Revelations of Life as a Dance ImproviserPosted on Oct 24, 2022
To inhale is to allow the world to come into us–the world is in us–and to exhale is to project ourselves into the world that we are. To be in the world is not simply to find oneself in a final horizon containing everything that we are and will be able to perceive, live, or dream. From the moment we start to live, think, perceive, dream, breathe, the world in its infinite details is in us, materially and spiritually penetrating our body and our soul [âme], giving form, consistency, and reality to everything that we are. The world is not a place, it is a state of immersion of each thing in all other things, the mixture that instantaneously reverses the relation of topological inherence.
Coccia, 2019, p. 66/67
Since young adulthood, my entire life has been centered around the practice of dance improvisation. As an artist who has engaged in rigorous practice for over forty years, I make the case that artistic practice helps to develop resilience in the face of catastrophe. From my own experience, it seems that embodied intelligence—the heart of improvisation—is advantageous in the momentous challenge of shifting our consciousness from a human-centric perspective to a lived understanding that we are an integral part of the whole of life. I share this perspective through my teaching and performing practices. My knowledge encompasses knowledges that have been gleaned from focused attention to the songs emanating from my own body, and that of a long line of movement-explorers, all of whom added their unique voices and reflections on the times we live through. An attitude of profound respect and care for all aspects of life arises.
To make my case, I share how my own art practice has shaped me—from my first impactful encounter with dance improvisation to present turbulent times. This is not intended as some kind of prescription, but rather as an example of how practice can be a bedrock of ongoing revelation from which to keep responding to the continual challenges that life’s unfolding presents.
Let me take you back to Spring 1981. I was fresh out of college and excited to be dancing with the Rosemary Butcher Dance Company, based at the Riverside Studios in London. In those days there was an annual dance festival in an exquisite location at Dartington College in Devon, England.
In 1925 pioneers Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst bought the neglected 14th century Dartington Estate and began the “Dartington Experiment,” setting up a host of forestry, farming and educational projects. Over the years Dartington attracted some of the greatest artists, educators, and political philosophers of the 20th century. It was at Dartington Hall that the National Health Service and the British Arts Council saw their beginnings. It housed a prestigious Arts College and today is home to Schumacher College, famous for ecology-centered programs of study. This history gives the place a mythical aura that is tangible the moment you enter the grounds of the estate via the long driveway, flanked on both sides by ancient oak trees with the river Dart meandering far below. Without doubt, Dartington is a special place, even a ‘power spot,’ if you believe in such things.
Since the early 1970’s to the mid 1980’s, dancer, teacher, and choreographer Mary Fulkerson was Head of Dance at Dartington College. She has been credited with being initially responsible for bringing the idea of what we now refer to as somatic dance practices to Europe. She engaged Steve Paxton, founder of the dance form Contact Improvisation, as a resident teacher and brought over many of the new dance idioms coming out of the USA at that time. For us UK dance folks it was especially thrilling to congregate at the Dartington Festival each year to witness and engage with these new ideas and principles.
I had just finished a three-year formal dance training at the Laban Center in London, where I instinctively resisted the focus on control and dominance over the body that formed the heart of the physical instruction we received. I did not like the feeling of fighting ‘against’ my body. I had fallen in love with the freedom of moving, first discovered on the sports fields at school, while shying away from the common obsession with competition. It struck me that the competition sabotaged the powerful magic at the core of the moving body; I began to wonder about what I perceived to be a disconnect in our relationship with our human bodies. Could this be tied to a fundamental fear of the overwhelmingly powerful force of life that pervades all sentience on this planet, and which manifests as our own embodied intelligence? I trace a connection to the dominance over our bodies that so much of 20th century Euro-American dance as a performing art has come to represent, with its focus on technical mastery that often involves striving for goals that are attainable only at a high price. This approach frequently engenders a mindset of comparison, competition, and pressure to ‘stand out,’ while striving to be the ‘best.’ I lost interest in sport when I realized that pursuing it as a career meant a life dedicated to ‘beating’ others, only to find this same competitive pressure in my dance world.
In recent years I began to consider how this approach to the body that I experienced in my training is allied with theaspiration for dominance, control and power that drives humans of modernity in battles against each other and against ‘nature’, which we now unequivocally recognize destroys the planet. This phenomena, gaining dominance in the modern techno-industrial Western world, is inherent to the emergence of global capitalism and colonialism; it infiltrates all aspects of capitalist and neoliberal societies. Tragically, much of the rest of the world has been drawn to follow our lead, or else we, the West, colonize cultures and force them to adopt aspirations-to-power as a mode of being.
I can honestly say that the trip to the Dartington Festival in 1981 transformed my life. My prior training both at school and college had left me in a state of anxiety about the prospect of my future, with fundamental questions about my own worth. Was I good enough? Did I have what it took to succeed? It was while participating in one of Steve Paxton’s Contact Improvisation classes, performing a simple exercise sharing my center of gravity with a fellow participant, that I had an epiphany. What I remember now was an experience of ‘prior knowing’ that came to me with a clear message. “All I would ever need to know in this life was already inherently present within me.” It was that simple, yet I knew it was ALL encompassing and would demand a very different approach to life from the one I had hitherto followed. I intuited that going forward, my work was going to be about weeding out and discarding all the erroneous ideas, habits, and learnings I had picked up that would obscure my realization from manifesting in myself as my self. In other words, I was embarking on a voyage of discovery—one that would reveal to me my own unique expression of the whole.
In that moment of epiphany in Steve Paxton’s class, my relationship to life shifted from one of fear and anxiety to one that exalts in the potential for life-long learning. This profoundly liberating understanding rendered me ecstatic, and I have memories of running through the fields after class with tears of joy streaming down my face, in awe of the fact that this powerful revelation had communicated itself through my physical form. Something seemed important about my having been in connection with another person when this realization occurred, and I resolved to explore this collaborative ‘being together’ in my work. I realized that anything I would try to ‘build,’ or anyone I would try to ‘become,’ would be a product of a partial understanding, and as such would not be a true reflection of the ‘Self’ that I was seeking. I was going to attempt to become an expert in ‘undoing,’ and in this process of letting go, I hoped to gain a sensitivity to my being and the vibrational frequency of life’s instructions. Applying myself to a rigorous dance practice and other supporting practices that were life affirming, as opposed to life denying, was the method through which I would conduct my investigation.
I intuited then, what I would later go on to study consciously, that we are not separate from life and each other. We are born into this world as an integral part of an awe-inspiring experiment to which we, alongside all our extended families in the natural world, belong. The scientists tell us our bodies are created from star dust… how could we logically conclude that we are separate from and superior to life-itself? This precept is irrational, yet it defines the reality we learn and live by in standard modern Western culture. We work against life, just as in some traditional dance trainings we may work against our bodies.
In my pedagogy I have tried to come up with simple physical scores and exercises that allow us to practice principles of living. I glean my inspiration from an embodied philosophy and passion for the Art of Improvisation in collaboration with others. I often engage physical contact as a mode of direct communication and have practiced this non-verbal language of the body for over four decades.
Hands that Don’t Want Anything
A duet form
In this exercise a partner moves from one side of the space to the other,
exploring and enjoying their relationship with the earth, listening to how
the earth supports and carries them, how it impacts them as they swim
across its surface. Shedding complexity and anxiety with each outbreath,
they focus on breathing in fresh energy from the fire at the center of the earth.
Their ally gently lays hands on their body to accompany them as they journey
across the space. Employing ‘listening hands,’ the partner is careful not to
disturb their moving meditation.
The image is that these hands
‘Don’t Want Anything’
The hands listen to the moving body with a light yet definite conscious
presence of support. Is it possible to simply accompany and be
together with another person, witnessing/sensing/listening
to the innate intelligence in their body as they move?
Question: Is it possible to ‘Not Want Anything?’
From that moment of realization in Paxton’s class, I decided then and there that I was an ‘Improviser,’ and that going forward I would listen to my body. I stopped taking all classes in structured dance techniques that seemed to demand conformity to other people’s aesthetic ideals and models of assessment, or choreographic studies that promoted set vocabularies. I had no reason anymore to continue this avenue of research. Instead, I dedicated myself to studying improvisation and related somatic work. When I moved with this newly discovered perspective, I felt connected to a primal sense of myself that was at one with the energy of life, which I experienced as deeply inspiring, and which divulged meaningful revelations pertaining to self-discovery and relationship to all aspects of being alive.
I began teaching improvisation in 1981 immediately on my return to London from Dartington College and have always found teaching and performing to be joyfully challenging where my principles are put to the test. As my path progressed, I was drawn to study with particular teachers in Aikido, spiritual disciplines and the Alexander Technique. I found myself working on the periphery of what is referred to as ‘the dance world’. My method is one of continued exploration, constant questioning, deep listening to the experience of the articulation of my embodied self. I am endlessly fascinated by how this translates into conscious understanding—attending and listening to the connected intelligence that speaks through my and my partners’ forms.
From this learning I have crafted my teaching practices and have been keenly interested in how these practices translate and affect my daily living. I feel tremendously privileged to have been able to share my love of dance with people around the globe. Have I made sacrifices along the way? Some could say so. It has been difficult for me to create romantic partnerships and a family of my own, in part because of my itinerant lifestyle, though I intuited early on that this aspect of life would not be part of my path. I live with no regrets.
Reflections on the Life Practice of Dance
What does ‘listening to the body’ entail? What are the practices?
I have witnessed psychic structures at work in the field of improvisation, both in classes and most notably in collaborative performance, when pressure is asserted on the ego of the individual who is in the act of performing. I noticed that when under pressure, if the performer focuses more on themselves than on the preciousness of connection in the context of working closely with others, the resulting actions can be tainted by gross or subtle forms of aggression that are often unconscious, stemming from unexamined parts of ourselves. When this happens, the performance space is rendered unsafe, and the magical sphere of unlimited potential is compromised. That vivid landscape of sensitivity and vulnerability which offers potential for the exploration of unknown possibilities shuts down, leaving in its place an atmosphere that predicates a predictable show of conditioned behaviors and responses. In improvisation there are no rules to help contain or temper our darker impulses that emerge under duress; therefore, the improviser has an imperative to face and take responsibility for their own shadow. It is an integral and fascinating part of practicing freedom. The heart of the practice is to transform negative to positive. Improvisation is the practice of sensitizing the instrument, attuning it to its connection with the whole, and therefore a greater awareness of what is working against wholeness will naturally arise in consciousness.
Personally, through my practice I have been able to work through issues that arose from a difficult childhood with an alcoholic father, whose split personality caused deep trauma within our family. I loved the sober man but could not love the inebriated one, which deeply disturbed me growing up. I suffered sexual abuse by family ‘friends’ and grew up understanding that human culture is not necessarily safe. Through the carefully tendered space of my practice, I gained a perspective on past trauma and have been able to reclaim the body that was taken from me. I resolved to become ‘one’ person who could be trustworthy in any situation. Teaching and performing offered me the platform through which I could endeavor to transform anger, the desire for revenge, the personal need for attention and acclaim, to create space for the discovery of caring, listening, and not imposing on life and others.
“Each individual person has the power of participating in the transformation of the whole Earth. The evil that reaches you after so many millions of years of existence can be absorbed and transformed. You have the power to accept the suffering, to refuse to pass it on to another, to forgive, to end the needless torment, and, most of all, to transmute evil into energy for the vitality of the whole.” Swimme, 2001. P. 81
Improvisation is an Art form that includes the Art of Healing and Seeking Wholeness.
It is also the:
Art of Living
Art of Transformation
Art of Awareness
Art of Listening
Art of Learning
Art of Communication
Art of Creating
Art of Being Created
Art of Acceptance
Art of Facing Challenge
Art of Embracing the Unknown
Art of Embracing Failure
Art of Generosity
Art of Caring
Art of Sharing
Art of Practicing Empathy
Art of Gaining Self Knowledge
Art of Practicing Choice Making
Art of Saying Yes, and sometimes No
Art of Reclaiming Power
Art of Maintaining Perspective in the Face of Challenge
Art of transforming Negative to Positive
I am sure each one of you can add your own understanding to my list.
Eyes Closed Trios
Practicing letting go of control, opening awareness, growing trust:
Each partner gets to experience this eyes-closed sequence for approximately 1 hour.
Closing their eyes, partner 1 receives body work while lying on their back on the earth.
The work is given by 2 other partners who follow a specific pattern of instruction
given by the facilitator.
Once the body work is complete, the receiver (partner 1) begins to move slowly while maintaining eyes closed, initially exploring their relationship with the earth.
As they build their moving up from the earth, they begin to explore their partners’
potential for offering support, for being their eyes.
Once partner 1 makes it onto their feet, the open-eyed caretakers begin to
accompany them through the space.
Once all closed-eyed people are being moved around the space, caretakers can leave
their home base trio and visit other groups. In this way closed-eyed folks get
to experience different energies moving with them.
Give a lot of space when working with closed-eyed partners.
Don’t manipulate closed-eyed partners.
Respect their vulnerability.
Sensitive use of touch.
Allow yourself to ‘receive’ while guiding.
Respect your own vulnerability and sense of caring.
After 1-hour the facilitator instructs partners to return to their original trios.
Partner 1 opens their eyes, and the trio takes some time to dialogue
about their experience of the journey.
Follow the same sequence twice more so everyone gets to taste
the hour-long progression with eyes closed.
In my experience this score deepens as we go through the 3 hours of work,
and it can be tremendously affecting for all involved.
In March 2020 the world plunges into a global pandemic. At the time I had been teaching for thirteen years in an American University, something which was a constant anathema to me as working within an Institution of Higher Education was at odds with my fundamental sense of who I am. I had specifically decided not to go to university at age eighteen, as I instinctively knew it was not where I would do my deepest learning.
Working for the university challenged me on many levels, the most difficult being that the principles practiced within the institution differed from my own, yet I learned a great deal from my involvement with Academia. The opportunity to learn more about racial injustice and inequality is an area of vital importance that I take away with me, which calls for my ongoing attention and work. It is the aspect of my years in Academia that holds lasting impact. At the beginning of my tenure, I told myself that I would leave when I felt my spirit begin to wane. That time arrived in 2020 when I resolved to take early retirement. What I had not expected was that it was my body and not my spirit that had begun to expire.
At the beginning of March 2020, I was diagnosed with Triple Negative breast cancer, which is considered to be more aggressive and have a poorer prognosis than other types of breast cancer. The second shock came when I tested positive to being a BRCA2 gene mutation carrier which leaves women susceptible to breast and ovarian cancers, and men to breast and prostate cancer. Cancer more than any other disease conjures up a sense of dread for us. It is widely recognized that in the West it is now at epidemic proportions, with an estimated one in three women expected to be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetime, and one in two men (Whiteman, 2015). Around 10% of cancers are known to be caused by genetic predispositions; it is now generally accepted that environmental issues such as pollution, pesticides, food additives, etc., as well as poor lifestyle choices including unhealthy eating and drinking habits, plus stress due to our fast-paced modern lifestyles, have proven to be contributing factors to the exponential growth of the disease. Prior to the 1940’s, if a person was diagnosed with the BRCA 1 or 2 gene mutation there was a 24% chance they would develop cancer by the age of 50. After the 1940’s, with the acceleration of industrialization and the widespread use of chemical pesticides, that number has risen to a shocking 67% chance of getting the disease (King, Marks, and Mandell, 2003).
I knew something was wrong when I was ushered into a different room in the hospital from the other consultation rooms I had previously visited. I can still clearly see the arrangement of table and chairs, the box of tissues that had been carefully placed close to where I was asked to sit. The doctor arrived moments later and took a seat. When she delivered my cancer diagnosis, she sat at a distance on the opposite side of the room which seemed incongruous. I later wondered why she had not sat closer, where her physical proximity could have offered me some reassurance and comfort. Was her bizarre choice made due to fear of contracting the virus? By great good fortune my tumor was discovered at the beginning stages of growth thanks to a 3D mammogram and an alert technician. I was told it was treatable.
It was oddly comforting to me to realize that even in the midst of receiving this harrowing news, part of my awareness was awake to the details of what was occurring. I remained focused and did not feel diminished or fall into self-concern. Was I afraid? Yes, I experienced dread in the pit of my stomach; but more than anything else, as a practiced improviser I stayed calm, aware, and focused on the imperative to find out what all this meant, and how it would impact my life. I can honestly say that this was the attitude I maintained throughout the few weeks that followed as my treatment options changed from a lumpectomy, followed by radiation, to a double mastectomy followed some months later by the removal of my ovaries and fallopian tubes, once my BRCA2 status had been discovered. My body held up remarkably well throughout the surgeries and process of healing, for which surely, I can thank my years of movement.
Of course, there have been highs and lows, but something deeper has sustained me. My cancer journey began at precisely the same time as the first Covid lock down, forcing me to rely almost exclusively on my own composure and judgement as I negotiated the countless meetings with doctors, nurses, and my oncologist, to decide the best course of treatment. I knew that as I faced my own mortality I was not alone. All over the world millions of people were isolated and facing the same mortal fear of dying. I intuited that the reason my body became sick was directly connected to the ailing body of our planet for which I own my share of responsibility. This gave me the strength to face my illness and to commit wholeheartedly to doing everything in my power to heal my body as part of the planetary healing, which constitutes the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. This I understood was the challenge life had thrown at me, that would guide the next phase of my life. Most importantly, friends came to my aid in deeply moving ways. In a very real way, I understood the importance of living within a supportive community, and perhaps for the first time in my life I let in that I was loved.
I noted with some surprise that when I was told I had cancer, I experienced relief. In retrospect, I realized that I have lived with the fear of contracting a life-threatening disease, a vague presence hovering at the edge of my consciousness. Perhaps I am not alone in this – a pervasive fear of sickness and the inevitability of death? Yet the moment this became an unavoidable reality, the fear was stripped of its power, and I felt liberated from the constraints fear imposes on our hearts and minds. I learned that in the act of confronting catastrophe head-on, we are more resilient than we imagine ourselves to be.
Reflections on the Life Practice of Dance
Could this be called a practice of intuition?
The practice of Improvisation is an open hearted and curiosity-filled acceptance of what arrives in every moment, maintaining composure and awareness in the face of challenge, processing all relevant information, split second judgment leading to a generous response and appropriate action. All this happens at a speed faster than the mind can comprehend. Pre-thought, the heart races with the awareness of a make-or-break moment. Moving through experience with an eye on the infinitesimal details of what is occurring. Do or die. Standing firmly in one’s allegiance to taking responsibility for one’s shadow makes it possible to risk letting go. Trusting the intelligence to be able to process the information in split second timing. Trusting the ‘knowing’ that ensures right response. This is not frontal lobe activity, rather it is movement in the reptilian brain at the base of the skull, ancient survival wisdom.
At the time, I also noticed that despite having cancer I, Kirstie, did not fundamentally change. Supported by my attitude towards life, harvested from knowledge built over the years of dedicated practice, I was touched to discover that my sense of humor never failed me. This did not tally with my prior perceptions of what ‘being sick’ would look, or feel, like. Indeed, looking back I see that throughout my health crisis I felt alert and energized facing into each new challenge as it arose, much as I do when I participate in an improvised performance, or negotiate teaching a class. This is not how I expected this cancer journey to unfold, and it gave me much insight into how we project our own fear onto those who suffer sickness. In our eyes they can seem ‘changed’, the ‘others’ who we are no longer totally aligned with.
When life is good there is a thrilling sense of freedom that calls to be fully engaged with, and joyfully expressed. When difficulties emerge, as they inevitably will, and the path forward seems perilous, the work begins in earnest and our understanding and grounding in holistic practice is put to the test. Emotionally this is not pleasing for us; yet it is where the profound satisfaction of humble learning, deepening understanding and strengthening occurs. Life inevitably will present us with challenges. Where did we get the idea that it should be easy? The good news is that as an integral part of the whole, we have everything at hand to be able to adapt, transform, uncover, and explore life-generating solutions, that are so much needed at this time.
Reflections on the Life Practice of Dance
A Life-Affirming Practice
In the calm after a storm there is an important space for processing what has occurred, to honestly face the measure of success of one’s actions: Sniffing out short comings, the awareness of the movement of ego. Breathing—absorbing the learning back into one’s being. Trusting the process, not wasting precious time attempting to hold onto anything. Lightness of being and the freedom to move forward. No time for self-congratulation or regret. The experience is one of being ‘fully engaged and alive.’ Energized, activated yet at peace, deeply rooted. It is an act of love, embracing authenticity, the thrill of meeting the unknown, holding firm, resisting the temptation to fracture in the face of the wild unpredictability of life.
There is great relevance in recognizing the importance of grounding our lives in life-affirming embodied practices that develop intuition, big heartedness, wisdom, and resilience. Knowing that we face an unknown and unsettled future beset with catastrophic climate events and its ripple effects, it seems imperative that we look for ways to prepare ourselves to be available in this fight for life. It’s likely this will engender the transformation that life is demanding of us at this time. Seen in this light, it is an extraordinary time to be alive and available, to fully participate in this act of worship. It seems important that each one of us finds our own way in this venture, as the diversity of all our voices joining together seems imperative for radical transformation to occur. It also seems important that we find safe places and spaces that support our deeper work. Dartington was the space that offered me the perfect catalyst for kickstarting my ongoing journey towards wholeness all those years ago, and without doubt I feel my various trainings, art practices, and safe spaces along the way, have helped prepare me to meet this moment.
In August 2020 I returned to the resplendent natural environment of Wales to heal. I called it my time of self-wilding, recovering from cancer and the time spent in the enclosure of the university. For the past twelve months I have found my safe space immersed in nature—sitting beside, and swimming in the rivers, with an intention to do nothing but be held in the power of nature’s magnificence; to breath it in and be grateful,knowing it would be central to bringing my body back into balance. This is now my practice, along with a restricted diet and immune boosting supplements prescribed through my relationship with a brilliant Integrative Health doctor in the UK, Doctor Nina Fuller-Shavel. I am surprised to discover that what is being demanded of me right now, is to dive deeply into learning about how to care for myself, not from an adherence to any dogmatic belief systems, but from the necessity to be sensitive to the restoration of balance within my system that has become imbalanced. This it seems to me is the same work that needs to be done to restore planetary health.
The Watching Journey
Practicing seeing and being seen. A duet form
Attuning to each other’s breathing, begin lying on the earth
resting your head on your partner’s stomach,
feeling the rise and fall of their breathing – changeover.
Rest your legs on your partner’s stomach, breathing the legs – changeover.
Rest back-to-back with your partner and enjoy this support.
Spend some time moving with the support of your partner’s back.
Begin to dance a dance of moving away from that support
and enjoy playing with the challenge of leaving each other.
Once you finally come apart, turn to face and see each other.
One person performs a short solo for their partner –
a little movement disclosure or story.
The other partner witnesses the solo
and responds with their own contribution.
Initially performed from the seated position,
gradually changing levels,
spend some time offering the solos back and forth,
until you arrive in standing and can move around the space.
At this point include in your solo showing your partner
how you interact
with the things in your environment,
including interactions with other people.
Naturally as more movement permeates the space,
the eyes will be drawn to look at other people.
Allow the focus on the one partner
to dissolve and be replaced with a curiosity
about moving with and witnessing others/all.
It’s important to remember
that at any point during this collective sharing of solos
you can choose to stop and watch.
The energy of your attention to witnessing
anchors the space for the movers.
After a given time,
the facilitator brings participants back to their original partners,
and gives them time
to discuss what happened on their journeys.
Undeniably, dancing has saved my life. I understand now, more than ever, the profound implications of the work I have been passionately involved with since that day in early 1980 when I met Steve Paxton and shared in his exploration of Contact Improvisation. Through that encounter I entered my own journey with dance improvisation, opening to the space of vulnerability where the force of creativity infected me with her delightful free play. Through my practice, which is dedicated to a different way of being with others and the world, my experience proves to me that the knowledge which arises through attentive listening to the body’s connected wisdom is key to our survival.
Coccia, E. (2018) The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture. 2nd edn. Medford, MA. Polity
Swimme, B. (2001) The Universe is a Green Dragon: A Cosmic Creation Story. Rochester, Vt. Bear & Company
King, M-C., Marks J. H., Mandell J. B., et al., (2003) “Breast and Ovarian Cancer Risks Due to Inherited Mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2,” Science 302, no. 5645: 643-46
Whiteman, H. (2015). “1 in 2 people will develop cancer in their lifetime,” Medical News Today. Available at https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/288916 (Accessed: April 5 2022)
Acknowledgement: I would like to thank the thousands of people I have danced with and taught since I began my dance journey for giving me the opportunity to continually refine my art form. Thanks also to Mary Adams, Pat Knowles, Liora Bresler and Tim Dean for their support in helping me translate my embodied language into verbal articulation.