty risky.”
Providing a place where people feel free to take risks and expose themselves through movement is what Stone’s class is all about. Clearly, many people come for the unique, nurturing environment the weekly class provides. “It’s like being on a magical playground with really nice kids,” said participant John Brewer.
“I noticed how hungry I was to come to this place from the outside world, where we just immediately get deeper and not take any time to get there,” said Janet Patterson.
During the closing portion of the class, everyone gathers in a circle to share the emotions and feelings that occurred while dancing. “This will always be a safe space,” Stone reminds his perspiring flock. “I’m always watching, holding the space.”
The silent nods of acceptance and approval around the circle echo group therapy. “This group of people is so open to revealing themselves,” Michelle Fong tells the others. “I feel like I see myself through your rhythms.”
“It’s wonderful work, and it’s very healing,” said Daphine Mackin, who practiced the 5 Rhythms in Nevada City before Stone started his Sacramento class.
Though he encourages people to delve within themselves to expose buried behavioral patterns or emotions, Stone stays firmly within the realm of movement. “It’s not therapy, but it is therapeutic,” he said.
At $12-$15 per person per evening, some might view this class as a warm, fuzzy luxury only afforded those with the time and money to take advantage of it. After all, sharing feelings and finding oneself to music is not a mainstream notion of adult reality. Stone, however, sees this work as more relevant than ever.
“We’re entering the era of chaos. The infrastructure of our country is completely falling apart,” said Stone, citing the state of domestic health care, the crisis in the global economy, and international relations as evidence of his assertion. “We are the most hated country in the world. For me, this work is to support people in being able to deal with what’s coming down the pike. And what’s coming down the pike is not pretty.”
Perhaps, as Stone’s participant base expands, more people will tap into their rhythms, enabling them to live more in tune with themselves and the world at large.