The Somatics Infusion

April 26, 2012

More teachers are blending awareness principles with technique.



Tessa Chandler has students move between micro and whole body movements. Photo by Christopher Duggan.



Somatics is a fluid movement science. It’s in a constant state of growth and assimilation into the dance field, whether it’s used as fuel for improvisation or as principles of awareness in dance training. Integrating somatics into the technique class can take many forms, from a shift in language cues to using more novel routes to discovery.

A dance class needs to keep moving, so the somatics’ super-slow pace with frequent rests can be at odds with the structure of most classes. But there’s no need to get the mat out, since there are plenty of body/mind ideas that work well without inducing a soma coma.

Somatic practitioners specialize in asking questions. It’s a trial-and-error process to infuse dance class with the soma savvy it takes to keep dancers moving with their whole selves. Dance Magazine spoke with two Alexander Technique and three Feldenkrais Method practitioners, all of whom teach technique in addition to their regular Feldenkrais and Alexander classes.

Alexander in Motion

The question of whether the Alexander Technique is best experienced separately or in a dance class has been on Rebecca Nettl-Fiol’s and Luc Vanier’s minds. So much so that they co-wrote Dance and the Alexander Technique: Exploring the Missing Link, a guide that provides a clear blueprint to integrate Alexander principles into a dance or movement/somatics class.

Nettl-Fiol teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a virtual somatic mecca, and Vanier teaches at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee. Both trained with Joan and Alex Murray, who integrated the Dart procedures into the Alexander Technique, giving it a strong developmental foundation (as in child development). “We can weave in the ‘primary’ forward curve of the back and the ‘secondary’ arching curve, keeping the focus on dancing,” says Nettl-Fiol. She finds her graduate students are well-versed in somatic principles, while the material is new for many undergrads.

Nettl-Fiol also teaches an Alexander-and-dance class, where she is able to go deep into exercises that embody the primary and secondary curve concepts. Students also have access to private lessons, which reinforce material covered in class. Starting this year, all freshmen take an introduction to somatics course that includes approximately two weeks each of such techniques as Alexander, Feldenkrais, Body-Mind Centering, Ideokinesis, Skinner Releasing Technique, and Bartenieff Fundamentals.

Building stillness into a combination can be a way to experience “inhibition,” the Alexander principal that allows one to simply stop and think before going into autopilot. “They are always so eager to go, so I will have them not move on count one,” says Nettl-Fiol. She finds that a simple pause can disarm overly ambitious readiness, leading to a fresher, more conscious approach to movement.

Vanier says he thought he would need to leave the ballet world when he started his Alexander training. The Murrays’ focus on the body in motion brought him deeper into his past as a ballet dancer. “It was a big revelation how well ballet and Alexander principles work together,” says Vanier. He sees ballet as a conversation between two spirals that, when activated, create a sense of ease. “There is so much in ballet that is based on the spiral, or épaulement, which creates an oppositional tension that is freeing.”


Luc Vanier sees ballet as a ”conversation between two spirals”; Above right: Rebecca Nettl-Fiol builds stillness into a combination. Photos by Natalie Nettl-Fiol, Courtesy Vanier and Nettl-Fiol.

Corrections take a different form as well. “Instead of doing something else, it’s more about stopping something, rather than adding something,” Vanier says. “Dancers are used to always doing. Old corrections, dogma, worries, and fears have a tendency to hang around in a dance class. The Alexander Technique can bring a student back in contact with their capacity to reason out what is going on. Sometimes, all you need to do is allow a dancer to ask themselves ‘What is going on?’ for them to wait for results (inhibit) and be curious (direct) in the activity, for the problem to go away by itself.”


Feldenkrais Doesn’t Have to Put You to Sleep

Barnard faculty member Tessa Chandler finds that working with the eyes has a huge impact on her students’ dancing. Moshe Feldenkrais created many powerful lessons dealing with how our eyes govern our movement. “Rolling down the spine as if you were looking down your front can elicit new movement in the spine,” says Chandler, formerly of Royal Danish Ballet and Dutch National Ballet. “Going across the floor while seeing into the distance completely changes how we cover space.”

Chandler also applies Feldenkrais’ concept of the elasticity of moving back and forth between micro and whole-body movements. “I will have them imagine they are painting with their fingertips as they go across the floor,” she says. “It disperses their attention. When we return to the regular combination, they seem more capable of expansive locomotion.”

Feldenkrais’ walking lessons also influence Chandler’s approach to using the feet. “I talk about ground forces,” she says. “I teach standing alignment from the feet up, highlighting the oppositional actions of pushing downward into the floor from the tops of the legs and lengthening up from the lower belly to the ceiling through the crown of the head.”

Figuring Out the Best Feldenkrais Mix

Blindfolds at the barre are one of many indications that Barbara Forbes is trained in the Feldenkrais Method. Reducing outside stimuli is a key tenet of the work. “They could make so many discoveries,” says Forbes. “One student remarked how deeply she was able to listen to the music.”

At Sarah Lawrence College, she is in a soma heaven, with the full support of dance director Sara Rudner. She teaches ballet; Awareness Through Movement (ATM), which is the group activity of the Feldenkrais Method; and an ATM class combined with improvisation. Yet it’s unlikely that her ballet students would take either one of those classes.

Forbes tried giving an ATM class before her ballet class, but found it didn’t always work. “Some would get it and benefit, but not enough,” Forbes admits. “Often they would stand up, be cold and somewhat disoriented, which can happen when habits change.”

Forbes was deeply influenced by Feldenkrais legend Ruthy Alon’s sequencing of ATM movements that allow flowing, continuous action. She uses these in class, but with frequent change-ups, so a predictable routine doesn’t settle in. Novelty, as in non-habitual movement, is central to the work.

In the beginning of the semester, Forbes likes to start class in the center with a barre-like practice. To clarify a point, Forbes will have the students lie down for a five-minute ATM. “If we are working on attitude derrière, we might lie on the stomach, raise one leg gradually higher, letting it bend and feeling the lengthening of the opposite arm to get a clearer sense of the spiral throughout the whole body in attitude,” she says. Afterward, they return to standing, repeat the adagio, and feel the difference.

True to Feldenkrais’ mission, Forbes is an explorer, using the trial-and-error method to find the best fit. “Every experiment has been valid and useful. It’s still a process to figure out how to use Feldenkrais tools in class.”


Above left: Barbara Forbes uses blindfolds at the barre to encourage discovery. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy Forbes.


Learning Comes from Asking Questions

Peff Modelski trained with the famed Cecchetti teacher Margaret Craske at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School. “It was a mindful method, where every movement counted, and we were always asking how it feels,” says Modelski. She often walks around the room giving hands-on, light-touch corrections. But it’s the Feldenkrais motto of “learning through inquiry” that distinguishes her use of the method in her classes at Visceral Dance Center in Chicago. “If they are doing a fondu passé développé,” she says, “I will ask a series of questions on their alignment, allowing them to self-correct.”

Feldenkrais’ idea of movement as skeletal action has influenced her. “I talk about the bones all the time,” says Modelski, who was a popular ballet teacher at Steps before relocating to Chicago. “Just like an ATM, I don’t demonstrate. My students love the permission to figure things out themselves.”

Modelski teaches monthly workshops for a mixed crowd of professional dancers and regular civilians, called “Now I Feel Great.” The “Now My Knees Feel Great” workshop is particularly popular for dancers. For Modelski, as with Feldenkrais, dance should be a curiosity-building activity. “They don’t have to be right, just be,” she says. “They need to pay attention all the time. That’s what artists do.”


Nancy Wozny taught Feldenkrais classes for 20 years before stopping to write about them and other things from Houston.


Above right: Peff Modelski asks questions that lead to self-correcting. Photo by Jo Anne Baker Skoog, Courtesy Modelski