How to Land: Finding Ground in an Unstable World 2018012969, 9780190873677, 9780190873684, 9780190873714

How to Land: Finding Ground in an Unstable World foregrounds the importance of embodiment as a means of surviving the di

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How to Land: Finding Ground in an Unstable World
 2018012969, 9780190873677, 9780190873684, 9780190873714

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How to Land







1 Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide. Oxford is a registered trade mark of Oxford University Press in the UK and certain other countries. Published in the United States of America by Oxford University Press 198 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016, United States of America. © Oxford University Press 2019 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of Oxford University Press, or as expressly permitted by law, by license, or under terms agreed with the appropriate reproduction rights organization. Inquiries concerning reproduction outside the scope of the above should be sent to the Rights Department, Oxford University Press, at the address above. You must not circulate this work in any other form and you must impose this same condition on any acquirer. Library of Congress Cataloging-​in-​Publication Data Names: Albright, Ann Cooper, author. Title: How to land : finding ground in an unstable world / Ann Cooper Albright. Description: New York, NY, United States of America : Oxford University Press, 2019. | Includes bibliographical references and index. Identifiers: LCCN 2018012969| ISBN 9780190873677 (hardcover : acid-free paper) | ISBN 9780190873684 (pbk.) | ISBN 9780190873714 (companion website) Subjects: LCSH: Resilience (Personality trait)—Social aspects. | Somesthesia. Classification: LCC BF698.35.R47 A53 2019 | DDC 155.2/4—dc23 LC record available at 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 Paperback Printed by WebCom, Inc., Canada Hardback Printed by Bridgeport National Bindery, Inc., United States of America

For John Cooper Albright (1953–​2008) John Christian Albright (1991–​2010) two men who fell before their time . . . and Cyrus Cooper Newlin who taught me resilience


Acknowledgments  Introduction  1


Falling  17 Disorientation  49 Suspension  79 Gravity  107 Resilience  139 Connection  169 Afterword  203 Notes  207 Bibliography  211 Index  217



More than any other book project, How to Land: Finding Ground in an Unstable World is rooted in my moving and thinking, teaching and living—​with others—​ in the world. For that reason, it is difficult to separate my gratitude for the people who have supported my life through various challenges and a series of family deaths, and those who have specifically helped me refine the writing that follows. But here goes . . . I begin by expressing my profound gratitude to Eric Stewart, my yoga teacher and comrade in somatic training. When I  am in town, I  find myself (in both senses) at Eric’s studio, Solaluna, two or three times a week. Eric has gently guided me through physical injury and family trauma, supporting my practice as it waxes and wanes over the years we have worked together. His simple, clear, and articulate teaching has sustained my more rambunctious dancing habits and calmed my nerves during times of stress. I have learned about many subtle aspects of the body from him, and I delight in our shared commitment to the importance of feeling the support of gravity and the expansiveness of three-​ dimensional space. Last spring, Eric was generous enough to take time out of his own writing project to read a draft of the first five chapters of this book. I appreciate the thoroughness of his feedback and the fact that he had my back on various details of anatomical processes. Members of my Queer Theory reading group also took time to read an early draft of the beginning chapters. I  am indebted to Greggor Mattson, Meiver De la Cruz, and Cal Biruk for their insightful comments and fabulous company. Greggor, in particular, has been a great pal and our partnership during the infamous Year of the Queer (2012–​2013) was one of the fun-​est and funniest academic collaborations I have had. Long live pink squirrels! Another Oberlin colleague, Ana Cara, also read an early draft and gave me many helpful suggestions. Ana is a wonderfully generous friend, and I am deeply grateful for her upbeat company, as well as that of Maia Solovieva. They are my partners in



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various tango adventures. As I was transitioning to a year’s leave to finish this book project, Laurie McMillin and I traveled to the desert of New Mexico to take a writing and meditation workshop with Natalie Goldberg. I thank Laurie for being enthusiastic about this project and helping me launch my year of intensive writing. Thanks go to my Spring 2018 Varsity Contact class (Teddy, Barret, Charlotte, Georgie, Elana, Becca, Kate, Zach, Celia, Michal, and Rachel) for test-​ driving the numerous practice insets in this book. During the research and writing of this book, I  spent time teaching and organizing in Greece. When I was first invited there to give a talk in 2010, I had no idea how intense a role that dance community would have in this project. But as I left, I was certain that I would return. I spent seven weeks teaching in Greece in the spring of 2012, and that experience was formative and led to other residencies and workshops, and the organizing of a big international conference in 2015. I thank Maria Tsouvala, who generously opens her home in Athens to me every time I arrive on Greek soil. Katia Savrami has also been a wonderful friend and, as editor of Choros: International Dance Journal, has given me a space to write about my many different experiences there. Petros Gallias and his sweet dogs have always welcomed me with open arms and many sloppy kisses. I appreciate so much Petros’s belief in my work and his assistance in bringing my first book, Choreographing Difference:  The Body and Identity in Contemporary Dance, out in a Greek translation. Various academic and cultural institutions have supported this book proj­ ect. I am deeply grateful to Oberlin College for research leave during the 2011–​ 2012 academic year, various research grants, and for the opportunity to take unpaid leave in order to finish this book. Thanks go to the Ohio Arts Council for Individual Artist Grants and for funding my stay at the Vermont Studio Center during the summer of 2015. The staff and other writers and artists at the Vermont Studio Center were lovely companions on that exquisitely beautiful Vermont hillside, and I appreciate the supportive feedback I received when I read an early draft of a chapter there. Thanks also to my international colleagues and the staff at the Interweaving Performance Cultures Center in Berlin, where I was fortunate enough to have a four-​month residency in the spring of 2017. I am especially grateful to Gabriele Brandstetter and Anurima Banerji for their companionship and encouragement of my work during that time in Germany. I no longer remember how I came across Denis Darzacq’s photographs in “La Chute.” But I do remember wanting to meet him and speak with him about my ideas, especially since I was hoping that one of his extraordinary images would grace the cover of this book. Fortunately, we were able to meet when I was in Paris, and it turned into a wonderfully satisfying exchange of ideas about art, communities at risk, and international politics. I  am grateful for that body-​ to-​body rencontre and for permission to use his photograph on the cover of this book.

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This book was written during the time I  was Chair of the Editorial Board and then President of the Society of Dance History Scholars (SDHS). Because we were negotiating a merger between SDHS and the Congress on Research in Dance, I spent an inordinate amount of time in meetings with assorted board members. Believe it or not, it was a great experience getting to know these incredible dedicated people. My colleagues in the dance studies field have provided inspiring company and a robust sense of intellectual community. They are too numerous to mention here individually, but suffice it to say that I appreciate that active and inquiring group of scholars and dancers. I have always felt encouraged by their enthusiasm for my thinking, even as I insisted that this book was not specifically a dance studies book. I  thank Norm Hirschy, the acquisitions editor at Oxford University Press for his patience as I  traveled back and forth across various iterations of this project, and the two anonymous readers whose comments helped me enormously. Suzanna Tamminen was also very encouraging as I sought her advice about the possibility of writing a general market press book. I appreciate their support for this project. Ten years ago, my brother found out he had pancreatic cancer. For most of the fall and winter of that fated year, I would get in my car after teaching on Fridays and drive to Pennsylvania to take care of him and his son, leaving my family to fend for themselves over the weekend. I am so deeply thankful for the support of my husband during this incredibly trying time. Tom Newlin is an amazing and wonderful father and co-​parent. As winter turned into spring and John Christian came into our lives, Tom was loving, brave, and resourceful in his own quiet way. I could not have survived without him by my side. I am also grateful for the patience of my daughter, Isabel Albright Newlin, who graciously gave John Christian her room and endured our endless recitations of the latest family dramas with wry humor and a healthy sense of distance. Soon after he came to live with us, John Christian was arrested. After I had picked him up at the police station and brought him home (where he promptly passed out), my thirteen-​year-​old son, Cyrus Cooper Newlin, came into my room and offered to make me a cup of chamomile tea. Cyrus spent the next few years navigating the rough seas of dual and dueling commitments. He both befriended John Christian and also came to see that his parents were human beings trying hard to do the right thing. Cyrus’s maturity during this time was truly astounding and his equanimity and resilience in the midst of so many challenging moments is deeply inspiring to me. I hope to support him as he finds his own ground in this unstable world.

How to Land


How to Land: Finding Ground in an Unstable World is based on a conviction that there is a deep interconnectedness between how we think about the world and how we move through it. Over the course of the first two decades of the twenty-​ first century, Americans have experienced an unprecedented number of national tragedies, political crises, economic downturns, and natural catastrophes. Clearly, our lives are shaped by these cultural moments. Reeling from one disaster to another, many of us are experiencing an increase in anxiety and fears about our future, and our bodies reflect that. This book argues that gravity—​ both the physical experience of one’s weight because of the earth’s pull, and the more metaphorical implications of being grounded in the midst of ongoing turmoil in the world around us—​can provide an important balance to the social, political, and economic unpredictability that surrounds us these days. Gravity is related to a sense of profundity, rootedness, and an inherent connection to the earth, as well as to falling, disability, and even death. While we may understand gravity as a concept, we are often not particularly aware of gravity as a physical sensation.1 In my college dance classes and the professional workshops that I teach internationally, I have witnessed how a renewed attention to feeling the support of the earth can transform moments of personal disorientation and national crisis into an opportunity to reflect on the critical relationship between individual resiliency and communal responsibility. How to Land is my attempt to bring these embodied insights into conversation with ongoing challenges in our everyday lives. This book is situated at the intersection of somatics and politics—​the place where bodily perception meets social engagement. In contemporary America, bodies are most often defined by the visible marks of gender, race, class, ability, age, sexuality, and religion. These cultural categories are both personal and political; they affect how we are seen and how we see ourselves. But they do not tell the whole story of our somatic experience. Embodiment neither takes place outside of culture, nor is it totally determined by that context. By using somatic exploration as a way to connect with the experience of the body as lived (soma), I attend to another kind of knowing—​one that gives valence to physical 1


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sensation and bodily perception. In contemporary America, somatic inquiry is often facilitated as part of an individual practice of bodily awareness. In the context of yoga, movement therapy, contemporary dance release techniques, or fitness training, the focus on visual imagery and breathing that is so central to somatic practices can make a big difference in how we inhabit our bodies. Rather than thinking of somatic education only in terms of physical development or even personal empowerment, however, this book charts the ways in which this kind of bodily exploration can foster communal interaction and civic responsibility as well. My teaching throughout the twenty-​first century has focused on bringing people in my classes into states of being that are based in proprioceptive and haptic sensibilities. I often remark that in America seeing is believing and feeling is suspect. This is not to suggest that one sense is more valuable than the other, but rather to underline how the current visual economy takes up the majority of our conscious attention. Connecting the theoretical with the practical, I argue that our tactile awareness can create a different way of engaging with other people, one that does not rest solely on the politics of visibility. Throughout this book, I  interweave descriptions of personal experiences and movement practices with discussions of historical events and their political ramifications in order to demonstrate the significance of bodies in shaping as well as reflecting our attitudes about ourselves and the world. Although they are rarely engaged in the same place, the intersection of somatics and politics provides the space for bodies to “speak back” to the state institutions and corporate interests that regulate so many of our choices. Moving across bodies (somatics) and activism (politics) also allows us to think seriously about how we can cultivate a public discourse that is responsive rather than reactive to the inevitable shifts in the balance of our lives. In his essay “Somatic Modes of Attention” Thomas Csordas links Maurice Merleau-​Ponty’s notion of perception to Pierre Bourdieu’s discussion of practice in order to think about the connections between the individual and the collective. Csordas writes: “Defining the dialectic between perceptual consciousness and collective practice is one way to elaborate embodiment as a methodological field” (2002, 243). I also deploy embodiment as a critical methodology, one that not only references specific bodily experiences, but also recognizes the cultural implications of corporeal meaning as well. Fortunately, embodiment is an active, ongoing process, and we can learn to be intentional about those experiences. How to Land investigates aspects of contemporary culture from the perspective of movement practices that specifically address the uncertainty that surrounds us, introducing the reader to a series of physical experiences that can provide, I believe, a more grounded way of being in the world. Although many of the ideas and the movement exercises discussed in these pages are culled from more than two decades of teaching in the United States

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and abroad, the research and writing of this book began in earnest during the fall of 2011. This was a moment when our nation was memorializing the ten-​ year anniversary of September 11, 2001, and I was reckoning with the legacy of my nephew’s tragic early death. A  lot has changed over the past seven years: there have been extraordinary advances in neurological mapping and our understanding of embodied cognition, radical changes in the cultural landscape (including the rapid proliferation of social media communication), an unprecedented rise in income inequality, new (often explosive) political movements, and a divisive increase in governmental partisanship. Throughout this period, I have charted the implications of these forces on the specific bodies of the students and professional dancers I work with, crafting strategies for addressing a sense of dis-​ease and uncertainty through a physical mindfulness—​what I describe as an intentional being in the midst of doing. Although these insights may come from the studio, they are not limited to the bodies of dancers. How to Land: Finding Ground in an Unstable World is written for the general public—​for any body. Indeed, many of these physical practices and embodied meditations can be used at home, at the office, or while stuck in traffic or on the bus. My project began with a series of questions: What does it mean to fall—​both personally and communally? How are our bodies affected by repeated images of falling bodies, bombed-​out buildings, and displaced peoples, as well as recurring evocations of global economies in “free fall,” governments “dissolving,” health disasters “spiraling” out of control, and ice caps “melting”? What kind of fear gets lodged in our neurological system when we live with an underlying anxiety that certain aspects of our world are in danger of falling apart? These questions took on a certain urgency as I began to teach a generation of students who grew up under the shadow of 9/​11 and the subsequent economic crises, not to mention deadly and often random mass shootings in local schools and public places. As each new class arrived on campus, I recognized that these young adults were increasingly anxious and discernibly stressed about how they were going to survive the unprecedented changes in the world. At the same time, this generation of students grew of age in the midst of our digital (r)evolution. Our many conversations about the ubiquity of cell phones in their lives prompted me to add another question to the above list: How has our increasingly digitized lifestyle trained us to focus almost exclusively on two-​dimensional sources of information, reducing our awareness of the three-​dimensional world around us and thus limiting our perception of crucial experiences such as weight and space—​gravity and air? In response to these inquiries, I began to teach in a way that made explicit connections between what we were learning in the studio and what was happening in their lives. This strategy led me to unpack cultural expectations of professional success, economic sustainability, verticality, and physical ability. As they felt their weight release into the floor, my students were able to focus their distracted minds by engaging their corporeal sensibilities. I also emphasize


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learning the physical foundations for what I  called a “responsive body”—​one that is capable of resistance as well as resilience. Responsiveness, resistance, and resilience—​what I call the 3Rs—​are essential skills for moving through life. They are also compelling examples of a continuum that spans across the literal and the metaphoric, encompassing both material bodies and critical theory. These 3Rs are principles that guide ways of being in the world that structure our bodies and our minds. Although they are sourced at the level of skin and bone—​connective tissue and postural alignment—​they ripple outward to affect how we relate to other people in our communities and at work. Over time, I have adapted a series of general physical practices which anyone can do that develop a broader, meta-​physical, sensibility. For instance, the experience of responsiveness (what I consider to be an ability to respond to the situation at hand, no matter how uncomfortable or unexpected) can be cultivated, in part, by learning to shift the narrow, often myopic, focus of our eyes to one that releases into a broader, peripheral vision. Becoming aware of the edges of our gaze is a neurological example of literally as well as figuratively opening our perspective—​of seeing beyond the center to the margins. Similarly, if we consciously access the deep stability of our core and backs, we can find a three-​ dimensionality that helps us shift directions more easily, allowing us to find new pathways that lead us past the limits of our own imaginations. Then too, there are critical lessons in how to modulate our efforts such that we don’t try too hard, unnecessarily tensing our muscles and blocking our own range of motion. Throughout How to Land, I  offer multiple examples of how these practices of responsiveness, resistance, and resilience develop bodily perspectives that can lead us to more open, flexible states of being. Many of these practices are detailed in special insets located within each chapter for ease of reference and because I want to encourage readers to try them out on their own. In linking moving with thinking, and bodies with politics, I highlight the importance of perceptual experience in constructing cultural meaning. This book is both an intellectual project and a life practice. It synthesizes scholarship across a wide spectrum of humanistic inquiry, social science, and neuro-​cognitive studies. Just like my teaching is guided by those 3Rs I described above, the writing in How to Land is propelled by another lettered trio, the 3Ps of perception, practice, and politics. The philosophical study of perception is called phenomenology, and Maurice Merleau-​Ponty’s classic tome The Phenomenology of Perception (1962) has greatly influenced my own discussions of embodiment. Generally speaking, phenomenology is the study of how the world is perceived, rather than the study of objective knowledge, the essence of reality, or existential “truths.” A philosophical approach that positions the body as a central aspect of our lived experience, phenomenology pays attention to how our corporeal engagement with the world creates meaning, thus revising the typical bifurcation of the self as subject and world as object of our reflections. Merleau-​Ponty’s

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work paved the way for multifaceted analyses of our being-​in-​the-​world that range from physical demeanor to ethical behavior. His writing is an important touchstone for a generation of feminist philosophers such as the late Iris Marion Young and Sara Ahmed, whose work has been inspirational to my own. In addition, I draw on analyses from the ever-​evolving field of cultural cognitive studies, tracing the discussions of body and language through the work of Raymond Gibbs, Shaun Gallagher, and Thomas Csordas, among others. I adapt David Abram’s and Laura Sewall’s work in ecopsychology to think about somatic perception and the living environment. Recent scholarship on perception in the cognitive sciences (including neuro-​psychology) has begun to emphasize the need to attend to embodied experience when discussing the construction of cultural meaning, and this new work has helped me think through the interconnections between action and reflection—​physical movement and studies of the mind. This academic writing is complemented by my reading across other genres, particularly popular non-​fiction. I am drawn to the work of Oliver Sacks and Rebecca Solnit, whose ability to connect bodily sensation to cultural analyses, and personal experience to broader political realities provides a model for the kind of thinking and writing that I engage as well. Practice is an intriguing word, reverberating as it does between its use as a noun and as a verb. Although music teachers may quip that “practice makes perfect,” the term, for me, invokes the ongoing process of discovery and the recognition that acts of perception are always implicated in any kind of practice. Even when I  use the word as a noun (the practice of breathing, for instance), I  am thinking about the active doing behind the act. Practice is a way of committing oneself to being present in a situation, no matter what the outcome. In this sense, it is always an act of improvisation—​a willingness to confront what is unknown. My dancing and writing are mutually informative practices, and their intertwining of action and reflection has roots in a Buddhist sensibility. For me, practice suggests a certain conscious intentionality, a way of being in the process of doing. Throughout each chapter, I give examples of practices that can cultivate certain ways of grounding ourselves in the midst of uncertainty. My own movement practice has been deeply influenced by Contact Improvisation and contemporary dance release techniques, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s Body-​Mind Centering™ work, Authentic Movement, as well as decades-​long training in yoga and assorted mindfulness traditions. This book also looks at the opposite of intentional behavior by examining the implications of our unconscious habits, particularly the exponential rise in our use of screens to communicate, not to mention our ever-​increasing reliance on cellular devices to navigate the direction of our lives. Thus, I trace the past decade of debate in contemporary media concerning the implications of the weightless and two-​dimensional exchanges on the internet on structures of attention and learning, as well as their effect on the personal growth and socialization of a generation of young adults.


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The rapidly changing landscape of contemporary politics makes it difficult to chart. It seems that the only thing we can be sure of these days is uncertainty. The timeframe of this book spans roughly from September 11, 2001 through the first year of the Trump administration. So much has happened in this time that it would be frustrating to present any coherent analyses of the forces involved. Suffice it to say that these past two decades have been a chaotic and unsettling time in America. While I may invoke certain historical moments or political movements within this book, my broader interest in governmental policy and economic and social trends revolves around its impact on our corporeal reality. What happens to our heartbeat, sense of balance, or desire to leave the (relative) safety of our homes when each day’s news cycle documents another natural or human disaster? How does our neurological system cope with the many small anxieties about livelihood, health care, and visa status? Bodies are political. This is a central tenant of feminist, queer, critical race, and disabilities studies. I care deeply about bodies, particularly ones that find themselves threatened and on the edge in our culture. Women’s bodies, disabled bodies, black bodies, trans bodies, immigrant bodies—​these are the bodies that have been put at risk in one way or another by our current administration. The practices that I present in this book are my attempt to teach movement skills that will help all bodies survive these cultural legacies of sexism, racism, ableism, and plain old somatophobia (fear of the body). In her afterword to the anthology Bodies in Commotion: Disability and Performance, Peggy Phelan writes: “To take care of the body, to care for the body, and to care about bodies requires a specific ethics—​one that takes touch as axiomatic, emotional attachment as a value, and interconnection as constant” (2005, 323). These are the principles with which I enter the studio each day. As I  have articulated earlier, our bodies are the sites in which politics and somatics intersect, the locus of a meeting between biology and sociology. I believe that we need an attention to both realities in order to thrive individually and as a society. While popping into themed yoga classes or the latest “trending” fitness experience may be a signature of the yuppie lifestyle, more and more folks from across the economic spectrum are finding their way to meditation and “breathe and bend” classes at their local recreation center. Community centers across the nation offer series on healthy living and on stress reduction, in addition to the mainstays of aerobics and Zumba classes. Somatic practices are no longer resources only for rich housewives or students at elite universities. Physical mindfulness can be found in public schools and at your local YWCA. For instance, my work with Girls in Motion, an afterschool program that I direct in the Oberlin public schools, is one example of bringing somatic practice (along with homework help and dance routines) to an adolescent population that needs to connect with their breaths and their bodies.

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Reading is one way of researching. Moving with bodies is another. Throughout the beginnings of the twenty-​first century, I have continued to take workshops and train in somatic techniques such as Body-​Mind Centering™, Authentic Movement, and yoga, as well as other types of somatic workshops offered in dance festivals around the world. Oftentimes, I  present examples from my teaching and popular practices such as yoga, sports, and fitness training, in order to articulate how perception is a learned behavior and how intentional movement can structure new ways of thinking. This focus on the process of embodiment rather than on the product of a particular system or technique allows me to explore the ways in which bodies and ideas are mutually constitutive. As part of my embodied methodology in this book, I  use the word “we” to refer to bodily experiences (such as our startle reflex) that human beings have in common. My objective is not to erase historical specificity or cultural difference, but rather to demonstrate that certain kinds of somatic experiences might be shared. As I explain in detail in my final chapter on connection, the “we” that I employ is an affirmation that we are interconnected, not an attempt to universalize one perspective. At Oberlin College, where I  have been teaching for well over two decades, I  have the privilege of working with bright, curious, passionate, and socially conscious students.2 This combination creates a wonderful (but occasionally exhausting) environment in which to experiment with classes that move across the practice/​theory (dance studio/​classroom) continuum. Specifically, I have developed a series of courses that ask students to read, write, and move, in a way that connects critical and physical inquiry. These courses include my first-​year seminar, Bridging the Body/​Mind Divide, Somatic Landscapes (which is cross-​ referenced with Environmental Studies), and Contact Improvisation. I have always been interested in the articulation of bodily experience, and I frequently draw on my students’ written reflections in this book to illustrate my discussions of embodied perception and bolster my arguments about how our bodies influence our thoughts. Their changing concerns over the past decade have motivated me to adapt my teaching to speak to their needs. Sometimes, short reflections stay with me long after the student has graduated and moved on. This is particularly true of a piece by a former student, Katherine Dohan, which was published in the 2010 anthology Encounters with Contact. In this short essay entitled “Dancing and the Importance of Place,” Katherine speaks of feeling an intense “dislocation,” even in the midst of an increase in digital connectivity. She acknowledges that she is “addicted” to the internet and always searching for a better reality someplace else. Yet during a class when we went outside, she found that her body and mind were able to inhabit one place. She concludes: “Yet, in this world that is becoming more and more disconnected through constant connection, in which the need to move is declining every day, moving might be more important than ever” (33). Katherine’s simple but powerful words seem


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to resonate throughout the many student journal entries that I have read in the time since she wrote them, and they have deeply influenced this project. One of the courses that I  teach regularly at Oberlin College is Contact Improvisation. As an investigation of the possibilities of moving with shared weight, Contact Improvisation has its roots in Steve Paxton’s 1972 residency at Oberlin College.3 Forty-​five years after those initial experiments, Contact Improvisation is now an umbrella term for many diverse practices. The form has morphed over time as it has traveled through different communities. Nonetheless, there are some common kinesthetic approaches and skills, such that dancers from different countries, languages, and cultural backgrounds can gather at festivals and dance with one another without any formal introductions or orientation. These include falling, rolling, continuing to move in the midst of disorientation, feeling one’s weight, a reliance on peripheral vision, and finding the support of the ground. The radical openness to many different kinds of bodies (including those with mobility restrictions or visual impairments) is one of the contemporary hallmarks of the form. Because Contact Improvisation has always been open to reinvention, my desire to place these somatic practices into dialogue with contemporary politics has many precedents in the activist uses of this kind of physical training throughout its history. For me, Contact Improvisation is less about learning movements per se, and more about cultivating a certain way of being embodied in the world—​one that is open to falling off balance, engaging other bodies across conflict and intimacy, as well as releasing into the support of the ground. I have been involved with Contact Improvisation for most of my dancing life. In the context of this book, I draw on my years of dancing and teaching this form to demonstrate the importance of certain perceptual investigations such as the primacy of touch, the use of weight for mutual support, a sense of three-​dimensional space (including sensing one’s internal space), and the practice of falling and learning how to land within Contact training. In Choreographing Empathy, Susan Foster describes the ways in which Contact “repurposes” our contemporary perceptual habits:  “Spending many hours learning to sense gravity’s effects on motion and momentum, and to develop a porous and sensitized skin that could discriminate subtle shifts in one’s own weight and that of another person, contact improvisers purposefully dehabitualized their bodies’ tendencies to rely on the visual for orientation” (2011, 117). I argue that the perceptual focus in Contact on falling and gravity can lead us to being more present in this unstable world. Much of the research for this book took place in two complementary spaces near where I live. One is Warner Main Space, a wonderful old gymnasium where I teach dance classes. This beautiful wooden studio is incredibly spacious, the floor is so sprung that it practically bounces, and the rafters rise

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up to the roof three floors above our heads. Nothing makes me happier than leading a group of thirty or fifty plus people to move around or stand still in that resonant space. The architectural magic of Warner Main Space is augmented by the fact that one of the seminal moments in the history of Contact Improvisation happened in that space. In January 1972, Steve Paxton came to teach for several weeks and began the physical investigations that led to the early development of the form. Across the street from Warner Center lies Tappan Square, the town of Oberlin’s central grassy quadrangle, complete with a bandstand. This is the place where the town celebrates Juneteenth, the place where the Big Parade culminates, where international students produce their culture festival with food and performances, and where free concerts take place on Friday nights in the summertime. It is also a place where candle-​ light vigils and political protests take place. When the weather is nice, Tappan Square is filled with college students and town residents, a nice blend of local and global perspectives. Both of these places have informed the experiences and ideas woven throughout these pages. The six chapters in this book are a series of meditations that map the physical and metaphysical aspects of a fall. I envision them as steps leading down to the ground. Falling Disorientation Suspension Gravity Resilience Connection Each chapter interweaves discussions of movement practices with their cultural implications, documenting specific bodily experiences and then tracing their ideological ripples out through the world. My focus in crafting much of the language in this book was to articulate somatic experiences in a manner that engages the reader’s perceptual sensibilities directly, such as describing the feeling of one’s skin, or the experience of touch. Because my ideas are digested through my own body and the bodies that I teach and dance with, my writing style interweaves lyrical evocations of bodily states and physical practices with critical discussions of recent scientific research and political events to provide a multi-​faceted analysis of embodiment in contemporary American culture. Each chapter also includes three “insets.” These are written translations of the exercises that I use in my classes and workshops and their presence is meant to allow the reader to try some of these practices themselves.


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Falling My first chapter begins with a discussion of how falling affects us all. Whether we are referring to that spectacular first fall from paradise, the hubris of Icarus, the most recent plunge of the housing market, or the public stumbling of the latest politician to misstep on the internet, falling is inevitably seen as a loss, a defeat, or a decline. The physical act of losing one’s balance very quickly accelerates into a metaphor for failure. Most of the time in contemporary America, falls are always already “falls from grace.” I use veteran Contact Improviser Nancy Stark Smith’s discussion of falling itself as a “state of grace” to reframe that dynamic. One of the most importance skills in Contact Improvisation is learning how to fall with pleasure and not fear, how to expand into the ground and not tense away from it. Indeed, falling as a practice of moving from up to down can provide us with an opportunity to play with the dynamics of balance as we focus our proprioception and learn the importance of channeling the vertical momentum of a fall into the horizontal expression of a roll. I argue that instead of being nervous about keeping our balance in a world in which so many aspects of our lives are in danger of falling apart, we need to accept our falls with grace and learn how to land with intention. Since the beginning of the twenty-​first century, I have amassed an extensive collection of newspaper articles and online posts that speak the language of falling and failure over and over again. During this same time, I have taught a wide range of people in various kinds of movement workshops as well as yoga and somatic classes. In these situations, I  have become increasingly focused on helping my students and workshop participants develop the life skills (such as resiliency) necessary to survive the inevitable experiences of falling and failure. Because I place my work at the intersection of bodies and cultures, I find myself asking questions that encompass both biology and sociology. These questions include the following: What has living through a decade of almost constant barrages about yet another tumble, crash, or plunge of the stock market done to our neurological system and sense of emotional stability? How does this language of descent affect our personal sense of balance and our own very real fear of falling—​on the sidewalk, into debt, behind on the mortgage payments? How are young people going to successfully navigate a world with more choices, but fewer possibilities? Throughout this chapter, I explore the interconnected realms of the personal and the cultural by detailing both the neurobiological reflexes involved in falling and the societal resonance implicated in that slippage from up to down.

Disorientation For most adults, falling provides an immediate sense of disorientation and a humbling loss of control. My second chapter reflects on the powerful connections

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between the physical experience of being lost and the meta-​physical state of feeling disoriented. To be disoriented is to be undone, thrown off-​balance. But it can also provide a deeper knowledge about how to move in the face of the unknown. In order to truly comprehend what orients us, we need to experience disorientation. I  draw on Sara Ahmed’s thoughtful analysis of shifting orientations in her 2006 book Queer Phenomenology in which Ahmed provides examples of how the awkward moments of disorientation can help us understand the many cultural assumptions that lie dormant under the surface of our everyday lives. Employing the language of movement (turning this way and not that), Ahmed demonstrates how entrenched cultural somatic patterns define our personal pathways as well. Here I make a critical distinction between being orientated to space and its visual lines and being oriented in space as a proprioceptive sensibility. But it is possible to embrace getting lost and to revel in being disoriented. Many of the physical practices that I describe in this chapter develop skills that help us navigate the unknown. For instance, I often send people into a space, encouraging them to shift directions while moving quickly. After a few minutes, I  suggest that they play with darting in between two other bodies. Practices that encourage a physical appetite for moving in many directions with speed and ease can also develop a capacity for handling the unexpected or unknown. In addition, honing our kinetic responsiveness and our peripheral vision helps create a facility with moving more quickly than our conscious mind can track. Although I teach my students the importance of staying responsive even in the midst of disorientation, I  also articulate a critical difference—​that between feeling uncomfortable and feeling unsafe. When I present this differentiation in my classes, many students nod in agreement, recognizing how easily the current campus discourse around “safe spaces” can become a barrier to productive and healthy dialogue. I begin this chapter by describing my experiences teaching for seven weeks in Greece during the spring of 2012. This was a moment when the political fallout from the Greek financial crises and the European Union’s austerity measures was most violent and intense. I  relate how moving together in the midst of all this disorientation gave folks a sense of grounding without having to be in a stable environment, either politically or fiscally. Shifting back to American politics towards the end of the chapter, I point out the ways in which President Trump has used disorientation as a political strategy. Despite this sense of bewilderment at his chaotic administration and policy flip-​f lops, many groups have mobilized in the streets to resist. I end by briefly discussing the January 2017 Women’s March in Washington, DC, as an example of how being responsive and not reactive in these situations develops an emotional willingness to explore new pathways and form new alliances in ways that can usefully reframe our politics of location and the cultural organ­ ization of space.


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Suspension Breathing is a form of dwelling in the body. If we breathe in with attention to the suspension at the top of the inhalation, we open our sensibility for feeling the three-​dimensionality of our bodies and, by extension, the world around us. My next chapter takes up suspension as a moment where we slow down enough to feel space enter time. Using our breath to find this kind of spaciousness attunes us to a heightened sense of amplitude, including a critical recognition of the importance of thinking backwards as well as forwards. In lives filled with screen-​ based, two-​dimensional interactions, this sense of depth can make a big difference in the quality of our being present in the moment. Just as disorientation can create a vital perspective from which to rethink our assumed orientations, so suspensions can highlight the possibilities in between our usual modes of attention. Taking a moment to pause at the top of the inhalation allows us to feel how our experiences of space and place are implicated in our body’s connective tissue. This third chapter includes a discussion of the biomechanics of breathing and the challenges that arise when we try to become conscious of our breath. I introduce the concept of “cellular” breathing from Body-​Mind Centering™ (BMC) in order to illustrate how air and space are mutually constitutive. Laura Doyle’s extraordinary discussion of how political prisoners use their breathing to create a place of refuge in the midst of brutal conditions and incarceration provides me with an opportunity to think about the psychic dimensions of this very elemental but deeply potent act. Suspensions call forth the potential in the pause at the top of the inhalation, highlighting the space in-​between one phase of the breath and the other. Nancy Stark Smith’s notion of the “Gap” as a place “where you are when you don’t know where you are” (1987, 3)  elaborates how these suspensions of our usual orientation open up a space for improvisation and increase our tolerance for ambiguity. Later in this chapter, I draw on the work of ecopsychologists David Abram and Laura Sewell, to discuss the importance of renewing our sense of depth. This is not simply a question of vision but also one of sensation—​of feeling as well as seeing. The elusive quality of air (something we feel but cannot see) is connected to the experience of dwelling within moments when our lives have been suspended. The perception of depth takes time, it is not immediate. It is connected to our experience of our backspace, a place we often ignore in our “forward-​thinking” eagerness to be up-​to-​date. My discussion of backspace leads into a final meditation on the parallels between suspension and memory and the way both experiences serve to bring absence into the present.

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Gravity I begin this chapter with a longer quote from Katherine Dohan’s short essay “Dancing and the Importance of Place.” Katherine’s experience of “dislocation”—​her description of not being able to commit to a place—​is the existential underside of a lifestyle in which we confront the constant distractions of news alerts and social media networks at our fingertips. College students in particular are strikingly co-​dependent on their devices. Always in their hands, their phones operate as part of their automatic nervous system. In a section on digital disembodiment, I review some of the recent statistics (one article claims that the average person touches their phone 2,600 times a day!) and commentary on our daily engagement (some call addiction) to computer screens and hand-​held devices. I also discuss the ways in which somatic practices can help us navigate what Sherry Turkle calls our “media ecology.” Gravity is the physical force that gives us a feeling of weight. It both connects us to the earth and gives us a sense of our place in the world. In this chapter, I explore how the experiences of breathing and gravity are intimately connected to sky and earth. If, as I argued in the previous chapter, we can inhale to experience the spaciousness of air; we can also exhale to release into the support of the ground underneath us. This muscular release affords us a sense of emotional relief as well. My first introduction to the idea of “releasing into the support of the earth” was in a college dance class. My teacher introduced us to Mable Elsworth Todd’s seminal book The Thinking Body (1937) and her discussion of the possibilities of “dynamic rest.” These are restorative positions (the most familiar one is called the “constructive rest position”) in which we lie on our back with our legs supported by a chair or bolster such that the hips and the knees form a ninety-​degree angle. The point is that through conscious imagery, one can learn to release into gravity in order to engage a sense of rest that is qualitatively different from mindlessly crashing on the couch in front of a screen. In describing these movement practices of releasing into the support of the earth, I also invoke Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s important distinction between yielding and collapsing. Yielding into the earth is the crucial first step for pushing away from it. First one has to release into the support of gravity enough to feel one’s weight and then we can learn to mobilize it. Pushing, in fact, is a critical developmental movement pattern that helps us to comprehend on a physical as well as an existential level my favorite saying—​“resistance is support.” While this homegrown truism directly relates to the experience of pouring one’s weight into another person in order to support their weight, there are larger pedagogical implications. These I explore later in a discussion of Girls in Motion, the afterschool program at the local middle school that I have directed for well over a decade. Years of working


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with both adolescents and young adults have convinced me that for those who find it difficult to focus on the task at hand or to settle into a group activity, experiencing one’s weight is absolutely critical. In the same way that a yield leads to a push, I believe that experiencing one’s weight on a somatic level allows us to commit to the task at hand, another person, and, ultimately, ourselves. The last section of this chapter on gravity focuses on the importance of feeling the stabilizing contents of our body, including our organs, in order to locate the energetic balance between rest and resistance, yielding and pushing, opening and grounding.

Resilience My fifth chapter examines why resilience is such an important concept at this particular historical moment in which people have to adapt quickly to unpredictable stresses, including unprecedented changes in employment (the average young person is now expected to go through twenty or more jobs over the course of their lifetime), as well as social structures (over half of single adults are registered with an online dating service). Rather than defining it as the “ability to bounce back” to the place we were before disaster hit, resilience can more usefully be defined as the “capacity to recover.” Connected to the Latin word for carry, this definition associates resilience with the possibility of expanding and receiving, rather than tightening up or turning away from an abrupt change in our life circumstances. Most researchers agree that resilience can be taught, that it is not an inherited or genetic trait. For instance, one of the first longitudinal studies of resilience in children was carried out by Emmy Werner. Her seminal thirty-​year study of at-​risk children as they matured into adulthood, demonstrated that resilience is a combination of personality traits and environmental training. There is also clear evidence that resilience is connected to our formative somatic experiences (such as early bonding with a caregiver) and that it is key to developing emotional intelligence and a sense of empathy towards others. An experience that incorporates both a physical elasticity and a flexibility of thought, resilience hinges on the connections between effort and ease, doing and allowing. Thus, resilience is intimately tied to somatic perception and our sense of agency. In this chapter, I argue that connective tissue is the key to our physical sense of resilience. Shifting from the wider lenses of sociology and psychology into the microscopic level of biology, I introduce a discussion of the cellular characteristics of connective tissue. As a bodily substance that can deal with disruption and stress and still heal, connective tissue supports our ability to handle all kinds of pressures. As part of this discussion, I introduce a critical distinction between sensation and emotion. We can experience a feeling of pain, for instance, without

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necessarily conflating it with feelings of hurt and a resulting sense of disempowerment. Indeed, learning to manage certain kinds of physical stresses can help us manage psychological ones as well. A discussion of Rebecca Solnit’s book on communities surviving disasters, A Paradise Built in Hell, returns us to the sociological. In this last section, I trace how my local community (including the college where I teach) navigated the (in)tense moments after Tamir Rice was shot in Cleveland in 2014, as well as the surprising results of the 2016 Presidential election. I then describe a new series of public workshops that I was inspired to create as a response to our political climate that seek to consciously integrate the physical with the political, somatic awareness with activist training.

Connection My final chapter on connection brings my thinking about our supportive network of connective tissue into a discussion of cultural difference and our contact with others at the level of our skin and fascia. Developing the etymology of con/​ tact as a tactile “being with,” I argue that we can learn to engage our flesh to guide our feelings towards one another and, by extension, the world. I follow the progression of Merleau-​Ponty’s thought on our tactile relationship with our environment (and the people in it) from the binary of active/​passive and subject/​ object that he elaborates in The Phenomenology of Perception to his conception of a “double belongingness” as set out in his essay “The Visible and the Invisible.” In this writing, Merleau-​Ponty coins the term “intercorporeity” and proposes that exchanges in the flesh necessarily vibrate and resonate in both directions, providing us with the somatic possibility of feeling an “other” in the necessarily reciprocal act of touching and being touched. Many feminist and political theorists have objected to what they see as Merleau-​Ponty’s universalizing paradigm in his ideas about flesh as a condition for realizing a human connection, and I am aware of these dangers as well. Skin operates as the racialized border separating us as well as the fleshy tissue connecting us. Drawing from the standard repertoire of beginning Contact Improvisation exercises such as the finger-​to-​finger and head-​to-​ head, I argue that these are not mutually exclusive experiences, that difference is, in fact, necessary in order to feel a connection. Shifting (once again) from a somatic discussion to a political one, I  introduce Jean-​Luc Nancy’s telling phrase “the disturbance of violent relatedness” to think about what kinds of contact can acknowledge the legacies of ethnic and racial violence while still insisting on a fundamental relatedness among people. Here I turn to black feminist scholars such as Hortense Spillers and Simone Browne to review the ways in which black female flesh has historically carried the violent traces of that dis/​connect.


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These marks, or what Sara Ahmed calls “mutual impressions,” haunt our connection, but they do not entirely determine its contours. Our willingness to be present with one another even in the midst of our “violent relatedness” leads me to the question of empathy and a critical review of the growing literature on kinesthetic empathy in dance studies as well as the field of neuroscience. Drawing on the experience of witnessing (that of seeing and being seen) from the form of Authentic Movement, I highlight the importance of reciprocity, and demonstrate how this physical practice creates an important ground of mutual vulnerability. Rosalyn Diprose’s book on Corporeal Generosity is my jumping-​off point for a final discussion of tactile generosity. I  claim that our connective tissue (the flesh of body) provides the somatic foundation from which we can learn how to engage one another in the face of (rather than in the absence of) difference, both that marked on our skin and in our politics. Although there have been many studies on the role of the body in shaping the mind over the past decade, none of these have been written by someone who is also actively engaged in training bodies. In this sense, I bring a unique perspective to ongoing discussions about the significance of our bodies in shaping as well as reflecting our attitudes about ourselves and others in the world. Bodies give us a way of being present in the world, and I believe that through intentional physical practices we can learn to cultivate a civic culture that is responsive rather than reactive to the inevitable shifts in the balance of our lives. It is clear to me that a physical practice of feeling connected—​to the earth, to one’s weight, to one another—​can lead to a feeling of being grounded in an existential sense as well. Located in the meshing of the physical and the metaphysical, How to Land is grounded in the relationship between individual perception and communal sensibility and mobilized by thinking deeply about other people’s bodies through the intermediary of my own.

1 Falling Disorientation Suspension Gravity Resilience Connection On July 29, 2010, exactly a month after his nineteenth birthday, my nephew fell to his death. In an effort to impress his friends (was it a girl? was it a dare?), he attempted a double back-​f lip off a rock into a river, only to drown in the rushing water below. The immediate effects of John Christian’s fall rippled through our family, friends, and two different communities—​one in Ohio and one in Pennsylvania—​as we struggled to come together and honor his all-​too-​short life. Whenever a young person dies, there are a lot of “what if?” questions. Some revolve around that particular moment: What if he had not been drinking that afternoon? Some reflect on the past: What if he had had a different early childhood experience? Some look towards the unknowable future:  What if he had survived long enough to figure some things out? And, as a parent (I had been caring for him after my brother died of pancreatic cancer), there is always that nagging question: What if I had done something differently? As summer turned into fall, our lives eventually resumed their habitual rhythms. Seven years have passed since that day, but I still find myself deeply affected by this tragic event, haunted by the image of him mid-​air, suspended between sky and earth—​life and death. The image of my nephew falling is seared into my mind’s eye. It takes its place in this chapter alongside discussions of the iconic photo of the “Falling Man” taken on 9/​11 by Richard Drew, the photos of young men poised mid-​air in “La Chute” by Denis Darzacq (one of which graces the cover of this book), and videos of dancers falling in slow motion, including a striking repetitive sequence of Nancy Stark Smith falling from the shoulders of Steve Paxton. These images 17


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are augmented by written descriptions of the experience of falling by scientists, writers, and dancers, including my students. Embedded in all of these accounts is the tension between falling and flying, fate and freedom. John Christian’s fall was devastating in its consequences and existential in its implications. Even before he fell to his tragic, premature death, I had been thinking about his inability to settle himself or to channel his manic energies into a more grounded and sustainable direction. Although his life circumstances were unique to his particular situation, my nephew shared with many of my students an underlying sense of agitation as well as a growing appetite for distraction. While I  had already begun to craft a pedagogical style and had undertaken research that demonstrated how the insights of movement practices such as Contact Improvisation and Body-​Mind Centering™ could serve as a lifeline for a generation of kids who came of age in the aftermath of 9/​11, John Christian’s death added a real sense of urgency to this project. And as each year’s statistics about the increasing anxiety in college students emerged, I felt compelled to make these connections between embodied experience and emotional affect more directly. Obviously, these pages do not contain all the answers to the various dysfunctions of our day, but they do present a series of useful physical practices while tracing their metaphysical affects. Falling, particularly the fear of falling, affects us all. Whether we have lived through our own falls (both literal and figurative), or the sudden loss of a family member or a close friend, very few people in America are immune to the sense of instability and uncertainty that seems endemic these days. While it is easy to understand the impact of epic falls like that of my nephew on our lives, it is important to recognize that the mundane stresses we encounter daily also have a somatic toll. Even the most minor slip on the ice reverberates through our bodies as our muscles tense in response to a momentary loss of control. I am always amazed at how quickly I feel emotionally undone whenever I unexpectedly lose my balance, even if I catch myself with the next step. It takes a moment to recover. Slipping behind in the rent is not that different from slipping on ice. Whether the fall is physical or financial, it is scary to lose control, especially when we are not entirely sure how we will get back on our feet. Similarly, many of us share a growing anxiety about how the dramatic changes of social policies at the national level will affect the country’s safety net. Economic insecurity, mental illness, physical disability, old age, or the ripple effects of addiction and substance abuse are some of the forces that affect us all, no matter where you live or what you do. By acknowledging this collective disposition, I  am not trying to deny the very real forces of racism, sexism, class privilege, or regional sensibilities that mark crucial differences in shaping people’s lives. Obviously, these stresses are compounded in environments where there are multiple insecurities about jobs, food, or visa status. But a certain nervousness about falling down, falling

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behind, falling from, or simply falling in general has become part of our twenty-​ first century American condition. Falls both literally and metaphorically knock us off our feet. Unpredictable, they confuse our sense of the world’s order. These radical shifts from up to down register in our connective tissue as well as our psyche, and lead us to question our sense of balance and revise our notions of stability. Falls can be traumatic to be sure, disorienting at the very least. Often, they invite nostalgia for a time “before the fall”—​an innocence unchallenged by competing visions of the past. Crossing over literal and metaphoric states of being in the world, falling opens a threshold between the past and the future and forces us into the uncontrollable present. But because they stretch across a liminal space and time in which one’s assumed trajectory is suspended, falls can also inspire new orientations, including those that substantially reframe our expectations of happiness or success. I’ve been thinking about falling a lot these days:  falling buildings, falling planes, falling economies, falling governments, . . . but most particularly falling bodies. Over the beginning of the twenty-​first century, we have witnessed a series of spectacular and frightening falls that have had both global and local repercussions. From the sudden and horrific collapse of the World Trade Center towers to the economic recession, with its resulting slippages in employment, from the cyclical plunges in housing values to the periodic crashes of the stock market (not to mention the latest “fiscal cliff”), from the fallen bodies of mass shootings and collapsing buildings to the current dismantling of environmental policies and attempts to undo the Affordable Care Act and DACA, we live in a state of almost constant anxiety about things falling apart and our bodies reflect that. During the summer of 2011, Frank Bruni wrote a front-​page article for the New York Times entitled “The Fall This Summer” (August 28, 2011). His writing is a meditation on the ubiquity of the terms “fall” and “falling” and Bruni references a report titled “Falling Apart and Falling Behind” on the nation’s transportation infrastructure. He also traces the prevalence of “down” used both as a suffix (drawdown) and as a prefix (downturn). Although Bruni does not mention embodiment per se, it is clear that he reads these terms as metaphors for our state of being. In this chapter, I  explore the interconnected realms of the theoretical and the practical by tracing the physical experience of moving from up to down, as well as the cultural rhetoric which equates falling with failure. What do these two different perspectives on falling have to say to one another? Or, perhaps more precisely, what can the intentional practice of falling teach us about how to survive personal and social crises in this time of unprecedented change in the structures of our lives? I ask these questions not only to underline the importance of embodied experience in talking about historical events, but also because I want to think seriously about the physical practices that might help us survive


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the twenty-​first century. Instead of nervously trying to avoid falling (metaphorically and literally) in a world in which so many aspects of our social, political, and economic environments are being turned upside down, I believe we need to learn how to fall and land intentionally. Taking a lesson from the contemporary movement form of Contact Improvisation, we can practice ways in which to feel more comfortable with instability and learn to move through the descent, channeling the vertical momentum of a fall into the horizontal expression of a roll. These physical experiences can illuminate other ways of thinking about falling, failure, the ground, and gravity. Indeed, I believe that falling can teach us a great deal about resiliency—​physical as well as emotional and even financial resiliency—​ helping us, in turn, mitigate the effects of panic about falling behind that seems to have permeated almost everyone’s being these days. Before we move onto falling and its existential echoes, however, we need to understand how we all negotiate falling and the subtle dance with gravity virtually every moment of our lives.

Balancing (in) Our Lives In his essay “The Gravity of Being Human,” Rolfer and physical therapist Paul Zimmerman discusses the ways in which our bodies and our emotions are sculpted by our physical experiences. He writes:  “The fall off the bicycle, the dive out of the tree, the tumble down the stairs is not a momentary trauma that heals and is forgotten. These become imprinted in the pulls and strains of the soft tissue that lock an individual into habitual patterns of movement and expression” (1999, 26). For many of us, there is a somatic reactivity that gets triggered very quickly from a host of stresses, both large and small. These could be early traumatic memories of falling off the playground jungle gym or the roof of the shed in the backyard. Or it could be everyday wear and tear of the common stresses—​a particular nemesis at work, the delays on the subway system, or the stopped traffic on the drive home. These experiences can all manifest themselves in our tight necks, held shoulders, gritted jaws, or upset digestive system. How we react is often pre-​conscious, originating in our autonomic nervous system, and these physical responses to unexpected shifts of equilibrium are often patterned in infancy. From the very beginning of their lives until the age of about six months, babies exhibit what is called the Moro reflex in which their backs arch and arms flail out to the sides whenever they feel their support drop out from underneath them. The Moro reflex is seen by biologists as evidence of an early evolutionary “protective” mechanism; its preconscious neurological source is found in our lower brain stem and its impulses connect directly into the action of our limbs. As adults, we feel an analogous physical response whenever we misjudge that last step on a staircase, or whenever the ground shifts unexpectedly. In these moments, we experience a similarly reflexive impulse that

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makes us tense our posture and freeze our bodies. This startle reflex can also be triggered by loud, unexpected sounds and other sudden changes to our sense of equilibrium. It is a physical reaction that has psychological consequences. If we experience ongoing and repeated activation of our sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system because we live in a neighborhood rife with gunshots (south side of Chicago), or a situation with repeated explosions (think Aleppo), or if we live continuously with various unpredictable stressors (an abusive parent or partner), our bodies can become locked into that startled reaction. As Andrea Olsen notes in her discussion of underlying physical patterns and their psychological consequences: “Sometimes, when ongoing or intense trauma occurs, like war, abuse, or even the constant stress of work, we can find ourselves living in constant startle or shock. The result is a rigid spine; unable to let go or hold on, we are frozen in time” (2002,15). Anyone who has worked with survivors of physical and sexual abuse can recognize the somatic implications of this autonomic reflex located in the tight back and perennially raised shoulders. Learning how to dissolve that physical armoring requires first bringing awareness to the sensation of that holding pattern, and then bringing our attention to the internal adjustments in our balancing mechanism. In the chapter on “Balance” in his 2016 book Embodied:  The Psychology of Physical Sensation, Christopher Eccleston cites a number of studies which demonstrate that not just previous falls but also even the fear of falling can be a “predictor of future falling.” Referring to a study by Kim Delbaere in which participants walked on different levels in various light intensities, he suggests that ironically the greater the fear, the greater the risk of falling (12–​13). Operating as a self-​fulfilling prophecy, caution can backfire to make us even less sure-​footed. This is true not only for elderly individuals where there is a much more serious risk from falling to the ground, but across a generational continuum as well. Like other phobias, the fear of falling blends together the physical and the existential. Eccleston recognizes this connectedness between the psychological and the physiological when he declares:  “Disequilibrium, or the threat that one is about to lose control of one’s gravitational position, is a threat to coherence and to complete action” (20–​21). Anyone who has ever experienced vertigo knows how incredibly debilitating—​emotionally as well as physically—​ not being able to adjust our relationship to gravity can be. But anxiety about a possible fall can be just as disorienting, even if it is unwarranted by the immediate environment. The somatic dimension of fear cannot be willed away with rational arguments. Thus, it is important to work at the level of the body to address our habitual reactions and try to re-​pattern our physical responses. Although we draw on visual, aural, tactile, and kinesthetic information to navigate the world, our vestibular system is the specific biological apparatus that locates us relative to gravity. It helps us find the ground, even with our eyes closed, if we learn to attend to our proprioceptive sensibilities. Located on either


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side of our heads within the inner ears, the vestibular system provides us with our inner sense of stability. In her discussion of the neuro-​cognitive implications of balance, Missy Vineyard explains that the vestibular apparatus also includes two small structures (the utricle and the saccule) filled with fluid and holding tiny crystals. “As you move your head, the otoliths fall in the direction of gravity like particles in a snow globe when you shake it. The otoliths fall onto pressure-​ sensitive cells that trigger sensory nerves. As a result, your brain also learns about your head’s movement relative to the direction of the pull of gravity” (2007, 199, emphasis in original). Instead of trying to hold onto a “fixed” or stable position relative to the ground, we need to practice realigning at the edge of our balance, training our vestibular system to regain rather than hold onto our equilibrium. Vineyard observes: “Balance would be better described as an exquisitely delicate act of continually recovering—​not holding—​our uprightness. In order to achieve this, a subtle poise and mobility of the head on the spine is essential to stimulate our seventh sensory [vestibular] system, which sends its data to the brain, enabling it to know our spatial orientation—​particularly the direction toward the ground, and the direction of movement of the head” (204). This insight is borne out in another study cited by Eccleston in which two groups of people, one with a vestibular disorder and one control group without any problems with dizziness were asked to close their eyes while they were given vibrations to their legs that were meant to induce a sense of instability, as if they were about to fall. Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, it was the patients with vertigo, those who were used to constantly adjusting their equilibrium, that were much more successful at navigating the constant movement stimulus. Counterintuitively, it was the “normal” control group that exhibited anxiety about falling and physically over-​reacted to the stimulated shifts in balance perception (2016, 21). One study with experienced ballet dancers found that those who practiced balancing with their eyes closed improved much faster than those who were allowed to use their eyes to balance on half-​toe. Unfortunately, many adults in contemporary American culture spend the majority of their time standing or sitting, often in front of a screen or a device. The result is that our vestibular system is most often aligned with the frontal visual dimension and gets very little practice adjusting to different speeds and varying relationships to gravity and the horizon. For those of us who live in cities or in developed areas, this situation is compounded by the fact that we walk on artificially flattened surfaces such as paved roads or sidewalks. Apart from some extreme sports, it is increasingly rare that we have to accommodate more dynamic experiences that test our sense of balance or our equilibrium reflexes. Such experiences might include walking on uneven ground or running through the stumps and leaves in the woods. In addition, because we rely on our vision almost exclusively to experience the world around us, we tend to compensate with our eyes, rather than engaging our proprioceptive sensibilities on a regular

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basis. The result is that even the smallest shifts off-​center can feel perilous and trigger our startle reflex. When we overreact neurologically, tensing and gripping our muscles instead of relaxing into a momentary shift in our balance, we paradoxically set up the circumstances for a more drastic fall. Knowing that our bodies can teach us what our minds are slow to grasp, we can recognize that exercising our vestibular and proprioceptive systems helps us mitigate both our startle reflex and a deeper fear of falling. One of the practices that I have developed to help students become aware of their vestibular system is what I call the Yes/​No/​Maybe exercise (see Inset #1 Yes/​ No/​Maybe). While my students are standing “still,” I instruct them to nod their

Inset #1  Yes/​No/​Maybe

(n.b. This exercise can be done sitting down or standing up, but I encourage folks who wear glasses to take them off because oftentimes we unconsciously adjust our head up in order to see out of the lenses if the glasses have slipped down on the nose.) Close your eyes and feel the weight of your skull. Allow your chin to shift down a little bit to lengthen the back of your neck. Make sure that your head is resting evenly on top of your shoulders such that your face is not jutting forward nor the top of your head leaning back. Allow yourself to follow your breathing and notice how your head responds to the inhalation and the exhalation. Without straining the neck, try to keep a sense that the top of the head is rising towards the sky. Bring your awareness to the place where your spine enters the skull. (This is the meeting of the atlas, the first cervical vertebra, and the bottom of the occipital bone at the back of the skull.) Next begin to nod your head very slightly up and down. This is the Yes motion. Recognize that in this context, the smaller the motion, the greater your sensation will be at the base of the skull. Repeat six or seven times. Then rotate your skull gently from side to side. This is the No motion. Repeat six or seven times, testing how small and smooth you can make the action and still feel it. Next tilt your head diagonally from side to side. This is the Maybe motion. Once you have gotten a sense of how these subtle movements release some of the tension right at the base of your skull, you can begin to play with combining the different directions of movement, improvising a small dance of the skull on top of the spine. I find that this action releases a lot of tension that has built up in my neck and upper shoulders, particularly if I have been working at the computer or driving in traffic. Feel free to experiment with opening the eyes, but keep the eyes relaxed if you do.


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heads up and down (yes), side to side (no), and diagonally (maybe). I encourage them to find the minute adjustments that stimulate the vestibular system right at the center of the head where the spine enters the skull, rather than engaging the neck muscles in order to move in a full range of motion. Bringing attention to the subtle sensation in this area allows us to feel the balance of our skull on our spine. I am always surprised at how mobile this connection can be if we release our eyes and focus on opening up a sense of space around the atlas (the first cervical vertebra). One of my students described the experience as a kind of opening up to the world. “The yes-​no-​maybe was a tremendously powerful moment, because I could sense an internal breath of sorts moving through my spine with the opening and release of supportive fluid. Afterwards, I felt longer and more available” (Celia Morris, class journal, Fall 2017). This exercise can be done sitting as well as standing, and it is a wonderful way to release the tension that builds up in the neck while sitting at the computer or driving for long periods of time.

Learning How to Fall Less than a week after a good friend of mine slipped and fell on the ice, the Science section of the New York Times ran a short piece on “The Right Way to Fall” (January 24, 2017). My friend tried to catch herself by reaching out, but unfortunately broke both bones in her right forearm in the process. According to the article’s author Kate Murphy, my friend executed what is known as a “foosh,” which is an acronym for “falling onto outstretched hands.” This reaction (as my friend found out too well) risks consolidating all the force of the fall onto the smallest bones in the hands and wrists. Instead, it is important to bend the limbs and aim for the fleshiest parts of your body. The key is to relax and not try to resist the momentum of the fall, and also to spread out the force of impact across the body. Although it may seem counterintuitive, falling (like everything else) is best practiced repeatedly in order to hone one’s coordination and responsiveness to losing ground. Practicing falling is exactly what senior citizens have been doing in a gymnasium in the town of Leusden in the Netherlands. The New York Times profiled a series of workshops that have spread into senior centers and hospitals over the past few years as physical therapists and geriatric specialists focus on prevention rather than rehabilitation. In this case, there is an obstacle course to help seniors navigate uneven ground and thick mats to help them learn how to fall safely. As we have seen, the fear of falling can make one more apt to fall and certainly many older people are nervous that a fall will mean the loss of crucial mobility and potentially their independence. The New York Times profile includes a short video and wonderful photos of smiling and laughing older people (some in the their 80s and

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90s) lounging around on thick gymnastics mats. One of the younger instructors mentioned in an interview that once the older people got over their shyness, they realize how much fun it can be to fall. The article continues: “Indeed, seeing one another helplessly sprawled across the gym mats gave way to giggling and plenty of dry comments, knowing jokes, general ribbing and hilarity.”1 We all fall down. That is the point! Falling is good. It keeps us in all of the planes, in the multidimensionality of movement. It keeps us on our toes (and on our backs and our butts and our stomachs). There have been so many reflexes I’ve developed since I’ve developed falling as one of my hobbies. My body does what it needs to so it can be safe when it falls, how it can mold itself into the floor, use the fall, use the momentum toward the ground to carry itself and inhabit itself. (Rachel Ford, class journal, Fall 2015) The euphoria that Rachel, a student in my Contact Improvisation class reveals in this passage from her journal shows us that it is possible to learn how to fall well. But falling with pleasure requires that first we open our sensibilities to the play of balance and learn how to move off-​center with ease. It also requires that we become comfortable with landing on the ground. These skills can feel liberatory in the end, but once again their acquisition takes time and patience. Shifting our perceptions about falling as an embarrassing failure or an admission of defeat invites an awareness of the kinesthetic pleasures of moving across space with suspension, momentum, and in response to the pull of gravity. Operating in parallel to the physical act of falling, of course, are the metaphysical ripples of that descent which could lead us to reframe our expectations of success as a vertical ascent and intervene in the relentless striving that is part our cultural DNA. There are risks, of course. Encouraging a willingness to try what makes one uncomfortable, generating an appetite for being off-​balance, all these exercises might help us feel at ease with falling—​but they are no guarantee that we will not get hurt. In her contribution to the special issue of Performance Research “on falling,” sculptor Amy Sharrocks notes that while thinking about falling, she fell—​hard. “Quickly it became clear how much falling and failing get mythologized, romanticized as sites of potential, when they can hurt drastically. It also seemed to reveal an awful power in falling, a lure. It exerts a pull, alongside gravity, the question of ‘What if?’, to which we can occasionally be brave enough to respond” (2013, 48). This question of “what if?” compels us to think about the suspended role of our agency within the experience of falling. Even if we precipitate the fall intentionally, we can never know what the outcome will be. Giving up control is not the same as giving up on ourselves, however. Rather, it is about giving up certain expectations.


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Interestingly enough, the first definition for the word fall in my American Heritage dictionary is largely removed from the cultural baggage that implicates failure in a fall. Here fall is simply: “to move under the influence of gravity.” Now this is a phrase that dancers and choreographers can relate to, for we know in our bones that every movement is, in fact, a dance with gravity. Even walking, as Laurie Anderson recognizes, is, at its core, a series of falls—​some small, some more spectacular—​that propel the body through time and space. You’re walking . . . and you don’t always realize it but you’re always falling. With each step . . . you fall. You fall forward a short way and then catch yourself. Over and over . . . you are falling . . . and then catch yourself. You keep falling and catching yourself falling. (Gilpin 2011, 120–​121) While the most traditionally trained ballerina is aware of the fact that stillness (especially on pointe) is never a static balance, but rather a dynamic play with the forces of gravity registering in our bones and muscles, those of us who work in contemporary dance also rely on our proprioceptive sensibility to prime the body for a variety of responses to gravity, including falling into the floor. Heidi Gilpin’s contribution to a collection of essays on the innovative choreographic work of William Forsythe is entitled “Aberrations of Gravity,” and in it she argues for the significance of failure in Forsythe’s work “as a positive, enabling force” for generating movement. This includes the failure to remain vertical. She notes: “Although contemporary choreographers employ failure in many different ways, what is interesting is how exactly failure functions to produce new movement, new scenic and spatial compositions, and new interpretations. Their examples point to ways that movement can be performed in a three-​dimensional space while engaging imaginary spaces through which a body is constantly in a state of multidimensional falling” (2011, 115). Using gravity, we can attune our sensibilities to the subtle choreography of those displacements. This kinesthetic awareness gives us a deep sense of the physical possibilities in which a body can be both grounded and open to moving in any direction—​even while falling. As Sally Ann Ness points out in her intriguing essay on the “Ecologies of Falling in Yosemite National Park,” we seldom speak of “doing” a fall, but rather of “taking” a fall. Therein lies a fascinating paradox: the verb is at once active doing (I take my seat) and passive acceptance (I take a blow to the head). As Ness recognizes: “The failure of falling is precisely the failure to take action and to move at one’s own will” (2013, 15). Reporting on her own experience of falling while hiking in the mountains, Ness relates how the act of falling made her perceive the place differently. “This was one aspect of the fall’s performativity: its re-​minding me of the gravity of the place I was in. The fall physically in-​formed

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me of this environmental reality, as it passed the gravitational force through my own being and reorganized it proprioceptively in so doing” (20). Her descriptions and photographs reveal the awe-​inspiring immensity of Yosemite and the multiple ways that light, water, boulders, and people fall within that landscape. Bruised, but oddly reinvigorated, Ness concludes, “the way that a body merges with a greater, more significant vibrancy whenever it loses its own balance of power, is demonstrated constantly as being a performance that carries value, whether the body is great or small, human or not” (21). As a dance form dedicated to the practice of falling, Contact Improvisation reformulates the classical aesthetics of grace as well as the privileging of the vertical axis in more traditional forms of dancing. Although there is a group of professional dancers such as Steve Paxton and Nancy Stark Smith who have become accomplished and virtuosic fallers and fliers, there are many more Contact enthusiasts (including folks with various physical disabilities, some of whom are professional dancers and performers) who find valuable life lessons embedded in a willingness to fall, no matter how (un)graceful the descent. “In Praise of Bad Dancing” is a short editorial by Christine Svane that I  give my students to assure them that falling and fumbling have their usefulness in the larger order of things. She writes: “Dances in which both bodies ride a shared wave of truly unleashed rise and falling are rare. Yet the dances which abound—​halting, starting repeatedly, responding to impulses a fraction of a second too slow to flow, doubting one’s perceptions—​are rich with valuable information, honest manifestation of fluctuations between positive and negative response” (1977, 22). Contact Improvisation encourages a willingness to take physical and emotional risks, producing a certain psychic disorientation in which the seemingly stable categories of able-​bodied and disabled become dislodged.2 When I first began teaching dance technique and Contact Improvisation in the 1990s, my students were hungry for the physical experience of being off-​balance and they were alive to the intellectual sensibilities of deconstruction. Moving with speed and momentum, they loved to spin and fall, and they connected these wild displacements of the body with an open curiosity about who they were and what they could do. Nowadays, I am struck by the shifting needs of young people’s bodies and minds. My experience is that college students are less adventurous these days, and this observation is borne out in a number of recent articles and books in the popular and news media as well as in pedagogical discussions in academic forums. As any faculty member who has contemplated whether or not to put “warnings” on their syllabus knows, this generation can be quickly triggered about “safe spaces” and they can resist being pushed outside their comfort zone or thrown off-​balance—​either physically or intellectually. Popular pieces such as “The Coddling of the American Mind,” an editorial by Greg Lukienoff and Jonathan Haidt published in the September 2015 issue of The Atlantic lament the demise of intellectual risk-​taking and the inability of


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young people to dive into a healthy, animated discussion about challenging topics such as racism or sexual assault. For instance, one of the most recent books to talk about what is now called the “iGeneration” (because of the fact that many of these kids entered adolescence with iPhones in their hands) is subtitled “Why Today’s Super-​Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—​and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.” The author, Jean M.  Twenge, draws from various databases, including the American Freshman Institute, in order to support statistically many of the anecdotal materials she is collecting from interviews with high school and college students. In a powerfully telling passage, Twenge discusses the 2014 emergence of the term “adulting” on various blogs and hashtags and the ways these younger people associate being an adult with the “end of all fun” (2017, 46). There are many factors contributing to this sense of fragility, and I will discuss several throughout this book, but I believe that an important one is how the experience of growing up in a post-​9/​11 America has created a real fear of falling, a fear of losing stability in a world that is already so chaotic. These days, I spend a great deal of time and attention in my classes encouraging everyone to feel more comfortable with gravity by engaging their proprioceptive sensibilities and playing with balance in what is called the “small dance” (sometimes referred to as “the stand”). (See Inset #2 The Small Dance.) This practice of attending to the subtle motion within the act of standing has become a crucial element of Contact Improvisation training worldwide. First explored by Steve Paxton in the early 1970s as he developed the physical training that would sustain Contact Improvisation, the small dance allows one to focus on the internal movements created by the fine shifts of bone, muscle, and breath as we stand upright, but relaxed, balanced between sky and earth. As Paxton articulates in an interview about the origins of Contact Improvisation: Standing still is not actually “still.” Balancing on two legs demonstrates to the dancer’s body that one moves with gravity, always. Observing the constant adjustments the body makes to keep from falling calms the whole being. It is a meditation. (1979) In my classes, after we have moved vigorously through the space and have our hearts pumping and our bodies warm, I often ask the students to take a stand and then close their eyes. At first, it can be difficult to maintain balance without sight, and one’s initial tendency is to try to grip the legs, back, or shoulders in order to stand still. Gradually, however, the body learns to let go of that muscular holding and release into the experience of the constant and minute adjustments of our balance. As we breathe into the tight, overused muscles of our neck, shoulders, and thighs and focus on our skeletal structure at the center of our core, attention is drawn to the subtle shifts of weight and alignment at

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Inset #2  The Small Dance (after Steve Paxton)

(n.b. I prefer to do this exercise after I have been actively walking, running, or dancing because there is a lot more somatic information to attend to if the body has been warmed up.) Come to a stand with your feet directly under your hips and stack your shoulders over your pelvis. Stand up tall but not rigid, and give yourself a moment to feel your heartbeat in your chest and maybe the pulse in your neck or groin, or even in your fingertips. Close your eyes and lengthen the back of your neck, lifting the base of your skull. Feel the line of energy from earth to sky running through your body. One way to connect to this idea is to imagine that you can feel a geyser of water coming from deep down in the earth entering the soles of your feet, coming into your pelvis and following the spine up and out through your head. Imagine that the water is like a fountain reaching high into the sky and then flowing back down and over you to drain into the earth. Feel how that image of a line of energy from sky to earth can keep you alive and elongated as you begin to release the tension in your ankles and knees, hips and neck, hands and jaw. Shift your weight forward just a bit and feel the weight come into your toes. Trace what happens in your body. Where do you release? Where do you grip? Then shift the body backwards and feel the weight come into your heels. What happens? Where do you release? Where do you grip? Move slowly from side to side, feeling the weight shift from one foot to the other. Eventually play with making the tiniest little shifts in every direction, all the while keeping the line of energy reaching out of your head and extending towards the sky. Now come back to your center, finding the plumb line from sky to earth where you can stand aligned with the least amount of tension in the muscles of your thighs, butt, back, and neck. Come to an awareness of your arms hanging down by your sides. Imagine little weights hanging from each finger and see if you can release them ever so slightly downward while at the same time energizing your head towards the sky. Can you feel a shift in your shoulders when you do this? Allow yourself to attend to the shifts of weight and tiny adjustments your body makes without any commentary about what is right or wrong, what hurts or feels good. Simply observe. Finally, bring your attention to your skull (this is a perfect moment to do the Yes/​No/​Maybe exercise) and the larger environment of the room in which you are standing. Feel the space all around you, front, back, sides, as well as above and underneath you. Take an inhalation and open your eyes slowly, keeping an awareness of your back as you do this. Walk forward and into the next exercise.



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the edge of our equilibrium. Like every embodied activity, the subtlety of our perception grows with repetition and practice. Here is how one professional dancer describes her experience of the small dance: The small dance, the dance of minute sensation. As I  sit with the small dance, I sense and feel at a greater level. I dance the small dance deep inside myself. The small dance brings forth the movement of my interior. The deep movement of my stomach, my liver, my kidneys, my intestines. This deeply internal movement brought to the external. Traveling from interior to exterior  .  .  .  I  sense the trace of the small dance as it makes tracks on the floor. Tracing the sways, etching each shift of weight into the ground. The sketch of this pattern is drawn through the soles of my feet . . . The small dance allows me to sense this mapping, feel my connection into the earth. (Faith Morrison 2015) The kinesthetic tuning that is acquired with this kind of practice encourages an awareness of the physical possibilities in which one’s body is both grounded and yet open to moving in any direction. In Contact Improvisation, one begins to train for a physical responsiveness to moments of falling by attending to these small shifts of balance that happened while standing. When I begin to teach active falling, I encourage my students to think about the difference between being careful (intentional) and being cautious (fearful). As we have seen in the earlier discussion of the physiology of balance, the very fear of falling can actually make one more susceptible to falling. It is crucial not to tense up away from the ground and stiffen one’s legs or hold the breath. As Paxton remarks about the small dance: “The support needed from the unconscious reflexive parts of the brain is more present when the conscious mind is not afraid. The calmness of standing is extended into the fall” (1979).

Falling with Grace “The expression ‘fall from grace’ becomes an impossible statement when falling itself is experienced as a state of grace” (Stark Smith 1979, 3). By the time she wrote these words as part of an editor’s note for the Fall 1979 issue of Contact Quarterly, Nancy Stark Smith had been practicing falling for seven years. The evolution of Nancy Stark Smith’s falling skills paralleled the development of Contact Improvisation. During a residency at Oberlin College in January of 1972, Steve Paxton, a former dancer in Merce Cunningham’s dance company and a member of the improvisational ensemble Grand Union, set Magnesium on a group of male students. The video footage of this raw and unrefined performance looks like an

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exercise in falling bodies that mostly crashed to the ground on a large wrestling mat. Occasionally, two bodies fall towards one another. Magnesium also ends with several minutes of meditative standing in the small dance. Later that summer, Paxton invited a crew of assorted college students and dancers (including Stark Smith) to New York City in order to continue these experiments with moving together, jumping, and catching one another. The members of this informal group were intrigued and decided to continue the investigation, officially launching Contact Improvisation. By 1979, the form had evolved into a major influence on contemporary dance, with a professional group of teacher/​performers and an ever-​expanding vocabulary of skills—​falling being a primary one. Fall After Newton (1987) is a video documentary that traces the development of Contact Improvisation through an almost exclusive focus on Nancy Stark Smith’s dancing. As Steve Paxton narrates a short history of Contact Improvisation, the footage begins with more than a minute of Stark Smith revolving on Paxton’s shoulders as he spins quickly. This long sequence from 1983 sets up the implicit narrative of virtuosity as both the text and the editing also showcase Stark Smith’s spectacular dancing, particularly her falling. The viewer is treated to an extraordinary series of smoothly layered shots of Stark Smith falling from the shoulders of Curt Siddall, Steve Paxton, and Danny Lepkoff. In the voice-​over, Paxton notes: “Higher momentum brings new areas of risk. In order to develop this aspect of the form we had to be able to survive it.” Stark Smith’s falls are looped together into one long sequence with intermittent pauses, before returning to real time. The final section includes several slow-​motion repetitions of a particularly intense fall where Stark Smith lands directly on her back. Although the fall is slowed down to demonstrate Paxton’s narration (“During this very disorienting fall, Nancy’s arms manage to cradle her back, and this spreads the impact onto a greater area. And she doesn’t stop moving. That helps to disperse the impact over a slightly longer time”), the viewer can still see the impact reverberate through her body, even as she rolls (now in real time) out of it and keeps dancing. The slow-​motion repetition, combined with Paxton’s articulation of how to survive that moment of disorientation, really helps my students visualize the possibility of expanding their attention within a fall. As Stark Smith relates in her editor’s note in the Healing issue of Contact Quarterly: “When I first started falling by choice, I noticed a blind spot. Somewhere after the beginning and before the end of the fall, there was darkness” (1987, 3). Working backwards through sensation, Nancy Stark Smith taught herself how to stay in the light. Much of the footage in Fall After Newton was shot at the 1983 tenth anniversary series of performances at St. Mark’s Danspace in New York City. The signature moves of virtuosity in Contact Improvisation—​spinning shoulder lofts and falls that looped to the floor only to cycle back up into the air—​were much in evidence. It is clear that Smith had learned to experience the momentum of a


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descent without clenching up or contracting with fear. She had internalized the trained reflexes of extending one’s limbs to spread the impact over a larger surface area and was able to adapt instinctually to seemingly endless variations of the passage from up to down. Describing this transition, she writes: The more I fell, the more familiar the sensation of dropping through space became, the less disoriented I was during the fall. Staying awake from the first moment of balance loss, I found that falling was itself a dynamic balance. One in which the forces at play—​gravity, momentum, and mass—​were all operating in their natural order and if my mind was with me, I could gently guide that fall toward a smooth landing. Confidence came with experience and soon enjoyment took the place of fear and disorientation. (1987, 3) The sequence of falling filmed in Fall After Newton has many analogous moments in sports media as well as other dance films where the slow-​motion shots allow the viewer to dwell in the suspension of the fall. A  couple of my favorites are a long sequence of Louise Lecavalier falling in the film shown as part of La La La Human Steps’ 1991 mega-​spectacle Infante c’est destroy and the video projections in Elizabeth Streb’s 2003 homage to the Wright brothers entitled Wild Blue Yonder. In the former, Lecavalier’s body floats peacefully on screen. We see her falling over and over again, but in such a state of suspension that she seems to evaporate at the same time. Then we see her land. Even though it is in slow motion, the impact is clear. In Wild Blue Yonder on the other hand, the live video projections first directly shadow the live dancers, and then become increasingly suspended, fading away before we see any representations of the impact. All of these screendances engage our proprioceptive sensibilities and could be categorized as “haptic” in the sense of the word employed by Laura Marks in Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media. In her discussion of the ways in which experimental media and film can elicit a viewer’s physical responsiveness, Marks asserts that haptic images “do not invite identification with a figure so much as they encourage a bodily relationship between the viewer and the image” (2002, 3). In the context of Nancy Stark Smith’s observations about staying awake during a fall, these screendances allow us to visualize the moments in between the up and the down in ways that are kinesthetically inspiring. I  am consciously foregrounding these as examples that evoke our “haptic” perception (defined by Marks as a combination of tactile, kinesthetic, and proprioceptive senses) in order to illustrate how these two-​dimensional images can lead us back to, as well as away from, bodily sensation. The key element here is the conscious and creative use of media as opposed to the habitual and often compulsive use of screens on our hand-​held devices which, I argue

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later in this book, tend to lead us away from a critical sensibility of space within our embodied experience.3 By slowing down the experience of falling, these videos can open up possibilities within that fall that are not based on the mere fact of the descent. We can find similar moments of grace within the fall in photos taken out in the world as well. The photograph on the cover of this book is an image from “La Chute” (The Fall), a series of photographs by Denis Darzacq of fearless young people caught in mid-​air, suspended between the sky and the street. Shot from 2006 to 2007, these images capture falling bodies a foot or two (sometime mere inches) from the ground. In his artist’s statement accompanying the portfolio, Darzacq describes this work as a meditation on the individual in an urban environment, with particular reference to both 9/​11 and the plight of the working-​class poor in the outskirts of Paris. In these photographs, young men from predominantly African and Arab immigrant communities in the Parisian banlieus are seen against a backdrop of generic concrete buildings—​ what Darzacq calls the “soulless” architecture of many public-​housing projects. Catching a body in between the launch and the recovery, Darzacq is able to infuse these potent images of youthful vitality with an air of existential vulnerability. Arms spread wide, the young man on the cover is suspended between falling and flying, and I can’t help but think of this graceful second as signifying a moment of possibility that just might shift the conditions of his descent. In Darzacq’s work, the narrative of falling is suspended, but it is not rendered virtual. Refusing the sort of abstraction that can be endemic to photography, Darzacq’s work in “La Chute” operates as both interruption and absorption. By prolonging a movement in midair, the images in “La Chute” give us an opportunity to think about moments in between the beginning and an ending of a leap. The denouement may seem inevitable, but it is not necessarily predetermined. In his introduction to the book Darzacq riffs on possible interpretations of these images. They show the glorious bodies and physical strength of youth. They evoke Icarus, the desire to escape one’s environment and failures, and the punishment of pride. They reflect the harshness of our society. They ask if we can let  all these people fall without doing anything. (2013, 10) It is this mutual curiosity that structures the magical synchrony of a young person’s leap of faith and a photographer’s ability to capture that brief suspension of disbelief. Although they are two-​dimensional images, Darzacq’s photos reveal a three-​dimensional experience that is neither tragic nor heroic, but rather vacillates in the space between.


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The juxtaposition of this kind of energized physicality—​part parkour, part capoeira, and part circus—​f loating in midair underscores the marginalized position of many urban youth. At the same time, the fierceness of their movements forces our attention. Crucially, many of the photographs do not even show facial expressions. Nonetheless, the off-​kilter, splayed, and irregular arrangements of flailing arms and legs create a sense of individual personalities. Yet they are not afraid. The trajectory of their descent to the ground is interrupted by the click of the camera, and the resulting freeze gives us a moment in which to consider their experience of flying and falling. Ironically, many viewers of this series think that the image has been manipulated, that it is not a “real” action shot. They cannot seem to imagine the elastic potential of this space in between sky and earth, fall and recovery. The tension that this suspension creates is made clear in a short film by Marie-​C lotide Chery documenting a photo shoot with Darzacq and a group of young people from the outskirts of Paris. At one point, the photographer is encouraging a young French man of African descent to try some moves again without stopping himself or being overly self-​critical. Darzacq tells him:  “Remember this is photography, not video.”4 This comment about a choice at the moment of shooting (instead of at the moment of editing) is further developed in a later scene where another participant is reviewing images of himself. This young man mentions how in order to launch himself into space he envisions the movement as a whole, from the preparation through to the recovery. When he sees his body suspended in the photograph, he realizes that “the rest doesn’t matter.” Which is not to say that the context doesn’t matter. On the contrary, Darzacq “freezes” their movement in order to expose their subjectivity. His work is deeply motivated by a culturally progressive agenda as he seeks to make visible an experience—​at once feisty and fragile—​that is often overlooked. All suspensions come to an end, of course, and what matters then is how we hit the ground. Defined abstractly as “the property of a material that enables it to resume its original shape or position after being bent, stretched, or compressed,” resiliency in people is usually determined by a mix of historical circumstances, socio-​cultural background, familial disposition, and individual attitude. For the young urban movers profiled in Darzacq’s photographs, this skill is measured in the ability to continue with a next move, the ability to find the ground through a shoulder, back, hip, or hand in order to push off and back to their feet. In front of the camera, they try the same move over and over again, launching themselves through the air and hitting the ground like a bouncing ball. Their physical resiliency is awesome, a testament to the vast potential of human survival. But does physical flexibility always yield a psychological elasticity as well? What do these images of suspension tell us about the falls that result in the loss of livelihood, social status, or a loved one’s life? If we shift the orientation of the

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West’s vertical hegemony, falling can become not just an ignominious ending, but rather the beginning of other possible responses.

Falling and Flying Falling carries a pretty heavy symbolism in the West; usually it is seen as a metaphor for failure. In many of our mythologies, such as the story of Icarus, falling charts a passage from the lofty heavens of stardom to the grit of the earth. Socially, it is a perilous journey. Not only do boys, angels, and men fall, of course, but women have also been doomed by this cultural hegemony of the vertical. In an overly determined slippage that quickly moves from literal to metaphoric, women are seen as “fallen” when they lose their virginity and therefore their chastity and moral innocence. This gendered scenario is no doubt connected to that first spectacular Fall from Paradise—​for a woman’s fall from vertical to horizontal retraces in one fell swoop the physical, cultural, and spiritual damnation of Eve (or one of her many updated prototypes). Similarly, one of the classic slapstick comic effects is the sight of a proud figure strutting down the street and then slipping on a banana peel and falling in a most ignominious manner. In most situations in our culture, falls are always already falls from grace. It is particularly important to understand these layers of cultural resonance associated with falling in order to comprehend the enormity of the impact of 9/​11 on the American psyche. On that day, the World Trade Center towers, two symbols of American economic prosperity and global power, literally disintegrated before our eyes, shattering any complacency we might have had about the security of our borders, lives, and jobs. After the initial shock, various commentators quickly drew the analogy between America and Eden, characterizing the fall of the World Trade Center towers as our fall from the grace of feeling safe within our own country. The American government was reactive, created an agenda based on retaliation, and a new breed of patriotism was launched that had little time for reflection or patience for dissent. Yet there were also a series of editorials which commented on the symbolic hubris of the towers as icons of global capital, ones that reached so high in the sky they seemed to mock the little man on the street, perhaps even anticipating their own demise. Regardless of one’s political views on the matter, the facts were devastating enough. Buildings fell, people died, the country was vulnerable. The oral histories and memoirs documenting people’s experiences on September 11, 2001, recorded the more intimate bodily responses to being downtown that day. Some people spoke of the smells and the dust, of a fear so intense it made them nauseous. Others detailed the overwhelming nature of their uncertainty about everything. “I lost all sense of scale, of embodiment,


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all sense of myself as a human being with resources” (Greenburg 2003, xxii). But virtually everyone remarked on the weird melding of physical and existential disorientation that day. “[W]‌e looked at what we could not see and lost our bearings” (xxii). In these recitations, the language of loss intermingles with the language of physical stability. About that moment in our national history, Peter Brooks writes, “We lost some prior sense of our place in the world, our firm footing, our balance” (2003, 48). Many people lost their bearings in Manhattan on September 11, 2001. The sudden and traumatic collapse of the World Trade Center towers was disorienting for America as well as the world, but it affected New  Yorkers much more viscerally, merging personal bodies with civic politics. The striking absence of the World Trade Center towers from the New  York City skyline provoked what Diana Taylor described as a “phantom limb phenomenon: the more people recognized the lack, the more they felt the presence of the absence” (2003, 247). Within hours, images of the towers went up all over town. The nostalgia for a time “before the fall” blanketed the city even before the dust had settled. Many people described the surreal feeling of those days as a kind of “floating” around with little sense of direction, and people of all ages who lived through that moment in New York City have become particularly fearful of heights. September 2011 was filled with tenth-​ anniversary memorials of 9/​ 11. From August through October, national as well as local newspapers ran a series of human-​interest stories documenting the lives of survivors a decade later. Weekly newsmagazines such as Time, The New Yorker, Newsweek, and others vied for the most distinctive yet tasteful renderings of the lost towers on their tenth-​ anniversary covers, and all included stories of people who had survived. Many of the people profiled had reestablished the equilibrium in their lives: widows of firefighters lost at Ground Zero had remarried and begun new families, kids who lost a parent had grown up and many were thriving. Not everyone, however, has been able to rebuild their lives as successfully. According to an article titled “10 Years and a Diagnosis Later, 9/​11 Demons Haunt Thousands” in the August 10, 2011 issue of the New York Times, over 10,000 people were still being treated for post-​traumatic stress disorder ten years after the event. I too am haunted by what someone described as “the long aftermath of 9/​11,” including a visceral feeling that something shifted in our collective sense of equilibrium, not just for people who witnessed that morning directly, but also for many young people who grew up over the course of the twenty-​first century. I  am aware of the intimate relationship between the images of falling bodies and falling buildings replayed over and over during those first twenty-​ four hours and the ripple effects of that trauma and subsequent “political and economic failures” on our individual and collective corpus. Trying to make sense of this moment of national and individual disorientation, I find myself

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drawn to the idiosyncratic and personal oral and visual histories reflecting on that time. Exhibitions such as “Here Is New York: Revisited” and the impressive collection of oral history narratives housed at Columbia University’s Oral History Research Office in New York City, some of which have been published in book form, are deeply compelling to me for their ability to capture people’s direct, bodily sensations (smells, sounds, air quality, color of the sky, etc.) of that day.5 Having been subjected to the official “history” produced by the government’s “America’s ‘War on Terror,’ ” which was aided, in turn, by an oddly docile press corps, it is fascinating to shift through the rubble of individual memories of that lived experience precisely because they do not fit into a seamless story. In their introduction to the collection After the Fall, the editors point out how quickly the idiosyncratic perspectives on that day were sacrificed in the name of a coherent national narrative (complete with title and its own soundtrack), collapsing the experiences of many individuals into “the symbolic realm of the nation” (Ellis et al. 2011, xvi). In contrast, the personal stories collected in the Oral History Archives at Columbia University (some of which were transcribed in After the Fall) seek to “capture the fabric of the real life of the city during these months and years, filling in both the sense of time and context that has been erased in the national narrative of ‘America at War’ ” (xvi). In her contribution to another collection of remembrances entitled Trauma at Home, Claire Kahane discusses how 9/​11 was, in fact, anticipated by various Hollywood disaster films. About halfway through a psychological analysis of how that morning “precipitated us into a more primitive anxiety of obliteration” and triggered our most primal fears, Kahane interrupts herself with an intriguing stream of consciousness monologue composed in italics: “Falling; losing ground, having the rug pulled out from under you, being pushed over the edge, catch me I’m falling” (2003, 110). Kahane’s use of gerunds in this sentence signals an abrupt departure from her more academic tone, and evokes the sense that her body has taken over the conversation for a brief moment. The loss of control and the loss of boundaries she outlines move quickly from a national trauma to an individual one as Kahane declares: “The fear of falling in all likelihood must be part of our neurobiological makeup” (110). One of the most striking paradoxes of falling as both symbolic and empirical—​a gesture as well as an act—​in the context of 9/​11 is how people describe the falling bodies that made that tragedy one of the most awfully spectacular events in the twenty-​first century. Those who witnessed those moments register both horror and highlight the weird beauty of it all, articulating the simultaneous possibility of a terrible fate and a sense of redemption. One survivor after another begins describing the “falling” bodies and then stops to revise their language, substituting the term “flying” in order to acknowledge some aspect of clarity of purpose in the people’s appearances as they dropped


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out of the sky. Donna Jensen, an office manager who lived and worked in the area, tells us: I looked at what I thought was a piece of debris, and it wasn’t. It was a person. He was a young man. Remember, I was very close. I could see him very clearly. He was thin and he had a white shirt with long sleeves and a black tie and black pants and a belt and dark hair. He was facing in my direction. He was coming down headfirst with his arms up and his legs just out a little bit. I though he looked so nice. He had gotten up that morning and put on those clothes and he looked so nice. He wasn’t struggling at all. He just sailed down. I watched for an instant and then I had to turn away. [ . . . ] After a week or so after September 11, I came to a conclusion about the jumpers. By jumping they were taking their lives back. By jumping, they were taking control over their lives again and that’s why they didn’t struggle. They didn’t jump out of panic. They didn’t jump out of fear. They jumped because that was how they took their lives back. I think that’s why it was so beautiful. When I saw that first man fall, he was so graceful and so beautiful and so courageous. (Clark, 2011, 50–​52) The person Jensen is describing could easily be the one in the iconic image by AP photographer Richard Drew of a man dropping vertically head-​first, perfectly bisecting the twin towers still standing behind him. One of the most memorable images of the human collateral of 9/​11, this photo was dubbed “Falling Man” and appeared in the New York Times the morning after the towers fell. In the two days following it was distributed both nationally and internationally. In an article for Esquire magazine tracing the ripple effects of that image, Tom Junod begins describing the man in the photo: “Although he has not chosen his fate, he appears to have, in his last instants of life, embraced it. If he were not falling, he might very well be flying. He appears relaxed, hurtling through the air. He appears comfortable in the grip of unimaginable motion” (2004, 211). The synchrony of the body and motion witnessed by many that bright, clear morning of 9/​11 is not a result of any direct causal connection, but rather of a strategic alliance formed in the accelerating momentum of an unpremeditated descent. These falling bodies may not have chosen their fate, but they have clearly aligned themselves with it. Falling begins with a loss of control; it requires a giving up of individual will. At the same time, however, falling creates an opportunity to connect with forces greater than any one person, including the pull of gravity. Witnesses to the falling bodies that morning recognized the calm grace inherent in this acceptance of one’s fate, which is why Jensen was moved to describe the first body she saw as “so graceful and so beautiful and so courageous.” Even though they hold different perspectives regarding the question of fate and choice

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(at what precise moment does one choose one’s fate in these circumstances?), both Jensen and Junod describe an extraordinary synchrony of body and motion in the midst of a terrible descent. Paradoxically, the human experience caught in Drew’s photo and Jensen’s words provide a moment’s suspension—​temporally and conceptually—​in which to assess other potential lessons of that fall. While it is true that falling can trigger automatic physical reflexes, it is also important to recognize that our reactions to falling are highly mediated by a whole matrix of personal and cultural associations. In our national imaginary, the fall of the twin towers signaled a deeper anxiety—​the disastrous failure of national security, the abject leveling of buildings, lives, and ambitions, the sense that as Americans we were increasingly vulnerable and no longer immune to global political violence. When Claire Kahane speaks about the rude awakening to our national vulnerability as a result of 9/​11, she invokes an epic, even biblical, phrase: “we were falling into a new knowledge” (2003, 110). Shifting the perspective of her sentence from that proverbial fall from grace to one that lingers in the action of the gerund (falling), I find myself coming back to the question of what kinds of knowledge or skills could intentional falling provide? Is there a way to think about falling outside of the usual conventions of failure without abstracting or idealizing that motion? Drew’s photograph is one of the series of artworks, films, and performances that T. Nikki Cesare Schotzko analyzes in her book Learning How to Fall: Art and Culture after September 11 (2015). Her first chapter, “If Not Falling Then Flying,” traces the ways in which twenty-​first century images of falling became laden with symbolic meaning referencing both the falling and failing of 9/​11. Schotzko suggests that by witnessing these re-​presentations of falling such as the photo of “Falling Man,” we touch a communal sensibility, following a thread of intersubjectivity in order to experience that fall “with” the other. She explains: “It might not be falling that marks the new millennium but falling-​through. It might not be falling, scrambling for balance among a postmodern synecdoche of missed steps and lost signifiers, that might mark this next historical and cultural epoch, but a falling-​through these synecdoches toward a potentiality of meaning: the meaning of one man’s fall that becomes the meaning of our fall through the negative space left after September 11” (57). I am interested in this concept of “falling-​through” as well as that of a communal “falling with” that Schotzko presents here. But while she at times collapses the distinction between a fall and falling—​the impact and the action—​I want to hold onto the ongoing potential that spreads out from the gerund. What does falling as an ongoing and continuous process (a state of being) have to teach us about the end result? In addition, what can falling tell us about the moment of flying within the descent? Embodiment exceeds the visible, bringing us into the realm of feeling. Dancers know this. Although we base our work in the material conditions of the body, we are not limited to them. Expressivity requires an engagement beyond the pedestrian, to the ephemeral. From the skin into the soul. That is why movement


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becomes a metaphor for everything that doesn’t stand still, including life itself. Perhaps this is also why death brings out the dancing in so many cultures—​we mourn the loss at the same time that we sense the possibility of an invisible companionship as long as we keep moving. Falling hints at a physical absence while calling forth another kind of presence—​f lying—​as it leads us beyond the visual world into the proprioceptive one. Fallen is a dance/​ theater piece built on the echoes between individual embodied remembrances and cultural memory. The performance begins on a darkened stage. A  sliver of light expands across the space to reveal a figure hanging midair. He slowly turns and descends as a voice recalls: I saw photos of people falling. People who had jumped from a burning building knowing they would die when they reached the ground. People who had chosen death by gravity over death by fire. What I was struck by is the shape of each of their bodies as they fell. Each told a different story. I looked at those photos for a long time, trying to imagine the feelings in one’s body at the moment when jumping from that building would make more sense than staying. . . the rush of looking out the broken window at the street far below. A sense of space—​a very big space. How would I feel? How would I fall?6 A 2002 collaboration between choreographer Jess Curtis (whose dance company is called Gravity) and the members of fabrikcompanie, Fallen works across a series of falling narratives, including falling into being (a reverse Icarus myth), falling in love, and falling and flying, before directly addressing the falling bodies of 9/​11. The piece begins with a dark story of a baby bird who must hatch out of the egg and learn to fly before he falls to the ground. Interspersed with slow, gestural movements and dark, moody musical accompaniment, these various stories underscore that particular combination of pleasure and fear embedded in many of life’s risks. In dreams, I am on the top of the tree when it starts to fall. I feel the momentum building and the wind rushing past me. I open my arms and they catch the wind . . . I am still falling, but falling horizontally, buoyed up. Fear becomes excitement, excitement becomes a kind of ecstatic oneness with the air . . . I am not afraid. The elegiac voice-​over in this performance operates as a kind of guided meditation, asking the audience to reflect on their own bodily experience and memories of falling—​and perhaps flying as well.

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Falling Behind and Falling Down Before, however, I continue with this discussion of ways to re-​envision falling, I need to make one thing clear. In affirming that a bodily practice can ground our angst and teach us to survive the physics of a fall or the trauma of certain situations, I  do not mean to belittle the devastating effects of personal, economic, or civic loss. As someone whose father lost his job when I was a senior in high school, I am deeply aware of the unsettling effects of personal and familial upheaval—​the feeling of having the floor suddenly drop out from under you as yesterday’s expectations (of college, retirement, paying off the house) evaporate in midair. When I was a little girl, my mother’s favorite word was “precarious.” Every time I put a glass down on the counter, she would come and adjust it further to the center, saying it looked a bit “precarious” where I had placed it. She frequently yelled at me to get down from my favorite perch in the apple tree in our backyard—​it was too “precarious.” The term functioned like a mantra; it was the way she registered a deeper fear of falling behind economically or socially. Born in 1925, my mother’s childhood was marked by her father’s financial demise. I still have the ring with the blue glass that had once held my grandmother’s diamond. They sold it one winter when heat was more important than dazzle. Like many in her generation, my mother religiously saved rubber bands from the daily newspaper, plastic bags from the dry cleaner, and saltines from the lunch counter. Our garage was filled with canned food—​just in case we ran out of money before the next paycheck. Long before precarity became a buzzword for academics, my mother worried about things falling apart and whether we could afford to get them fixed. In his book Nice Work If You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times, sociologist Andrew Ross compares the Great Depression with the Great Recession. He argues that while the financial uncertainty of the 1930s was the result of the “collapse” of the capitalist system, today’s precarity is actually an “exercise in capitalist control.” “It is most often used as shorthand for the condition of social and economic insecurity associated with post-​Fordist employment and neoliberal governance, which not only gives employers leeway to hire and fire at will, but also glorifies part-​time contingent work as ‘free-​agency,’ liberated from the stifling constraints of contractual regulation” (2009, 34). Ross notes that this system makes us all “skillful jugglers” of jobs and “contortionists of flexibility.” Cultural studies scholar Lauren Berlant also takes up the theme of precarity in her 2011 book Cruel Optimism, articulating how “neoliberal economic policies mobilize” an underlying sense of instability that is affective and all consuming. “This instability requires  .  .  .  embarking on an intensified and stressed out learning curve about how to maintain footings, bearings, a way of being, and new modes of composure amid unravelling institutions and social relations of


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reciprocity” (197). Over and over again, her language highlights the embodied experience of precarity, as she looks to a “proprioceptive history” to frame the imposed shifts in our cultural embodiment. Losing one’s “footing” or trying to maintain or regain “footings” is the new dance of the underclass. Instability can be thought of as the dark side of flexibility, and whether you find this type of vestibular mobility refreshing or scary depends on which side of the political economy you collect your wages. Movements can either be forced or self-​initiated, but the resulting neurological experience is radically different. For instance, within the “restructuring” (read: corporate takeover) of the small family-​owned trucking firm where my brother worked for well over a decade, he went from having a secure job with sick leave and a health plan (including vision and dental) to being an “independent” operator with zero protection and no benefits, on top of which he had to pay his own liability insurance. This in addition to having numerous out-​of-​pocket expenses such as his gas, tolls, and workers before getting reimbursed, oftentimes weeks later. Like many “flexible” workers, he found himself working longer hours for much less money. As any trained dancer or athlete knows full well, too much “flexibility” in the joints or stretch in the muscles is often a sure recipe for injury. The language of precarity is corporeal in nature, and it would behoove us to pay attention to the bodily implications of this dynamic as well. Perhaps then, it is not surprising that within six months of this “transition” my brother had dislocated his shoulder and promptly found himself unable to work. Since he was now “independent,” he had no sick leave and thus no income. Vulnerability, like flexibility, feels very different when it is forced upon a person by economic circumstances, disability, or racism. Even when his injury had healed, my brother was unable to return to his previous position because he had been summarily replaced. On top of that intertwined physical and economic stumble, his son then fell while roller-​blading and had to be hospitalized and have a skin-​graft. That outstanding bill (he had no insurance) would dog my brother for the rest of his too-​short life. Economic instability has been a theme in the lives of working class people long before it became the concept of precarity in academic discourse. But what is peculiar about its role at the end of the twentieth century and in the beginning of the twenty-​first is the ways in which money and selfhood became increasingly interpolated. In Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, Scott Sandage documents the moment in the nineteenth century when the term failure, which used to mean simply “going broke,” became an indicator of moral identity. “Back in the 1800s, the word portrayed an economic reality, similar to how bankruptcy operates today as a measure of financial accounting rather than personal virtue. Soon, however, the strivers of the industrial revolution made ambition a moral code, thus reframing the country’s core declaration of rights as ‘life, ambition, and the pursuit of happiness’ ” (2005, 14). What is interesting is how enduring

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that shift has been. Sandage notes: “Failure had become what it remains in the new millennium:  the most damning incarnation of the connection between achievement and personal identity. ‘I feel like a failure.’ The expression comes so naturally that we forget it is a figure of speech: the language of business applied to the soul” (4–​5). Jason King’s contribution to the Women and Performance issue on falling is entitled “Which Way is Down: Improvisations on Black Mobility.” In this meditation on the politics of climbing the social ladder, King (a performer and cultural critic who specializes in contemporary music) notes how fragile the concept of social mobility is in the African ​American community. Falling is downward mobility, descent. Unless one subscribes to the fiction of the bottomless pit, at the end of the fall is inevitably a bottom, a floor, basement, earth, ground. To fall suddenly is to lose direction, footing. Slipping, stumbling, and tripping are all performances of disorientation, de-​anchoring, rootlessness; they precursor the fall or the slide (the gliding fall) or the tumble (the rolling fall) or the flop (the thudding fall). (2004, 27) Through examples from literary and musical works as well as popular songs, King demonstrates how the “down and out” is a geography repeatedly invoked in African American popular culture. This is particularly true of the blues, that quintessential rhythm of the dispossessed. For King, being “low” speaks to the fragility of support in communities that are systematically marginalized. Nonetheless, in the midst of this very real fear of losing socio-​economic status is a redemptive focus on the up. “Every opportunity to fall becomes an opportunity to rise” (29). Citing examples from history and popular (Tina Turner), poetic (Maya Angelou), and political (Malcolm X) cultures, King points out how much the black community invests in the rhetoric of verticality and links it to racial uplift. “Uprightness surpasses upward mobility—​which takes a directional metaphor to index class or status aspiration—​in that it calls forth ideals of moral virtue” (32). King traces how this trope of uprightness poses its own rigidity (“Indeed, sinners fall.”) and sets up a problematic correspondence between uprightness and activism. Shifting the directional emphasis of Bob Marley’s “get-​up, stand-​up” (after recognizing, via Michelle Wallace, its inherent masculinist bias), King proposes that we keep the activist nature (keep moving!) but rethink the Christian insistence on the vertical as necessarily virtuous. Here he cites various examples of African American culture that recuperate the fall or stumble by re-​incorporating a hint of its power to stay “below the radar.” These celebrated movement repertoires include “getting down,” the “cool” street walk of b-​boys in which there is a slight drop to one side in the stride, getting “into


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the groove” of the funk scene, the whole “down-​low” phenomenon, as well as voguing’s fabulous signature gestures in the final “death drop.” He finds a useful ambivalence in these moves that point downward, and suggests, finally, that “No dead-​end is really an end, no fall is really a fall, just an opportunity to (re) move” (43). King’s refiguring of the politics of verticality, is echoed by Judith Halberstam, whose book The Queer Art of Failure encourages the improvisational possibilities of what she calls “low theory.” “Under certain circumstances falling, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world” (2011, 2–​3). Halberstam’s examples in this book run the gamut from “high” art world edginess in the work of Judie Barber to “low” popular animations marketed for kids such as Toy Story or Finding Nemo. Looking to the silly and nonsensical as well as the bizarre and macabre, Halberstam suggests that we pay attention to “local” kinds of intelligence and “undisciplined” ways of knowing (which, of course, have their own standards of skill and mastery). I too am interested in forms of knowing and being that “queer” our sense of up as good and down as bad. As will become increasingly clear over the course of this book, I  believe in the importance of spending time lying, rolling, and crawling across the ground, connecting to the support of gravity through our whole bodies. This kind of knowing refuses many of the social, economic, or sexual norms of twenty-​first-​century American culture. It also requires a great deal of practice and patience as we confront the rigid edifice of society’s expectations about what constitutes success. In order to embrace alternative ways of being—​to practice more failure—​we need to explore the horizontal dynamics of communion and collaboration that challenge the traditional hierarchies of verticality, mastery, independence, and virtuosity. As Halberstam suggests, shifting our perceptions sideways allows us to open our awareness to the kinds of coherence that we might not “normally” see. Situations that appear disorderly or sound chaotic may, in fact, be connected by bodily exchanges or physical rhythms that take time to perceive because they are not formally visible. This is true of children’s games on the playground and jazz improvisation, to mention a few organizational forms that are constantly evolving, flexible, and multifaceted. Similarly, if we want to embrace falling, we have to train our bodies to give up a certain kind of conscious control and learn how to stay calm as we release into the ground. It is true, this kind of disorientation can be scary; but it can also open up the possibility of a shift in perspective, especially if our bodies have experience with other kinds of navigational systems. Indeed, I believe that we can consciously cultivate a body that relishes the perspective gained in being off-​balance and does not tense up when that support shifts.

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Falling with Support If failing is to “fall short” in some way, then perhaps falling and failing can become important dynamics in a life-​performance that seeks to highlight the productive moments of vertigo and disequilibrium. Over time, even my most timid students learn to find the pleasures inherent in these possibilities of “falling short.” Connecting her physical experiences with a psychological disposition, one student comments in her journal: “I need to stop expecting to be comfortable all the time and adjust to feeling unsure and acting regardless. It’s only by taking the plunge, by walking on the verge and risking falling in, that I can even expect to accomplish anything real and meaningful” (Lisa Neumann 2010). I too am convinced that if we can learn to experience falling with curiosity rather than fear, this bodily knowledge might help us navigate everyday life experiences of disorientation with a bit more existential, not to mention physical, grace. Contact Improvisation is not for everyone. But what we have learned through this practice reinforces what scientific studies and rehabilitation therapists have found. If our bodies learn how to approach the world with less fear of falling precisely because we have learned how to fall correctly, channeling the momentum of the descent into another way of moving, we find an existential relief as well. But we do not need to forge this path alone. Falling with attention to support, the support of a friend, our communities, even the support of the sky, can help ease our falls—​personal, financial, or national. Often discussions about our social safety net devolve into polemics that assume an all-​or-​nothing approach to governmental assistance in which one is either a “welfare mom” on the couch watching TV or a “self-​made man” who never needs anyone’s help. But really the critical issue here is less about how much support, but more about its strategic timing. It is certainly true that a little bit of funding for early intervention and good childhood education can go much further in supporting the cultivation of a responsible adult than any amount of money spent on getting someone off opioids or out of the prison pipeline. The same logic holds for physical support as well. One of the ways I get my students more comfortable with the experience of falling is to have them fall in a circle of people. This is like the classic “trust” fall exercise, although very often that exercise is taught in corporate team-​building workshops with the directive to be “as stiff as a board”—​an approach, needless to say, which is extremely counter-​productive. I  sometimes play with leaning away from a thin tree branch, just to feel how much support I can get from a delicate twig. It is quite stunning to realize that given at the right moment (before momentum has begun to take over) a little support can go a long way. After my students have become quite skilled at engaging their proprioceptive sense and playing with gravity and balance, I will have students form circles of people. I  tell students to enter the circle of people and stand tall and yet not


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rigid, engaging a slight suspension towards the sky before feeling in which direction their body is going to fall. This is the moment of giving up control by being willing to experience what will happen and not direct the outcome (see Inset #3 Falling in a Circle). Interestingly, this suspension of expectations happens not during the fall itself, but rather in the moments before. Generally speaking, if

Inset #3  Falling in a Circle

(n.b. This exercise is similar to what is commonly known as a “trust circle” but with some important modifications. It should be done in the spirit of a group activity and not an isolated exercise.) Begin with a close circle of six or seven people. Have one person enter to stand in the center of the circle. The person in the center should stand tall but not rigid, with their feet planted on the ground, ankles relaxed. I like to give the person in the center a moment to get used to the space and to play with the small dance of balance. Reaching the top of their heads towards the sky in a momentary suspension (inhalation), they can fall (exhalation) in any direction. Especially at the beginning, I suggest that the supporters stand closer to the person in the center, so they can catch their weight while it is still suspended, before it becomes too heavy to support easily. Those on the edge of the circle might want to stand with one leg slightly ahead of the other. Their arms and hands should be in front, relaxed but at the ready. As the person in the center begins to first suspend and then fall, it is important to receive their body weight for a split second before one begins to resist and push against them to keep them from falling. (Otherwise the faller does not feel supported, just pushed around.) As the group becomes more facile with falling and supporting, the people in the circle can give the person in the center a bit more space, allowing them to fall further in each direction. Some basic things to remember when trying this exercise: 1. As you fall backwards, make sure that your ankles don’t clench up, so that you resist the tendency to lift the fronts of your feet. Try to keep the soles of your feet on the ground at all times. Also, don’t look down and don’t close into your body energetically. Use your inhale to expand into space. 2. It is important for the group to work together. Everyone is responsible for each catch: Two people can catch together, and the faller can always extend an arm (or even a leg) towards the people on the other side of the circle from the direction in which they are falling.

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we try to choose which direction in which to fall, we forsake that moment of suspension that serves to make the fall open and our descent expansive. Although I  instruct the partners in the circle to stand pretty close and catch the faller before their weight accumulates too much momentum, gradually, as both faller and catchers become more comfortable with one another, the catchers can step back, giving the faller the opportunity to enjoy the experience of falling before being caught. To launch oneself into a process of becoming (which is always an unbecoming—​ precisely because our bodies never stay in one place) is an interesting conundrum. Taken seriously, it can expand our definition of will as domination into a notion of will as a willingness to submit to an experience, the outcome of which is unknown. This is the side of falling that has to do with faith—​not in the religious sense, but as a sensibility that sustains our explorations of the unknown. I  have always felt that falling is connected to grace, to a letting go of control just long enough to feel the suspension of disbelief. Intriguingly, the twentieth-​ century philosopher Simone Weil also connects gravity with grace, in the collection of her writings edited and published posthumously under the title Gravity and Grace (1952). In the title essay, she reframes grace not as an ascension (in the Christian sense of the word), but rather as “the law of the descending movement.” “To lower oneself is to rise in the domain of moral gravity. Moral gravity makes us fall towards the heights” (48). Like Weil, I believe that falling is best conceived not as a descent from the heights of paradise, but rather as a release into the support of the ground. Here we return to the potential of Contact Improvisation to help us understand something critically important. Although a lot of professional work in Contact Improvisation focuses on the virtuosity of the up—​awesome spinning lifts that sail around the room—​to my mind its truly radical potential at this historical juncture lies in the physical training that celebrates the down, dwells on the floor, revels in the process of rolling, sinking, and crawling. Through these kinesthetic experiences that orient towards gravity, Contact can give us a sense of resiliency that not only helps us survive the inevitable falls of life, but also rescues us from the relentless ascension and striving for success that marked the late twentieth century. This practice could help us recognize what the body instinctively knows, that falling can guide us to a state of grace—​if we are willing to take the risk.

2 Falling Disorientation Suspension Gravity Resilience Connection I could hear voices in the distance. The group chants and blurred shouting as well as the police orders bellowing out from the loudspeakers all mixed together into a cacophony of sounds in a language I didn’t understand. Walking by the many dark blue police vans parked on the side streets, I  should have realized that the day’s demonstrations were heating up beyond their usual ebb and flow of provocations and restraint. Since I had memorized only the most direct route to the studio where I was teaching, I was reluctant to try to figure out another route there. I passed banks that had been burned out, buildings that had been vandalized, and stores whose windows were shuttered with boards. It seemed that every vertical surface was covered with graffiti. As I  turned the corner, I could see a stream of people marching towards Syntagma Square, the central plaza in Athens, where the Greek parliament was in session, discussing the austerity measures required by the European Union’s latest bailout. The atmosphere was chaotic; periodic stand-​offs between the demonstrators and the police in riot gear increased the tension. Reports passed by word of mouth as well as through social media, fueling rumors about what was happening inside. Periodically waves of people surged forward to try to occupy the main building. Suddenly the police began to fire tear gas into the crowd and there was a spontaneous human combustion, with people running every which way in panic. I pulled my scarf over my face and ducked through whatever space I could find. Moving quickly, navigating by feel more than sight, I managed to get through the thickest part of the crowd. By the time I arrived at the studio twenty minutes later, my heart was still beating fast and jet lag was the furthest thing on my mind. 49


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I begin with this vertiginous moment of being swept up in a political demonstration in an unfamiliar city in order to trace its somatic implications. What is interesting to me about this experience is how my embodied cognition immediately took over. I didn’t consciously decide how to react or think about which way to go. Once the tear gas canisters began to spew their contents, I just started moving—​sliding through a gap over to one side, and then shifting back to find a sliver of an opening between the road and the sidewalk, taking one step on the curb to eek past a big man and the next step back on the pavement to avoid a police barrier. My heightened physical response-​ability at that moment was based, I believe, in my training in Contact Improvisation, particularly its emphasis on navigating states of disequilibrium. Time and time again, my experience has convinced me that we are able to handle situations that initially look scary and seem out of control if we consciously allow our bodies to operate without interference from our directorial mind. An initial fearful response to being knocked off balance or when encountering a confusing situation can shift if I just focus my attention on physical sensations. With my proprioception primed, I  find I can accommodate a level of chaos that would definitely boggle my mind. Over the course of this chapter, I  argue that these kinds of moments of disorientation—​be they personal, communal, economic, or political—​can become opportunities to rethink our habitual ways of being in the world. As I continue to explore the interconnectedness between the physical and the psychological, I present embodied practices that underscore how disorientation productively shifts our perspective from a focus on visibility and stability to a sensibility energized by proprioception and instability. In addition, I will trace the thought-​filled implications of experiences that involve shifting orientations, getting lost, embracing the unforeseen, and moving in between states of knowing and unknowing. This practice of dwelling in the unforeseen requires a tolerance for ambiguity and conjures a state of being that is at once open to the world around us and grounded in our own sensory experience. Navigating disorientation through the body can teach us to bring what is behind to the front, or to turn around and perceive what may have been hiding all along in the background—​just on the edge of our sight. Thus, it can also destabilize the positions of center and margin, allowing us to attend to the shifting currents of political or cultural contexts differently. The experience of being caught in a political demonstration took place in the spring of 2012, when I traveled to Greece for seven weeks of teaching contemporary dance classes, somatic workshops, and theory seminars across the country. It was at the height of the economic crisis—​a time when banks were threatening to close, politicians were grandstanding, the European Union was intent on imposing draconian austerity measures, people were demonstrating daily, and the position of Greece in the world wavered once again. (In fact, I later learned that many of my Greek friends assumed that I would back out of my plans because of the deepening instability and violence in the country.) The

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usual governmental funding for the performing arts schools and productions dried up completely and instantaneously. Nonetheless, many dancers, directors, and theater practitioners continued to work on their projects as best they could. As a dance advocate and teacher, I had decided to fashion my own version of a “Dancers without Borders” program, offering to pay my own way to Athens and then teach in exchange for room and board. Since nobody was getting paid, very little actual money exchanged hands during this time. I was able to barter my time for a basic sustenance. Although I was not paid by any specific institution, it seemed that I was housed in hotels and fed in restaurants as a way for these businesses to work off the back taxes they owed the government. Interestingly enough, I found that the disorientation of a monetary crisis created the space for a reorientation of activities based on communal exchange rather than capitalist competition. Money was tight, forcing our imaginations to open. While I  was there, I  taught a wide range of groups:  from pre-​professional students to amateur theater enthusiasts who were making community theater in an abandoned state building, from university students to an intergenerational collection of adults in a private ballet school (complete with purple teddy bears in pink tutus painted on the walls), not to mention professional dancers in Athens and Thessaloniki. I thought of my journey as a kind of dancing triage meant to stem the tide of desperation pouring over the dance community in Greece at the time. Having spent a decade crafting a physical practice designed to help people find their ground in the midst of falling buildings and economic insecurity, I was hoping to share my insights on the potential of this training to facilitate both physical healing and political mobilization. It had been my experience that crises can either bring people together to share resources and support one another, or create an environment where different groups hunker down in separate corners and eye one another with suspicion. I was hoping to do my little part to promote the possibility of the former. When I worked with the Greek pre-​professional dancers, I found that many continued to train for a formal and technical virtuosity. Given what was happening outside in the streets, this drilling of arms and legs in front of a mirror seemed to be a pretty empty exercise in corporeal discipline. It also struck me that many of these dancers were expending much of their energy in a relentless cycle of self-​criticism. I  asked these students to write me a “Dear Ann” letter detailing what they want to get out of dancing and what they have to give to dancing. These letters were extraordinary to read (I still have them!), and I found that in general the students were eager to articulate the connections between movement and meaning, dancing and the world. One wrote, “dance is a way to propose new relationships or explore new social co-​ordinations,” including those of artistic and political communities. After the second day of a workshop for professional dancers in Athens, a participant come up to me to talk. She was in her early thirties and had danced


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abroad for a while, but recently decided to come back to Greece. She told me that she felt that as a Greek, the world would rather she just stop existing, that she just lay down and die. She hastened to add that she didn’t feel that way as an artist—​just as a Greek person. I  asked her to question that separation of identities and to think about the ways in which she could engage her Greek citizenship as a dancer. In fact, I asked all the participants to find bridges between the physical training that we were engaging in the studio and their political response-​ability. We took up these issues in motion—​shifting in between and around one another as we mobilized our pelvises and our imaginations. In her short essay “Embodying the Crisis: The Body as a Site of Resistance in Post-​Bailout Greece,” Ioanna Tzartzani speaks to the disorientation of those years in Greece by quoting Naomi Klein in a 2013 interview posted on Eleutherotypia’s website. “The state of shock that is so easy to exploit is a state of confusion. It’s the panic that sets in when things are changing very, very quickly, when the story is lost” (2014, 41). Tzartzani argues that contemporary dance works on two levels to counter this sense of “shock” and the resulting immobilization. The first level is the basic fact of bodies in action—​moving, protesting, dancing. She notes an uptake in general exercise during this period, especially in cycling and running, and sees this as “both an antidote to depression and a powerful site of resistance.” “Taking control of one’s body works as a self-​protective mechanism” (42). In addition, Tzartzani sees contemporary Greek choreography as portraying the specific circumstances of marginalized bodies (including those of migrants), thereby taking control of their own story and crafting new, alternative narratives. War, migration, homelessness, economic destabilization, long-​term illness, or suddenly finding yourself tagged an “enemy of the state”—​all these situations are fundamentally disorientating. And yet as Tzartzani emphasizes, the intentional activation of our embodied experience can lay the groundwork for affective performative and effective political responses. What we will discover in this chapter on disorientation is connected to what we found in the last chapter on falling: certain physical practices set up a psychic tolerance for dealing with confusion, being off-​balance, or feeling uncomfortable—​paving the way to respond to disorientation with curiosity rather than reacting with fear.

Moving through Space I often begin my Contact Improvisation workshops by asking the students to take a walk through the space (see Inset #4 Moving through Space). Moving in and among the students, I call out directions. (First, however, I have to convince them that they do not need to stop and look at me in order to be able to hear me. I remind them that sound is three-​dimensional and that they can hear my instruction without stopping to directly face me.) I ask them to speed up just

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Inset #4  Moving through Space

(n.b. This is an exercise that is best done with a large group of people with plenty of time to explore each instruction. Ideally this group improvisation lasts about 15 to 20 minutes.) Begin walking in the space. Walk fast enough to get some energy flowing and your heart pumping. Keep that pace and resist slowing down to a more comfortable stroll. Feel how the walking can be used to warm up your feet. Allow the soles of your feet to spread out with each step. Allow your weight to connect with the floor, feeling its responsiveness to each step. (Imagine that you are walking with instead of on the floor/​earth, such that on each step your foot expands to caress the floor.) Next bring your attention to the joints of the ankles, knees, and hips, trying to keep them open and responsive, which will help to activate the synovial fluid. Feel how moving backwards, sideways, or in a circle brings your weight on the edges or heels of your feet. Use the walking to awaken your whole body, keeping an awareness of the energetic line from sky to earth flowing through your body as you are moving. Begin to notice the walls, windows, floor, and ceiling of the room as you pass by. Relax your eyes, and try to take it all in without slowing down or getting distracted by specific visual details. For instance, you can recognize the people in the room as you pass them without staring directly at them. It is not that you avoid their gaze, but you don’t have to get caught up in it. Yes, it is ok to smile. Keep moving, keep breathing as you begin to change directions, moving forward, backward, sideways, or in a spiral. Again, don’t slow down, keep your walking pace as you shift directions. Notice how you can either move in the same direction, say north, while shifting facings (from front, to side, to back, to side), or you can actually change directions, moving towards the north, then south, east, west, etc. Experiment with doing both. Allow yourself to be affected by the energy all around you. Notice the sounds and movement behind you and see the space around you as one big open field, rather than a collection of people in a room. As you continue to move in many directions, bring your attention to your pelvis. See if you can initiate the shifts from your pelvis rather than from your legs such that you do not consciously decide to turn forwards or backwards. (This is not the same as swinging your hips, however.) Experiment with allowing your pelvis to be affected by what is happening in the space, feeling the buoyancy of your pelvis, as if you were in the ocean, being tossed by the action of the waves. If someone passes very close to you, their motion will most likely affect yours. Try to feel this exchange directly rather than observing its pattern and composing a response. Practice



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being responsive to the waves of energy around you without first thinking about how you should respond. Next, find an opening between two people and move through it. Find another space, and another one. Keep moving through these gaps, playing with not only moving forward through that space, but also seeing what it is like to dart through it backwards or sideways. Recognize what happens in your body if that space closes before you get there. How do you avoid running into someone else? Can you shift your direction fluidly to move into another gap? Can you begin to see the spaces as they open up, rather than projecting your gaze over to a space further away, one that may well be closed by the time you arrive? See if you can find a way to relax into the experience even while you move quickly through the crowd. Try and notice the whole room while you are moving.

enough to get their hearts pumping and the blood flowing through their limbs. As they walk briskly through the space, I ask them to face different directions, moving forward, backward, sideways, and diagonally without changing their pace. I  suggest that they play with curving and banking, observing how it is possible to reroute their trajectory into a spiraling motion rather than abruptly stopping to avoid a collision with someone else. I also encourage them to experiment with moving backwards and call their attention to the non-​visual sensory information that is available to them—​the ways in which they can hear steps and breaths, experience the currents of air as people pass next to them, and feel the vibrations of the floor through their feet. These instructions are all ways to tune the proprioceptive sensibility, bringing their focus to motion rather than vision. At this point in the exercise, things have gotten pretty chaotic in the space, and I encourage people to lead shifts of direction with their pelvis rather than their legs. This can be a difficult skill for many beginning dancers to comprehend in their bodies, but once they “get it,” they feel how it helps connects the center of their weight with gravity and keeps them grounded through their feet even in the midst of the whirlwind of group movement around them. Usually, about ten minutes into the exercise, something magical happens in the room—​the swirling bodies begin to negotiate the improvisation of moving through, among, around, and in between one another without making conscious decisions about where to go next or what to do. When we drop out of our thinking heads and instead mobilize in space from the perspective of our bodies, there is an instinctual flow that is created in which people rarely collide. Similarly, when I am running fast through the woods, I don’t avoid the trees because I consciously “know” that they are solid or because once I ran into a trunk and thus “learned” my lesson.

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I avoid the trees because I am allowing a somatic consciousness to navigate for me and that embodied cognition is faster than my verbal mind can process. At the beginning of the semester, it is disorienting (sometimes distressingly so) to move in a space all the while shifting facings and directions with thirty other people doing the same thing. It is not unusual for people to get dizzy at first. But it helps if we consciously shift our focus from vision to motion. By literally “toning” down their urge to capture and control the world with their frontal vision, these students can begin to experience the sensation of being supported by the space around them. Relaxing their eyes opens up their peripheral vision more fully, allowing them to move through the space with a broader vision. Sometimes, we practice sensing the space with our eyes closed. Other times I suggest that the folks who are wearing glasses take them off in order to experience more fully their vestibular and proprioceptive sensibilities. In Encounters with Contact, Zwoisaint Mears-​Clarke recalls that without her glasses, she lost her sense of balance and support and felt uncomfortable. But eventually she realized that: “my eyes aren’t the only thing I can use to find support to help me stay safe. I have ears; I have skin; I have reflexes; I have bones; I have the constancy of the floor. [ . . . ] The physical connection to the floor is what I use to gain my balance” (2010, 23). The experience of blurring the visual details while attending to the physical nuances of balance becomes a thrilling playground infused with a slight edge of frisson. Some individuals enjoy the pleasures of moving through tight spaces. Others circle around the perimeter of the studio, cautiously venturing through the center only when I specifically invite them to pass through the storm of human bodies. A wave of giddiness sweeps over the space as the students begin to taste the potential of an embodied intelligence—​a physical sensibility—​that operates on a different level than our conscious, decision-​making mind. Through these kinds of movement exercises, my students learn to trust the fact that their bodies hold knowledges and skills not found in the usual sources of visual processing and conscious control. They become more skilled at navigating a certain kind of spatial disorientation. As we are walking and shifting directions, I instruct everyone to begin to find spaces between two people and move through them. “Find another space, move through it. Find another and another. Keep finding places and moving through them.” The studio space takes on the atmosphere of a game as people learn to dart through the opening just before it closes or dissolves. I ask the students to think about what kind of mental and bodily attitude they need to adopt to be able to shift out of the way quickly, rather than the physical determination that insists on barging through an opening that may, in fact, be in the process of disappearing. Encouraging them not to settle into a slower, more comfortable pace, I suggest that they look for spaces as they open up, rather than using their eyes to locate a spot in the distance. This attention to immediate, strategic choices (in the present) helps create a situation where their bodies are mapping spaces


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as they become available instead of planning (in the future) a pathway to follow. I often liken this experience to walking through mid-​town Manhattan during rush hour. If you keep a steady pace, it is relatively easy to find the open spaces in between other people. But the moment you look directly at a person coming towards you, there is a bizarre and awkward choreography that results with each person double-​guessing the other’s moves. Half the time in these situations you have to stop or execute a fancy little two-​step in order not to run into the person who is doing the same thing. In their chapter on “Ebb and Flow” in Thought in the Act: Passages in the Ecology of Experience, Brian Massumi and Erin Manning discuss a similar situation from the perspective of neurodiversity, referring to the sidewalk as a kind of “field effect” in which one’s perception is open to the whole space. The opening is not simply a hole, a lack of something occupying it. It is a positive expression of how everything in the field, moving and still, integrally relates at that instant [  .  .  .  ] There is no time to reflect, no time to focus, assess, and choose. If you focus on one body over another, you see one body and then another—​and not the opening in the field of movement they share. You have to soften your focus, letting the field’s changing configuration dilate to fill experience. You have to let what is normally your peripheral vision take over. (2014, 9–​10) In this situation, the disorientation involved in navigating a moving field reveals the potential of other kinds of orientations to help us move past our habitual models of perception and our desire to find a clear visual picture. Part of gaining fluency with moving quickly while shifting directions is reducing our reliance on vision to map our pathway. If we mobilize the pelvis and our awareness of three-​dimensional space, our center of weight can more easily ride the currents of bodies moving around the room. Rebecca Solnit refers to the pelvis as the “secret theater where thinking and walking meet” (2002, 42). I find this to be a beautiful metaphor for the wholeness of an integrated experience where the head and pelvis work with one mind. I find that moving with the pelvis allows us to be much more agile and resilient as we confront disorientation. Even when I am running or walking up a steep hill, if I focus on my pelvis moving instead of my legs, I find that I use less effort and my legs do not get as tired. Shaped like a bowl, the pelvis is inherently three-​ dimensional and thus can facilitate shifts in different directions much faster than a conscious decision to move three steps forward and one sideways, etc. In a journal entry, former student Andrew Follmann describes the connections between biking and dancing and his growing awareness of how he uses his pelvis to maintain balance.

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The bike supports me, channeling my body through space and my weight through the ground. My body already knew this. It’s my mind that has been catching up, guided by what Contact makes explicit. I knew how to physically lean into a turn, to ride without hands, to throw my weight and weave. However, I did not know (consciously) that all these actions emanate from my hips. Shakira was right, your hips don’t lie. Moving from your hips in biking, Contact, and movement in general puts the director of movement back into the body, instead of the eyes, and as Ann reiterates, sensation and reaction is faster and more precise than attention and reaction. This speaks to why tackling in rugby and wrestling, when split second decisions must be made continuously and without hesitation, both emphasize hip placement and hip momentum. With this conditioning increasing the awareness and responsiveness in my hips, it seems I’ve been preparing to dance Contact my whole life. (2013, 6) While I teach these kinds of activities, I continually emphasize how the pelvis and the head are connected by the spine. Thinking takes place at both ends and energy can pass back and forth from pelvis to head very quickly. It is a process of thinking with and in the body which allows for different kinds of ideas about what it means to orient ourselves in the world. In his book on contemporary improvisation, Landscape of the Now, Kent De Spain notes how one can cultivate a consciousness that is aware of what is going on without directing the action. He calls this state “interactional without being dictatorial” (2014, 168). For master improviser Steve Paxton, the “self” involved in this state is like a “moving target”—​you can’t catch it, but you are aware of its presence. In an interview with De Spain, Paxton comments: “So instead of being a ‘self’ willing a thing to happen, I  become more an interior kind of plurality that’s observing what happens and then crafting the improvisation, crafting the actual performance, which has to do with tipping balances a little bit one way or the other with your consciousness” (88). I want to argue that this shift from a subjectivity that wills things to happen, to one that is willing to experience the world as it is happening—​what Paxton describes intriguingly as “an interior kind of plurality”—​is a shift from seeing lines or figures in space to seeing space between the lines. The flexibility engaged by shifting in many directions allows us to meet disorientation with both our bodies and our minds.

Vision and Perception In Suspensions of Perception, his brilliant and encyclopedic discussion of how modern culture shaped our ideas about perception, art historian Jonathan


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Crary outlines what he calls a “genealogy of attention.” Although he explores at length the development of new visual technologies over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Crary refuses the prevailing notions about the primacy of visuality in the modern age. Instead he argues for a more nuanced and cross-​modal analysis of perception, one that includes an awareness of embodiment. At the same time, however, he introduces the myriad ways in which structures of attention were implicated in the “paradoxical intersection” of a “concentrated attentiveness within the disciplinary organization of labor, education, and mass consumption and an ideal of sustained attentiveness as a constitutive element of a creative and free subjectivity” (1999, 1–​2). Through a multi-​layered cultural analysis that positions the work of modern artists such as Manet, Seurat, and Cézanne within the new regimes of economic production and visual reproduction, Crary demonstrates how “attention” (as in “Pay attention young lady!”) became a highly managed precept that insidiously served up social constructs packaged as individual choices. He notes that by the end of the nineteenth century, the term “perception” was largely interpreted to mean a focus that “catches” or “takes captive,” highlighting the connections between the West’s visual economies and colonialist projects of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the midst of Crary’s chapter on “Modernity and the Problem of Attention” is a pseudo-​ scientific illustration of “attention” from a late eighteenth-​ century edition of Charles Le Brun’s treatise on expression in the human face. The eyes in both the profile and frontal views of this man are fierce, intensely focused. Indeed, his eyes seem to lead the head forward, almost as if they could reach out and grab you. His stare borders on scary and seems to require a great deal of effort in the neck, and yet I  was struck by how similar this illustration is to the way many people use their eyes today. Certainly, as we become more and more attached to our digital media, our eyes have to work hard to hold onto the textual information in front of us. The comment “eyes glued to the screen” is no longer a metaphor, frankly. It is an apt expression for a habit of effortful focusing that affects our whole bodily demeanor. It is completely normal now for someone (usually younger, but not always) to slow down or stop right in front of a group of people coming down a staircase, at the door of an elevator, or on an automated walkway, completely oblivious to the folks (and sometimes the furniture) around them. This is particularly reflected in the lack of mobility at the base of our skull and in our necks. Given our increasing dependence on two-​dimensional screens in a university setting, it should not be surprising that it takes longer and longer to bring students into an awareness of the three-​dimensionality of their bodies in space. This is not only a function of our reliance on digital devices, but also speaks to how we have trained our eyes to function in a very limited straightforward manner.

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Even though Crary’s book was published in the last year of the twentieth century and therefore does not address the proliferation of digital devices and social media outlets that have certainly “captured” our attention these days, his discussion of how new technologies of sound and sight in the nineteenth century created perceptual frameworks that served to isolate people in the name of consumer choice is deeply relevant here. For instance, he includes an image from the newspaper for the 1881 Paris Exposition d’Électricité that features a “telephonic listening room.” In this illustration, the well-​dressed bourgeois men and women are pictured all facing-​in towards the metal attachments equidistantly placed along the wall. The viewer only sees their backs, but the fact that most people have both elbows raised suggests that they are listening with one ear and holding their hand over the other ear in order to focus their attention. Everyone is facing the wall, oblivious to the space of the room or what else is happening behind their backs. Even the folks pictured off to one side, who are waiting for a chance to try out the new machines are looking off into space, not engaging with one another or looking directly at the people in the room. The whole scenario is eerily prescient of our contemporary experience of public space in which, even if we can now face in any direction while on the phone, people all seem to be isolated within their own separate technological closets of sight and sound. Referring to how our attention is mediated, Crary argues that the critical issue is not “an optics of power but an architecture” of it (74–​75). Like the nineteenth century’s stereoscopic or panoramic viewing spaces in which people sat in individual booths facing into an enclosed central column, screens today, according to Crary, are “methods for the management of attention that use partitioning and sedentarization, rendering bodies controllable and useful simultaneously, even as they simulate the illusion of choices and ‘interactivity’ ” (75). In later chapters of this book, I take up in some depth cultural debates about the use of digital devices and how they focus our attention and command our distraction, as well as concerns around the social isolation ironically produced by our increasing connectivity. In this context, I want to return to the studio to articulate how a softening of our visual attention can open up an awareness of peripheral space and its importance in revitalizing our experience of three-​dimensional space. When I send students out into the studio space and ask them to move quickly, shifting directions again and again, the activity challenges their dependence on two-​dimensional visual information as the primary system for comprehending the world. In its stead, my students learn to use other navigating systems, including those of gravity and proprioception. They also learn to use their eyes differently. After standing with our eyes closed and feeling the play of gravity and balance, I ask everyone to raise their eyelids just as if they were opening a blind of a window. This image encourages the students to release their eyes into the backs of their sockets, opening the possibility of peripheral vision (literally seeing with the outer edges of the retina), allowing them to perceive the broader


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landscape spreading out across the space. Peripheral vision is more adaptive than our usual (myopic) straightforward focus, and it is telling that studies of elite athletes have found that they have an extraordinary capacity for peripheral vision. Unlocking the eyes from the effort of trying to “capture” the world can be key in opening up our peripheral vision and encouraging an awareness of the whole space, including what is out there at the margins of our consciousness (see Inset #5 on Peripheral Vision). Generally speaking, as we become less dependent on vision to “find our way,” we become more available to attend to our proprioceptive awareness—​sensing instead of seeing. This training is particularly useful in balancing on one leg, for instance, where it is easy to use one’s eyes to hold onto an object in order

Inset #5  Peripheral Vision

Begin standing upright and tall, feet hip-​width apart. Notice what you see, allowing your eyes to shift wherever they want to. Next close your eyes and sense the space all around you, above and below you. (This is like the beginning of Inset #2 The Small Dance) Take a moment to feel the line of energy from sky to earth running through your spine. Shift back slightly to bring some weight into your heels, and elongate the back of your neck, releasing the jaw slightly down towards your chin. Notice if you are still working the fronts of your eyes, even though the eyelids are shut. This happens all the time; even though we have closed our eyelids, we tend to still strain with the eyes as if we are trying to see. Instead, relax your eyes and allow them to sink more fully into the support of the eye sockets and the back of the head. Bring your attention to your breath, playing with the little shifts of the skull on the spine. (see Inset #1 Yes/​No/​Maybe.) Inhale, and as you exhale allow your eyelids to lift just a bit. Notice the floor and the light, but try to keep an awareness of your three-​dimensionality. Close your eyes again. Inhale, and as you exhale, lift the eyelids more fully, all the while shifting back into your heels. Try to access the visual field around you from the back of your skull. Bring your arms out in front of you and slowly open them to the sides all the while looking forward. Notice when they leave your peripheral vision. Try this a couple times, avoiding the temptation to shift your eyes from side to side to focus on a hand. Close your eyes one final time. Inhale, and as you exhale, open your eyes and begin walking in the room. Try to keep your vision as broad as possible, seeing the space on either side of your body even as you walk forward. Walk around the room, keeping your peripheral vision really wide.

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to secure that balance. Beginning dance students will often stare at themselves in the mirror of the studio in order to balance, which produces a reliance on a frontal, two-​dimensional equilibrium. The minute they close their eyes, or shift their gaze, however, they tend to fall off that balance. If we gently shift our vision from a hard, frontal focus to a wider, peripheral one, however, we find we can more easily move into balancing with eyes closed, because you are already feeling the support of the space all around. As we have seen in the previous chapter, playing with balance activates the neurological mechanisms that allow us to be more comfortable with the edges involved with losing our balance, including falling. It is my experience that opening up our peripheral vision can help us to open our minds as well. As I release the tension in my eyes, I become aware of a wider visual field, one that includes not only my peripheral vision but also the edges of my face and the bridge of my nose. Instead of simply processing the sight of what is in front of me, this shift in orientation affords me a sense of my own location. The kind of three-​dimensional attentiveness that comes from peripheral vision creates the somatic foundation to see ourselves as part of the world rather than seeing the world only from our point of view, which, as we know, can often be quite narrow. In an interview in the early 1980s, about a decade into the development of Contact Improvisation, Steve Paxton discusses the shift away from the primacy of vision. “What you have to do is not to get too involved with visual, you can’t let that sense take over, because it’s one of our most strongly trained and also one of our strongest senses . . . For many people vision is a kind of tool which reaches out and grabs things.” Instead, Paxton speaks to the importance of peripheral vision because it allows for “the possibility of feeling your body very deeply, of having the same sensations that you have with your eyes closed” (1981, 17). In an end-​of-​the-​semester class journal writing, a student in my Contact Improvisation class echoes Paxton’s sentiments: [O]‌ne day after class  I  closed my eyes and noticed something different. The whole sensation of being in the dark had changed. It used to be that closing my eyes meant losing my eyesight, and that was a bad thing, a handicap. But now it was an opportunity, a doorway into a completely new world of hearing and smell and touch. (Fall 2014) The term “peripheral” is defined as external, an outside surface, on the edge. It can also be used with a dismissive tone as meaning less worthy of notice, less important. But I prefer to emphasize the etymological roots of periphery, “to carry around,” suggesting a kind of encompassing that happens by walking around the edge. This understanding of the term can help us to replace our notion of peripheral as marginal with the idea of peripheral as an extension, a broadening of our perspective to include what is on the edge of our vision—​that


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which we carry around on the border of our consciousness. Of course, the simple gesture of turning our heads brings the periphery to the center of our attention. And yet, the echo of its position at the far reaches of our awareness reminds us that we are surrounded by a world (often just beyond our central attention) that calls on us to carry the responsibility for it. Now, to take an etymological leap of faith, I want to propose that periphery might usefully be connected to ambiguity, since ambient also evokes a surrounding and encircling at the edge of the space. The Latin root ambigere holds an intriguing range of meanings, from wander to wonder, from doubt to hesitate, from waver to marvel. It suggests a state of curiosity that vibrates between the two meanings of being lost. In her A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes: “Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing” (2005, 22). Learning how to tolerate both meanings of the word is crucial to exploring the physical and psychic spaces of disorientation. It is indicative of the digital conditions of many people’s lives that they hardly ever look up and look around, experiencing the surrounding environment in a fully three-​dimensional manner. I  once had a student comment on her drive back from home, where she had gone for the weekend. Since her family lived in Ohio, she was familiar with the drive, but normally she used her GPS for navigation. During that weekend, she decided to give up her cell phone and thus had to look at a map for directions, attending to landmarks and road signs in order to “find her way.” It was an extraordinary (and euphoric) experience for her—​ she felt that she actually registered the landscape in her body for the first time, even though she had traveled the same route many times before. My students’ interactions with the world are becoming so completely mediated through hands, eyes, and screens that their bodies are rarely engaged in the process of perception. Even varsity athletes spend most of their non-​training time in front of a screen, and machine automation has made much of the physical labor in rural America repetitious. It seems we need to use our whole bodies less and less in our “modern” lives. Ironically, the lack of integration becomes abundantly clear when students in my classes comment on how wonderful it feels to “be in my body three times a week.” This odd expression occurs with such regularity that I  have been forced to confront the obvious question: where are they the rest of the time? This is not simply my own (admittedly old school) belief in the importance of live communication, but is indicative of precisely what Crary pointed out in his analysis of modern attention—​a situation where we navigate the world via screens (and think we are technologically astute) even though in the process we become less aware of our full, three-​dimensional physicality. When my students say they are happy to be in their bodies three times a week, I believe they are actually referring to a heightened awareness of their own

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proprioception, an important perceptual alternative to our vision, and one that is crucial for dealing with disorientation.

Proprioception Like many of the experiences discussed in this book, proprioception straddles conscious embodiment and cognitive neuroscience. The definition of the term varies widely. My dictionary claims that proprioception is the “unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself.” Those “stimuli” are nerve receptors located in our muscles, joints, connective tissue, and our vestibular system that was discussed in the previous chapter on falling. Cognitive neuroscientists tend to focus on this biological apparatus and the network of nerve impulses to the brain. Psychologists, on the other hand, tend to focus on the proprioceptive system as a combination of visual, tactile, and kinesthetic perception. Rather than mapping onto a visual field with definite positions of front and back, left and right, our proprioception coordinates our actions relative to gravity and a sensibility for near and far. Often referred to as our sixth sense, proprioception is absolutely foundational to our experience of moving our bodies. It is the “feeling” of orienting ourselves in space. Unfortunately, the more we sit in front of our screens, the less we engage our proprioception, including our awareness of the full 360-​degree dimensionality of the world around us. Even when we are exercising on machines in the gym, we tend to “work out” discrete parts of our bodies as isolated units, effectively “dumbing down” the power of this sixth sense. This is extremely unfortunate, for proprioception can help us adapt to different and often difficult situations. In fact, this sensibility thrives on dealing with the unexpected, including the shifts of weight and balance. Besides Contact Improvisation, contemporary movement practices such as parkour, hip hop, capoeira, and swing dancing (to mention a few popular examples) also use a heightened proprioceptive awareness to keep connected to the space or a partner as we spin, roll, jump, flip upside down, or fall. This kind of adaptive movement skill can ground our bodies in ways that help anchor our perception of a world in flux. Connecting bodies to space and people to place, proprioception helps us locate ourselves in the world. In his ambitious book How the Body Shapes the Mind (2005), Shaun Gallagher distinguishes between proprioceptive information, which he sees as neurologically based, and proprioceptive awareness, which he attributes to conscious perceptual experience. Because of its location at the intersection of bodies and cultures, it is our proprioceptive awareness that concerns me in this book. Gallagher concludes this discussion by suggesting that proprioception, when seen as a broad perceptual net, depends on “integrating different modalities of


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sensory information concerning one’s own body as a moving agent in the environment, with the intracorporeal information provided by an internally generated sense of posture and movement” (7). Andrea Olsen identifies interoceptors as receptors “found mainly in the organs, [which] are responsible for monitoring the inner workings of the body, such as blood chemistry, heartbeat, and digestion.” The exteroceptors, according to Olsen, are “found in the skin and connective tissue, [and] are responsible for monitoring the outer environment through ‘touch,’ including several kinds of sensations such as pressure, heat, cold, pain, and vibration” (2002, 57). We are fortunate not to have to consciously attend to most of the proprioceptive information that our bodies process on a second-​ by-​second basis. On the other hand, it is useful to cultivate an awareness of our proprioception, or the sensibility that John Berger calls “corporeal space.” In an extraordinarily profound and poetic short essay on Rembrandt’s paintings, art critic John Berger traces the differences between the artist’s drawings and his paintings—​particularly the late portraits. Whereas in his drawings Rembrandt is a master of proportion, in his paintings this realistic perspective is radically altered. Berger asks: “Why in his paintings did he forget—​ or ignore—​what he could do with such mastery in his drawings?” Alluding to the historical context of Rembrandt’s time, Berger suggests:  “He grew old in a climate of economic fanaticism and indifference—​not dissimilar to the climate of the period we are living through. The human could no longer simply be copied . . . the human was no longer self-​evident; it had to be found in the darkness” (2001, 105). Berger searches for language to address what is not directly visible in Rembrandt’s painting, and postulates that “Something else—​something antithetical to ‘real’ space must have interested him more” (106–​107). Vital yet elusive, palpable yet not immediately clear, this “something else” present in Rembrandt’s work is defined by Berger as a “corporeal space.” Tellingly, this corporeal space is incompatible with architectural, measured space. It is connected to energy, not geometric lines. Berger writes:  “corporeal space is continually changing its measures and focal centres, according to circumstances. It measures by waves, not metres. Hence its necessary dislocations of ‘real’ space” (109). In order to give his readers a sense of the different orientations of this corporeal space, Berger charges us to “leave the museum” and go the emergency room of a hospital. It is there, Berger insists, that we will find: [t]‌he space of each sentient body’s awareness of itself. It is not boundless like subjective space: it is always finally bound by the laws of the body, but its landmarks, its emphasis, its inner proportions are continually changing. Pain sharpens our awareness of such space. It is the space of our first vulnerability and solitude. Also of disease. But it is also, potentially, the space of pleasure, well-​being and the sensation of being loved. (107)

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For Berger, this corporeal space can be felt by touch more clearly than it can be seen by sight, which is why it is the space that nurses occupy more often than doctors. I am intrigued by Berger’s notion of a corporeal space because it incorporates another kind of physical dimension, one that requires a new “way of seeing” to register its potency. Like peripheral vision and proprioception, his notion of “corporeal space” is inherently three-​dimensional, materializing in the midst of our physical exchanges with one another. A Leg to Stand On is the title of Oliver Sacks’s autobiographical reflection on a traumatic fall and his subsequent recovery, and throughout the book he passionately attests to the importance of proprioception in shaping embodied experience. One summer while hiking on a mountain in Norway, Sacks “takes” a brutal fall, breaking a leg and severing muscles in his quadriceps. Once the initial drama of being rescued and flown to England for an operation was over, he discovers—​much to his dismay—​that he has no feeling in his left leg. The lack of proprioceptive sense in that leg brings him a profound sense of alienation. Even though he can see the leg, he cannot feel it and thus he fails to recognize it as part of his own body, at one point literally “throwing” it out of bed. It is clear that for Sacks, this is not primarily a medical predicament; rather it functions as an existential dilemma. He writes: “And indeed it is this ‘muscle sense,’ as it was once called, before Sherrington investigated it and renamed it ‘proprioception’—​it is this sense dependent on impulses from muscles, joints and tendons, usually overlooked because normally unconscious, it is this vital ‘sixth sense’ by which the body knows itself, judges with perfect, automatic, instantaneous precision the position and motion of all its movable parts, their relation to one another, their alignment in space” (1990, 70–​71). In a later passage, Sacks notes that, etymologically speaking, proprioception is related to “proper” and “property.” He connects these linguistic roots with the importance of experiencing a sense of ownership or possession of one’s body. “One has oneself, one is oneself, because the body knows itself, confirms itself, at all times, by this sixth sense” (71). For Sacks, the key moment in his rehabilitation occurred when he began to feel flashes of sensation coursing through his once numb leg, allowing him to (literally) re-​member his body. Although he began to have feeling in his leg, he felt that his recovery was not complete until he was able to functionally use the leg. As he relates his struggle to trust his leg’s ability to support him, Sacks acknowledges that it was not a question of his mind telling his body what to do, but rather of his body being tricked into adapting to a circumstance (someone literally pushed him into the water), which enabled him to use it. It was the competitive drive to swim faster than someone else, or the need to run and catch the bus that motivated the action of using his leg in a way that his conscious mind did not believe was possible. Sacks’s fall forced an awareness of what was previously an unconscious experience and led


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him to realize the crucial importance of proprioception in enacting his sense of self. Sacks’s injury precipitated an existential crisis. He literally could not feel a part of his body, and that was profoundly alienating. Rather than reading the denouement of his narration as a happy return to full function (he could swim, he could run again!), I suggest that this disorienting experience opened up the possibilities of new orientations, including that of a more robust proprioceptive sensibility. By disrupting the assumptions he made about his body’s ability, Sacks’s fall eventually brought him to feel more of its capacity. His story is important to keep in mind as we continue to connect the physical to the metaphysical by weaving our discussions of the empirical into the philosophical.

Feeling Our Way Disorientation is a word that insists on its opposite for meaning. We rarely think about where we are until we have been lost. To be disoriented can mean to lose one’s bearings geographically, or to be undone existentially. But it also hints at a deeper knowledge. In order to understand what orients us, we need to experience disorientation. Embracing disorientation is not the same as feeling totally comfortable with it, of course. Part of the productive tension in the line between panic and total ease is the space made available by our curiosity and the willingness to feel awkward and lost without undue anxiety. In the conclusion to her meditation on shifting orientations in Queer Phenomenology, Sara Ahmed writes: Moments of disorientation are vital. They are bodily experiences that throw the world up, or throw the body from its ground. Disorientation as a bodily feeling can be unsettling, and it can shatter one’s sense of confidence in the ground or one’s belief that the ground on which we reside can support the actions that make a life feel livable. Such a feeling of shattering, or of being shattered, might persist and become a crisis. Or the feeling itself might pass as the ground returns or as we return to the ground. (2006, 157) As Ahmed notes, our sense of ground can become “shattered” by changes in our lives. Whether we are talking about a home, a relationship, a job, or an investment in a particular identity, what was once a stable orientation can suddenly shift, leaving us hanging, not sure which way to turn. Ground is often referred to as a place, a geographic location, or a cultural marker (as in motherland). As a noun, it can slip away; we can lose ground. Or we can think about ground as a verb, a process of grounding ourselves, or of being grounded—​an active

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relationship that connects us with gravity as a stabilizing force, even in the midst of other kinds of disorientation, both spatial and social. Thrown off-​balance, the body skews our sense of direction in ways that may ultimately help us to reframe our politics of location or the cultural organization of space, offering a new slant, so to speak, on the binary of up and down. As we have seen in the last chapter, falling disrupts our equilibrium and insists (sometimes painfully) on a shift of orientation, introducing us to a different perspective from which we might learn once we return to the ground. In order to experience this possibility, however, it is important not to shut off sensation, including the sensation of losing one’s ground. As Nancy Stark Smith notes in her discussion of falling: It has become clear; there is no where we can stay put. Even standing, we execute a continuous fall . . . This is not to say that disorientation, confusion, and dis-​ease have no place in the geometry of balance. They, in fact, stimulate the balancing mechanism. Stimulate us to ask questions. (1979, 3) Here, Stark Smith points to the potential of disorientation to “stimulate” another way of perceiving and thinking that moves beyond our habitual orientations. As a prefix, dis pulls away from the word that follows it. But in the monosyllabic utterance that marks the “other” direction lies a tension—​a tight-​wire of signification—​that sponsors a reflection back to the original point of departure. Being disoriented can be bewildering, but also liberating, sometimes leading to a re-​evaluation of the primacy of certain locations themselves. This re-​positioning suggests a constant process, a verb that refuses the stasis of the noun. The prefix dis not only allows us to look back and begin to understand the unmarked social, cultural, and economic ideologies that structure our movement in the world, but it also leads us forward, helping us imagine the nascent potential of new facings and new futures. Throughout this chapter, I have drawn connections between a physical appetite for moving in many different directions and a mental capacity for handling the unexpected or the unknown. Using examples from my teaching as well as a wide range of critical and cognitive theories, I explored the role of peripheral vision in helping us see what is on the edge of our vision, the pelvis in shifting between places, and proprioception as offering an alternative sense of directionality, one based on three-​dimensional, corporeal space. These physical practices influence our perceptions of ourselves and those around us, allowing us to reframe how we think about and move through the world. Of course, disorientation is not necessarily a radical gesture. It can also provoke a conservative reaction, as can falling. Take, for instance, the reaction of the American government to the attacks on the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. That terrible fall was seen as a failure on many levels


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and created a great deal of disorientation and anxiety, especially in the United States. What got lost in the process of transforming fear into patriotism was the potential for disorientation to mobilize new positions or guide us towards an understanding of our previous moorings. As Sara Ahmed recognizes: “The point is not whether we experience disorientation (for we will and we do), but how such experiences can impact on the orientations of bodies and spaces, [ . . . ] The point is what we do with such moments of disorientation, as well as what such moments can do—​whether they can offer us the hope of new directions, and whether new directions are reason enough for hope” (2006, 158). The introduction to Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology is entitled “Find Your Way.” It begins with a question: “What does it mean to be orientated?” (2006, 1) As a feminist phenomenologist, Ahmed is interested in the emotional affects produced by our bodily habits and the ways in which culture is woven throughout these feelings. She is curious about how our spatial orientations—​the ways we face this direction instead of that—​inform our life choices, including the directionality of sexual desire. Being a dancer with a philosophical bent, I also have thought quite a bit about the cultural ramifications of inhabiting space. But in the slippage between her British tongue and my American one, I tend to drop a syllable, shortening orientated to oriented. Is there is significant distinction between these two words? The digital grammar hounds I consulted debate whether there is much of one. But these linguistic semantics acquire a palpable difference when I enter the dance studio and experience their meanings somatically. In that space, “to orient” feels like something I direct with my own body, while “to orientate” feels like something I participate in—​lines always already mapped out by society. Moving, then, is a negotiation between my own positioning and the geographic or social markers located in the spaces I inhabit. Citing Merleau-​Ponty, Ahmed suggests that bodies are mutually responsive to the world around them. “[B]‌odies do not dwell in spaces that are exterior but rather are shaped by their dwellings and take shape by dwelling” (9). The difference between orienting and orientating plays out in these negotiations between individual sensibilities and cultural conventions. I find it surprising that, given her commitment to queer positionings and the experience of people (migrants, for instance) who frequently find themselves “out of place,” Ahmed’s discussion of directionality reiterates binaries of either/​ or. Throughout the book, she repeatedly invokes the duality of east versus west, left versus right, front or “behind,” up or down, straight or lesbian, direct or deviant. Speaking of life pathways, she calls forth the classic dilemma of coming to a fork in the road. “It is not incidental that the drama of life, those moments of crisis that demand we make a decision, are represented by the following scene: you face a fork in the road and have to decide which path to take: this way or that way” (18). By evoking Robert Frost’s famous trope about the road well traveled and the path less so, Ahmed misses the opportunity to rethink the

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possibilities of open space in relationship to bodies and society. Is there another way to think about moving through the world that doesn’t collapse into the binary options of one way or the other? As Nancy Stark Smith argues in the passage quoted above in this chapter, disorientation can “stimulate the balancing mechanism . . . Stimulate us to ask questions.” Perception, of course, depends on so many circumstances. One of the great joys of learning is the opportunity to engage new ways of perceiving—​ looking, hearing, tasting, touching, moving, and feeling differently. Like changing a habit, however, changing perception is not always so easy. This is because it often means we have to change our expectations as well. And that shift can be immensely disorienting. Our perception of ourselves and other people can change depending on how we focus our attention. Some days we greet our bodies enthusiastically, other days less so. Sometimes the outside world can seem very threatening, other days more welcoming. Interestingly, Ahmed’s final chapter on “Disorientation and Queer Objects” seems to suggest the possibility of orienting in a completely different register. Referencing “Tableau,” a poem by Harlem Renaissance poet Couter Cullen, Ahmed comments on the proximity of bodies (“hooked arm in arm they cross the way, the black boy and the white”) and the ways in which physical closeness can produce a queer effect. “The contact is bodily, and it unsettles that line that divides spaces as worlds, thereby creating other kinds of connections where unexpected things can happen” (169). These “other kinds of connections” are found in the physical practices that train us to experience disorientation not as a problem, but rather as a possibility, one “where unexpected things can happen.” In her discussion of dis/​ orientations, Ahmed references the ways in which subjectivity and space are interrelated in Maurice Merleau-​Ponty’s The Phenomenology of Perception. For Merleau-​Ponty, we do not simply exist in space as a solid object in a void, rather we get “caught up in the world” and we inhabit space inter-​actively. Ahmed quotes Merleau-​Ponty’s description of sudden shifts of perspective that produce what he calls “the vital experience of giddiness and nausea, which is an awareness of our contingency, and the horror with which it fills us” (2006, 269). For those of us used to physically navigating the conditional tense of the unknown in improvisational practices (the “what if?” instead of the “what is”), Merleau-​Ponty’s reaction—​that “horror” of contingency—​may seem a little extreme. But for beginning students walking through a cyclone of people moving every which way, it is a pretty apt description of the combination of pleasure and nervousness that moving through and with spatial disorientation occasions. Because it is not possible to control the situation, but only possible to move in response to it, one has to give up a sense of choosing “this way or that” and instead allow oneself to get caught up in the whirlwind of kinesthetic possibilities. Which is not to say that there is no sense of subjectivity or free will, but rather that it manifests differently and, I would argue, collectively.


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It is interesting to recognize that in French, the word “sens” can mean both direction and sensibility. This linguistic connection between orientation and sensation—​between external and internal—​points to the importance of corporeal perception in cultivating a “sense” of ease with moving through a world in flux. I was recently guest teaching a class for a colleague at work, and I introduced exercises very similar to the ones I have been describing here. After several minutes, we “took a stand” and closed our eyes, feeling the different rhythms of breath, heartbeat, and pulse in various places on our bodies. I called the students’ attention to the interplay of skin and air, gravity and balance. (This is part of the practice of Steve Paxton’s “small dance” that I introduced in the previous chapter.) In addition, I encouraged the students to focus on the support of their internal structures, describing how our upper palate (the top part of one’s mouth), lungs, and pelvic bowl can orient our awareness even with our eyes closed. Later in a class discussion, one student spoke of how unstable and uneasy she felt when we first came to stillness after moving in so many different directions. Once she closed her eyes and felt that internal support, however, she found a “wonderful” (her word) sense of stability, even when she moved through the space again. I love large spaces such as Warner Main, spaces without many straight lines, ones with no mirrors to indicate the front of the studio and a suspended track that curves around an oval. In this inspiring wooden studio, the floor shifts and creaks in response to the weight of each step, and the ceiling is vaulted and several stories high. How might we orient ourselves in this vast open room? What kinds of physical arrangements and social relations become available when bodies in motion, rather than lines or objects, structure a space? In Wanderlust, her meditation on the dual activities of wandering and wondering, Rebecca Solnit wistfully observes that walking, particularly in wide open spaces, is performative: “Walking returns the body to its original limits again, to something supple, sensitive, and vulnerable, . . . [W]‌alking is a mode of making the world as well as being in it” (2000, 29). In order to understand how movement can restructure our usual orientations, we have to experience how moving without knowing where you are going can open up new geometries of space, subjectivity, and affective interactions. Staying aware and attentive during spatial disorientation comes from a physical practice which includes shifting upside down, spinning, falling in every direction, playing with a great deal of momentum, and moving with one’s eyes closed. I believe this “vital” experience has profound implications for our relationship with disorientation. But it also requires getting used to not being in total control, both physically and otherwise. As another student, Cameron Sweet, notes: As I watched Ann demonstrate, it looked like a lot of fun, then when I  tried it for myself the sensation of being thrown off balance was

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actually pretty scary, but invigorating as well. I recovered from each spin with more energy and excitement—​more willing to give my full weight. My brain and my body encoded the message “falling is fun” and “falling is good.” It was amazing and I want to experience more sensations like that. (2013, 5) This appetite for disorientation comes from a dual awareness of the body in space and the body as space. Accepting the opportunity that disorientation provides, we can experience many directions at once—​finding the suspension through space while at the same time feeling the supportive ground of gravity. One of the most initially disorienting skills that I teach is moving with the head pointing to the ground and the feet or tailbone pointing towards the sky. In other words, learning how to move in places where the usual vertical orientation is inverted and our world turns upside down. This state must be approached with intention and patience, because for those students who have not done a lot of gymnastics in their youth, being upside down can be terrifying. Eventually, however, it can become liberating. (see Inset #6 Exercises in Disorientation.) Part of falling with safety and being comfortable moving in any plane is learning how to catch weight with your arms and hands, as well as the rest of your body. Once folks get used to lofting, falling, tumbling, and rolling, we can take spatial disorientation to the next level, playing with force and momentum. This is when I whip out my power music and start pumping up the volume. Riding the beat allows the students to have fun while pushing the edges of their comfort zone as they play with lofting their pelvises on top of one another. Here is one student’s entry, written as a list of states of being called forth by our “bust a move” moment: fast paced/​charged/​force/​core “cha”/​high energy/​not thinking/​amazing rhythmic energizing music/​risks/​following pelvis with force/​assertive/​ rough housing (controlled)/​tapping my pushy side/​jumping, pushing, swinging, falling/​rolling with a partner/​interesting lofts and positions/​ abandoning caution/​free/​cleaned out and rejuvenated and energized my body/​fired up/​rough and tumble play. (Terra Szuhay class journal, Fall 2017) Personally, I find that by moving with and through disorientation, my body can open up to places and ideas that my mind has a hard time finding on its own. Perhaps this is why Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, the director of Urban Bush Women Dance Company, uses an exercise very similar to the moving through space I described earlier in this chapter (see Inset #4). At the beginning of her workshop at Oberlin College on integrating dance and community engagement, Zollar had us warm up by moving through space and in between each other. As


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Inset #6  Exercises in Disorientation

#1) Imagine that there is a pen or paintbrush sticking out of the top of your head. Feel how that image can activate a lengthening of your spine towards the sky. Keeping that length in your spine, begin to draw or paint the space above your head. Relax your eyes and allow them to move with your head, rather than leading your head. Now begin to draw or paint the space all around you, including the space behind you. Notice in particular how when the head moves into the backspace, your eyes will have a tendency to resist that motion by fixing their gaze on what is in front of you. (This is connected to a fear of falling.) Instead, practice letting your gaze follow the action of the head in all directions, taking in the world, but not trying to hold onto it. (Note: It is important to keep elongating the spine out the top of the head during this exercise in order to avoid shortening and crimping the back of the neck.) Next, allow that pen or paintbrush on the top of your head lead you through the room, keeping your peripheral vision alert to the fact that others in the room are doing the same thing. Pay attention to the fact that you can hear people as well as see them. #2) (Learning to be upside down can be scary for the uninitiated, so I  recommend beginning with simple yoga poses and progressing into inversions gradually.) Begin on all fours, placing your hands in a slightly turned-​out position. Push yourself up into downward facing dog pose and play with lowering and lifting your body by bending your arms, being careful to keep your elbows facing back rather than out. Once you become comfortable with that, try a plank pose. This is the yoga pose with your arms lengthening directly under your shoulders and your hands pressing into the ground. Practice holding this pose while energizing from the top of your head to the base of your heels such that you are not bowing your lower back. Once you have become comfortable with these poses and if you feel adventurous, try moving into a handstand next to a wall, so that you have support for your feet. Lengthen the back of your neck and look up at the ceiling, and try bending your arms and straightening them (this is like an upside-​down push up). For fun, especially if there are other people with you, bend over with your hands and feet on the floor. Walk backwards with your head hanging down between your arms, looking backwards. Move around to say hello to each person in the room. After being in this position for a couple of minutes, you will begin to feel as if you are walking on the ceiling. It’s a perceptual adventure to see the world upside down, enjoy it. #3) (I am not particularly interested in students accomplishing a “perfect” handstand, but I  am interested in my students feeling comfortable

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supporting their own weight on their hands. The following exercise is a good way to ease into that skill.) Walk around the room, feeling the line of energy from sky to earth. Feel how your head can reach to the sky as your feet root into the earth. Stand in one place and bounce softly into the floor, feel the buoyancy that is possible when your legs are relaxed and your hips are nice and loose. Leaning forward, follow a zig-​zag trajectory, moving your head from side to side. Feel what it is like to initiate the movement with your head (see #1 above), and then feel what it is like to initiate the movement with your tail. Then begin to play with transferring your weight by reaching out with your hands and thinking “head down, tail up.” Come back to standing by saying, “tail down, head up.” Try this a number of times, resisting the internal commentary running through your head about whether you can or cannot do a handstand. Also, it is important to recognize a general tendency to lift one’s arms and hands high in the sky (just like in gymnastics) before moving to the ground. This sets up a scary dynamic because it makes you dive down and drop your hands from high to low, an action that easily sets off our startle reflex. Instead, keep your hands close to the ground and the hips bent. Then it doesn’t feel like so far of a journey as you transfer weight onto your hands with the gentle mantra, “head down, tail up” and then return with “tail down, head up.” Don’t worry about actually getting your tail directly over your head at the beginning, just get used to taking weight onto your hands and feeling “head down, tail up” as one action and “tail down, head up” as another.

she later acknowledged, this is a good way to get people’s blood pumping, a good way to mix up the group and relieve nervousness. Jawole pointed out that there is a different kind of social sensibility that arises when the usual choreographies of identification and power are shaken up as we move in and around one another. It’s fun as well. She is not alone; a number of choreographers that specialize in creating pieces with community members (as well as their company members) such as David Dorfman, Liz Lerman, and Ishmael Houston-​Jones have all used a similar activity in workshops that I have attended. Moving on one’s own with others helps reorient any notion that we need to move in the same manner or execute steps the same way. There is a certain pleasure in the freedom to be disorganized. A number of years ago I came across an interesting article profiling an alternative to the usual college orientations for first-​year students. At the American University in Cairo, David Arnold, the president of the university, created a year-​ long program in 2010 that shifted the usual freshman orientation into a focus


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on “disorientation” for incoming students, many of who come from elite schools in which they were expected to “regurgitate” the information back on exams, and where good grades are equated with academic success. His goal was to help students used to rote learning and lecture courses learn to be critical and creative thinkers, encouraging them to take the risk of being “wrong.” The “disorientation” implicated in this article is less about spatial disorientation, or even really about becoming familiar with a new place, per se. Rather it is about disrupting expectations about what constitutes success and failure, and how to question assumptions and think outside of the well-​defined lines in a traditional culture that values conformity and hierarchy. As one philosophy professor suggested, the project was an attempt to guide the students to learn how to think rather than what to think (New York Times, May 6, 2010). But learning “how” to think instead of “what” to think requires a confrontation with the open space of the unknown. Over the past fifteen years, I  have charted news stories that headlined expressions such as falling, tumbling, sliding, stumbling, or crashing, to describe the rapid descent of economies, job opportunities, housing markets, retirement savings, and even foreign governments. Over the past twelve months, a different but related the language—​that of disorientation—​has flooded the media. The first years of Trump’s presidency have been powerfully disorienting for many Americans across the political spectrum. Nonetheless, his regime has also elicited an activist response unlike anything in recent history, bringing the American people out into the streets and to demonstrations all over the country. As political analyst Masha Gessen comments in an op-​ed comparing the antics of Trump to those of Russian President Vladimir Putin, “Mr. Trump (much like Mr. Putin) thrives on cacophony, in an environment of ever-​shifting realities that makes other people feel disoriented and helpless” (New York Times, January 15, 2017). Another op-​ed, this one by Roger Cohen, also sees disorientation as a political strategy. He describes Trump as dreadfully “cavalier” about history as well as diplomatic issues, and cites his Machiavellian impulses. “Emptying words of meaning is an essential step on the road to autocratic rule. People need to lose their bearings before they prostrate themselves” (New York Times, January 28, 2017). Throughout 2017, the media was filled with the language of being lost, bewildered, and disoriented, as op-​eds described over and over the experience of losing our bearings in this political moment. Perhaps what is most disorienting about Trump’s presidency thus far is the way our expectations—​of presidential behavior, of America’s position in the world, of the separation of church and state, of ethical guidelines and political accountability—​have been shattered. With each new executive order issued by the Trump administration, a whole series of governmental precedents in trade, women’s and civil rights, environmental protections, and other areas such as education, have been upended. Clearly the nation is deep in uncharted waters, and

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if we are going to survive we will need to think beyond traditional democratic or republican lines of navigation as either this way or that. We need to be willing to move with, through, around, and in between our usual political positionings, keeping open the possibility of moving in any direction—​including the potential for alliances across political differences—​that we may not have previously foreseen. An example of political (and somatic) mobilization was the extraordinary attendance at the Women’s March in Washington, DC, on January 21, 2017, and the many parallel marches across the United States and the world that day. (These were echoed not only by the many other demonstrations during the 2017  “summer of resistance” but also in the marches hosted on the one-​year anniversary, January 21, 2018.) Strategically scheduled to take place the day following the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as America’s 45th president, these public manifestations of discontent were wildly successful, drawing over half a million people to the nation’s capital and over three million folks to streets through the country. Despite my continuing reservations about the insidiousness of screens in our lives, the fact that these events began as a Facebook page and went viral is a testament to the usefulness of social media and the internet. The people I  spoke with about their experiences at the marches said it was amazing, that the sense of solidarity among many different groups was deep and strong. Particularly for those in the millennial generation who may not have been directly involved in Black Lives Matter protests and are used to hashtag activism delivered with a click of their thumbs, going to the Women’s March and other gatherings was a powerful exercise in live advocacy. As part of a response to the persistent and perplexing question “What now?” the recent demonstrations mobilized a body politic that has real significance, not only as a media event, but also for those who were surrounded by, and had the opportunity to connect with, their fellow citizens. Like the demonstrations in Athens during the spring of 2012, these marches are manifestations of a collective movement. In the meeting of somatics and politics that I am crafting in these pages, we find the ground rules for a way of moving (forwards, backwards, or sideways) that can handle this bewildering array of shattered expectations without being completely knocked off course, so to speak. Let us leave the quagmire of stunned disbelief or the nostalgia for a “time before” and meet the latest news with a strategic “response-​ability” informed by a body politics that stays connected to what is happening at the edge of our sight. This attention to what Berger describes as “a corporeal space” and what I think of as a three-​dimensional way of being in the world provides an alternative to Trump’s myopic vision of closing our borders and building walls. In his final address to the nation, President Obama exhorted people, particularly our nation’s youth, to get off their social media feeds and venture out into the streets to exchange greetings and ideas with other people, potentially ones who do not share your opinions about social


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and political issues. Obama pointed to the need in our country to deal with the human factor of difference face to face, and not just the manifestations of bi-​ partisanship in the poll numbers. He also highlighted the importance of getting out of our political bubbles on social media, of opening up to other perspectives and points of view. In these days of extreme partisanship, these exchanges will be disorienting for all involved. But we can start with a physical practice that paves the way for such exchanges, choosing to open the pores of our skin and let the world enter our bodies, all the while staying grounded in our proprioception and awareness of three-​dimensional space. I am not, of course, suggesting that we linger at this level of the personal somatic experience, but I am proposing that certain physical dispositions might just “stimulate us to ask [the right] questions” and help us work together. My focus on disorientation comes from a lifetime spent practicing movement improvisation in which tactile sensation and proprioception are as important, if not more so, than vision. Improvise literally means “unforeseen” and the improvisational impulse, be it in jazz music, Contact Improvisation, scientific experiments, or crisis politics, provides us with the ability to discern a patterning of forces that operates outside of traditional frameworks of (sighted/​ cited) knowledge.1 I have written extensively about improvisation as a life practice in other contexts. Perhaps the most important insight in these various practices of meeting the unforeseen for our twenty-​first-​century lifestyle is the willingness to cross into uncomfortable territories, to move in the face of fear, to meet the unexpected with an open mind, to venture into the ambiguity of the unknown. Once there, we might find that special experience of ground in which we can lose our way without losing our bearings. As will become clear in the next chapter on suspension, focused but open breathing and being are central to practices of mindfulness and improvisation. Pema Chodron is one of the foremost disciples of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the director of the Gampo Abbey in Canada. She is also a widely read author of books that mix common sense with Buddhist insight, including the aptly titled collection When Things Fall Apart. Although Chodron and I  differ on the semantics of ground—​I see in the word grounded the possibility of embracing gravity even while falling, and she prefers the term groundlessness to describe the state of uncertainty that Merleau-​Ponty describes as the “horror” of our contingency—​we agree that disorientation holds valuable lessons in coping with loss and the inevitable up and downs of life. In language that echoes that of Nancy Stark Smith on falling, Chodron writes: “The off-​center, in-​between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit . . . Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—​this is the spiritual path” (1997, 10).

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Not being a Buddhist nun, I am less interested in defining a spiritual pathway per se than I  am in her exhortation to stick with the awkwardness of confusion and release into the ambiguity of disorientation. Open to the peripheral and grounded in the proprioceptive, we find a three-​dimensional sensibility that extends our skin and our minds. These are the skills needed to experience disorientation without losing a sense of our political priorities. As Rebecca Solnit astutely pointed out in her post-​election commentary, “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act” (2016, emphasis added). To truly appreciate this possibility for moving in any direction, we will turn to the role of suspension in opening the spaciousness of the unknown.

3 Falling Disorientation Suspension Gravity Resilience Connection The afternoon my nephew died, I was on a plane returning from a trip abroad, and the rest of my family was still traveling. After landing in Newark, I turned on my phone. His mother had left a message saying only that something was up with John. As I  transferred to my connecting flight, I  wondered if he had been arrested. By the time I landed in Ohio, I heard that he may have drowned. My stomach churned, but my mind held onto the conditional tense—​might have drowned. Communication with his friends and his estranged mother was complicated, as was his life. I tried to figure out what, when, where, and how, but the answers were elusive. This difficult situation was compounded by the speed of social media. A little more than an hour after he fell, a “rest in peace” page had been set up on Facebook. That’s how my son and niece found out about it—​a little bell notified them there had been a change of status. People were on my porch with baked goods before the body had even been found. Once I returned home from the memorial service, I did something extremely unusual for me. I did nothing. In fact, I spent the better part of a month lying on the front porch swing. I did not feel like reading, talking, knitting, or walking. The few times I went into town, words would fail me. I did not even try to control my tears. I  spent hours, days, weeks, lying on my back looking up at the clouds, suspended by my grief. Nothing happened. I never experienced closure, nor did I experience any great revelation. I just passed time gazing at the sky—​half numb, but still breathing. Eventually, I got up and went back to work. But even in the midst of pain, grief, and an incredible knot in my chest, I felt the air around me and taught myself to 79


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follow it, breathing in and out, in and out. I remember the moments when my inhalations would tip over into an exhalation, and the moments when an inhalation would gather, like clouds on the horizon, just behind my exhalation. In retrospect, I wonder why I gravitated to that porch swing outside. Why not just stay in bed? Perhaps I  was unconsciously miming his final moments of being suspended between earth and sky, touching neither. I think now about that space in-​between and try to imagine the impressions he left on the air as he fell from rock to water. This is a chapter about suspensions, about the moments in our lives when we can’t move, when we don’t know which way to turn. These are not necessarily moments of crisis or stasis, however. They can be, rather, moments of questioning—​“what ifs?”—​that dwell in the conditional tense. In every experience of falling, we encounter a space in which the usual orientations give way to other directions. Fortunately, however, it does not have to be a tragic or an intense fall to experience this moment of suspension and possibility. Even just breathing in the small dance, we can begin to feel how air can support us. Extending the discussions of embodied practices from previous chapters, I incorporate here the more existential implications of this exchange of air between inside and outside, self and world. Using our breath to find spaciousness attunes us to a heightened sense of three-​dimensionality, including a critical recognition of the importance of thinking backwards as well as forwards. Suspensions slow us down enough to feel space enter time. In lives filled with screen-​based, two-​ dimensional interactions, this sense of amplitude can make a big difference in the quality of our being present in the moment. Moving from a discussion of improvisation to a meditation on breathing through the elusive quality of air and into a final discussion of dwelling, this chapter explores how suspensions can open new ways of being in the world. As we shall see, attending to our breath can lead us into the under-​charted territory of largely unseen but nonetheless deeply felt situations, including those of loss, memory, and grace.

Breathing with Awareness Let’s begin with the breath. Inhale . . . exhale. As the outside air comes into our body, our lungs expand into three dimensions. The exhale reverses the process, and we breathe ourselves back out into the surrounding environment. These movements of our breath can give us insight into the reciprocal exchange of self and the world. The French word for inhalation is inspiration, which reinforces its metaphysical potential. Even in English the word suggests the dual meanings of drawing in and being affected by that process. Inspiration is something that just happens; one really can’t force it, though we can come to understand the contours of that experience. Breathing as an act of inspiration exceeds the

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visible, compelling us to augment image with sensation, representation with participation. Inhale . . . exhale. Simple, yet elusive, breathing happens whether we are aware of it or not. One might suppose that most adults would be expert breathers, having practiced since birth. Ironically, however, this involuntary process can easily become overwrought as life’s turmoil and the resulting emotional tensions become embedded in this fundamental movement pattern. Once we begin to pay attention to our breath, it is easy for it to feel awkward or forced. Thinking too hard, we become overly self-​conscious and try to control our breathing. This can result in muscular tension, palpable anxiety, over-​breathing (a situation in which less oxygen actually reaches the cells), or, in some extreme cases, a panic attack. The trick is to learn to feel rather than do, following the tides of our respiration with a sense of curiosity rather than mastery. Inhale . . . exhale. But what are we actually breathing in? Besides the chemical composition of the atmosphere, we are bringing in volume, engaging our sensibility for spaciousness—​both physical and metaphysical. In his book on the overlooked experiences of embodiment (aptly entitled Embodied), Christopher Eccleston dedicates an entire chapter to breathing. A  scientist, Eccleston begins this chapter with an explanation of the process of inhaling oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide and water vapor. Soon, however, he switches gears to acknowledge, “there are narratives of the first breath taken in the cry of the newborn baby, and of the last breath taken at death. The millions of breaths in-​between attract less attention” (2016, 79). Although his focus on “Taking control of breathing” and “Breathing to achieve” differs from my own attention to breathing as guiding us to an important experience of spaciousness, we do agree that intentional breathing can help mitigate the anxiety that can overtake us in moments of intense disorientation. This is why it is critical to come back to our breaths, recognizing the importance of those tiny suspensions that provide a place of refuge in the midst of all this busyness. Breathing with intention can help us keep track of our lives even when the ground suddenly drops from underneath our feet. Breathing is one of our earliest somatic experiences and as such it serves as the foundation for our relationship with our bodies as well as initiating all our movements in the world. Basic respiration is involuntary, an automatic process. Most of the time we are not conscious of our breathing, it just happens. But how it happens depends on many environmental and personal factors; our breathing is inevitably affected by the stresses of living in an unpredictable twenty-​first-​ century world. Often my students tell me that they know they don’t breathe correctly. Feeling overwhelmed, they want to take a “deep” breath but instead take a big breath, lifting their shoulders and puffing out their chests. Unfortunately, this kind of conscious directive—​“relax and breathe!”—​tends to produce a forced intake of extra oxygen which, in turn, triggers our sympathetic (fight or flight)


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nervous system. Ironically, our efforts to breathe intentionally can quickly lead to over-​thinking, which, in turn, leads to over-​breathing—​inducing both psychic frustration and physical exhaustion. For this reason, when I ask students to attend to their breathing, I am very particular about how I use language. I will talk about listening to one’s internal rhythms; following the expansion and condensing of their ribs; feeling the air travel across the nostrils; or allowing the breath to slow down. This focus on sensory perception creates a more indirect approach, cultivating a curiosity about the process of breathing rather than honing an effort to control our breath or “perfect” the correct technique. Connecting to one’s breath in this way develops a very intriguing sense of being a witness to one’s own experience, teaching us how to feel without judgment. Neither actively directing nor passively disengaged, I meet my breath as a partner in a fluid exchange. In this situation, one’s attention is more like a sideways accompaniment than a top-​down directive. This friendly approach to our breath also tends to calm us and engage our parasympathetic nervous system, allowing for a deeper sense of rest and rejuvenation. Inhale . . . exhale. Breathing with awareness is at the core of many contemplative practices and healing rituals throughout the world. In contemporary American culture, it has become part and parcel of fitness regimes, yoga training, and popular forms of mindfulness meditation. In these situations, however, breathing can easily become just another physical action. Yoga instructors across the nation call out: “Inhale and reach your arms overhead; exhale and bend down to touch your toes.” I have also heard dance teachers compare the action of the lungs to an accordion or a bellows opening and closing. This mechanical approach teaches us to work our breath like any other muscle group. As we direct the chest to expand and contract, however, we lose the intimacy of our deepest core, what Andrea Olsen calls “the most sensuous experience” we can know (2002, 112). One way to cultivate this delicate sense of inspiration within our own breathing is to attend to the elastic movement at the very center of our bodies—​that of our lungs and diaphragms. A dome-​shaped structure that holds a critically supportive position deep in the center of the body, the diaphragm functions as a flexible foundation for the lungs and heart. This body of muscle and tendon is sheathed in connective tissue and attached to the lower ribs and spine in back, as well as to the chest in front below the sternum. As we inhale, the diaphragm presses down, increasing the space in the ribs such that the air is drawn into the lungs. As we exhale, the diaphragm floats back up. Through a dynamic tide of compression and release, the diaphragm massages and bathes our various abdominal organs, mobilizing their fluids and stimulating digestion and secretion. In the midst of her discussion of the biomechanics of breathing, world-​ renown yoga teacher Donna Farhi notes that within some Native American

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Inset #7  The Three Domes of Support

(n.b. I use the term “dome” here to describe a rounded vault of support. We have a very clear dome in our upper palate. Sometimes, as in the case of the diaphragm of the chest, that dome moves to an inverted shape and back again with our breathing. The pelvic bowl is also shaped like an inverted dome.) Begin standing with your feet directly underneath your hips, head stacked above (not in front of) your shoulders. Feel the line of energy from sky to earth running through your spine. Place a hand on the top-​most part of your head and gently press down. Once you begin to feel that pressure, try to meet it by pushing back into your hand. Most likely you will feel your spine energizing and extending upwards when you do this. An image I like to use for this action is that of a water fountain or natural geyser running from the earth through my feet, legs, and spine and out the top of my head, coursing up into the air about seven feet and then falling back down to the ground. Sometimes I imagine that water like a shower flowing over my skin. Try to keep that feeling of extending as a force, not a position while you release the hand on your head down to your side. Close your eyes and take a moment to feel the small dance of your balance and alignment (see Inset #2). Bring your tongue to the roof of your mouth and trace its dome-​like shape from the front of your mouth back towards your throat. Feel how that dome supports your brain and various sense organs from inside your skull. Play with moving your head from side to side, up and down, diagonally (yes/​no/​maybe), feeling how that dome can support the movement of your skull from inside rather than having to support your head from your neck muscles. Be gentle at first and explore the range of motion available to you without displacing your feet (but you certainly can bend your knees!). Then open your eyes and feel what it is like to move through the space with attention to this internal dome of support in the head. Come back to standing and close your eyes again. Bring your attention to your breathing and the movement of the diaphragm in your chest. Visualize that web of connective tissue and muscle in the center of your ribs. As you inhale, it moves down into a bowl-​like shape; as you exhale, it floats up into a dome-​like shape. Play with initiating from this place of support in the center of your ribs, opening your eyes as you begin to travel through the space. Once again, come into a stand with your hips released and your knees slightly bent. Close your eyes and visualize the inverse dome (bowl) of your pelvis. Shift your weight over to your right leg, left leg, then to the front and towards the back. Feel the way your pelvis supports not only your



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abdominal organs, but also the whole torso. Bounce up and down gently, feeling the buoyancy of that support and how your toned pelvis can lift weight out of your legs. Open your eyes and explore that support as you move through space. Finally, come back to a stand and feel all three domes of support (upper palate, diaphragm, pelvis). Imagine that they can talk to one another, and play with that dialogue in motion. See how these domes affect your experience of balance, attention to your back, and being upside down. Oftentimes feeling the dome of support in the upper palate and the pelvis can help folks move into inversion more easily (see Inset #6).

cosmologies, the diaphragm is seen as the horizon between heaven and earth (1996, 53). Energetically, as well as structurally, the diaphragm connects the lower and upper parts of the torso, moving towards the pelvis on the inhalation and the upper chest on the exhalation. In my own somatic practice, I focus on the interior support of three arches located in my head, chest, and pelvis. (See Inset #7 The Three Domes of Support.) When I walk around the reservoir near my home, I envision miniature ponds suspended in my pelvis, ribcage, and the roof of my mouth (my upper palate). As the sun sets in the late evening, the reservoir reflects the sky as well as the surrounding trees. Imagining a similarly expansive space in my diaphragm allows me to feel the support of my core, helping me balance the dual forces of gravity and air (earth and sky) as I breathe in and out. This is not simply a beautiful metaphor. As I embody these images, I can literally feel the connective tissue in my back and my neck begin to release. When we find our internal support and alignment, the larger muscles that we use to “prop” ourselves up as we strain forward to see the latest digital communication can let go. Inhale . . . exhale. So, what’s the big deal? It can seem pretty obvious. First, we become mindful of our breathing, and then we extend the inhalation to taste a blissful spaciousness and new sense of life. Next, we lengthen the exhalation to contemplate the wisdom in detachment and to realize the possibility of our final breath. Easy, right? Well, unfortunately for most of us, our days are filled with endless to-​do lists and the annoying details of life (did someone say Roto-​ rooter?) that always seem to be calling our attention over here one minute and somewhere else the next. In this day and age, we process so much information about the world, wade through so many choices (from clothing to food to career options), and manage increasingly bureaucratic lives, that we can quickly become overwrought and imbued with what American Buddhist Pena Chodron calls a “fundamental restlessness.”

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In her book When Things Fall Apart, Chodron speaks to the importance of not immediately reaching for distraction when we sense the slightest hint of boredom, or feel the shadow of anxiety cast upon us. Written in the 1990s (before the ubiquity of distracting digital devices constantly at our fingertips), this astute collection of teachings speaks to our desire for stability and resistance to uncertainty. She describes this state as a “restlessness and edginess. We experience it as fear” (1997, 34). The French have an apt expression for this state of restlessness—​pas bien dans sa peau—​which translates to a sense of “not feeling comfortable in your own skin.” Of course, we have a choice about how we respond to this sense of dis-​ease. If we understand our tendency to search elsewhere for relief, for instance, we can learn how to refrain from immediately covering up or covering over these black holes of uncertainty and insecurity. As we have already seen in the chapter on disorientation, these spaces of unknowing can, in fact, become places of opportunity. When we comprehend the role of our breath in bringing space inside our bodies, we are given the opportunity to experience the delicate moment of spaciousness at the top of our inhalation. Many meditation practices focus on the emptying out at the end of the exhalation. In this context, however, I am interested in exploring the practical and theoretical possibilities of that elastic openness at the top of our inhalation—​what we might call our inspiration. Dwelling for a moment in this suspension extends time to include space, opening the potential for enlightenment or, more modestly, the simple relief of stepping off the treadmill of our busy lives for a moment. We do not need to take a big dramatic breath to experience this opening. In fact, it is impossible to muscle through an inspiration. Rather, one has to experience a letting go, surrendering to the possibility of release  .  .  .  of breath, of weight, of holding onto expectations. This suspension is an undoing that allows for a different kind of becoming. Thus, in order to feel and follow the suspension, we will need to switch perceptual gears, attuning to the small, subtle movements at the center of our breath. As anyone who teaches movement or yoga quickly learns, how we communicate an action to someone makes all the difference in what they are going to experience. As I mentioned earlier, if I tell someone to breathe deeply (a direction I hear all the time in various fitness and yoga classes), chances are good that they will exert more effort than is necessary, directing their body via conscious cortical pathways that set up a dysfunctional separation between self and body. If instead I suggest that that person feel or sense in the mode of an inquiry, or if I suggest an image of filling and emptying, for instance, I can often get them to work more directly with proprioception, releasing into a sensation rather than forcing a specific experience. Attending to our breath without forcing it is a resource that we can use to break through habitual patterns of anxiety, especially the slight panic of disorientation when we find ourselves in an unknown situation or location. It is


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important to recognize, however, that this process is not about shutting down our perceptions or limiting our focus to an internal consciousness, but rather, it is about engaging our breath in order to include a palpable exchange with the sentient (and not just the visual) world. A journal entry by a student in my Somatic Landscapes class beautifully illustrates this process. After a long day of travel for an audition, this student found herself walking around an unfamiliar city. She details the shift from a growing sense of panic to tracking her breath and attending to the sensation of her foot on the ground. When I slowed my pace, and focused on drawing the crisp air into my lungs and sensing that expand into the rest of my body, I felt wonderfully at ease. I was surprised not to find myself growing exhausted, both physically and mentally, as I walked in the middle of the night. [ . . . ] I found it incredibly more helpful to focus on my breath and each step than to focus on the fact that I was in a completely unknown city. Even after my phone died, the breathing kept me at peace and I was able to make it to my destination without any huge physical or mental strain. It was such a fascinating experience, to be lost outwardly but stable inwardly. (RJM 2016) As Yi-​Fu Tuan notes in his book Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, the word “experience” is connected etymologically to both expert and perilous. Thus, he suggests: “To experience in the active sense requires that one venture forth into the unfamiliar and experiment with the elusive and the uncertain” (1977, 9). Rachel’s experience on the mountain in Colorado shows us how breathing with awareness can help keep us present even in those moments of uncertainty when our usual orientations have been suspended. As we shall see, this subtle awareness sets up the physical ground for larger suspensions, including those inherent in improvisation itself.

Being in the Gap Throughout my career as a dancer and a writer, improvisation has been the lifeline that has helped me to survive professional disappointment and physical injury, family trauma and various lapses of imagination. It has also helped me to live in the spaces in-​between language and movement, to see embodiment as connected to, rather than distinct from, thinking. I was first introduced to improvisation as an artistic activity in its own right while I was in college, studying the origins of Western Philosophy. It was a moment when my budding feminist consciousness decided to team up with my growing kinetic appetite to confront the mind-​body split still deeply embedded in academia at that time. During the

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mornings, I followed lectures on Plato; in the afternoons, I was learning modern dance, perfecting my expressive, Graham-​inspired gestures and wearing long skirts; while at night I was thrashing around in the local punk clubs. On so many levels, I was confronting the chasm between what I was told was available and what I felt was possible. I yearned to connect my dancing with philosophy, to articulate that moving was a way of being in the world that mattered. In her book Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy, Erin Manning invokes the tango as a delicate intertwining of self and other, movement and stillness. Her interests are in the moments before and after the actual steps, those intervals of “incipient action” that are assumed but never specified as choreography. For Manning, this sense of becoming—​a reaching toward that never arrives—​gives movement its philosophical potential for thinking past the binaries of our world to the spaces of ambiguity in-​between them. She notes: “It’s not that movement directly undermines these dialectical concepts. It’s that movement allows us to approach them from another perspective: a shifting one” (2009, 14–​15). Here we have the opportunity to feel how embodied expression arises out of a moment before muscular enactment. This is the same moment that somatic teachers call the “pre-​movement,” the moments of bodily orientation that prepare the deep muscles to stabilize before we displace a limb. It is the subtle motion that we feel when we imagine moving, but that inhibits any actual action. Even in the role of leader in a tango duet (a highly socialized construct to be sure), Manning resists the notion that she is directing the dancing, preferring to highlight the sensibility that both partners are led by what contact improvisers call a “third mind.” “Leading is more like initiating an opening, entering the gap, and then following her response” (30). Connecting the interval with an opening or a gap, Manning figures this moment as a meeting of habit and possibility. I am also interested in thinking about this “elasticity of the almost,” although my focus on suspension leads me to conceptualize her interval as a space as well as a time in-​between. Grounded in the experiences of the body, this pause between beats can also create a gap, an opening of expectations. I want to take a moment here to think about suspension as a practice of space and time that encourages a leap into the unforeseen—​ one that also invites the ambiguity of the unknown. The etymology of improvisation is usually defined as “unforeseen.” But what I would like to highlight in the Latin root form is the attention to what is not actually seen—​an awareness of states of being that often go unmarked. I have taught improvisation, specifically Contact Improvisation, for over three decades, and during that time I  have also written extensively about the life practices embedded in this form and the many somatic practices that support its explorations into the unforeseen.1 For me, the potency of improvisational practice lies in our willingness to enter the open space (of life, as well as the dance studio) and move in the face of uncertainty. This willingness is grounded


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in the ability to be at once external and internal—​both available to what is happening in the world around you and intensely grounded in the sensation of one’s ongoing experience. Every time I try to articulate what is important to me about improvisation, I return to a short editorial written by Nancy Stark Smith, longtime improviser and co-​editor of Contact Quarterly. In an editor’s note reflecting on her efforts to quit smoking, she writes: Where you are when you don’t know where you are is one of the most precious spots offered by improvisation. It is a place from which more directions are possible than anywhere else. I  call this place the Gap. [ . . . ] Every time I want a cigarette and don’t have one I’m creating a gap. Moments that once were easily and automatically filled have become uneasily and consciously unfilled. By leaving them unfilled, I’m not only breaking a “momentum of being,” a pattern of behavior, but I’m bringing attention and charge to a moment that would have passed without remark. [ . . . ] Being in a gap is like being in a fall before you touch bottom. You’re suspended—​in time as well as space—​and you don’t really know how long it’ll take to get “back.” (1987, 3) It is this suspension of our usual orientations, the moment when you stay with the awkward and uncomfortable rather than automatically reaching for the usual distractions or habits (be they cigarettes, social media, or the latest fitness craze) that makes improvisation both fascinating and occasionally frightening. As I argued in the previous chapter, disorientation can teach us a lot about our usual orientations, personal preferences, and cultural assumptions. This is why quitting a habit or traveling to another country can be so enlightening. Of course, improvisation is not simply a naive turn away from structure (compositional or cultural), nor is it a (re)turn to an innocent, child-​like state of wonder. Rather, it is a rigorous practice that prepares one to tolerate ambiguity, to cross over into uncomfortable territory, and to journey between states of knowing and unknowing. Pema Chodron writes:  “It’s a transformative experience to simply pause instead of immediately filling up the space” (1997, 35). Chodron’s “pause” and Stark Smith’s “gap” are the co-​ordinates of time and space that open up new possibilities. Like breathing, improvisation is a method of inquiry, a desire to find out “what if?” rather than “what is.” It is through this conditional tense—​the inquiry rather than the object—​that improvisation meets suspension, forming a bridge from our breath to the world. Let’s begin again with the breath, attending to its continuous cycle of exchange and renewal. Inhale . . . exhale. These are not two separate actions, but rather a folding together such that the next phase is continued within the present moment. I breathe in and can feel the exhale emerging underneath the wave

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of my inhalation. I breathe out and can feel the next inhale hovering seductively right on the edge of my consciousness. Connected yet separate, these phases of the breath can be stretched apart, opening an interval in-​between. Prolonging this moment of suspension creates a space filled with past vibrations and future suggestions. At once corporeal and ethereal, this space of possibility is never entirely fulfilled. It is a process, not a product; an experience rather than an action. You can’t force a suspension, you can only be open to feeling its contours. In her thoughtful essay “Grounding and Opening,” Anne Klein addresses the importance of understanding how we inhabit our bodies. She argues that in post-​industrial societies, we try to fit so much information, emotion, and lifestyle choices into “the narrow parameters of our own physical form” we end up personally isolated and spiritually congested. She contrasts this modern form of alienation with other historical moments and cultural contexts in which the self and the environment co-​exist. “Tibetan religious practices were typically enacted, after all, in a radiant open landscape, in vast spaces dominated by bright air over turquoise rivers, with iridescent cobalt skies spanning the distance between darkly colored rocks or snow peaks. Such grand expanses were vibrant not only with light, but with life as well” (1997, 141). The beautiful image of a suspended landscape that Klein paints is presented as a model, a way of “consciously seeking a more spacious way of experiencing our embodiment” (141). Her description also evokes a common trope, the Western romanticization of Tibet as a mysterious, pre-​modern “elsewhere” of spiritual wholeness. Nonetheless, Klein makes an important distinction in her discussion of Tibetan cosmology when she points out that the Tibetan sense of spaciousness is not exclusively visual, but also includes an energetic vibrancy as well. The sensibility required in order to feel the atmosphere as energetic, filled with unseen vibrations, is connected in my experience to what Body-​Mind Centering™ (BMC) refers to as a “cellular consciousness.” BMC is a system of movement re-​education that approaches the body as a psycho-​physical complex of mechanical structures and somatic attitudes. A  strategic combination of Western and Eastern medical and healing practices, BMC tracks developmental movement patterns and correlates them with the evolutionary stages of life on earth. It also delves into energetic systems, including not only the more common skeletal and muscular pathways, but also those of the organs, fluids, and neuro-​endocrine systems. Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen founded the School for Body-​Mind Centering™ in the early 1970s. Over the past four decades, this work has permeated a wide range of current movement practices, including yoga and contemporary dance training. When my son was six months old, I participated with him in a developmental movement workshop that used the babies to demonstrate the early patterns of navel radiation, rolling, crawling, reaching, and mouthing. (It was a wild experience to see twenty adults crawling on the floor after several six-​month-​olds!) In this evolutionary taxonomy as explained in the


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book Sensing, Feeling, and Action, cellular breathing is considered the second pre-​ vertebrate pattern (the first being vibration). Cohen describes this fundamental phase as “the expanding/​contracting process in breathing and movement in each and every cell of the body that correlates to the movement of the one-​celled animals” (2008, 5). It establishes the integrity of postural tone and underlies all other movement patterns. Personally, I use the concept of cellular breathing when I am either completely exhausted or really stressed out (often there is a connection). Lying on the floor with my eyes closed, I first release the back of my head such that I can feel my skull sinking into the floor. Then I imagine sand gradually seeping out through the back of my head. After a few breaths, I begin shifting my head slowly from side to side. If I do this at what I call a “glacial pace” it feels as if I am following a tide of movement controlled by the earth’s rotations, and I can sense each pore open as I slowly move across my scalp. Paradoxically, I also feel my whole body as a single cell. I am not alone in this experience. Here is how one of my students describes this sensation: I remember feeling amazed in class the day we rotated our heads at a “glacial pace” against the wooden floors of Warner. The exercise was simple and slow—​all it required was the slightest of movement. As I imagined that my head was a box of sand pouring across the ground, a sensation came over me: I felt that the tiny grooves in my head that I  ignore on a daily basis were somehow now an integral part of my whole being. I felt time move slowly and everything turn microscopic. I was no longer sure if I was moving or not but I could feel movement inside of myself, movement made just by breathing and being alive. Mostly, I was amazed that an exercise like this could work on me—​ someone so closed off to these hypersensitive physical experiences.” (Ryanna Fossum 2016) By slowing down her movement, this student felt suspended in time and place, able to dwell in a present moment that is deeply expansive. (see Inset #8 The Glacial Pace of Cellular Consciousness.) In her work on embryological development, Cohen locates an early sensitivity to the spaciousness of suspensions inside our spines. She claims: “before we embody structure, [ . . .  ] we embody empty space” (2008, 163). In an interview with Nancy Stark Smith and Andrea Olsen, Cohen distinguishes between rolling down the spine by initiating from the muscular-​skeletal system and moving from just in front of the spinal cord, a space that she considers a remnant of our notochord (an early embryonic structure that disappears in the later development of the fetus). “When I roll down my spine initiating from the skeletal-​ muscular system, there is a sense of weightedness. If I go through the notochord

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Inset #8  The Glacial Pace of Cellular Consciousness

Lie down on your back with your eyes closed. Make sure you are in a comfortable position on the floor. If your lower back arches uncomfortably when you extend your legs, bend your knees and place your feet on the floor. (If you turn your legs slightly inward and point the toes towards one another, you will be able to release your leg muscles more fully.) Rest for a minute or two, just feeling how gravity gently persuades your body to sink further into its support. Imagine that you are on a beach, lying in the sun for long enough to make a deep impression in the sand. Feel how that sand can gather around the edges of your body and underneath all the places that do not touch the floor. Feel its support around your heels and ankles, underneath your knees and upper legs, your lower back, and the curve in your neck. Notice the small movements of expansion and contraction in your body and the subtle motion in your joints as you breathe. Bring your attention to your skull and see if you can let its weight sink more fully into the floor. Give yourself permission to rest without being nervous about either falling asleep or thinking constantly about the endless to-​do list in your head. It is ok to enjoy this feeling of being supported by the earth. Keep bringing your attention back to that sensation of gravity and the experience of your body releasing into the floor. Now begin to shift your head ever so slightly from side to side. Take enough time to feel each pore on your scalp release into the floor as your skull moves first to one side and then returns to center. Remember to go at what I have termed a “glacial pace.” For me, this slow movement of the head feels like I do not even have to activate my own movement. It seems to go on its own, following a geological pace like the glacial ice that shifts slowly over many, many years. Gradually build up to shifting your head further and further to each side until you are moving your head from ear to ear. Take your time with this exercise. You will not be able to get a sense of the “cellular consciousness” unless you are willing to suspend your will to do it on your own.

[ . . . ] I’m in space. There is spaciousness. Even if I arch backward, I don’t feel substance” (166–​167). The experience that Cohen is describing here is one in which space inside the body merges with space outside of the body. The result is an intriguing sense of suspension in the midst of action—​being in the midst of doing. The key to finding this sense of rest within an activity is found in following the breath from the body to the magical support of the air all around us.


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The Support of Air The chapter that focuses on air in David Abram’s book The Spell of the Sensuous is entitled “The Forgetting and Remembering of the Air.” It begins with an ode to the mystery and enigma of this elemental force. “On the one hand, the air is the most pervasive presence I can name, enveloping, embracing, and caressing me both inside and out, moving in ripples along my skin, flowing between my fingers, swirling around my arms and thighs, rolling in eddies along the roof of my mouth, slipping ceaselessly through throat and trachea to fill the lungs, to feed my blood, my heart, my self . . . Yet the air, on the other hand, is the most outrageous absence known to this body” (1996, 225). Although at times he continues to equate invisible with unknowable—​an assumption that I have gone to some length to refute throughout this book—​Abram documents the importance of air as a sacred substance in some aboriginal and Native American cultures. Through his examples, he demonstrates how air, particularly in the form of wind, is associated with the ineffable and carries spiritual powers for many First Nations peoples. Later, he looks to the origins of the ancient Greek and Roman world views, detailing the linguistic connections between mind, breath, and soul, and tracing the etymological foundations of modern terms such as psychology (psyche) and animation (anima) which all refer to the vital power of air in some form or another. Returning to contemporary culture, Abram laments that too many of us conceive of air as a void, a “mere empty space.” This is a phrase that he uses repeatedly to emphasize our disassociated relationship to this essential but invisible element of our world. Further, he concludes that: “Lacking all sacredness, stripped of all spiritual significance, the air is today little more than a conveniently forgotten dump site for a host of gaseous effluents and industrial pollutants” (258). The Spell of the Sensuous is a call for a more embodied approach to the world, a plea to use our senses to reinvigorate our relationship to our surrounding environment. Jumping off from Merleau-​Ponty’s discussion of synesthesia, Abram posits a “primordial,” direct, and inherently participatory experience of the natural world that we have lost sight of (literally) in our post-​industrial, media-​ saturated lifestyles. Abram, like many other social critics and environmentalists, recognizes that the erosion of our sense of interconnectedness is part and parcel of the modern scientific manner of thinking about self and other. This includes a hierarchy of the senses in which seeing is believing and feeling is suspect. The fact that these cultural dispositions are a result of several centuries of exploitation suggests to me that our attitudes cannot simply be willed away. As we know, changing ways of thinking and somatic habits is possible, but it is usually an incremental process. That is why it is important to engage the physical practices that give us a palpable experience of the difference between seeing “mere empty

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space” and feeling the support of the air around us. In addition to opening my body to the space around it, I have spent years cultivating a sense that the air supports me three-​dimensionally—​as if I  could fly even while falling—​as if I could stay suspended in mid-​air. Almost. After moving vigorously through the space, my students or workshop participants will settle into the “stand” or “small dance” in order to experience the subtle shifts of weight and the line of energy from sky to earth that I ask them to imagine running through their bodies. This brings their focus inside their bodies. But we don’t get stuck there. I draw my students’ attention to how the air contacts the light layer of moisture that has built up on their forehead, behind their neck, back of the knees, palms of the hands, and toes. I suggest they open the pores of their skin to allow the air to enter their body like a breeze moving through the leaves of a birch tree. Sometimes I  suggest they imagine their skin as a screen door rather than a barrier. This image helps them sense their bodies as part of the world and can lead to a physical and psychic reorganization. I  ask them to try to imagine that they could breathe through the pores of their skin. Here we encounter what I think of as an ecological focus, one where we can see ourselves as part of—​not distinct from—​the environment. As one participant remarks, “I love the image of my pores opening wide because it allows me to connect inner sensation with outer sensation . . . I also like the way it allows the protective barrier of my skin to disappear. When I envision my pores opening wide my body is able to enter the world around me . . . It feels like a joining of my body with my surroundings” (Faith Morrison 2015). (See Inset #9 Breathing through the Pores.) Many of us grew up in a germophobic atmosphere in which our skin is seen as the container separating the “clean” self from the “dirty” outside. This defensive mentality positions our skin as the secure barrier to disease, infection, or any kind of “otherness,” including other races.2 Here skin is envisioned as a wall—​a solid border—​meant to keep us safe from the “bad” infiltration of our system, be it communism, immigrants, or swine flu. The admonition “wash your hands!” from our childhoods resonates with various contemporary public health campaigns whose well-​intentioned mottos encouraging us to “sanitize” breed a fear of contamination that closes down our sensation and closes off our skin. In these circumstances, touching and being touched becomes difficult. This reality is humorously portrayed in Patrick Richardson’s contribution to Encounters with Contact. In his post-​college work as a computer engineer, he remarks that in this context of machines and paperwork, everything is kept sterile and his “skin yearns” for contact. At least once a week, I get a clamoring hunger-​rash on my body. I now make sure to seek out, at least twice weekly, a half-​minute dance on the four-​story elevator ride down to lunch. Sometimes I deliberately


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Inset #9  Breathing through the Pores

Begin moving quickly through the space, shifting directions as well as facings such that your body gets used to moving in all directions and the space becomes full and energized. (You can use some favorite rhythmic music to help mobilize your energy.) Also play with changing levels, finding different ways to go down to the floor and come back up to standing. After a few minutes, your heart should be pumping, your fluids should be juicing, and you should have broken a slight sweat. Walk for a moment and then take a stand. Align your spine sky to earth, extending up through the top of your head and rooting down through your feet. Close your eyes and follow your breath through a series of inhalations and exhalations. Now bring your attention to your skin and imagine that your skin is like a screen door, allowing air and the world to enter your body. Notice the cool sensation of the air absorbing the moisture on your skin. Imagine that your skin is so expansive you can breathe through each pore. There is a bit of anatomical truth to the idea that we respire through our epidermis, but this image goes further. Feel how the inhalation opens each pore a little wider and how the exhalation breathes you out into the world through the skin. Begin to sway slowly from side to side, using the motion to increase your awareness of the feeling of air all around you. Allow your body to both move and be moved by the air inside and outside of you. Keep this feeling of buoyancy as you begin to move through the space.

wait for an empty car, just to make sure all that slick stainless steel—​ four full-​panel walls, three low-​set rails—​is there for my skin and my skin alone. (2010, 39) He has been “caught in the act” twice, the second time by a person applying sanitizer gel to their hands. He adds, “I must have looked especially contagious when the door opened on me: wildly licking the walls with my shoulder blades, one thigh extended atop the hand-​rail, blocking the panel of buttons” (39). If, on the other hand, I conceive of my skin as the porous medium of exchange between the self and the world, then I will be more apt to experience it as a permeable, sensitive layer that can facilitate the experience of living. I mentioned earlier that I often use the image of our skin as being like a screen window, and I encourage students to allow air, smells, and sounds to enter their bodies and influence their movement. I also suggest that they try breathing through their pores, opening these tiny conduits such that inside and outside lose their oppositional meanings.3 Here is how Corey Spiro describes that experience:

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I feel as though we live in a world where the boundary between self and “other” is constantly being defined, labeled, and monitored. This is especially apparent in our perceptions of the ownership of space. MY PROPERTY, MY ROOM, etc. Nowhere is this line more clearly drawn than at our skin [ . . . ] It’s all too easy to convince oneself that the skin represents the ultimate energetic boundary between self and other. Of course, this barrier works both ways, just as it stops the world from coming into us, it similarly prevents our conception of self from expanding beyond the limits of our physical bodies. I would expect then, that opening the pores of my skin wide enough to let the world in would be a frightening experience. Rather than an upsetting intrusion, however, I was surprised to find out that it was actually extremely refreshing. My energy in class was perhaps lagging a little bit today, but I  felt that by opening myself up I  was able to simultaneously expand outward into the energy of Wild Main Space and also feel more acutely the electromagnetic fields of everyone else standing around me. In short, opening my pores did more than just “let the world in,” it also let me out. The feeling was one of freedom and relief, as I was no longer alone within the prison-​like confines of my injured and fatigued frame. (2010, 40) Opening our skin can facilitate a dialogue between self and the world. As I let the world enter me, I recognize my place in the world. Herein lies an intriguing example of the interdependence of internal and external, of periphery and proprioception, of self and other. Over the years, students in my courses have reflected on this experience in their class journals, emphasizing how the feeling of air entering their pores can invite the sensibility of being connected to the world around. “Opening my pores wide enough for the world to come in makes me a part of it. Hole after hole, gaping and wide, just minimizes the skin that was there. I am air, I am sun” (Miles 2010, 38). In a wonderful shift from physical to metaphysical, Isabel Roth connects this practice with a state of open-​mindedness. I think of the idea of opening pores being similar to the idea of opening your mind. It’s not as if you can actively think to open pores and actually feel the individual pores opening. But it is a palpable feeling of release, of spreading and opening your skin to the physical space and people around you. In doing so, you release whatever baggage or negativity has been trapped inside. Allowing breath to fill the body, the skin feels energized and open, ready to receive. (2010, 38) In this statement, Isabel highlights the dynamic exchange between physical practices and mental attitudes by suggesting that finding an open quality in one’s


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body can certainly help open up one’s thinking. Another student once shared with me a truism that she learned from her high school theater director: It is easier to act your way into a new mode of thinking than it is to think your way into a new mode of acting. Given that I am a dancer who works in higher education, I find that statement particularly apt. Many times, it is easier for my students to focus on a physical experience and then reflect on how that attention to sensation can open another way of thinking. Like Isabel, I have found that the practice of breathing with an awareness of a momentary suspension can inspire a certain spaciousness of mind as well.4 The physical practices that I have been describing so far—​focusing on the role of the diaphragm in breathing, feeling the three domes of support, opening the pores of our skin, and attending to cellular breathing—​all bring our attention to the relationship of air to space both inside and outside our bodies. To be more precise, these practices actually refuse the very terms of that spatial separation by articulating the interconnected nature of both. Inhale . . . exhale. When they find this supportive spaciousness, my students also find a new sense of ease in their dancing. I remember the extraordinary metamorphosis of a musician who once took my Contact Improvisation class. He was a horn player, short and stocky, whose movements were initially contained and heavy. He had difficulty extending through space or finding a sense of buoyancy. Then, in the midst of a class where people were dancing in the middle of a circle with their eyes closed, I chanced to look over and saw the most amazing transformation. There was Michael, arms spread like wings arching backwards in a spiral down to the floor. He rolled over and got right back up to do it again, just like a kid who has recently mastered walking. He was literally enacting the physical equivalent of swooning, and everyone watching recognized that we had just witnessed the magic that fairy tales are made of—​this creature had just emerged from his cocoon. I believe that the genesis of this transformation was Michael’s newfound ability to connect with the support of air in each and every one of his cells, especially those in his back.

Backspace The epigraph to Laura Sewall’s chapter on depth is entitled “Genuine Depth” and includes the following excerpt from David Abram:  “The primordial experience of depth is always the experience of a sort of interiority of the external world” (1999, 161). In her writing about perception, Sewall underscores the etymological roots of attention as an “attending to” or “taking care of.” Her discussion of depth begins with a walk down into the Grand Canyon. She records her sense of immersion into a space so vast and a geological history so deep, that it causes her to have a bit of vertigo at first. In his foreward to Sewall’s book Sight and Sensibility:  The Ecopsychology of Perception, Abram articulates this as

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the difference between looking at and gazing into. “If we no longer consider ourselves to be wholly a part of the natural world, it is perhaps because we have lost our depth perception, because our eyes have forfeited their native ability to continually respond to the close and distant beckonings of an enveloping terrain—​ because, that is, we have become accustomed to looking at the world rather than gazing out into its depths” (xvi). Both Abram and Sewall draw on Merleau-​Ponty’s discussion of depth in The Phenomenology of Perception to distinguish between the notion of depth as a result of binocular vision (an ability to see and judge the distance between things) and depth as an embodied synesthetic experience. They want to expand our way of seeing to include not only the action of looking, but also a total immersion in the sight itself. For environmental advocates such as Sewall and Abram, this difference between viewing nature from the outside as a pretty picture (as if through a camera lens) or fully experiencing the natural world as a dynamic presence suggests radically different ecological paradigms. It is the difference between a model of objectification and one of reciprocity. The question of depth is intimately connected to our embodied experience. If we can’t feel the thickness of our physical selves (including our backspace), we certainly won’t be able to feel the thickness of the physical world. Like air, depth is a quality of space that we need to take inside of ourselves in order to feel it. And, like our breathing, depth perception is often a question of paying attention to what is already there, hidden behind the obvious. As I send students walking through the open space of a wonderfully resonant old wooden gymnasium cum dance studio, I  am struck by how little this generation relates to the vibrant spaciousness at first. With few exceptions, the habitual orientation of young adults is to view everything in the same flat, two-​dimensional manner as they do their computer or phones. Their (over)use of these digital screens has trained their brain synapses to attend to the world in a flat, two-​dimensional manner. Recently there has been a spate of editorials in the media about how small digital devices are ruining younger people’s posture and eye sight, as well as discussions of scientific studies that suggest that an open physical attitude and psychological wellbeing are intimately connected. (Something that dance teachers know only too well.) In response to this lack of spatial awareness, I have become more and more specific in my verbal directions. After moving vigorously through the space to warm up, my students take a stand, close their eyes, and focus on their small dance, feeling the line of energy from sky to earth. At this moment, they experience the power of working with inner perception, feeling how the smaller the motion, the bigger the sensation. Very often I will draw their attention to the three-​dimensionality of sound, including the sounds in the room and those outside the building as well. I ask them to shift their weight back onto their heels to feel the deeper, stabilizing muscles


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at the core of their bodies and to bring awareness to their backs. When we slowly begin to reintroduce sight after a couple minutes, I suggest that they open their eyes while keeping weight in their heels. I emphasize the difference between letting the world come into our field of vision and using our eyes to grab or fixate on the object of sight, suggesting that it is possible to look out without moving forward. This shift in visual orientation affords us a new sense of depth, giving us the opportunity of seeing ourselves in the world, not just the world from our point of view (which, as we know, can be quite limited). As I have argued in the previous chapters, I believe that there is a psychic reorganization here as well. So often we use our eyes to stake a claim on an idea, a person, or a landscape. But that kind of seeing necessarily puts a distance between the self and the object of vision. When we release that colonialist paradigm of sight as desire for or ownership of, we can begin to use our vision in a way that allows us to touch the world and to be touched by it, attending to what we see not just directly in front of us, but also what we feel behind. Most of the time we are not particularly aware of our backs or the space behind us. (Having spent the last several years trying to navigate around texting college students with ear buds, I am starting to wonder if the under-​thirty crowd has any awareness of the space in front of them as well!) Sure, in yoga class we may think about our spines, and when we are trying on new jeans we may fret about the size of our behinds, but generally speaking, the backs of our bodies are relegated to the background of our consciousness. The exception to this is the common-​place encounter with back pain, an experience that forces us to attend to the imbalances we have acquired by not paying attention to our back-​bodies. Like falling, back is a term that is heavily loaded with cultural baggage. Connected to the past—​often with what is best left behind—​back signifies as undesirable position in the world, just as the compound backwards implies culturally stagnant or under-​developed. In fact, the only positive use of the word I can readily think of is the phrase “got your back.” Even without being mentioned directly, backs often get relegated to a negative perspective. This is particularly striking in the current jargon of politicians and corporations claiming to be “forward-​thinking” all the while eviscerating social programs or smaller, less-​ profitable independent companies. Sometimes this tendency to dismiss our backs is interpreted as a biological function. As Drew Leader points out in his book The Absent Body, “given the forward-​directedness of our sensori-​motor organs [ . . . ] the back of the body is comparatively forgotten. It is absorbed in background disappearance” (1990, 29). Natalie Goldberg adds a cultural dimension to this discussion when she claims: “Particularly in our Western ambitious, productive, drill, workout society, it is hard to hear what’s at our back; we only pay attention to what’s in front, advancing, a goal” (2013, 40). Once we recognize this tendency to attend only to what is in front of our eyes, it is possible to cultivate an alternative sensibility, one that is willing to pay

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attention to what we can’t readily see. Breathing with attention to the experience of our diaphragms, we can begin to feel volume in our backs as well as our sides and our front-​bodies. While we are sitting in meditation, my yoga teacher will have us use a blanket stretched gently across the upper-​middle back to encourage a greater awareness of this subtle movement. Sometimes I use my hands resting lightly on a student’s back to help them feel that expansion. There is often a palpable sense of tenderness and relief when people find the support of air inside their lower lungs, and around their kidneys and backs. Even standing or walking, we can become more aware of our backspace. This shift not only relaxes our eyes and opens up our peripheral vision, it also helps us breathe more easefully into the support of our backspace. I once had a student who wrote a final essay on this newfound awareness of her backspace. She called it “Back Story” and asserted that: “the experience of what we do not see, the presence of what we feel behind us, lends meaning to what is in front of us as well as our experience of the body as a whole. An understanding of this space allows me to exist more fully in my body because it forces me to recognize that vision is not the only or the most important means of interacting with my surroundings” (Laura Grothaus 2009, 2). This is an amazing realization for an eighteen-​year-​old; but it is, of course, only the first step. The key is to find a way to integrate this newfound awareness into the rest of one’s life, to find a movement practice to balance out the constant demands that we only focus on the screen inches from our face. Given several early discussions of how the improvisational practices in Contact allow us to feel what we cannot readily see, it should come as no surprise that much of the physical training in Contact Improvisation is built on the supportive role of our backs. In Contact, we learn to feel a range of pressures and to respond our partner’s weight with the right amount of resistance. We also learn to carry the weight of our partner’s body on our backs, and to develop a heightened sensitivity to quick changes in the position or disposition of our partners through our backs. In this form, the most reliable cues are found within the tactile rather than the visual, which is one reason why visually impaired people find this kind of dancing gloriously accessible. The fact is that we can learn to react more quickly to a change of pressure on our skin than to take the extra split-​second required for our brains to mentally compute a visual image. This is why a blind person can drop and catch a dish before it hits the ground, while a sighted person is most often left staring in amazement at the shards on the floor—​wondering what just happened. One of my favorite exercises to illustrate this point begins with two partners back to back. One person twists and dives on their stomach right next to their partner’s legs. Registering the motion in their back, the other partner spirals down into a log-​roll, supported by their partner’s back. It is like a perfect helix that moves from vertical to horizontal. But if the second partner makes any


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hesitation, or if they turn their heads to look before following the movements of their partner’s back, the whole synchrony will shift, and the partners will fall apart. The same physical logic of flowing with rather than looking at holds true for all kinds of upside down “back puzzles” where the partners need to feel through their backs to figure out the next move. Jeroen Peeters, a writer and a performer living in Brussels, wrote a book evocatively entitled Through the Back: Situating Vision between Moving Bodies, which interweaves his critical thinking on contemporary dance with poetic descriptions of his corporeal experiences while watching. In this series of writings, Peeters speaks to the act of perceiving movement as a “complex relationality between he who sees and that which is being seen” (2014, 6). Throughout the book, he encounters the backs of performers, including that of Trisha Brown in her famous solo “If you could see me . . .” in which she faced upstage, away from the audience for the whole dance. Theorizing about this particular trope in contemporary dance forces him to recognize that he will need to “twist around” to see through the prevailing ideology of vision—​seeing as believing. He writes: “The notions of the spinal support of man’s upright stance and the blind space behind our backs recur time and again throughout this book: they provide an anthropological ground for the invitation to consciously move, perceive, imagine and think through the back” (21). Although it may seem counterintuitive, supporting a solid mass on our backs wakes us up to the sensation of air there as well. This “back-​wards” sensibility operates a bit like a sponge, which once squeezed, can absorb more water. In a similar manner, once the weight of someone else leaves my back, it soaks up the air, creating a sense of buoyancy that helps me launch my body right into a back arch over my partner’s shoulder or back. This is an example of the kind of magical coordination through touch rather than sight that can make Contact Improvisation so exciting to watch. It is also a beloved moment of sports photography—​the sailing back arch of a diver, skier, or gymnast suspended in mid-​air. Twenty-​five years ago I choreographed a dance in which I finished by circling up a big ramp and diving backwards off the edge. The timing of the lights was crucial, for they had to go black just as I was in mid-​air. It was an audacious move, most especially because I trusted eight students to catch me in the dark. But I was attempting to stage in performance an archetypal human moment of being suspended between sky and earth. These days, I  realize that I  can access that same feeling on a subtler (and less dangerous) scale by focusing on the spaces inside my body. These include not only my diaphragm, but also the space of the dome of my mouth and the bowl of my pelvis. It is a very different sensation to find support internally through a sense of space rather than muscular effort. Now when I  introduce back extensions in a dance or yoga class, I encourage my students to feel these pockets of air supporting their upper backs. If we spend some time exploring

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this sense of spaciousness inside our bodies, I can feel the quality of attention in the room change. Tapping into their proprioception, people are much more present in their bodies. It is common to think of a back arch as a curve of the spine initiated by the muscles running lengthwise down the spine. But we can use our breath to locate a deeper core engagement that stabilizes our movement while still allowing for a porousness of our skin that opens unto the world. In this way, our sensation expands into spaciousness, acknowledging the importance of dwelling in place.

Dwelling In 1966, J.J. Gibson, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, published The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. In it he postulated that our senses were not simply passive recipients of stimuli affecting our individual senses of sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch, but rather active participants in dynamic systems of perception, including our basic-​orienting system (proprioception) and the haptic system. As defined by Gibson, the haptic system addresses our embodied feeling of occupying space. His notion of actively occupying space is one of the reasons that long-​time improvisers Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson both still recommend that their students read this book, even though the empirical studies he references have long since been updated by advances in neuroscience and brain imaging. His message is very simple: we have to move in order to inhabit a place. Just looking at space does not give us the same experience or knowledge. I first became intrigued with this notion of “haptic” perception while reading Kent Bloomer and Charles Moore’s classic text of architectural design Body, Memory, and Architecture (1977), written for their students in the Yale School of Architecture. In their discussion of lived space, Bloomer and Moore refer to Gibson’s work on the haptic as an essential consideration for any kind of building project, public or private. “To sense haptically is to experience objects in the environment by actually touching them (by climbing a mountain rather than staring at it). Treated as a perceptual system the haptic incorporates all those sensations (pressure, warmth, cold, pain, and kinesthetic) which previously divided up the sense of touch, and thus it includes all those aspects of sensual detection which involve physical contact both inside and outside the body” (34). Perhaps their interest in the haptic was sparked by seeing one too many student projects in which the visual seduction of design trumped its functional elements or any sense of how that space might eventually be inhabited. Sometimes when I  see a building designer’s renderings of a new project with those simulated figurines standing around the foreground, I wonder, “How are people going to move through this space?” and “How are we going to feel in this


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physical environment?” For an architectural configuration of space to be successful, it has to inspire our active participation in that environment. From the perspective of this chapter on suspension, I would define the haptic system as encompassing our sensibility to three-​dimensional space (both inside and outside our bodies) and the ways in which we make that space a place by actively inhabiting it. Right after their discussion of our haptic system, Bloomer and Moore introduce the notion of dwelling. In a caption to the whimsical pen and ink drawings that illustrate this section, they write: “We experience satisfaction in architecture not by aggressively seeking it out, but by dwelling in it” (36). These sketched images are comic and yet telling. One shows a figure holding a pair of binoculars looking into a row of columns with fluted designs, while the other pictures someone lying on a chaise lounge next to a fireplace, head and feet luxuriously propped up, hands folded behind their head, with a big old smile drawn on their face. Clearly binocular vision (seeing) is not the same as truly inhabiting a space (dwelling). Earlier on in this chapter, I defined suspension as “slowing us down enough to feel space enter time.” Dwelling could be seen as its mirror reflection: a space where time enters to slow down. Used as both a noun and a verb, dwelling suggests an expansive connection to the environment, a place of inspired living, and it includes a sense of home. Bloomer and Moore’s use of the term “dwelling” is very much indebted to German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s essay “Building Dwelling Thinking.” One of several pieces gathered in the collection entitled Poetry, Language, Thought, this discussion of dwelling was originally delivered as a lecture, part of a 1951 colloquium on “Man and Space.” Over the course of this essay, Heidegger calls for the importance of a “poetic” or thoughtful living. He reminds us that space is not an abstract realm out there in the distance, but rather a situation—​at once human-​made and natural. For Heidegger, we create a sense of authentic dwelling by building with thinking. He begins this writing by pointing out the various etymologies connected to the German words for building (which include inflections of staying in one, and being a neighbor). Intriguingly, he crafts his philosophical argument the way that Gertrude Stein assembles her prose portraits, his gerunds washing over the reader like waves back and forth across the shore. Their meaning is revealed only after the tide of his language has retreated into the sea, leaving the traces of his ideas marked on the beach. As Albert Hofstadter, the editor and translator of this collection, comments in his introduction to the book, Heidegger’s style of prose is part of his message. He notes that Heidegger intentionally left out the commas between “Building Dwelling Thinking” to emphasize their interconnectedness. I think it is significant that the word “dwelling” is suspended between building and thinking, for Heidegger positions dwelling as the bringing together of action (building) with reflection (thinking). Like Manning’s interval or Stark Smith’s gap, this

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space in-​between also refuses the implied binary at either end. For Heidegger, “Building and thinking are, each in its own way, inescapable for dwelling. The two, however, are also insufficient for dwelling so long as each busies itself with its own affairs in separation instead of listening to one another” (1971, 160–​ 161). If they are truly attentive to one another, building and thinking lay the foundations in which dwelling can be both mindful and participatory. As a dancer, I find it absolutely fascinating that the Latin root of the word “place” means the sole of the foot. Every time I stand still and close my eyes, I imagine my feet rooting down through their soles into the soil underneath. This image helps me feel the support of gravity, connecting me to the subtle movements of the earth. In teaching, I often suggest that students try to walk with the earth rather than walking on the ground. The role of our bodies in this process of making place became perfectly obvious one summer as I drafted an early version of this chapter during a four-​week writing residency at the Vermont Studio Center in Northern Vermont. The regular rhythm of reading and writing alternated with walking up and down the mountain ridges that edge this small town. Climbing high in order to experience the open vistas of the green mountains surrounding the town, I  was aware of finding a “foot-​hold,” so to speak, on my developing ideas about suspension. Yi-​Fu Tuan describes how a sense of place is created when we take a pause in the middle of space. In his chapter on the intimate experiences of place, he writes: “Place is a pause in movement . . . The pause makes it possible for a locality to become a center of felt value” (1977, 138). Of course, establishing a sense of place is a reciprocal exchange; as my foot makes an impression on the gravel pathways and grassy hills, the landscape in turns impresses itself upon me. The traces of these impressions are a synesthetic combination of sights, sounds, smells, textures, and the ineffable quality of the atmosphere. Connecting to the landscape gives me a way to center my writing and ground myself in a new place. Yet while I was in the extraordinary mountains of Vermont, I  was also struck by how many younger members of this artistic community (many not much older than my students) walked around bent over and totally engrossed with their text messages on their phone screens, oddly unaware of the dramatic shifts in the sky above their heads unless a sudden cloud burst forced them to put away their devices and scramble for shelter. Breathing is a form of dwelling in the body. As Thich Nhat Hahn reminds us, “When you breathe in, you bring your mind home to your body.” Hahn, one of the foremost teachers of Buddhism in the West, demystifies the practices of mindful meditation by repeatedly calling on us to use the breath to find home in our bodies. After he was exiled from Vietnam for his peaceful but persistent anti-​war activities, Hahn established Plum Village, a small community in the south of France, in 1982. Now well into his ninth decade, Hahn has been traveling and teaching all over the world for many decades. About fifteen years ago,


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I spent a week suspended on another mountain in Vermont when I attended a silent meditation retreat led by him. I was on the cusp of turning forty at the time, with little kids and a full-​time job. Most people who knew me as someone who moves big and talks fast burst out laughing (I kid you not) when they heard that I was planning to be still and silent for seven days. It is true, I had never spent much time meditating, and I do not exactly have a Zen personality. Nonetheless, years of dancing had taught me to follow the subtle movements of my body, and thus I found myself in a big tent on a small mountain absorbed by the movement between inhalations and exhalations, increasingly intrigued by the suspension at the top of my inspiration. “Allow your breath to take place,” Hahn would instruct us, “come home to your body.” One of the practices that Thich Nhat Hahn introduced to the group that week was walking at a very slow, mindful pace. Each step took the space of a full breath. I would inhale and reach a foot out in front of me, letting it hover, suspend over the ground. Then I would exhale, shifting my weight into the support of the earth. It was an extraordinary experience to move that slowly for close to an hour, especially in the midst of a group of fifty laypeople and assorted monks on the side of a mountain. Amazingly, when I returned to Ohio and tried the same practice around the reservoir by my house, my five-​year-​old son spontaneously joined me, matching my steps breath by breath. I use a similar exercise in my Somatic Landscapes class, and I find that the slow pace allows students to register the visual experience of the surrounding landscape in their backs as well as the fronts of their faces. Spending that much time on each step literally allows them to incorporate space, creating a sense of three-​dimensionality that opens up the experience of suspension. While I  was in residence at the Vermont Studio Center, one of my fellow housemates was a woman artist working with the visual tracing of breath. Theresa Antonellis’s series entitled “One Breath One Line” is a painted meditation.5 Standing in front of paper, she draws one line for each breath she takes. One breath, one line. Next breath, she creates another line right next to it. Reflecting the natural variations of each breath, these lines are parallel, but not straight or even. Whether done on a piece of paper with pen and ink, or a large scroll with brush and paint, these paintings are impressive records of a breathing practice that extends over a long time. For her 2015 show at Kent State University’s Uumbaji Gallery, Antonellis hung many of these large scrolls vertically from the ceiling as well as horizontally along the walls. Being surrounded by thousands of breath-​gestures created an extraordinary experience in which the average viewer had no choice but to become aware of their own breath at the same time. Meditation retreats, dance workshops, and writing residencies all involve certain suspensions of our daily lives. Often, we travel to fairly remote regions (hence my two experiences on mountains in Vermont), and try to use the luxury of time and space to jump start a creative project, take time for self-​reflection,

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or learn new skills. These kinds of opportunities to escape our routines are a privilege in many ways, and this special time can be deeply gratifying and transformative. But they are not a panacea. For those of us juggling the many responsibilities of kids, animals, elderly parents, and community projects, not to mention work, even a single week away can require multiple debts as we assign the various care-​taking tasks to others. (It is always a shock for me to realize how much I do when I am obliged to hire other people to water the plants, feed the animals, clean the house, and visit the grandma!) There is also a certain amount of pressure to create, write, improve oneself, or have an epiphany during this special time. Although these kinds of suspensions can provide a wonderful sense of renewal or transformation, they usually don’t drastically change our lives. Nonetheless, they can give us a taste of a practice that can help us survive the most disorienting moments in our lives. It is striking to me that even in the most abject of environments—​the prison—​breathing can be a very powerful practice. In her provocative essay “Bodies Inside/​Out: Violation and Resistance from the Prison Cell to The Bluest Eye,” Laura Doyle examines prison narratives which document the horrific and intrusive acts of physical and psychic domination practiced within the dank walls and narrow cells of political prisons in Ireland, Romania, and Argentina. Her discussion of prisoners’ use of their breathing presents a disturbing, and yet ultimately revelatory, example of how “bodily vulnerability forms the ground of resistance” (2006, 183) to the brutal realities of involuntary confinement. In a series of accounts, prisoners recount how they used their breathing to connect to their deepest selves, creating a place of refuge in the midst of incarceration. Although they are difficult to read, these are necessarily stories of survival, for their writers have lived to tell the tale of their (and others’) imprisonment. Within each recitation there is a moment of realization when the narrator recognizes that no other person can violate that internal space of one’s own breathing. Doyle comments:  “For, short of death, and sometime regardless of desire, there is always an internal space—​a breathing space quite literally as well as analogically; and while dense matter can be dominated, can be forced into this or that position, penetrated with this or that weapon, the breathing space cannot be [ . . . ] It holds the possibility of defiance and duplicity—​of survival, or evasion of invasion” (188). This physical realization leads to a psychic sense of liberation, as breathing is experienced as resistance—​an existential suspension of the boundaries of one’s skin, prison cell, or political confinement. So, let’s return to our breaths one more time. Inhale  .  .  .  exhale. Dwelling and suspension are essentially poetic states of being and as such, both derive their potency from inspiration. In the same way that a suspension at the top of the inhalation can bring the supportive sensation of air into our bodies, dwelling allows our bodies to experience the restorative quality of place in the world. Many forms of yoga include a specific type of pranayama, the controlled


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breathing patterns at the core of many yoga practices that are meant to increase “prana” (life force) and calm the mind. Often, the focus of this breathing exercise is on lengthening the exhale, sometimes with alternate nostril breathing. But there are also practices that extend the moment of suspension at the end of the inhalation as well as at the end of the exhalation. This embrace of the gap at the edge of each phase of the breath creates an odd and intriguing sensation of floating in place. Dwelling in this space, I feel neither good nor bad, neither present nor absent. I am just there—​suspended somewhere in between sky and earth. At the end of July, when the heat and humidity of the Ohio summer slow me down considerably, I find myself gravitating back to that porch swing in which I spent so many hours after John Christian’s death. I lie down on my back, gazing up at the sky and reflecting on that moment of his fatal fall. In her book Economy of the Unlost, Anne Carson writes: “Remembering brings the absent into the present, connects what is lost with what is here. Remembering draws attention to lostness and is made possible by emotions of space that open backward into a void” (1999, 38). Certain memories are like that, they pull us back and down into the dark below the earth. Other memories flood our consciousness with a wash of pleasure, leaving us light-​hearted and expansive for a time. Of course, memories are rarely stable, slipping as they do between competing versions of the past. Despite the extensive marketing efforts by the likes of Hallmark, Facebook, or Instagram, memories can never be captured in two dimensions, high definition or not. Like backspace, memories are part of the ambiguous experience of feeling deeply but never seeing directly. Maybe it is time to release the expectation that they can be “captured,” put down our cameras or phones, and attend instead to the suspensions inside our breathing. Inhale . . . exhale. Like the breath, memory is best followed and not controlled, allowed but not forced. This is true whether our memories are tied to a photograph, a person, or a place. Remembering, our bodies call forth what is no longer visible, registering the traces of the past on our connective tissue. Memories inhabit our bodies, connecting time with space. They have both depth and breath. In her discussion of the act of remembering, Carson quotes Paul Celan, who points to the etymological connections between “thinking and thanking” (40). Thich Nhat Hanh also links mindfulness and gratitude, instructing us to breathe in with awareness and out with thanks. Of course, some memories do not make it easy to feel gratitude. Instead they invade our being, causing rage, pain, distrust, or fear that can easily overwhelm us. This I have learned to accept, knowing that it too will pass. But I have found something else—​another kind of support in the midst of this void. Inhale . . . exhale. It turns out that if I breathe in with suspension, I can breathe out with grace.

4 Falling Disorientation Suspension Gravity Resilience Connection It is rare that I am committed to my current location. It seems that location has become less important now that we are all connected, and I find myself living in a chronic state of dislocation. I am addicted to the Internet. I make frequent free long-​distance cell phone calls to my friends from home. And due to school breaks and travel, it’s been a long while since I’ve been in any one place for more than a few months. It’s hard to commit to wherever I am when I know I’ll just be packing my bags and leaving soon. I am in a desk in Shakespeare class, but my head is in the clouds. My roommate is on her bed looking up what the weather is like in Australia. My friend’s mom does her government job at her house on the couch, orders us pizza, and we watch people party on cruise ships on the daytime soaps. But when my Contact class danced in Tappan Square, we were in Tappan Square. (Katherine Dohan 2010, 33)

Katherine Dohan, a senior English and Music major at Oberlin College published the above personal reflection in a collection of essays I edited on the practice of Contact Improvisation in college. “Dancing and the Importance of Place” may be a short writing, but it has stayed with me for a long time because it articulates succinctly and viscerally an experience that seems endemic to her generation. Thus, it is worth reflecting at some length on her discussion of a painful sense of dis-​connection in the midst of digital connectivity. What is particularly striking to me about Katherine’s discussion of her “chronic state of dislocation” is the mix of psychic and physical restlessness. Always able to link into another



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(virtual) reality, she finds it hard to stay in one place, to be present with herself wherever she is. Katherine is not alone. Her generation marks the beginning of a lifestyle and a way of being in the world that is deeply affected by the ubiquity of screens. Many young and not-​ so-​ young adults casually use the term “addicted” in referring to their internet surfing or social media use. Over the past six years, I  have been talking extensively with students about the constant presence of phones at the ready in their hands as well as their use of social media and the role of texting in their lives. Many students “confess” (their word, not mine) to feeling overwhelmed by the build-​up of messages on their assorted screens, but most seem to feel powerless to extricate themselves from this vicious cycle of being available—​texting and being texted, messaging and being messaged. Like any habitual action, there is a level of muscle memory and impulse operating in their thumbs such that many times they have logged onto something without being entirely aware of what they were doing. Often, this is not always a conscious choice, but rather a pre-​conscious reaction. It is fashionable to speak of being “tethered” to our devices, but the level of co-​dependency between some students and their phones is pretty striking. Always in their hands, the phone seems to operate as part of their automatic system, like their breathing. Katherine’s writing was occasioned by a class exercise in which we went out to the town green on a beautiful day and used movement improvisation to connect with and embody different aspects of the natural and human-​made landscape. She relates how this was not an easy exercise at first, but in time she experienced an important revelation: It is a challenge to make my body and mind live in the same location. But somehow, both managed to inhabit the same bench that day. Within my tragically fractured existence, dancing is one of the few times when I can be in one place. It is rather ironic that the time when I can best become a part of a specific location is while I am moving. Yet, in this world that is becoming more and more disconnected through constant connection, in which the need to move is declining every day, moving might be more important than ever. (33) Using the sensations of our bodies to focus our distracted minds is absolutely critical for many of us these days. The various somatic practices detailed in this book such as the training for an awareness of one’s breath rhythms, a sense of three-​dimensional space, not to mention the experience of the material weight of the world (the focus of this chapter), all seemed to help Katherine find a deeper connection with place and, ultimately, her body. This chapter weaves an in-​depth discussion of the physical function of releasing our bodies into the support of gravity with an analysis of how that

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experience can serve as an important grounding in our daily lives. Drawing from studies in developmental movement as well as somatic practices that focus on neuromuscular principles, I explore how gravity forms the basis for all our movement, including our breath. I begin by reviewing the crucial distinction between collapsing and yielding in order to demonstrate how the same force that draws us to the ground can also sponsor our action in the world. Once we learn to feel the support of the earth, we can engage that support to push away from the ground, thus finding our own sense of resistance and agency. In addition, gravity can provide a useful counterbalance to the presence of two-​dimensional screens in our lives. By allowing us to experience weight, gravity is key to our sense of grounding, linking inhalation with exhalation, sky to earth, as well as the sympathetic and parasympathetic aspects of our autonomic nervous system.

The Support of Gravity “Breath is the basic movement of life. Gravity is the most basic force. [ . . . ] These two primary functions are intimately connected” (Newton 1997, 27). If the inhalation inspires us to dwell in a moment of suspended being, the exhalation brings us down to the earth, connecting us with gravity. Although we know that gravity is a force that operates as part of the natural order of things, most adults pay little attention to how this connection with the earth supports their everyday experiences. This perceptual blind spot can contribute to a sense of restlessness and existential dis-​ease that is a direct result of our busy, multi-​ tasking contemporary lifestyle. By shifting our constant focus on doing to the foundation of being underneath, we can begin to notice how this basic force can help us relax our rigid muscles and rest our tense minds. Taking the time to release into the support of the earth enables us to feel how gravity gives meaning to our lives—​ grounding our intentions, supporting our actions, and even strengthening our will. Gravity is the physical attraction of the earth’s mass to bodies on its surface, and, quantitatively speaking, it affects us all equally no matter where we find ourselves on the globe. Culturally, however, we may have fundamentally different ways of making sense of this physical force.1 In contemporary American culture, gravity is most often invoked as a negative force, a drag on our supposedly “normal,” perky, productive lives. We use terms such as “being weighed down” and talk about aging as “feeling the effects of gravity.” Unlike some Asian or African cultures where the gravitas and wisdom that come with age are honored and given respect (even in dancers), American culture tends to privilege lightness and mobility, youth and non-​attachment, as we frantically work out to prop up our bodies (and our butts!) away from the pull of the earth.2 Although in certain circles being “grounded” can be seen as a compliment, most of the


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time the term is used to describe the forcible restrictions on the mobility of a teenager or a pilot. Clearly, how we think about gravity affects our willingness to experience it. But gravity is, in fact, an essential element of our wellbeing. It is a force that connects us with something greater than ourselves. Thus, it behooves us to learn to work with rather than against this powerful energy. Gravity, of course, gives us the experience of feeling heavy. In a culture in which excess flesh is often demonized, many people (especially, but not exclusively, those folks who identify as girls and women) obsess about their weight and body size. Girls across the country learn to hold in their stomachs and are trained to take up less space, while boys are encouraged to “buff up” and cultivate a muscular upper body. Although there are always exceptions to these gendered norms, they are surprisingly enduring—​even across racial and ethnic differences. In response to societal attitudes that equate the fit body with self-​ control and self-​confidence, it is common to focus on the outside form (their “look”) rather than the contents (the feel of real substance) of our bodies. Our efforts to pull away from gravity—​to be lighthearted and carefree—​train us to ignore the sensation of our own weight, leaving us with a feeling of emptiness and a reluctance to commit ourselves for fear of being “tied down.” This is unfortunate because the sense of muscular release as well as emotional relief when one gives into the support of the earth is amazingly palpable and deeply restorative. Gravity is truly a low-​cost, totally accessible balm for these uncertain times. Paradoxically, it is only by releasing our weight into the ground that we can learn to resist gravity’s force. Yielding into the earth is actually the pre-​condition for pushing away from it. Once again, we have a situation where an embodied physics holds significant meta-​physical implications. This fundamental process of yielding and pushing is critical in the healthy evolution of a child’s development and an emerging sense of autonomy. My experiences both running an after-​school program for adolescent girls and teaching young adults in college have convinced me of the importance of feeling one’s own weight in order to be able to engage intentionally with the world. I have found that accessing the sensibility of one’s physical density is often the first step to committing one’s self completely to whatever task is at hand, whether it is learning a new movement skill or an intellectual concept. As we shall see, connecting to gravity can give meaning to our actions. Unfortunately, our multi-​tasking, device-​driven lives rarely afford us the time to sink into the support of the earth. I am convinced that this cultural resistance to feeling gravity is a contributing factor to the distractedness and sense of rootlessness that is virtually endemic among young people these days. While the ubiquity of screens is most likely here to stay, we can learn how to balance our virtual lives with an increased sensitivity to the stabilizing pull of gravity. “Bonding with the earth underlies all other developmental responses. A healthy baby bonds with air on the first breath, with earth by releasing weight

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to be held, and with mother by touch . . .” (Olsen 2002, 13). When a baby emerges from the womb into the world, it first connects with the basic forces of gravity and air by experiencing its own breathing and by being held. This early relationship with touch and support mediates the child’s somatic disposition, setting up signature patterns of movement and muscular dynamics later in their life. If repeatedly startled, for instance, a child can end up literally incorporating a sense of rigidity within its physical responses to the world. As we know from our discussion of equilibrium and the startle reflex in the chapter on falling, this reaction can get lodged in a person’s connective tissue, especially if they have been subjected to patterns of neglect or physical abuse. So too the pressure to achieve in school, the stresses of long days at work, or the specter of economic insecurity (real or imagined), can trigger a similar condition of tension, muscular holding, or even a sense of panic. Over time, these reactions can get locked in our system, making it much more difficult for our bodies to get the support and rest they need. Children who have not grown up being reassured and held by a parent may have to learn consciously how to release their weight into gravity. For instance, although my nephew experienced an abundance of love and attention growing up, there were also times when his needs were neglected and he was left on his own. The sense I get is that there was a pattern of all or nothing—​effusive displays of maternal affection or marked indifference. This inconsistency left its somatic legacy. Even as a young child, his body was tense, hard, and he was quick to overreact. I remember one time when my brother and his son were visiting us. While his son was upstairs playing with my kids, my brother left for a quick trip to the local drug store. His son, who was probably eight at the time, freaked out when he found out he had left and began to seriously hyperventilate in distress. That same pattern of holding and tightening, then exploding, was evident later when he came to live with us. John Christian was extraordinarily physically gifted and excelled in most sports he took up. Unfortunately, however, he would inevitably hit a wall and quit or give up. He seemed unable to commit himself to following a team (or a job) for a whole season. The reasons for this are complex, but I am convinced that his inability to release the tension in his body, even to release into the support of a hug, was intimately connected to this self-​defeating pattern of behavior. The opposite of a rigid, tightly held body is a completely collapsed one. My years of teaching at a highly selective undergraduate institution as well as my experiences working with middle schoolers have exposed me to a disturbing dynamic. More and more these days, people seem to flip back and forth between being incredibly overextended and super stressed, seemingly teetering on the verge of a nervous breakdown on the one hand and, on the other hand, being completely dysfunctional, unable to activate enough to get out of bed and shower, much less keep up with their assignments. Living on the edge of such


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extreme states of stop and go, many of my students, like my nephew, have lost any sense of energetic balance or resiliency. Perhaps this is why an inordinate number of undergraduates at colleges across the country are on some kind of anxiety medication. Because it can help stabilize this kind of neuronal overload, attending to the sensations of gravity is one way to interrupt this destructive cycle of either overcharge or discharge. In many of my classes, after an initial warm-​ up composed of moving throughout the room and energizing the space, the students lie down on the floor and release their bodies into the support of the earth. In order to give them a visceral sensibility of what I mean by support of the earth, I often invoke an image of people lying on a beach in the warm sand. As time passes, our bodies sink further into the sand, eventually making a deep impression. I prompt my students to use their somatic imaginations to feel the sand rising up to support wherever their back bodies do not touch the floor, including behind the neck, lower backs, knees, and around the ankles. Finally, I  might add the image of sand slowly filling the contents of their bodies. Then, as they begin to move and shift, I call their attention to the way that sand pours into whichever body part is touching the floor. This exercise allows them to begin to feel their weight as both dense and fluid, as they explore how different parts fill and empty depending on their evolving relationship to gravity. One of the more surprising aspects of this work is how the feeling of weight in different body parts can change. Many students who have a fear of going upside down begin to find ease with handstands once they follow the sensation of gravity rather than the preconception of their weakness or lack of ability in their minds. (For more specific instructions, see Insets #4, #6, and #8.) Given our multi-​tasking sensibilities in the twenty-​first century, it is not easy to give ourselves permission to rest. We tend to fill our lives with many different activities and then complain that we are too busy and always exhausted. The structure of capitalism demands that we work hard so that we can afford to play hard. Afraid that we may fall into a black hole of inertia and never do anything useful or productive again, many of us are reluctant to release into the support of the ground. Through practice, however, we can begin to understand that sinking into the floor does not have to be energetically draining. The effect is quite the opposite, in fact. In discussing the difference between collapsing and what she describes as yielding, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen notes:  “Collapsing, you give up your weight to gravity, surrendering totally. Yielding involves release into gravity with rebound and resilience” (2009, 194). As we begin to recognize this distinction, we can become a lot less fearful. A student once remarked in her journal at the end of the first week of classes, “starting on the floor both days and just getting used to feeling our bodies and their heaviness and how they feel against the ground is a good experience. [ . . . ] When I wasn’t worried about holding my weight, I found

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I could let myself move more freely” (Lawrence 2014). This interface between the perceptual and the physical directly affects our whole demeanor. When we are relaxed and open, our muscles and fascia can be much more responsive to the world around us. Yielding requires a lengthening and a spreading of the connective tissue. This expansiveness allows us to release into gravity in order to push away from the ground. When my student speaks of “holding” her weight away from the floor, she is referring to a gripping at the level of surface tissue, an energetic condensing into one’s self and away from the world. This results in a palpable tension right under the skin. Implicated in this holding pattern are the large muscle groups in our necks, upper backs, arms, and legs that are actually designed for short bursts of intensive activity. These muscles are much less efficient for the sustained effort required to hold ourselves upright. That kind of postural work is best performed by our core internal structures, including the diaphragm. When I talk about “releasing” into the support of gravity, I specify that the goal is to release the overused muscles at the surface of our bodies precisely in order to feel and engage the deeper “tonic” muscles, especially those close to the spine and around our organs. It is ironic that in a cultural moment when more and more people have stationary or sedentary jobs, a moment when many of us spend hours each day slumped in front of a computer or behind a counter, that we are encouraged to “work out” in order to “tone” the visible muscles at the surface of our bodies. Often, we “pump iron” in order to bulk up without adequate attention to the core structures that support our skeletal alignment. We tend to think more effort is better, refusing to engage our more sustainable energies. It is not unusual for me to see people, particularly younger men, with huge upper backs and arms from working out in the gym, walking all hunched over, like some younger version of a dowager’s hump. It is a particularly contemporary problem—​I notice many people these days with sculpted muscles who still can’t seem to maintain an upright posture for any length of time. Physiologically speaking, our core muscles contain a greater number of nerve fibers, providing more proprioceptive and sensory feedback about our balance to the central nervous system. Engaging the three internal diaphragms in our upper palate, lungs, and pelvis helps us develop that “soft spine support.” As I  have detailed in previous chapters, one way to begin to access this deep system of support is to stand upright and close one’s eyes, feeling what Contact Improvisation calls the “small dance” (see Insets #2 and #7). This is the subtle movement that happens when we attune to the dual forces of earth and air through our connection to gravity and spatial extension. Because we tend to support our upright posture with our vision, often we end up jutting out our head in front of our neck. Closing one’s eyes helps us perceive the alignment of our weight differently. Standing still is, of course, virtually impossible. But when


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we attend to our balance in this way, the inevitable shifts from side to side and front to back key us into a subtle sensibility of that internal musculature. “Tonic Function” is Hubert Godard’s phrase for the postural accommodations we bipeds make in order to maintain our upright position. Godard was a professor of dance pedagogy at the University of Paris VIII, and a certified Rolfer who spent years working in physical rehabilitation settings in Milan, Italy. His formation as a dancer has contributed to his theories about “moving in the gravitational field.” His teachings have inspired many different kinds of somatic practitioners, including another Rolfer, Aline Newton, whose excellent articles detailing Godard’s insights have informed my understanding of his practice.3 The “tonic” in Tonic Function comes from the word “tone,” which carries an interesting dichotomy in its etymology. The Latin word tonicus means tension, whereas the Greek root tonikos conveys the sense of being capable of extension. Ideally, our postural support engages these tonic muscles as we rise up through our spines, reaching our head towards the sky to counteract the force of gravity. Obviously, most of our physical efforts to remain upright happen below the level of conscious thought. Over time, patterns of structural misalignment, using too much force, or automatically over-​engaging certain muscles in our backs or necks, can create pain and discomfort in our bodies. For instance, when we breathe in, we engage muscles in the chest and neck as our ribs expand. Even when sitting, we can feel a slight lift in the sternum, with a resultant energetic cresting in the throat. Ideally, the exhalation would simply release those muscles, following the path of gravity. But if we have trained ourselves to forcibly exhale, we tend to engage the abdominals, creating more muscular effort and an unfortunate holding at both ends of the breath cycle. As Newton summarizes in her discussion of Godard’s ideas about the importance of postural muscles working effectively with gravity: “Resistance to the sensation of the weight in any segment of the body will cause a holding of the breath in inhalation, [as well as] an inability to exhale completely” (1998, 36). The first step in addressing this problematic dynamic lies in shifting our perception. “Understanding that a change in perception—​in sensory awareness—​evokes a change in the fundamental tonic response, we will work with this dimension. [ . . . ] We often find that the key to evoking an intrinsic movement is not focusing the client’s attention inward on the sensations in the body, but on the outside—​the ground beneath their feet, the feel of the wind on their skin, the sounds and sights of the surrounding space” (1995, 40).

Resistance Is Support Throughout How to Land I  have defined perception as a combination of sensation and awareness. It is a coordination of weight and space, proprioception

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and exteroception that operates at the moment before action. This largely automatic body calculus is what Godard calls “pre-​movement,” and much of his work focuses on the essential role it plays in our lives. In order to move a limb, I have to feel a point of support from which to move. This is the sensation of yielding into the earth in order to push off from it. Without that pre-​movement, it is difficult to experience grounding. Thus, the moment of orientation in taking a step forward is not the lifting of my leg per se, but rather the press of my back foot into the ground in preparation for that step. If, for whatever reason, I have trained myself not to feel gravity, not to release down before moving up, then my body will register only the awkward effort of holding myself upright away from the floor. Newton details the effects of this physical patterning on our perception. “Without appropriate support through the back and feet into the ground, exhaling, feeling the body’s weight, can feel like falling, an instability” (1998, 36). Feeling unstable can affect not only the level of tension in our bodies, but, as we have seen in the previous chapters, it can affect our sense of agency as well. When we learn how to use resistance to push against something or someone, we begin to develop a sensibility for our own weight and strength. Yet so often twenty-​first-​century bodies that I see use the automatic buttons to open entrances instead of pushing the heavy glass doors, regardless of their age or level of physical feistiness. It is interesting to note that for a generation of students who have rarely if ever had to use their bodies to push something heavy (such as a load of sand or a recalcitrant cow), the use of their full body’s force can feel overly aggressive. I cannot help but feel that the recent spate of workshops on college campuses designed to help students feel comfortable with challenge within the classroom and conflict outside of it has a somatic connection to their inability to physically push against the world. This is one of the reasons I love pointing out that in Contact Improvisation, resistance is support—​actively pushing into someone helps lift their weight. (I note, of course, that we are not talking about a tense, reactive, or hardened sense of resistance, but rather a responsive one.) “Resistance as support” is also a phrase that I think about in pedagogical terms as well. Too often we think of support only as coddling or praising, but I find that the act of critically challenging a perspective or point of view is an important aspect of teaching as well. And it certainly is crucial in a political climate in which the free press is constantly vilified as spreading “fake news.” America was founded on the idea that people’s resistance to autocratic rule is support—​of our democracy. When my youngest child was six months old, we both participated in a developmental movement workshop directed by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen. The adult participants followed the infants as they rolled, crawled, reached, and played. As we attempted (to the best of our abilities) to mimic the babies’ movements, the adults worked their way through the developmental sequences that form


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the basis of Body-​Mind Centering™’s pedagogy and practice. Becoming more accustomed to moving on the floor, we rolled and crawled, incorporating the core BMC movement vocabulary such as curl and extension, yielding and pushing, and creeping and crawling (which BMC methodology describes in terms of homolateral and contralateral locomotion). Working with babies at different stages of development (including those with developmental disabilities) demonstrates clearly how an infant’s experience of releasing into gravity and bonding with a parent actually creates a psychic foundation for moving beyond the safety of that embrace. It is so amazing to see how the action of yielding into the earth becomes a push, as a baby grows increasingly curious about its world and begins to lift its head, reach out, and explore its environment. In her book Wisdom of the Moving Body, BMC practitioner Linda Hartley describes these moments as a meeting of forces. “As the child pushes against the ground the energy of the earth flows up into its body, strengthening and nourishing it. The body tissues are subtly compressed by this mutual action of body weight meeting a resistant surface, and this enables the child to feel and become aware of its physical substance, weight, and presence” (1989, 69–​70). Body-​Mind Centering™ is not just for babies, of course. This work is particularly useful in rehabilitating after an injury or in the process of retraining the body to become conscious of problematic physical habits. It can be important to go back to these early movement patterns as a way to reconnect to the ground. Recently, I guest taught a few yoga classes in which I began with everyone lying prone on a bolster. At first, I encouraged the folks in the class to release into the support of gravity and attend to the sensations of the contents of their bodies (their organs). Then, working incrementally with their breaths, they began to find the sense of lengthening extension through the top of their heads on the inhalation, and a release and yielding into gravity on the exhalation. This movement between the inhalation and the extension requires an interesting combination of pull and press through the hands that eventually engages the sternum support as they entered a low cobra pose. Gradually, with a slow and deliberate practice, they came to appreciate the importance of carefully loading weight into the hands in order to lift the head from the front of the throat with a sense of inner support rather than relying exclusively on the muscles at the back of the neck to pull the head away from the floor. This moment of pushing physicalizes a developmental stage of childhood that traditional psychologists refer to as a critical moment of self-​differentiation. Certainly, the “no” of this resistance is a healthy sign of a burgeoning sense of autonomy. Nonetheless, the narrow focus on the development of an individual ego sometimes confines our perspective to a unidirectional sense of separation, ignoring the ground from which we push off. Specialists in developmental movement, on the other hand, tend to recognize that the “no” of this push takes place in a context of gravity where the yield is the pre-​movement, the necessary

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release into the support of the ground in order to push away. Hartley describes these moments: “I can push the world away from me, push myself away from the world, push in order to get a response from the world, push just to feel myself, or push through from one world to another” (1989, 70). Her point is that this early sense of “push” is always in relation to a support that is both “stable and responsive,” providing a reciprocal exchange in two directions, alternately cycling through a yielding down in order to push up. The caregiver, like the floor, needs to be there to push off from and to return to. Those of us who teach and research across developmental, cognitive, and movement studies, must learn how to navigate a particular blending of cultural theory with arts practices, drawing information from both physical and psychic states of being. As with so many of the topics addressed in these pages, this discussion of yield and push, gravity and weight, necessarily weaves insights from the biological as well as the sociological sciences. While the physiological and the psychological are deeply intertwined, we can often more easily address habitual patterns at the level of intrinsic or pre-​conscious movement. As Aline Newton and Kevin Frank point out in their essay on the somatic teachings of Hubert Godard, the most efficient and effective way to change perceptions of one’s abilities is to work first with the sensory level of the body before engaging with the psychology of the client. For example, if I ask a client to push me, I can see if one direction is lost during the action, if she is pushing herself (contracting or shortening) rather than actually pushing me (moving herself away from me rather than me away from her), or if she loses her own center in the push, not actually separating. The movement of pushing is symbolic of saying no. Rather than discussing the merits of self-​assertion, or the reasons or history behind someone’s difficulty with it, we can work with pushing. We will access the whole issue from the movement dimension. (1995, 40) Although they suggest the importance of working directly with the material action of pushing, the authors also recognize the need to work with both dimensions of experience—​physical as well as metaphysical, motional as well as emotional. In a separate discussion of Godard’s work, Frank captures this oscillation between physical effort and personal affect, the relationship of internal perception to the outside world when he states: “Before the client pushes her foot against a wall, she needs to allow herself to let in the impression of the wood against her foot” (n.d., 17). When I first ask students to walk through the space of the dance studio or even across Tappan Square, I encourage them to feel the support of the earth and to attend to the sensations of the edges of the toes and heels as well as the


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sides of their feet. I prompt them to walk in all different directions and be aware of how the weight falls differently as they bank into a curve or move backwards or to the sides. I suggest that they think about walking with the earth rather than just on the ground. This shift in perception can make a big difference in our joints as well as our muscles as we actually feel the responsiveness of the surface underneath our feet. At the same time, I  remind them to extend their heads towards the sky, creating a line of energy through the center of their body that both engages gravity and its counteraction—​the down and the up. Finding strength through spatial extension is only possible, however, if we first find support through our feet. This sense of rooting into the ground creates a stabilizing force that sends energy upward through the legs and torso. Accessing this press or push is an important developmental milestone, one that a whole generation of kids may have missed. During the early 1990s, research suggested that putting babies to sleep on their stomach could be a factor in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), one of the leading causes of infant mortality. This advice contradicted the common sentiment from an earlier generation that babies like sleeping on their stomachs. Because I was also parenting young children during this time period, I distinctly remember the paranoia that prompted parents and caregivers to flip their kids onto their backs to sleep, even once they had mastered rolling over and clearly preferred to rest on their bellies. Because not all young people have that push coordination “naturally,” I  bring intentionality to the practice of rooting one’s own weight through the ground in order to push against a partner to support their weight (see Inset #10 Pouring to Resist). As I noted earlier, one of my favorite sayings is “resistance is support.” This paradoxical phrase comes directly from the training in giving and supporting weight that is the foundation for Contact Improvisation. But I find these terms useful in many situations. Practices such as releasing into the ground on our bellies, imagining sand pouring through my body as I roll, doing the small dance, or shifting my weight slowly from one leg to the other (as in t’ai chi), can increase our sensibility for the effects of gravity. Once my perceptions have become attuned to the sensation of using my own weight, I can mobilize this force to press back in order to support my partner—​resisting their weight by meeting it with my own. Rather than pretending I am an inanimate object and stiffening up to act like a pole or a table, I need to yield into my partner as I push against them in a mutual exchange that balances separation with reciprocity. This practice of supporting another person by meeting their weight with my own is not always easy for people to access if they have been taught over the years to deny the sensation of their own heaviness. After decades of teaching students to release into the support of gravity and to allow themselves to be lifted by another person, I am acutely aware of the emotional implications of these practices. For many students, it is overwhelming to

Inset #10  Pouring to Resist

(n.b. Very often, we think of tightening our muscles, stiffening our bodies, and bracing in order to lift or push heavy objects. This exercise builds on the previous one (Inset #9) to realize the importance of pouring one’s weight through the pores of our skin in order to support another person’s weight.) Standing upright, face your partner’s back. Place your hands on their shoulders or upper back. Soften your palms and spread your fingers around their shoulder blades. This affectively invites your partner to lean towards you and give their weight into that contact. Once you begin to feel the pressure increase, pour your weight back into that place, feeling the energy come from the ground into the soles of your feet. Then feel that energy rise up through your legs and spine, and out your arms. The idea is to meet your partner’s weight with a fluid resistance that matches the flow of their weight (through their pores) with a flow of your own (through your pouring). This creates an alive and responsive support such that neither partner gives or resists with too much tension. This exercise should not be an all-​or-​nothing proposition, but rather a dialogue and exchange between partners. After placing your hands on different parts of your partner’s back, shoulders, or head about four or five times, switch roles. Then try pouring weight back and forth between partners, eventually “asking” for your partner’s weight through a body part such as the shoulder, back, or hip rather than the hands. Although I use the homology of pore/​pour to invoke a sense of fluid, mobile resistance rather than a static image of a “table top” or “wall” as support, this does not work for everyone. If you find it hard to access the sense of pouring weight to resist, try pushing back directly as your partner leans into you. Sometimes it is important to acknowledge that as adults we rarely have the opportunity to use our physical force to be assertive (especially if we are women). If this is the case, try channeling the childhood experience of fighting or wrestling with a sibling. In that situation, you most likely pitted your weight fully against another person’s body. Try to find that full-​ bodied energy again, but then release the tension or struggle to find the clarity of the support. Once you have internalized this concept of pouring your weight to resist, everyday challenges such as opening heavy doors, pushing a wheelchair up a steep hill, or moving a stalled car can become opportunities to feel your own power and energy. Just remember that it is crucial to push into the ground as you push against the object you need to move.


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feel one’s weight, let alone entrust it to someone else. For smaller people, it can be a challenge to try to lift bigger people, especially if they think they are more fragile than they really are. I therefore require students to keep a class journal. I read their writings with attention to which physical exercises offer important psychic realizations about their experience of weight as well as their growing confidence and mobility. From time to time, I may even offer specific prompts for their writing. Being able to follow twenty-​six to thirty-​two students on their journey through the course is an amazing experience, one that allows me to trace the ways in which our class discussions parallel the personal revelations. I once had a student begin her class journal with a long list of all the things she was fearful of. At the end of a series that began with “dying young” and included things like “jellyfish in open water,” “spiders,” “malevolent beings,” and “being alone forever,” she writes, “fear of failure and ridicule,” a common theme for today’s college students. Three days later, however, she sums up the first two weeks of class with an interesting observation. “There is a special kind of relief that comes from releasing some of your weight, and a feeling of power that comes from bearing someone else’s” (Lisa Neumann 2010, emphasis added). As we shall see in a discussion about gendered embodiment later in this chapter, understanding that balance of yield and push can lead to a different use of space and physical intention that is psychically refreshing for a lot of young women. I want to draw a connection between this student’s feeling of “relief” and yielding on the one hand, and her feeling of “power” and the experience of pushing on the other. My goal is not to legislate a one-​to-​one correspondence between specific exercises and their implicit affects, but rather to underline how embodied activities can affect perceptual change. The narrative of fear with which she began her class journal was, I would argue, part of an ongoing and persistent anxiety whose grip on her was loosened only by working directly with the physics of her own and other bodies. Even after the first week, this student recognizes that the training in feeling the support of gravity and finding resistance in her body was helping her to “let go of personal fears, at least in the studio, if not yet in everyday life” (2010). I am not suggesting that this physical information is necessarily more “truthful” than conceptual formulations, but it is more immediately palpable. I am curious to trace how these moments of insight might register across multiple ways of knowing and moving.

Digital Disembodiment Hardly a week goes by these days without some new scientific study or sociological report analyzing the perils of too much time spent in front of screens. Not only are educators and sociologists measuring the disastrous effects of too

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much screen time on our nation’s children and college students, but just recently business leaders and investors have sounded the alarm as well. In January 2018, Jana (a hedge fund) and Calstrs (the California State Teachers’ pension fund) wrote an open letter to Apple to protest the intentional marketing of gadgets and software designed to keep people on the internet for longer. Investors, teachers’ unions, and parents’ groups have all called for the maker of the iPod and the iPhone as well as the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter to take some responsibility for how their products are implicated in the fraying of our civil society.4 The statistics are indeed alarming. Five years ago, the Nielsen media report announced that the average American spent eight hours a day in front of a screen. A report in late 2016 clocked our nation’s average as a whopping ten hours and thirty-​nine minutes. While this poll includes smart phones, tablets, personal computers, multi-​media devices, and videogames, as well as television, it nonetheless means that most people are staring at a screen (sometimes multiple screens) for almost half of the day, and certainly more than half of their waking hours. Although these numbers are shocking, they are not entirely surprising. Walk outside in either a rural or an urban setting and most likely you will find the majority of people on their devices, or at least carrying one in their hand, at the ready. Just the other day I  saw a couple walking across the park hand in hand, while facing in opposite directions, their free hands holding their phones and their thumbs busily texting away. Who knows, maybe they were texting one another. The title of Sherry Turkle’s 2011 book on sociality and technology is Alone Together. Drawing from interviews with teenagers in urban settings, people’s posts on virtual chat rooms, and observation of the media habits of many of her academic colleagues, Turkle charts the pattern of online connections and interpersonal disconnections that are a direct result of managing so many of our relationships online. It is a pretty depressing picture, frankly. The mobility of smart phones and the rise of texting have given us 24/​7 connectivity. But as Turkle argues, we now have much more frequent back and forth, with a lot less substance. Whether it is a matter of teenagers sending and receiving hundreds of texts each day, or helicopter parents and their co-​dependent children reporting on every little detail of their day (Mom, I  have a hangnail!), or the professional use of emails to avoid difficult face-​to-​face interactions, we have created a veritable maze of text-​based exchanges that have, for some, effectively replaced verbal communication. Talking (even on the phone) is seen by many dedicated texters as too much “exposure,” creating a situation of vulnerability, the outcome of which cannot be controlled. One teenager sums it up by protesting that the act of talking on the phone “is almost always too prying, it takes too long, and it is impossible to say ‘good-​bye’ ” (200). Many of the bright (and privileged) high school students that Turkle interviewed for her book are now in college or have recently graduated. This is


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the same generation that I have been teaching the past few years. Instant messaging, social media, and the internet have been an integral part of their lives for most of their schooling. This is also the generation I parented. Even before they learned to read, most of these kids could type in their favorite website or access a computer game on any device. Their relationship to the world is constantly mediated by the presence of screens. And yet this generation is also surprisingly thoughtful about what they are missing. I remember one student lamenting the fact that his mother now only texted him, she no longer called, and he said he missed hearing her voice. The focus of my teaching, particularly in light of this contemporary generation of students, has been on balancing their increasingly screen-​based lives with conscious attention to aspects of embodiment (including gravity) that can easily get lost online. One of the ways I have found to bring intentionality to their use of various devices is to ask my students to give up a habit for twenty-​four hours and track their physical and emotional reactions during that process. Of course, I do not mandate what they choose to give up. But the majority of students decide to give up some aspects of their screen lives, either social media, email, texting, or all of the above by leaving their phones off and out of reach. My Spring 2016 Somatic Landscapes class kept a class notebook to which each student would submit their hand-​written entry each week. The writing was placed in a green cardboard three-​ring binder and kept right outside my office. Unlike class blogs or blackboard posts, this old-​school collection was wonderfully intimate, as we all got to know each student’s different handwriting and preferred notebook size. Overall, the class observations on the twenty-​four-​ hour suspension of habit are as thoughtful, smart, and revealing as any professional commentary. In her response, one of the quietest students in the class acknowledged how much her use of her phone was tied to her pre-​conscious actions. Her entry begins by describing how even before she was out of bed in the morning, she reached for her phone to check email. How strange it was that before being fully awake and taking in the world, I  would already be on technology. I  was completely caught off guard by this instant—​and the following—​[desire] to get up and check my email on my laptop! No emails are so urgent as to not be able to wait until I’m up and ready for the day. (RJM 2016) This student is a musician and later in the day she remarks how she automatically reached for her phone as soon as she was ready for a break from practicing. Stopping herself, she reflected on what might be possible in its stead. “It felt awkward to stop, yet also made me think, what if on practice breaks I really took a break—​took time to breathe, stretch, and center myself instead of filling my mind with another to do list” (RJM 2016).

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Confronting the ways in which our use of technology often covers over our anxiety, sense of vulnerability, or just plain boredom is an important first step to becoming intentional about what Turkle calls our “media ecology.” Another student in my Somatic Landscapes class decided to give up her Facebook “newsfeed,” which, she realized, provided an easy escape from her own feelings of dis-​ease. “If I’m stressed or anxious (or really feeling any uncomfortable emotion), it is instantly gratifying to get completely distracted by others’ lives portrayed through a screen” (Frances Iadarola 2016). Interestingly enough, this student found that without the distraction of online lives, she could acknowledge these uncomfortable feelings instead of pushing them away, that she could actually respond to them. “I now had a mental ‘beat’ to give the feeling all the room it needed, instead of ignoring it.” The result was what she describes as a sense of “mental clarity” (2016). These class journal entries reveal that a number of students find the alternatives to their phone addictions intriguing, even if they might find it hard to sustain such practices for more than a class assignment. Working with very simple practices of breathing and attending to the sensation of weight pouring into the ground, it doesn’t take long for these young adults to find their bodies again and realize the pleasures of attending to the three-​dimensional natural world. For instance, I had a student who was an athlete who trained in long distance running. She began her entry by remarking how she didn’t think she was really tech-​dependent—​until, that is, she tried to give it up. “Yet, that day when I did not have it, I caught myself thinking about that fact, almost as if somewhere deep within my brain was confused why it was no longer there as something to automatically reach to” (Deirdre Haren 2016). Interestingly, within a brief period of time, she was walking across campus with a renewed attention to the world around her. I took in and felt my natural surroundings more often, with more of my senses, and with a fuller awareness. Since I  had more time and space to use, I read more and was more focused on the reading I was doing. The impulse to read on a screen with head bent and body curled into myself was no longer available, so my body was finally able to uncurl, look up at the sky and be ready for what the world around me had to say. (2016) For every success story, there are an equal number of times when students succumb to the “siren of the Web.” Not surprisingly, given how much time we spend in front of computers these days, the visual and text-​oriented synapses in our brains are deeply rutted—​both quick to fire and worn down with repeated use. I have spoken with colleagues who note that even in a fifty-​minute class, if they ask students not to use their phones in class, some students will take a long bathroom break, using the walk down the hall to catch-​up on their latest texts. Like the people who look at their phones and then dawdle on the


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way down the stairs, or those drivers who slow down on the highway try to read texts “safely,” most of these students are only vaguely aware that they take a lot more time to accomplish their business. Once online, of course, it becomes hard to parse through what is urgent and all the other texts. The (im) practical result of this mind-​less (as opposed to mind-​full) phone use is that now any “five-​minute break” ends up taking much longer because students have a hard time resisting the next click or swipe. It seems that once online, people’s energy dissipates and they become unaware of what is happening around them. Screens create a zone of their own which draws the user into that world and away from the kinds of material realities that are governed by our gravitational field. I once had a student who was literally capable of spending entire days (and nights) alone in his room manically surfing various sophisticated computer coding chatrooms. Like many of his college cohort, he is very smart and yet oddly ungrounded. It seemed to me that the disembodied mobility of the internet had disconnected his sense of gravity, or the feeling of how his body could connect to the material reality of the earth. The result is that he buried himself in virtual worlds, losing any sense of a normal schedule and avoiding his other responsibilities until it was too late to make up the work, leaving him feeling overwhelmed, and thus tempted to escape into his screen world again—​a vicious cycle of overload and unload. Interestingly, this student recently told me he is now interested in creating an individual major that combines the study of somatics and artificial intelligence. I was delighted, for here is an opportunity for someone passionate about immersive technologies to find a way to connect them to our physical sense of weight, something that Virtual Reality has yet to figure out how to replicate. Walk around any academic institution, and it becomes obvious that the overuse of this one aspect of cognition results in a body that is habitually hunched over, with a head perched at an oblique angle on the shoulders. Adding to this postural misalignment is the fact that many people now tend to use their eyes myopically, with little awareness of their peripheral vision. I call this mono-​ focus “screen-​eyes” and each passing year I  find that it takes longer to shift students’ attention to three-​dimensional space. This dis-​embodiment of young people is a central topic of conversation among dance teachers, yoga instructors, and personal trainers. Fortunately, learning how to attend to the sensation of gravity can help enliven our more tactile, proprioceptive sensibility so that we no longer have to walk around, looking at the world as if it were merely an extra-​ large flat screen. In his book The Shallows (2010), journalist Nicholas Carr delves into the connections between the technological and the neurological. His claim that technology is insidiously affecting our patterns of perception by replacing deep attention with hyper attention is one that many other cognitive scientists and

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cultural commentators have reiterated. Carr argues that our use of these online systems is generating an appetite for a certain kind of rapid informational delivery and a blanket desire to be “connected.” The result is an exponential decrease in our ability to focus on less obvious sources of knowing. His research began with a personal realization: I began to notice that the Net was exerting a much stronger and broader influence over me than my old stand-​alone PC ever had. It wasn’t just that I was spending so much time staring into a computer screen. It wasn’t just that so many of my habits and routines were changing as I  became more accustomed to and dependent on the sites and services of the Net. The very way my brain worked seemed to be changing. [  .  .  .  ] Even when I  was away from my computer, I yearned to check e-​mail, click links, do some Googling. I wanted to be connected. (16) Like Turkle and others, Carr laments the fact that as a culture we seem to have lost the ability to be quiet and present with our bodily selves. Nostalgic about how we used to gain knowledge in the time before hyperlinks, he distinguishes between reading a material book and reading online. “Research has shown that the cognitive act of reading draws not just on our sense of sight but also on our sense of touch. It’s tactile as well as visual” (90). For Carr, touching something is a sensory experience of substance—​ it carries a sense of weight—​one that is not readily available in the virtual world. As someone who is deeply committed to bringing the material experience of the body to lean on abstract thought, I  echo Carr’s conviction that reading a book requires an engagement with its ideas that is qualitatively different from keyword searches of a document online. Carr refers to this connection as a “depth of immersion.” I think of it as feeling the weight of a thought. Jean-​Luc Nancy, a contemporary French philosopher, wrote an intriguing essay entitled “The Weight of a Thought” in which he traced the shared etymology of thinking (penser) and weighing (peser). How, he asks, is the abstraction of thinking related to the concrete reality of weighing? Although he insists that thought should never be tied down to a specific measurement, he does affirm the importance of its materiality, its ability to take on substance. “Meaning needs a thickness, a density, a mass, and thus an opacity, a darkness by means of which it leaves itself open and lets itself be touched as meaning right there where it becomes absent as discourse” (1997, 79). When Carr asserts that reading a book provides a critical kind of “immersion” with the author’s ideas, and when Turkle reminds us that face-​to-​face (and, I  would add, body-​to-​body) interactions foster a vital sense of human compassion, we need to recognize that meaning always carries a weight and is


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responsive to a particular situation. Language acquires its force by meeting abstract thought with physical action. (This is why hate speech is never neutral.) Attentive to the somatic implications of people’s increasingly digital lives, I am compelled to craft a physical practice that balances out the weightless appeal of screens by stimulating an appetite for the density of embodied experience. Thinking in the flesh not only insists on the importance of substance, but it also carries a responsiveness that is deeply meaningful—​and telling. The title of the New  York Times article was striking. “On Bridge, a Quick-​ Thinking Cyclist Saves a Life on the Ledge” (August 5, 2016). The photo showed an athletic middle-​aged man dressed in helmet and cycling gear, posed by the railing of the George Washington Bridge. According to the article, this man, Mr. De Leon, was riding his bike across the bridge one afternoon and saw a young man who had climbed over the railing and was poised to jump off. Mr. De Leon immediately got off his bike and with arms wide open embraced the distraught nineteen-​year-​old, telling him he was loved. His rescue was instinctive, an improvisation in the moment that was launched by his embodied compassion for a young person in a precarious position, both physically and psychically. This simple and profound act of courage and heroism was set in high relief by another detail of the situation. The article opens with a description of a photograph of the young man standing on the level of the bridge. Apparently, there was also another bystander at the scene. But this person’s first reaction was to stop and take a photograph of the man on the ledge rather than to try and rescue him. What was this person thinking? Or maybe he wasn’t thinking, at least not with the responsiveness of his body. Phone in hand, perhaps his impulse to snap an image was so hard-​wired into his neurological system that it happened before he realized what was going on. Perhaps. That might be the more generous explanation. The less generous one might suggest that he wanted to take the photo to sell to the papers when they reported on this young man’s suicide. We will never know what went on in his head, the man refused to speak with the reporter. Nor is the age of that person revealed. Nonetheless, if my experience training people’s bodies across multiple generations is any guide, I would venture a guess that this bystander was someone younger who spends a large chunk of his waking hours on screens. The act of reaching for the phone to take a picture is so completely automatic in many people these days, that one wonders if anybody really registers what they are seeing before they click. The visual and textual processing aspect of our brains is, in my experience, much slower than the reflexive, instinctual middle and low brain. Time and time again, I have seen people stuck in a visual g(l)aze, trying to comprehend the situation at hand through a conscious, verbal mind, when their physical self could have intuited a decision with much more speed had they been open to trusting that embodied responsiveness. We see, but cannot seem to respond quickly

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because often our vision processing gets in the way of an immediate “gut” reaction. Recently, I witnessed a similar hesitation in a restaurant when someone passed out and fell off their chair. Instead of moving to help this person up, a bizarre number of people (the majority) backed-​off and stared. As a direct intervention in this culture of bystander-​hood, the local elementary school now gives out rubber bracelets with “upstander” written on them. This is a local attempt at trying to encourage students not to be a “bystander” and watch, but rather to do something (when they see someone being bullied, for instance). The move from spectator to interceptor is a move from eyes (spect) to hands (cept), from seeing to feeling. That move, as we have seen on the George Washington Bridge, is one that can save a life. But it requires, I would argue, a connection to the gravity of the situation. If we are to encourage students and many adults to move beyond the two-​dimensional exchanges of their screens and engage the three-​dimensionality of their affective presence, we need to include the fullness of the organs in their embodied sensibility.

The Power of Our Organs Organs support our upright stance. Even while sitting in front of a computer, I can bring my awareness to my lungs underneath my shoulder girdle. Feeling that support can help me release the muscles in my upper back. Likewise, when I walk with attention to my kidneys, I find a supportive presence that can ease any lingering tightness in my lower back. This organ-​ic exploration is connected to a moment when I was younger and had suffered a series of debilitating back injuries. It was my first experience with a serious disability, and I found myself both in physical pain and existentially lost. As I worked to rehabilitate my body, I  had to relearn how to crawl, walk, and stand up without putting too much pressure into my lower back. The following summer, once I had regained some function and could travel, I studied intensively with two Body-​Mind Centering™ practitioners. They introduced me to the sensation of my organs being able to support my spine. This perspective opened up a whole new world for me, one that has helped keep me strong and energized well into my middle age. Lying down with eyes closed, we begin by imagining the various kinds of organs that fill our body. Tracing the contents of our soft spine along the length of the vertebrae, we slowly move to feel the weight of our brain, the digestive organs, filtration system, elimination and reproduction organs, and those that we can more comfortably access, such as the heart and the lungs. With time and patience (a sense of humor is useful as well), people can become increasingly aware of which organs feel tense and heavy (hypertoned) and which one may feel lethargic and flaccid (hypotoned). Although I never focus exclusively on organ work for weeks on end and thus do not attempt the kind of subtle


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differentiation of individual organs that BMC practitioners acquire, even a little bit of exploration of this system can have a drastic effect. For instance, moving the skull slowly side to side with attention to the weight of the brain, can be a wonderful release of nervous energy and tension, especially for college students at exam time (see Inset #11 Feeling the Organs). Inset #11  Feeling the Organs

(n.b. We are not used to feeling our organs, so this exercise might seem awkward at first, but I encourage you to try it out several times just to get a sense of the fullness and power that organs can give us.) To begin, lie down on your belly. Find a comfortable position for your head, turning it to one side or lying with your forehead on the floor, chin tucked in towards your neck. Follow your breath, feeling the inhalation rising up into your back and your exhalation releasing to the ground through the front of your body. Notice the difference between breathing while lying on your back and breathing while lying on your belly. Gradually shift between these two positions, pouring your weight into the floor as you do so. It may be helpful to imagine that water or sand is seeping out of your body as you roll across the floor. Notice the difference between lying prone or supine. Eventually come back to your belly and stay there while you do a body scan from feet to head. Make sure you release any part that might be resisting fully letting go into the floor. Adjust your limbs as needed, bending your knee to one side if that feels more comfortable. Now push yourself up to all fours, placing your hands directly below your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Establish a strong line of energy from head to tail and feel how that line from upper palate to pubic bone establishes your soft spine support. As you inhale, extend your spine, lifting your head and tail. As you exhale, reverse that motion, rounding the middle of your back. Move back and forth between these cat/​cow positions to mobilize your spine. Finish by coming back to a long spine where the three domes of support in the head, chest, and pelvis are aligned with one another. Next, close your eyes and bring your attention to the contents of your skull. Move your skull gently in all directions, trying to feel the weight of your brain inside that boney container. To help get a sense of those contents, try humming softly, sending the vibrations into the space of your skull. Stay with that exploration for a while and then move the sound of your humming sequentially down the front of your body, passing through your throat, chest, ribs, abdomen, and pelvis. Take time at each level to feel the contents of your body, picturing as many of the organs as you can. Some of these

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organs, such as the heart and the lungs, are relatively easy to feel. But even without any knowledge of anatomy, we can explore the general sensation of our digestive, filtration, elimination, and reproductive organs. You will find humming to be helpful as the vibrations of that internal sound activate increased sensation in places we do not normally attend to.

I have always felt that organs were like soft sponges. Their soft connective tissue likes to be squeezed and released such that they can soak up fluids and expand their volume. In Contact Improvisation, the pressure of a partner’s weight falling through my body to the floor creates this delightful effect. But even on my own, as I roll slowly across the floor, I can track how my organs shift their relationship to gravity. What was once the weighted underside transitions to become the upper, more buoyant side. The compression of my weight flowing into the ground thus becomes the suspension of that organ as it moves from grounding to opening. As Hartley summarizes: “This dynamic interplay, a dance between weight and lightness, gravity and levity, support and mobility, is made possible through the movement of the organs. Each organ can take on both the stable-​supportive and mobile-​expressive functions, and there is a continual interchange of these roles between them as movement happens” (1995, 192). Because I  see more and more people walking around hunched over or with their heads jutting out in front of their shoulders, I  introduce an exploration of the organ system as a way to help folks open up their chest and release the tensions in their necks and backs. Students will often complain about having poor posture, but trying to correct a “position” rarely creates any lasting change. Either rolling across the floor, crawling, or moving upright, we work with the support of what I call the “soft spine”—​feeling the front of our bodies engage in an active toning. Sensing our organs requires a kinetic curiosity and a willingness to improvise, often with sound. One way to access this toning of our organs is to literally tone with our voice. In the section on the organ system in her book on the practices of Body-​Mind Centering™, Hartley describes how each organ has a unique “tone” or vibration that can help us become aware of their presence and function. “There is a mutual support between the organs and vocalized sound, through which we give expression to our inner feeling world in speaking, singing, shouting, laughing, and so on. Without the support of the organs, the voice lacks feeling, depth, and resonance; with this support the whole body becomes the resonating chamber of the voice and is enlivened and empowered by it” (190). Within the context of a yoga class or movement session, I can talk about certain muscles, bones, or the nervous system, and most people understand what I  am referring to. When I  mention our organ system, however, I  face a lot of blank stares. In traditional Western approaches to dance, the focus is almost


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exclusively on muscular action and spinal alignment. In fact, feeling the fullness of our contents is downright antithetical to much technical training—​most dancers prize looking as thin as possible. Similarly, in contemporary American culture we rarely think about our organs unless something goes wrong and we end up with heartburn, a stomachache, menstrual cramps, or a nasty case of food poisoning. This is unfortunate, because our organs take up much of the insides of our bodies. They are literally our contents, and thus give our lives purpose. While individual organs differ in function and size, all organs offer us a sense of volume, weight, and buoyancy. In large part, they are responsible for our feelings of fullness and presence. Organs also relate to our emotional lives, fueling our passion and creative expression and giving us a deeper sense of meaning.5 I introduce humming in my classes as a way to feel the organs. Most people are willing to hum quietly, and the vibrations of the sound can reverberate in the pelvis, the chest, and the head, depending on where you send the sound. Humming is a great method for lengthening the breath and bringing everyone’s attention to the contents of their bodies. There is a beautiful moment when the group, which is humming together, becomes aware of both their internal sound and the sound score created by everyone in the room. At times, I also work with bigger, open-​mouth sounds. Then we lie on the floor in a circle with everyone’s heads in the center. In one breath we move from an Ahhh which begins in the pelvis to an Ommm in the diaphragm of the chest to a Mmmm vibrating the upper palate in the mouth. Although we may have just spent twenty minutes lying on the floor, toning into our organs, we find that we can warm-​up quickly once we begin moving through the space. Energetically, I  find organs to be connected with the state of fire. They help us access a sense of commitment to and passion for our activities. As I mentioned briefly in the introduction to this chapter, one of the significant barriers to accessing the sensation of density and weight of the organs is the powerful normalizing machinery in operation when it comes to the issues of body image and weight management in our post-​industrial, capitalist culture. That these cultural norms have become internalized across economic, racial, and regional differences is evident to anyone who has walked the halls of a public school or local mall. Obviously, styles of equipment and apparel change in the fitness industry, and there are certainly personal preferences to be taken into account, not to mention the whole issue of who has the leisure time to work out in our society. But if the fitbit revolution is any indication, there are a lot of people counting their steps these days. All this exercise in the pursuit of a fit body is important and healthy; no one is denying that. Nonetheless, relying on a device to count the number of steps or sets of repetitions at the gym doesn’t necessarily translate into actually feeling gravity or one’s real weight. In fact, most bodybuilding practices harden the body away from gravity, focusing on the visible contours of surface muscles.

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Within an elaborate technology of gym equipment, the body is separated into parts (abs, chest, back, arms, legs), or even parts of parts (biceps, triceps, quads, glutes, etc.). Mobilizing weight in order to do something is not a valued part of these regimes, as anyone who has ever watched a bodybuilding championship can tell you. In the ever-​widening array of fitness options, there are exceptions, of course. These include yoga, tai chi, various martial arts, and certain fads such as the ubiquitous “bootcamps” where a para-​military approach to cross training includes making participants pull heavy weights or even the instructor’s body across the gym. But generally speaking, the motivating force behind body management is vision (looking trim) and not sensation (feeling strong). In her discussion of “The Disembodiment of Everyday Life” Rebecca Solnit writes: “while exertion for work is about how the body shapes the world, exertion for exercise is about how the body shapes the body” (2000, 263). Because our bodies are always changing and thus require constant maintenance to “stay in shape,” the satisfaction of a job well done is extremely elusive when it comes to managing our weight and fitness. Many late-​ twentieth-​ century feminist thinkers have produced detailed deconstructions of these “politics of appearance” and the pressure on everyone, particularly women, to maintain a fit body in our society. Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight is a seminal analysis of the intersection of personal surveillance and cultural meaning and although it is now twenty-​five years old, many of her points are (unfortunately) still relevant today. In this book (which includes her much-​anthologized essay “Reading the Slender Body”), Bordo delineates the especially pernicious ways in which women internalize the need to diet or maintain a certain look, all the while believing that this is the route to female empowerment. As Bordo points out, these practices of body management “train the female body in docility and obedience to cultural demands while at the same time being experienced in terms of power and control” (1993, 27, emphasis added). Styles may change, but these basic issues are surprisingly enduring. Most recently, for instance, I read a short article on “Teenagers and False Body Images” written by a doctor detailing the rise of the use of pharmaceutical products in young women and men in an attempt to model their bodies on idealized media images. Girls tend to use laxatives to lose weight while boys use muscle-​building products and protein shakes. Needless to say, the overuse of these supplements can lead to very serious health risks, especially as so many of these products are unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration (New York Times, August 2, 2016). One of the most influential discussions concerning movement and the gendered use of the body and weight is Iris Marion Young’s 1980 essay “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility, and Spatiality.” This foundational piece of feminist scholarship is a brilliant example of the interweaving of movement analysis with a cultural critique as she articulates precisely how girls and women literally incorporate their social


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positioning into the way they use their bodies. By analyzing the ways that girls are taught not to take up the space around them, not to use the capacity of their whole body when engaging in physical activity such as throwing, and not to fully project their intentions (and the ball) in the world, Young describes the tensions between experiencing one’s body as both a thing and capacity for action—​as both a passive object and an active subject. Basically, “throwing like a girl” is the use of isolated body parts (just the arm) without engaging one’s core (no wind up) and without believing that you can do it (no follow through). Now there are plenty of women softball players who have a powerful pitch. Yet even though physical styles change, Young’s sense of women’s “inhibited intentionality” in movement is a remarkably enduring characteristic of female embodiment. Unfortunately, it is also increasingly a characteristic of the embodied passivity of our digital lives as well. Just how deeply this somatic socialization is embedded in our connective tissue was made painfully clear to me when I was a soccer coach for my daughter’s recreational soccer team, which was co-​ed throughout her middle school years. Although this was a group of young players who had been together for many years, only a handful of them were athletic, or even particularly skilled with the ball. Mostly they participated on the team for fun and fresh air. Nonetheless, it was striking to see the girls (many of whom were still bigger than the boys) pull back physically as they hit puberty. All of a sudden, there was a lot of “silly” behavior on the soccer field as hands flailed in the air and voices were raised in giggling screams. I remember vividly the moment that a fairly tall girl, who previously had never had trouble going after the ball, hesitated for so long that a boy from the opposing team just ran in and stole it from right in front of her feet. Over the course of a season or two, I witnessed more hesitation in moving towards an opponent and less force in kicking the ball, embodying Young’s theoretical insights in the flesh. Although there were some notable exceptions, many of the adolescent girls on the team seemed enclosed within a debilitating bubble of self-​consciousness.6 Thus in 2004, I decided to use my blended background in feminist theory and movement training to directly engage the complexities of pubescent girls’ relationships with their bodies and, by extension, with their school and community, by introducing an after-​school program called Girls in Motion.7 The mission statement reads:  “The Girls in Motion program seeks to introduce girls at risk for academic failure and low self-​esteem to a series of fun and integrative movement experiences that will allow them to develop more holistic relationships with their bodies. The program’s motto Move Smart—​Talk Smart—​Be Smart reveals the philosophy behind it. Girls in Motion provides a safe place for girls to discuss and explore issues of body image and peer pressure through movement forms—​including dance, yoga, and sports—​aligned with creative activities and writing projects, with the aim of developing physical

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fitness, mind-​body awareness, and increased self-​esteem.” The college student mentors and I work with a variety of physical activities from rhythmic stepping to hip hop, to climbing walls, to yoga, all mixed into a series of theater games and some autobiographical writing. We try to keep them engaged and moving, which isn’t always easy. As the director of the program, I am less concerned about these girls becoming “skilled” dancers and more interested in having them become sentient movers who are intentional about their bodies. The first year we ran the program in the middle school, we had the luxury of a room of our own. On the walls, I hung a series of propositions that guided our physical inquiries: “What does breathing have to do with inspiration? How do we find strength without tension? How can we be fierce without getting angry? What does gravity have to do with personal commitment?” We found a direct correlation between feeling one’s weight and supporting the weight of others on the one hand and feeling a sense of commitment to the group on the other. This is a particularly important intervention, especially for students who are at risk for academic or social failure. My experience working with Girls in Motion is that the most difficult situations are rarely with the kids who are in your face and oppositional. Rather the kids who are often the most recalcitrant are those who are completely checked out, stand at the edge of the room, and claim they “don’t care.” I  once had a student underscore this attitude in one of her journal entries written within the context of a Contact class where I spoke about resistance as a form of support and commitment to one’s partner. Talking about the difference between high school and college, she writes: “Immature discomfort is judgment before you try, refusal to try, making it humorous so you don’t have to face something new with complete commitment” (Zoe Martens 2012). Rather than try to engage these girls on a psychological level, I try to directly connect with them body-​to-​body. The intersection of the personal experience of weight and the social experience of being part of a supportive group reveals the cultural forces at stake as we extend the physical feeling of gravity into a broader analysis of its psychological affect. In the first year of Girls in Motion I developed a progressive and kid-​friendly sun salutation to help focus their minds and warm up their bodies at the beginning of our sessions. While it is a simple physical sequence done in a circle, the crucial part is the verbal litany that accompanies the movement. Half Girl Scout Pledge, half yoga mantra, these words provide a framework in which to realize the larger implications of that physical exercise. We begin standing, stretching the hands to the sky (“I reach to the sky”), then bend over and touch the ground (“I press into the earth”), and spiral the body around (“I gather all the energy around me”). Next, we take the right leg back into lunge and trace a semi-​circle with the right arm (“I open to one side”), and coming back to facing front with the palms together in front of the chest (“and I center myself”), repeat to the other side (“I open to the other side, and then center myself”). Next, we jump


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back into plank pose (“I create a bridge from my school to my community”), and then come into child’s pose (“I gather into myself”) and walk back to the front of the mat to stand in mountain pose (“and walk forward to become present in the world.”) To become present in the world. Just standing, aware of the sensation of that line of energy running through the spine from earth to sky. The sensation of rooting into the ground with our feet, pressing into the floor with our hands, reaching out into our kinesphere and then bringing our palms together helps focus our attention on the body as a place of refuge. In the context of a middle school environment with its chatty, attitude-​filled street energy, this can be an amazingly profound experience. Much to my surprise, some of the adolescent girls in this program enjoy this sequence so much that they often insist on ending most sessions with it as well. In fact, one of the most pleasurable moments for me was when a college-​student mentor told me how one of her students had gone up to her room and done this sun salutation as a way to avoid prolonging a fight with her mom. Another time when we introduced this activity into the elementary school (where we also have a Girls in Motion program now), the third-​grade girls misunderstood the final sentence, substituting “walk forward to become president of the world!” in its stead. But what exactly are they being taught? I  believe that on some level, they are learning to find the connections between breathing and inspiration, to feel the stability of gravity, to mobilize their pelvis, to find resistance through internal strength rather than external tension, to rely on lines of energy to support their bodies, to realize the three-​dimensionality of their bodies, and finally to recognize the importance of what’s inside (their organs) as well as on the surface of their skin. Let’s return to our breath. Inhale . . . exhale. Our discussion of gravity began with an exhale, with a release into the support of the earth. As significant for adults as it is for infants, this bonding with gravity gives us access to a sense of weight, commitment, and self-​ agency, grounding our engagement with the world. We have also traced how this yielding facilitates a counteraction, a pushing away. Being grounded allows us to open up and become aware of our surroundings, making ourselves available and responsive to the physical and emotional experiences of any situation. But this organic exchange—​this willingness to push and be pushed—​cannot take place on a two-​dimensional screen. It happens most effectively in the flesh.

Down to the Ground In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes: “Gravity is about motion, weight, resistance, force, the most primary experience after all the touches on

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our skin, of being corporeal. And so it may be that gravity is a sweet taste of mortality and our strength to resist it, a luxuriating in the pull of the earth and the pull of the muscles against it” (2005, 148). Etymologically, as well as culturally, gravity is connected to grave. This is one of the reasons that it can be scary to release into the support of that downward pull towards the earth. It forces us to recognize the possibility of that final descent into our own death. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In some yogic traditions, for instance, it is common to meditate on one’s own physical demise, visualizing the body decomposing with the help of various insects and ground creatures nourishing themselves on one’s rotting corpse. The ritual/​exercise that I lead (which I originally developed as part of the national AIDS quilt ritual unfolding on campus) is significantly less morose, but does link gravity to grave and, I would add, grace. Once I  have worked with a group of people long enough to have created a sense of interconnectedness and a willingness to use their voices and feel their organs, I  introduce a body-​work partnering score that is a blend of a lullaby and a lament (see Inset #12 Lullaby/​Lamentation Score). Basically, the form is simple. One person lies down on the floor and their partner begins to do some hands-​on bodywork, gently rocking their body and moving their limbs, all the while singing to them. Introducing this exercise to the group, I talk about how the voice becomes like a third hand in the touching and how both lullabies and laments are meant to help the individual transition to another state of being. Both forms of singing use the voice to ease that parting journey with love. Students describe this experience as incredibly relaxing, invoking a “trance-​like” state. They mention both hearing the voice of their partner as well as the whole room—​“as if they were all singing to me.” One student wrote that they felt they had “participated in something large and human and deeply spiritual.”8 Another discussed the fact that her grandfather had died two days earlier and she was about to leave for the funeral. Since I heard about his death I had been walking around like I was in a dream, not feeling like I  had any outlet, or any way to mourn his death. I  mean, does putting on black nylons and some uncomfortable shoes mean mourning? Doing the mourning exercise, I felt like I  was letting go of something, or maybe just coming to terms with and accepting death. I  went to the funeral the next day and taught my family about body work and lamentation. The class could not have been more perfectly timed. (M. Phillips 1996) Working with the organs facilitates this kind of deep physically and emotionally powerful experience, while connecting to gravity allows us to feel the density of that commitment to life and death.


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Inset #12  Lullaby/​Lamentation  Score

(n.b. This score assumes a certain level of comfort working with the voice, including humming, toning (ahh  .  .  .  ohh  .  .  .  umm  .  .  .) and singing (although not necessarily in tune). It also assumes a previous familiarity with giving and receiving some kind of bodywork.) I call this exercise a score because it is an open improvisation within the parameters of a certain focus. One thing that lullabies and lamentations have in common is that they are both vocal rituals that help us transition to another state of being. A parent sings the baby to sleep; we assist the dying to the other side of their life. Lullabies and lamentations are also vocals acts of deep love. One partner lies down on their back. The other partner sits or kneels at their side, two hands resting lightly on an arm. Alternatively, you can rest one hand on the partner’s forehead and one on their sternum. Take a moment to track your breath and your partner’s breath. While you do not have to worry about specifically synching up your breath with that of your partner, do not be surprised if it happens naturally. Start with a low hum, allowing the vibrations of your sound to extend through your hands into your partner’s body. Continue to focus your sound towards your partner. Think of your voice like a soft down comforter that gently covers your partner’s body. Feel free to adapt your humming or singing as time passes and you move your hands to focus on different parts of their body. Begin to gently rock your partner’s torso back and forth, keeping an even rhythm like the rocking of a train in motion. Keep to that rhythm, even as you move your hands from the upper shoulders to the ribs and to the pelvis. I like to keep my hands loosely engaged (if they are too tight, it will hamper their torso’s movement), and I imagine that I can elicit a kind of rhythmic sloshing in the center of their body such that you are affecting all the contents of their body (including their organs) and not just moving their bones. After a while release your hands and allow your partner just to absorb the ripple effect of that rocking. You can keep toning throughout this time. Next, lift the arm closest to you. Take care to support the wrist with one hand, using the other hand to support right above the elbow. Wait until you feel that your partner has given you the weight of their limb and then gently circle the arm in the shoulder socket, as if you were stirring a thick soup with a long wooden ladle. This part is less about the range of motion, than it is about opening up the joint itself. Keep the motion minimal and focus on mobilizing the fluids in the center of the joint. Next, pick up your partner’s leg, taking care to support right above the knee and at the ankle.

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When you feel that your partner has given you the full weight of their leg, gently begin to stir the leg bone into the hip socket. Then move around the body to the other leg and the other arm, each time carefully picking up their limbs and gently stirring each one in the joint. Keep singing or toning as you work. Finish up by coming around to sit by your partner’s head. Place your hands on either side of their skull, coming back to the experience of funneling the vibrations from your sound into your partner’s head. If you are familiar with cranial-​sacral work, you can focus on the cerebral-​spinal flow, otherwise just follow whatever movement is available in their skull. Finish your singing and just rest for a moment with your partner. Then gradually remove your hands and lie down next to your partner. Breathe together for a moment, and then switch roles.

To inhabit our body fully and to feel connected through it to the earthly body beneath us is to be physically grounded, able to inhabit our bodies as the mooring and support for all our activities. [ . . . ] Such physical grounding facilitates emotional grounding—​the strength to hold ground and fill space; in other words, to be present with all our being. (Klein, 142) The essay by Anne Klein quoted above is part of a collection of writings by Buddhist women discussing the paradox of embodiment. Like much of my own work, Klein’s writing interweaves metaphorical language and material circumstances. The use of gerunds in her title “Grounding and Opening” evokes the ongoing effort of daily practice. The order is crucial—​grounding is necessary for opening. As I have demonstrated across the examples of developmental movement in infants, middle school girls, college students, and other adults, revitalizing our connection to gravity provides an internal support for engaging with the external world. This sense of connection (what Klein also describes as a “mooring”) is a result of the dynamic of yielding our weight into the support of the earth in order to feel the counteraction, the release upward that allows us to find our push and resistance when we need to hold our own ground. Cultivating this relationship of the down to the up takes time and patience. Sometimes it is simply a question of attending to our exhalations, reminding ourselves to release our weight and, potentially, our expectations as well. Other times it is a matter of lying on the floor, feeling how the earth’s support can enter our bodies and refresh our energy. The physical practices I describe in this chapter, particularly the focus on our organs as the vital contents of our bodies, can help us learn to fully inhabit our


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bodies. As we have seen, attention to small everyday experiences like dancing with a park bench can make a difference. When my students describe their feelings of being connected to their environment, or their sense of physical and existential presence, I  read their comments as reflecting an energetic balance of grounding and opening. For just as our exhale leads to the inhale, just as the yield leads to a push, and just as the organs support the actions of our bones and muscles, so too gravity connects us in a meaningful way to the world around us. In order to fully inhabit our bodies, we need to recognize that this physical grounding facilitates an existential grounding, building a crucial foundation for our experience of resilience, the topic of the next chapter.

5 Falling Disorientation Suspension Gravity Resilience Connection Resilience compels a narrative of survival, calling forth stories of ingenuity and resourcefulness in the face of a greater power. This could be a force of nature (hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, drought), human-​made destruction (wars, industrial accidents, terrorism, climate change), or simply meeting up with the neighborhood bully on the playground. Although it is currently used in discussions of economics and technologies, as well as in reference to people and the natural world, resilience can never be measured adequately in terms of numbers or abstract notions. It demands an accounting with the more affective dimensions of our experience. Most often these stories (yours, mine, theirs) begin with bodily sensation—​the backs of our necks stiffen, hearts race, breathing speeds up, palms sweat. Of course, in the face of sudden and overwhelming change we all react differently. Some of us drop to our knees, faint, or shake our heads in disbelief. Others look for an escape, someone to blame, or become angry and combative. Eventually, with time (suspension) and support (gravity), lives are reimagined, buildings are reconstructed, and we try to establish a new sense of balance. But resilience also carries the possibility of lasting transformation. In bridging the gap between past and future, resilience offers the possibility of a present in which our initial perceptions of loss (of a job, lover, or our innocence) might have shifted. Often in returning and remembering, we find that we no longer want what we had before. Natural ecologies, human communities, and complex systems can all exhibit resilience. Indeed, the best



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adaptations to sudden change come from within. This is why resilience is necessarily a grass-​roots movement. “Losing It: How I was laid off and learned to love life again” is a classic story of resilience. Published in the New York Times Sunday Review section on March 28, 2010, this personal narrative of survival traces Dominique Browning’s journey from economic and social stability through unemployment and existential free-​fall, to her eventual transformation into a stronger and wiser individual. Browning’s world collapsed in late 2007, when the magazine where she worked as a senior editor suddenly folded, and she found herself without a job at the beginning of what economic analysts are calling “the Great Recession.” Like many other Americans at that time, she experienced a profound sense of loss—​not only of her livelihood, but also of her identity. Browning’s article details how her financial panic precipitated a full-​fledged existential crisis. “The loss of my job triggered a cascade of self-​doubt and depression. I felt like a failure. Not that the magazine had failed—​that I had” (26). One of the hardest things for her was confronting days, weeks, even months of unstructured time. No longer distracted by her busy work-​life, Browning has to grapple with how to fill her life. “I liked not being in control of my time—​I was always busy. I didn’t want time to think things over” (26). The turning point in her narrative comes in the middle of the night, when she couldn’t sleep and decides to sit down at her piano for the first time in many months. Tentatively, she begins to play Bach. “Unexpectedly, I felt a peace suffuse my bones as I lost myself in Bach’s lines. My own anxieties were no longer drumming through my brain; my mind, that hobbled old draft horse, stopped loping along in the same rut it followed night after night” (29). What Browning finds by moving through the liminal space of being laid off is a realm of new possibilities, ones that she eventually finds more satisfying than her old frenetic lifestyle. The experience of sudden unemployment forced her to take time out. “As I  stop struggling so with fear and simply accept the slow tempo of my days, all those inner resources start kicking in—​those soul-​saving habits of playfulness, most of all:  reading, thinking, listening, feeling my body move through the world, noticing the small beauty in every single day” (29). Like most good fairytales, her story of failure and renewal ends on a happy note. In the context of this chapter on resilience, however, I am struck by a comment earlier in her narrative—​when she was still struggling with the pain of loss. Right after leaving her office for the last time, she thinks: “How had I managed to get this far in my life completely unprepared for the unknown—​which I had always known was out there?” (26) As I read through Browning’s story, as well as so many other stories of resilience and survival, I wonder what kinds of physical and existential training might prepare us for these moments when we are forced to face the unexpected and the unknown.

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One of the most common definitions of resilience is the ability of a substance “to bounce back” (etymologically speaking “to leap back”). This cheerful expression reminds me of those inflatable toys for toddlers that are weighted at the bottom. As soon as they are pushed down, they pop back up—​as good as new, so to speak. I remember one from my childhood. It lived down the hill at a neighbor’s house, in the classic 1970s “rec” room. About my size, this inflatable clown figure sported a creepy, big-​toothed grin. No matter how many times he got pushed over, this figure would bounce right back up—​same big smile—​as if nothing had happened. I found the endless repetitions of down to up, down to up, down to up, frustrating. Apparently, someone else did as well, because the next time I went down the stairs to play, I noticed it deflated and crumpled up in a corner. Besides, life isn’t like that. Even if we acknowledge that obstacles and challenges can be valuable lessons in the long run, these inevitable brushes with adversity usually serve to wipe the grin off our faces—​at least temporarily. There is another meaning of resilience that I  find more interesting and useful. Resilience can also be defined as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.” What I appreciate about this term “capacity” is how it suggests an opening and embracing, a taking something inside the self, accommodating a substance or an idea. Related to the Latin word capere (to take or hold), capacity describes an ability to expand and receive. Recover also suggests a more thoughtful engagement with the adversity at hand, as well as the potential for change over time. Unlike the clown that automatically bounces back or the cartoon characters (such as Roadrunner) that pop right up after having been flattened by a truck, this deeper kind of resilience allows us to register the implications of what just happened in our bodies. Breathing with our experience, we pause to acknowledge the gravity of the moment before we decide how to move on. Thinking of resilience as the capacity to recover resists the nostalgia of the moment before the loss, encouraging us to craft a response instead of triggering a reaction. If we define resilience as the capacity to recover in the face of adversity, it behooves us not only to understand the somatic undercurrents of “recover,” but also to explore our various neuro-​cognitive responses to adversity. An article entitled “How People Learn to Become Resilient,” published in The New  Yorker, begins with the following epigraph:  “Perception is key to resilience:  Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic or as a chance to learn and grow?” (Konnikova 2016)  While this last sentence can easily sound ridiculously Pollyanna-​ish, it is true that we often have more choice than we realize about how to structure our responses to the negative forces in our lives. Do I  experience an outside event as traumatic or as a challenge? Do I hold onto the pain of a particular rejection, or do I move on to explore other opportunities? Do I act as if I am continually at the mercy of external forces,


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or do I have the sense of power to structure some aspects of my own life? It is easy to get stuck in our own stories. But if we remember that nerve impulses do not register emotions, we can take a moment to experience that sensation without immediately following it up with an emotional narrative of loss or victimhood. As I have argued throughout this book, by attending to physical sensation and embodied perception, we can often shift entrenched dynamics of our being-​in-​the-​world. Resilience is no exception. If we take seriously the interrelated networks of thinking and feeling, we can recognize and potentially intervene in our own patterns of action and reaction.

Rewriting our Narratives The autonomic nervous system is often described as a remnant of our ancient survival mechanism, a kind of animal attentiveness to the environment that processes the various levels of danger and safety. Usually it operates below our conscious awareness, regulating our well-​being through the complementary functions of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Although these two aspects of the autonomic nervous system encompass radically different energies (perhaps best described as the difference between begin and doing), it is crucial to recognize their mutually supportive roles in sustaining our lives. In Sensing, Feeling, and Action, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen envisions the parasympathetic nervous system as the (back)ground, the baseline of an inner-​directed flow of energy that helps us digest our experience (as well as our food) by drawing blood into the organs and our center. Supported by gravity, the parasympathetic is our connection to the natural cycles of rest and recuperation. The sympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is frequently dubbed as our “fight or flight” mechanism. It helps us stay awake and alert, bringing blood to the muscles and preparing our body for action. The sympathetic nervous system activates our adrenals, firing us up to meet the challenges of lengthy to-​do lists, sports competitions, public performances, or work-​related presentations. This is the system that processes our busy twenty-​first-​century lives in which school, work, and assorted enrichment activities compete for time with the basic necessities of eating and sleeping. As we have seen in the last chapter, the distractions of social media and our increasing phone use compound this stress, giving us a sense of never being able to settle down or truly rest. When our nerves are repeatedly activated in this way we build up an overload of stress hormones and thus produce an underlying sense of alarm often accompanied by a toxic level of anxiety. This is one of the problems with an unrelenting workload and around the clock news cycles or entertainment choices. In her discussion of the autonomic nervous system, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen describes a process of “sitting in the synapse” where one accepts uncomfortable

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moments without judgment, recognizing how an initial reaction may be fed by past trauma and learning how to consciously intervene in that transmission. The “synapse” she is referring to is that microscopic space of suspension, the barely perceptible moment between nerve impulses. Literally and figuratively, this is the place where we can reorganize our initial impulse to react. “By accepting, not having to act prematurely, and not adding flames to the fire, just letting things filter through, the nerves little by little de-​reverse [ . . . ] It’s no longer stored in the tissue. It means now you have a response instead of a reaction” (2009, 180). Unemployment forced Browning to “sit in the synapse,” but her story shows us that it is possible to move on. It is important to note that many studies on resilience also find that there is a significant correlation between feeling control over one’s response to a situation and an ability to meet that challenge. It is easier to respond to a crisis (personal, social, or natural) if we can find a sense of agency in which to ground our experience of rapidly changing circumstances. This act of “sitting in the synapse,” like Nancy Stark Smith’s notion of a “gap” or the spaciousness of a breath, helps us respond differently. Throughout How to Land, I argue that this critical sense of agency is very often located in our physical response-​ability. Oftentimes, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems are positioned in opposition to one another. Either we are up or down, working or at rest, awake or asleep. But just as we can feel the presence of the inhale as we are finishing the exhale, or feel the gathering of an exhale right at the edge of a suspension, so too can we experience the support of the ground as we open up to the world, or feel the traces of that buoyant extension as we sink into gravity. In an unpublished paper, Cohen discusses this interactive relationship of our sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Having two harmoniously opposing control systems helps prevent overreaction when the balance point has to shift due to changes in the internal or external environment. Each supports and modifies the other on a wide continuum of attentions and function. Alternation of the major active role is also necessary in providing rest and recuperation for the supportive aspect. Together they give us a personal sense of well-​being. (quoted in Hartley 1995, 255) In other words, reflection and action are mutually supportive. Knowing this intellectually and feeling it in our bodies, however, are two different experiences. In his editorial “A Life-​Changing Stroke at 26,” Jonas Koffler describes his sudden fall from the heights of professional ambition while he was at an internet start-​up (New  York Times, September 25, 2016). His essay charts his experience from “I was 26 and felt invincible” to “I felt helpless and humiliated over my loss of control.” In the process of recovering from his stroke, he found


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that his priorities had shifted. Still involved professionally with various start-​up ventures, he now makes time every day to “untangle from the digital world and plug back into what really matters: time with the people I love, time for creativity, and time in nature.” His is a cautionary tale, and he notes: “Overload is the way of work these days. It’s how the ambitious among us are hard-​wired, and it’s quite dangerous, as my experience has shown.” I am interested in thinking further about this notion of “hard-​wired” because as many studies have shown, our brain has amazing plasticity, and there is very little, in fact, that is directly “hard-​wired” in our nervous system. As anyone in recovery can attest, what once seemed impossible to imagine existing without can (with time and patience) become the new normal in one’s life. Of course, it is true that the body’s complex network of nerves, muscles, and connective tissue contains certain patterns of behavior that can be quite difficult to dislodge, even once we become aware of their damaging effects in our lives. These behaviors can feel “hard-​wired,” even though they are not. This is a particularly potent reality for people who have experienced deeply traumatic situations, be they abusive relationships, warfare, long-​term illness, or natural disaster. Nonetheless, my experience teaching and moving with others over the past three decades has convinced me that our bodies are generally more resilient and adaptable than we think they are. By attending to the actual sensation of our physical experience rather than the presumptive damage to our psyches, we can learn how to intervene in these somatic histories in order to rework their narrative endings. Describing the autonomic nervous system, Linda Hartley notes:  “The nervous system is not emotional in nature, but simply communicating information; this means that the process of sensing can be helpful in containing excessive emotions” (1995, 261). The problem is that it can be very difficult to disrupt a cycle of triggers—​be they physical or emotional—​because our nerves quickly get used to firing in set pathways. Like patterns of perception where we tend to see what we expect to see (this is a basis of implicit bias, for instance), we learn to feel what we expect to feel—​be it pain, anger, or an itch. This can create a channel of nerve synapses that quickly trigger a certain kind of reaction. Most of us can recall a moment when we foolishly overreacted to a presumed threat. This is the moment when our adrenals started pumping a second or two before we realized that the snake in our path was really just a stick, or that the college rejection notice in the mail was actually a letter of acceptance, even though it was thin. Practices such as breathing intentionally, mindful awareness, or even improvisational training can be immensely helpful in shifting this kind of quick, often exaggerated, reactivity into a more thoughtful response. As many narratives of resilience have shown, the psychic and physical pain of a sudden disability or an unforeseen disaster can be a great teacher. After the birth of my second child when I was in my mid-​thirties, I experienced a series of severely debilitating back injuries. For over a year, I could barely

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walk, let alone bend down to pick up a crying infant or move in the feisty ways to which I was accustomed. The pain was sharp and unrelenting, especially because I was nursing a newborn baby and therefore could not take any medication to blunt pain and discomfort. It was an intense situation. There I was: a dancer who couldn’t move, an assistant professor up for tenure, the only full-​time employee in my household, and the mother of a baby and a toddler. The pressure was coming in from all sides, and I felt squeezed in the middle. I became caught in a negative cycle in which back pain triggered feelings of being overwhelmed and these feelings, in turn, made me even more nervous about the pain I was experiencing. Fortunately, the intensive physical therapy that I  did forced me to focus directly on bodily sensation. In time, I  became skilled in attending to the differences between nerve pain and the dull ache of inflammation. I started becoming aware of how I would tense my shoulders or grit my jaw in expectation of the pain, and instead began just breathing into the actual sensations I was experiencing. Even though these were still excruciating, I  learned to separate the physical feeling that I was experiencing in the present tense from the emotional feelings of shame or despair that tended to last much longer and sent my mind spinning into the past or future tenses. Frustrated with a medical establishment that told me that I should retire from dancing while at the same time telling me that they could “fix me up as good as new,” I stopped going to doctors and refused to get yet another MRI to “assess” the damage to my spine. Instead, I spent my time lying on the floor or crawling around with my kids. I also worked directly with my soft spine, learning how to activate my organs and the front of my body to support my back. In this processing of re-​claiming my body and learning how to walk again, I let go of my dancer identity as it had been defined by other people and cultural norms from the outside, replacing it with the experience of inhabiting my body from the inside.1 Most experiences of disability, even temporary injuries, force us to revise our personal narratives of physical strength, control, or wholeness. For years I had prided myself on being a big strong dancer who could lift onto my shoulders every student (no matter how large) in my classes. Suddenly, I  couldn’t even lift my toddler. It was an earth-​and-​ego shattering experience. Daily confrontation with chronic pain, navigating issues of reduced accessibility, not to mention the extra time it takes to get even simple chores done, all these take a psychic toll. The silver lining is that we are forced to learn how to listen to our bodies and take the time to rest when needed. As I  focused on taking one step at a time, I found that I left behind various expectations. Rehabilitating my back and caring for my body was a lesson in the intertwined capacities of body and mind, one that has sustained me now for over two decades. In The Faraway Nearby, a collection of short essays on family, empathy, and belonging, Rebecca Solnit relates the following anecdote: “A physical therapist


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told me that chronic pain is treatable, sometimes by training people to experience it differently, but the sufferer ‘has to be ready to give up their story.’ Some people love their story that much even if it’s of their own misery, even if it ties them to unhappiness, or they don’t know how to stop telling it” (2013, 241–​ 242). Often the stories we tell ourselves about our bodies are engraved in our nervous system and become a “naturalized” part of our embodied experience. Teaching dance to beginners almost always evokes exclamations such as “I’m not very coordinated,” or “I am not at all flexible,” or “I have always been super klutzy.” These beliefs are relatively easy to change with time and practice. Other narratives, including those that position us as victims, require more patience to dislodge. But even these stories can shift dimensions if we replace their entrenched networks of history and expectation (past and future) with a curiosity of the changing sensations at the present moment. Resiliency is embedded in our nervous system as well as in our connective tissue. Thus, in order to trace how one can turn panic into possibility, or fear into opportunity, it might be useful to begin at the material interface between ourselves and the world—​our skin.

Skin as Connective Tissue Skin is the largest and most sensitive of our organs. Right underneath the epidermis, the surface through which we contact the world, is the dermis, which is part of the network of connective tissue, one of the most extensive systems of integration in our bodies.2 Skin covers us entirely, and it is impossible to exist without our skin. It literally sets the tone for our engagement with the world. Nonetheless, many people go through their daily lives with little attention to their skin as a vital perceptual faculty. Often, we become aware of our skin only in extreme circumstances such as fear (the skin crawling up the back of my neck), awe (it gave me goose-​bumps), pleasure (blushing, the tingling sensation of a lover’s caress), or when we have a medical condition (a rash, eczema, or shingles). As we have seen in the chapter on disorientation, skin can be thought of as either a boundary enclosing my body or an energetic conduit opening me up to the world. These differences in perception make for a radically different understanding of the relationship between myself and the world. As I touch, I am touched in return. I recognize, of course, that skin is also inherently racialized, and the terms of that discourse have become increasingly fraught. The Black Lives Matter movement and the current xenophobia, various immigration bans and the resultant profiling of Arab peoples as terrorists or Mexicans as drug dealers, not to mention the entry of the alt-​right into mainstream politics, have served to polarize Americans even further. Later in this chapter, I give examples of resistance and resilience in terms of social justice activism, and in the next chapter on

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Connection, I delve more deeply into a discussion of connective tissue and racial difference. Thinking of skin as part of our connective tissue allows us to recognize something important—​skin is something we feel as well as something we see. Although the outer most layer of our skin (the epidermis) is not actually composed of connective tissue (just the dermis layer underneath is) I think of skin as a kind of fleshy tissue that connects me to the world through the sensation of touch. But that same sensation (of touching and being touched) connects me to myself as well. As author and somatic practitioner Deane Juhan writes: “my tactile surface is not only the interface between my body and the world, it is the interface between my thought processes and my physical existence as well. By rubbing up against the world, I define myself to myself” (1987, 34). Thus, I offer the following discussion of connective tissue and resilience as an example of the critical intersection of embodiment and cultural meaning, somatics and politics. My aim is to introduce the tensions between these discourses (biology and sociology) without privileging one over the other. We need to be aware of both to survive. Touch is the primary sense of communication in Contact Improvisation. It replaces sight as the privileged mode of information, and it is through the nuances of pressure at the surface of the body that we coordinate the forces of weight and momentum that create the basis of moving together. In order to train for increased responsiveness and split-​second timing, we need to enliven our perceptual awareness through every pore on our skin. We do this by rolling across the floor (with and without a partner), slowly pouring weight into another person, and learning how to resist and support another person’s weight. Although much of the focus in Contact is on connecting with a partner, the experience at the level of the skin actually refines our own proprioception. As I attune to your dancing, I become increasingly conscious of my own movement. Similarly, as I  feel your skin pressing against mine, I realize more fully my own fleshy boundaries. As we noted in the chapter on gravity, this press and push against one another can be the site of our mutual engagement as well as the physical ground for an articulation of individual difference. Our skin (specifically the dermis) is the most tangible part of a massive network of connective tissue throughout our body. As I discussed in the section on organs in the previous chapter (and as I have pointed out throughout this book), lay conceptions of the body are often narrowly focused on the workings of our neuromuscular system. In elementary school, we learn that our bones hold us up and that without them we would be a mass of inert tissue and water stuck on the floor. Likewise, the average person’s image of their internal structure mirrors the human skeleton hanging in the corner of their high school biology classroom. Say the word “spine” and many of us flash on the plastic model of vertebrae in the doctor’s office. We may be familiar with some of the core muscle


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groups that we work out at the gym, and we may conceive of the brain as the software system that sends out signals through the nerves, but we are seldom aware of how they all work together. Because we currently have extremely detailed and refined scanning technology, we tend to focus on selected parts of our body, often in microscopic detail. But more than any other bodily system, connective tissue insists that we pull back and think more holistically. It is not only the image of the bulging disk between L4 and L5 that should concern us, but also the entire use of our core web of support. Sometimes referred to as the “Cinderella” of bodily systems because it is so often ignored in dissection and traditional approaches to medical diagnoses, connective tissue is like a mesh weave running throughout our bodies. We have connective tissue throughout our body—​it is the fibrous stuff that connects, supports, binds, or separates various systems, including the organs, and in its dense form, it also helps to attach muscles to bones. It is this, rather than our skeleton, that actually holds our body together and keeps us upright. Connective tissue is key to our sense of proprioception and kinesthesia for it contains up to ten times as many sensory receptors as our muscles. It is also involved in healing injuries and plays an important role in the effective running of our immune system. Even at the molecular level, connective tissue can teach us a lot about the somatic implications of resilience. It is our connective tissue that transforms the pull of gravity into a fluid movement. Perhaps because it is so omnipresent in our body, interwoven throughout our skeletal structure, organs, and muscles, connective tissue as a system can be hard to distinguish at first. It is easiest to feel the fascia (a sheet of connective tissue) under our outer layer of skin. One method I use to introduce the pliant quality of connective tissue is an exercise called “skin to bone” (see Inset #13 Skin to Bone). One person stands next to their partner and takes their partner’s forearm in both hands, encouraging their partner to release the weight of their arm into the support of the other person’s hands. (This can take time, so try to be patient.) Then we begin to exert a light and gentle pressure as we move with our intention through four layers of tissue in the arm. I instruct both partners (those touching and those being touched) to visualize and try to feel the movement from the top layer of skin, through the fascia (the thick underlying layer or sheet of connective tissue), into the muscle, and finally to the bone. The different sensations—​from the thin, papery quality of the epidermis to the thicker mass-​like quality of the fascia underneath, to the stringy tensile muscle fibers, and finally to the clear stability of bone—​are actually quite palpable. The quality of these different layers is brilliantly described by a student in my Contact Improvisation class, in her journal entry reporting on a duet inspired by this exercise.

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Inset #13  Skin to Bone

(n.b. This exercise is done with a partner and is a great way to research how to find support—​bone to bone.) Stand next to your partner, facing their arm. Take hold of that arm such that their elbow is bent at a right angle. Make sure that you support their wrist with one of your hands, using the other hand to hold their arm just below the elbow. Give your partner time to release the weight of their arm into your support. Breathe together. Keeping one hand under their wrist, shift your other hand to take hold of the top of their forearm, gently encircling it with your whole hand (not just the fingers). You can choose to close your eyes if it helps you focus on the sensation of their arm. Next, try to feel your way through four layers of their forearm—​skin, fascia, muscle, bone—​focusing your attention to each level through the increased pressure of your hand. Once you hit bone, notice your own experience—​you may feel your own boney structure more clearly. Then, return to the surface of their arm, making sure that you retrace the layers of muscle and fascia into skin. Sometimes it is helpful to shift your grip a bit in order to move into the next layer, especially once you get to muscle and bone. Switch roles with your partner. As you become more familiar with feeling these four layers in your partner’s arm, you might find your experience of skin, fascia, muscle, and bone is heightened for you as well as for your partner. I particularly notice that when I hit bone, I feel more weight in their arm as well as in my own body.

At skin, I felt the very surface of myself, the most external portion. It slid and caressed, it was delicate. It gave me the most subtle information about my own experience and where my partner was. It glided. At fascia, I began to feel a pressure, the inklings of support; a presence. I was the smallest bit further inside myself, and the same smallest bit deepening toward my partners. It was a hard place to access, a very minute detail in my body. Just below the surface. A delicate balance. And into muscle, taking weight that started being dependent. Feeling that deepening as I further dove into the pressure and support. And then bone; a complete release while maintaining a very specific intensity. Exacting, feeling each roll and lift as I accepted the weight, the give and take, to permeate to the core of my body, the very basis of my structure. Through each deepening, making parts of my internal body became more real for me. (Ford 2015)


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Even though it sounds rather esoteric at first, this exercise is actually pretty easy to feel. In fact, it is direct enough to engage many different groups of people, including the middle school participants in my Girls in Motion program. Another way to begin to focus awareness on our connective tissue is through alternating compression and release of the soft tissue. Just pressing a limb (a partner’s or your own) as if you were squeezing and releasing a sponge starts to pump the fluids and transmits energy throughout this system. In Contact Improvisation training, we can use the floor as a partner, slowly rolling across it while curling and extending different body parts. As I release into the support of gravity, the floor and my weight create a form of compression that enlivens and tones my connective tissue. I find this exercise one of the easiest (and pleasurable) ways to warm up my body for the dual capacities of supporting weight and moving quickly (resistance and responsiveness). Connective tissue has the amazing capacity to be both strong and flexible, making it one of the most resilient systems in our body. In describing this condition of “tensile strength,” researchers commonly use the term “tensegrity,” referencing Buckminster Fuller’s popularizing of the word (a compound of tension and integrity) in the 1960s.3 This term is widely used in architecture to denote a structure that offsets steel tubes or iron rods with wire cables such that it is the tension between the structural elements that holds it up. This kind of support is strategically different from traditional building methods where the foundation has to be reinforced in order to be able to support the combined weight of the whole building. One of the most common examples of “tensegrity” is the classic baby toy made with colorful wooden rods and black elasticized string. Push down on this flexible structure and the pressure gets distributed equally across its elements. Let go of the pressure, and it springs back to its original shape. Another example of “tensegrity” is the human body. In the Suspension chapter, I discussed feeling the support of space within the three domes of the pelvic bowl, the central diaphragm, and the upper palate. In the context of our current investigation, it is important to recognize that these areas are also excellent examples of the “tensegrity” function of our connective tissue. Although we can identify the bony structures—​pelvis, ribcage, skull—​in these three areas, it is the suspension of our soft tissue inside those structures that offers the most functional and elastic support for our motion. Likewise, while we may think of our spine as a column of vertebrae stacked one on top of the other as the support for our bi-​pedal stance, actually it is the connective tissue that interweaves around our bones that keeps us upright. As Deane Juhan notes:  “This principle of tensegrity describes precisely the relationship between the connective tissues, the muscles, and the skeleton. [ . . . ] Like the beams in a simple tensegrity structure, our bones act more as spacers than as compressional members;

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more weight is actually borne by the connective system of cables than by the bony beams” (1987, 82). Because it is unusually responsive to mental images (such as imagining sand slowly filling my head), connective tissue can lay the cellular groundwork for new ways of moving in the world. Thus, it is a wonderful example of the kind of intricate looping of action and perception, body and mind. Dance, movement, and yoga teachers understand this connection intimately, and we soon learn to craft the verbal images that will inspire a more open, expansive engagement of the body. For example, rather than instructing students in a class to lift their legs to the front, we might ask beginning dancers to imagine their leg as a pendulum such that the leg first swings down with weight before lengthening out. This image eliminates the gripping and overuse of the quad muscles that quickly fire when we try to “lift” out leg. Similarly, direct tactile contact such as massage, therapeutic touch, or deep fascial manipulation can release the tension and strain that gets “locked” into our soft tissue. We can access our connective tissue system directly through our skin and the underlying fascia, feeling how it responds to pressure and touch. I have always believed that connective tissue was the key to our physical sensibility of resilience. This hunch was confirmed by the interdisciplinary research I pursued for this chapter. It turns out that even at the molecular level of its cellular structure, connective tissue exhibits these same responsive, resistant, and resilient traits that we experience with the fascia just under the surface of our skin. In a recent article in the Journal of Motor Behavior, two scientists compare the plastic qualities found in connective tissue cells to the adaptability of human behavior. Over the course of “The Medium of Haptic Perception: A Tensegritiy Hypothesis,” Michael T.  Turvey and Sérgio T.  Fonsera argue that connective tissue contains a “cellular capacity to sense, and to respond adaptively to, mechanical forces” (2014, 146). This echoes almost verbatim the definition of resilience with which I began this chapter. Before they lost me in the details of chemical compounds and the specifics of molecular reactions (hence the “tensegrity hypothesis”), the authors claim:  “A connective tissue cell shares with the human the exteroperceptive activities of dynamic or effortful touching to negotiate and manipulate its microenvironment during migrations—​activities such as pushing, pulling, probing, prodding, bending, stretching, and tugging” (143). This description of cellular activity is wonderfully evocative of a Contact duet where performers pour, push, and pull one another’s weight in a constantly moving evolution of forms. Needless to say, most of us are unable to feel what is happening at the level of cells (although it is possible to sense at the level of our pores). Fortunately, one of the most accessible aspects of our connective tissue is our skin, and that we can experience intimately. Tough and water-​resistant, yet soft and permeable, skin exhibits both tensile strength and elasticity. Ashley Montague describes


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this renaissance system: “The skin itself does not think, but its sensitivity is so great, combined with its ability to pick up and transmit so extraordinarily wide a variety of signals, and make so wide a range of responses, exceeding that of all the other sense organs, that for versatility it must be ranked second only to the brain itself” (quoted in Juhan, 1987, 34). Anatomically, the central nervous system and the skin are both considered as developing from the ectoderm, the outside layer of an early embryo. Juhan describes the relationship between skin and brain as being like a Mobius strip where, “the skin is the outer surface of the brain, or the brain is the deepest layer of the skin,” thus making clear the link between our connective tissue and our autonomic nervous system (1987, 35).

Being and Doing This interdependent relationship between connective tissue and nerves establishes the possibility of effecting one system by working directly in the other. Often, in fact, this is one of the most efficient methods of shifting a negative dynamic of stress or pattern of anxiety. As we know from our explorations of breathing in the chapter on suspension, consciously telling ourselves to “breathe deeply” or to “relax” can easily create the opposite effect as we struggle with our own advice. This is one reason why embodied imagery works so well—​ it short-​circuits the negative commentary that is so often a part of our directorial mind. Similarly, deep tissue massage or other kinds of healing touch can do wonders in relieving the mental anxiety of an overworked sympathetic nervous system. To calm our nerves, we can calm the skin. The reciprocal process is equally true. When we relax our nervous tension, our muscles and tighter connective tissue will most likely release as well. Indeed, as Hartley points out, “what we think of as muscular tension is often tension within the nerves themselves” (1995, 264). Although the nervous system and our connective tissue are mutually supportive, any long-​term chronic stress will eventually weaken these interconnected networks, leading to a range of symptoms from general fatigue to auto-​immune deficiencies to the unprecedented rise of shingles in younger people. Learning how to parse our energy wisely is one of the most important skills we can acquire—​both physically and in life. How can we use enough effort to be effective, but not more than is necessary to get the job done? I often compare Contact Improvisation to surfing. There are moments in dancing (as in life) when you need a certain amount of strength and power to position yourself correctly, but once there, you have to release your effort in order to just ride the wave. In a short inspirational email sent on Labor Day several years ago, my yoga teacher Eric Stewart described asana (the practice of physical poses in yoga) as a kind of “useful” stress that can help us become more resilient to stress in its many forms—​both physical and psychic. The labor involved in asana, he writes,

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“can help people become more adaptable to other stresses.” He notes, however, that it is important to be strategic about the effort involved. [W]‌orking more in an asana does not necessarily make a person more resilient. Working more than necessary can in fact burn a person out. Instead, it is about learning to discern how much work, how much energy is appropriate. It’s about working with clarity and coordination. (Solaluna e-​blast August 31, 2014) One way to feel this integrated support of connective tissue, muscle, and bone, is to recognize that we can find a physical stability that is also flexible and resilient. In order to do so, we need to replace the focus on individual groups of muscles (typical of weight-​training regimes) with an awareness of extending across space. This is the kind of strategic engagement of strength in certain forms of martial arts. In Aikido, for instance, the dual action of an internal release into gravity in the midst of an external orientation to the world creates the possibility of tone through spatial reach, rather than through muscular contraction. Thus, I frequently teach a classic Aikido form known as the “unbendable arm” (see Inset #14 The Unbendable Arm). Facing their partner, one person Inset #14  Unbendable Arm

(n.b. This exercise is modeled after a traditional Aikido exercise also called “the unbendable arm,” and it requires a partner.) Stand facing your partner, about an arm’s length away. Place your right (or left) wrist on your partner’s left (or right) shoulder, extending your arm its full length, but taking care not to hyper-​extend and lock your elbow. Your partner places their two hands on top of your arm at the elbow. Pressing down, they try to bend your arm at the elbow while you resist with all your force. You will no doubt feel how you quickly clench your arm and grip the neck and shoulder muscles in order to resist the pressure. Now, release this intense resistance and shake out your arm. Stand again in front of your partner, and repeat the exercise. This time, however, imagine that there is water flowing through your arm and out your fingertips as well as the other end of your shoulder. Keep this flow of energy/​water moving through your arm as your partner tries again to bend your arm. Most likely you will find that you can more easily resist that pressure without engaging the same kinds of tension in your shoulder and neck. In fact, most likely your partner will feel muscular fatigue more quickly than you will. Switch roles and then discuss the implications of finding strength across spatial extension rather than through muscular contraction.


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extends their arm towards the other, resting their wrist on the partner’s shoulder. Their partner tries to force them to bend their arm by pressing down at the elbow. Usually, we will automatically try to resist right at that point of pressure, counteracting their down with our up. This quickly leads to muscular tension and exhaustion because we are contracting the biceps muscle as well as the triceps. Next, I suggest the possibility of embodying resistance across space by imagining their arm as a garden hose, with water pouring out of their fingers at one end and their shoulder at the other. This shift in thinking results in a parallel shift in muscular action. Newton and Frank comment on this shift by noting: “Physiologically and mechanically, I can explain this phenomenon in terms of stabilizer muscles, agonists and antagonist action. But what is even more significant is that it is the perception of these directions that affects movement” (1995, 38). Both partners can feel the solidity of the extension at the same time that they feel a quiet receptivity at the level of the connective tissue of the arm. While I  am demonstrating the above exercise, for example, I  also talk about the life lessons implied in this movement principle. Instead of reacting to the point of pressure and straining against that direct impact, I can take the long view, so to speak, reaching past the immediate “trigger” to engage my spatial extension in support. This shift at the level of my fascia, in turn, changes my perception, and I  am no longer responding with only my sympathetic nervous system. Over the two decades that I have been practicing yoga, I have experimented with holding positions for longer periods of time. Staying in a standing pose like Warrior II, for instance, allows me to find ways to release the tension in my muscles by using the “tensegrity” network of connective tissue to support the pose. One of the images I frequently give students when I introduce some “power” yoga in my classes is to imagine that every single cell is responsible for supporting its own weight. This way, the big groups of muscles in the thighs and neck can lengthen instead of tightening, because they are no longer the only support for the pose. It’s a bit of a mind game, but if I can release into this image I find I can stay in poses longer without struggling against the strain in selected muscles. Like the unbendable arm exercise in which we learn to redistribute the stress of the pressure across a broader area in our body, thinking of each cell supporting itself allows us to shift the patterns of effort in our bodies as well as in our minds. We find we can sustain our energy by plugging into a system bigger than ourselves. I demonstrate the strategic use of effort through a fun little exercise I call “claws and wings” (see Inset #15 Claws and Wings). With a little bit of dramatic flair, I gather the group together and tell them that this “secret” information is going to change their lives. I present the image of a fantasy dinosaur (like the

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Inset #15  Claws and Wings

(n.b. This exercise requires more than a somatic imagination, it requires a willingness to engage in a playful fantasy in order to experience the power of these states of claw and wing.) Come to a stand and close your eyes. Bend your knees and hips, bending forward a bit at the waist. Draw your hands up towards your chest, palms facing one another, but not touching. Curve your pointer and middle finger in towards your thumb. These are your claws; feel their potential for grabbing. Imagine that you are a flying dinosaur with a long beak, huge fang-​like teeth, fierce claws, with an enormous tail that could fell an elephant with one swipe (think Jurassic Park). Imagine that you are flying over the savannah in search of food. You see an antelope and you swoop down and grab it, gulping it down your throat before it knows what is happening. Now, with raptor-​like precision, reach your claws out, grab something and bring it directly to your mouth. Try it again, making a fierce sound and keeping your elbows close to your sides. Claw energy is direct, focused, and fierce. Physically, claws can help you find an aligned support in plank pose. Come into a plank pose and feel how the claw energy traces up the inside of your arms and across your chest to power your stance. They are also helpful in learning how to support a handstand. Claws are what we need to be emphatic, to make someone sit up and pay attention. We also have claws in our feet. The first three toes give us the strength to be able to rise up into half-​toe relevé, for instance. Wings, on the other hand, come from the center of our backs and move out into our arms. Imagine you are a pre-​historic, bird-​like creature. Feel how your wings allow you to float from one air current to another. Also recognize how with wings you move in a more curved or serpentine, indirect manner. Wings can help us move backwards, whereas claws take us directly forward. Play with moving forward through your fingers-​as-​claws and moving backwards through your arms-​as-​wings. Feel the difference in each state.

ones in the Jurassic Park movies) with enormous talons and huge wings and suggest that there is a certain similar predator quality in our systems if we choose to unleash it. This act of “engaging our claws” creates a tight gripping that stays close to the body. Fiercely grabbing imaginary prey with our claws and immediately bringing it close to our mouths, we activate a part of our adrenal system. This in turn gives us a feeling of power and strength, and helps us move forward with a different sense of physicality. It is this intensity that gives us speed when


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we are sprinting, or the kind of support necessary to hold plank pose or to use our arms when we are upside down. In addition to waking up a fierce physical appetite in the body, “claws” help us access a certain kind of personal agency, for instance, one that moves us to speak our mind. The wings are the backbone to the claws—​the supporting system that opens our arms, hearts, and minds. In the hands, the wings connect to the fourth and pinkie fingers which, although they may seem thin and weak, gain a certain amount of strength through extension into the arms. Spreading across our backs, the wings ease us into the world; they help us listen to other people and keep us connected with the suspended quality of our backspace. A professional dancer with a lot of training in flowing movement, but less in feisty action, describes her response to this exercise: The claws and wings idea was interesting to me on many levels. On a physical level I  was interested in how claws could activate the front body and the gut. Wings on the other hand made me aware of my back body and the floating/​soft movement that is available through the back body. On an emotional level I was interested in how claws and wings were a demonstration of two sides to our personalities. Claws represent our direct, fierce, and powerful energy. I  felt strong and clear emotions associated with the area. Wings seem to represent soft, floating, and indirect energy. I felt myself more passive and accepting in wings while more controlling and directive in claws. (Morrison 2015) She continues to make the connections between these physical energies and life situations: I think the properties of claws and wings are important not only in Contact but also in life. Sometimes it is important to be directive, strong, and powerful, but it is just as important to know when to be accepting, and passive. Sometimes we need to be the main speaker and other times we need to be the main listener. One is not balanced without the other just as the front body is not balanced without the back body. When I introduce this exercise, I talk about moments in dance (as in life) when one has to decide which battles to choose. Is it best to approach this situation with claws or wings? Another former student of mine surprised me last year when she mentioned to me that not a day went by that she didn’t think of her claws and wings. I asked her what she meant by that and eventually she sent me a response. She described her memories of the first time I introduced the exercise in the first-​year seminar Bridging the Body/​Mind Divide:

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She showed us a way of embodying different forms of learning and engagement. When her hands became claws, her fingers spread wide, ready to attack. Her elbows were bent by her sides, hands directly in front of her chest, knees bent, eyes focused. She channeled the energy of a carnivore ready to grab its prey. Then she drained the tension from her arms, relaxed her fingers and knees, and spread her arms wide. Her wings were expansive and open, as if she could float. (Roth 2017) And then went on to discuss how she uses that embodied information in her life as a graduate student: For me, vacillating between art and science, using qualitative and quantitative methods, I still often find myself thinking back to Ann’s embodiment of these contrasting states of being. Sitting at my computer and needing to meet a deadline, I feel my hands becoming claws, tension creeping up through my back, my mind sharpening to complete the task in front of me. Analyzing qualitative data and trying to make sense of complexity, I involuntarily find myself looking up and around, spreading my arms, opening my chest. Creative thinking and conceptualizing seems to require this openness from the body. This balance between expansion and contraction, critical thinking and open-​mindedness, claws and wings, is the dance of learning and work. As physicalized metaphors for the sense of balance and mutual support between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, claws and wings help us deal actively with the different levels of stress in our lives. One of the key concepts within the scientific literature on resilience is the notion of “stress inoculation.” In an encyclopedic review of recent research in neurochemistry and developmental studies entitled “Psychobiological Mechanisms of Resilience to Stress,” authors Adriana Feder, Eric Nestler, Maren Westphal, and Dennis Charney describe a number of studies involving mother/​infant dyads in squirrel monkeys and rats. These found that brief “imposed” separations of infants from their mothers reduced both behavioral and hormonal responses to the stress of separation later on. (Scientific journals aside, this is a conclusion that any parent with kids in daycare comes to sooner or later.) In another article on “Resilience Over the Lifespan” Ann Master and Margaret O’Dougherty Wright cite a similar model, “the challenge model.” This model of resilience is attributed to the work of N. Garmezy and colleagues who found that “manageable doses of exposure to the adversity prepare an organism for adversity by strengthening capacity for mobilizing an adaptive response, much like a vaccination works to boost immune function” (2010, 215–​216).


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I believe that managing physical stress can train us to engage our responses to other kinds of stressors as well. Although stress is most often invoked as a negative term these days (as in the ubiquitous college student’s “I’m so stressed out about this exam”), stress can in fact be a wonderful teacher, particularly if it is served up in manageable doses. Adapting to physical stress in the sense of using and then releasing muscles and connective tissue can help us realize not only how we gear up to face a psychic challenge, but also the critical importance of consciously releasing that nervous energy when it is no longer useful. Engaged purposefully, physical pressure can help us feel the pleasure of pushing back against that force, meeting it with our own energy. A very simple exercise can illustrate this principle. When I am teaching a beginning yoga or dance class, I will sometimes ask the participants to use their hands to press down on the tops of their heads. I  then suggest that instead of passively feeling the pressure down into their spines, they should return that pressure, moving into their hands with the top of their heads. Usually this is a quick and direct way to get people to understand how to activate their core support to extend their spine upwards towards the sky. As we noted in the discussion of yield and push, this meeting of resistance with one’s own energy gives us a heightened sense of our physical presence. One of the greatest pleasures of dancing Contact Improvisation with another person is that we meet and resist one another’s weight, not only with hands or backs, but also with every accessible part of our bodies. By pouring back into my partner, even as they roll over me, I create a tone in my fascia that is open and resistive—​that both accepts another’s body and pushes back into it. Not only does meeting this stress with this energy keep me from feeling squashed under their weight, it also creates the kind of body-​to-​body physics that allows a smaller person to lift a bigger person. But it is crucial not to hold onto that tension in one’s body longer than necessary. When I first ask participants in my workshops to lie down and release their weight into the ground, I jokingly mention that we can be resistant to really letting go because we are scared that we won’t ever get up again or do anything productive with our lives—​that gravity and the pleasure of completely giving up our effort will keep us glued to the floor. The ripple of gentle laughter throughout the room is a tacit acknowledgment that this is a fairly common reaction. Of course, the opposite is true. As we found out in the previous chapter on gravity, when we fully give into that support, our energy inevitably pours back into our bodies. Thus, it is important to recognize that as we learn to release our physical weight into the support of gravity, we also have to learn to release our psychic expectations as well. Sometimes when I  am feeling totally stressed out about having too much to do and not enough time to do it, I play the following mind-​ game: I tell myself that I don’t have to do anything more. I do not need to show up at another rehearsal, write another talk, essay, or book. Just giving myself

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this permission to release these professional duties helps me shift gears, and I  can feel the tension leave my body. This relaxation in my connective tissue, in turn, allows me to locate the desire to engage with my work from a perspective of “I want to” rather than “I have to.” I think this is because I have released the “to-​do” muscles and connected instead with the deeper commitment of my organs (and gravity). Many stories of resilience describe a reframing our expectations as a physical epiphany in which sensation rushes back into the body. This experience of finding inspiration and energy from the bottom-​up instead of the top-​down is one reason I find working through the continuum from passive to active (parasympathetic to sympathetic) so enlightening. There is an exercise that I facilitate every time I teach a semester-​long Contact Improvisation class. About two-​thirds of the way through the semester, there comes a time when we all have a pretty strong base of dancing and have gotten to know one another quite well. Oddly enough, at this moment our skills and our imagination tend to plateau, and our dancing can become rather habitual. This is the moment when I give what I call the active-​passive score, where partners create a dance that begins with one person at 0% and the other at 100%. Little by little, I guide the passive partner to feel what 5% of their energy might be. Then I call out 10%, 25%, and so forth. After we have reached 100% for both partners, we switch roles and the active partner begins to gradually decrease in energy. Here is one student’s description of that experience: I began as the 0% partner, and was surprised to find that even though I  was lying flat on the floor, it did feel like I  was dancing with my partner. We responded to each other’s breathing, my body moved with the weight of hers, and she was able to rock my whole torso side to side with her hands. When our roles reversed at the end of the dance and I  was 100% when my partner was 0%, I  did not feel like I  was dancing with a passive body. Even though my partner had basically stopped moving, the dance did not end until our teacher said: “take a moment to find an ending.” This sense of movement in stillness and unity in difference was new to me—​something I did not imagine and really enjoyed. (Heather Sedlacek 2010, 17) What I find particularly interesting in this exercise is the first 15% and the last 15%. That is to say, finding how responsive we are even from the beginning (“it felt like dancing”) and also how we can sometimes find much more with just a little less effort. At 85% we have enough energy to lift our partners, but also enough “laissez-​faire” to really connect to our partner’s energy. This is the moment when we can really play with momentum, when more rides are available to us—​indeed, when we find ourselves doing things that we wouldn’t imagine doing on our own initiative.


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I remember feeling, as I lay on the floor at 0%, that there was no way I could get up to full intensity. I was feeling tired today, which is why I  chose to start at 0% in the first place. However, once my partner and I started dancing, I forgot and it did not matter how tired I was. [ . . . ] I really enjoyed starting at 0% and building incrementally to 100%. My intensity level continually accelerated, I was gathering energy from my partner, and it was all occurring without effort. I felt literally swept away in the dance. (17) Like the duets between varying levels of active and passive energies, our sympathetic and parasympathetic systems can surprise our somatic imaginations and facilitate new perceptions and different approaches to the world around us. The parasympathetic relates to being, a more internal process that brings our focus into our center, particularly the digestive system. The sympathetic is the doing process in which we find a desire to effect change. While each energetic state balances and supports the other, we most often find ourselves in the sympathetic mode, trying desperately to fit in all we need to get done each day. Knowing how to activate these two systems strategically is important to our general well-​ being. If I need to do all sorts of errands, laundry, and clean up my desk, I want to activate my sympathetic energy by listening to upbeat music, jumping around, and energizing my neuro-​muscular system. If, however, I feel pretty uninspired, can’t think of the topic for an important talk, or find myself wondering why I am even trying, then I know that I need to take the time to recharge my parasympathetic system by sinking into the support of gravity. Unfortunately, our busy twenty-​first-​century lifestyle rarely allows for this kind of reflective engagement of being and doing in a mutually supportive manner. Hartley notes: “If our ‘being’ and ‘doing’ become divorced from one another, if one mode habitually dominates our lifestyle and expression, we will drive ourselves eventually to a state either of nervous exhaustion or inertia and apathy” (1995, 14). One of the assignments I give to my Somatic Landscapes class requires them to walk mindfully around the local reservoir while thinking about the interplay of being and doing in their lives. Last winter it happened to snow that weekend, adding a hint of magic to the frozen landscape. Many of the students’ written responses chart both the tensions between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic modes, even though they may not use those terms. For instance, one student describes her normal state of planning ahead. “Most of the time, when I walk around campus, it is with the purpose of getting somewhere. My mind is on the location I aim to be, the work I still have to do in the future, and when I will do it.” As a second semester senior, she laments that future-​oriented focus. “Yet, since I  am leaving this place soon, it seems as if I  have rarely taken the chance just to be here” (Haren 2016). Another student charts a similar shift in awareness:

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I wonder how it is that I’ve spent so much time complaining about the snow over the last few days but have never stopped to be in it, part of it. I had the honor of being the first person to walk around the far reservoir today. It was magical feeling the snow crunch and shift under my weight and I found myself lost in the moment. (RJM 2016) Clearly this experience was deeply restorative for her, because she writes that despite a heavy rehearsal schedule and very little sleep, she felt grounded and filled with energy, “connected to what’s going on around” her. Like my earlier example of how imagining each cell supporting itself helps us sustain the yoga pose over a longer time, these experiences of “being” in the midst of all her “doing” refreshed her physical and psychic energy. This exchange between being and doing draws on the mutually supportive sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Understanding their interconnectedness not only helps us sustain our physical energy, but also provides a psychic respite as well. Much of the time, we simply try too hard. The resulting muscular tension and tightness of spirit can limit our imaginations, shutting down other forms of responsiveness and satisfaction. As we have seen, too much effort (whether physical or emotional) wears us out. We stop registering sensation, stop feeling what is really happening with our bodies. If, however, we recognize the inherent elasticity in our connective tissue, we can learn to become much more strategic about our responses to stress, both personal and professional. Sitting in the synapse, or resting in the open state of “being,” can help us release previous expectations and allow for new possibilities. Perhaps now it is time to extend our inquiry to a broader sphere and ask what resilience can teach us about the survival of our communities.

From Individual to Communal Resilience Like sustainability in the 1990s, resilience is the twenty-​first century’s catch-​all term. It is employed in discussions of global economies, technology, disaster relief, housing markets, climate change, parenting, educational policy, and in the ever-​popular realm of positive psychology. Its use has risen steadily over the past decades, with an exponential spike since 9/​11. Anyone who has lived through the tumult of the beginning of this century can certainly appreciate why. With each new national disaster (9/​11, Katrina, the Great Recession, mass shootings from Newton to Parkland, not to mention the systematic killing of black people by law enforcement, and the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act), we are inundated with stories of individual and communal struggles to survive. These narratives are the staple of daytime talk shows and are woven throughout the human-​interest sections of the news coverage and reality TV. Often, they are


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deeply inspiring. Nonetheless, as Parul Sehgal makes clear in a short editorial entitled “The Profound Emptiness of ‘Resilience,’ ” the term can be coopted by neoliberalism, which conveniently places the burden of “bouncing back” on the individual. “Somehow,” she writes, “demands for resilience have become a cleverly coded way to shame those speaking out against injustice” (New York Times, December 1, 2015). Rather than focusing on societal challenges as a structural issue, this kind of flawed logic assumes that a truly resilient person can survive any number of social disadvantages or institutional oppressions. This is simply not true. The material conditions in which we grow up and live are significant, even if they do not completely determine our future path. Systemic racism, sexism, classicism, and religious intolerance are debilitating structures of society. Stress is cumulative and there is a limit to any one person’s resilience, heroic narratives of survivors notwithstanding. Thus, I want to proceed with caution. Although I believe that resilience is a process grounded in our bodies and that it can be taught through somatic awareness, I also insist that this should not happen in a vacuum of societal support. Individual resilience is not an excuse to ignore structural inequalities or oppressive conditions, either globally or locally. These stories of striving, recovery, and success must be read alongside their legacies of injustice. As Sehgal questions at the end of her essay: “Why rise from the ashes without asking why you had to burn?” Given the contemporary socio-​political context, we will need to keep resistance in mind as we also invoke resilience. Before resilience entered the jargon of global capitalism and self-​help gurus, it developed as an important concept in psychological studies of children’s welfare toward the end of the twentieth century. One of the first researchers to shift their focus from documenting the pathologies of impoverished upbringings in childhood to tracking how some of these kids were surviving the odds was Emmy Werner. In 1989, she published a landmark longitudinal study that tracked a group of close to seven hundred children across three decades. As part of her larger project, Werner followed a cohort of kids that were judged “at risk” because of the difficult circumstances surrounding their early years. This group included children who lived in poverty, often with a parent who suffered from mental illness, and sometimes experienced physical abuse or particularly violent situations at home. Although some of these kids did develop learning or behavioral problems in school, there was a significant number of “at risk” youth who grew up to become “competent, confident, and caring young adults.”4 Thus began the search for specific character traits and certain environmental factors that provide a foundation for individual resilience. In much of the scientific literature in psychology and embodied cognition, as well as in sociology, resilience is considered a “non-​cognitive” skill or is defined as “emotional” intelligence. These discussions of the formative somatic experiences in infancy highlight the fundamental relationships between caretaking,

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touching, and embracing, which are critical to a baby’s survival. Extensive animal research and long-​term human studies have found that those who have experienced early intensive bonding (nursing, grooming, holding) are more apt to find and feel the support they need later in life. In the literature on early childhood education, the distinctions between academic learning (reading and writing) and socialization (empathy) are most often drawn in an effort to argue that we need to teach beyond the current measures on standardized testing—​ that we need to embrace (both literally and figuratively) the whole child. Fast-​forward thirty years. We are currently deluged by media accounts of resilient individuals and communities online and in print journalism, not to mention popular books with titles such as The Resilient Spirit:  Transforming Suffering into Insight and Renewal or The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. These various sources enumerate the “key” ingredients of resiliency as if it were a recipe that one could whip up for dinner. Lists of resilient traits are readily found in these how-​to primers and they include:  social poise and presence, curiosity, optimism, competence, empathy, flexibility, creativity, and humor—​in addition to esoteric concepts such as “insight” and “wisdom.” We also learn that resilience is neither an inherited character trait nor a genetic predisposition. Rather, it is a way of approaching the world that can, it seems, be taught. In her book A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit resists the media’s portrayal of human nature as self-​serving and mean-​spirited in times of crisis or scarcity. Instead of a “survival of the fittest” mentality, she has found that “prevalent human nature in disaster is resilient, resourceful, generous, empathic, and brave” (2009, 8). This collection of essays surveying different historic and contemporary disasters and their impact on the people and the areas affected by them is subtitled “The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.” Through personal histories and ethnographic research, Solnit documents the ways in which natural or man-​made calamities actually serve to draw communities together. Although she sees disasters as terrible, she nonetheless believes that the collective project of remembering and rebuilding what has been lost is a golden opportunity to engage in a critical and collaborative process of reimagining our life priorities. In the wake of serious earthquakes in San Francisco and Mexico City, the incredible disaster of hurricane Katrina (compounded by so many wrong moves on the part of the government), and the aftermath of 9/​11 in New York City, Solnit found communities that engaged in “improvised, collaborative, cooperative, and local” responses that renewed her faith in civic culture. “Disaster provides an extraordinary window into social desire and possibility and what manifests there matters elsewhere, in ordinary times and in other extraordinary times” (6). In addition to recounting a myriad of ingenious instances of resistance and survival, Solnit finds that these narratives of community resilience offer an


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important critique of the continuing privatization (both economic and social) of contemporary life. Living life in public and doing something together stands in the face of a creeping trend of individualization. Solnit cautions us against the “language of therapy [that] speaks almost exclusively of the consequence of disaster as trauma, suggesting a humanity that is unbearably fragile, a self that does not act but is acted upon, the most basic recipe of the victim” (8). In acting together, we resist feeling like the burden of survival rests exclusively on one person. Even on a local level, any electrical black-​out or serious storm in small towns tends to bring people out into the streets to witness collectively the damage or share resources (material and informational) and count heads, looking out for those folks who might potentially need assistance or who are not at home. These acts of kindness build a communal sensibility that is often missing in our busy and increasingly fractured lives today. Walking down the street with headphones on or a cell phone in hand is not the same as engaging in meaningful exchange with our neighbors or participating in a community proj­ ect together. What Solnit’s book and the many stories of resilience and generosity after 9/​11 confirm is that the bedrock of any community is found in our collective connective tissue, and that, in turn, is woven from the experience of face-​to-​face and body-​to-​body interactions. Standing together, not tweeting together, is what puts our bodies on the line and is what makes a difference. For over twenty-​five years, I have lived in a small town in northeast Ohio. Oberlin has a beautiful, open green space called Tappan Square. Founded with Oberlin College in the 1830s, the town boasts an inspiring and progressive history as an abolitionist town that welcomed slaves that surfaced from the northern end of the underground railroad. In 1858, Oberlin received national attention when a group of citizens rescued John Price, an escaped slave that had been captured by U.S. Marshalls and taken to the next town south, and shielded him until they could provide safe passage to Canada. Today Tappan Square hosts political demonstrations, live bands on Friday evenings in the summer, Juneteenth celebrations, the annual “Big Parade” (including dance-​offs between Girls in Motion and Boyz ’n Motion and a public picnic), “Doggie Doos” events to benefit local animal shelters, and much more. Oberlin is the kind of town where people shop locally and hang out at one of several coffee shops in town, or visit the latest brood of kittens rescued by the CATSS (Community Action to Save Strays) group housed in the back room of a gift shop. Even before social media and email, Oberlin sustained a vibrant and active inter-​racial and inter-​ generational community that could organize and come together to support (and raise money for) a Vietnam War Veteran, or a family who suddenly lost a child. One of my most powerful memories is of standing with hundreds of people on a bitterly cold January evening as part of a candlelight vigil for a resident who had been wrongfully accused. Another is the spontaneous celebration on Tappan Square after Obama won the Presidency in 2008. That sense of connection with

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a community—​the sense that we were “doing” something meaningful by “being” together—​was an extraordinary result of spending very ordinary time watching school sporting events, participating in town clean-​up days, and other small-​ town rites of passage. This is not to say there are no tensions. The town/​gown divide for instance, while eased some through the Oberlin partnership (an agreement whereby any student who spent four years in the public high school and is admitted to Oberlin College receives free tuition) rears its head occasionally. Then too, the fact that Oberlin (both the town and the college) is seen by surrounding areas as hyper-​liberal brings certain individuals or groups into town in order to test the limits of our tolerance, including the fact that while Ohio is an open carry state, Oberlin has passed its own legislation regarding guns. Nonetheless, it is a town that has demonstrated remarkable grassroots resilience, even in difficult economic or political times. On November 22, 2014, Tamir Rice, a twelve-​year-​old African American boy was shot and killed by a white cop in Cleveland, Ohio. Suddenly, the issues of racism and police violence against black bodies that were swirling around the country were brought home, and locally there were demonstrations on the town square and in Cleveland. Oberlin College responded by sponsoring buses to commute to the protests in the city. Many of the students in my classes took part in these demonstrations, and they talked about how both the improvisational practice focused on a group of people making a common decision nonverbally, and their training in spatial intentionality contributed to a decisive moment when a group of demonstrators locked arms and marched across a highway to stop traffic. I  recall another time in our class when I  was demonstrating the fundamentals of passive resistance that I learned while working with ACT-​UP. There I was sprawled out on the floor, concentrating on being as inert as possible while three and then four students tried to move me. They quickly recognized how my passive resistance allowed me to conserve energy even while the others were exhausting themselves trying to shift my “dead” weight. Inspired by the connections students and I were finding between our training in Contact and their experiences with spontaneous groups actions, I began to think more seriously about the connections between the political and the physical. And then December came and all this outwardly directed politicized energy turned inward as the college erupted into a volatile mix of racial tension and direct actions on campus. Through the reactive fusil of social media, students and faculty were called out (including students of color who were not joining various campus protests), screen shots of personal emails ricocheted around the internet, and the college President was surreptitiously recorded during a conversation with students which was later publicly broadcast with commentary. The Dance Department was also the focus of various student actions during this intense week. One night, our bulletin boards were stripped and wallpapered with


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signs of “my body is political.” Eventually, we received a list of demands from a group of students that was co-​signed by many other students (via the internet). Navigating between student activists and faculty colleagues around issues of race on campus as chair of the department, I thought a lot about the “unbendable arm” exercise, about my claws and wings, about when to respond and when to listen. I also began to understand how my physical practice of negotiating resistance allowed me to be less reactive and more resilient, both in the midst of these events and in their aftermath. Unlike some of my colleagues who were initially offended and became defensive, I found that I could respond to the explosive student protests without solidifying that experience into an emotional reaction based on fear (of being wrong), betrayal (after all I did for you . . .), or anxiety (what to do now?). While I  am convinced that the physical practices of Contact Improvisation can teach us many useful skills for navigating the challenges on university campuses these days, I  do not pretend that all students or faculty have the same relationship to the form. At Oberlin College, Contact is most often seen as a “Eurocentric” form of dance while capoeira (an Afro-​Brazilian martial dance form) is seen as coming from an African American world view. In the context of a year’s worth of activism and conversation around the Black Lives Matter movement, I decided to organize a joint event with the capoeira class held at the same time so that students and professors from each class could share their experiences.5 We began by briefly noting their different cultural histories before we introduced some of the movement experiences central to each form. Although they emerge from distinctive historical and cultural contexts, Contact Improvisation and capoeira are now global forms, but not in the normative, neoliberal sense of the word. Rather they are closer to what Homi Bhabha terms a “vernacular cosmopolitanism” in that they circulate through nomadic structures of homegrown connections across national borders and various languages (1994, xviii). Interestingly, these forms both incorporate a context in which disorientation, vulnerability, and intimacy is embraced as part of the challenging, but nonetheless pleasurable, exchange between partners. It was a wild experience for me to see more than fifty people moving in one space as we participated in an open roda (capoeira), and later a round robin (Contact) where anyone could enter the space to participate. I was also pleasantly surprised to see a number of capoeira folks enter into the final improvisation and dance in physical contact with other students. Later in the semester, when we held our “bring a friend to contact” class, I noted how many of us brought friends from the capoeira class. It seemed like the beginning of an exchange; which is not to say that racial difference was swept away in these final weeks of the fall semester. Several students in the capoeira class, for instance, voiced concerns that our exchange could be seen as another opportunity for white people to appropriate black movement for their own use. On the other hand,

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one African American student commented that if she did Contact Improvisation on a regular basis she would probably be really happy. As I was initially working on this chapter on resilience, the bitter 2016 presidential race ended in a bizarre and unsettling manner. Hillary Clinton—​the first woman presidential candidate nominated by a major party won the popular vote but lost the election. Donald Trump is now president of the United States. For many of us who were sickened by the racist spectacles of Trump’s rallies and completely disavow the hateful language that seemed endemic to his campaign, not to mention his well-​documented misogyny, the results of election day constituted a terrible shock to our individual and collective nervous systems. I understood this panic (felt it myself) about the election results and the deep fear among my neighbors, colleagues, friends, and students concerned that we would see the progress of the last eight years on issues like climate change, civil rights, immigration reform, marriage equality, and universal healthcare quickly dismantled with the new administration. Even after most of us had moved past our stunned disbelief about what was happening in and to America, we lamented the possible collateral damage, including the conservative take-​over in the Supreme Court and the fraught dismantling of Obamacare. As winter passed into spring and I  continued to work on this book, I  realized that I  wanted to think about embodied resilience in a broader context. In order to survive the disorientation of the Trump election, we need both action and reflection. In her 2006 treatise on activism in the second Bush era, Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit writes: “All those years that I went to the Nevada Test Site to oppose nuclear testing, the experience was also about camping in the desert, about the beauty of the light and the grandeur of the space, about friendship and discovery. [ . . . ] Resistance is usually portrayed as a duty, but it can be a pleasure, an education, a revelation” (2006, 68). What Solnit is pointing out here is the need for a coming together—​a moving together—​that sustains us, both politically and physically. Interestingly, the same message is conveyed in a recent press release from Hillary Rodham Clinton announcing her new group “Onward Together” describing the many ways progressive women have been resilient and resourceful in the face of these challenges. There are, of course, no easy answers and I have no desire to try and pen a “handy-​dandy guide to surviving the Trump regime”—​amusing as the thought may be. Nonetheless, I decided to use the opportunity provided by several upcoming workshops that I was scheduled to teach to mobilize a conscious response that would seek to integrate the physical with the political, somatic teaching with activist training. In situating embodied knowledge as part of the political landscape, I echo the late Randy Martin’s discussion in his book Critical Moves. In his introduction, Martin points out: “Theories of politics are full of ideas, but they have been least successful in articulating how the concrete labor of participation necessary to execute those ideas is


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gathered through the movement of bodies in social time and space” (1998, 3). In “Choreographies of Protest,” Susan Foster also resists the separation of “symbolic action” from “physical intervention.” Posing a series of questions about the meanings of these choreographies of protest, Foster asks:  “how have these bodies been trained, and how has that training mastered, cultivated, or facilitated their impulses?” (2003, 397) These questions are similar to the ones that motivated me to craft a series of workshops with a desire to address this political context at the level of our bodies. The title I came up with is “Training a Political Body: Responsiveness, Resistance, and Resilience.” Here is the description: How do we train for a political body—​one that is responsive, resistant, and resilient? How do we engage our citizenship as dancers? Bridging the divide between political action and somatic instruction, this workshop draws on practices informed by Contact Improvisation and Body-​Mind Centering™ to explore how intentional physical training can provide an embodied ground for our activism. We will learn to move together in a way that is safe and connected, but still allows for the intensity of anger and resistance. Rather than neutralizing our bodies and our identities, we will learn how to engage our feelings and our politics without getting stuck in self-​righteousness. This workshop is open to everybody but will require that participants move, sing, write, and create together. It is too soon to know whether or how the participants will find these workshops useful in the long run. So much is unknown, which is true of activism and somatic work in general. They both require a leap of faith as the results are rarely immediate, and often we stumble around in the dark for a while. What I  do know is that the interconnectedness of action and reflection provided by my examples of skin to bone, claws and wings, of being and doing, are key to parsing our energies wisely and sustaining our resistance by staying responsive and cultivating resilience. Sharing my belief that this kind of physical training is crucial to understanding how to continue in the face of national disasters and political fiascos is one way for me to mobilize my resources in the midst of the numbing disorientation I feel. It is part of my personal narrative of survival—​one that begins with my body and continues with my community.

6 Falling Disorientation Suspension Gravity Resilience Connection On February 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz walked into his former high school with an AR-​15 assault rifle and began shooting indiscriminately at students and teachers. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida is now known as one of the most-​deadly sites of mass shootings in a school. Once again, the nation has been thrust into the highly partisan debate concerning gun rights and gun violence. Interestingly, local youth—​not their frightened parents—​are claiming the microphones and media airways to respond and resist, organizing “die-​ins” and protests in Florida and Washington, DC. Watching news videos of students speaking out with a fierce determination at a rally held in Tallahassee the following weekend made me feel some hope that this time, with this shooting, we may finally be able to broker a solution to the exponential rise of gun violence in our nation. As we know from the last chapter, moving from personal grief to collective action allows for the melding of individual agency and community support that is a critical component in resilience. Even though they are still grieving the loss of their friends and classmates, these teenagers behind the microphones are demonstrating the capacity to transform this latest national tragedy into a meaningful way forward. But my mind keeps returning to the shooter, Nicholas Cruz, who was only nineteen years old when he attacked his old high school. According to news reports, he had just lost his mother three months before he decided to go on this killing rampage. Even though there was clearly a disturbing trail of emotional



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problems and mental health issues, not to mention a blatant failure on the part of law enforcement to respond to these many warnings, it is hard for me not to feel a sense of compassion for a person of his age. Perhaps this is because my nephew was also nineteen when he fell to his death. Of course, John Christian did not have Cruz’s history of violent tendencies—​towards himself or other people. Nonetheless, I can’t help but recognize that the lives of both were undone by a certain emptiness—​compounded by a failure to survive the existential free-​ fall of losing a parent at a young age. Although they both had other supportive adults around, neither Cruz nor my nephew seemed able to truly connect with these people on a deeper level. They are not alone. While not every lonely or dis-​ connected young person is a potential killer, it does seem as if their generation is being defined by individuals who have difficulties sustaining interpersonal relationships, or even being present in the world in a fully embodied manner. How do we teach the skills that foster co-​existence, including developing a sense of empathy for others? What are the ways that we can envision living across the many differences that increasingly separate our neighborhoods as well as our national politics? This chapter takes up these questions by thinking about how contact with others at the level of our flesh has a significant impact on our experience of community. “Contact” is a word that moves between act and action. Used as a noun, it refers to the state or condition of touching someone or something. As a verb, it extends itself towards another, reaching out across a gap of space or time. From the perspective of its etymology, contact literally means with the tactile (con-​tact), accounting for the meeting of one’s self and the world in terms of a tangible sensation. Contact is predicated on an exchange through our connective tissue; as my skin presses into your skin something happens. While it is not limited to the physical, contact necessarily engages our corporeality, calling forth the reciprocity of touching and being touched—​for it is impossible to touch anything in a way that does not also implicate one’s own body. Because touch involves politics—​particularly in this moment of #MeToo awareness—​it is critical to be attentive to the effects of touch. But I want to resist the sensibility that instantly pathologizes touch. As I tell my students, instead of running away from touching one another, let’s become supremely intentional about the role of touch in our society. Let’s learn to touch one another with a sense of acute reciprocity and deep skill. (See, for example, Inset #13 Skin to Bone.) But what does it mean to touch another? How do I extend myself to forge a palpable connection to, with, for, across, and among other people? Interestingly, the very possibility of registering contact is predicated on an axis of difference—​ between you and me, my right hand and cheek, inside and outside, skin and bone. These differences create the pleasure of connection and yet also complicate this impulse to relate. Contact with another person can be messy, unsettling, or euphoric; it is nearly always challenging. Reaching out mobilizes one’s center and

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risks knocking one off-​balance—​both physically and psychically. This process of crossing-​over requires a willingness to feel vulnerable, and, perhaps most importantly, to meet a sense of alterity within one’s self, including the physical and psychic confrontation with the limits of one’s own body. In the midst of this vibration between self and other arises the imperative to move past what we think we know. Failure is to be expected, even as the urgency of the proposal calls on us to continue to try and extend ourselves. Our capacity for contact resides, in part, in our connective tissue, that web of resilient fascia that binds thought to action, air to earth, biology to sociology, matter to spirit. In the previous chapter, I enumerated in some detail how this arrangement of tensile fibers is at once strong and flexible and supports our movement through the world. I argued that our connective tissue can teach us how to be both responsive and resilient. In this final chapter, I am interested in how we might engage our connective tissue to guide our feelings towards one another. How might we use this awareness at the level of our flesh to foster an equally responsive and resilient connection to the world? As the somatic experiences I am describing in this book become embedded in one’s body, they create a web of skills and ideas that can, I believe, be deployed tactically (in both the practical and theoretical senses of the word) to help us comprehend what it means to live in a historical moment in which regional, ethnic, religious, racial, and bodily differences have (once again) become intensely politicized. Over the course of this chapter, I investigate the question of reciprocity in touching and being touched, take up current debates about the effects of media use on interpersonal relationships and empathy, and delve into the political economy of cultural difference at the level of our skin. I also explore the practice of witnessing as a kind of kinetic seeing, and think about the potential of a corporeal generosity as a dynamic of exchange between people that does not ask for a return on its investment. If there seems to be a utopian current flowing underneath all these reflections, it comes from the fact that I continue to practice and teach embodied practices where we learn to meet one another (as well as the “other” in ourselves) across the spaces that divide us. Hope is a physical commitment. Our being-​together in the world is a living, breathing practice that must remain grounded in our flesh and bones, even as it is increasingly conducted across virtual communities.

Empathy Compassion is usually defined as suffering (pathos) with another. Most explanations of the term include the modifier “deep,” suggesting a powerful affect that has somatic implications. There are three components of compassion:  1) an emotional component (co-​suffering), 2)  a cognitive one (understanding), and 3)  a behavioral aspect (actions taken to alleviate suffering).


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Invariably compassion is seen as a force—​it moves us to act. One element of that force is empathy, which is similar to, but not synonymous with, compassion. While I  am intrigued by the sense of ethical force behind the term “compassion,” I find empathy a more useful concept for our discussion in this chapter. Empathy literally means “feeling in,” and it has become a loaded concept in recent discussions of youth culture, mass killings, and the uses of the internet to bully others. But empathy also suggests a physical disposition, and recent research shows that it is a skill that can be taught. In her memoir of suffering and love, The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit identifies the root of empathy as “path.” “Empathy is a journey you travel, . . . the information travels toward you and you meet it halfway, if you meet it” (2013, 195). Like a compass, empathy is what we use to navigate our journeys together—​our co-​path. Kinesthetic in its nature, empathy maps the geography of compassion onto our bodies, registering its affect in our connective tissue. In 2011, Sara Konrath, Edward O’Brien, and Courtney Hsing published a meta-​analysis of data from surveys given to college students between 1979 and 2009. In “Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time” they document a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students across the country. Not surprisingly, the most significant drop occurred after 2000. Using Davis’s rubric of Interpersonal Reactivity Index, the authors found significant decreases in the categories of Empathetic Concern (EC), which measures compassion for another’s misfortunes, and Perspective Taking (PT), which is the ability to imagine other people’s points of view on a particular topic. Among the possible causes for this marked decrease in empathy among young adults were the concurrent rise in narcissism and materialism (many students responded that the most important thing for them was to make money), a decreased emphasis in schools and communities on volunteering or taking the time to help other less fortunate folks, documented increases in bullying and aggressive behavior, and the exponential increase of screen time. The authors linked the rise of narcissism with the particular focus on media technologies and social networking sites that encourage posting personal information, photos, and live-​action video. The kind of time and effort spent in maintaining profiles and constantly checking everyone’s updates does not create a fertile climate for attending to others. Indeed, studies have found that people are less likely to help when they are in a hurry, not to mention when their attention is on the screen in their hands and not on the people around them. As so many teenagers and young adults have found, online environments can feel really lonely, even in the presence of so many digital “friends.” The authors note that: “A subsequent reduction in empathy is consistent with these trends, as younger people more frequently remove themselves from deep interpersonal situations and become immersed in isolated online environments. These physically distant online environments could functionally create a buffer between

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individuals, which makes it easier to ignore others’ pain or even at times inflict pain on others” (183). The media immediately picked up on this and subsequent studies that document a decline in empathy among the younger generation. As we have seen in earlier chapters, books by Sherry Turkle (Alone Together) and Nicholas Carr (The Shallows), as well as countless studies, articles, and editorials, all point to the striking increase in online and digital interactions and the corresponding decrease in empathy. On the liberal arts campus where I  teach, the Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence devoted a series of blog posts and held workshops to discuss these findings. Many of us have been asking how, as educators, do we address the anonymous posts and bullying, internet and gaming addictions, not to mention the toxic effects of much of the “call-​out” culture that has developed among a certain age group? It has become clear to those of us who teach socially conscious students that an ardent self-​righteousness does not always make for the best listeners. Fierce activism, while wonderful in its engagement with social and political issues, does not necessarily translate into better perspective-​taking or a more empathetic approach to the world. Four years after she published Alone Together, Sherry Turkle wrote a sequel, Reclaiming Conversation, which was (tellingly) dedicated to her college-​aged daughter. The first section is entitled “The Empathy Diaries” and argues that we need to “reclaim” face-​to-​face interactions such that our words become once again connected with the live presence of another human being. “We face a flight from conversation that is also a flight from self-​reflection, empathy, and mentorship” (2015, 11). In this extended essay on the vicissitudes of contemporary media overload, Turkle surveys a number of scientific and sociological studies on the consequences of our digital compulsions. In one study, researchers found that the mere presence of a phone on the dinner table significantly influenced the what (contents) as well as the how (method of interaction) of conversation. I have observed a similar dynamic many times at restaurants when one person gets up to go to the restroom, and in that moment of time, their friend will log onto their phone. When the other person returns, very often they will also proceed to check their phone since by now their dinner companion has become oblivious to what is going on around them and barely registers that their dinner companion has returned. The result is that neither person looks up from their phone until the food or check has been delivered. Another study that Turkle reviews demonstrated a rise in empathy among children after only a week away at a summer camp that barred all electronic devices. In other words, when we surface from the distractions of these ubiquitous devices, we actually begin to pay attention to the people around us. Turkle suggests that we need to learn how to recognize the importance of awkward moments, the productive edge to dwelling in these gaps in our lives instead of immediately covering over any free time or pause in the conversation with


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another swipe right or left. “Conversation, like life, has silences and boring bits. [  .  .  .  ] It is often in the moments when we stumble and hesitate and fall silent that we reveal ourselves to each other” (323). One of the problems with the ability to constantly check our newsfeeds or Facebook posts is that we never learn to live with those moments of suspension or states of unknowing. The rise of social neuroscience as a distinctive field over the past decade has sought to identify the neurological basis of empathy by mapping which areas of the human brain responded to situations evoking another person’s distress. Concurrently, there has been a lot of research around the phenomenon of “mirror neurons.” This popular term originated in the 1990s with a series of studies involving macaque monkeys that found parallel neural activity when the animals were eating and when they were watching others eating. Similar studies have compared brain activity in ballet dancers and capoeiristas, finding that neurons fired most when one was observing the form of movement closest to one’s own physical experience. There are also MRI studies that found our pain centers such as the anterior insular (AI) and anterior mid-​cingulate cortex (MCC) fire both when we witness pain and when we experience it ourselves. Although I recognize the potential for its medical effectiveness, this desire to pinpoint specific areas of the brain for corresponding behaviors strikes me as an oddly deterministic way of thinking about human behavior. As authors Claus Lamm and Jasminka Majdandžić argue in their 2014 article “The Role of Shared Neural Activations, Mirror Neurons, and Morality in Empathy: A Critical Comment”: “[I]‌t seems more useful in terms of conceptual clarity, and more in line with the definition of empathy as a phenomenon of affective sharing, to see motor, somatosensory and cognitive process as key mechanisms (supported by distinct neural pathways) of evoking an empathetic response, rather than as disparate components of the empathic response itself” (16–​17). Indeed, while there are clear bodily dynamics at work in empathy, there are also cultural biases as well. Not surprisingly, studies have found that we are more apt to feel empathy for a member of our “in group”—​even if that sense of connection derives from something as simple as cheering for the same sports team (21). The good news is that empathy, like resilience, can be taught. It will not be surprising to readers of this book to find out that emotional attunement goes hand-​in-​hand with an awareness of our own proprioception, particularly the experience of interoception, or feeling one’s internal heartbeat, stomach gurgling, etc. In their discussion of empathy, Konrath, O’Brien, and Hsing report on a program called “Roots of Empathy” that pairs elementary school students with babies from their own community. Their interaction, based on physical touching and playing, was found to increase the students’ proprioception and spatial awareness of their bodies and the program has been able to document a decrease in aggressive behavior and an increase in “pro-​social” behaviors such as sharing

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toys and helping younger kids (2011, 191). Other studies have found that even a simple pat on the back from a teacher or coach can make a big difference in children’s willingness to contribute to the class/​team. One doesn’t need to be a scientist trained in the field of interpersonal neurobiology to understand that there is a significant resonance between people, even strangers, when they are in physical communication with one another. This could take the form of sitting down at a table to share a meal, singing together in church, dancing together, or marching together in a demonstration. This body-​to-​body exchange of feeling is what dancers call kinesthetic empathy. The bodily practices that encourage kinesthetic empathy are oftentimes the missing link in the ways that educational institutions and government structures try to address bullying, internet stalking, and other issues around building tolerance for diversity (including a diversity of opinion). Over the past decade there has been a veritable groundswell of interest in kinesthetic empathy within the fields of embodied cognition and movement research. This work parallels in interesting ways some of the recent theorizations about affect in literary and critical cultural studies. In 2011 Susan Foster published Choreographing Empathy, a genealogy of the concept that traced the shifting definitions of empathy, kinesthesia, and choreography across three centuries. That same year, Dee Reynolds and colleagues in the UK finished a three-​year research project entitled “Kinesthetic Empathy: Concepts and Contexts” that resulted in the edited collection Kinesthetic Empathy in Creative and Cultural Practices. In addition, during the summer of 2011 there was a “Kinesthesia and Empathy in Dance” symposium hosted by the Free University in Berlin as part of a larger research project on the Languages of Emotion. Papers from that conference were subsequently published in the 2013 book Touching and Being Touched:  Kinesthesia and Empathy in Dance and Movement, and just last year another collection entitled Intercorporeity, Movement and Tacit Knowledge, edited by Undine Eberlein, was published, to mention just a few. Much of this work draws on John Martin’s use of kinesthesia as a key channel of bodily communication. Contemporary scholars, however, generally resist Martin’s vision of a (modern) dance form that has a universal meaning. I enter these ongoing discussions from a slightly different angle in the sense that I am interested less in the visual economy of dance and more interested in thinking about the kinetic sensibility of moving together. Specifically, I want to expand our ideas about kinesthesia beyond its connections to seeing and introspection (spect) in order to connect it with the tactile quality of interoception (cept), including the sensation of weight and movements inside our bodies. Here I suggest that by attending to the process of feeling rather than its affects, practices such as those discussed in the following pages can maintain our awareness of the physical basis of those mutual impressions, thus potentially revising


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Western notions of empathy that are based on a psychological conception of the individual subject and an object of sympathy. Like practice, feeling can be used as both a noun and a verb. Its many definitions span the gamut from the strictly material—​such as to finger, palpitate, or touch something—​to the highly cerebral. It can be used to describe a physical sensation (I feel something sticky), an intellectual perception (I have a feeling that), or an emotive state (feeling blue). Feeling can refer to both the surface of the body and the interior self. Feelings, of course, are closely linked to empathy, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the German term Einfühlung, which can be translated as feeling in or feeling into. As Susan Foster outlines in her book, this term was originally coined in 1873 by German aesthetician Robert Vischer and subsequently translated into English as empathy (2011, 127). In its late-​nineteenth-​century German context, feeling into (or empathy) was primarily used to describe the experience of contemplating, moving into, and merging with a work of art. In an early-​twenty-​first-​century context, however, empathy usually refers to the experience of relating to someone else’s circumstances, and constitutes the dramatic revelations of daytime talk shows. As feeling moves from a verb to a noun, from the physical sensing of touch to a projected image of another’s experience, however, it can take on the colonial baggage of sympathy and the psychic mantle of emotion. But what if we were to refuse this stabilizing of a verb into a noun—​of an active experience into a passive object? What if we kept feeling at the surface of the body, rather than letting it sink into what Foster describes as the late-​nineteenth century’s “newly constructed interiority whose proclivities for repression, identification, transference, and sublimation were just beginning to be explored and whose defining consciousness could be fathomed only through intensive introspection” (154). What if we approached Einfühlung, or feeling into, as a kinesthetic practice rather than a psychological state? What if we conceived of empathy as an active doing rather than simply a passive being? By holding our attention to the physical I  am not trying to suggest that this realm is any more authentic, natural, “real,” or less culturally grounded than the psychological. On the contrary, I am quite interested in foregrounding the socio-​political moorings of corporeal training. It is crucial for us to recognize just how quickly and easily we tend to elide feeling with emotions, setting up a subject position based on possession (I have emotions) rather than one based in sensation (I am feeling). One of the key disciplines for staying with sensation is learning how to release what I  call the “inner commentary,” which is often self-​critical and can interfere with what is happening in an ongoing situation. Focusing on the actual physical sensations we are experiencing allows us to engage in what Dee Reynolds argues is an “affective encounter” rather than an “emotional identification” with others (2013, 212).

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Connective Tissue In an essay detailing three choreographers’ ecological practices, Tamara Ashley reflects on her time spent with Tim Rubige at Burnlaw, a conscious community in Northumbria, England. Inspired by a life embedded in the landscape of northeastern England, Rubige envisions the body as the connective tissue that links people with their environment. For him: Connective tissue is fibre that forms a framework and supportive structure for body tissues and organs. I  am working with the body as a connective tissue between our inner world of ambition, reflection and imagination, and the outer world of our surroundings, the place where we find ourselves. A supportive structure that can listen and notice; that can receive, feel, hold, embrace, and respond. It is through the body that we meet the world, explore our place in it and grow our knowledge of it. (2012, 32–​33) Rubige’s terms of engagement—​listening, noticing, receiving, feeling, touching, responding—​all correspond to perceptual practices that enrich and ground the physical training of Contact Improvisation. His use of the term “connective tissue” links the material substance with a metaphoric exchange between inner and outer, foregrounding how our flesh constitutes a window to the world. Not so coincidentally, Ashley and Rubige continue their initial exchange by moving into contact with one another. Ashley explains: In one of our dances, Tim and I  work on sharing weight. As we build trust, the sensation of support goes deeper through skin to soft tissue to bone level . . . The dialogue literally creates a connective tissue of muscle memories and physical patterns of support to which we can return and build upon. This connective tissue is not only built from physical work but from the multiple dimensions of emotion, trust, sensitivity and rapport that constitutes participation in a dialogue. (33) The points of connection that generate movement in Contact Improvisation are most often tactile, but they can also encompass rhythmic, visual, narrative, and weight-​bearing exchanges. Contact is an improvisational practice; the form does not exist outside of the various and ongoing attempts to engage with another body (or bodies) across a range of physical and psychic possibilities. As we have seen over the course of the previous chapters, much of the somatic training that forms the foundation of Contact Improvisation focuses on our skin and our


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network of connective tissue, honing our attention to the tactile experience of being in the world. I believe that the skills fostered by this practice of meeting another person across the intimacy of physical touch and trust offer critical opportunities to think seriously and in the flesh about forms of embodiment that can productively revise conventional notions of autonomy, identity, and community. With rare exceptions, I  begin my Contact Improvisation workshops with a foot massage. Seated in a circle, we begin by taking a hold of our right foot. Unfurling the back of our toes one by one, we explore the connection of each toe with the ball of our foot. Slowly, thoroughly, we work our way down the sole of the foot with our hands, guiding the pressure from the ball of the foot through the instep to the heel. As I call out specific instructions, I also ask the students to attend to how they can feel the texture and temperature of the skin on their feet. (Can you feel the lines etched in the sole of your foot? Are you noticing which places are smooth and which places are rough or calloused?) At the same time, I bring their awareness to the sensation inside, urging them to feel the pressure of the touch as it moves through the fascia in their feet. In this manner, I introduce participants to the double experience of feeling the contact of their hands with their feet from both the inside and the outside, from the skin through to the level of tendon and bone. I also call their attention to how those tissues respond to that pressure. The double and simultaneous perception of touching and being touched is one of the foundational skills in Contact Improvisation. Our dancing exchange emerges from that ability to attend to both experiences at once. We continue by massaging our calves and lower legs, and then our thighs and upper legs. Stroking vigorously the length of our limbs, we can feel the same doubling sensations of touching our skin and simultaneously feeling the pressure from underneath our connective tissue. After we have finished with one side, I ask folks to close their eyes and feel the differences between their right and left leg. Usually everyone’s audible exclamations of amazement about that difference attest to their experience of the open energy coursing through the leg that has just been massaged. Now we have broached a second essential aspect of Contact training—​that intentional touch can sensitize and enliven our bodies. Before moving into the rest of the class, we repeat the whole process with the left leg, acknowledging at the same time that each foot and leg feels different in our hands and responds differently to our touch. Hence a third important lesson in Contact: we can never assume to know a sensation or a response based on our previous history with that exercise or experience dancing with a certain person. Each situation demands our full, ongoing attention in order to explore the possibilities of these unforeseen moments. Nonetheless, there is clearly an accumulation of corporeal sensibility in our repeated experiences of registering the nuances of physical touch. Over time, our connective tissue learns to sense

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and become responsive to that contact. The broader question remains, however, whether this perceptual sensitivity at the level of our connective tissue will help us in touching and being touched by another person. Addressing this issue will lead us into the dual (and sometimes dueling) realms of philosophical and experiential discourses. In his seminal tome The Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-​Ponty seeks to account for the many ways in which our body is the ground for our being-​in-​the-​world. Paying attention to how our corporeal engagement creates meaning in our lives, his writing in this book refuses the primacy of consciousness (“I think, therefore I am”) and revises classical notions of the self as subject and the world (environment, things, animals, and people) as object of our gaze and desires. Instead, he argues for perception as interactive. No longer envisioned as passive matter, the world calls to us, engages our participation. Merleau-​Ponty’s language, replete with gerunds, emphasizes the perceiving, sensing, doing aspects of our being-​in-​the-​world. Although he refuses many of the traditional philosophical binaries of body and mind, thought and action, Merleau-​Ponty at first seems to equivocate on the dialogic experience of touching and being touched. In “The Thing and the Natural World” section of The Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-​Ponty classifies the toucher/​touched distinction in markedly active/​passive terms. “When one of my hands touches the other, the hand that moves functions as subject and the other as object” (1962, 315). We can focus on either feeling or being felt, but never both at once. Interestingly, the sentence just before the above claims:  “ ‘the knowing touch’ projects us outside of our body through movement.” In this earlier work, Merleau-​Ponty shifts positions, at times declaring that our perception can only attend to one or the other sensation at a time, and at other times suggesting we can experience both together. By the time he was working on the last section of The Visible and the Invisible entitled “The Intertwining—​The Chiasm” several years later, however, Merleau-​ Ponty had changed his thinking substantially, pointedly connecting “the body as sensible” with the experience of “the body as sentient” (1968, 136). This “double belongingness” confuses the borders between subject and object and “reveals to us quite unexpected relations between the two orders” (137). Several pages later, he claims that the experience of his body serves to open it up to knowing other bodies. “I can feel myself touched as well and at the same time as touching” (142). This connectedness of his body to other bodies he attributes to our “intercorporeal being,” part of what he calls the “thickness of flesh”—​ that tangible ground of connective tissue which allows us to sense another, body-​to-​body. Merleau-​Ponty’s conceptualization of “flesh” as a condition of our humanity has been vociferously critiqued by feminist philosophers (including Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray, among others). While acknowledging Merleau-​Ponty’s


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important contributions to discussions of embodiment as the ground for our being-​in-​the-​world, these scholars are understandably resistant to what they perceive as a reassertion of a masculinist, universalized self in the midst of an erasure of categories of difference, including those of gender, race, class, ability, and sexuality. In an essay entitled “From the Body Proper to Flesh: Merleau-​Ponty on Intersubjectivity,” Beata Stawarska targets Merleau-​Ponty’s concept of the body as interchangeably sensible and sentient, adding that “in this incarnate principle the ‘ultimate truth’ of his ontology of flesh is located” (2006, 94). For Stawarska, the idea that one could learn about touching another by touching one’s self is anathema, predicated on what she believes is an erroneous principle of “reversibility.” “Notice, however, that touching oneself provides the feedback from one’s sensible body that is de jure missing in the case of touching the body of another person” (94). It seems that her concern revolves around Merleau-​Ponty’s placement of his concepts of intracorporeity (within my body) and intercorporeity (between bodies) on a continuum of touching and being touched rather than in opposition to one another. Stawarska argues that any blurring of this distinction between self and other threatens to reduce difference to sameness, throwing us all into the melting pot of a universalized condition. As someone who has spent thirty-​five years focusing on the sensible and sentient interplay of touching and being touched, I  have developed a considerably different perspective, one that allows for individual difference in the midst of connection. Indeed, it is precisely the connection with the “other” that allows me to feel most intensely that edge of difference, even as I use it to dance with another person. I do not want to recuperate Merleau-​Ponty’s concept of the flesh uncritically, nor do I want to erase the workings of economic power and social privilege that undergird the mapping of bodily difference in our culture. Clearly flesh has been the site of some of the most egregious renderings of power and markings of subjugation, as I discuss a little later in this chapter. Nonetheless, the parallels between Merleau-​Ponty’s notion of flesh and my discussion of connective tissue are too intriguing to dismiss, and so I ask the reader’s patience as we trace the contours of this intersection of philosophical perspectives with physical practices. The somatic focus required to experience communication across physical touch takes a while to develop. Many of the practices—​such as sensing the pores of the skin, releasing our weight into gravity, learning how to support our body from our internal structures, or moving through our organs—​that I have outlined in previous chapters serve to open crucial perceptual awarenesses. For instance, one of the first exercises that I use to introduce touch between two people is the classic finger-​to-​finger exercise. Standing facing my partner, I hold up my right index finger to meet theirs. The contact between these two fingertips has to have enough pressure to sustain contact while moving through space. A too-​ light pressure will result in the fingers constantly slipping out of contact, and too much pressure can feel intrusive, something like a middle-​school teacher

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pointing their finger at you for breaking some rule you didn’t even know existed. This finger-​to-​finger exercise provides a relatively non-​threatening entry into mutual physical contact. The idea is for both partners to feel their movement coming from that point of contact. Instead of keeping it situated in between their bodies, both partners follow their connection as it moves them around the room. As in other forms of social partner dancing, such as tango or blues, this moment can be a magical experience of bodily communication. In Contact Improvisation, this is often described as having a “third mind”—​not my decision, not yours, but ours together. (See Inset #16 Finger to Finger.)

Inset #16  Finger to Finger

Stand facing your partner. Raise your right forefinger to meet the right forefinger of your partner. Allow your arm to be relaxed but not floppy, bending at the elbow. Make sure that both you and your partner are using enough force to feel the connection of the whole body at the fingertip. Ideally, you would feel the support of gravity flow up through the soles of your feet, through your legs, into your pelvis and up the spine, out through your arm and finger and into your partner’s body. If your partner is concentrating on the same flow of energy—​from the earth through their body and out their arm—​the connection at your fingertips will feel like an electrical current has just been connected. As both partners attune to the sensation of that delicate, yet strong, contact in the fingertips, allow that point of contact to move around the room and down to the floor. Rather than conceiving of your fingers as moving between you and your partner (like a mirror image), allow the point of contact to lead both partners through the room. We call that a “third mind” because the idea is that our point of contact is leading both of us. At first, it may be very clear who is initiating a movement and who is following, but eventually you will probably experience moments (which can be quite magical) where it is clear that both partners are being moved by an outside force. (Don’t worry if your fingers slip and disconnect as you begin to move, it can take a while to find the right balance of pressure.) Check in with yourself to make sure that you are not holding your breath as you attempt to follow the point. Also, it is useful to be aware of our tendency to stare at the fingertips when we first try this exercise. In fact, you do not need to see that point of contact to feel where it is going in the room. After a few minutes, find an ending, thank your partner and find a new partner. Try the same exercise with someone else and see how the exercise dynamic shifts with a different person.


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In order to appreciate the possibility of this kind of inter-​connectedness, the partners have to “listen” with the ends of their fingers and wait until they feel a mutual decision to move. “Listening” is a metaphorical term used often in Contact Improvisation to connote a multi-​sensorial mode of perception. Cheryl Pallant describes it in her book Contact Improvisation: Introduction to a Vitalizing Dance Form as “paying attention to all sensory occurrences arising from touch, from the play of weight as partners move through space, and from the event of one body encountering the presence of another” (2006, 31–​32). At first, of course, it is easy to feel who is leading and who is following as the partners move forward and back across the floor, often staring intently at their conjoined fingertips. This is the moment when I point out that they do not need to see the point of contact in order to feel it. I suggest that they release their eyes, unlock the back of their skulls, and open up their peripheral vision, helping them to register space and movement and sensation together with vision. Soon enough, people begin to get the hang of the exercise and their movement takes on the fluidity of a reciprocal exchange. It is amazing how the smallest pressure can mobilize a mutual locomotion as well as how the slightest resistance can create a suspension in time. As they switch to another partner (and then another and then another), everyone begins to realize the importance of beginnings and endings. Each duet insists on a particular negotiation of physical dynamics. With time and experience, we acquire the skills of listening through our connective tissue as we navigate our way in and out of contact with different people. Right after Merleau-​Ponty introduces the term “intercorporeity” in his essay “The Visible and the Invisible” he asks a rhetorical question: “If my left hand can touch my right hand while it palpates the tangibles, can touch it touching, can turn its palpation back upon it, why, when touching the hand of another, would I not touch in it the same power to espouse the things that I have touched on my own?” (1968, 141) A bit later, Merleau-​Ponty cites as an example the reversibility of a handshake in which he experiences not only touching and being touched, but an awareness of the other person’s experience as well. He argues that this exchange in the flesh vibrates in both directions, moving across our connective tissue to register as palpable communication. It is this principle of “reversibility,” the resonance across our connected flesh, that his critics such as Stawarska most strenuously object to. “The break between my body (the body proper) and the body of the other separates two irreducible forms of bodily experience and makes it impossible to theorize reversibility as a uniform category applicable to the flesh as a whole” (2006, 101). In an attempt to resist what she considers Merleau-​Ponty’s collapsing of individual specificity into a monolithic whole, Stawarska delineates a geographic distinction between my body and another’s, reinforcing the border of difference at the level of our skin. She insists that “[i]‌t is the unique vantage point of my body that prevents me from adopting the vantage point of the other” (101). Although it is true that

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I  can never completely occupy the exact cultural-​spatial-​temporal perspective of another person, I am not so sure that the difference in our situations necessarily precludes contact or even a deeper communication. To develop this line of thought, let’s return to our connective tissue. In my college classes, once our perceptual and kinesthetic appetites have been whetted by the introductory activities (which can take hours or weeks, depending on the group whom I  am teaching), we move into an exchange of contact that includes more weight. I have already described how we can envision the pores of our skin as opening to allow the world to enter our bodies, as well as how we “breathe” through those pores to feel our body as permeable. I use the homology of pore and pour to introduce the participants to the experience of “pouring” one’s weight into the “pores” of another’s body. Just as I might describe the shifting of one’s weight from side to side as like pouring sand from one leg and to the other, I  invoke a similar metaphor of pouring water from one pore on my skin into a pore on my partner’s skin to describe the sharing of weight (see Inset #10 Pouring to Resist). The microscopic delicacy of this image reflects a nuanced exploration that is at once tantalizingly elusive and evocative. Beginning with the hands and progressing to the backs and sides of our bodies, we explore pouring our weight fluidly back and forth between partners. In order to support my partner’s pouring of their weight into my body, I need to pour back at the same time, initiating a double flow of energy that allows me to respond in an open, flexible manner. A student once described this experience in a class journal entry. My body is more willing to open to the world when it can feel something filling it. The sunlight seeps in. Gravity pulls through. Cells carry each other. The comfort of another body, the floor and the light make it easier to let go of the safety of my skin and accept the world even as I give a part of myself to it. [ . . . ] The same goes for pouring weight into a partner. You have to give to receive and receive to give. In order to do either you have to be willing to open yourself fully—​to become vulnerable. Vulnerability is key to any art form, but it is the very lifeblood of contact. Without it, we are just petting each other. (K. O’Connor 2013) Clearly, this is a learned behavior. There is nothing automatic or natural in this response. Usually, in fact, one’s initial impulse when faced with a need to support someone else’s weight is to tense the arms and brace oneself with a leg thrust in back to stabilize our stance. Holding one’s breath in anticipation of impact is also part of this rigid and anxious posture. Internalizing an alternative approach to this exchange of weight requires patience, trust (in one’s self as well as the other person), and a great deal of practice. But even before the


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physical skills have been acquired, there is an important psychic realization that this common experience takes place at the interface of our connective tissue, pore by pore. Thus, the interconnectedness of our touching and being touched does not obscure or efface difference—​it builds from it. As Gail Weiss remarks in an essay on Merleau-​Ponty’s discussion of flesh as a ground for the ongoing process of making contact with another person, “to maintain openness through the affirmation (rather than denial) of difference, does not mean embracing an ‘anything goes’ perspective, but, rather, necessitates that we acknowledge limit as the very condition of possibility” (2006, 163). And, I would add, that we acknowledge difference as the very condition of connection. Another Contact Improvisation exercise that incorporates a moving point of contact and a small amount of mutual weight-​bearing support is what I call “head-​to-​head.” Two partners face one another and bring their heads into contact. Once again, we press our body parts together just enough to solidify the contact, without it becoming too harsh or painful. I explain that this point of contact can revolve around the front, sides, and back of the head as both partners move or turn their bodies. The crucial focus is keeping that connection unbroken. The game, so to speak, is for the partners to stay in contact as they move down to the floor and lie in a single line, heads together and their feet pointing in opposite directions. The partners have to work their way back up to standing, also without losing contact. Because the head has very little cushioning between the scalp and the skull, we can immediately register subtle differences in pressure. In addition, because the head extends out of our spines, minor shifts of balance ripple across that point of connection. What is amazing to feel here is how even a little resistance from my partner can facilitate my movement from one level to another one, easing my way from up to down (see Inset #17 Head to Head). Contact with the head helps to sensitize us to the ways in which resistance can become support. When my partner leans into me, I  resist, pouring my weight back into their pores. As I mentioned earlier, this resistance must be sensitive, fluid, and responsive to small shifts in position and motion. Being round and hard, the head requires total vigilance to keep the connection from slipping away. The other interesting aspect of this exercise is that it renders visual cues impossible. You cannot look at your partner when your heads are connected. In fact, often you cannot even see where you are going. The tactile and proprioceptive connections thus become the dominant source of information about your spatial position in the room. These kinds of exercises train our bodies for the split-​second reactions required in full-​bodied Contact Improvisation. Moving quickly, often with a high degree of momentum and abandon, necessitates that my resistance—​which is the support that carries my partner’s movements—​stay fluid and attentive such that I  can adapt to subtle and drastic changes in balance quickly. As we

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Inset #17 Head to Head

(n.b. It is important to try Inset #16 Finger to Finger before attempting this exercise.) Stand facing your partner, leaning forward from your hips. Use your hands to take hold of your partner’s head and gently place the crown of your head on your partner’s head. Once in contact, release your hands and press into your partner’s skull with your own so that you feel a connection strongly, but not in a painful way. Practice rolling that point of contact around your skull as you rotate your head, moving your body to accommodate this motion as efficiently as possible. It is much harder to keep that point of contact as it moves to the side or back of the head, so take it slowly at first, trying to keep the contact as both heads revolve. Recognize that it is impossible to look at your partner while you are in head-​to-​head contact, so release the effort in your eyes and forehead. Once you get used to this sensation, practice keeping this head-​to-​head contact as you and your partner both descend to the floor and lie on your backs in a single long line with your heads as the center point. Keeping in contact with your heads, come back up to standing, allowing your head and body to turn and move in order to accommodate the shifts in level from floor to standing and back down again. After descending to the floor and coming up to standing three times, return to your original position facing one another, with your heads in contact. Release the contact and thank your partner. Find another partner and repeat the exercise.

have seen, this mode of physical responsiveness is conditioned at the level of conscious and unconscious behavior. What intrigues me most about Merleau-​ Ponty’s notion of flesh is the way he places this tactile sensibility right at the intersection of epistemology and ontology. My vision of connective tissue also reverberates across both domains—​across knowing and being. That is to say our connective tissue can be conditioned to be responsive to others. This responsiveness, in turn, becomes part of who we are in the world, embeds itself in our being, as long as we maintain that intentional practice. In his short essay “Social Kinesthesia,” Shaun Gallagher reviews selections of neurological and philosophical research on physical enactment and interpersonal relationships. He is interested in the ways in which kinesthetic experiences (what he terms “proprioception in action”) constitute a crucial aspect of social perception and intersubjective communication. Doing something with my body (using a tool, for instance) engages me in the world in a particular manner. Gallagher notes:


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This kinesthetic sense, however, is never something that is merely confined to the body—​a purely interior experience. Rather, as a form of intentionality, it has a reference to the world—​to the Umvelt, to the surrounding environment that is full of affordances and things that can be practically manipulated and instrumentally employed. The protentional/​anticipatory kinesthetic sense of what I will do or how I will move forms part of my know-​how about the world (what Husserl calls the “I can”). (2016, 23) Similarly, when I  do something in the world with others such as playing a sport, creating music together, dancing, or even just hiking a trail together, this “I can” know-​how becomes “co-​constituted” with others. Gallagher refers to Merleau-​Ponty’s notion of “intercorporeity” and develops the concept of our tactile, embodied experience of being together as a kind of “kinaesthetic intercorporeity,” which he defines as “a basic, embodied, resonance with others” (28). Gallagher challenges interpretations of neurological research on mirror neurons that focus almost exclusively on automatic and unconscious reflexes of simulation. This is in reference to a series of well-​publicized studies (which have since been considerably problematized) that found that as a dancer, if I watch another person dance, parts of my motor center in my brain fire as if I were also doing the movement. The original premise was that this neurological activity is responsible for my understanding and aesthetic appreciation of what I  am seeing. Instead, Gallagher suggests the possibility of a more active kinesthetic sensibility that leads me to complement, rather than passively mirror, the action of another. “For example, in certain circumstances, if I see someone falling, my own automatic action is not to mimic the fall; it is to reach out to catch or stop the fall of the other” (26).1 This interactive physical dialogue is exactly the kind of responsiveness that Contact Improvisation trains for. If we return to the finger-​to-​finger exercise discussed previously, one of the critical aspects involved in establishing a “third mind” is to move beyond simple mirroring gestures (which quickly produces a vague sense of uniformity) into a more potent exchange of weight through our connective tissue in which both partners are sensing the differentiated contours of their “co-​constituted” movement dialogue. Interestingly, even beginning movers realize that connection does not correlate to sameness. In an essay chronicling his early development as a Contact dancer, Gabriel Baldasare makes the following observation: Somehow, Contact Improvisation allows me to articulate individually, even as I  fall into a group mind. The more I  trust my partners and community, the more confidence I have in the value of my own authentic movement. Recognizing that everyone is a teacher, every

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situation is a body puzzle, I became immediately responsible and responsive as a teacher and piece of the puzzle myself. (2010, 7) Instead of experiencing dancing together as a (sub)merging of his “self,” Gabriel here recognizes that perception of our bodily, rhythmic, aesthetic, and cultural differences that become manifest during this exchange provide the template for our improvisation, serving our connection rather than distracting from it.

Encounters with Others One of the essays in Encounters with Contact is written by an international student from Ghana, Nabby Baffour-​Awuah. As an undergraduate at Luther College, Nabby describes how the experience of being in a Contact Improvisation course helped him become “more confident in public” and more “at ease with myself and more spontaneous and comfortable in my actions” (2010, 15). In one section, he writes about how the practice of touching and being touched in the class specifically affected how he interacted outside the dance studio. While I am rather non-​judgmental, in the culture I was raised in, it is awkward to engage in some very simple gestures such as cuddling and hugging with fellow males. Joining a Contact class and having to depart from societal norms of touch was hard enough, however, having to touch fellow males in awkward and even sensual ways was just unheard of. This was a difficult adjustment for me, but through class discussions and concluding as a unit that touch did not have to be always sexual, I got used to the idea that the touch was only part of the dance. Allowing myself to touch freely helped my dance skills, and to make things even better, I began to enjoy the touch. Soon I was able to touch other males without feeling awkward. But I was only able to relate to the same sex in this way in class. I challenged myself to act differently in public. It was definitely difficult, considering the reaction from friends and acquaintances alike, but I told myself, “If I can do it in CI, why not outside?” So I took the giant step and hugged one of my gay residents in the hallway. It was relieving and pleasing to him. This was my breakthrough. (15) Who knows what the long-​term influence of this experience will have on an individual life or even larger patterns of social practices and institutional structures? True change cannot be sustained by single moments of personal breakthroughs, no matter how compelling their narratives are. Nonetheless, Nabby’s comments are inspiring to me because they present clear evidence that a kinesthetic


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practice can sponsor a cultural analysis and personal reflection that can indeed effect and affect our cultural politics. In her book The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed explores what she calls the “sociality” of emotion. Resisting both the psychological model of emotions as personal interior feelings that are expressed (what she calls the “inside out”) and the sociological conception of emotions as imposed from societal expectations (what she terms the “outside in”), Ahmed positions her discussions of feelings such as pain, shame, love, fear, and disgust at the point of contact between the two. For Ahmed, emotions are the “effects of circulation” between inside and out. “In other words, emotions are not ‘in’ either the individual or the social, but produce the very surfaces and boundaries that allow the individual and the social to be delineated as if they are objects” (2004, 10). Ahmed’s proj­ ect in this book is to investigate how groups of people become associated with certain emotional qualities—​which nationalities or genders are described as “hard” or “soft” for instance—​but she is also concerned with how we make mutual impressions upon one another, tracing how bodily sensation is connected to emotion and cognition. In this sense, we share an interest in the reciprocal process through which bodies get conditioned and positioned in relation to one another, that is to say, how movements and feelings acquire cultural resonance. In language that evokes the tactile exchanges of Contact Improvisation, Ahmed describes the impressions we make on one another, cautioning us to “remember the ‘press’ in an impression” (6, original emphasis). Not only does she ask how we are shaped by the contact we have with others, but she also inquires into the meanings of those “impressions.” To form an impression might involve acts of perception and cognition as well as an emotion. But forming an impression also depends on how objects impress upon us. An impression can be an effect on the subject’s feelings (“she made an impression”). It can be a belief (“to be under the impression”). It can be an imitation or image (“to create an impression”). Or it can be a mark on the surface (“to leave an impression”). (6) The mutual connection formed by leaning into one another with weight and resistance is defined as the point of contact, and it encompasses all of the impressions articulated in the above passage by Ahmed. In this improvisatory dancing, both partners follow that point of pressure as it travels across their bodies and through space. Sometimes there is a magical sensation of both partners following an outside force, what in Contact is called a “third mind.” At other times, it is clear who is leading and who is following. Often, we lose one another completely, and our partner slams to the floor with a thud. Learning to dance with another person’s weight occupies a continuum from wonderfully graceful

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to unbelievably awkward. With practice, we begin to rely on a tactile sensibility that registers more than just the other person’s movement. This engagement with another subjectivity is the true beginning of the improvisation, and it strikes me as remarkably similar to what Deidre Sklar describes as “empathic kinesthetic perception.” Whereas visual perception implies an “object” to be perceived from a distance with the eyes alone, empathic kinesthetic perception implies a bridging between subjectivities. This kind of “connected knowing” produces a very intimate kind of knowledge, a taste of those ineffable movement experiences that can’t be easily put into words. Paradoxically, as feminist psychologist Judith Jordan points out, the kind of temporary joining that occurs in empathy produces not a blurry merger, but an articulate perception of differences. (2001, 32, emphasis added) It is this “articulated perception of difference” that carries the physical commitment to maintain a connection even in the midst of cultural and political differences. In Contact Improvisation, I do not need to look like you, think like you, or even know you, to be able to dance with you. Indeed, one of the central ideological tenets of Contact is to consistently release expectations about what kind of person you are dancing with or what kind of dance you will have together. (This is the basis for many of the intersections between Contact Improvisation and dancing communities that include people with visual or mobility impairments.) It is particularly hard to release expectations with people with whom you have danced regularly, but it is the only way to continue the improvisational project—​to engage with curiosity and not habit. Of course, as Sara Ahmed so perceptively highlights, “even when we feel we have the same feeling, we don’t necessarily have the same relationship to the feeling” (2004, 10), and this difference in perception can make all the difference in the world. Nonetheless, by keeping our attention on the kinesthetic dynamic of those feelings, rather than letting them sink into the interior world of personal emotions, we can stay engaged in the dancing, even when we fall out of sync with one another. In 1995, the French philosopher Jean-​Luc Nancy wrote a book entitled Etre singulier pluriel (translated in 2000 by Robert D.  Richardson and Anne E.  O’Byrne as Being Singular Plural). The first and longest of six essays also carries that title and places these terms next to one another (“in a single stroke, without punctuation, without a mark of equivalence, implication, or sequence” (37)) to mark the ontological connection as well as the cultural disjunction. In the introduction to this series of writings, Nancy describes the historical context for his writing as a “theater of bloody conflicts among identities.”


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He proceeds to list a devastatingly global array of ethnic conflicts, civil wars, and contemporary genocides, including those among Serbians, Croatians, and Bosnians in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and that between the Tutsis and the Hutus. He writes: “These days it is not always possible to say with any assurance whether these identities are intranational, infranational, or transnational; whether they are real, mythical, or imaginary; whether they are independent or ‘instrumentalized’ by other groups who wield political, economic, and ideological power . . . ” (xii–​xiii). The ellipses here are telling, for they indicate at once the urgency of his inquiry and the difficulty of its address. Like Martin Heidegger (on whose work he draws extensively) and Merleau-​ Ponty, Nancy displaces the traditional philosophical take on consciousness as the foundation for selfhood (Descartes’s (in)famous Cogito, ergo sum) and instead posits our being-​in-​the-​world as a being-​with-​one-​another in the world. This “with-​ness” is primarily bodily and he calls on us to recognize the ways it operates in our lives. However, Nancy specifies that this sense of “with” is not simply an additive measure, like 1+1=2. Rather, it is the plurality of we “others” that serves as the ground from which any sense of individuality emerges. For Nancy, this “with” establishes “neither a collective subject nor ‘intersubjectivity’ ” (30), but is the space between people, a singular dis/​identification that acknowledges both our mutual proximity and the labor of crossing over. I am intrigued by this acknowledgment of the social, political, and economic tensions contained in this ubiquitous proposition. As a word, with crosses over between self and other as well as between relation and opposition. While the sentence “I will go with you to the store,” seems simple enough, one like “She had a fight with her brother,” offers a more complicated scenario, giving us another perspective on the frictions between belonging and difference, blood and ideology. Towards the end of “Being Singular Plural,” Nancy brings the focus of his language from existential positioning to the materiality of our connective tissue. “Beings touch,” he writes, “they are in con-​tact with one another” (96). In a number of his writings, Nancy invokes touch (con-​tact) as a metaphor for reading (Corpus), a play of movement and (e)motion that exceeds boundaries (“Stirring, Stirring Up, Uprising”), as well as a connection that awakens our capacity for love—​“proximity is the correlate of intimacy” (79). And yet he cautions us that “feeling together” is not the same as “being-​one.” “Togetherness and being-​together are not equivalent” (60). “Being-​together” implies a process, a working process, maybe even a work-​in-​process. As Paul Carter notes in his discussion of the etymological roots of “collaboration,” the ancient Greek term for labor contains both the active meaning of grasp and the more passive acceptance of receive. Like touching and being touched, labor hinges on a reaching out and folding in. Carter remarks that, “the place of the collaborative process is one of give and take” (2004, 14). Working with, feeling with, being with, these actions require a willingness to experience at least proximity, if not intimacy. But there

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are no guarantees that we will succeed in this meeting. In the middle of listing the civil wars raging in the world in the mid-​1990s, Nancy declares: What I am talking about here is compassion, but not compassion as a pity that feels sorry for itself and feeds on itself. Com-​passion is the contagion, the contact of being with one another in this turmoil. Compassion is not altruism, nor is it identification; it is the disturbance of violent relatedness. (2000, xiii) Although I am proposing that an intentional engagement of our connective tissue—​what Merleau-​Ponty terms “flesh” and what Nancy calls the “being-​ together” or “con-​tact”—​holds the potential to be a medium of exchange through our bodies, this last phrase of Nancy’s—​the disturbance of violent relatedness—​catches my breath and trips me up. With its powerful echo of dis/​ connection ringing in my ears, I remember how flesh, black female flesh in particular, carries the horrific legacy of slavery (capture, the middle passage, plantation life) and the ongoing racism that continues to haunt America as the country stumbles through the twenty-​first century. Hortense Spillers deems flesh to be a “primary narrative” in American culture (1987, 67). In her groundbreaking essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” which appeared in a special issue of Diacritics on “Culture and Countermemory,” Spillers makes a series of critical interventions into the theoretical discourse around the role of the female body constructed by white feminists and various literary scholars as they were building the discipline of women’s studies in the 1980s.2 She asserts that before we can even begin to talk about bodies, we need to acknowledge how black woman’s flesh has collectively carried the weight of a patriarchal and racist society, what she describes as the “zero degree of social conceptualization” (67). Referencing Elaine Scarry’s book The Body in Pain, Spillers recounts the litany of assaults (“lacerations, woundings, fissures, tears, scars, openings, ruptures, lesions, rendings, punctures”) that have marked the skin and the experience of black women for over two hundred years. The physical experience of touch in contact is always challenging, but that complexity rises exponentially when we include the fraught history of slavery and the enduring legacy of racism in America. While I recognize that physical contact is never neutral, I also believe that intentional touch can be supportive. In addition to embracing a certain physical and psychic disorientation, one of the most important aspects of perceptual training in Contact Improvisation is learning how to touch and be touched, hold and be held, feel and be felt without immediately locking this experience into a political construct, social situation, or an emotional narrative. Yet the sexual and racial legacies of forced subjugation and unwanted touch and their traces have certainly marked these exchanges in America (although less so in South America where Contact


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Improvisation actually has a thriving network of teachers and performers). Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, director of the American dance company Urban Bush Women, speaks to this dynamic in the documentary film Movement (R)evolution Africa when she comments on the difference between African choreographers who are embracing release technique and Contact Improvisation and the African American choreographers who see Contact as “this kind of white weird rolling all over everyone kind of thing.”3 For a long time in the evolution of Contact Improvisation, there was an assumption that “any” body could dance this form, including people with physical disabilities and people of all different sizes and genders. What practitioners of the form were less comfortable discussing was the irrefutable demographic fact that fewer African Americans engaged with this seemingly “democratic” movement form. This resistance is changing as Contact Improvisation “interrogates its own history” as one of the performances at the 2017 Seattle Festival of Dance Improvisation was titled.4 A recent issue of Contact Quarterly contains an interview entitled “IWB  =  Improvising While Black” which took place between long-​time contactor Karen Nelson and African American performer mayfield brooks.5 First introduced to Contact Improvisation in the context of La Mama experimental program in theater and dance which brought in students from all over the world, brooks later went to study at Moving on Center, a somatics institute that was founded by Martha Eddy and Carol Swann. This umbrella organization is located in Oakland, California, and (according to their website) “integrates body-​mind health and interdisciplinary arts with community activism.”6 In the interview, brooks notes: Class was held in Oakland at Alice Arts Center (now called the Malongs Casquelourd Center for the Arts), run mostly by black folks and FILLED with people of color doing African dance and capoeira. The mixed cultural environment was supportive for me, but I could see that the two worlds never really integrated. (36) In 2004, brooks and Rosanna Alves from Brazil co-​taught a class at the West Coast Contact Improvisation Festival specifically for people of color. Their experience, according to brooks, was “beautiful [  .  .  .  ] We taught a basic class, and I  just remember the faces, folks having so much fun, so much joy in the room. [ . . . ] It was like a safe space” (37). Discussing the racial separation between somatics and African dance, brooks speaks to the space in between. “It’s what has been so exciting in my path and in life and part of why I am interested in interrogating blackness as opposed to just making assumptions about it. In bringing that awareness to the work, the question of where people situate themselves creates dialogue and exchange within the dance” (36–​37).

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In her recent book, Dark Matters:  On the Surveillance of Blackness, Simone Browne also draws critical distinctions between blackness as metaphor and image and the lived experience of “epidermalization.” Her third chapter, “Branding Blackness,” comments on both past and present meanings of the term “branding.” Here Browne deftly connects the historical record with contemporary examples of product-​line advertising. Her archival research into eighteenth-​and nineteenth-​century practices of branding slaves is hauntingly painful, especially when seen as a precursor to twentieth-​century commodity racism, so prevalent in advertising for athletic gear. “Branding,” she claims, “was a practice through which enslaved people were signified as commodities to be bought, sold, and traded” (2015, 93). Nevertheless, the markings that served to identify slaves also served to connect them to each other. For instance, the practice of re-​branding captured runaway slaves could, in certain circumstances, be read as a visible mark of defiance, inspiring others to attempt an escape as well. Browne looks at more contemporary examples of what she calls “black counterframing,” including Hank Willis Thomas’s 2003 Branded Head (127). This installation is a pointed and ironic commentary on Nike’s advertisement and pictures a photograph of a shaved black head cropped so we do not see any facial features. The right side is “branded” with a raised keloid-​looking scar in the shape of a Nike Swoosh. This public media project was strategically placed right in front of a “real” Nike advertisement featuring a reformed NFL player, Michael Vick, underscoring the problematic “branding” of black athletes in American capitalism. These brandings can be read as cultural scripts, but their meaning remains ambiguous at the level of sensation. At stake is the necessary interconnection between cultural representation and bodily experience—​between seeing and feeling. Thus, what Spillers calls “hieroglyphs of the flesh” can too easily become simplified into a question of skin color, assuming the veil of a generic “otherness.” In the midst of a discussion of performance-​scholar Dwight Conquergood’s practice of activist ethnography, Judith Hamera remarks on what is at stake in trying to connect with an “other” person: “Alterity is our absolute limit. But alongside such inevitable ‘nots’ is the imperative to approach, even as we continually identify the materiality and representational gaps separating us from one another” (2013, 307). Uncovering the stories that have been etched into black skin is one way of restoring these historical voices and connecting their fleshy tissue to the fabric of our lives. As Ann V. Murphy so eloquently suggests: “Our bodies remain haunted by the rhythms that mark our lives with others. To be with another, in the world and in language, is to acknowledge another’s presence within oneself; one’s haunting by another” (2006, 260). What would it mean, then, to invert the order of Nancy’s comments, such that we begin with “the disturbance of violent relatedness” and move it forwards into com-​passion? How might we link our


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responsiveness at the level of our connective tissue with our responsibility to account for the political economy of skin at the level of our souls?

Witnessing My first experience with Authentic Movement was in a workshop led by Susan Schell during the A  Cappella Motion intensive in the early 1990s. I  was five months pregnant at the time, and thus decided to choose a class in the afternoons that would be less strenuous than the two morning options I had registered for. Coming from an academic background in feminist and poststructuralist theory, I was deeply suspicious of the term “authentic.” Although focused around a modernist rhetoric of “natural” movement, Authentic Movement is a form of physical training and socialization as much as any other. At first, it took a great deal of restraint on my part not to deconstruct much of the quasi-​therapeutic terminology used in our discussions at the end of class. Judging by other people’s heartfelt comments, the practice was clearly transformative for many of the participants. The fact that some of the most amazing improvisers and solo performers that I  knew working in New  York City at this time practiced this work in some form kept me intrigued despite my initial resistance to practicing something deemed “authentic.” Having just finished a busy semester filled with teaching, performing, choreographing, and writing, I was also looking forward to having the space to slow down, catch up with myself, and move with attention to the increasingly active creature growing inside my belly. As the class built a sense of cohesion, I became intrigued and committed to exploring the form for myself and in my own teaching. Authentic Movement (AM) was developed by psychologist Mary Stark Whitehouse as an integration of her backgrounds in modern dance (she studied with Mary Wigman and Martha Graham) and the training she had received at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich. One of her most devoted students was Janet Adler, and it is with Adler that Susan Schell, my teacher at A Cappella Motion, did her professional training. At the most basic level, Authentic Movement is a kind of embodied meditation, most often done with eyes closed. There is always a witness whose presence provides a structure and the assurance of an open, non-​ judgmental presence. The idea is to enter the space and wait until one feels an “inner” impulse to move and then follow it, just as Contact dancers might follow a “third mind.” Whitehouse describes this moment as “the sensation of moving and being moved” (1995, 243). For me, the experience begins when I enter what Body-​Mind Centering™ describes as a “cellular” focus and what I have previously described as a “glacial” pace of subtle motion in my core. From this beginning of almost stillness, my movement may expand into any kind of rhythmic or qualitative direction. What is critical in this process is to not become distracted by

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any pressure to perform for or impress one’s witness. They are there for me, not the other way around (which is the usual contract between a performer and audience members). Whitehouse notes that this process requires “an attitude of inner openness, a kind of capacity for listening to one’s self that I would call honesty” (250). (See Inset #18 Witnessing Self and Other.) After a while, the partners exchange roles. This reciprocity of seeing and being seen is a critical aspect of the practice; it constitutes the ground of mutual vulnerability and caretaking. What is interesting to me about Authentic Movement is the way it forms a Mobius strip of self and other in which independence and interconnection are always positioned just on the other side and yet are continuously flowing into one another. Although I reference the historical lineages and role of Authentic Movement in somatic training in the U.S. and abroad when I introduce the form, I have adapted this work in particular ways within my own teaching. For instance, I prefer to call it “witnessing” because that is the crucial aspect of the practice in my opinion. I am much less interested in personal revelations in a therapeutic sense than I am in cultivating the practice of being present with another person—​both in and out of physical contact. The complex interweaving of watching and moving, seeing and feeling, self and other is part of the perceptual and political texture of this exchange. In my workshops, I emphasize that the practice is about participating—​your presence matters, even if you are not “doing” anything except observing. I often point to the role of a witness in a marriage ceremony or in a court of law. In these situations, your attendance is critical to the success of the proceedings. It means something to be there. Inset #18  Witnessing Self and Other

(n.b. These exercises are a particular take on Authentic Movement, a practice developed by Mary Stark Whitehouse and used by many movement teachers and somatic practitioners. Also, it is critical to begin this exercise by having a leader set up the correct frame for the experience, especially with regard to the role of the witness.) In this practice, we use our eyes to support our partner, feeding that visual information into our bodies. Approaching the experience of witnessing with a curious, non-​judgmental gaze opens the space of possibility for your partner. When we are in the role of witness, it is important to recognize that our presence and heightened sense of attentiveness is critical to the success of the event. This is true whether you are a witness to a marriage ceremony, in a court of law, or in an improvisational setting. The witnesses can use their intentional breathing to stay present, guiding their focus back to their partner if they become distracted. Find a partner and form a big circle with everyone in the group. Decide (nonverbally) which partner is going to enter the space in the center of the


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circle first. These folks can move into the circle and find a comfortable position, either standing, sitting, or lying down. Witnesses should remain standing, keeping their bodies responsive to the experience of their partner. Instructions for the people in the center: Close your eyes. Take a moment to follow your breath and allow yourself the possibility of just being present in this circle and your body, attending to the sensation of gravity and air. You do not have to do anything while out in the center. If and when you feel an impulse to move, follow that movement as long as it feels satisfying. You can always come back to stillness and begin again. If you find that you are moving quickly and using a lot of space, please open your eyes to avoid crashing into someone else in the center of the circle. Once the first group has been out in the circle for seven to eight minutes, then the leader calls for everyone to take a minute to find an ending. Hold that stillness until everyone has finished. (This is usually a powerful moment, so it is important not to rush it.) Come back to the edge of the circle. Close your eyes and remember a compelling moment from the experience of moving or of witnessing. Hold onto that memory for a moment, allowing it to fill your body. Inhale, and then as you exhale, open your eyes. Switch roles and repeat the exercise. Theme and Variations: a. Once you have become skilled at this simple format of seeing and being seen, you can introduce the possibility of the witnesses entering the space to support their partner’s movement with a vocal sound score. It is critical to remember, however, that the sound must support the partner’s experience, and not distract or attempt to manipulate it. Sound, especially rhythmic sounds, can become overwhelming, so be considerate about attending to their needs rather than getting swept up by your own sound. b. When working with a witnessing score in a Contact Improvisation class, I  will oftentimes follow it with an extended duet between the partners. In these situations, I talk about the witnessing as being the start of the duet, the beginning of this dancing exchange. c. One can take this basic score into an ecological focus by using the practice of witnessing to attend to one’s environment: feeling the ground as you walk; the air around you; the sky above you; and attending to the sounds, smells, quality of light, and the other creatures (insects, birds, small mammals, and people) around you.

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There is another important cultural resonance to witnessing. This is the practice of “bearing witness” in Southern Christian churches. In his essay on the intersections of Authentic Movement with embodied testimony in church, Christopher-​Rasheem McMillan speaks of his experience at the intersection of dance, performance, and religious studies. “The phrase ‘to bear witness’ or ‘to witness’ conjures up my own history of growing up in the South as a child of a minister. The word ‘witness’ for me represents a special time in the Sunday servi­ce, a time at which a member would stand up and tell the whole congregation the good that God had done in their life” (2017, 37). For McMillan, conceiving of this practice of witnessing as part of the Christian church as well as Authentic Movement, helped him enter the very white and female space of a contemplative dance workshop in New England, where his black, queer, male body reflected so many kinds of structural and aesthetic differences. This experience provoked him to ask: “Which bodies get to frame what somatic knowledge is?” (36) Drawing on the power of testimony to “claim agency by those who are marginalized and to provide an epistemological account of one’s own participation in history,” McMillan enters the practice on his own terms. (“How could I avoid it when the practice is asking me to both ‘bear witness’ and ‘be witnessed’ ”? (35)) I was asked by the facilitators to bring my whole self to the practice; this includes my busy mind, my slight skepticism, and my religiosity. In essence, I was asked to train my intention and what I have learnt about my spirit and my body to form another way of looking at the body in movement—​to be more specific and direct—​to look deeply at the body. (35) His experience is profound (at one point in his narrative, he becomes very still and, crying, encounters God), and he concludes his essay by writing: “The black body is a somatic one, and AM might be the best possible method to explore this connection. [ . . . ] My body bears witness, stands in the gap between what I know kinetically and what I know theoretically” (39). Traditionally, in Authentic Movement the witness does not analyze or interpret what they are seeing. They are simply there, holding the space for the mover’s experience—​witnessing in all senses of the word. I describe this nonjudgmental and compassionate gaze in developmental terms. It is the moment where a loving parental gaze affords the toddler the opportunity to explore their physical independ­ ence. With a sense of glee, these kids run away from their parent’s side, all the while looking back to make sure they are being watched. The moment that parent becomes distracted, however, the child is right back at their side, tugging on their sleeve. It is as if their sense of independence is available only under the safety net of a supportive gaze. I contrast this enabling presence to the “critical” one that many


H o w to  L an d

of us have experienced during our childhood when we had to perform in a music recital or dance concert. I remember walking up to the stage for one such event at the age of eight or nine, and feeling as if everyone in the audience was just waiting for me to make a mistake and hit a wrong note. This is a fairly common experience I find. Authentic Movement, on the other hand, affords us the experience of being seen in a different light, one that is supportive and not evaluative. Longtime teacher and practitioner Janet Adler calls the mover/​witness dialogue a gift—​“the gift of being seen clearly by another and, just as importantly, related to the gift of seeing another clearly.”7 Often, it is by seeing another without critical commentary that one begins to experience the possibility of seeing oneself the same way. A reflection by one of my Oberlin students evokes the compelling mixture of solitude and intimacy produced by witnessing, where seeing becomes like “dancing with him.” Having a one-​ person audience—​ and with the supportive non-​ evaluative gaze—​really changed the atmosphere a lot. I felt more like I was really dancing, and the value of the movement in and of itself was being affirmed by my partner and by the structure of the exercise. I was able to listen more genuinely to what my body wanted to do and value it more myself because of that outside affirmation. Watching was amazing too—​when I  first heard the instructions to give the same kind of support with my eyes as I do when I’m supporting my partner’s weight physically, I  thought it was a nice metaphor and a good way of getting away from evaluative watching, but I didn’t expect to actually be able to feel the similarity. But watching Matt, I was aware of following his motion in a completely different way than I had watched before—​not pulling apart movements or trying to assign meanings, but as if I were dancing with him. (Rebecca Bryan 1996) This possibility of embodied resonance in our vision reminds me of what David Abram and Laura Sewall would consider ecological perception. In his book The Spell of the Sensuous, Abram references Merleau-​Ponty’s notion of “flesh” in order to posit perception as an embodied participation with the world, what he describes as a kind of sensorial empathy” (1996, 68). Similarly, in her chapter “Mindful Eyes,” Sewall proposes that we move away from the concept of “paying attention” (with its echoes of a market economy—​“time is money”) and instead “offer” our attention as a reciprocal, almost sacred, witnessing. Expanding the meaning of attention to include the tactile, Sewall quotes a lyrical passage by James Hillman: “Attention means attending to, tending, a certain tender care of, as well as waiting, pausing, listening. It takes a span of time and a tension of patience” (1999, 97–​98). This is exactly the spirit in which we “offer” our attention to our partners as a witness. Both Abram’s and Sewall’s writings are inspired by Merleau-​Ponty’s notions of vision as tactile and of flesh as a form of (inter)connective tissue that binds

C o n n e ctio n


us to the natural world. This process is at once material and ineffable, mysterious and grounded in our bodies. In The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-​ Ponty describes how visual objects summon our attention in a way that rebounds back into our bodies. “It is that the thickness of flesh between the seer and the thing is constitutive for the thing of its visibility as for the seer of his corporeity; it is not an obstacle between them, it is their means of communication” (1968, 135). This connection is a form of contact, a way of seeing as touching (and, of course, being touched) that Merleau-​Ponty describes as a “double belongingness.” In the midst of his discussion of intercorporeity, Merleau-​Ponty uses the term “witness” in such a way to suggest a soulful perception of intersubjectivity (“if I am close enough to the other who speaks to hear his breath and feel his effervescence and his fatigue, I  almost witness, in him as in myself, the awesome birth of vociferation” (144)). This point of contact between the physical practice and philosophical discourse intrigues me, as I wonder what Merleau-​Ponty would make of witnessing in Authentic Movement. I would argue that it is one of the few spaces where one can actually feel another’s “effervescence” as well as their “fatigue.” Yet if we are to take the impulse to reach across difference seriously, if we are to fully consider the possibility of intersubjectivity, we need to account for Merleau-​Ponty’s cautionary “almost.” In her book Corporeal Generosity, Rosalyn Diprose discusses Merleau-​Ponty’s notion of intercorporeity, arguing that his later work articulates the possibility of a bodily interconnection (flesh) that embraces, rather than erases, difference. She points to his essay “Dialogue and the Perception of the Other,” in which he acknowledges the “mysterious slippage” between self and other. At one point, Merleau-​Ponty describes this affect as a kind of “decentering,” at another point as a “trespass.” For him, the other is “not I” but also “not not I.” Thus we must meet across the vibration between these liminal states of being, a situation in which neither person can remain on solid ground. Diprose, in turn, coins the phrase “the trespass of intersubjectivity” to indicate the risks (both personal and legal) of this crossing over. In its common usage, trespass vibrates with a frisson of danger; the word indicates boundaries disregarded and a certain anxiety about securing private property. “Do Not Trespass” signs are ubiquitous in the American countryside, less so in countries where the notion of public access carries more valence. In old French, “trespass” meant simply to pass across or to pass through, whereas today its usage carries the threat of legal action. For Merleau-​Ponty, this “trespass” is a necessary part of our being-​in-​the-​world, but that does not make it easy. He writes: “If the other person is really another, at a certain stage I  must be surprised, disorientated. If we are to meet not just through what we have in common but in what is different between us [this] presupposes a transformation of myself and of the other as well” (quoted in Diprose 2002, 182). Here Merleau-​Ponty links trespass to transformation,


H o w to  L and

resulting in a crossing over and a being together that affects both entities—​ producing what one might call a (meta)physics of con-​tact. As I argued in Chapter 2, disorientation can be incredibly generative; it can take us to new places (literally and metaphorically) and help us understand the places where we have been located. In the context of this chapter on connection, I want to explore how this sense of “trespass” as a form of generative disorientation arising from our contact with another can be generous as well. I define generosity not in the usual monetary terms, but rather as an expansion of one’s self into the world. This is a sense of giving out and giving to that necessarily contains a sensibility for giving over and giving up. As such, generosity implies a capacity for opening (one’s pores and one’s mind) and receiving. This “give and take” brings us back to our earlier discussion of collaboration as a co-​labor. As in any good collaboration, who I am and what I think will change as we work back and forth. As we have seen in our discussion of the practice of witnessing, vulnerability and interdependency are part of any generous exchange. We need to recognize, however, that these feelings can provoke a disorienting sense of facing unknown territory. In the preface to her book Precarious Life, Judith Butler underscores this sense of confusion, “I confess to not knowing how to theorize interdependency” (2004, xiii). Perhaps this is because it is precisely these kinds of messy and unsettling experiences that need to be theorized through the body, right in the midst of our connective tissue. In order to embrace generosity as part of our social matrix and not just a “good idea,” we need to hone the physical practices that support this open stance. Corporeal Generosity was published in the early 2000s. Even though it was written well over a decade ago, the political context in which it was composed is disturbingly up-​to-​date. In her introduction, Diprose comments on the rise of One Nation, an Australian nationalist political party whose divisive rhetoric belies its seemingly generous name. These are the “forgotten masses” who are suffering from what they feel is the exclusivity of identity politics and the demographic shifts that are a result of increasing globalization. From the perspective of the rise of nativist movements all over the world, her book helps us to see the historical expanse of our contemporary political landscape. Diprose is interested in the social role that generosity can play in the creation of communitas. She notes that “generosity is not only an individual virtue that contributes to human well-​being, but that it is an openness to others that is fundamental to human existence, sociality, and social formation” (2002, 2). Because she is looking for an alternative to traditional explanations of generosity as a moral virtue or a utilitarian concept along the lines of quid pro quo, Diprose emphasizes the corporeal dimensions of giving: “This generosity involves a dispossession of self and is born of an affective, corporeal relation to alterity that generates rather than closes off sexual, cultural, and stylistic differences” (127). As part of a definition of this

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“radical” generosity, she includes the generosity of critical thinking as well, noting that it also is rooted in our physical experience. If, as I have argued throughout this chapter, bodily connection is the basis of our being in the world, the questions become: How do we access this foundation of intercorporeity? How do we draw upon this interconnectedness of self and other to build a just society? How can we cultivate our responsiveness at the level of our connective tissue in order to generate a responsibility—​ literally an ability to respond—​to other people, other ideas, other ways of moving in the world? Opening our pores to the possibility of feeling another is a physical practice that produces a certain flexibility of mind. As we become more attentive to these possibilities, the boundaries of our selves become more porous such that we can invite another’s trespass, revel in their proximity, and witness their experience as well as our own. This exchange necessarily moves us in ways that feel disorienting, risks making us lose our bearings, or, at the very least, our expectations of who we are and who they are. Con-​tact. Touching and being touched. This fleshy corporeal connection provides the ground from which we move through the world, and carries the potential to fundamentally revise how we think about ourselves and others. It seems to me then, that the crucial question is not “How do I connect with an ‘other’?” but rather “What stops me?”

Afterword (7/​29/​2018)

Today is the eighth anniversary of the untimely death of my nephew, John Christian Albright. Each chapter in this book charts different stages of a fall. There are life lessons at every step that I wish I could have shared with him. Falling—​We all fall down one time or another. Better get used to it. Falling can hurt, but falling can also be helpful in reimaging the status quo. When Nancy Stark Smith suggests that we think about falling with grace instead of falling from grace, I believe she is encouraging us to accept the inevitable stumbles of life with a sense of humility and a sense of humor. Besides, we know that with a little practice we can learn to fall well. In high school, John once dropped the ball during a high-​stakes football game and was so distraught he didn’t want to play anymore. How do you help a seventeen-​year-​old forgive himself? Disorientation—​Any sudden change or shift in our lives can be disorienting, especially if it happens to us instead of being initiated by us. The trick is to find a flexibility of attitude while staying grounded. This way when one orientation no longer seems viable, one can shift life directions without being existentially undone. The psychological evaluation that was sent to me after John’s death mentions that “John appears to think about his experience in a highly inflexible manner that results in his clinging rigidly to previously held convictions and firmly resisting a reconsideration of his beliefs in light of new information.” What is the connection between his tight body and his rigid mind? Is it possible to teach someone to be curious about the unknown, the “what if?” Suspension—​We need to open up to the wisdom of that time in between one breath and the next. Learn to be willing to sit with the uncertainty, the fear, the longing. The day after his father died, I found John Christian curled in the back of a closet, crying and hyperventilating at the same time. I held him, trying to calm his body with my own. His breathing always seemed effortful, jagged. Inhale . . . exhale . . . Maybe that is why he was a smoker; perhaps the cigarettes helped him to breathe into that suspension in between.



Af ter wo rd

Gravity—​John was one of the most ungrounded teenagers I have ever met. He preferred air and speed, snowboarding and bike tricks. He could run up a wall, flip, and land on his feet. I have often wondered what kept him from fully releasing into gravity, what kept him from trusting the support of the earth. I felt strongly that his inability to feel gravity was connected to his inability to commit himself—​to a job, to a sport, to another person. Resilience—​I think back to the Aikido exercise I introduced in the chapter on resilience. How can extension through space help us understand how to engage a responsive body, one that doesn’t react directly to each trigger with anger or evasion? How do we learn how to parse our energy in order to sustain it over the long haul? For most of the time I knew him, John vaulted between manic energy and total collapse. He loved the intensity, the thrill, the edge, but then would drop down into lethargy. Once in recovery, he relapsed and couldn’t seem to find the energetic capacity to come back and try again. Considering his physical strength, his emotional fragility was all the more striking. Connection—​John Christian once described himself as a “social butterfly.” He also admitted to me once that he felt if he didn’t drink or smoke he wouldn’t have any friends. Therapists thought he used friends to escape from his own experience. I felt that he wasn’t really open to interpersonal connections that included reciprocity and responsibility. The pores of his skin were closed and unyielding to any deeper penetration, his muscles underneath them tightly strung. So much about his life felt like a chicken or an egg question. Was his physical rigidity the result of or the cause of his guardedness? Yet I remember when he was sober for a while, he was open, creative, funny, and loving. He sent us a self-​ aware, witty rap song he wrote and recorded. At that moment, I thought I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. I was wrong. Eight years is a long time. Every cell in my body has morphed during that time. My kids have gone to college and found jobs. I am older, probably not much wiser, but my hair is certainly a lot whiter. One thing hasn’t changed, however. I am still deeply saddened by his death, although this weight doesn’t overwhelm me the way it used to. As I was writing this book, the legacy of John Christian’s life and death wove its way through each chapter. This book is not written about him or for him. It was, nonetheless, written with him in mind, body, and spirit. When John Christian came to live with us, he was in a state of existential free-​ fall. It took me some time to realize this was a combination of multiple issues, including substance abuse, and not simply the result of having lost his father (and main parental figure) at age sixteen. Dealing with John brought me face to face with the limits and possibilities of my embodied practice. The urgency to teach life skills along with physical skills increased after he died. In the introduction, I  mention that How to Land:  Finding Ground in an Unstable World is the result of an intellectual inquiry as well as a life practice. At this stage of my life, I find it harder to separate the two, since critical reflection

A f te r wo rd


inevitably leads me into action. I try to practice what I preach. Like so many of the concepts I am drawn to, practice is both a noun and a verb. And yet there is an intriguing tension between these two uses of the word. I find that whenever I attempt to define my practice, it slips out of my grasp, leaving me with a trace that only exists in my ongoing efforts to experience it with other people. I like that elusiveness, for it pushes me to replace my nostalgia about what could have happened (to my nephew, in the last presidential election) with a sensibility for new possibilities in our communal improvisation. I want to embrace the potential of the physical and psychic practices I  describe in this book to keep us connected to gravity, curious about those moments of suspension in our lives, and engaged with one another—​even as we vacillate between states of falling and recovering, of knowing and not knowing, of disorientation and the discovery of new, previously unimaginable, pathways. In the time since John Christian died, I find myself drawing on these practices that combine resistance with resilience in order to stay responsive to the ongoing process of living in this wildly unpredictable world.



1. The original title for this book was Gravity Matters: Finding Ground in an Unstable World. Unfortunately, a host of issues, including Alan Sokal’s parody of progressive academic discourse in an article published in 1996 (now known as the “Sokal hoax”), has triggered unfortunate associations with the term gravity, as well as critical analyses that place science and cultural theory in dialogue with one another. My interest in gravity has everything to do with our experiences feeling weight and density. As will become clear over the course of this book, gravity is a force that I believe can be felt as a support for our lives, rather than a drag on our energy. 2. In fact, I dedicated my last book, Engaging Bodies: The Politics and Poetics of Corporeality (Albright 2013) to my students. See the afterword in that book for a discussion of why. 3. See Cynthia Novack’s Sharing the Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture (1990) for a historical perspective on the form, as well as my essay “A Particular History: Contact Improvisation at Oberlin College” in Engaging Bodies: The Politics and Poetics of Corporeality (Albright 2013).

Chapter 1

1. https://​ w ​ 2 018/ ​ 0 1/ ​ 0 2/ ​ world/​ e urope/​ n etherlands-​ falling-​ e lderly. html?_​r=0. 2. For more information on dance and disability see my essay “Strategic Abilities,” originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review 37, no. 3 (1998) and republished in Engaging Bodies: the Politics and Poetics of Corporeality, as well as the Winter 1992 issue of Contact Quarterly entitled “Dancing with Different Populations”. 3. In addition to Marks’s book, see also my essay “Falling on Screen” (Albright 2010) and “A Somatic Engagement of Technology” (Kolcio 2005). 4. See “Denis Darzacq Photographer,” video, 6:58, published July 5, 2008, com/​watch?v=5HonzF8LbLE. 5. For a selection of individual narratives, see http://​​cu/​web/​indiv/​oral/​ index/​html. 6. This quotation and the following one are taken from the performance video. I thank Jess Curtis for providing me a copy of his work. Chapter 2

1. See Albright (forthcoming).

Chapter 3

1. See Albright (forthcoming).



Notes 2. In my final chapter, on connection, I  deal in greater depth with the racialization of skin in the context of touch and what Jean-​Luc Nancy calls “the disturbance of violent relatedness.” 3. I use the image of “breathing through the pores of our skin” in order to facilitate a certain kind of responsiveness at the surface of the body. Interestingly enough, recent research has shown that one layer of our skin actually does take in a significant amount of oxygen. See Stucker et al. (2002). 4. Following one’s breath is a central practice of mindfulness. See Guy and Rosenberg (1998). 5. See for examples of this extraordinary oeuvre.

Chapter 4

1. In many cultures sitting or squatting on the ground or floor is perfectly normal, but within most Western industrialized cultures, it is an anomaly. This is made perfectly clear to me every time I try to squat in an airport and various agents immediately rush up to me and implore me to take a seat in the chairs. Unlike a large part of the world, in America we are not used to sitting on the floor for extended periods of time. Does this make a difference in how we think about gravity and the ground? I would venture a guess in the affirmative. 2. See, for instance, Nakajima and Brandstetter (2017). 3. See the bibliography under Newton for a list of these articles, many of which are available online. 4. See “Prodding Apple on Addiction” in the New York Times, Tuesday January 9, 2018, B1. 5. See the “Origins of Expression” chapter in Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s book Sensing, Feeling, and Action (2008). 6. It is important to note here that there will always be a group of kids, whether boys or girls, who are not at all physically inclined. My point is that some girls who were fierce on the field changed dramatically when they hit puberty. 7. In 1990 the American Association of University Women commissioned a study entitled “Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America” The report documented the myriad ways that middle school girls across regional, economic, racial, and urban/​rural differences, emerge from middle school with less confidence in their abilities to succeed academically as well as socially. Four years later, journalist Peggy Orenstein (who had been involved in the original study) published School Girls:  Young Women, Self-​Esteem, and the Confidence Gap (NY:  Doubleday, 1994). Her interviews with middle school girls and their parents and teachers demonstrated the particular risks of body image disorders, substance abuse, physical harassment, and sexual assault, as well as self-​mutilation, that girls faced as they moved through middle school. 8. All student comments in this paragraph are from the 1996 Contact class journal.

Chapter 5

1. See “Strategic Abilities: Negotiating the Disabled Body in Dance” in Albright (2013). 2. When I refer to skin in my classes, I tend to interweave the material with the metaphoric such that I rarely make the biological distinction between epidermis and dermis. To be clear, the outer surface of our skin, the epidermis, is a layer of dead cells. The dermis right underneath that layer is part of our network of connective tissue. But my experience in teaching is that most people feel their skin as part of their connective tissue as it is there that we first begin to notice our interaction with the world. 3. Although Fuller popularized this concept and coined the word “tensegrity” and is thus often credited for it, Kenneth Snelson, an American contemporary sculptor and artist first conceived of the idea. His sculptural works are a combination of flexible and rigid components to create a mobile support. I thank Eric Stewart for pointing this distinction out to me. 4. The findings from this research are described in Werner (2005). 5. For more information about the intersections between Contact Improvisation and capoeira, see my essay “(X)changes of Identity in Capoeira and Contact Improvisation” in Albright (2013).



Chapter 6

1. In light of Gallagher’s comments, it is telling to reflect back on the example of the dramatic rescue on the George Washington Bridge from the chapter on gravity. 2. I thank Anurima Banerji for reminding me of Spillers’s essay and Cal Biruk for suggesting that I read Simone Browne’s work. 3. See Movement (R)evolution Africa, a documentary produced by Joan Frosch and Alla Kongan. 4. See Nelson (2018). 5. See brooks (2016) 6. http://​​ accessed January 26, 2016. 7. For a fuller description of Authentic Movement by Janet Adler, see:  http://​www.​discipline-​of-​authentic-​movement-​mandorla.html.


Abram, David. 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage Books. Ahmed, Sara. 2004. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge. —​—​—​. 2006. Queer Phenomenology. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Albright, Ann Cooper. Engaging Bodies:  The Politics and Poetics of Corporeality. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2013. _​_​_​_​_​_​. 2010. “Falling on Screen” International Journal of Screendance. Vol.1, no.1: 21–​26. _​_​_​_​_​_​. (forthcoming) “Life Practices” in Oxford Handbook of Improvisation in Dance, edited by Vida Midgelow. Ashley, Tamara. 2012. “Ecologies of Choreography: Three Portraits of Practice.” Choreographic Practices 3: 25–​42. Baldasare, Gabriel. 2010. “My Contact Commitment.” In Encounters with Contact:  Dancing Contact Improvisation in College, edited by Ann Cooper Albright, 7. Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College. Baffour-​Awuah, Nabby. 2010. “How Contact Improv Has Affected My Life.” In Encounters with Contact:  Dancing Contact Improvisation in College, edited by Ann Cooper Albright, 15. Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College. Batson, Glenna (with Margaret Wilson). 2014. Body and Mind in Motion: Dance and Neuroscience in Conversation. Bristol, UK: Intellect. Berger, John. 2001. The Shape of a Pocket. New York: Pantheon. Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Bhabha, Homi. 1994. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge Press. Bloomer, Kent, and Charles Moore. 1977. Body, Memory, and Architecture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Bordo, Susan. 1993. Unbearable Weight:  Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press. Brandstetter, Gabriele, Gerko Egert, and Sabine Zubarik, eds. 2013. Touching and Being Touched: Kinesthesia and Empathy in Dance and Movement. Boston: De Gruyter. Browne, Simone. 2015. Dark Matters:  On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham, NC:  Duke University Press. brooks, mayfield, 2016. “IWB= Improvising While Black” in Contact Quarterly, vol.41, no.1: 33–​39. Brooks, Peter. 2003. “If You Have Tears.” In Trauma at Home, edited by Judith Greenburg, 48–​51. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Bryan, Rebecca. 1996. Entry in Contact Class Journal. Oberlin College. Fall: 3. Butler, Judith. 2004. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso Press. Carr, Nicholas. 2010. The Shallows. New York: W.W. Norton. Carson, Anne. 1999. Economy of the Unlost. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.



B i b li o gra p hy

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“Aberrations on Gravity” (Gilpin), 26 Abram, David, 5, 12, 92, 96–​97, 198–​199 Absent Body, The (Leader), 98 A Cappella Motion, 194 Adler, Janet, 194, 198 adulting, use of term, 28 affective encounter (Reynolds), 175 African Americans Black Lives Matter, 75, 166 Browne on Branding Blackness, 193 King on social mobility and, 43–​44 racism in US and, 162, 165–​166, 191–​193 tactile/​touch in Contact Improvisation and, 192 US slavery legacy and black women, 191 Ahmed, Sara binary options, 68–​69 influence on author, 5 moments of disorientation, 11, 66–​67 mutual impressions, 15–​16 perception of difference, 189 sociality of emotion, 188 Aikido, 153–​154, 204 Albright, John Christian, remembrance of, xi, 17–​18, 79, 106, 111, 112, 170, 203–​204 Alone Together (Turkle), 121–​122, 173 Alves, Rosanna, 192 AM. See Authentic Movement (AM) American Freshman Institute, 28 American University, Cairo, 73–​74 Anderson, Laurie, 26 Antonellis, Theresa, 104 Apple, Inc., 121 Arnold, David, 73–​74 asana, 152–​153 Ashley, Tamara, 177 “at-​risk” youth study (Werner), 14, 162

attention (Hillman), 198 Authentic Movement (AM), 5, 7, 16, 194–​195, 197–​198,  199 autonomic nervous system, 142–​144 backs, concept of, 98–​99 Baffour-​Awuah, Nabby, 187–​188 balance. See also specific aspects of Contact Improvisation small dance and, 28–​29 Smith on falling as dynamic, 31–​32 vestibular system and, 21–​24 Baldasare, Gabriel, 186–​187 ballet dancers, 22, 26 Being Singular Plural (Nancy), 189–​190 Berger, John, 64–​65, 75 Berlant, Lauren, 41–​42 Bhabha, Homi, 166 Black Lives Matter, 75, 166 Bloomer, Kent, 101–​102 BMC. See Body-​Mind Centering™ (BMC) Bodies in Commotion: Disability and Performance (Phelan), 6 “Bodies Inside/​Out: Violation and Resistance from the Prison Cell to The Bluest Eye” (Doyle), 105 Body, Memory, and Architecture (Bloomer and Moore), 101 body as lived (soma), 1–​2 Body in Pain, The (Scarry), 191 Body-​Mind Centering™ (BMC), 5, 7, 12, 89–​95, 96, 115–​116, 127–​129, 194–​195 Bordo, Susan, 131 Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (Sandage),  42–​43 Bourdieu, Pierre, 2 brain pain centers, 174 Branded Head (Thomas), 193



Ind e x

breathing. See also Exercises; suspension cellular consciousness/​breathing, 12, 89–​95, 96, 194–​195 gravity and, 13 memories and, 106 spaciousness and, 80, 84 Bridging the Body/​Mind Divide, Somatic Landscapes course, Oberlin College explanation of, 7, 104, 122, 160 student descriptions of, 86, 122–​123, 156–​157, 160–​161 brooks, mayfield, 192 Brooks, Peter, 36 Brown, Trisha, 100 Browne, Simone, 15, 193 Browning, Dominque, 140 Bruni, Frank, 19 Buddhism, 5 “Building Dwelling Thinking” (Heidegger), 102–​103 Butler, Judith, 200 Calstrs (California State Teachers Retirement System), 121 capoeira, 34, 63, 166, 192 Carr, Nicholas, 124–​126, 173 Carson, Anne, 106 Carter, Paul, 190 Celan, Paul, 106 cellular consciousness/​breathing, 12, 89–​95, 96, 194–​195 C.G. Jung Institute, Zurich, 194 “Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time” survey, 172–​173 Charney, Dennis, 157 Chery, Marie-​Clotide, 34 Chodron, Pema, 76, 84–​85, 88 Choreographing Empathy (Foster), 8, 168–​169, 175 civic engagement, 163–​164. See also political unrest Clinton, Hillary Rodham, 167 “Coddling of the American Mind, The” (Lukienoff and Haidt), 27–​28 Cohen, Bonnie Bainbridge, 5, 13, 89–​91, 112, 115–​116, 142–​143 Cohen, Roger, 74 collaboration, origins of term, 190 collapsing vs. yielding (B. Cohen), 112 college students anxiety among, 18, 112 decline in empathy among, 172–​173 digital (r)evolution and, 3 safe spaces and, 27–​28 community, 164–​165, 169–​170, 177–​178 community resilience (Solnit), 163–​164 compassion, 126–​127, 171–​172 connection, 169–​201 overview, 15–​16, 169–​171, 204 connective tissue and, 170, 171

digital environment and, 7–​8 empathy and, 171–​176 encounters with others and, 187–​194 Finger to Finger (exercise), 180–​182, 186 Head to Head (exercise), 184–​185 Nancy on being-​with-​one-​another, 190–​191 touch and connective tissue, 177–​187 witnessing as kinetic seeing, 194–​201 Witnessing Self and Other (exercise), 195–​197 connective tissue connection and, 170, 171 exteroceptors and, 64 of organs, 129 Rubige on, 177 skin as and resilience, 146–​152, 208n2 as somatic foundation for engagement, 16 touch and connection, 177–​187 yielding and, 113 Conquergood, Dwight, 193 conscious imagery, 13 contact, use of term, 170 Contact Improvisation. See also Paxton, Steve African choreographers on, 192 as dance form, 27 documentaries of, 31–​32, 34 influence on author, 5 listening as multi-​sensorial mode of perception, 182 origins of, 8, 28, 31 reformulation of aesthetics of grace, 27 relationship with partners, 158 releasing expectations, 189 tactile connection, 177–​178, 191–​192 third mind, 87, 181, 186, 188–​189, 194 Contact Improvisation course, Oberlin College. See also Exercises breathing with awareness, 81–​82 collaboration with capoeira class, 166–​167 explanation of, 7, 8, 27, 87–​88, 93, 96, 97–​98, 99–​101, 117–​118, 120, 127–​128, 130, 147, 154, 158–​159, 166, 178, 183 somatics and politics, 10, 15 student descriptions of, 7–​8, 24, 25, 45, 56–​57, 61, 62–​63, 70–​71, 90, 99, 107–​108, 112–​113, 120, 133, 135, 148–​149, 159–​160, 183, 198 Contact Improvisation: Introduction to a Vitalizing Dance Form (Pallant), 182 conversation, flight from (Turkle), 173–​174 Corporeal Generosity (Diprose), 16, 199 corporeal space (Berger), 64–​65, 75 Crary, Jonathan, 57–​59, 62 Critical Moves (Martin), 167–​168 Cruel Optimism (Berlant), 41–​42 Cruz, Nicholas, 169–​170 Csordas, Thomas, 2, 5 Cullen, Couter, 69 Cultural Politics of Emotion, The (Ahmed), 188 Curtis, Jess, 40

I n de x “Dancing and the Importance of Place” (Dohan), 7–​8, 13, 107–​108 Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Browne), 193 Darzacq, Denis, 17, 33–​34 Davis, Mark H., 172 death gravity and, 135 use of dance in mourning, 40 Delbaere, Kim, 21 De Spain, Kent, 57 developmental movement, 109–​111, 115–​117. See also gravity “Dialogue and the Perception of the Other” (Merleau-​Ponty),  199 diaphragm, 82, 84, 112–​113 digital disembodiment, 13, 120–​127 digital environment average daily screen hours, 121 connection and, 7–​8 digital disembodiment and, 13, 120–​127 dislocation and, 13, 107–​108 effortful focusing and, 58, 59 lack of awareness of surrounding environment, 62 memories and, 106 muscle memory and, 108 need to reclaim face-​to-​face interactions, 173 overuse of devices, 97 rise of narcissism and, 172–​173 social activism and, 75 Diprose, Rosalyn, 16, 199–​201 disability, learning from, 144–​145 disasters and resilience, 163–​164 “Disembodiment of Everyday Life, The” (Solnit), 131 disembodiment of technology. See digital disembodiment; digital environment disorientation,  49–​77 overview, 10–​11, 49–​52, 203 Ahmed on moments of, 66, 68 Exercises in Disorientation (exercise),  71–​73 feeling our way, 66–​77 moving through space, 52–​57 Moving Through Space (exercise), 52–​55 Peripheral Vision (exercise), 60–​61 proprioception,  63–​66 Smith on, 67, 69 vision and perception, 57–​63 Dohan, Katherine, 7–​8, 13, 107–​108 Dorfman, David, 73 double belongingness (Merleau-​Ponty), 15, 179, 199 Doyle, Laura, 12, 105 Drew, Richard, 17, 38 dwelling, 101–​106 dynamic rest (Todd), 13


Eberlein, Undine, 175 Eccleston, Christopher, 21, 22, 81 “Ecologies of Falling in Yosemite National Park” (Ness),  26–​27 economic insecurity comparison of Great Depression and Great Recession, 41 falling concept and, 18–​19 neoliberalism and, 41–​42 working class and, 42–​43 Economy of the Unlost (Carson), 106 Eddy, Martha, 192 Einfühlung (feeling in/​into), 175 Embodied: The Psychology of Physical Sensation (Eccleston), 21, 81 embodiment as critical methodology, 2 process of, 7 “Embodying the Crisis: The Body as a Site of Resistance in Post-​Bailout Greece” (Tzartzani), 52 empathic kinesthetic perception (Sklar), 189 empathy, 171–​176 brain pain centers and, 174 decline among college students, 172–​173 Einfühlung (feeling in/​into) and, 175 mirror neurons and, 174, 186 summer camps that bar electronic devices and rise of, 173 as teachable, 174–​175 Encounters with Contact (essays), 7–​8, 55, 93–​94, 187–​188 epidermalization (Browne), 193 Exercises Breathing through the Pores, 93, 94 Claws and Wings, 154–​157 Exercises in Disorientation, 71–​73 Falling in a Circle, 46–​47 Feeling the Organs, 128–​129 Finger to Finger, 180–​182, 186 The Glacial Pace of Cellular Consciousness,  90–​91 Head to Head, 184–​185 Lullaby/​Lamentation Score, 135–​137 Moving Through Space, 52–​55 Peripheral Vision, 60–​61 Pouring to Resist, 118–​120 Skin to Bone, 148–​149 The Small Dance, 28–​30 The Three Domes of Support, 83–​84 Unbendable Arm, 153–​154 Witnessing Self and Other, 195–​197 Yes/​ No/​ Maybe,  23–​24 fabrikcompanie, 40 Facebook, 121 failure falling and, 10, 25, 26, 35 King on politics of verticality and, 43–​44


Ind e x

failure (cont.) movement and, 26 use of term, 42–​43 fall, definitions of, 26 Fall After Newton (documentary), 31–​32 Fallen (dance/​theater performance), 40 fall from grace, Western symbolism of, 10, 35 falling,  14–​47 overview, 10, 17–​20 balancing (in) our lives, 20–​24 behind and down, 41–​44 Falling in a Circle (exercise), 46–​47 with grace, 30–​35 learning how to fall, 24–​30 9/​11 and falling/​f lying bodies, 35–​40 The Small Dance (exercise), 28–​30 with support, 45–​47 Yes/​No/​Maybe (exercise), 23–​24 falling as state of grace (Smith), 10, 30, 203 “Falling Man” (photograph), 17–​18, 38–​39 falling-​through concept, 39 “Fall This Summer, The” (Bruni), 19 Faraway Nearby, The (Solnit), 145–​146, 172 Farhi, Donna, 82, 84 fear, as self-​fulfilling prophecy (Eccleston), 21 Feder, Adriana, 157 Field Guide to Getting Lost, A (Solnit), 62, 134–​135 flesh. See connection; connective tissue; Merleau-​ Ponty, Maurice Follmann, Andrew, 56–​57 Fonsera, Sérgio T., 151 Forsythe, William, 26 Foster, Susan, 8, 168–​169, 175 Frank, Kevin, 117, 154 “From the Body Proper to Flesh: Merleau-​Ponty on Intersubjectivity” (Stawarska), 180 Fuller, Buckminster, 150, 208n3 Gallagher, Shaun, 5, 63–​64, 185–​186 gaps in our lives, 12, 86–​91, 102–​103, 106, 143, 173–​174 Garmezy, N., 157 genealogy of attention (Crary), 57–​59 generosity, 163, 199–​201 Gessen, Masha, 74 Gibbs, Raymond, 5 Gibson, James J., 101 Gilpin, Heidi, 26 Girls in Motion program, 6, 13–​14, 132–​134, 150, 208n7 Godard, Hubert, 114–​115, 117 Goldberg, Natalie, 98 grace fall from grace, Western symbolism of, 10, 35 reformulation of aesthetics of, 27, 47 Smith on falling as state of, 10, 30, 203 Weil on release of falling, 47 gratitude, 106 gravity, 107–​138

overview, 13–​14, 107–​109, 204 being grounded and, 1–​2, 109–​110, 115 digital disembodiment and, 120–​127 down to the ground, 134–​138 Feeling the Organs (exercise), 128–​129 Lullaby/​Lamentation Score (exercise), 128–​129, 135–​137 Pouring to Resist (exercise), 118–​120 power of our organs and, 127–​134 resistance as support and, 114–​120 Solnit on, 134–​135 the support of, 109–​114 Gravity and Grace (Weil), 47 “Gravity of Being Human, The” (Zimmerman), 20 Great Depression vs. Great Recession (Ross), 41 Greece, teaching experience, 49–​50, 55–​56 grief and suspension, 79–​80 ground (Ahmed), 66–​67 grounded. See also specific aspects of Contact Improvisation in experience of body, 87–​88, 134, 161 gravity and being, 1–​2, 109–​110, 115 use of term, 109–​110 “Grounding and Opening” (A. Klein), 89, 137 gym exercise, 62, 63, 130–​131 Hahn, Thich Nhat, 103–​104, 106 Haidt, Jonathan, 27–​28 Halberstam, Judith, 44 Hamera, Judith, 193 haptic perception, 2, 32–​33, 101–​102, 151 Hartley, Linda, 116–​117, 129, 144, 152, 160 Heidegger, Martin, 102–​103, 190 “Here Is New York: Revisited” exhibition, Columbia University, 37 hieroglyphs of the flesh (Spillers), 193 Hillman, James, 198 hip hop, 63 Hofstadter, Albert, 102 Hope in the Dark (Solnit), 167 Houston-​Jones, Ishmael, 73 How the Body Shapes the Mind (Gallagher), 63–​64 Hsing, Courtney, 172–​173, 174–​175 humming, 130 iGen: Why Today’s Super-​Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—​and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (Twenge), 28 improvisation. See also Contact Improvisation; Contact Improvisation course, Oberlin College; Exercises definitions of, 76, 88 De Spain on, 57 influence on author, 86–​88 practice as, 5 suspension and, 12 unknown and, 69, 76 Infante c’est destroy (film), 32

I n de x inhibited intentionality (Young), 131–​132 “In Praise of Bad Dancing” (Svane), 27 instability, gravity and being grounded, 115 intercorporeity (Merleau-​Ponty), 15, 180, 182, 186, 199 Intercorporeity, Movement and Tacit Knowledge (Eberlein), 175 Interpersonal Reactivity Index, 172 interpersonal relationships, 170 Jana (hedge fund), 121 Jensen, Donna, 38–​39 Journal of Motor Behavior, “The Medium of Haptic Perception: A Tensegritiy Hypothesis” (Turvey and Fonsera), 151 Juhan, Deane, 147, 150–​151, 152 Junod, Tom, 38–​39 Kahane, Claire, 37, 39 “Kinesthesia and Empathy in Dance” symposium, Free University of Berlin, 175 kinesthetic empathy, 175 Kinesthetic Empathy in Creative and Cultural Practices (Reynolds), 175 King, Jason, 43–​44 Klein, Anne, 89, 137 Klein, Naomi, 52 Koffler, Jonas, 143–​144 Konrath, Sara, 172–​173, 174–​175 “La Chute” (The Fall) (photographs), 17–​18, 33–​34 La La La Human Steps, 32 La Mama (experimental dance/​theater), 192 Lamm, Claus, 174 Landscape of the Now (De Spain), 57 Leader, Drew, 98 Learning How to Fall: Art and Culture after September 11 (Shotzko), 39 Le Brun, Charles, 58 Lecavalier, Louise, 32 Leg to Stand On, A (Sacks), 65–​66 Lepkoff, Danny, 31 Lerman, Liz, 73 lost Carson on remembering the absent, 106 disorientation and, 11 Solnit on meanings of, 62, 134–​135 low theory (Halberstam), 44 Lukienoff, Greg, 27–​28 Magnesium (dance), 30–​31 Majdandžić, Jasminka, 174 “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” (Spillers), 191 “Man and Space” (Heidegger), 102 Manning, Erin, 56, 87 Marks, Laura, 32 Martin, John, 175 Martin, Randy, 167–​168


massage, 178 mass shootings, 169–​170 Massumi, Brian, 56 Master, Ann, 157 McMillan, Christopher-​R asheem, 195, 197 Mears-​Clarke, Zwoisaint, 55 media ecology (Turkle), 13, 123 meditation, 6, 7, 85, 103–​104 memory/​memories breathing and, 106 characteristics of, 106 dwelling and, 106 suspension and, 12 Merleau-​Ponty, Maurice, 2, 68 consciousness and selfhood, 190 depth, 97 double belongingness, 15, 179, 199 flesh as form of connection, 15, 179–​180, 182, 184–​185, 191, 198–​199 the “horror” of contingency, 69, 76 influence on author, 4–​5 intercorporeity, 15, 180, 182, 186, 199 synesthesia, 92 trespass and transformation, 199–​200 witnessing, 199 mindfulness, 3, 5, 6, 76, 82, 106 mirror neurons, 174, 186 Montague, Ashley, 151–​152 Moore, Charles, 101–​102 Moro reflex, 20–​21 Movement (R)evolution Africa (documentary), 192 movement, intentionality and thinking, 7 Moving on Center, California, 192 Murphy, Ann V., 193 Murphy, Kate, 24–​25 muscle memory, 108 mutual impressions (Ahmed), 15–​16 Nancy, Jean-​Luc, 15, 125, 189–​191, 193 narcissism, rise of, 172 Nelson, Karen, 192 Nelson, Lisa, 101 neoliberalism, 41–​42, 162 Ness, Sally Ann, 26–​27 Nestler, Eric, 157 Newton, Aline, 114–​115, 117, 154 New Yorker, “How People Learn to Become Resilient,” 141 New York Times “On Bridge, a Quick-​Thinking Cyclist Saves a Life on the Ledge,” 126–​127 “A Life-​Changing Stroke at 26, ” 143–​144 “Losing It: How I was laid off and learned to love life again,” 140 “10 Years and a Diagnosis Later, 9/​11 Demons Haunt Thousands, ” 36 Nice Work If You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times (Ross), 41 Nike “branded” advertisement, 193


Ind e x

Obama, Barack, 75–​76, 164 Oberlin, Ohio history of, 164 Tappan Square, 9, 107, 117–​118, 164–​165 Oberlin College. See also Bridging the Body/​Mind Divide, Somatic Landscapes course, Oberlin College; Contact Improvisation course, Oberlin College Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence, 173 student protests ( 2014), 165–​166 Oberlin public schools, Girls in Motion program, 6, 13–​14, 132–​134, 150, 208n7 O’Brien, Edward, 172–​173, 174–​175 Olsen, Andrea, 21, 64, 82 “One Breath One Line” (painting), 104 Onward Together, 167 Pallant, Cheryl, 182 Paradise Built in Hell, A (Solnit), 15, 163 parasympathetic nervous system, 143, 159–​160 parkour, 63 Paxton, Steve, 17–​18, 27. See also Contact Improvisation book recommendations by, 101 on interior kind of plurality, 57 Magnesium (dance), 30–​31 Oberlin College residency, 8, 9, 30–​31 on shift from primacy of vision, 61 on standing still as meditation, 28 Peeters, Jeroen, 100 pelvis, descriptions of, 56–​57 perception cognitive sciences and, 5 as learned behavior, 7 meanings of, 58 phenomenology and, 4 peripheral vision, 59–​61 Phelan, Peggy, 6 phenomenology, 4–​5, 68 Phenomenology of Perception, The (Merleau-​Ponty), 4–​5, 15, 69, 97, 179 place, sense of, 103 Plum Village, France, 103 political unrest Black Lives Matter, 75, 166 nativist movements, 200 over mass shootings and gun rights, 169 racism and police violence, 165–​166 resilience and, 167–​168 Women’s March ( 2017), 75 politics. See also somatics and politics of appearance, feminism on, 131 impact on corporeal reality, 6 King on politics of verticality and,  43–​44 practice, 5 pranayama, 106 Precarious Life (Butler), 200

“Profound Emptiness of ‘Resilience, The” (Sehgal), 162 proprioception chaos and, 50 definitions of, 63, 64 disorientation and, 63–​66 emotional attunement and, 174 Gallagher on, 63–​64, 185–​186 haptic, 2, 32–​33, 101–​102, 151 Sacks on leg injury and alienation, 65–​66 sense of spaciousness and, 100–​101 as sixth sense, 63, 65 “Psychobiological Mechanisms of Resilience to Stress” (Feder, Nestler, Westphal, and Charney), 157 Putin, Vladimir, 74 Queer Art of Failure, The (Halberstam), 44 Queer Phenomenology (Ahmed), 11, 66, 68–​69 racism, in US, 162, 165–​166, 191–​193 Reclaiming Conversation (Turkle), 173 Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy (Manning), 87 Rembrandt, Berger’s analysis of, 64 resilience, 139–​168 overview, 14–​15, 139–​142, 204 being and doing, 152–​161 Claws and Wings (exercise), 154–​157 definitions of, 141 from individual to communal, 161–​168 rewriting our narratives, 142–​146 skin as connective tissue and, 146–​152, 208n2 Skin to Bone (exercise), 148–​149 as teachable, 163 Unbendable Arm (exercise), 153–​154 “Resilience Over the Lifespan” (Master and Wright), 157 resistance Solnit on as revelation, 167 as support, 13–​14, 114–​120 responsiveness,  3–​4 reversibility, 180, 182–​183 Reynolds, Dee, 175 Rice, Tamir, 15, 165 Richardson, Patrick, 93–​94 “Right Way to Fall” (Murphy), 24–​25 “Role of Shared Neural Activations, Mirror Neurons, and Morality in Empathy: A Critical Comment, A” (Lamm and Majdandžić), 174 Roots of Empathy program, 174–​175 Ross, Andrew, 41 Roth, Isabel, 95–​96 Rubige, Tim, 177 Sacks, Oliver, 5, 65–​66 Sandage, Scott, 42–​43 Scarry, Elaine, 191 Schell, Susan, 194

I n de x School for Body-​Mind Centering™, 89 Schotzko, T. Nikki Cesare, 39 Sehgal, Parul, 162 Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, The (Gibson), 101 Sensing, Feeling, and Action (B. Cohen), 89–​90, 142 September 11, 2001 attacks, 3 community resilience after, 163–​164 “Here Is New York: Revisited” exhibition, Columbia University, 37 impact on American psyche, 35–​40 “La Chute” (The Fall) (photographs) and, 33 tenth-​anniversary memorials of, 36 War on Terror national narrative, 37, 67–​68 Sewall, Laura, 5, 12, 96, 198–​199 Shallows, The (Carr), 124–​125, 173 Sharrocks, Amy, 25 Siddall, Curt, 31 Sight and Sensibility: The Ecopsychology of Perception (Sewall),  96–​97 sitting in the synapse (B. Cohen), 142–​143 skin as connective tissue, 146–​152, 208n2 Sklar, Deidre, 189 Smith, Nancy Stark, 17–​18, 27 on falling as dynamic balance, 31–​32 falling as state of grace, 10, 30, 203 on the Gap, 12, 88, 102–​103, 143 on value of disorientation, 67, 69 Snelson, Kenneth, 208n3 sociality of emotion (Ahmed), 188 “Social Kinesthesia” (Gallagher), 185–​186 social neuroscience, 174 Solnit, Rebecca on body management, 131 on chronic pain, 145–​146 on empathy, 172 on hope and spaciousness, 77 influence on author, 5 on meanings of lost, 62, 134–​135 on pelvis, 56 on resistance as revelation, 167 on surviving disasters, 15, 163–​164 on walking as performative, 70 somatic consciousness, 54–​55 Somatic Landscapes course. See Bridging the Body/​Mind Divide, Somatic Landscapes course, Oberlin College “Somatic Modes of Attention” (Csordas), 2 somatics and politics, 1–​16 embodiment as critical methodology, 2 gravity and being grounded, 1–​2 organization of book, 10–​16 responsive body concept, 3–​4 “Training a Political Body: Responsiveness, Resistance, and Resilience” workshop, 168 yoga/​meditation as mainstream activities, 6, 7 Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Tuan), 86


spaciousness breathing and, 80, 84 Solnit on location of hope and, 77 Spell of the Sensuous, The (Abram), 92, 198 Spillers, Hortense, 15, 191, 193 Spiro, Corey, 94–​95 Stawarska, Beata, 180, 182 Stein, Gertrude, 102 Stewart, Eric, 152–​153 Streb, Elizabeth, 32 stress inoculation concept, 157 Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), 118 suspension,  79–​106 overview, 12, 79–​80, 203 backspace,  96–​101 being in the gap, 86–​91 Breathing through the Pores (exercise), 93, 94 breathing with awareness, 80–​86 dwelling, 101–​106 The Glacial Pace of Cellular Consciousness (exercise),  90–​91 “La Chute” (The Fall) (photographs) and, 34 support of air, 92–​96 The Three Domes of Support (exercise), 83–​84 Suspensions of Perception (Crary), 57–​59 Svane, Christine, 27 Swann, Carol, 192 Sweet, Cameron, 70–​71 swing dancing, 63 sympathetic nervous system, 142–​143, 159–​160 tactile/​touch. See also Merleau-​Ponty, Maurice connection/​connective tissue and, 177–​187 cultural differences and, 192 intentionality and, 170 skin and resilience, 147–​148 Tappan Square, Oberlin, 9, 107, 117–​118, 164–​165 Taylor, Diana, 36 technology. See digital environment tensegrity, 150–​151, 154, 208n3 Thinking Body, The (Todd), 13 third mind, 87, 181, 186, 188–​189, 194 Thomas, Hank Willis, 193 Thought in the Act: Passages in the Ecology of Experience (Massumi and Manning), 56 3Ps. See perception; politics; practice 3Rs. See resilience; resistance; responsiveness Through the Back: Situating Vision between Moving Bodies (Peeters), 100 “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility, and Spatiality” (Young), 131–​132 Tibetan cosmology (A. Klein), 89 Todd, Mable Elsworth, 13 Tonic Function (Godard), 114 touch. See tactile/​touch


Ind e x

Touching and Being Touched: Kinesthesia and Empathy in Dance and Movement (Brandstetter, Egert, and Zubarik), 175 Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Marks), 32 “Training a Political Body: Responsiveness, Resistance, and Resilience” workshop, 168 Trauma at Home (Kahane), 37 trespass, use of term, 199–​200 Trump administration, 74–​75, 167 Tuan, Yi-​Fu, 86, 103 Turkle, Sherry, 13, 121–​123, 125–​126, 173–​174 Turvey, Michael T., 151 Twenge, Jean M., 28 Twitter, 121 Tzartzani, Ioanna, 52 Unbearable Weight (Bordo), 131 unforeseen moments, 50, 76, 87, 144, 178 Urban Bush Women Dance Company, 71, 192 vernacular cosmopolitanism (Bhabha), 166 vertical hegemony of the West, 35 vertigo,  21–​22 vestibular system, 21–​24 Vick, Michael, 193 Vineyard, Missy, 22 Vischer, Robert, 175

Visible and the Invisible, The (Merleau-​Ponty), 15, 179–​180, 182, 199 walking, as falling (Anderson), 26 Wanderlust (Solnit), 70 weight and gravity, 109–​114 “Weight of a Thought, The” (Nancy), 125 Weil, Simone, 47 Weiss, Gail, 184 Werner, Emmy, 14, 162 West Coast Contact Improvisation Festival (2004), 192 Westphal, Maren, 157 When Things Fall Apart (Chodron), 76, 85 “Which Way is Down: Improvisations on Black Mobility” (King), 43–​44 Whitehouse, Mary Stark, 194–​195 Wild Blue Yonder (film), 32 Wisdom of the Moving Body (Hartley), 116–​117 witnessing as kinetic seeing, 194–​201 Women’s March (2017), 75 Wright, Margaret O’Dougherty, 157 yielding vs. collapsing (B. Cohen), 13–​14 yoga, 6, 7, 82, 84, 85, 106, 116, 152–​153, 154 Young, Iris Marion, 5, 131–​132 Zimmerman, Paul, 20 Zollar, Jawole Willa Jo, 71, 73, 192