The Feldenkrais Method®: A Partner in Dance and Self-Discovery

The Boston Feldenkrais® Training blog talks to Fritha Pengelly and Sarah Young about learning and teaching the Feldenkrais Method® in the context of dance and self-discovery.

BFT: The Feldenkrais Method can be relevant for dancers in different ways. What’s your experience of the Method in relationship to dance?

Sarah Young: My explorations in dance are what brought me to Feldenkrais. Dancers that I admired and respected were studying the Method to find new qualities of movement and to address injuries. After many years of technique classes, I was attracted to the more subtle, self-guided improvisation of the Feldenkrais Method. I've gained greater insight into my dancing through the practice. I can better read the cues coming from my body, I recognize where I’m bearing weight, and I sense discomfort sooner, choosing more efficient sequences and patterning as a result.

I’m better able to recognize movements in dance that are motivated by aesthetics or the idiosyncrasies and affinities of a particular individual, in contrast to what makes sense in my own body. Feldenkrais has reinvigorated my interest in watching people dance. I've gained tools of awareness that pique my curiosity about a mover’s life experience and history. What I consider to be dance has also expanded greatly or, rather, I am bringing more intention, awareness, and appreciation to a wider breadth of movement and embodiment, beyond any confining definition of “dance.”

Fritha Pengelly: My guess is that the learning and change that occur through Feldenkrais lessons lead every individual into unexpected terrain. When I began my Feldenkrais Training in 2009, it had been seven years already since I’d left my professional dancing career. In the interim, I had been teaching dance, choreographing, and restaging Doug Elkins’ work, mostly at the university level. I entered into the training program in hopes that Feldenkrais would give me more tools for understanding the body and helping my students to improve their skills and avoid injury.

What brought me to Feldenkrais, a few years before I entered a training, was my own injury, a herniated lumbar disc, although I had experienced back pain and severe back spasms throughout my professional career. Feldenkrais resonated with my vague understanding that what I needed to find was a way to fundamentally change my movement patterns. Feldenkrais led me to a better understanding of how to move with ease, how to find support through my skeleton, and how to discover an incredibly complicated layering of movement patterns. What I didn’t expect was that the process of investigating habitual movements would reveal these trappings of my body to be tied up with habits of my mind.

Patterns of the mind are not easy to unravel, and for me, these mental habits are deeply connected to the image I have of myself as a dancer. My identity as a dancer was so deeply ingrained it not only provided me a substantive sense of self-worth but had been my frame of reference for as long as I can remember. I determined my general improvement by the improvement in my dancing. Shifting the frame of reference to myself, and away from my dancing, has been disorienting, difficult and freeing. It is an ongoing process. In a way, dancing has been my path. It is who I am and how I relate to the world at a very deep level. And yet, the Feldenkrais Method, along with other life circumstances, has moved me in a direction away from dancing. What I have found is that in order to change my movement patterns, in order to grow and mature - and maturity is a key aspect of the work - I have had to let my identity shift. So I ask myself now, how do I become my most potent self? What are my unavowed dreams? Hasn’t dancing always been the ultimate goal? If there are other unrealized dreams, what are they? How will I realize them?

It’s still a question. But I do know that moving for pleasure and finding power and strength in well-organized action, rather than working against myself – in some cases to meet the demands of an aesthetic – will direct me towards whatever that dream may be.

BFT: What is the relationship of Feldenkrais and improvisation in your current practice?

Fritha: When I was still choreographing (within the last year), I experienced the effects of my Feldenkrais practice in my dancing in contradictory ways. Whenever I choreograph I begin by improvising. I found that I was entering new territory in my improvisations in the sense that I was finding new and interesting pathways, and I was following the ways my body moves easily in the sense of how we move organically from one movement to the next in relationship to our structure and gravity. I can't say this was an entirely new experience, and dancers who have worked with me in the past might say that this is how I’ve always worked, intuitively, in tune with my body, to some degree.

But what’s interesting is how there are also pathways that are ‘easy’ because they are deeply grooved and familiar, and I found that I was getting tired of repeating myself. Tired of my habitual patterns. In a sense, I was bored. I sensed in myself a need to step out of these patterns (away from dance) in order to change, as I mentioned earlier. Some of the change I feel and pursue is physical - not wanting to go into the grooves that were made within a disorganization that contributed to injuries. Another part of the change I seek is the path towards maturity. I began to understand that to follow my curiosity and allow for something new to emerge I needed to stop going into those well-established ruts. It's not an easy thing to do, but I've finally found the clarity and strength within myself to step away for a time. Perhaps my curiosity will lead me back to dance, and allow new pathways to emerge.  

BFT: Has Feldenkrais changed your understanding of how to teach and learn new movement? How to support yourself and others in a complex process?

Fritha: Absolutely! And I'm still learning. Currently the only dance class I’m teaching is a Dance for Parkinson's class, which brings a lot of elements together for me. I utilize my understanding of how we learn and the importance of novelty to learning in my classes. I bring the use of awareness and imagination as we begin the class. I feel that it's important to provide a sense of safety and a learning environment that supports making mistakes. These elements come naturally to me, but it makes a difference to know what you’re doing and to think intentionally about it. I hope to make learning joyful and easy rather than scary and difficult. Many of these folks are dealing with considerable difficulties already, and most of them haven't had any sort of formal dance training, so they are in a new and unfamiliar environment. I have seen such incredible creativity and intelligence in the room and I work to support that.

In other cases, when it comes to teaching dance to more experienced dancers, improving might mean weeding out parasitic effort and finding clearer skeletal support, which can lead to more skillful and efficient movement and, I suspect, less injury. In my experience, it is not unusual for dancers and dance students to be given images to work with in their dancing that don't accurately reflect what's really happening in their bodies. A simple example would be the instruction to think of going down in order to go up when lifting the heels off the floor in relevé. Yes, there is an equal and opposite force going towards the floor when we go away from the floor, but if we think down, some part of us is actually falling. We have created extra effort in ourselves, which creates an opposition or resistance to the movement we’re trying to accomplish, which is simply to go up and away from the floor. This resistance generates points of tension and this tension creates unnecessary forces shearing across joints, increasing the potential for injury. Feldenkrais helps me to weed out this kind of inaccuracy or cross-motivation in order to clarify what’s actually occurring in the body. There are so many interesting and useful movement practices out there, and they each offer unique possibilities for dancers seeking to expand their potential. Feldenkrais makes sense for me because it provides me with clarity and also a trust in my own capacities.

Sarah: I’ve also developed a deeper trust in my own movement. I understand myself more fully now, so I learn new movements more easily, and I think this translates into my teaching. It has become easier for me to reconcile my orientation and alignment in the moment that something new is being asked of me, and I have greater empathy and understanding of that process of learning for others. I have a more sophisticated awareness of the feelings and sensations that arise when I'm being led to try something new, and I have less attachment to getting it right. This makes for a fulfilling experience in which I get to indulge in the pleasure of moving with others.

A tremendous paradigm shift for me is seeing that this easy, forgiving approach does not have to be at the expense of more complex or rigorous sequences of movement. The other day, I led the Awareness Through Movement® lesson Alexander Yanai 164, "Preparation for a headstand, Part 1". Through a series of simple, graduated actions, and plenty of rests, the participants found their way into a tripod headstand! I had been apprehensive about teaching the lesson. Admittedly, I didn't want anyone to feel that they had failed if they didn't achieve the headstand, and, yet, the opposite happened. Without striving to achieve a particular goal (as I hadn't even told them the title of the lesson ), they were able to do something that many had never done before, and they did it with gentleness and ease.

BFT: How does Feldenkrais inform your participation at Earthdance?

Sarah: I participated in the New York 5 Feldenkrais Practitioner Training Program® at the same time I was transitioning into the Director position at Earthdance Creative Living Project, which is an artist workshop, residency, and retreat center in Western Massachusetts with a focus on Contact Improvisation. It's been a great pleasure to welcome so much improvisation and kinesthetic investigation into my life! It's all inextricably linked.

Feldenkrais informs my practice as a Director in many ways. Functionally, I use it to remind myself to alternate which thumbs I use on the spacebar of my keyboard, to plant my sitz bones and both feet when I sit at my desk, and to take a break when I feel my jaw is tightening and my breathing is constricted. Organizationally, the principles behind the Method offer guidance in how best to relate to people when moving a shared mission towards shared goals. I often find myself saying, “this is just a first approximation” when we're taking on a new program or moving through a multi-layered challenge. These situations can be overwhelming and this recognition regarding the nature and value of practice helps us to get a process moving without unproductive criticality or fear of failure. My experience with Feldenkrais gives me confidence to trust and, what’s more, engage the process. I’m conscious, curious, and try to maintain a sense of humility, remembering that mistakes are part of the learning.

Fritha: Amazingly, my first time at Earthdance was for co-teaching a Feldenkrais workshop with Sarah. So, for my part, I'd say Feldenkrais brought me to Earthdance!

BFT: How did you come to teach and practice Feldenkrais together?

Sarah: I first reached out to Fritha for Functional Integration® lessons a few years ago. I was attending the training and Fritha was there visiting while in the city to perform. I wanted to get more FI® experience while doing my training and was also having neck and shoulder pain. In researching Feldenkrais practitioners in the Northampton area, I was attracted to Fritha because of her dance background. We've been slowly building our connection, and I've been so grateful to have her as a colleague. Because she completed the training a few years before me, I've been able to learn from her about how to build a practice. Fritha is steeped in the Method and her continual learning is an inspiration. Dynamic Stability is the third day-long workshop we'll be leading at Earthdance. Our continued opportunities to teach together are, in part, dependent upon the level of interest in what we're offering. Although, at the same time, I imagine that we'll continue to work together regardless of class size!

Teaching Feldenkrais has allowed me to forge many meaningful connections with others who are attracted to this kind of deep, thoughtful, embodied investigation. There are so many topics and avenues for exploration, some that Fritha and I have touched on and many that we have yet to dig into, so I am looking forward to future collaborations.

BFT: Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming workshop Dynamic Stability? Did you have a particular kind of mover in mind when you designed the day? 

Sarah: This workshop is intended for people who want to have agency in their own learning. It’s for people who question why they move the way they do. If you desire greater awareness around how you move, and how you might move differently, this workshop is for you. All it requires is a willingness to engage a quiet, focused attention, and a desire to let go of ambition. The lessons are guided by the teachers but self-modulated, so a wide range of backgrounds, body types, abilities, and histories are welcome. The lessons are gentle but potent and have many ways of adapting them for the individual. For these reasons, we welcome the gamut - from those who have never experienced Feldenkrais to those who've been doing it a long time.

Fritha: I think Sarah states it beautifully. I'll just add that the theme of the workshop - Dynamic Stability - is quite meaningful. We'll be exploring Feldenkrais' idea of "potent posture", which is very different from the common idea of "good posture". The stability we discover in potent posture is dynamic rather than rigid. We will see how extraneous muscular effort, which is often the result of habitual movement and holding patterns, can affect our ability to find clear and sustainable support through the skeleton.

Learn more about the Dynamic Stability workshop here.

Interview by Helen Miller