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What's all this, dancing?

Feldenkrais Method has had a vast influence in the world of dance. I expect this is why I was invited by Oxford Dance Forum to run a workshop for them. I did it yesterday with a nice collection of people, many of whom were new to me, and they, new to the method.

When I run an afternoon workshop, I usually do an introduction by talking mainly about the method and the man behind it, Moshe Feldenkrais. But, yesterday, since I had been invited by a dance outfit, I thought I had better frame the day in relation to dance and say a bit, although I am no expert, about dance and the connection to Feldenkrais. As I was making notes, I ended up writing a piece and then, rather unusually, I ended up reading it out at the start of the workshop. It felt a bit odd to read instead of just talk but I hope it was interesting to those who came. Since there is a text, I thought I would pop it on the blog. What follows merely scratches the surface and I would be very grateful for any comments below from you if you disagree with what I say or can add to my understanding of dance!

Feldenkrais workshop for the Oxford Dance Forum

Feldenkrais was not a dancer but he was a black belt in Judo. He was not involved in the performing arts directly and yet he has had an enormous effect on them. In fact, Moshe Pinchas Feldenkrais started out as a scientist and it is the scientific nature of the method which is perhaps its greatest power. Lessons in Feldenkrais are known as Awareness Through Movement. Each lesson starts with a kind of examination of how you are, often in relation to your relationship to gravity. Lying on your back; how much of your body can you let “drop” into the floor and how much of it is held away from the floor? The lesson will then take the form of an experiment . It is designed to be investigative, above all things. You will notice from the title of the class Awareness through Movement that the word "Awareness" comes first!

Pretty much anyone who has been through a formal dance training will now have been exposed to the Feldenkrais Method. Let me take one example; at the Trinity Laban school in London which focuses on Ballet and Contemporary, there is a Feldenkrais class. The description in their brochure might be useful in giving us a grounding of the work. “For dancers, Feldenkrais classes are a powerful tool to help you expand and refine your skills. By improving your sensory skills, you will develop greater dexterity and find new ways to refine your technique. Enhancing your ability to perceive subtle differences aids making fine distinctions. Discovering unlimited movement possibilities feeds creativity. Through Feldenkrais, athletes and dancers find that learning to move with less effort and more efficiency increases stamina and minimises stress on muscles and joints. This can help you avoid, or recover from, injury”.

Feldenkrais’ influence in the dance world has been enormous, especially in America.

I might add, from a personal perspective that watching dance, a bit, as I do, I have noticed that dance in general over the last 30 years has become more about giving oneself in to the force of gravity rather than fighting it. When I see dance on video or YouTube or live, of course, I will sometimes almost see Feldenkrais or Awareness through Movement lesson being enacted, albeit much faster, and if not that, then something of the spirit of awareness of bones in movement rather than muscles over-riding the natural skeletal movement. In brief, dance, in certain quarters has become more natural and organic than the ballet and contemporary I was aware of in my younger days. An example of this was when I saw the Ffin dance company from Wales first at the Old Fire Station, there seemed to be something very familiar and human about the dance and another group I have become aware of, Groundworks in Cardiff, another Welsh outfit, seem to be more interested in the relationship to the ground than the achievement of form. Anything I say about dance, must of course, be taken with some salt; I am NO expert!!

But back to America. The magazine DanceTeacher tells me that, “Artists like Anna Halprin, Merrill Ashley and, more recently, Tom Rawe (formerly of Twyla Tharp) and Jimena Paz (formerly of Stephen Petronio Company) have been drawn to his work for its impact on creativity and injury prevention. I suspect there is a much longer list. “Dancers discovered the benefits of Feldenkrais's work when he toured the country teaching workshops during the early 1970s. The work's internally based sensing posed a radical way to think about movement. It countered the “learning by imitation" ingrained in most dance education. He was the first to use a roller, initially crafted in wood and later in foam, which can now be found in dance studios everywhere. His most famous lesson, The Pelvic Clock, has been incorporated into Pilates, yoga and dance classes to emphasize the fluidity of the lower back and pelvis.

Interestingly the Pelvic Clock is the second lesson we are going to do today and it is interesting that, however informed the article in DanceTeacher is, and it is, there is a mistake in the last idea of how the Pelvic Clock is designed to “emphasize the fluidity of the lower back and pelvis.” It could be argued that the lesson does indeed, in part, empahasize the the fluidity of the lower back and pelvis but as you will see later that is not its prime concern. This is where Feldenkrais gets really interesting. It is about connection and realisation rather than mobility. Feldenkrais himself, famously said, that he wanted “not flexible bodies, but flexible minds”.

Before he got to America his influence reached into a dance company in his adopted homeland, Israel, and that is, of course, the world famous Bathsheva. Ohad Naharin is the chief choreographer of the company and his mother was a choreographer, dance teacher, and Feldenkrais instructor. The lineage seems to be apparent in the work and also in some of the mission statements, for instance, “it is about making the body listen instead of making it do something” and that is very Feldenkrais-y! He is also the founder of what is know as Gaga movement. In fact, a private client of mine, the other day, said to me that I must have heard of Gaga, and I hadn’t, because its raison d’être is very in tune with what I teach as a Feldenkrais practitioner. “Gaga is an experience of freedom and pleasure. The work improves instinctive movement and connects conscious with unconscious movement, allowing for an experience of freedom and pleasure in a simple way, in a pleasant space, with comfortable clothes, and accompanied by music, each person with himself and within the group”. Awareness through Movement with music. Sounds nice. But its not science!

Coming even closer to home for me, my trainer Garet Newall, who is responsible for bringing the method to the UK, was a dancer who thought she might study in Alexander Technique, but changed at the last moment into Feldenkrais. She was an aspiring New York dancer but had sustained a nasty neck injury and could not figure out and nor could anyone else, how to fix it. She had some success with the Alexander and then had a revelation in a Feldenkrais lesson of a kind of empowerment from within that she had never felt before and luckily she trained and has spread the method over here. The method is, incidentally, in a good part of the world now. The Americas, Europe, although still quite small in the UK, Australasia, and the Far East now burgeoning with trainings. Africa is still pretty under represented but still, from the strange idea of teaching through touch, and rolling around on the floor designed to help people do Judo better, the method has come a long way pretty quickly! My training itself contained two dancers; a beautiful, French, male ballet dancer called Nico and a brilliant and determined and highly skilled Brazilian contact impro. dancer/teacher, Vivianne Roderigues de Brito. Watching them reveal to themselves new patterns of movement and new ways of thinking over the training was an education in itself. (Also I am quite envious, still, of their notebooks; they had the capacity to notate the exact movements of each lesson with great speed, whereas I was off by the tea-urn, marvelling at the philosophical insight of the lesson or just simply chatting; having a break!)

I myself was trained not in dance but a close relative, physical theatre-not an expression I like, with the brilliant Jaques Lecoq in Paris. We were trained in something called Analyse du Movement, some of which, when we were allowed to do small awareness-based movements lying on a mat, I found particularly stimulating. ( The video below is one of the famous 20 Movements that resulted at the Lecoq school from Analysis of Movement performed by me.)

The first lesson to really capture me was actually the first lesson we are going to do today, where I was asked to point my hand to the ceiling. I thought, “fair enough”, but then I was asked HOW had I done it. Then I was asked to notice if other parts of me were moving as my arm pointed to the ceiling. It sounds pretty inconsequential, but actually it was like a little bomb going off, and the fall out, if you like, is still radiating today. Because of that seemingly innocuous request 30 years ago in a converted Parisian boxing hall, I sit before you today teaching the Feldenkrais Method. It turned out that a brilliant movement teacher called Monika Pagneux had studied with Feldenkrais when he made an annual visit to Peter Brook’s international experimental theatre group and without actually training in the method herself imported some of the lessons directly into the Lecoq school.

Hopefully that sets the scene and there will be a chance to ask questions later, but for now please come and lie on your mat and we will begin.