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Gabrielle Roth makes records that people can move to. The sound of Roth and her band The Mirrors ranges from world music to urban street beat to the chant of Buddhist mantras. Regardless of the individual genre explored by her band, one thing remains the same; for Roth, the beat is everything. Roth herself is not a musician. But she has been the creative force behind more than ten albums recorded by the Mirrors since 1986. The guiding principle behind all her work is her theory of the Five Rhythms that are fundamental to all aspects of life. Roth has become internationally known for her courses on personal growth and awareness, which take the Five Rhythms as a starting point and enable individuals to open themselves up and dance. "Her methods," wrote Hal Zina Bennett in the magazine Body Mind Spirit, "can be used by anyone, dancer or non-dancer; it is a 'Western Zen,' integrating spirituality with everyday life." Roth's workshops are held regularly throughout the North America and Europe. Her music, in particular the more hardcore sounds featured on the album Zone Unknown, have been played in dance clubs on both sides of the Atlantic.
Gabrielle Roth grew up on the East Coast. Possessed by "a hunger for rituals of spirit," as she described it in her book Sweat Your Prayers, she became fascinated by the two poles of body and spirit represented by ballet and religion. She was seven when she glimpsed a ballerina through the window of a dance school and made up her mind that that was what she wanted to do. She got a hold of a book that illustrated the basic ballet positions and started practicing them at home in her room. Eventually her parents allowed her to take a real ballet class. Religion held just as large a place in her young life. On Sundays, she hid in the bushes outside the local fundamentalist church, enraptured by the passionate rhythms of preaching and singing. On weekdays, she attended Roman Catholic schools, where the nuns indoctrinated her in suspicion, if not outright loathing, for the body she wanted to dance with.
She continued dancing through college, to rock 'n roll as well as ballet, until an old knee injury reared its ugly head. Doctors told her she would never dance again. Thunderstruck but resigned to their professional opinion, Roth gave up dancing. "I had been cruelly cut off from a deep and beautiful part of myself," she later wrote in her book. She was thrown into a deep depression. At loose ends, she retreated to Big Sur, California, to participate in group therapy at the famous Esalen Institute. Before long, she had joined the institute's staff as a masseuse. When director Fritz Perls discovered Roth had once taught movement therapy in a mental hospital, he asked her to teach it to Esalen therapy groups. Slowly she was moving back toward her real passion.
The turning point came one evening at an institute social event. Live percussionists were pounding out rhythms so irresistible Roth found herself on the dance floor in spite of her knee. The music took over completely. By the time she came back to herself she was exhausted and drenched in sweat. Her knee had never been treated, but it turned out to be perfectly sound. Time had cured her wound. She later said that the experience taught her that humans have a natural craving for ecstatic experience and one way of satisfying it was through dance, which by and large had been repressed by centuries of control. She devoted herself, she says in her book, to uncovering "the flow of each person's energy." That would be the key to her emerging knowledge.
The form the knowledge eventually took was the Five Rhythms. Roth explained the connection with dance in an interview with Amazon.com. "The language of movement is rhythm. Rhythm is our mother tongue, and everything is moving in a beat, in a pulse, in a pattern, in a cycle, in a wave. I began to notice that as people surrendered to their dance, their soul became more visible. And when that energy was visible, one could see the patterns of rhythm that were natural to the soul. These five rhythms are Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, and Stillness. And each one is like a state of being."
Her book Sweat Your Prayers is an extended look at the meaning and expression of the Five Rhythms. She tends to give them metaphorical descriptions Flowing is like a field of wheat, which a breeze blows over, for example. The most succinct summation appears on the jacket of the book: "FLOWING holds the feminine mysteries, STACCATO explores the masculine mysteries. In CHAOS, we are challenged to integrate these principles into the stream of personal energy. LYRICAL is the rhythm of trance and self-realization. In STILLNESS, the mother of all rhythms, we seek the emptiness within us and take refuge in it." Roth believes that each person was born with a "home base" rhythm, the fingerprint rhythm that characterizes him or her. It's the rhythm we usually exist in, the one we feel most comfortable with. It is important, in Roth's system, to work through the others to open up repressed feelings and to awaken our minds to hidden experience. Dance is the most natural path to this awareness. It uses the body to reach the body and puts us closer to the archetypes associated with each of the five rhythms.
The albums of Gabrielle Roth and the Mirrors are a further exploration of the Five Rhythms. The main purpose of the music is to get you on your feet and moving to the beat. But the records are also a guided tour through the rhythms, an exploration of the self. As such, the beat varies from record to record, or even from song to song. Zone Unknown has a distinctly urban flavor; its tracks explore the rhythms Flowing, Staccato and Chaos. Tongues has more a world beat sound that moves through the Five Rhythms. The meditative Stillpoint concentrates exclusively on Stillness.
Because rhythm is the principle element in all of Roth's work, the beat is the thread that binds all her records. The recording process begins with a drummer, a live drummer, as Roth refuses to use drum machines. That initial rhythm is usually one whose dancability has been proven in one of her workshops or performances. Other percussion is then layered on one instrument at a time, each new player responding to what has already been played. Before a track is cut Roth has a general idea what she wants. However, once recording is underway the spirit of the song and the musicians takes over and there is no way to know with precision where they will end up. It is a method that involves much trial and error and a good deal of music is eventually discarded. The result is determined by something like guided serendipity.
On her most recent album, Refuge, released in 1998, Roth collaborated with Boris Grebenshikov, once the leader of Aquarium, a leading underground band in the Soviet Union. The record is a 60-plus minute foray into the chants of Tibetan Buddhism. In a press release accompanying Refuge, Grebenshikov spoke of his sense of the far-reaching effect of the religion. "On Refuge I wanted to share this feeling by taking the mantras from their usual monasterial context deep overtone chanting vocal and incense and placing them in a more accessible format without losing their motivation or innate being." The result is an exploration of Stillness, which relies on the hypnotic qualities of Grebenshikov's voice and accented by steady, regular drumming.
Roth sees her music as pure dance music and it has become popular in some European rave clubs. But dance will always be more than mere entertainment for her it is a way of life, a path to self-discovery.
by Gerald E. Brennan
Gabrielle Roth's Career
Recording artist, author, theater directror, and dance teacher; has released 12 albums with The Mirrors, including Totem, 1986; Zone Unknown, 1997; Refuge, 1998; founded Raven Recording with husband Robert Ansell, later 1980s; published two books: Maps to Ecstasy, 1993; and Sweat Your Prayers, 1997; videos include, I Dance the Body Electric, 1993; and The Wave: Estatic Dance for Body and Soul, 1994; has conducted workshops in spirituality and the body for over 25 years.
- Selected discography
- with The Mirrors
- Totem , Raven Recording, 1986.
- Initiation , Raven Recording, 1988.
- Bones , Raven Recording, 1989.
- Ritual , Raven Recording, 1990.
- Waves , Raven Recording, 1991.
- Trance , Raven Recording, 1992.
- Luna , Raven Recording, 1994.
- Tongues , Raven Recording, 1995.
- Endless Wave , Raven Recording, 1996.
- Stillpoint , Raven Recording, 1996.
- Zone Unknown , Raven Recording, 1997.
- Refuge , Raven Recording, 1998.
- Sweat Your Prayers , Putnam Books, 1997.
- Maps to Ecstasy , Nataraj Publishing, 1993.
- The Wave: Ecstatic Dance for Body and Soul , Raven Recording, 1994.
- I Dance The Body Electric , Raven Recording, 1993.
- Roth, Gabrielle, Sweat Your Prayers, Putnam Books, 1997.
- Body Mind Spirit, March-April, 1998.
- Women's Sports and Fitness, January-February, 1999.
- "Interview with Gabrielle Roth," www.amazon.com
- Additional information was provided by Raven Recording publicity materials, 1999.