Practicing Dance: A Somatic Orientation

‘Practicing Dance: A Somatic Orientation’ is a report by Annette van Zwoll on Jenny Coogan’s intervention at  European Dancehouse Network Atelier on Dance Training, organised at Dance Ireland in Dublin on 29/30 June 2018.

‘Somatic practice to dance students it what vegetables are to children’

Jenny Coogan, professor contemporary dance at the Palucca Hochschule Dresden, Germany

Apart from being an experienced choreographer, dancer, researcher and contemporary dance teacher, Coogan has been a certified teacher of the Feldenkrais Method (FM). She is using FM as a practice and creative catalyst in both dance facilitating and dance making. Within the Palucca Hochschule Dresden she conducted, together with a team, a research to find out the potential for the coexistence of a Feldenkrais pedagogical oriented practice alongside the existing training of conservatory institutions. 

Throughout one academic year, she implemented five phases in blocks of 4 to 12 weeks, in which slowly strategies of FM became part of regular (daily) technique classes and workshops. The research team started from the similarities of FM with technique classes: both are built on permutations resulting from variation and repetition and the act of questioning is of high importance to both.

At Palucca, it was the first time teaching and research took place simultaneously. Where the first phase was focused on the introduction of Feldenkrais and on slowly getting the students to get to know the concept behind it, the fifth phase researched FM as a choreographic tool. Throughout the study there was a focus on bodily awareness, an enrichment of the anatomical principles, self-reflection, autonomy and collaboration and this build-up of knowledge was used as a toolbox to create work.

Especially at first, there was a high resistance of students to FM. The study challenged the students to deal with novel situations in terms of class structure, personal relationships, expectations for studio practice, the nature of the movement material, and individual decision-making processes. A thread throughout the study was finding novelty in repetition. Although repetition in dance training is ever-present, within this study the students were invited to experiment with energy expenditure and create awareness on the impact of ease, lightness and pleasure. They were invited to attune their own movement, to listen to information received through their sensorimotor, to move with intention, to reduce tempo and force, to find nuances, to shift their focus from goals to experimentation, to trust their own thoughts and be open to uncertainty. The teacher – student language was fuelled with questions that aimed for the students to make their own informed choices. Although the physical material was often considered too slow, too detailed and unsatisfying, the most frustrations came from this different mental state that was provoked: the constant focus on self-reflection, self-learning and self-direction was considered mentally tiring. At times students responded to questioning with phrases such as “Tell me what you want!”. The students encountered discomfort as their familiar modes of practice were disrupted. But fourteen out of the nineteen students persevered and the appreciation grew, and was especially noticeable after a moment of free time from school, e.g. after a holiday:

When we were doing a lot of Feldenkrais in that period of time I didn‘t find it beneficial at all. But now coming back and distancing myself from it, I can actually see how it helps me and why certain things are easier now. But unfortunately at that time I was just not so into it, now I appreciate it a lot more. I think other people might feel the same.” (student)

and

I had some really strong sensations about it. But now… It just feels really nice and normal and I’ve integrated it in my body. I even feel more when I do really physical things, like in other classes.” (student)

FM, and somatics in general, takes you out of your normalcy, while you are not being sure what the value will be. But the applied research made the students engage with dance from multiple perspectives and evoked them to make their own informed choices. Through time, this generative power was recognised and valued by the students. Now, they tell the younger students to hang in there and not to give up, because it will be worth it in the end.

More on this can be read in the recent publication, Practicing Dance: A Somatic Orientation (Logos Verlag Berlin) (link to: https://www.logos-verlag.de/cgi-bin/engbuchmid?isbn=4213&lng=deu&id=)