Taking Somatics off the Mat

Somatic   so·mat·ic 

“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.

alexandertech.org

The Center for Kinesthetic Education

Martha Eddy offers classes and teacher training in BodyMind Dancing and BodyMind Fitness.

wellnesscke.net

Continuum Movement

Former Dunham dancer and somatic pioneer Emile Conrad explores the importance of the fluid system in human movement.

continuummovement.com

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.

eastwestsomatics.com

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.

feldenkrais.com

Klein Technique

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.

kleintechnique.com

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.

limsonline.org

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.

movingoncenter.org

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.

bodymindcentering.com

Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

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