I was given a wonderful opportunity to participate in youth4youth organised weeklong training program Grow conscious and feel your body in Italy. I applied wanting to enrich my inner self, wanting to work on my inability to express certain emotions and improve my listening and responding skills in regards to my body. Training overview outlined the importance of connecting mind, spirit and emotions with the body through meditations, creative tasks and working on bio-energies, as a result growing and performing as a whole. Based on the project title I assumed I would find body awareness training practice useful as a dance artist as well as a spiritual being. I was curious to discover whether exercising the use of energy concentration in specific points of my body would reveal something new about my understanding of performativity and execution of movements. In other words, I was hoping to explore what I would call mindful moving or mindful dancing.
However, throughout the week, the more we engaged with physical activities and meditation practices becoming observers of our bodily experiences from inside, I came to a conclusion that being a dancer meant I was already one step ahead of becoming conscious of the changes and shifts in my body whilst it was moving. The basic tasks that asked us to engage with sensations in different body parts seemed fairly familiar and easily achievable and the control of the energy use – naturally dictated by the movement itself, not predetermined. Slightly disappointed in my mission to discover new ways to use my body as a dancer, I decided to shift my focus on learning other important things about myself instead. Nevertheless, having the time and possibility to engage in extensive discussions with other participants on daily bases lead me towards few unexpected dance related arguments from different contexts. I would like to share them here as well as offer my subjective reflections on them.
Complexity of “dancing without thinking”
One of the first exercises we engaged in experiencing was so called free dancing when the main instruction to follow was to free your mind and let your body move without thinking about its directions or placement avoiding intentional movements, simply following the music and rhythm. Whilst I recognised the other participants struggling because of lack of instructions given, I realised that for me this was a fairly familiar case.
First of all, any contemporary dancer who has gone through decent dance improvisation training would know that every second, every moment provides us with remarkably wide range of options on how to move, react, respond. No movement ever comes from nothing; even an attempt to move without focusing on your body is a decision. Allowing your body to move along with the music is a decision too, which requires focusing on details of the music, which then essentially means thinking again and deciding which tone, sound to follow through, what speed to allow your body to take on and whether to go with or against it. It becomes even more complex if there are lyrics as well, which we did have for some of the exercises. My brain would automatically pick up the meaning imposed and again – would decide whether to ignore it or allow my body to represent it in some ways. The closest way one would be able to move with the music without thinking is by engaging with habitual choices. Making the most comfortable and familiar decisions, following the loudest beat, most obvious leads.
Second of all, even in a mind-set of letting my self be lazy (in terms of being a dancer) and engaging with habits, my mind would automatically follow the placement of my body in the space anyway, even if not actively. It is a skill dancers gain over a longer period of performance training – spatial awareness and ability to “step outside the body” to observe the dance from the receivers point of view. So what I found difficult was to turn that off or ignore it. I as an individual and a dancer felt responsible for knowing where in the space I was in relation to others, especially because everyone’s eyes were closed; I always knew how my free dance looked like from outside, even if I tried to pretend not to care.
Instructions such as “don’t think and dance” or “don’t think, just follow the music” does not get anyone to a state of freedom from thoughts and decisions. I equally recognise that few session are not enough to teach people in depth about the right mind-set to approach the exercise so I understand the shortcut taken in explaining what to do, but for myself I decided to make up my own rules and engage with the task as dance improvisation, which then lead me to new reflections.
Dance as meditation without attempting to empty your mind
First I turned to the most familiar tool I had – visualisation. I imagined myself in a spacious golden ball that needed to be filled with light, which came from my dancing and my insides. That way I had clearly set a space for myself to be in and dance in, I knew there was no one else there, so there was no need to worry about that. Deciding that the light came from me and giving myself a task to fill the whole ball with it, set a structure to my moving so I could cross off worries about making decisions. That then allowed me to focus on only one aspect – me as the generator of light and energy, which got me closer to the state of freedom from unnecessary thoughts and predetermined actions.
Similarly, I have always believed that alongside appreciating dance as an art form and getting satisfaction from moving and having a chance to say something that matters, dancing as an action is meditative itself. Without attempting to reject any occurring thoughts on movements, with hard decision-making process involved in regards to music and composition, the beauty of focusing your mind on dancing for 100% is found in the absence of space for any troubling thoughts. I, personally, always know when I am in it, when I dance and all that matters is the moment I am dancing, not my personal problems at home, not possible future opportunities, just now. And according to my beliefs of what meditation is and should help to achieve, this being in the moment, consciously being in that one constantly changing moment is the goal.
Dance and discipline
The connection between the two – dance and discipline – has always been there, no doubts about its existence and in my experience it has always been seen as a positive thing to gain, however, entering a discussion with other project participants about human complexes and fears of being imperfect and wrong on daily bases, a question was raised whether in some ways discipline and constant criticism in dance plays a major role in planting those doubts in an individual, especially if you are a child. Slightly different topic from the previously discussed, however new to me to reflect upon. Also, emphasising dance, I do not mean to disregard sport, life challenges, parenting and other activities that can have similar effect on children and their belief system when growing up. I have simply chosen to talk about dance here.
I started my “dance life” with rhythmic gymnastics when I was very young. Similar to other sports, it was all about competition defining whose legs went higher and whose tricks were performed smoother and to a greater complexity. Expectations were always high and means to meet them – whatever it takes. I did what I was told to cause I was scared to do otherwise, the only times when I got compliments or well done was to show others how badly they were doing. I also remember my teacher angrily asking us whether we thought we could achieve good results if she spent all her time praising us and telling us how great we were. And yes, she was probably right, that would have been the other extreme, but it took me nearly ten years to realise I am dancing and competing for myself not my teachers, to realise I can do so much more and become better if I actually work at it because I want it.
Being the person I am now does make me question whether I would still feel like living under a microscope every day if I had not have chosen to spend my life training to become a professional dancer. Maybe I am wrong, who knows, it might be my horoscope sign that has planted the fear of criticism, maybe it is the way I have been raised up, maybe my social life and everyday environment or just a mix of all, but up until I had that discussion with others, I never thought to blame dance for that.
To conclude, I can only say I am very grateful for having had a chance to spend a week surrounded by honest and open-minded people who certainly helped me shape my reflections. The project reminded me how important it is to take whatever possible from any experience offered, even if it is not what has been expected in a first place. I cannot say that week taught me how to be a better dance performer but I did discover few truths about my thinking and myself and how I function as a dancer and that is definitely worth appreciating.
Photos: publicity images from youth4youth organized training program Grow conscious and feel your body in Italy.