Believable bodies: sensory authority and community dance practice
Queering the Somatic workshop leader and somatic Pilates teacher Elaine Westwick
addresses a particular form of embodied difference - not outer, physical manifestations of difference but differences in inner, felt experiences and describes how movement and dance, particularly community classes, can provide a window into sensory experience and the acceptance of differences within
Sensory experiences are difficult to define within oneself, and even harder to verbally articulate in way that enables meaningful comparison with others. By bringing movement and sensation into awareness, somatically orientated community movement classes can be a gateway into the sensory world of the body. Here, I will explore the concept of sensory authority and how it can be investigated through movement education.
Sensory authority is the belief in the realness and significance of our own internal experiences.
Although situated in the individual, inner sensations are bathed in the meaning they are ascribed by the social and cultural environment. As children, we learn that our inner experiences vary in their acceptability to others, and the authority of societal norms easily overrides the fragile authority of our nascent senses. Some internal worlds seem more similar to (or more able to conform with) the norms of society. Other sensory wiring seems innately dissimilar in subtle or more profound ways.
Exploratory, enjoyable movement, full of awareness and vitality is a powerful vehicle for learning about sensation.
The first stage in the exploration is to notice. When we dance or move in a class our awareness drifts to thoughts of past or future. As we are called to different relational aspects of our bodies in the present – our contact with the floor, the movement of an arm – we are drawn back, if only fleetingly, to our inner sensory experience in the moment.
The second stage is to believe in the legitimacy of what we experience. This goes hand in hand with becoming aware of the automatic mental commentary that may accompany our felt sensations. These voices may not all belong to us, many are not speaking from the present moment, but from past conditioning. By becoming interested in our arising thoughts we can untangle what belongs to us.
My personal practice is Authentic Movement – a relational embodied practice in which movement and speaking are combined in the context of compassionate witnessing. The inclusion of conscious dialogue enables sensations to be named out loud to another person. When we hear that another believes in the existence of our experiences, they become more real to us.
My community classes do not include embodied speaking, but my somatic practice enables me to honour sensory authority as I teach. In Authentic Movement, I practice holding awareness of my own experiences at the same time as being aware of the movement of others. This supports me in calling attention to sensation in group teaching, to noticing without trying to change, and to being curious to how sensation moves the body. As a group, we explore how we may wish to magnify a sensation through movement, or move in a way that allows the sensation to move and change. We bring curiosity and discernment to our sensory awareness, grounding movement choices in the authority of the body. We encourage an underlying belief in the credibility of what we sense, even if it feels out of line with social expectations. We allow ourselves to be surprised by what our body may tell us, rather than assuming we already know.
This is not work for the impatient or hasty. Messages from the body are nuanced and subtle and need to be decoded using objective rigour and understanding. It may take many years of listening before we hear what is being whispered, and years more before we understand what the whispering means. Yet this investment is worthwhile if we are interested in discovering what lies beneath the surface of our socially constructed selves.
I offer an example from my experience: an exercise for two people called Raindrops.
One person ‘receives’, standing with their eyes closed, the other covers the surface of their body in playful, delicate taps, using their fingers. The receiver stands in presence and awareness, noticing the sensations, not knowing where they will be touched next. The expectation is that receiving in enjoyable, and, in a group, the room tends to echo with laughter and joy.
My experience, as ‘receiver’ in this group exercise, many years ago, was of slowly mounting sensory overwhelm. It was a familiar, uncomfortable experience, yet one that I had never noticed in this way before. As it built, a second feeling joined the mix – one of pushing down the overwhelm. Since the social expectation was pleasure, I saw myself automatically discounting the sensory overload in order to conform. As I accepted I was becoming overwhelmed, the feeling followed of fear of telling my partner I didn’t like their touch and of being the ‘different one’ in the room. Because of the trust between myself and my partner, the group participants and the teacher, I was able to take this step, falling out of line socially in order to honour my sensory experience. (All these stages happened very quickly, without leaving much brain energy for analysis or understanding, which came later.)
Whether we express our inner experiences through speaking aloud or to ourselves through internal dialogue, our attitude of exploration and interest helps build acceptance of how things are. This acceptance then enables changes to be made based on the power of bodily knowing. As Glenna Batson says: “Giving dancers the opportunity to explore – and make sense of – inner sensations fosters sensory authority, a baseline for self-guidance and control. Sensory authority promotes movement autonomy (the capacity to self-organize movement internally), differing from common external references used in learning dance (e.g. teachers’ cues or mirrors).“ (1)
The verb ‘to accept’ can be defined as ‘to believe the goodness, realness of something’. Too often, our internal world takes its authority from external realities. Bodies are the unifying factor in our similarity to others – we are all human. However, the different ways that bodies articulate themselves through sensation, especially if they run counter to cultural ‘norms’, leads to their goodness, realness and even humanity being discounted. I believe that somatic work, adapted to be delivered to community groups, can be a powerful way to return authority to our individual experiences.
Photographer: Christian Kipp
(1) Batson, G., 2009. Resource Paper: Somatic Studies and Dance International Association for Dance Medicine and Science
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