- The Method
- Practitioners/Classes and Events
- The Profession
By Jean Elvin, GCFP
When it comes to performance, what can you expect from a Feldenkrais® lesson? Each performer is likely to have unique results despite the fact that everyone takes the same class. That is not too surprising, since everyone brings a different set of physical patterns (habits), movement history including possible injuries, and their own style of performance. Here are a few discoveries made by the performers in my “Feldenkrais for Dance” class at City College of San Francisco. Most of them are dancers (modern, ballet, ethnic, acrobatic, or hip hop), but not exclusively. We found some surprising effects, not only on individual performances but also similarities in how certain lessons affected several performances, even those of differing styles.
After the first few weeks of the course everyone is more or less used to the process of using their awareness to notice differences in their body sensation and movement quality. For instance, they might notice their head turns more easily after a small section of a movement sequence than it did before, that their shoulders rest wider and more relaxed on their ribs, or that their lower backs are closer to the floor after the lesson is over, compared to before we start. Then we begin weekly showings, with one to four performers performing repertory before and after that week’s Awareness Through Movement® lesson. The guideline is to show thirty-two counts (i.e., eight bars of four) or roughly sixty to ninety seconds of content. Afterwards, it’s fun to share what we observed as the audience and find out what the performer noticed. It’s easy to recognize the impact of the lesson on each performance and if there are a few performances, we can see if there is any universal effect among them.
This semester, one of the lessons involved unusual patterns for breathing. Another one focused on movements of the toes and ankles, and also bending to the side, while lying on the back. The week that Masha showed a belly dance performance in the Saidi (Egyptian Folk) style, her movements were beautiful and rhythmic. Then we did the lesson focusing on movements of the toes, ankles, and side bending. Some of her classmates commented that the first time she performed they mostly noticed the individual gestures of the movements. The second time she performed there was a dramatic shift in the dynamics of her dance. Classmates observed a finer sense of coordination, with a freer quality. “Her whole body seemed to be naturally in the flow of the dance and the movements of her trunk, feet and hands appeared more unified.”
Masha reported feeling more confident after doing the movement lesson, even though the changes were in some ways distracting, making it harder to remember the sequence. She reported enjoying the movement more thoroughly the second time, since it felt lighter, with easier motion. The first time through, a repetitive percussive sideways movement of her hip was clearly accented. The second time it really flipped up without having to try. A classmate commented, “the movements appeared larger, the weight shifts were really smooth, and her hips were speaking.”
Masha reported being interested in the side bending motion during our movement lesson. Only when she performed again did she realize it correlated directly with the ‘flip of her hip,’ improving both the range and the lightness of that percussive action.
You can’t always predict how a lesson is going to affect your actions. Once you try, it can feel so new—as though you’ve suddenly discovered some hidden aspect of your familiar work. A word of practical advice—be sure to take some time between the movement lesson and your second performance. Performers need time to integrate the new sensations. Get some water, take a short break, and collect yourself.
In his book, The Potent Self, Dr. Moshë Feldenkrais wrote,
“The brain is capable of a greater variety of patterns of situations than we actively employ; only those patterns become operative that the personal experience of self and the world have facilitated and made recurrent or potentially available.” (p. 127)
When you experience new patterns during a Feldenkrais lesson, it takes your brain and body time to make it operative. The time between the lesson and the second performance allows you to start integrating the new information. Without adequate time for this, it could be so distracting that the performer could blank out on even the most familiar movements. This is because everything feels so different until the process of integrating is complete. Normally that can take from one hour to a couple of days, depending on the lesson.
By revisiting our sixty to ninety second performance in the earliest stages of integration, we are using the performance itself as a set of test movements. It helps to approach the second performance with an attitude of acceptance and discovery. Using it in this way, we can learn a lot about the new sensations that are being evoked and the benefits that the Feldenkrais Method® of somatic education brings to our performance.
With this in mind, it’s best to use only familiar movement lessons on the week of an important performance, especially with technical choreography, such as balances and turns. Allow time to make it your own without the added stress of a performance. For highly technical performances, the Feldenkrais Method can offer a richness and maturity to your interpretation that makes it worth taking the time to integrate any new habits you are embracing.
The week we did a lesson on breathing, there were four performers: two sang, one performed hip hop, and one performed a sequence of yoga poses. The most surprising thing we noticed was how profoundly it affected each of the performances, regardless of the style. Without exception, the rhythm became clearer and the flow from one action to the next improved remarkably. A class member described, “All the performers did noticeably better on their second performances. For instance (the hip hop dancer) seemed to be enjoying herself more, was in rhythm, and moved more expressively.”
The phrasing for both singers and movers was more satisfying. Transitions became easier to perform, as seen with a challenging jumping transition in the yoga pose sequence. Sometimes the movement accents or the tempo were affected, as with both the hip hop and the musical theatre song—perhaps from moving the chest in such a new way. Even those who didn’t perform that day per se could feel within their own ‘before and after’ movements a change in continuity. After seeing the effect, it made sense to me that Gaby Yaron (one of Dr. Feldenkrais’ original thirteen students) had dedicated her entire 1990 Chicago workshop, “ATM® for Health Professionals, Performing Artists and Athletes,” to working with the breath. She recognized the power of the breath when she was healing from a serious auto accident and continued to incorporate this theme throughout her years of teaching.
Try a few simple movements from this lesson on the breath. If you wish, walk around beforehand, or if you are a dancer, try sixteen-counts of easy movement and then repeat it again afterwards.
Lie on your back and notice your breathing. Take your time. Notice if you can pay attention to your breath without changing it, without trying to breath more deeply or slowly. Place one hand on your belly and the other on your upper chest. Which hand is moved more by the flow of your breath in and out? This will show you in which area your natural breath moves the most&mdashthe upper or lower torso.
Next, for a few breaths, purposely breath in only the upper chest, allowing the breath to move as lightly and easily as possible. In other words, don’t tense up. Then rest.
Next, for a few breaths, primarily allow the movement of your breath to flow into the lower abdomen, without the chest. Try a while, then let it go and continue breathing without trying.
Can you hold your breath momentarily and pull your belly in and out? Do this just a few times until you’re ready to breathe normally again. (If you have a serious heart condition, omit holding your breath and do the rest of the exercise without that detail, as holding your breath can affect your blood pressure.) Notice what your upper chest does.
Slow down the movement of the belly a little so that you can feel the pressure inside your trunk moving up and down inside your belly, ribs and chest. Breathe normally in between to relax and regain your natural breath. Rest, then try it again.
At first it will be easiest to feel the rippling movement while holding your breath, and of course taking breaks in between. Once you are familiar with this, try pushing your belly out while you are exhaling. Usually we think of the belly expanding when inhaling. This is backwards on purpose. Can you discover how to do the movement of pushing the belly out independently from the breath? Be sure to take plenty of breaks in between.
Then slow it way down, as if this was the normal way of breathing, with no exaggeration. Allow the chest to rise as you inhale, and the belly to rise as you exhale. There are other variations on this paradoxical way of breathing, as well. For now, be content to get as much relaxation as you can out of this very unusual breathing pattern. When you are finished experimenting with it, get up and walk around. See if you can feel a difference in yourself somewhere besides the breath, as you walk, stand, or sit. If you did a short sequence of “before” movements, take a break for a few minutes, get some water, and think through your sequence before you try marking through it physically. No heroics—just keep the movement quality easy and enjoy what you feel. You can revisit this practice even in very short segments, wherever you find it occurs to you.
If you have a favorite Feldenkrais teacher in your area and want to explore more lessons on the breath, ask them to teach “Gluing in the Lungs” from the Alexander Yanai series, Volume Five, Part A (red cover).
Jean Elvin has an MFA degree in Dance from Arizona State University and has been teaching Awareness Through Movement classes at City College of San Francisco since 2008. She has a private Feldenkrais practice in Palo Alto, CA. www.sweetagility.com