More Than Injury Prevention: How Somatics Can Deepen Artistry

March 2, 2021

We might not be able to go out right now, but we can go in. For those of us still stuck taking class at home, it’s not a great time to work on jumps, leaps and turns. As for discovering our internal world, though, it’s been a somatic sensory feast.

The basic tenets of somatics—awareness, efficiency, exploration, rest and nonjudgment—demand little in the way of a physical space or a special surface. During the pandemic, I have taken a page from Emily Dickinson’s book, asking how far I can reach into myself without leaving the room. So far, I have virtually studied everything from Feldenkrais to Continuum Movement, BodyMind Dancing, Alexander Technique and Ideokinesis, among others.

Too often, we dancers wait until we are injured or older to try a practice that won’t guarantee that our technique or strength will improve. Somatics, defined by movement theorist Thomas Hanna as “the body as a lived experience,” has been relegated to a feel-good nap time that addresses injury prevention or recovery. In other words, something there’s rarely time for in the hyper-busy life of a dancer.

But if we go back to Delsarte, an early somatics pioneer, we find the word “expression.” The purpose of all this sensing and feeling is not just to feel better, but to be able to express oneself with absolute clarity, nuance and ease, a central requirement for an artist of any discipline. To make something, we need to know our material inside and out, and we need to remove barriers. All of that takes practice, and part of that training is called somatics.

Lucky for us, somatics comes in many flavors, from the poetic to the practical, and although they all share a set of principles, they each offer a central idea that is unique to them. In dancers’ hands, I find an elevated sense of artfulness to the practices themselves, and a full awareness that new patterns lead to new ideas.

A Habit Reboot: Awareness Through Movement

When engineer and physicist Moshé Feldenkrais wrote in The Potent Self, “…all creative people do things in their own way…. They had to learn and work until they knew themselves sufficiently to bring themselves to the state of spontaneity,” he had an inkling that his work would be useful to artists of all disciplines.

“Know your instrument, how the tensions play within us. How present are you in your own movement?” asks Ami Shulman in her Awareness Through Movement lessons (the slow and meditative group practice of the Feldenkrais method). There is generally no demonstration in an ATM class, so the teacher needs to have a compelling way of taking us through the lesson. Currently a rehearsal director at Gothenburg Opera Dance Company, Shulman sources her theater background in her teaching, leading students through the lesson as if we are the protagonists of our own novels. She guides us to pay attention to the exact quality of our own movements, not only to refresh our kinetic connections, but also to learn what makes us tick as movers. For me, after an ATM lesson I feel ripe with potential and possibilities.

Connections and Strength: Mobility and Stability

As he leads us through movements both familiar and unfamiliar, testing our balance, strength and coordination in fresh ways, Robbie Moore tells his Mobility and Stability class at the Institute of Contemporary Dance in Houston, “Don’t forget the micro-movements.”

Deeply influenced by Irene Dowd (during his time at Juilliard and afterward), Pilates (through his work with Anne Rubau and Darren Spowart) and yoga, along with his choreographic chops, he has crafted a seamless experience. Using a Dowd umbrella of exploring tone and motion, the result is a deep heating and awakening of our tissues and a powerful feeling of connectivity. Moore describes the class as “90 minutes to connect yourself to the space, the breath and the earth. It’s about grounding.” I sense my own authority after Moore’s class. Powerful, strong, but nimble.

Flow and Form: Mindful Moving

A woman with short grey hair lies on the floor. She wears black pants and a black long-sleeve shirt. Her arms are stretched out on both sides of her and her face looks up the the ceiling. Her lower body is twisted sideways with her left leg crossing over her body and stretching over to the right side of her body. She is leading a movement class. Five other people lie in the same position behind her. They are in a large studio with a light brown floor.
Helen Rea emphasizes the importance of moving in opposing directions.

Photo by Robert Sugar, Courtesy Rea

When Helen Rea mentions the cerebrospinal fluid as we begin a forward curve, she knows of what she speaks. “Imagine a bungee cord,” she says, describing the action of creating space and length in the spine. As a biodynamic craniosacral therapist, a certified Alexander Technique teacher and a Gyrotonic practitioner, along with a lifetime of being an embodied thinker and mover (she’s a former Liz Lerman dancer), Rea brings her somatic smarts to the whole gamut of her teaching, which includes her Mindful Moving class.

Rea’s emphasis on moving in opposing directions, as in lengthening and widening, creates a palpable sense of internal space, while her savvy in experiential anatomy grounds the work in our actual tissues. Her focus on sensing changes in muscular engagement as related to alignment gets to the heart of efficiency. In Rea’s class, I get a clearer sense of how my body operates, how it is put together and functions. This tool kit comes in handy for any dancer or choreographer.

Deep Space: Continuum Movement

The late Emilie Conrad’s insistence on the primacy of the fluid system places Continuum Movement on the more esoteric end of the somatics spectrum. Yet the timing feels right to be communing with planetary forces and our ancestral biology.

Conrad trained in Dunham and Haitian folk forms, and collaborated with various environmental and cellular scientists. Her work takes us deep into our own tissues and back out to our connections to all living systems. “Creativity is the juice of life; it’s the lusciousness of the world that is awaiting recognition,” she said on The Spirit Soars video on the process of making art.

Each session is a layered experience often based on a specific idea or principle. For example, in a workshop centered on awakening the lymphatic system (and the movement of that fluid throughout the body), Texas-based teacher Patricia Adamik sets up a three-part dive where we explore what’s available to us in various skeletal configurations, along with accompanying sounds meant to create change.

The movement itself can be quite open-ended, yet the sounds we make are very specific. We repeat the sequence several times, moving deeper into our sensations. It’s about as primordial as it gets in the somatics world and contains a sense of ancient ritual. We listen in a state that Conrad labeled as “open attention” to the changes in our breathing and being. The combination of sounding and moving with our own fluid system gets me as close to being one with the planet as I am going to get without leaving my apartment. Conrad’s work opens the door to the symbolic and the sacred.

Somaction: BodyMind Dancing

Dr. Martha Eddy literally wrote the book on somatics: Mind­­ful Movement: The Evolution of the Somatic Arts and Conscious Action is the most comprehensive examination of the field thus far. Notice the words “Arts” and “Action” in the title. Eddy, founder of Moving for Life and Dynamic Embodiment, has been bringing her vast store of bodily know­ledge to her BodyMind Dancing class at Movement Research since well before the lockdown. Eddy is fluent in many somatic languages, and no BodyMind Dancing class is the same. We can be moving from the ideas embedded in Bartenieff Fundamentals one week to Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s embryological and developmental principles the next.

At age 63, Eddy finds the gifts of somatics give her the ability to slip into a dance class easily. She even stepped back onto the stage in Stephen Petronio’s American Landscapes in 2019. “Because of my somatic training, I am stronger in so many ways,” she says. She mentions her abilities to maintain equal joint space by understanding concepts like muscle currenting; accessing hidden resources, such as the activation and resiliency of the organs; and, finally, somatics’ secret weapon: knowing when to rest. At the heart of Eddy’s work is the idea that going inside is not a one-way trip: We can build social communities, which can be essential to an artist.

In a time when our lives have been made smaller in so many ways, these experiences offer expansion, fortifying our internal landscapes in a way that makes us more resilient. We also gain a richer palette from which to move.

All of these experiences point to Feldenkrais’ famous saying, “When you know what you are doing, you can do what you want.” Artists need full access to their lived bodies. Somatics gives us the time and skills to activate every corner of our moving selves, tapping into our innermost resources and activating the muscle of our attention so that when we are back in class or onstage, we will be moving from a deep and delicious place of self-knowledge.