Taking Somatics off the Mat
“Practices of somatic movement education and therapy encompass postural and movement evaluation, communication and guidance through touch and words, experiential anatomy and imagery, and the patterning of new movement choices . . . to enhance human processes of psycho-physical awareness and functioning through movement learning.”
—International Somatic Movement Education and Therapy Association
(from Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices; Martha Eddy; 2009, Volume 1, Number 1)
When you mention the word “somatics,” it often conjures a delicious self-sensing nap on a cushy mat in a dimly lit room. Aimed at connecting mind and body, somatics first came to prominence in the 1970s, led by people like Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, Emilie Conrad, Joan Skinner, Elaine Summers, Sondra Fraleigh and Judith Aston—all of whom also had backgrounds in dance. But while much that takes place in a dedicated somatics class is beneficial for dancers, dancing itself rarely enters the mix.
Now, however, body-mind–influenced dance teachers are bringing somatic principles directly into the structure of the dance class. Often trained in more than one modality, they focus on integrating the concepts. They advocate that not only is somatic wisdom essential for healthy dancers, but dance class may just be the preferable mode of transferring the information.
“The dance class setting is a perfect place to teach concepts such as development, dynamics of movement, and body systems,” says Martha Eddy, CMA, EdD, of Moving on Center and The Center for Kinesthetic Education. Eddy created BodyMind Dancing in 1986, a top-to-bottom somatic dance technique that combines her training in the somatic practices of Body-Mind Centering (BMC), Laban Movement Analysis and Graham, Limón and Hawkins modern dance techniques.
BodyMind Dancing follows the path of human development, from the floor to the vertical. “When standing, I work to emphasize the released quality we felt on the floor,” Eddy says. “Taking time for students to feel their bodies and respond, a key tenet of somatics, gives them an opportunity to synthesize the material presented.”
Because somatics focuses on self-awareness, the hierarchy between the teacher and student is reshuffled. Ray Schwartz, a member of the dance faculty at The University of the Americas Puebla who trained in BMC and The Feldenkrais Method, another branch of somatics, has his students observe one another as a way of shifting the authority away from the teacher, thereby creating a more collaborative classroom. “I try to invite people into self-awareness, and I often use questions rather than opinions as a way of engendering feedback and giving information,” says Schwartz. “The use of dialogue with the student about why we do what we do strikes me as a somatically informed practice.”
Applying somatic techniques can elevate a dancer’s experience, but the challenge is to work them in without breaking the flow of the class. “A simple tendu sequence can be enhanced by a somatic exercise using real hand brushes to stimulate a sensory experience and wake up the feet,” says Eddy. This type of exercise, using a tool like a brush, can be directly linked to Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s pioneering somatic work as an occupational therapist.
Eddy also says that exercises across the floor can be a great way to learn about different body organizations. “It’s easy to develop phrases that use opposite-side [contra-lateral] and same-sided [homo-lateral] organizations,” she says. “Grands battements work especially well for exploring whole body organizations. Students can also learn their organization preferences.”
In Schwartz’s classroom, somatics influences his verbal cues. He weaves basic Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lessons, which are verbally guided movement exercises, right into the fabric of his class. “I use images from Laban to elaborate spatial awareness in work with the arms and across the floor,” he says. “I might discuss tendus as a method of balance sensitivity and weight transfer.”
Laura Faure, director of Bates Dance Festival, finds that students are drawn to teachers who, like Schwartz, blend several somatic approaches. This style works particularly well with Bates’ intergenerational population, which includes college students and teachers. “Thirty percent of our participants are over the age of 30, and quite a few of them are in between 40 and 60,” says Faure.
For Eddy, teaching with somatic concepts rather than a specific dance style equalizes students’ skill levels, allowing her to have mixed abilities in a single classroom. She often relies on improvisation, a crucial part of somatic technique and a remnant of her early studies at the 92nd Street Y in New York. “I make sure that students have time to make each combination their own, whether through variations or just finding their own movement within the dance,” she explains. “Playing with the phrase, making it your own, that’s the heart of somatics.”
In the past, Eddy encountered resistance to her approach, but now dancers seem to value the material rather than question it. “Somatics is more accepted now, and I don’t have to say as much to convince students,” she says. “It’s in the atmosphere already.”
Schwartz finds dancers today are already soma-savvy, whether they know it or not. “Noting skeletal landmarks, moving from an inner to an outer focus, developing an experiential sensibility—that’s all somatic, and it’s now the mainstay of a typical modern dance class,” says Schwartz. While dancers may be more familiar with somatics, they don’t always know where the concepts originate. “I try to always include the lineage of any idea I am teaching. That way students have access to learning more should they want to pursue further study,” Eddy says.
Somatics will inevitably continue as an independent field. And while Faure believes it to be an essential component in the development of a well-rounded dancer, she recognizes that its assimilation into the dance world achieves the desired effect, spreading important body knowledge and improving the health of dancers. “I really got excited about this material when it emerged on our radar in the 1970s,” she says. “These concepts have been so integrated into the way people teach at Bates that dedicated somatic classes are becoming somewhat unnecessary.” DT
Nancy Wozny is a certified Feldenkrais practitioner and writes about the arts from Houston, TX.
Somatic Study Guide
If you’re interested in learning more about the body-mind connection, here are some places to begin:
American Society for the Alexander Technique (AmSAT)
AmSAT is a clearing house for information, trainings and finding a teacher of the Alexander Technique.
The Center for Kinesthetic Education
Martha Eddy offers classes and teacher training in BodyMind Dancing and BodyMind Fitness.
Former Dunham dancer and somatic pioneer Emile Conrad explores the importance of the fluid system in human movement.
Eastwest Somatics Institute for Dance and Movement Studies
Founder and dance philosopher Sondra Fraleigh created Shin Somatics which combines Feldenkrais, craniosacral therapy, effective communication, Japanese Butoh, Yoga and Zen meditation.
The Feldenkrais Guild of North America
The Feldenkrais Guild provides information on classes, teachers and upcoming trainings along with research and articles of various applications of the work.
Klein Technique, a movement re-education and injury prevention program, was developed by a dancer (Susan Klein) for dancers and combines a practical and experimental approach to anatomy and an internal knowledge of the skeletal system.
Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies (LIMS)
LIMS offers training to become a certified Movement Analyst, along with workshops and classes in Laban’s and Bartenieff’s work.
Moving on Center
Moving on Center School for Participatory Arts and Somatic Research, founded by Martha Eddy and Carol Swann, is a mobile somatics curriculum, offering classes, certification programs and workshops for artists and somatic enthusiasts.
The School for Body-Mind Centering
Founder Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen created Body-Mind Centering as a movement-based approach to understanding human development, anatomy and physiology.