Wednesday, April 4, 2012

What's So Special About Dancin'?

Due to severe depression, about 20 years ago, I stopped dancing.  Just. Stopped.

Luckily, I started yoga about 17 years ago.  Luckily, because it kept me a wee bit stronger, a wee bit more flexible, a wee bit saner than I would have been doing, say, nothing.

A wee bit.

I still struggled daily with depression and anxiety.  I was never fit physically even when doing yoga daily.  (It just wasn't enough for this body and I worked my way through most major schools of yoga.)  I still basically lived inside my head, still not knowing simple things, like when I had to pee or when I was hungry or when I was full.

Then about 12 years ago, I found Kundalini yoga, and it took me a few steps higher than all the vinyassa and ashtanga and integral and iyengar ever did.

I was a wee bit better times two.

Still in the land of small better.

No big giant better for this girl.

I got to that place where I was comfortable enough that I didn't really notice that I was still not Happy, Joyful, Fulfilled.

Then.  Ta-Da!  Dancing came back into my life and I have never been the same.

This is shorthand, of course, this version of this story, but I have other things I want to say here, and I thought if a new reader were to read this, they would need a bit of back story.  So, there.  That was the back story.


I have spent a lot of time thinking about this transformation, this Resurrection that I have experienced.

I have spent a lot of time doing my favorite thing in life -- comparing and contrasting.  I have spent a lot of time thinking about what dance did for me and why compared to what yoga did not do for me and why.

The really simple version of the answer would be to say that I was born to dance (I was) and so nothing else was going to do it for me (it wasn't).

But then complexities arise as I watch other women who were not necessarily "born to dance" in the same way that I was (though we all are in some way...), as I watch those women come to dance and be transformed not in the same way, perhaps, as I was, but with the same kind of intensity.

Women of every age.

My 85 year olds who not only have changed physically in just a few weeks of class but have also started to explore life in a voracious way that they were missing before.

My students who draw from a deep well of courage in every aspect of their lives since coming to dance (and there are many students of this ilk).

My students who get rid of every kind of physical and emotional pain imaginable through dance.

Here's the weird/interesting/perplexing/surprising part:  almost every single one of them had had a regular yoga practice (yes, the 85 year olds too) and had expected these sorts of results from that system but had not gotten them.

Then they came to dance.

When I speak here of dance, I am speaking of my approach to dance.  We do not spend our time in class learning sequences of steps or routines.

This dance I speak of is an embodied spiritual path.

We ExploreDance.  We explore dance.  We dance to explore.

I always take my students through a careful and thorough (and fun) warm-up process designed to work through every single joint.  By the time they are really, truly free dancing, they have already been sweating significantly for about a half hour.

Then I take them through a wide variety, ever-changing series of guided imagery type cues to get them to just move, to let go, to find something new in their bodies.

In. Their. Bodies.

After doing this for some time now and reading and thinking and observing, I have come up with this small list of What's So Special About Dancin':

Music:  You may go to a yoga class, for example, that has music on.  In the background.  But in dance, there is an interactive relationship between your body and rhythm.  The dance is born of your breath and this rhythm.  The dance is tied to the music.  They are partners.  The rhythms of each song change the way you move, the way you breathe, the way you express. We are creatures of rhythm.  This earth has rhythms, cycles, sounds.  Our heart is a drum machine.  The blood pulses to a beat. Our breath changes from slow and deep to rapid.  We are made of rhythm.  Vibration is the stuff of the universe and we are of the universe.  We are skin wrapped, walking-around beings of vibration.

Fluid Movement:  I am not talking about the joining of one yoga pose to the next here.  I am talking about moving your body like a river of muscle from fingertips to toe tips to tip of the head and back down again.  Ever rippling, even when appearing still.  I am talking about movement that flows out of you, flows out of breath, is never headed anywhere but right where it is.  Movement that has no starting point, no ending point, no preconceived notions of what it could be.  One of the leading physical therapists in this country (and I cannot remember his name so please forgive me but he even trains physicians) says that traditional physical therapy is not working because of the way we place movement on to the body (much like yoga), and that the key to healthy bodies is free movement, because when the body is moving freely, on its own, it will never hurt itself.

Let me repeat that:  the key to healthy bodies is free movement, because when the body is moving freely, on its own, it will never hurt itself.

This makes extra special sense in the context of dance/human history: How did we first worship/mourn/prepare for battle/commune?  We moved these bodies -- ecstatically with no restrictions, no forms in mind.

Problem Solving: As you find your own way into your own movement, the brain is rapid fire problem solving in ways you can't begin to imagine.  I see the wonder of this especially when I work with my elder dancers.  When they first begin with me, their balance is shot.  They basically have none, but as they, over the weeks, explore free movement, you can watch their brains and bodies getting back in touch with each other.  They find that balance again all on their own.  Through fluid movement.  Not with me telling them to stand in tree.  But through fluid movement.  After a couple of months, their bodies are solving complex balance problems like kicking.  Yes, KICKING.

Play:  When I teach dance, I never have to entitle one of my classes "Laughter dance," which is a big thing in yoga right now, "laughter yoga."  When I teach dance, laughter does not need to be induced; it bubbles up naturally, as people get back in touch with their natural, youthful, playful, silly hearts.  Or it will bubble up naturally as people find new movement in their physical bodies that they never knew was there. Or it happens because of the music.  Dance is inherently playful, as are people when you get them out of rigid structures.

Community: I have been in and heard of classes in yoga where women practically HISS at each other if you accidentally step on their mats. I have read entire blog posts about mat rules. In dance, of course, there are no delineated boundaries.  There are times even (GASP!) when we run into one another!  What happens?  We LAUGH!  (There is that play thing again!)  With my more advanced students, I have them intentionally touching one another, which is a big deal in this culture of private space.  I know this community thing might be something that I do specifically (I have students tell me that they've never ever been in any kind of yoga or fitness environment where people really get to know each other, where people don't just rush out the door afterward, where they talk to each other -- and not just to the teacher), but I have been around dancers for most of my life and there is bonding that happens.  In my ExploreDance classes, it just so happens that I demand that we see and witness one another.  There is too little of this deep seeing in our daily lives.

I am partial.


But I have spent all of my years in these different worlds of movement.  I have been completely captivated at times in my life by different schools of yoga.  I have been a student first of dance and then of yoga and now again of dance and somatics and biomechanics.

There is something special that happens to us, from the inside out, when just the right piece of music is put on and we are given the space to freely explore ourselves.

There is something special about dance, for sure.

If you'd like more about why Dance is Queen (a slight reference to my ABBA love), you can go to this Stanford Dance page.