FRANCES PRESLEY: Dancing the Five Rhythms with Scott Thurston

A Review of Scott Thurston’s Reverses Heart’s Reassembly


Scott Thurston’s poetic sequence, Reverses Heart’s Reassembly, takes place within the structure of a dance, the Five Rhythms dance created by Gabrielle Roth, and Thurston is attracted to its aim of freedom through the discipline of a specific practice. I had personal experience of Roth’s Five Rhythms when I took part in a Tavistock Institute course called Womens’ Work: wisdom, balance and influence. In this context it was taught as a way of combining psychology and dance, and we were encouraged to take notes about our psychological state. At the time I was working on an anti-racism project and there was a fair degree of scepticism about psychology generally, unless it had a clear political and social agenda: in this case, the rationale was feminism.

I didn’t think about the Five Rhythms in terms of my writing, but that is precisely what Thurston has done (1). He chose this practice over sport or martial art based physical activities because, as he explains in his essay, ‘it is a discipline without discipline’. He compares it to his discomfort with and eventual rejection of ‘regular metrical patterns’ in poetry:

‘Whatever it is …that gives my poetry its integrity, it is something which is measured in terms other than regular rhythm. And somehow this stands for what I find beautiful in the Five Rhythms practice: its pragmatism, its democratic, un-dogmatic openness. It’s a space in which one seeks … one’s own sense of what it means to be disciplined.’

Thurston describes the function of the dance and its physical movements, which are part of the therapeutic technique. At times it has a Blakean intensity: ‘In the dance – pain, discomfort… start to expose the lineaments, the estate of one’s self… you try to declare these states’.

Although it was not a practice that I pursued, it had an effect on me and I recognise Thurston’s version. Afterwards I tried going to traditional dance classes and found it impossible – as impossible as trying to write an iambic pentameter. I also tried and enjoyed fencing, as Thurston has, but found it highly aggressive and competitive. Both dance and poetry are not so much about learning discipline, but about finding the discipline or form which corresponds to your desires and needs.

The risk in using the Five Rhythms method is that, in reflecting on the practice, you also engage in a certain kind of psychoanalytic discourse. Although it may be psychologically useful to engage with this discipline, it is not usually the direct source of poetic practice. Here the two seem to intersect and although this lays bare the participant’s inner thoughts, it also risks bringing with it such discourse. Sometimes this can be ironic: ‘I bring a few/ neatly-parcelled luxury anxieties to sit and unwrap…’ More straightforwardly and immediately recognisable from the method is: ‘I’m trying to negotiate my anxiety about a conflict in the house’. How do we negotiate this as poetic language rather than the language of psychoanalysis? Reverses Heart’s Reassembly is a hybrid discourse which can result in powerful poetry. It isn’t possible to separate the two kinds of discourse in this book and at its best, they work together. Above all there is honesty in the writing and risk taking, which combines the skill of the poet with the work of self analysis. In the following lines, for example, there is dense, physical word play of shifting vowels and consonants:

high anxiety stabs trap
shut in a dab of time

The movement within the dance, both physical and psychological, is not always undertaken alone. Some of the dances are done in pairs and as part of a larger group. As Thurston writes in the opening stanza, ‘Two interlocutors meet on the level plain’. The work in pairs also echoes the philosophy of Martin Buber, and the importance of dialogue between equals. Reverses Heart’s Reassembly is as indebted to Martin Buber’s I and Thou as it is to Gabrielle Roth’s Five Rhythms.

The book is divided into five sections: boundaries, compassion, knowledge, relation and turning. These are not the same as the Five Rhythms, which are: flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical and stillness. The book does not mirror the dance, because it cannot and it is closer to the states of mind that Thurston wishes to explore, although there is a correlation between the two.

‘Boundaries’ seems like a slightly odd choice of title for the first section. It may be a starting point in some psychoanalytic practice, but not in the Five Rhythms. It was one of the first things we were taught by the Tavistock tutors, as part of the psychoanalytic theory component of the course, and it almost made me walk straight out of the door. At first it can seem like a way of reinforcing English reserve and stand-offishness. One of the women on the course was having a very difficult time at home with her adult son, but we weren’t allowed to comfort her in the normal way, but to maintain our boundaries. Her crisis was precipitated by being asked to perform the Five Rhythms dance, as she only enjoyed line dancing where no independent thought or improvisation was required. Later I learnt to understand that boundaries can be a way of not drowning in a situation, but finding ways of reaching across (although some of us still didn’t agree with all of its interpretations). This reaching across boundaries can be expressed in a helpful way through the Five Rhythms. It is less about creating demarcations than about learning to work with a partner.

The short second section is ‘Compassion’. It includes one of Thurston’s best comparisons of the process of dance and the poem, in which they become one: ‘The cadence of the fight recalls the experience of the poem: movement turning the spiritual into physical reality.’ His use of the word ‘fight’ reminds me of the ‘staccato’ second movement of the Roth dance, in which sharp combative gestures are performed. They were like ‘the great futuristic Xs’ that Pound describes the Slade students making at the Russian ballet (‘Les Millwin’). They were gestures that we made to each other on the station platform, at the end of Women’s Work, as a joyful and hilarious farewell, witnessed by other bemused passengers. The prose passage in which this statement occurs is followed by a poem which exactly transposes it:

Modern songs-
climb out
of yourself.

knit, emit.

The third section, ‘Knowledge’ seems to adopt the warrior poses of ‘staccato’ more explicitly. It celebrates how the ‘war machine’ can paradoxically be used for gentleness and knowledge. In another exact rendering of movement and language we find the lines:

bombardment of a double lash
slashed in the implicit script

This section also makes use of the double column on the page as if to delineate warring forces. One column which begins ‘in the working world’ seems to enact some of the violent language of the workplace, and the breakdown of relationships. The double column mirrors the combative partnership of the dance, particularly in the ‘staccato’ movement. At the end it reverts to a single column and calm: ‘knowledge an encounter/ safe in your hands’. It leaves behind the ordered world of the exploited object.

The tree is a recurrent metaphor in Reverses Heart’s Reassembly. In ‘Knowledge’, for instance, the dancers are just ‘leaves and twigs on the surface’. The tree is central to ancient forms of philosophy and movement – we think of the tree pose in yoga – and to Martin Buber’s I and thou:

I consider a tree …The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no value depending on my mood; but it is bodied over against me and has to do with me, as I with it – only in a different way.

The Tavistock Women’s Work course was held on Dartmoor in November. I remember dancing alone, rapidly circling the room, and seeing a tree in the garden which still had bright red leaves, on fire.

Section IV ‘Relation’ uses short lines, like aphorisms. It also engages most with the theme of partners: ‘YOU’RE GOING FOR high-fives. I can’t match them’. The difficulties and rewards of partnership through dance are explored. He is openly criticised by his partner for his refusal to match his movements. This échec evolves into close communication through gesture:

I suddenly see that the gesture of a hand could be a poem-like the mark it might leave impressed in a surface. * With you our hands are so articulate that I feel we are communicating in a form of sign language.

He learns to shed his preconceptions about ‘knowledge’ as a required demon, but to rediscover it as an encounter in the dance. This is a partnership within a strictly controlled environment and one which ultimately is about individual self-realisation. Yet the intimacy is such that it can develop into a shared exploration and emotional closeness. There were women in my group who I enjoyed dancing with and was attracted to: they included an Indian academic and a Jungian analyst. Working in partners allows bonds of trust and openness to develop. These are not and should not be confused with friendships or real-life partnerships, but they are moments of shared truth which will not be forgotten. Thurston explores this deep dialogue, ‘mirroring, contrasting, interrupting rhythm’, and ends with a fusion of the partners, which is neither narcissism nor a life partnership: ‘I am focusing on you then realise that I am you’.

The final section is called ‘Turning’ and it is written ‘after Buber’s I and Thou’. The word ‘turning’ itself is taken from Buber’s German text: ‘Umkehr’. It is a simpler translation than the word Thurston chooses elsewhere and in the title: ‘reversal’, which has more complex associations of remaking the self and the work. It is also, of course, a movement within the dance, and a further exploration of being with another:

IN A RELATIONAL incident to give,
to put oneself in service to others,
begs a reversal. But in danger
the rescue force draws nearer.

The risks of the relationship do not overwhelm. There is always a rescue force or an escape route, which is both the dance and the poem. In the first section were the lines: ‘The poem’s fire-escape escapes the fire, grasping its bauble in a critique of style’. Here the escape route is a ‘wild line:/ aerial, detached, wavering, deviating’. It’s an escape route which reminds me of Merce Cunningham’s dance, ‘Fluid Canvas’, which I saw on the anniversary of 9/11. It is also the line of the poem and a phrase which recurs at the end of the book:

Moving with the shape of a space
creates a wild line. Start to turn
and learn how to serve you and you
trust me.

‘Turning’ takes a bold stance on moral philosophy through the medium of the dance and relationship to the other. Buber’s work has been described as poetry and here Thurston’s poetry borrows from philosophy (and theology), in another hybrid discourse. This section often reads like a prayer, or a set of elusive commandments. There are echoes of Biblical language, given a modern twist, such as: ‘Make straight your way before me when/ the meta-structure fails.’ The word ‘serve’ is also rarely used with a positive connotation nowadays, unlike the prayer: ‘whose service is perfect freedom’. Buber was a religious scholar, even if we take his writings in a different context now. There are echoes too of Emily Dickinson, whose work has also provided, for some, a modern metaphysics, in lines such as: ‘Forgive my hidden faults – internal difference/ where the meanings are’. At times the language of this final section has the cadence of conviction, the rhetoric of the philosopher, but then it will break down and leave itself open to risk, to the openness of the poem and the place:

The longing of the endless hills – mynydd
hiraethog – when speech dies on the wind.
How to compose the effaced letter, turn
longing around a long turning around?


Frances Presley

Reverses Heart’s Reassembly, Scott Thurston, Veer, 2011
‘Dancing the Five Rhythms: parts 1 & 2’, Scott Thurston, Junction Box, 2-3, 2011-12                                                                                                                I and thou, Martin Buber, transl. Ronald Gregor Smith, Continuum, 2004 (1st ed. 1937)

1. Some of my reflections and images from the Five Rhythms experience were reshaped in ‘Neither the One nor the Other’ (Form, 1999), a collaboration with Elizabeth James.

I would like to thank Rosie Manton who taught the Five Rhythms on our course.


Frances Presley lives in London. Her publications include Paravane: new and selected poems, 1996-2003 (Salt, 2004); Myne: new and selected poems and prose, 1976-2005, (Shearsman, 2006); Lines of Sight, (Shearsman, 2009);  Stone settings with Tilla Brading (Odyssey, 2010), and An Alphabet for Alina with Peterjon Skelt (Five Seasons, 2012). Her work is in the anthologies Infinite Difference (2010), and Ground Aslant: radical landscape poetry (2011). She contributed to a collection of poetic autobiographies, Cusp (2012). She has translated the work of Norwegian poet Hanne Bramness, most recently No film in the camera (Shearsman 2013). Her next book, halse for hazel, will be published by Shearsman in October.


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