Why Every DJ Should Understand The 5 Rhythms Dance System

Imagine there was a DJ who could reliably get a group of people to dance wildly for several hours on a Sunday morning with no drugs or alcohol. You’d probably assume they must be an amazing because getting people to dance – even with social lubricants – can be a real challenge for us all.

There is not one such DJ, but rather a music/dance system called 5 Rhythms that reliably gets the impossible done all over the world. In today’s article, I suggest how it this unique system might teach DJs a thing or two about their jobs.

What Is 5 Rhythms?

5 Rhythms is a dance system started by Gabrielle Roth that takes people through a circular dance journey of music and movement. Each 5 Rhythms class has instructors who play music, while giving loose guidance and providing space for the dancers to move however they want.

“Fundamental to the practice is the idea that everything is energy, and moves in waves, patterns and rhythms. […] The five rhythms (in order) are flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical, and stillness. The five rhythms, when danced in sequence, are known as a “Wave.” A typical Wave takes about an hour to dance” – Wikipedia

While there’s no choreography and the dance floor is open to anyone, there is an established structure to the soundtrack that matches the way people naturally move. The structure is a brilliant musical arc that could help DJs create more of a story in their sets and keep dancers fully engaged and dancing for longer.

Here is one way to look at the conceptual framework that 5 Rhythms classes use, but I highly recommend experiencing it yourself if possible. It’s one thing to think about these concepts, and quite another to experience what they feel like in your body. I firmly believe that DJs who don’t dance themselves can never really understand how to serve a dance floor.

The Arc Of 5 Rhythms

The 5 Rhythms musical arc is a journey that is roughly comparable to the course of your day. It has musical intensities which gradually build and settle down in a manner that the body recognizes, and can easily incorporate. The following descriptions are my own personal experience of how the journey feels and why each step felt like it was very applicable to my own work: djing for an audience.

Flowing: The Opening Sequence

This section is much like the opening of your day as things are starting to get going including waking up. Slow, soft rhythms that gently move invite a dancer to being and move their bodies in a gentle way. We feel good upon first rising with clarity, and space for the day to come.

Takeaways for DJs: Physically, dancers need to warm up their muscles and begin the process of movement. This is ideally done with lower BPMs that allow for greater space between the beats, and therefore slower movements. It can also be done energetically, with tracks that have less energy. Invite people into your set with uplifting beats that guide people onto the dance floor in a gentle way.

Staccato: The Day Gets Going

After getting up and started with the day, you have your first cup of coffee and things start to get into motion. There is a fresh energy here with the muscles limber and energy levels high. We are ready to get into the dance, and start moving. Typically in 5 Rhythms the music would be fairly driving, and energetic. I find that 4/4 rhythms in a lower tempo are great for this. They are hypnotic, and energizing without being too fast.

Takeaways for DJs: Once people are on the dance floor, we can pull them into the groove by bringing in steady beats that have some forward momentum. Specifically, tracks with less swing and a straight forward beat have a certain “getting things done” momentum that really starts the energy. Early on in a dance, people’s bodies are not fully limber and wild yet, so some structure to the beat can be helpful.

Chaos: Things Get Really Intense

The day is in full swing, Calls are coming in, and emails are flying out. Perhaps a second coffee has been downed and all the energy is flowing towards the task at hand. This section tends to be peak tempos with a wild bent to the rhythm. Examples could include techno or drum and bass. Personally, I love to dance to really aggressive trap in this section and just totally lose my mind.

Takeaways for DJs: There is a key point in the dance (perhaps several, in fact) where our bodies are fully warmed up, have a lot of energy left, and everyone is ready to really explode. “Peak tracks” is a common term and usually used to reference a big and popular song.

I would invite you to think about this section more in terms of tempo and intensity. At lower tempos (under 124), there is enough space for the body to move gracefully and articulate movements. Above 128 BPM, things start to get a bit more jumbled, and the intensity lends itself to chaotic movements which can be a lot of fun when people really let themselves go.

Lyrical: Having Some Fun

The work day is done, and much of your energy has been expended – but there is still a strong desire to connect, socialize, and have some fun! In 5 Rhythms classes, the music typically played during this section would contain lyrics and be more recognizable. It might even be in a certain style that lends itself to taking on a persona in the movement. Examples could include Latin influence, swinging characteristics, or perhaps a sexy bounce.

Takeaways for DJs: While many DJs may use recognizable songs to get people on the dance floor, there is a specific point in the night when people are ready for fun/nostalgia and playfulness. We can use the energy of these tracks to keep bodies moving after they might be burned out from an intense period of dancing. If that is your goal, switch to a lower tempo or pick tracks with more space. This allows the body to still be expressive,  while also taking a bit of a breather from the peak moment.

Stillness: Slowing Down Into The End

It’s been a full day of work, craziness and social fun. All the bases have been hit, and the body is probably spent. Time to step back into the quiet comfort of ourselves to rest and recharge. At the end of a 5 Rhythms dance there is a period – generally 1-2 songs – of stillness. These are more ambient tracks with little or no defined rhythms that allow people to slow down and rest at the end of an intense ride.

Takeaways for DJs: For many of us, this may be counter intuitive. Don’t you want to end on a high note? Admittedly, in some set situations a “come down” moment may even totally inappropriate. However, if possible, to give people a sense of a full lyrical arch to your set, I really recommend experimenting with bringing it down at the end. This is a time, where completely exhausted people will put up with and even possibly enjoy some of the stranger, less dance floor friendly tunes you love.

Adapt To Suit Your Tastes

In the 5 Rhythms classes, this journey typically occurs one time over the course of about 60 – 90 minutes, with 2-3 songs per section. For DJs, the same energetic arc can be extended or shortened to accommodate your dance floor.

that’s why DJs exist – to adapt and respond to each environment creatively.

You can also create several musical arcs in one single night, depending on the situation you find yourself in. There is no one system that fits all, and that’s why DJs exist – to adapt and respond to each environment creatively. Hopefully this is just one more tool in your tool box that can be used, and adapted to suit your own personal style.

Here is an example of this musical arc adapted to a longer set, with several swells over the course of two hours. Enjoy: