Monday, February 07, 2005

Reflecting: Dance Mirrors and Feldenkrais

Each one of us speaks, moves, thinks and feels in a different way, each according to the image of himself that he has built up over the years. In order to change our mode of action we must change the image of ourselves that we carry within us.

Moshe Feldenkrais
Awarness Through Movement

When I think about Feldenkrais and dance together a whole host of emotions and ideas surface. We carve our own path to meaning in this work. For me that path included a surrender of previously held convictions about what it means to be a dancer and mover. Each Feldenkrais practitioner has a "story" of how they landed in the work. We tell our story over and over in classes and workshops answering the question: "So how did you get interested in this work?" Over the past year I noticed my story getting shorter and shorter. It went something like this: "I was a young dancer. I had many injuries. I tried ATM and FI. I got better. End of story." My story was getting so rote that I actually began listening to it, and discovered that it was missing its true beginning. My real story is not so much about recovering from injuries as it is about recovering my self.

Here's what really happened. For the most part I loved taking dance classes. I loved the mathematical nature of dance. I had a knack for remembering long combinations and complex patterns. The dancers behind me relied on my memory and accuracy. I was a tidy little dancer, cherishing all the details, the very corners of the movement. I most definitely had an affinity with space. What I lacked in extensions, turning ability, and other feats, I made up in pure kinetic finesse. I loved to stand in the front of class, close to the mirror, so I could see myself moving. People liked watching me. Mostly, I liked watching me. The mirror was my loyal twin, devoted audience, and partner in narcissism. As a mirror-dependant dancer, I was always getting lost on stage and mixing up stage right and left. When I wasn't in dance class, I was busy sculpting meticulous little dances, in the mirror, of course.

But at a certain point during my dance career an interesting phenomenon occurred. My image in the mirror quit. That's right, it just walked away. I like to think it had something better to do that serve as my slave. I was left stranded, abandoned, and helpless without my own reflection to tell me where I was, where I was going, and how damn good I looked getting there. I somehow had become unreflectable, invisible to both the mirror and myself. At that point I had spent some 15 years dancing in a trance, tethered to a piece of glass reflecting my image in a two-dimensional plane. The mirror was my compass, my map, and unfortunately, far too much of my territory. The trance broke and there was nothing to replace it. Left up to its own devices, the psyche will manifest concrete experiences - in my case, the fracture of my self-image took the form of invisibility.

The tether ruptured slowly. The first symptom was failing to remember the combinations, which caused havoc to the armies of dancers behind me relying on my fine memory skills. Next came a feeling of indifference and apathy, "Why bother dancing if I can't see how great it looks in the mirror?" What followed was a general feeling of "deadness" in my spine. I felt like an empty shell. So what happens to a dancer with a run away self-image? I tore both my hamstrings, and could not bend down, or even look at anyone else bending down. I made most radical of all choices: I quit taking dancing classes. Surrendering one's daily dance class routine during that era was akin to going AWOL from the army. I was leaving the tribe. My "real dancer" status had begun to unravel.

I entered the somatics shopping spree not because I was a curious, soul searching dancer, but out of desperation for my own future in dance. First I returned to the Laban/Bartineff work. I had studied this work in graduate school and had thought the Laban work was for people who liked to talk more than dance, and that the Barteineff Fundamentals were fundamentally boring. I was a reluctant learner at first. I am not sure I wanted to broaden my horizons, but simply to return to the way things worked before. I traveled to NY, taking various workshops in the fundamentals and space harmony. It was at the Laban Institute that I first discovered the concept of "organizing" oneself. Up until that point the mirror had been my organizing principle. I organized myself from without, relying on an external and visual source to anchor myself in space. The journey to recovery was one of import, of bringing my self-image within and letting go of the self as "other."

Somewhere during this period I also began to take Alexander lessons. I would feel great afterwards and then trip down my Alexander teacher's stairs. Somehow the work was not making it down to my feet. It was at LIMS that I first heard the word "Feldenkrais" uttered by no other than Martha Myers, the great mover and shaker of the American Dance Festival and author of the landmark article in Dance Magazine "Dance and The Body Therapies." Listening to my tale of woe, Martha turned to me and said, "You need Feldenkrais." As miracles happen, When I returned to DC, a young woman training in the Amherst Feldenkrais program began offering an Awareness Through Movement class for dancers at my very own place of work, Liz Lerman's Dance Exchange. Thinking back, I believe the Laban and Alexander work gradually sensitized and prepared me for the next part of my learning. Recovering from my injuries was just the first layer of my somatic onion. Much more peeling was necessary. I needed to move from a different place in order to invite my self-image back into the home of myself.

When I think back on those early experiences in Awareness Through Movement, I see Wendy sewing on Peter pan's shadow, stitch by stitch, movement by movement. I had lot of sewing to do. For the most part, I was a stranger to my own perceptions. Each lesson moved me closer to knowing myself as a mover from the inside. ATM's slow, simple, methodical, gentle, listening movements formed the perfect medicine for my disappeared self. After all, I had lost myself through movement, it seemed only logical to find myself through movement. I spent the next eight years on the floor doing ATM and Functional Integration (FI). I did not so much re-learn how to move, but learn to become conscious of what was in the way of my moving. The methodical nature of the work was compelling, and I was captivated by its "learning spell." ATM creates an internal sense of space where one desires to be fully present. I welcomed myself home with each lesson as I began to move from my own authority.

I moved to California and a Feldenkrais training was just starting a three-minute drive from my house. I entered the training thinking that I was going to channel all my creativity toward Feldenkrais and I no longer needed to dance or stay invested in myself as a dancer. In fact, it was virtually impossible to stop dancing; movement was just too delicious. I would stand up from an ATM and move spontaneously. As my fellow classmates enjoyed their coffee breaks, I wandered through the rich post-ATM zone - an antenna, receiving the inherent qualities of the space. The whole world of generating movement had turned upside down and inside out. ATM served as a portal, allowing me to converse intimately with space. From such a deeply internal process I was surprised to be literally catapulted into space. All that I loved about dance - the details, the corners, the intricate patterns - was there for me. Developing my inner senses opened my external senses in such a way that I no longer needed outside validation of my movement. Embedded in the FM are numerous opportunities to self-observe, self-reflect, and self-organize. I became my own mirror.

When we first encounter FM many of us are inspired by all the ways it could change the world, however we need to pick and choose which way to direct our energy. We are attracted to those aspects of the work that have most changed us, and those are what we want teach to the world. The good news is that it's a big world, with room for many approaches, all of which can be valid and meaningful. For me, the uniqueness of the method is tied to the development and support of creative process. I see ATM as clever, poetic packages that tickle the expressive impulse to create. It's a subtractive process, neutralizing patterns that obscure. Movement reveals itself.

It has been nearly 20 years since my first experience with the work. I am very much at home with myself now as a mover. My spatial finesse has deepened - I think of dancing as partnering with space. Daily practice of ATM allows me to be available to the generosity of space and together we co-create. I am more at ease with the ethereal nature of dance. It comes, it goes, that's its charm. Dancing is a lot less work and much more fun. I see dancing as a privilege, and the FM reconnects me to that privilege. Teaching ATM allows me to witness others returning to their somatic homes. I have a practice of moving, drawing or writing after ATM, and share it with others in classes I call Embodied Creativity and Somatic Adventures. There is an alchemy present when we partner directed processes like ATM with non-directed processes. In my own work, dance is free from the burden of entertaining anybody except myself. Dancing is a way of knowing and making visible. Letting go of the idea of dance as a thing, I no longer craft set movement, although I continue to have enormous respect for those who do. I enjoy the wonders of safe containers of expression like authentic movement, continuum, and other forms of improvisation.

I never really returned to my tribe in the dance community. I see myself joining a hybrid somadance tribe composed of individuals who experienced a similar "undoing." This summer I had the extraordinary experience of co-facilitating the first ever meeting of dancer/Feldenkrais Practitioners. Together we shared our initiations into this powerful work through our stories. We also shared some of our disappointments in not being fully appreciated by either the dance community or the Feldenkrais community. Although each story was unique, themes of recovery resonated throughout. Reflection gave way to action as we planned strategies for increased visibility in both communities.

Individuals often come to this work by way of misfortune. Dr. Feldenkrais was driven to develop the work from the experience surrounding his own injuries. I would have never encountered this work had it not been for my escaped reflection. Disappearing had a sweet spot. I now envision the self-image as an elastic, dynamic process that adapts to our need to truly see ourselves. Every now and then I wander into a dance class, and if there is a mirror, I invite my image to dance with me. Most often, the mirror obliges, and we have a fine time.
This piece was originally published in Contact Quarterly and reprinted in The Feldenkrais Journal.