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Tribute to Gabrielle

February 4, 1941 – October 22, 2012

GabrielleIt was 1989, Houston, Texas, at Hobby airport. I was picking up Gabrielle Roth, whom I had invited to come teach ecstatic dance.  I’d never heard of her or ecstatic dance. There was no YouTube to look up someone referred to you or some obscure, current area of interest. Websites were expensive and uncommon. We barely used email. It was still the day of phone calls on landlines and answering machine where callers recorded messages that were then scribbled down on scraps of paper. Newsletters and fliers were printed and mailed— typeset, copied, folded, stamped and mailed.

She and I had never met or spoken. I had told my friend, Shakti, that I needed to introduce new work, a new teacher to my energetic, searching and growing therapeutic arts community in the improbable city of Houston.  “Gabrielle”, she said. “Get Gabrielle, she’s only just coming back on the road from a long hiatus”.  The invitation was accepted by her schedule coordinator. Flight information was left on the machine and here I was, waiting and hoping I would recognize her among the passengers streaming past me at Gate A46.

Then, our eyes met. Anyone watching would have mistaken us for old friends meeting after a long absence. Walking toward me in purposeful, long strides was this tall, thin woman in black.  Black pants and loose, silk shirt, shiny black Texas boots and a big, black cowboy hat on top of her black, wild, wavy hair. She had dressed for the occasion, delighted as a child in a new costume, ready to bring her dance into the land of the two-step. A wide grin was followed by a hug of electric raven fierceness. It was a moment of full recognition and I was not the same then or after.

I had persuaded 98 people to show up at a dilapidated downtown dance studio. Gabrielle was surprised and enthralled as she met our earthy gaggle of would-be dancers. It was the late 80’s and this was neither California nor New York. We were decidedly not hip. But we were curious and irreverent, laughed easily and heartily, and had the welcoming spirit of recognized novices willing to look foolish together. The room was filled with schoolteachers and housewives, nurses and corporate CEO’s, house painters and poets, engineers and oil riggers and only one lone yogini among us.

Gabrielle worked us hard. We soon found that no one could hide as she called us by name, ordering a leap to go higher, gentling another’s effort to let go, encouraging the shy, slapping down the performers, letting the air out of the over inflated and igniting the movements of the unseen.

She worked us until our limbs moved, not by muscle alone, but by the dance itself, each movement already in execution before the mind engaged. Exhilaration and, yes, ecstasy flowed, pair of eyes to pair of eyes, rhythm to rhythm and from moment to growing moment, we became one. We blurred together into one breath, one living cell of vibrating potential reaching for our collective best.  We began to move in the crystalline happiness of realizing that we could invent and re-invent ourselves by just a turn, a lift of an arched foot, the sharp fall of an arm, the rhythmic loss of control into an ancient drumbeat.Gabrielle

We were hooked and there was no antidote. We were hooked by this wild, urban shaman who was as real as any loving mother, as real as any mortal called to birth prayer through the body in a form welcome by generations who were weary of dogma and suspect of God. She was a shy genius thrust into a world of insatiable needs, bearing a standard of hope and redemption upon her fierce and fragile shoulders.

She came to us in Houston six times in 5 years.  We began the first weekly Sweat Your Prayers after her second workshop—a gift of her inspiration. She came to us until the demand for her grew too big. We continued to dance in honor of the freedom we each still carry because she altered our DNA from that first gleam of demand from those piercing dark eyes to wake up and meet our lives with bold and uncompromising compassion.

From our first meeting at Hobby airport in Houston, Texas, she was and remains my teacher. The teacher I was meant to encounter in this life. I am grateful and humbled to have been graced with her presence on this earth.

Rosa Glenn Reilly / Spectrum Center, Houston
Musical Ode

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