Training and Courses

Q&A with Bernadette Ryder

By james higgins, Friday May 12, 2017

Bernadette Ryder is a leading teacher of 5 Rhythms Dance in Bristol.

5 Rhythms offer both a physical workout and deeper self-exploration through free-form dance. Her career began in sub-Saharan Africa, first teaching in a bush school, then development work with refugees. In Bristol, she has helped develop many grass-roots initiatives including credit unions, community businesses, local youth facilities, drugs rehab programmes and a local development trust. Bernadette has been influenced by other spiritual practices including Isha Yoga, Tantra, Movement Medicine and shamanic healing. She has worked as a trainer with several international environmental awareness organisations, and she is one of the founders of the DMAC dance studios at Hamilton House.

Her career began in sub-Saharan Africa, first teaching in a bush school, then development work with refugees. In Bristol, she has helped develop many grass-roots initiatives including credit unions, community businesses, local youth facilities, drugs rehab programmes and a local development trust. Bernadette has been influenced by other spiritual practices including Isha Yoga, Tantra, Movement Medicine and shamanic healing. She has worked as a trainer with several international environmental awareness organisations, and she is one of the founders of the DMAC dance studios at Hamilton House.

Bernadette has been influenced by other spiritual practices including Isha Yoga, Tantra, Movement Medicine and shamanic healing. She has worked as a trainer with several international environmental awareness organisations, and she is one of the founders of the DMAC dance studios at Hamilton House.

Why Africa?

As a teenager, I had the impression that the adults around me weren’t happy. I wanted to know how people elsewhere lived. I chose Africa–simply because it was the most different place I had heard of at that stage of my life. I taught science GCSEs to the children of nomads in a bush school in northern Kenya. It was an extraordinary experience and certainly different.

Through working in Africa I got to witness and understand the global system that systematically extracts resources from underdeveloped countries and draws them to the West. I was also introduced to grassroots empowerment approaches to development work that countered this system. After witnessing how effective it was, I returned to London to train in empowerment based Community Development work.
What is the Empowerment Approach?

It’s where you work entirely from the perspective and will of the people you are working with – enabling the process of making collective decisions and taking collective action. Governments hate it because 
it invariably becomes political. I worked in Mali in West Africa, again with nomads. They had lost all of their livestock through drought – so they had nothing. The government was giving land and they wanted to learn how to use it – without losing their nomadic lifestyle. They aimed to rebuild their herds and be mobile but with a base to come back to. They had to do things they’d never done before, like build a village and grow crops. The first thing we did was choose our land – the second was dig wells. They made the choices, I just kept the process moving.

What challenged you most in Africa?

It was physically tough, death was always close and people would die – my friends died. In a situation where you know that if you don’t succeed, people you care about will die, then it is too easy to push yourself too hard and keep pushing. The training I had was fantastic, except that it did nothing to protect people against that phenomenon. The aid role that I was in chewed people up. I watched others caving in, and I eventually could feel my own systems collapsing under the strain.
Why did you leave?

I stopped working in Africa because I got thoroughly burned out. When I got back here I was sick and suffering from post-traumatic stress. After the health service had worked through all my various tropical diseases and signed me off as healthy again – I knew I wasn’t. It was Bristol in the early 90s and I was working as a community development worker, but I couldn’t speak about my experience in Africa at all. If I tried I just cried – a typical post-traumatic stress symptom.

I trained in counselling – because I kind of knew I needed it. The trainer persuaded me to see a psychotherapist – who was helpful, but my most pressing issues were not rooted in childhood. I tried various therapies. I remember practitioners staring at me in alarm and saying, “Your Hara’s empty!” I had no idea what they meant. To me, it felt as though my central power generator had gone down and I was operating on candles and kerosene lamps.

Then a shiatsu practitioner said that working on me, he had had the impression of working with a dead body. Strangely it was a moment of intense relief – because I often felt like I was actually a walking corpse, it was like a guilty secret that no-one else knew – but having someone else affirming that experience made me realise that there was something real going on.

Meanwhile, all my creative faculties had closed down except one. I could still dance and actually, it was the only thing I wanted to do. I took up salsa, lindy hop, rock and roll and all sorts. I studied for a full year with ‘Dance Voice’: but when I went to my first 5 Rhythms session with Adam Barley – I thought, “This is it!”

How did you develop your 5 Rhythms?

“I could feel its potency from the beginning. After a few weeks of regular classes, I did a 7-day course over New Year with Susannah and Yaacov Darling Khan in Totness. It was a revelation – and pretty much blew my head off!

It became a way to express and clear my system of all the trauma. I learned to sob and rage and keep dancing. And I allowed myself to express whatever I happened to be feeling and let it clear. I’ve learned to trust my body’s capacity to judge just how much to let out and when.

This is something that happens when you go into 5 Rhythms and just follow the body and energy over a prolonged time. It gives the body an opportunity to start sorting itself out.

How would you define the 5 Rhythms?

It’s a movement meditation practice – the focus of the meditation is your own physical being – body, heart, energy and breath. It brings you into presence. The 5 Rhythms is a map of how energy moves through a human being when it’s not blocked or forced – it’s a useful tool.

The first rhythm is Flowing which begins with low energy vibration, then starts to build. As the energy increases, the way people move changes and become Staccato. The energy continues to build and as it moves towards a peak the dance transforms again becoming Chaos. Once past its peak, the energy drops and the form turns into lyrical – which tends to be quite light and playful.

As the energy continues to drop it turns into the final rhythm which is stillness – with the vibration that we would normally associate with meditation.

What benefits do people feel?

How quickly people feel at home with 5 Rhythms is very variable. It’s not for everyone. For some people, it’s just way too weird or exposing.

People tend to start to recognize that they are carrying a lot of unexpressed emotion and that this is a way of dealing with it. As they do their bodies start to change. Firstly the way people move changes – often quickly, sometimes dramatically. Interestingly, men in their 40s 50s are often the fastest to change. People come to a new understanding of themselves, they even find their posture changing as they develop freedom of movement and expression, and shed years of tension.

Hamilton House

It was 2008-2009 when I discovered Hamilton House was happening and I thought, this place needs a dance studio. I joined forces with dance teachers from St Pauls who were teaching dance forms from across the globe. Our separate vision fitted together like pieces of a jigsaw and we created DMAC-UK – Dance Music Arts Collective UK. We’ve worked together ever since and had our 5 years AGM recently. Our focused now is outreach work, taking dance and the arts into schools, community centres and the workplace.

Besides my work in Africa, I spent years as a trainer, working with several environmental awareness organisations, including Transition Towns, Be-the-Chang, TreeSisters and The Pachamama Alliance. Yet, despite all this worthy stuff – I think teaching 5 Rhythms Dance is the single most useful thing I’ve ever done. It’s profound, physical and fun. For many, it’s simply a great way to keep fit. For many, it becomes a doorway to accessing the wisdom of their bodies. After teaching for almost 20 years I still completely love it and I never get bored.

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