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Exploring Self Image: The Feldenkrais Method® and Ballet

By Lodi McClellan, GCFP with Becci Parsons, GCFP

“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
-Max Planck (1858 - 1947)

In the spring of 2012, my colleague Becci Parsons (Guild Certified Feldenkrais Teacher® and trained dancer) and I decided to embark on an experimental collaboration. We planned and ultimately taught two, 110-minute advanced ballet classes to fourteen of our seniors at Cornish College of the Arts. We wondered, would integrating the internalized approach of the Feldenkrais Method of somatic education with the rigors of classical ballet technique training positively affect students’ sense of self, and ability to abandon self-consciousness in the training studio?

Becci and I have been colleagues for many years. We trained and performed together in the 1980s, and Becci has led me through numerous Awareness Through Movement® lessons. Within the past decade we’d met informally to discuss some of the stubborn, detrimental habits that I was observing in my ballet students. Becci’s Feldenkrais-based insights into how to think about movement patterns had helped me teach these students more effectively. In addition, students of mine who consulted her privately often returned to ballet class with less tension in their shoulders, more clarity in their movement sequencing and greater self-awareness about how to participate mindfully in technique class. It seemed like a logical next step to put our heads together over this current challenge.

While combining a disciplined art form like ballet with the more meditative explorations of the Feldenkrais Method might seem as challenging as mixing oil with water, there are precedents. I had participated in two experiential Feldenkrais/Ballet workshops, one with Prisca Winslow Bradley (Taos, NM) and the other with Augusta Moore (San Francisco, CA). Both of these master teachers are former professional ballet dancers who now teach classes that weave the Feldenkrais Method and ballet training into wonderfully effective hybrids. In both workshops I had experienced numerous revelations. For example, my personal breathing patterns in ballet became easier after experiencing an Awareness Through Movement lesson designed to release the tension surrounding my diaphragm. It’s common for ballet students to minimize breathing while attempting to engage deep core support. This shallow breathing is just one factor that triggers the fight or flight response, and anxiety, we’d observed, contributed to students’ poor self-image. Becci and I suspected that easier breathing would positively impact students’ sense of themselves, which would in turn support their dancing, and allow their personalities to shine.

In preparation for our classes, Becci and I met several times to discuss our integrative strategies. We intended to address technical and performance issues that are common to many ballet students, such as persistent floor-gazing, and challenges with cross-lateral movement sequencing and spotting the head and eyes when turning. However, we were also keen to explore how self-perception affected students’ dancing. Our basic intention: Becci would lead the students in an abbreviated Awareness Through Movement lesson chosen to highlight a specific aspect of ballet technique followed by my teaching a ballet sequence that allowed students to focus on our chosen concept. We then intended to ask the students to reflect on their experiences.

As a place to begin, Becci suggested that we focus our first class on connecting the students’ arms and shoulder girdles to their core system. She had noticed excessive tension in how the students moved their arms through space (in ballet called port de bras). So, we sketched out a plan for our first class: we’d spend a half hour introducing our ideas, I would teach the students a simple port de bras sequence, and Becci would lead them through a fifteen minute Awareness Through Movement lesson focused on connectivity of the head/eyes/arms relationship. Then, for the next hour I would teach an abbreviated ballet class. And finally, we would allow twenty minutes at the end for verbal processing. We would also hand out articles and links to various http://www.feldenkrais.com website pages for further reading. Becci brought in a list of “talking points” such as “this class will add new tools to your toolbox” or “we may break ballet rules to subvert habitual patterns,” and you are “encouraged to cultivate a ‘beginner’s mind’ of receptivity and openness: let go of the desire to achieve.”

This last talking point was especially profound in the ballet context. All ballet dancers contend with the expectations of an art form supported by over three hundred years of history. At the advanced level, our students’ self-image was integral to how much they had achieved. In addition, these were college students, expecting to be graded. Frankly, I wondered what ballet would look like without dancers striving to reach perfection.

After our introductions, the actual experience of teaching our first class was anything but predictable, and at times quite “bumpy.” We hadn’t anticipated the many complexities of our exploration, including our desire to navigate the often shifting line between goals and process.”

I should mention that one constraint to our process of exploration was my responsibility to warm up the students’ bodies for subsequent technique classes. Yet, I was unsure of how to do this within our experimental structure. In addition, within minutes of beginning the class, I began to question my role. Like our students, we as teachers also needed to embrace a beginner’s mind! I became tongue-tied. Traditionally, ballet teachers provide constant corrective feedback to students throughout a class. In this situation my own entrenched habits of teaching caught me off guard. Becci and I had agreed to encourage our students to explore, without judgment. It was very strange for me to demonstrate a ballet barre sequence and not provide any familiar physical or verbal cues or give students feedback about how to improve their performance. For example, I’d catch myself wanting to say evaluative statement like, “relax your shoulders” or “nicely done.” As a student of the Feldenkrais Method I had learned to accept a certain level of disequilibrium while my nervous system adapted to shifting perceptions, and teaching a straight-ahead classical ballet class is as familiar to me as breathing. Yet, our hybrid classes highlighted how differently my own self-image existed within each experience. The “allowing” and “non-directive” approach, while freeing, was also disorienting for me as a ballet teacher. My self-image was at stake. I actually had to fight what is clearly my default mode: the physical urge (habit, reinforced by thirty years of teaching) of cueing, coaxing, intervening, and assessing. I wondered, “how do I negotiate my teacher identity and relationship to students when I have relinquished control?” “What is my purpose in this environment?” I was uncertain about whether to participate or watch. Despite the internal chatter, I valiantly attempted to stick to our plan while also realizing that I needed to be more responsive to what was happening in front of us. So, that first class, feeling split in two, I stumbled along, open to come what may. Not surprisingly, I learned (maybe remembered is more accurate) that students will still learn without my constant pedagogical intervention.

Student feedback at the end of class revealed a similar discomfort. “Where is this going?” they asked. “Are we being graded?” Becci and I reiterated that the class was an exploration for all of us. No grades! The students laughed with relief when they realized that we were not judging their performance. Our collective self-image was confronting years of habit. Becci observed,

As I watched our students struggle with their habitual desire to “do it perfectly” while trying to fulfill our request that they shift their attention inward to the feeling of what’s happening in the moment, I smiled. Not at their misfortune. I smiled because I could see that in their confusion and frustration they were further along the path of bringing the magic and presence of performance into the classroom than I had ever gotten [as a dancer]. By offering explicit permission to experience the freedom of ‘failure’ without judging, our students actually began to learn something new. The terrible taskmaster and inner critic gave way to curiosity, creativity and a sense of spaciousness. I witness that process every time I teach a public Awareness Through Movement class. It was enlightening to see it come alive in the ballet classroom.

With these observations in mind, we planned our second class (one week later) with less structure and more space for experimentation. Once we began, we improvised our interactions based on mutual trust, frequently checking in with one another and essentially “going with the flow.” This time, class began with my “suggesting” a ballet warm-up at the barre. For example, I would outline an exercise for the legs and feet (tendu) and then invite the students to play with the given material by taking more or less time, closing their eyes, and trusting their own physical needs in the moment (our advanced students were capable of listening to their bodies and making informed choices). After we had completed the warm-up, Becci then led the students in an Awareness Through Movement lesson focused on moving the ribs and chest in ways that challenge the rigid torso commonly seen in ballet class. Gradually, the students began to perform ballet technique with noticeably less tension and more flow. Heads spotted in turns more easily, bodies travelled through space with more gusto, arabesque lines extended more easily. Most significantly, the students appeared to be more themselves, not some idea of what they were supposed to be. In addition, most of the students were less tentative during the second co-taught class. A few students still held back - seemingly nervous about relinquishing their ballet self-image. Still, after both classes, some students revealed that they had felt “spacey” but that the “language of permission was profound.” They appreciated “just being allowed to dance, without judgment.” They were breathing easier and dancing with joy. Fear of judgment had been holding them back.

As their teachers, Becci and I valued the opportunity to witness untapped possibilities in these advanced students. They were fulfilling their dancing through very unfamiliar means. These positive discoveries confirmed our suspicions. The dancers who had previously appeared two dimensional in the studio were now dancing with a lusciousness and freedom we’d only seen from them on stage. They appeared to be more of their whole, three dimensional selves. Two years later, I am still in the process of integrating my own personal discoveries as a teacher. The issues of how to negotiate a non-judgmental approach within the aesthetic expectations of ballet, and of a college program (grades) are an ongoing quest.

Which brings me to our additional questions. Can the aesthetic values of ballet be learned in an environment of permission? How can technical standards be maintained without a teacher assessing a student’s performance? Do traditional ballet teaching habits effectively serve the outcomes we desire in our students? What does “just being allowed to dance, without judgment” indicate about how assessment impacts performance and self-image? Becci and I witnessed some profound shifts in our students’ ability to physically manifest ballet technique. Is a Feldenkrais approach to ballet technique training enough to achieve artistic high standards? Would the modality be more appropriate as a coaching, rather than training tool? Can students of all ballet technique levels benefit from a Feldenkrais approach to ballet training? How did our collaborative process make the studio to stage experience fresh? Did our approach invite our students to accept more responsibility for their learning? Might the option for a more open structure with deeply ingrained, habitual exercises inspire students to experiment more with personal expression?

These questions are driving us forward. Becci and I began our collaboration with the desire to help students bridge the gap between studio and stage, discovering new ways to bring the “magic” of performing as their fully embodied joyful selves into the college dance classroom. We’re pleased with our initial explorations, and eager to continue. When I asked Becci how her self-image had been impacted through this experience, she reflected,

I came away from our experiment with deep appreciation for how the Feldenkrais Method has shaped my values as a teacher and facilitator of change. I can hold the space for the messy chaos of learning in ways that I couldn’t as a dancer and choreographer. I had no idea that the source of the friction that I felt on a daily basis in those days was me. It was an inside job.

Lodi McClellan has been teaching ballet in private studios since 1980 and at Cornish College of the Arts for the past eighteen years.

Becci Parsons is a dancer and Guild Certified Feldenkrais Teacher®(1991) with over 35 years experience in the movement arts.

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