Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

For Dennis Roth, aesthetic theory comes down to one basic principle: You’ve gotta move differently before you can see differently. “You’ve gotta feel the up beat,” Roth says as he grooves down the north side of the National Mall. “It gives the forward motion to the walk.” He starts by rocking his heels up and down. Then he lets his arms get loosey-goosey and begins to bob his shoulders. Moving forward with slightly staccato steps, he looks kind of like R. Crumb’s “Keep on Truckin’” character. The white-haired, 60-year-old Roth is cool.

Though he usually choreographs his movements to an internal beat, this afternoon Roth throws a bone to the less experienced practitioners of what he calls “rhythm vision.” He begins to croon the beat that dictates his sways and wobbles out loud in an Al Jarreau-like scat. When he repeats the polysyllabic refrain—”Doo bee dee buh doo, doo bee dee buh doo”—he does it quickly, but not in a rush. The beat feels lived-in, organic.

When asked if he’s ever grooved with headphones, Roth stops. That’s worse than cheating, he says: It’s a way of tuning out, rather than tuning in to the beats of your everyday environment. “Rhythm vision is about choreographing your walk, seeing and feeling the world as a dance with musical accompaniment,” he says.

Rhythm vision is just one component of an overall philosophy of self-willed synesthesia that the government employee has abided by for more than 20 years and documented with a book and thousands of photographs. Through it all, including a soft-tissue injury he sustained in 1988 while stretching before an office talent show, the walk has remained central.

As Roth lopes along Pennsylvania Avenue, it becomes clear that not all of his moves are of the hepcat variety. One of them, in fact, is a slight limp. Though he received physical therapy off and on for years and never stopped walking after his talent-show accident, Roth couldn’t quite recapture the glorious stepping of his rhythm-vision heyday. “I had a kind of a glide, kind of like a dancer, that made my vision that much more interesting and musical,” he says. “When I lost that, it made things tough to adjust to.”

But this afternoon, Roth can’t hide his glee: He can feel the rhythm starting to come back. He flashes an impish grin as he vibrates his heel up and down to the music. He walks along the Mall, lingering over the reflections in car doors, cracks in the sidewalk, whatever. “When you walk past something, keep your eye on it,” he says. “You’ve got to let things unfold, like a musical line.”

Roth received his formal education in anthropology, earning a doctorate from the University of Oregon in 1974. He taught only briefly, though, finding himself uncomfortable speaking in front of a room full of students. After working for two years as a claims authorizer with the Social Security Administration in his hometown of Chicago, he signed on as a historian with the U.S. Forest Service, for which he authored two books, one on the wilderness movement and the other on national forests.

When the federal government relocated him to the District in 1978, Roth, who now works in the Department of Agriculture’s economic-research service, took extraordinarily well to his new environment. “On breaks and lunches, I would go to museums almost every day,” he says. “It became a habit—I just looked at things.” Although Roth had studied the piano as an adult, he didn’t consider himself much of an artist or artistic thinker prior to the launch of his informal, self-guided tours of the museums on the Mall. “I had no visual imagination. I was blind in the aesthetic sense,” he says.

His breakthrough came in 1982, when Roth found himself on a bus traveling between Portland and Eugene, Ore. “I suddenly saw these little trees lining the road down the interstate, and saw the turning of the trees in my visual field,” he remembers. “I thought, Gee, I’m dancing with trees.” After he returned to Reston, where he’s lived for the past 25 years, Roth found a group of similarly tall, straight trees when he was walking through a wooded area. Before he could stop himself, his mind had transformed the trees into a group of swinging metronomes and he was twisting his body back and forth, back and forth.

When Roth went to visit his old grad-school friend Bill Keller on the West Coast in 1985, he had some trouble describing his new sensory fantasia. So Keller—whom Roth alternately refers to as his “muse” and Cairo Man; Keller, in turn, calls Roth Dr. Jive—suggested that he write down his ruminations. At first, Roth resisted: “I thought, Artists experience this all the time. It’s not unusual.”

Keller, a professor who now lives in Thailand, decided to take notes on his friend’s breakthrough. “The great part about [rhythm vision] is that there is a world in motion around us all the time,” he says by e-mail. “So instead of going retrospective, one can trance out on a most wonderful multimodal flash zap ripple world that will give you goose bumps.”

Keller’s notes eventually turned into a rough outline for Rhythm Vision: A Guide to Visual Awareness, a collection of texts and photographs that illustrate Roth’s concepts. Designed for the novice rhythm visualizer, the book includes a section called “Things to Try,” in which there are listed no fewer than 37 rhythmic activities, including Edge Effects (“Notice how a tree with outstretched branches moving against a straight edge seems to dance like a ballerina on her toes”), the Decal Effect (“Your first experience with this effect is worth a Verbal Ejaculation”), and the George Jefferson Effect (“The exaggerated side to side walk of the black television character. White people should practice this effect discreetly lest they become slightly ludicrous figures suffering from ‘compulsive soul brotheritis.’”)

Rhythm Vision was published by Texas-based Intaglio Press in 1987. The book received a positive review from the Washington Post and has found a small audience among those who specialize in the relationship between art and perception. Crétien van Campen, a synesthesia researcher based in the Netherlands, even places Roth’s work in an artistic tradition that also includes Mondrian and filmmaker Oskar Fischinger.

Still, Roth confesses his disappointment that his ideas haven’t reached a wider audience. “The publisher didn’t have any access to distribution networks. It wasn’t in any bookstores,” he says. “I was a little disappointed. I thought I had a message for people.”

Roth credits Keller with convincing him to incorporate illustrative photographs into Rhythm Vision, despite his lack of experience behind the lens. “I had hardly taken any photographs,” Roth says. “I would look for the situations that triggered the various things that I had written about. Without the words and the description, they would’ve just been ordinary pretty pictures. They mean a lot more when they’re connected with the words.”

Since then, Roth has gradually grown more comfortable with the medium, demonstrating a gift for finding destabilizing, unconventional views of commonplace scenes. In Rhythm Vision’s Meshing Gear Building, for example, neighboring modernist towers appear to be moving in concert, coming together along the grooves in their façades. It’s a modest image, but surprisingly entrancing. “What Dennis is capturing,” Keller says, “is a little noticed innate zen kind of beauty and aesthetic appreciation of often the most mundane things.”

So far, Roth has kept much of this work to himself. Some of it is on display at his wife’s restaurant in Herndon, A Taste of the World, and he had his only formal exhibition at the Martin Luther King Library in 1992. But in recent years, he has moved more toward photography as the primary expression of his ideas, especially in Inverted Mirror World, a series of reflected-water shots made in late 2001 and through the summer of 2002 at Glade Stream, a mile-long rivulet that cuts through Reston’s Twin Branches Nature Trail. As with much of Roth’s artistic inspiration, the choice to invert came without warning. While walking the trail, Roth had the impulse to get on the ground, arch his back over a log, and crane his head back as far as it would go.

When Roth pointed his lens at the stream from this position, he found that the water’s reflective surface revealed some unexpected images. He found even more after rotating his prints 90 degrees: Earth Mother Heavy With Child, Dragon Regarding a Jurassic Bird, even Masked Musketeer Topped by Sabretooth. “In the upright world, I have good vision,” Roth explains. “I pick out things. Often, I did not see these creatures. They emerge from these fourfold symmetries. It just increases the potential for happy accidents.”

In the aftermath of Inverted Mirror World, Roth hasn’t shaken his love for hanging upside down, acknowledging that part of the appeal is the visceral thrill of blood rushing to his head. (“I like altered states,” he says, “but I’ve never taken drugs.”) He has now trained himself to invert for at least 30 minutes at a time, a practice he follows as often as possible. Some passers-by have thought he “might be a murdered or stricken geezer,” but Roth doesn’t seem especially concerned. “I’ll just check and see that not too many people are around,” he says. “I’ve reached the age where I don’t really care if people think I’m a wacko or not.”

As his retirement nears, Roth says he’s committed to spreading his philosophy. To that end, he maintains his Web site and demonstrates his techniques to anyone curious enough to ask.

One Saturday morning, on a dock overlooking Reston’s Lake Audubon, he lies back, his head hanging backward over the water. “As a kid, you do this all the time,” he says. He rests for a while, watching the reflections of clouds dance in the water like smoky icebergs. Then a pair of joggers enters his field of vision as they run over a hill 50 yards away. “People upside-down are great,” he enthuses. “Even a Big Gulper can be a Baryshnikov. There’s a grace. When you see the legs upside down, there’s a nice little pumping.”

As the runners’ legs carve out patterns against the deep blue sky, Roth starts chanting to himself—”Duh dah dah, duh dah dah, duh dah dah”—and lets out a full-bodied laugh. “This is just really fun stuff to do,” he says. “I don’t get tired of this stuff—what can I say?” CP