Thursday, December 31, 2009

fascinating rhythm

The giant metronome in the sky – that’s how I came to think of the incessant and precisely regular sound. It would have been maddening, except for the fact that it seemed to pulse at a tempo perfectly suited to the trotting gait of the horse I was riding that evening -- another lovely autumn night in the outdoor ring. Clear and not too cold, it was apparently also perfect for the local marching band practicing somewhere off in the distance, using an amplified electronic metronome to keep them in step.


Well, of course, I knew rhythm to be important in riding and horse training but that evening I had a very tangible experience of the effect of regularity, repetition and consistency on both my horse and myself. I found it impossible to keep from posting the trot to the beat of the metronome. So after my initial resistance, thinking ‘when will that infernal pounding stop!?’ I surrendered and noticed how happily Knickers seemed to be ticking along, dropping his head slightly, blowing out and shaking himself like a big dog, quickly settling down to trot easily around the ring. We both became somewhat mesmerized and I found that soon I hadn’t a care in the world.


The experience stayed with me and in my musician’s heart I began to ponder the significance of rhythm – a concept I had come to take for granted throughout many years of musical training. I started questioning some of my musical friends, particularly those who play jazz and Latin music, I pulled out all of my various dressage and horse training books and began to think about rhythm – in music and in horse riding, soon finding more complexity than I first imagined. However, today, as we mark the end of a year’s cycle, I feel compelled to make a few beginning observations.


Rhythm is a vibrational phenomenon, and it exists at many levels and across time scales. Some say that our relationship to rhythm is established in our mother’s womb as we are literally immersed in the beating of her heart. Throughout our lives we experience layer upon layer of rhythms and cycles from the rising and setting of the sun, the phases of the moon, and the turning of the seasons. From the micro to the macro level, rhythm makes time apparent to us.


So, rhythm includes periodicity and regularity, contains the element of tempo, can create shape, is predictable -- the feeling of knowing what is coming next allows for relaxation. I have the rhythm of my work day, my week, the rhythm of an hour’s aikido class or a weekend intensive seminar. These days I also have the regular structure of a riding lesson – a similar progression from preparation, warm up, through gradually more demanding movements, including periods of greater and lesser intensity, ending with a winding down to walk on a long rein, halt and dismount. Like a musical phrase, a song or a symphony, a short story or a novel – each has a certain form and tempo, a rhythmic framework.


Our rhythmic sense should be completely natural and inherent, yet not everyone seems to be able to express it equally well, to “tap into it,” to “go with the flow.” If rhythm is so closely connected to relaxation, then it certainly makes sense that tension is the enemy of rhythm. Any method for releasing excess tension, whether through the Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, meditation or constructive rest, allows us more access to this quality we all seem to crave: the pulse which has the ability to mesmerize and enthrall and which in turn puts us even further at ease.


The subject is deep and broad and all-encompassing and its application, especially in horse riding and training, so integral, I am quite certain that “I do not know what I do not know” – you know what I mean -- but it is so irresistibly fascinating that it must be explored.


And, what could seemingly illustrate rhythm more perfectly than – tap dancing! Ring in the New Year with this over-the-top number as Eleanor Powell dances to…what else – Fascinatin' Rhythm! Fortunately, even the low resolution film quality cannot disguise the precision of her body mechanics. Note her ability to isolate body parts, the easy poise of her head and if you wonder how she can move and lift her legs without disturbing her overall coordination – it’s the psoas (core strength) muscle. Enjoy!

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