Saturday, February 05, 2005

Waking up in Space: Awareness Through Movement as a Roundtrip Excursion

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Photo by Nancy Wozny

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards, at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance
T. S. Eliot
Burnt Norton, The Four Quartets

The room settled into a stunning silence. Sondra stepped into the space and the air parted to make way for her. The space seemed to be waiting for her to enter. Each movement lifted the curtains of space revealing her delicate forms. At the dance panel at the 2001 Guild conference in San Francisco, Sondra Horton Fraleigh, my training mate and fellow somadancer, chose to dance her relationship to the Feldenkrais work by performing a modern Butoh dance. In watching Sondra, I witnessed the whole of the container coming alive, the off-white wall behind her, the pale linoleum floor, the stark square pillars that framed her impromptu stage, and even the elementary school desks that housed this instant audience. There is something about Sondra’s dance that allows me to see not only her movements but space itselfshe seems to be unveiling the invisible. The space surrounding Sondra seems bright, vibrant, and anything but empty. As a viewer I can actively participateI feel the dance happening in me as well. Sondra seems to inhabit and penetrate space. The inner and outer world seem oddly fused. The separation between performer and viewer also takes on some murky boundaries. Obviously her years of both traditional and Butoh dance training contributed to her compelling performance, yet clearly her floor-bound education has deeply influenced her depth as a performer. In speaking to Sondra about her dance, she asks me to consider my own shifts in perception in viewing her dance. Do I perceive her movements as magical because I too have learned to see the invisible? Sondra’s own words summarize her experience: “This is the murkiness you seem to move toward in your description. My connection to mud and earth has to do with flesh and worldand those years of lying on the floor were also ways of exploring the mud of myself.” Who would think mud would bring such clarity to movement.

I love dancing and watching dance because I get to go somewhere without having to move my car. It’s a portable, instant adventure in space available without any supplies. So much of the dance I see these days sits on the top of space, as all figure with no ground. Oceans of innovative movement with no place to call home hardly forms a satisfying viewing experience. Dance Masters of this century, Merce Cunningham and Mark Morris, employed the whole frame of space in their choreography. Movements came alive by virtue of this figure/ground tension, much the way the room came alive when Sondra was dancing. Witnessing Sondra’s dance gives serious consideration to the value of Feldenkrais work for dancers and other movers. As a dancer I have sustained an enduring interest in this work; only recently have I wondered why. I hope to set forth some ideas on why a dancer might be drawn into the mud. Please keep in mind that the views and language voiced in this piece belong to the wonderfully warped imagination of a modern dancer and in no way represent generally accepted views on the work. In the sprit of artistic indulgence I focus on the experience of a dancer (me) doing Feldenrkais for love, fun, and profound curiosity. I have had the privilege of working with dancers in Houston over this past year and I am also informed by their perceptions and by those of my dancing Feldenkrais peers.

How could an internal process like an Awareness Through Movement (ATM) lesson improve our dexterity in external space? The Method is diverse enough for us to find what we value; yet, I find my relationship to space to be a primary component of the work. What do I mean by space? After all, space is a mighty spacey concept. For a dancer it is the medium we need to be seen, felt, and experienced. Space is where we are not. It’s our constant partner. For dancers space takes on some practical meanings, as in “Is there enough space on the stage to do this movement?” Dancers need to be highly aware of the space around them and the other dancers. Consider the corps de ballet that executes highly technical feats, all while exactly the same distance from each other. The “where” is always on the dancer’s mind. On the other hand the more ethereal aspects of space are always present. Dancers can make a small room seem vast just by the quality of their movements. The partner of space expands and contracts based on the content of our movements. Amidst all the descriptions, space remains an abstract concept. There are many functional ideas relating to our everyday movement in an Awareness Through Movement lesson. I have let go of those ideas here for the purposes of understanding ATM in its more abstract layers. Lucky for all of us, the work is broad and vast—open to a variety of experiences and truths. The mud is deep. What follows are my ponderings on all things dance, space, and Feldenkrais.

What do we have to offer dancers in the way of relevant information to improve and enhance their spatial skills? How is the inward focus we cultivate in an ATM related to dancing? We go inward in an ATM for the purpose of returning, changed, renewed, and more alive. There is a fundamental axis to our learning that straddles both inner and outer worlds and lurks at the heart of Feldenrkais work. Movement becomes the tool by which we enter space. Trainer Dennis Leri speaks to the core of this issue, “Feldenkrais said that at some point in our human evolution a simple turn in one or another direction became a ‘turn to the left’ or a ‘turn to right.’ With schema of directional reference came also the bewildering phenomena of an ‘internal’ and an ‘external’ world. That is, the human world arrived with orientational distinctions predicated upon subsuming a sequence of motor acts and sensations into left, right, front, back, above and below plus the strange abstractions designating inner and outer. Since a sensation and the motor act generating it is a complex thing in itself, it's mind boggling to contemplate their organization into reference systems like left, right or further into 9 o'clock, 3 o'clock. If, through the incredible elegance of ATM or a work of art, we unlearn our way ‘back’ to the acts of drawing, redrawing or erasing the most basic distinctions we will ‘return’ more fully human (1999, p. 10).” Leri’s words hold particular weight for dancers.
If you walked into a typical ATM class you would hardly think that “space” is the big feature in this work. You would find people lying on their backs on soft mats hardly moving at all. We may alter our relationship to gravity by lying down but we do not leave space. The practitioner’s voice is soothing, the lights are dimmed, and external distractions are kept to a minimum. Most of the time our eyes are closed and rarely do we leave the tight container of our mats. Obviously we don’t leave space when we close our eyes; yet we enter a different experience of space. Sensation, instead of vision, becomes our source of navigation. Letting go of demonstration by the practitioner requests a unique commitment to space. Simply following auditory directions without visual clues, alone, improves spatial awareness. The measurement process moves inside for the purpose of recalibrating a different relationship to the outside.

Consider the role of the scan. Scanning lays down the primary figure/ground relationship fundamental to the lesson. The scan acts as an inventory of physical sensations and information gathering that frames the lesson. The practitioner verbally guides our attention through the landscape of forces we sense from our contact with the ground. A scan may address weight, pressure, volume, or the five cardinal lines, all of which serve as references to space and links to the external world. Lying on the ground this way, attaching to the floor, literally anchors us in the room and in space. We sense the dynamics of lying still. How do we sense space when we cease to move through it? We need space to give our movement and sensations meaning, as our boundaries become informants. How do we press against space, pull away from it, or surrender to it? The scan, our first reference point in the lesson, delivers the “you are here” coordinates on the map. The language of space pervades the lesson. Each movement request describes the movement in relationship to oneself and the room. These dual instructions not only help us figure out what to do but they underline our relationship in space. Leri, in his recent work on the Primitives, discussed the five cardinal lines as the most fundamental reference to our selves in space. Listening to Leri’s tapes from his workshop I am struck by the vocabulary emerging as he delivers his ideas. Words like “line,” “direction,” “shape,” “volume,” “contour,” and “plane” characterize his talk. I am reminded of my early art education in learning about the operation of forms. The cardinal lines become an instant tracking devise we can use throughout the ATM. Leri paraphrases Feldenkrais’s bold statement, “Without orientation there is no possibility of awareness” (2001)

How we move offers us yet another dimension to space. Moving slowly has a voluptuous, indulgent, and delicious quality that lets us linger in the corners of space. If time slows down, can space expand as well? The invitation to enter space grows larger during these moments. For example, consider the movement of lifting the arm to the ceiling from a side lying position. After the practitioner has given the direction of the movement, she then begins a sequence of inquiries as to “how” we are doing this movement. The practitioner may draw out attention to the movement of the shoulder blade, the clavicle, the rotation of your head, and so on. Our attention moves around all that we are doing so that we may lift our arm to the ceiling. The descriptive nature of the instructor’s words dilates this movement in space and time by amplifying all its possibilities. A whole sea of options exists in this one movement of lifting the arm to the ceiling. In considering the space/time relationship in ATM, practitioner Dwight Pargee writes, “When time gets compressed, our shapes compress, and our spatial intelligence is also compressed and when we allow time to expand, to enter into that sacred kind of time, the deep time, the time of creation, then space dilates and how we move, sense, think and feel flows outwards” (2001, e-mail). This process gives dimension to the self in space. The multitudes of spatial options appear. We have more open roads to follow. Abundant pathways in space provide ample gifts to the dancer and choreographer.
The introduction of non-habitual movement comprises another spatial wake-up strategy. Most ATM lessons contain some movement patterns that ask us to move in a way we have not previously considered. This novelty serves as a kind of space caffeine for the nervous system. Non-habitual movements simultaneously wake us up and throw us off. Our reigning somatic philosopher, Don Hanlon Johnson, alludes to the abstract and unusual movements of ATM in his landmark book, Body, Spirit, and Democracy. Sometimes after a more challenging ATM I feel different, somewhat strange, and downright unnatural. Space takes on these qualities, as this type of movement seems to expand space. Non-habitual movement renders us lost on purpose. Modern dance has formed much if its identity from relying on odd and unnamed combinations of movements. Most innovators in modern dance developed unique movement vocabularies. When I first encountered ATM what I loved most was that the movements had no names. Finally I found a place to nurture the nameless movements that make up my art.

During the re-scan at the conclusion of the lesson I often find that my contact with the floor has shifted. Most often, more of me is in contact with the mat. I become a larger, clearer, X on the map. I gain a more accurate reading of my coordinates in space. John Graham, a longtime member of Anna Halprin’s company and one of the first dancing Feldenkrais Practitioners claims, “Dance was always there for me. Moshe made it more round” (2001, e-mail). There is a sense of recovering one’s dimension. I sense the spaciousness of ourselves which then allows us to be active in space at large. ATM peels the parasitic numbing layers of self away. I can move freely with less muscular baggage. Typically after an ATM I feel light and weightless. I feel less solid, although I may feel paradoxically more grounded. It is less effortful to move any part of myself. I meld more easily with the atmosphere. I have been reconfigured in the gravitational field. If the body is the membrane that separates me from space then it becomes more permeable. I feel less invested in muscle and more in movement. When movement is more available to us we can create a more fluid relationship to space. With too few habits to operate in the world we already commit to moving in certain ways without the benefit of spontaneous action. In this way habits act as barriers to expression in space. Excess muscular effort in any given movement has a dulling effect in relationship to our environment as the tyranny of habit limits our choices. If our effort budget is spent in just managing our everyday movements what’s left to enjoy moving freely in space? If you have ever experienced physical pain and the movement limitations that come with them then you can testify firsthand to how movement restrictions create barriers to interacting with space. If it hurts us to turn our head to the left then what’s on the left side of us is less available. After all, our bodily self is our interface with the world. Rosch, Thompson, and Varela address these issues in their collaborative book, Embodied Mind. They write, “Minds awaken in a world. We did not design the world. We simply found ourselves with it; we awoke both to ourselves and to the world we inhabit. We come to reflect on that world as we grow and live. We reflect on a world that is not made, but found, and yet it is also our structure that enables us to reflect upon this world” (1991, p.3).

Although the formal lesson ends on the floor, the frequent request of coming to standing re- orients us in the vertical plane. Walking after a lesson processes the lesson in space as well. I like to carry this post-lesson phase a bit further. In post ATM dancing I don’t “feel” myself at all and that is the exciting part. I do not “go internal” for the purpose of hanging around there. The body is more of portal than a place. I enjoy a period of non-directed movement following a lesson. I don’t use the word improvisation because I don’t want to focus on the need to generate movement. I also prefer to use movement freshly invented and not known choreography. I think of it as flushing the lesson through our flesh. I compare this process to running the water after a cleansing process. We literally run movement through the lesson. As a dancer I like to bring a symbolic and abstract way of being in space back into my immediate attention. I give the lesson a space cushion. The powerful link between ATM and improvisation has served as recurring theme among my dancing peers.

I had the opportunity to attend a conference morning ATM with dance/practitioner Lila Hurwitz. During the dance panel, Lila spoke of the Feldenkrais-friendly environment present in the Seattle Improvisation scene and the strong relevance of ATM to developing both improvisational work and more structured choreography. She used her ATM to illustrate this connection. Her ATM was part of a series of ATMs created especially for those interested in dance and working with dancers. The ATM, designed to speak to the integration of Feldenkrais and other movement/dance techniques, including Skinner Releasing Technique and various improvisational forms, was open to practitioners and the public. Lila began with a standing scan that lead to simple movements of shifting weight, gradually inviting us to travel in space. Embedded in the middle of this awareness through moving through space was a more traditional ATM focusing on our eyes. Lila writes, “The choice of the eye ATM was intended to help folks negotiate the play between their sometimes-obsessive internal sensing, and performance” (2001, e-mail). Bringing us back to standing and moving in space, she wove in themes from the ATM as we played with the our vision and attention to others in the room. She concluded with a taste of “perceptual improvisation,” an improvisational dance practice developed by Lisa Nelson and others that resonates with our work. Lila framed a particular area of the room as a stage and we imagined ourselves in the space. It was as if the space needed our presence. One by one we entered the space and assumed our shape. We simultaneously sensed our part and the whole in this brief performance. Lila succeeded in crafting an experience relevant to dancers and non-dancers that illuminates the spatial gifts of the work. Lila’s experiment serves as a reminder that I can still be in the work when I am off the mat. I can bring space into the picture in a concrete experience using the ATM container.

ATM is a round-trip excursion. I tend not to linger in a sensorial, self-absorbed grogginess after ATM, but instead feel vigorous with an appetite for big hearty movement. I want to wrestle an iguana, a nice one. We go inward for the purpose of returning to the world in a more awake, vibrant state. I imagine Feldenkrais never intended for his work to end on the ground, swimming in a pool of pleasurable physical sensations. He was not interested in awareness as an abstract end in itself. ATM is a laboratory in which to cultivate the art of awareness and attention in relationship to the environment. We attend to ourselves because we enlist ourselves as the vehicle of learning and change. Awareness is an all or nothing proposition. Listen to how Feldenkrais frames his thinking about awareness in these familiar words from Awareness Through Movement:

In the esoteric schools of thought a Tibetan parable is told. According to the story, a man without awareness is like a carriage whose passengers are the desires, with the muscles for horses, while the carriage itself is the skeleton. Awareness is the sleeping coachman. As long as the coachman remains asleep the carriage will be dragged aimlessly here and there. Each passenger seeks a different destination and the horses pull different ways. But when the coachman is wide awake and holds the reins the horses will pull the carriage and bring every passenger to his proper destination.

In those moments when awareness succeeds in being at one with feeling, sense, movement and thought, the carriage will speed along on the right road. Then man can make discoveries, invent, create, innovate, and “know.” He grasps that his small world and the great world around are but one and that in this unity he is no longer alone. (p. 54)

Feldenkrais’s words abound with spatial images. The last statement speaks to the sense of unity with one’s environment. After all, we share the world with space. As material beings we too are made of mostly empty space. Space seems to be on our minds in the Feldenkrais community as well these days. At the 2001 conference closing trainer Deborah Bowes remarked, “There seemed to be a ‘developmental’ step taken, a maturing state, in our dealings and interactions with each other which was reflected in the number of lessons about standing and moving into space. It seems we are ready to get up off the floor and take our place in the world.” I attended a number of morning ATMs that reminded me that I can sense myself, myself in relationship to the room and the presence of others around me. IFF president Cliff Smyth echoes this theme in his address to the 2001 IFF Assembly in Kassel, Germany, “Moshe Feldenkrais taught us that the Method is not only about internal experience but our relationship with the world, gravity, space, tools, society and culture. We can stand up, be seen and move into the beckoning space.”
A multitude of paradoxes are at work in ATM: We almost go to sleep in order to wake up; we leave our uprightness to regain length and decompression in standing; we confuse ourselves in the complexity of non-habitual, novel patterns of movement to find more efficient choices; we claim to have the ideal body yet we seek improvement; we delineate ourselves in space to be more a part of it; and we surrender achievement to further our development. Finally, we confine ourselves to a small mat in a large room to feel different in wide-open space.

At the conclusion of the week I had another opportunity to witness one of my colleagues in motion. Cathy Paine, my former modern dance teacher turned Feldenkrais friend, decided twenty minutes before the performance evening began to join the roster of the evening’s entertainment. Twenty-five years ago I performed Cathy’s crisp, neat, and often quirky movements in her whimsical choreography. Cathy’s style is still intact post-Feldenkrais, yet now the neat, crisp, quirky movements are generated right in front of us with total confidence that the next idea will be there. She slices space with her nimble limbs and smoothes out rough edges with her sweeping gestures. Her exacting movements speak less of her training and more of an organic ability to interact with space. She shapes space and hands it back to us to admire. I witness her access to technique without making it her subject matter. Her comfort level with the unknown engages us all in the unfolding movements. She seems as surprised as we are about which movements appear next. Narrating the experience with her witty and poignant comments, words flow as fluid as her movements. One of the wonders that Feldenkrais work has to offer us dancers is a refined partnership with space. I am no longer a stranger to space—I am an insider. Space lets Cathy in and I the viewer get to sneak in with her.

For many years I worked as a teaching artist in public schools. I would begin my presentation by asking, “What is Dance?” My favorite response came from a second grader who replied, “Dance is re-movements of the body.” I dare say that little fellow was on to something with his curious mismatch of words. What if we dance by letting go of the body as a barrier in space? Identity as motion rather than body is at work here. The experience of dancing can be an altered relationship to space. There is an idea of “getting out of our own way” in our Feldenkrais culture. Playing with these slippery, fluid boundaries yields a world of richness for dancers curious enough to give the work a try. I have always considered it a distinct privilege to be a dancerFeldenkrais has given me the means by which to live up to that privilege. Cathy’s dance moves towards closure with a backwards summersault catapulting her into a fast forward sequence of sliding, gliding and slithering as she mutters, “I feel at home.” She looks at home wiping the floor with her movements as the ground talks back to her. Cathy’s dance ends with wit and sparkle as her leg unfolds in technically glorious side extension with the words, “and now, for you, a trick.” A lightness pervades the room and for a moment we become one with the dancer and the dance.

Feldenkrais, Moshe. 1977. Awareness through Movement. San Francisco: HarperCollins.

Johnson, Don. 1994. Body, Spirit, and Democracy. CA: North Atlantic Books.

Leri, Dennis. 1999. “Conversation with Dennis Leri, part 1, unlearning the names of things: Leri on Irwin. In Touch, May.
Leri, Dennis. 2001. The Primitives. (Cassette recording). San Francisco: FGNA annual conference.

Rosch, E., Thompson, E., Varrela, F. J. 1991. Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Boston: Mit Press.

My work on this piece has been funded in part by grants from the City of Houston and the Texas Commission on the Arts through the Cultural Arts Council of Houston/Harris County.

This piece was originally published by The Feldenkrais Journal