Sunday, February 06, 2005

Mining the Mover Inside: A Feldenkrais Approach to Dance

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Photo by Mark Wozny

When the editor of IN TOUCH called me about writing an article, she expressed an interest in hearing from people who are doing something "different" with The Feldenkrais Method. I would rather say the method is doing something "different" with me. I have always been in motion, dancing before I knew there was such a thing. The Feldenkrais Method has further refined my calling to movement and Awareness Through Movement (ATM) has a become a vital influence in my training and preparation to dance. My ongoing relationship with the method brings me more and more delicious and irresistible choices of motion.

One of my most distinct memories from my training was hearing a trainer proclaim in the middle of an ATM lesson that "no one is ever going to hire you for being able to do this movement." I always wanted yell back, "yes they will." Movement is the "stuff" of my profession as a dancer, choreographer, and teacher . The larger my repertoire of available movements, the more varied my paint box of qualities, and the more access I have to my own creative process.

I sought out the method to further the development of my craft; prolonging my career as a performing artist has certainly been a delightful side-benefit. Long before I had ever heard of this work I was on a path of wanting to explore more than technique in the training of dancers. My early experiments were, in fact, ATMs I would later encounter during my training. If you play with yourself long enough you are bound to stumble on similar ideas. "Play" is the operative word here. Dancers are not generally given enough time or space within their training to play with movement. A neutral landscape of movement is rarely presented. Each movement has a purpose, a specific goal, a certain line (especially in ballet). Bound by mirror-driven feedback and imitating movement from a teachers who stands in the front of class hardly provides an opportunity to develop an interior world. Warming up is often considered second to dancing. This never made sense to me. Why not make it all important? The Feldenkrais Method brought further clarity to the "everything is important" idea. "Technique" is not the only picture in dance. There a "self" inside that literally elevates technical strength. It is the uncovering of the dancing self that motivates me in my teaching and performing.

I have always approached The Feldenkrais Method as a tool for expression and that is precisely my focus in teaching artists and children. Although I have always been labeled a "dance educator." I have never had any inclination or interest to teach people "how" to dance. I think of myself more as a designer/engineer of learning fields whereby dance often emerges. My classes are organized by a structure I call field of play. A field of play can be anything: a skeletal configuration, a qualitative concept, a spatial intention, a phrase from poem. Anything that can be moved into and out of can constitute a "field of play." Early class fields begin more defined and gradually move towards more ephemeral ideas of play. We also play with language, as narrators of our own movement, as observers, color announcers, interviewers, poets, teachers and listeners.

Dancers experiment with movement free of a specific purpose, allowing discovery of their own preferences, instincts and passion for motion. Although the class begins with an internal focus, participants are free to follow the stream of their attention from participant, to observer, to working in small groups and eventually collaborating on their discoveries. I really think about dancing as just another way of finding out and celebrating who we are and what we want to communicate to others. Sometimes I am asked, "What am I trying to give to dancers in my classes?" The generosity of the teacher has little to do with creating fertile ground for learning. I "give" nothing per se, I am more interested in what the participant finds, uncovers, and even better, stumbles upon. As dancers we have spent far too much time doing everything right. I am interested in the investigative act of stumbling into learning. We are all movement archeologists in my class.

In the work I do in the schools any movement or subject can be an appropriate content for creating dances. First graders have created dances based on their names, second graders on the movements they have seen in their kitchens at home, a group of arts administrators from the movements of greeting one another. I like to start with the movement that is already going on. It is not the "what" that has changed all so drastically since my training, but the "how" of igniting and sustaining the attention of the children. . How I enter my students’ field of attention and interest has been finetuned by my training. As teachers we often think of bringing in our bag of tricks and seeing if there are any takers. I’m much more shifty with my
bag a tricks now; I listen for an invitation. An invitation can be anything, a nod of the head, a shrugging of the shoulders or something a student asks or tells me about dance. It is not unlike giving an Functional Integration Lesson. A skilled practitioner is constantly feeling for changes beneath his/her fingers, negotiating between supporting what is already going on and challenging us to consider new options.

I can remember a first grade class that had just finished a presentation by the fire department on fire safety moments before my arrival. The teachers had asked me to do a class on the storytelling aspects of dance yet these children were kinestically charged to drop, tuck, and roll. We began by exploring this movement pattern and gradually began weaving characters out of our movements and finally a story emerged from their movements. There is a certain skill in listening, so elegant and subtle, that is embedded in our thinking as practitioners that invites people into motion. It is enormously useful in presenting movement ideas to any audience. Should you wander into either a class for dancers or third graders you may find a similar chaotic feel in the room. Students may be engaged on very divergent paths of discovery simultaneously, yet all will be deep in play with the mysteries of self-expression.

Recently a young dancer came up to me and asked me "Nancy, how do you make the movement look so connected." I had to think about it for a minute. After a while I realized that I never think about connecting the movements, I’m not even sure I think about "the movement." A simply try to serve myself as an artist and by doing so I serve the work. The shape, dynamic, and phrasing of the choreographed movement will emerge from my commitment to myself. The Feldenkrais Method has provided this ever evolving ground to self-commitment.

This article originally appeared in INTOUCH, the quarterly newsletter of the North American Feldenkrais Guild.