Friday, 3 July 2009

Five Rhythms

I have just returned from a week-long camp held annually as a celebration of the midsummer solstice. It takes place in a beautiful meadow full of clover, buttercups and a variety of grasses as well as some wonderful mature trees including oak, beech, hawthorn and pine. There is also a tall conifer I am told is a Wellingtonia.

There were about seventy people in total and we camped in three circles, each with a fire pit in the middle for communal cooking and social focus. It was a closed camp (no visitors) increasing the sense of a shared experience. The beautiful setting and perfect weather made for an idyllic few days.

A prominent feature of the camp is Five Rhythms dancing. This is a new age dance form devised by Gabrielle Roth. Imagine good old fashioned 'freaking out' (for those of us who danced to prog rock in the 70s) combined with little bits of Chinese five element theory and a smattering of other ideas. Some describe it as a spiritual journey, others as a dance form for people who can't dance.

Playing music for it is surprisingly demanding. Each of the five movements can last fifteen minutes or longer, depending on the whim of the teacher. Our ensemble comprised three musicians playing, between them, djembes, balafon, assorted percussion and guitar. I dabbled in most of these, except the guitar, and added clarinet, alto saxophone and both bamboo and orchestral flute.

The music was entirely improvised but we agreed on keys and time signatures before hand. Although the dances took place in a marquee, our rehearsals were held in a mud structure based on an iron age round house which had a wonderfully warm acoustic. Each movement presents its own challenges. The first movement, Flowing, is usually played in 5:4 or 7:4 and this can take some getting used to when playing a melody instrument. The third movement, Chaos, is far more ordered than its name suggests and needs to build to a crescendo. however, building to this over several minutes requires both concentration and strong communication between the musicians.

I am pleased to say that we played for a total of five waves (each dance through the five rhythms is called a wave) and played something different each time, even when the teacher sprang a second one on us in the last session. Our three part singing on one rendition of Lyrical (the fourth movement) went down particularly well.

Afterwards the wonderful sauna on the field, built in the shape of an icosahedron, beckoned.


  1. This sounds like a wonderful experience. I like the idea of structure and improvisation at the same time.... and I can't dance either!

  2. Dance isn't my medium either and holding an instrument gives me the perfect excuse to cling to the wall.