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How Learning to Dance Might Move Us Through the Free Rider Problem

This article sifts through some of the politics of self-care and care for others. How somatics relate to social, political, and technological movements is unfolded.

Photo form 3d artist Tal Glicks of dancer Zjana Muraro

Photo by Tal Glicks of dancer Zjana Muraro

Doing less and getting more seems like a very appealing strategy to most things. It is one of the core ideas behind somatics. But has this idea been twisted to our liking rather than to its intended meaning? Just like in the world of finance a "free rider" is the number one biggest problem to the health and wellbeing of the economy so too is true to the health and wellbeing of your own body. And yet, the idea of being a free rider is part of somatics and pop culture alike, but why? In a sense it is our nature to want to free ride. We physically increase our gait naturally on an incline so that we expand less energy. But does this coasting bring with it any shortcomings?

After many years of working with somatics, I continuously come to discover more and more about this intricate and unique field. The deep elaborate obscurity and woven principles which are within it still continue to spark my curiosity and encourage me to keep exploring and uncovering. Like a layering of past, future, and present that just fold into folds, into folds.

The parallels between ecology and economy, nature and culture, domestic and sylvan appear everywhere. To answer why, Edwardo Kohn writes (How Forests Think, 2013), we must first understand the peculiarities of patterns, habits and regularities. I suggest that somatics, being a field that deals precisely with patterns and habits, could not be a more perfect path to checking, searching, and experimenting in the space of parallels.

Very briefly somatics can be traced back through Alexander, Bartenieff, and Rolf to name just a few. To note, there are many different strands of somatics but I am only writing here to the specific somatics which pertain to my movement research and ones I am qualified to teach namely, Feldenkrais Method®, GYROTONIC®, and the Ilan Lev Method. Through my research, I identified common features of the different modalities and employed them creatively in my choreographic dance practice. To give a bit of a taste to what somatics is, one common objective is that the practitioner or student engages in carefully structured movements becoming more and more aware of what is happening within the body and through the body to the outside space by the use of visualisation, specific imagery and coded imaginative language.

Somatics are concerned with the idea of embodiment. I'll define embodiment as a realisation or manifestation of an idea, feeling, or quality into the physical body. Historically, somatics are the beginning to a brewing connection happened through the body and into the world. Somatics connect eastern movement philosophies with western ideas. Among the somatic pioneers who worked on developing these movement forms in the west, Rolf cites yoga (India) as an influence, Bartenieff studied Chi Kung (China), and Moshe Feldenkrais was a black belt in Judo (Japan). (Eddy 2002)

By delving into personal bodily experiences, new meanings emerge about being human and potentialities for the health and life of one’s body. In other words, by researching your own physical self the idea is we can each learn more about being human with other humans in the world. “When I understand what I am doing (inside), I can do what I want (out there).” (Feldenkrais) Through listening to the body one can dialogue with the sensations by altering movement habits, patterns and choices. One goal of somatics, if in fact there is one, is to heighten both sensory and motor awareness to facilitate a movers own self-discovering, self-healing, and self-knowing.

Contemporary dance and somatics share close timelines in their development and both being body-based forms that value the 'integrated human being'; the two fields also share some of the same personalities. Pioneers of the modern and contemporary dance have contributed to the field of somatics extensively and have vice versa taken information from somatics to inform dance technique.

As far back as the 19th century somatics can be traced through dancers Francois Delsarte (1811–1871), Emile Jacques-Dalcroze (1865– 1950), Rudolf Laban (1879–1958), Isadora Duncan (1878–1927), and Mary Wigman (1886–1973), Irmgard Bartenieff (1900-1981). Perhaps as dancers these practitioners were simply breaking rules of what was acceptable or not but as people they were reintroducing non-Cartesian models of being. Somatic movement pioneers start to introduce the idea of the body as the primary vehicle of learning and therefore containing as much information and knowledge as the mind. In fact, they suggested, the divide between mind and body might not even exist at all. "A brain without a body can not think." Feldenkrais. In this way I consider somatics very much in line with new materialism and the idea that bodies matter because, matter matters. More to come about this in a later blog post.

For now, following this lineage along, Laban was a teacher to dancers Mary Wigman as well as Kurt Jooss. Bodywork techniques such as Feldenkrais and Alexander Technique have fed somatic dance practitioners more contemporarily, influencing, amongst others, the work of and writing about Anna Halprin (1950), Joan Skinner (Skinner Release Technique, 1960s) Lulu Sweigard’s (Human Movement Potential: Its Ideokinetic Facilitation,1974) Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen (Body Mind Centering®, 1993), and Sondra Fraleigh.

These pioneering individuals, born near the mid 20th century, lived through much adversity and historical change. They discovered ways to cope with diverse stressors by attending to their habits and patterns of movement through active engagement in their unified body-mind experience. They later extended this self practice by the use of systematic reflection to syndicate knowledge and create tools and methods by which to share with others, and in this way are still even today helping new generations to cope with the 21st century.

In practice, somatics use both hands-on movements with a partner or teacher and self-care movements executed on ones own. One of the tenets of various forms of somatic education is that a person should be comfortable with their own investigation, learning and body. The role of a somatic practitioner as teacher is to empower students to take care of themselves by teaching them the tools they need to continue to improve their posture, movement, and function throughout their lives through self-care.

Socially, self-care became a strong movement through the 1960s when as Natalia Petrzela, an associate professor of history at the New School writes in her book The History of Self-Care, it moved from an idea for high stress workers such as ER doctors to a prescription for people all together. This idea that a person could make changes to habits and patterns in their actions and by doing so then could take control of their own body resonated with many groups of people even in more political ways not just in relation to a state of wellbeing.

Self-care was a central point in the civil rights and feminist movements. These populations which are made up of bodies who have been told that they are only important so far as they serve other people, that their body doesn’t matter, found agency in the idea of being able to self-care. One such example of self-care in relation to a political body is the group the Black Panthers. Originally an activist group who came together to monitor police brutality in Oakland, California they soon transformed into a community group; setting up free wellness centres with survival programs to help black people get the health care they needed inadvertently making health care and self-care in America a social justice issue.

Petrzela (2015) also reminds us that feminists created wellness centres which offered women alternatives to health care especially in relation too giving birth. After being told for a very long time how they should live and be in their own bodies these communities saw self-care as a way to take control of their bodies and their lives. These groups started to use self-care as a form of political autonomy making self-care into a form of self-determination not simply a life style technique. The idea of self-care being tied to politics was forgotten in the 1970s when self-care became a consumerist and marketing tool. Yoga, corporate wellness, aerobics and Jane Fonda workout videos became socially popular. All of these where part of a new definition of self-care, being in control of your own body without the help of a professional or doctor. The idea being sold was, and still is today in many ways, that a person knows best for themselves regardless of actual professional knowledge or a teacher. By the 2000s self-care had become a huge market through little luxuries such as a pedicure, a massage, a sauna experience together with the girls. Eventually, self-care tied into an $11 billion industry in America alone. Pop-culture stars even marked the importance of self-care by writing songs; Solange Knowles song Borderline is an ode to self-care. But of course, this type of self-care of treating oneself to merchandise and experiences requires capital. It implies that self-care is only accessible by the wealthy; those who can afford to take care of themselves and therefor can afford to be in control of themselves and therefore ultimatly can afford to be free.

With the invention of social media, self-care once again is reshaped becoming not only about taking care of oneself but rather about showing people that you are doing it. The performative dimension of self-care is that if one exercises and drinks green juice on Instagram they are practicing self-care. Unfortunately, that is actually the opposite as studies show a link between feeling bad about oneself and showing how perfectly you’re taking care of yourself on Instagram. From comparing yourself to others to feeling like you are ‘missing out’ and more, social media as a performative space can take a toll on mental and emotional health.

Beyond the production of body image through social media as its distributor and some of the effects of what it is to be a body in the virtual moment and space, the historical idea of self-care as a way of building community is also having a resurgence contemporarily. In more recent times, self-care has been a way for communities to recover after collective trauma. After the terrorist attacks on 11th September in America whether a person knew somebody who died or watched the towers fall on TV, people came together as a community to recover post trauma. They used self-care for their own emotional health and looked after the health of others in order to move forward after the event.

Petrzela (2015) writes this happened again a few years ago with the Black Lives Matter movement. For a person that fears they are going to be a victim of police brutality whenever they walk down the street self-care becomes a very important part of life. So called resistance events like the Women's Marches in the US bringing millions of people together, or across the globe in Saudi Arabia with the 2018 Women to Drive Movement tied their work to self-care. When you look at self-care in these moments Petrzela (2015) says the term takes on another meaning. The term starts to mean not only little luxuries, saunas, green juice, yoga poses on a mountain in Thailand and manicures on Instagram but rather, what does one need to do so they feel, not just content, but to feel like they can survive. To feel that they can engage in whatever their individual struggle is and go on.

A somatic movement class is structured as a group class where people come together to be with themselves; to be inside their own body and rest inside themselves among others doing the same. But to fight for a cause in the world and to help one another can be an extension of self-care and is perhaps another way to see self-care and how it is evolving. Self-care can also be practiced by taking care of not only others but taking it even a step further, of the world. One critique of self-care could be to see it in terms of a neoliberalist value that pertains to the capitalist subject as an independent self-absorbed, lazy, and entitled act steeped in individualism; a free rider. But perhaps as Petrzela writes, “Caring for the self and caring about society actually can be (considered) interconnected.” What I would like to add is that maybe this can be true but only, without the free riding.

Following in Maria Puig de la Bellacasa and her 2017 book Matters of Care, what if the concept of care could be taken so far as to offer us a starting point to think about more-than-human ethics. Puig de la Bellacasa (2017) believes speculative thinking will be required for us to be able to imagine a more inclusive and caring world rather than just a billion dollar industry being sold to you exclusively on your next guru's internet page. She argues this will be a difficult task as apprehensions about anthropomorphising prevent us from acknowledging how nonhumans shape us and act on us just as well as we do on them. Her thesis asks, how do we need to refigure ethics to account for the more than human rather than how do we fit the more-than-human into our ethics (Ulrich, 2018).

Somatics seem to be in part about self-care and agency through intention but the forest and the tsunami are just two examples in the world, that are an expression of the social-ecological system we all live in and they exist in the world regardless of us although affected by us and vice versa. This shift in perspective comes to us through theories like posthumanism, new materialism and object-oriented-ontology and might help us to make artistic work and engage in the world in ways that reflect that world. Rather than, using self-care as a general human centric, ‘we-are-beautiful’ images, self-caring and sovereign subjects on Instagram. How can we come to know that we actually matter? Our thoughts matter. Our actions matter. What we we feel matters.

Although somatics is in part, pertaining to self-care, beauty, and to some extent sovereignty for me personally, it is extremely useful in such turbulent times not only artistically but socially. Beauty gives us hope which is much needed, and the experience of sovereignty brings us a sense of community which is one of the things dance events and somatics experiences can contribute to society.

Connecting to the contemporary technological moment, somatics practitioners also explore many forms of digital technology. Notably, Rudolf Laban a dancer and a theorist, devised Laban Movement Analysis which is perhaps the first system that analyzes and categorizes movement of the human body. He also created Labanotation which is one of the first ever ways of recording dance movement. He did this using somatics. Current digital tools for recording movement and dance notation could be said to follow in his footsteps. These tools include Dance Designer which allows choreographers to string together pre-recorded stock movements and Motion Bank which is a new way to record, compile and collect recordings for the notation of a dance. Feldenkrais was interested and incorporated cybernetics in his work. And as Christ Slater writes in Entangled (2010), “Judson Dance Theater (1960's) and its offshoots brought a fundamental question of what the performing body was and how it could be technosocially constructed” through their somatics based dance work.

What brings these two topics, somatics and technology, together for me is their aim. Both technologists and somatic practitioners, of which I am both, aim to open up possibilities. It seems to me, they share the same aim but with varied approaches or to put it differently, the same aim of opening up possibilities through one approach namely: change and "effortless efficacy" (Kohn, 2009) both of which take many years of deep listening, exploring, and learning to learn rather than free riding.

Ultimately the idea is perhaps not to not work and coast on the efforts of others be those 'others' the earth, the economy or the government. The idea is to distribute the effort fairly among the different parts so that all of them benefit eventually, even if not at the same time. This will require a shift towards speculative realism thinking because it is difficult for all of us to notice the ways in which others animate or inanimate are always already intra-acting with us and our realities.

To be clear I'm not suggesting that learning to dance (and specifically in the somatics contemporary dance based linage) will or can save us from ourselves or save the world. Not at all. But perhaps, learning to dance can point us to a specific kind of production of knowledge and help us create new patterns and habits dealing with causality itself.

This shift into a 'somatics mind' requires us to try and think about all the parts as an assembly or assemblages. To think of power or in other words effort as not just imposed on the body and the self and its parts but also emergent inside the body. Harnessing our individual power, when, how and for what is Kohn's (2013) 'effortless efficacy' which is a bit more complex than simply to resist or surrender. When the work and effort is produced and distributed for efficiency all the parts be they parts in a body, wild animals in a forest, or humans in society can move and function with freedom, ease and, pure joy.

"It takes skill to be real, time to heal each other." Tupac, Changes 1998

Further Reading:

Andrew Barnes, You Can Get More Done in a 4-Day Workweek. Really. (2020)

Chris Slater, Entangled (2010)

Edwardo Kohn, How Forests Think (2009)

Jakša Cvitanić, George Georgiadis, A Clever Strategy to Combat Free Riding (2016)

Martha Eddy, Somatic Practices and Dance: Global Influences (2002)

Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, Matters of Care (2017)

Natalia Petrzela, The History of Self-Care (2015)

Katie Ulrich, Maters of Care - Review (2018)