by Sigal Bergman
I taught at Yasmeen Godder’s studio in May and will be teaching again in a few weeks. I would like to share some of my thoughts and methods with the group.
For me, the most powerful aspect of the class was the fact that there were as many healthy dancers/scientists as there were PD dancers. This mix generated curiosity in the class, and was a good opportunity to learn about our relationship to our bodies and our movement across different generations and different abilities. The atmosphere was open and non-judgmental, and assumptions were held at bay. In their verbal feedback, the PD dancers repeatedly referred to the interactions as magical.
I chose two themes as the focus for the classes: intention and intra-activity.
To a large extent, the second theme was addressed by the setting: by dancing together, participants had to learn to listen to each other’s abilities and creative ideas, and not focus on limitations or physical barriers. Intuitively dancers and researchers found themselves seeing past the ‘Parkinson mask’, rigidity and dyskinesia, and I think the PD dancers felt that.
In thinking about intention, I was searching for directions that could, potentially, be used in daily life outside of the studio. The question of what stays with participants after class is a complex one. For me as a dancer, I take away from class into daily life things that surprise me or that are fun to do. They also need to be clear and labeled with words I can remember. I wanted to create a vocabulary for us but with the short time I had I feel like it didn’t sink deep enough. I will make a more conscious attempt to do this on the next round of teaching.
I also tried to look for basic familiar concepts that might be stored in the bodies’ memory, and to expand on them. Almost all the intentions I chose to work with pointed from inside out: connecting from the body into the space or to another person.
Three ideas remained central throughout the 4 classes. The first concerns the intention to see: looking as a way to initiate length and agility along the spine. The second has to do with connecting outside of ourselves with the ends of our limbs by pointing or reaching. The third, pausing, concerns the instant between deciding to make an action and actually doing it. If we want to get up from a chair, for example, a set of habitual movements will take place to ensure we complete our intention. If those habitual patterns are inefficient, we need to become aware of them so that we can make them efficient. This means pausing before moving to decide how we want to move. This concept is central to the Alexander technique, and to my mind, precedes any attempt to change intention.
When I talked about this idea in one of our meetings with Monica, she asked how stopping works for people who deal with problems initiating movement. The difference is of volition: in the OFF times, as I understand it, there is a will to move but the body does not respond. What I suggested was pausing the intention to do an action, in order to choose a strategy of movement. I wonder if switching the thought from what I want to do (to walk, for example), to how I want to do it, could be useful. To some degree this is a strategy that PD dancers use anyway, but I wanted to offer some intentions that dancers use to make their movement bigger, more effortless and more connected to the space around them.
I would like to relate in detail some actual exercises I used since I find it useful in reading other teachers’ descriptions.
We began by sitting in a circle and focused on pointing. In the act of pointing, people reach beyond their own bodies elongating their limbs and sending their intentions into the world around them. I directed the students to point to a specific area in the room, beyond their reach, and to use that area as a virtual “drawing surface”. We then drew shapes and words “on” the surface, helping the students direct their intentions out of their “selves”, broadening and enhancing their range of movements by focusing with precise intention on a distant point.
We expanded the notion of pointing to other parts of the body. Using our index finger is commonplace, instinctual. Pointing with our little finger, thumb, feet or head, expands the experience of pointing– directing that same, precise intention into other extremities.
I went on to demonstrate the practical use of reaching, a basic means of interaction and connection, which can also be used as a means to help initiate movement. I had half the group sit, and the other half stand before them. The standing dancers reached towards the seated ones and vice versa, and helped them to their feet.
We examined the moment of leaving the chair, checking to see if the movement was aided by reaching or whether the seated students reverted, instinctively, to their habitual method of rising. We found that many reverted to past habits, such as tightening the abdomen, but once they recognized they were doing this, they could stay with the reaching method, and rise with greater ease.
One of the most moving moment for me in these lessons occurred when I demonstrated this reaching intention with Nahum, a PD dancer who has great difficulty getting up. Now he seemed nearly to levitate into standing. Later I observed him using this intention during other classes as well.
I also talked about the connection between seeing and lengthening the spine. In PD, the spine is often compressed and rigid, creating pressure on the vertebrae and vital organs, and limiting movements. The Alexander Technique emphasizes the connection between seeing, lengthening the spine, and efficient and agile moving through space. A cheetah, for example, eyeing it’s pray, elongates its spine in preparation for swift, precise movement. It’s as if, poised for the hunt, it is seeing from its spine.
In PD, the gaze is often drawn inward, as if in tandem with the drawing inward of the spine. In our exercises, we practice seeing as a way to elongate our bodies, project our intentions outward along with our vision, and move purposefully and with greater ease.
To practice this, I had the dancers sit in a circle and asked them to reach for their (left-sided) neighbor’s left shoulder with their left arm. This necessitated looking towards their objective, then reaching for it, creating length and a spiral motion in the vertebrates. I then asked them to peek under their outstretched arms and make eye contact with someone across the room, which added complexity to their spiral gestures. This game of “Twister”, using our bodies and gazes, was fun to do and created complex movements out of simple instructions.
We then moved beyond these simple exercises to create improvised dance duets using the concepts we worked on. In one of the classes the dancers worked in couples, one leading, the other following: the “leader” held his partner’s fingertips and used them to “draw” in space. By guiding a partner in this way, and being attuned to his or her physicality and presence, the leader expands his intentions and awareness of others around him. Meanwhile, the dancer being “led”, in giving over his own movements to the leader, can experience the freedom of new and unfamiliar movements. Ideally, the dancers will also experience a sense of synchronicity with each other, similar to that which happens in the ‘mirror exercise’.
Taking this exercise of leading and following into practical movements, the partners stood face to face, holding hands and looking each other in the eye, then began to walk– one forwards, the other backwards. This seemed to facilitate both forward and backward walking.
In another improvisation we used our fingers to create a frame, and looked through it as though shooting a movie. Framing in this way encouraged the dancers to observe details both far and near, and invited them to move through the room in search of interesting things to frame, giving them, again, a fresh motivation for initiating movement. We then put our hands on our partners’ heads, and guided them, using their eyes as our “camera”. There is a short video of that exercise on the site, and there you can observe the kind of attention and movement this instruction inspired.
Ofir, in his class, introduced the possibility of working on the floor. I was very happy he jumped right into it, as I had fears concerning this due to some of the dancers’ difficulty in lowering and lifting themselves.
Leaning on the wall, we slid down slowly, reaching with our hands to lower ourselves to the floor. Here, the dancers found an abundance of new ways to move – on their backs, sides, stomachs– and seemed to enjoy themselves in this new horizontal perspective. They could also use reaching with their fingers and toes to initiate rolling and turning. I would like to continue this exploration in my next classes, since I believe that bringing the PD dancers to the ground lessens their fear of falling and allows for new movement experiences that are positive and fun. Fear freezes us or makes us stiffen, which I suppose is more present in a PD patient’s life. As an Alexander Technique teacher, it struck me that some PD symptoms are similar to what I would identify as startle response (such as the tightening of the back of the neck, shortening of breath) that never ease up.
In this context I would like to mention the class Naama Kadmon and I taught for dancers and researchers.
We looked at videos by Paul Linden (thanks to Matan for pointing him out), an Aikido instructor who has PD. Linden likens his PD symptoms to a violent attack: he shows that when resisting an attacker, the body stiffens, making it more vulnerable. On the other hand, yielding to the attack allows you to maintain your equilibrium and throw your attacker off balance. These videos show incredibly well how a change in intention can reverse a situation. It’s worth watching till the end where Linden relates his ideas directly to dealing with PD: when he resists his symptoms, his tremors worsen; when he yields, they diminish.
In class we practiced the exercises demonstrated in the video and also returned to the intentions I explored with the PD dancers. We then analyzed these intentions in terms of how they felt, how the movement felt and what mental process underlined it. Here are some responses I noted in my notebook:
When analyzing the difference between getting up by intending to reach or by thinking of getting up, Anat Kliger-Amrani described it as the difference between wanting to do something and having to do something.
Shiri Teicher talked about an intention generating sub-intentions and that labeling or giving words to those sub-intentions can facilitate the action.
Ofir Yudilevitch noted the difference between getting ready (which included tightening) and intending.
Uri Shafir was interested in how intention can be a bridge between the unconscious and conscious mind.
Someone talked about the self-image as limiting what one can do, and that we can use intention to break those assumptions.
I found working with this group extremely rewarding and illuminating. These classes also challenged me to define the strategies that I use in my work as a dancer and make them more accessible and available to others.