I’ve been having a twenty-three-year love affair with a dance workout class. I haven’t always been monogamous; sometimes I’ve strayed for years. But I always return because Rhythm and Motion is more than exercise, it’s a transformative experience.
I met Rhythm and Motion when I was fifteen-years-old. As a product of San Franciscan liberal laissez faire parents, I was encouraged to be physical, but no one insisted. At age eight, I was too feminist for pink tights and tutus. By eleven, I was too defensive for team sports. I enjoyed spending hours in the pool during summer visits with my East Coast grandparents—mostly practicing handstands in the shallow end.
Then I attended my first Rhythm and Motion dance workout class at Everett Middle School in San Francisco on a Wednesday night at 6pm. The hour of exercise was organized into sections by song and tempo. Each song drew from a base of similar choreography, creating a foundation on which to build. This class was not calisthenics to manufactured music. We arched our backs and circled our hips as we warmed up to Bill Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine”. We forward-jumped and thrust pelvises to “It’s Raining Men” by The Weather Girls. We crunched stomachs and lifted legs to Sade’s “You’re Love is King”. Learning the choreography kept our minds busy and focused while the variety of music, from world to pop beats, invited us to dance.
Central to the experience were the professional dance teachers. They drew from the same pool of routines, but besides the general flow of the hour, teachers could arrange songs according to their own style. Teachers expressed how dance and music spoke through each of them.
When the founder and director, Consuelo Faust, raised her arms in a graceful stretch, she wrapped us in a blanket of elegant warmth. Terry Pollock had boundless energy for fast songs with high leaps. Roger Dillahunty taught the nuance of each move as if we were professional dancers in training. As Rhythm and Motion grew, Amara Tabor Smith arrived. With a committed yet playful wave from her hips and a gift for weaving music into magic, Amara radiated motivating energy that transformed each class into a spiritual experience.
While dancing, we were invited to stare at our beautiful instructors and learn the choreography of each song. In the early days there were no mirrors, so dressed in my electric blue leotard, matching leg warmers and white terry headband, I was free in the delusion that I looked good. In fact, I could fantasize that I looked really good, like the dancer teaching the class.
What could this mean to a fifteen-year-old chunky, sedentary girl?
Participants in the classes were almost always women ranging from twenty to fifty years old with body sizes as varied as our ages. To move alongside adult women as they gloried in themselves normalized my experience. Eagerness permeated the air and blessed my fifteen-year-old explorations of sensual body pleasures without making me into an object for someone else’s disdain or enjoyment.
I carried these weekly experiences into my first high school dance. In the middle of Lowell High School’s courtyard, I could lean on a Rhythm and Motion twirl while my body discovered how to translate the beat of a song into an expression of movement. Giving my hips the freedom to sway transcended teenage self-consciousness. By the time I went to college, the dance floor had become a safe place to inhabit myself fully.
As I grew up, moved, married, and had two children, I didn’t have access to Rhythm and Motion but I continued to dance. I danced naked fully pregnant in my living room the night before my daughter was born. I co-created Sacred Dance, an evening of intuitive freestyle body movement, to explore dance as a spiritual practice. On Saturday mornings, my family and I cranked up the music and boogied over scrambled eggs and pancakes in the kitchen. When we returned to San Francisco, I re-connected with Rhythm and Motion.
Under the continued direction of Consuelo Faust, Rhythm and Motion now occupied an entire building. The class I took as a teenager had transformed into Fusion Rhythms and there were a variety of new options to sample such as Modern Rhythms, Essential Rhythms, children’s classes, and yoga. African dance from different regions were also now offered along with intensive workshops for in-depth study. Despite the changes, the spirit of Rhythm and Motion remained true and quickly rekindled my passion.
In the fall of 2005, Rhythm and Motion joined forces with Oberlin Dance Company (ODC) and moved its base of operation into ODC’s renovated space in the Mission. At first I was resistant to the potential parking challenges, but the new beautiful digs were so user friendly, my ruffled feathers settled with ease.
After twenty-three years, I have come full circle and am once again dancing several times a week. Amara is back from NY and teaching (blissful sigh) and there are other inspiring instructors available every day. When I look around, I see faithful Rhythm and Motion participants blending with ODC dancers to create a new community. Recently, I found myself enjoying an Amara class alongside two clearly professional dancers and a Rhythm and Motion teacher. As we stretched together, I almost felt a pang of nervousness, but then our eyes met, “It’s Raining Men” began to play, and we kicked up our legs with a smile.
By Staci Boden, a San Francisco-based writer, healing practitioner, and business consultant.
Photo of dancer Amara Tabor Smith, courtesy of Steve Burns