Monday, June 27, 2005

I finally wrote that article for the somatics conference at Laban in three weeks time. Here it is in case you're interested:

Dancing from the Centre: Where is it? How do we find it? Does it matter?

The term ‘centre’ is used persistently in dance technique classes. ‘Engage your centre!’ and ‘Use your centre!’ are phrases that many dance teachers say but rarely explain. ‘Dance class is a ritual that hunts for the ever-elusive centre.’ (Erkert, 2003, p 44). The centre has often been regarded by contemporary dance students as an ambiguous place located somewhere in the middle of the body and it is implied that one can ‘engage their centre’ through instigating a mental command. Modern science evidences that we have ‘body knowledges’, that our muscles hold memories that emerge from repetition of motion. Without elaborating on the scientific explanation for this and to describe it simply, muscle memory relates to the neural signal that is sent from the brain to our muscles to enable action. However, because beginning contemporary dance students are unable to pinpoint exactly which muscles to engage in the middle of their body, a common physical response to ‘Use your centre!’ is to suck in the abdomen and restrict the flow of breath. This is not only dangerous but ingrains detrimental muscular patterning causing misalignment and injury. I believe it is absolutely vital for students to have an anatomical understanding of the muscles that make up the core of their body, in addition to knowledge pertaining to the functions and importance of the iliopsoas muscles. However, in this paper I am more concerned with how contemporary dance teachers can practically convey experiential knowledge that will enable each of their students to successfully find ‘centre’.

During the course of my research on this subject, I have discovered there are several terms used to talk about this mysterious ‘centre’. Amongst them are: ‘the core’, ‘centre of gravity’ and ‘centre of weight’. When teachers talk about ‘the core’ or ‘the centre’ it has been my finding that they are after an engagement of the abdominal muscles in their students; a muscular engagement that is evidenced both visually and aesthetically in their students’ dancing. Further discussion about the qualities of movement revealed in a dancer working with this awareness of abdominal muscular engagement will not be presented in this paper. Nevertheless, I think it is important to point out a concern of Andrea Olsen when she states, ‘It is the muscle builder’s rippling belly which you see displayed at the beach and is well known from an emphasis in physical fitness. Our culture has invested considerable attention to the more visible abdominal muscles at the expense of the deep and highly important iliopsoas. Efficient sequencing of muscle contraction allows mobility as well as strength in the spine’ (Olsen, 1991, p 88). What are we precisely asking our students to do when we say, ‘Engage your centre!’

By contrast, teachers who employ the terms ‘centre of gravity’ or ‘centre of weight’ are interested in a process of investigation that their students must undergo in search for their ‘centres’. Hutchinson (as cited in Preston-Dunlop, 1995, p 180) says, ‘ The center of gravity, or center of weight, is that point in the body from which or on which the body can be suspended or poised in equilibrium…The center of gravity has no fixed location in the body, its exact position depending on the build of the individual and on the position taken.’ Teachers working with students to experience ‘centre’ from this perspective will need to anticipate and allow for a long road of physical exploration for each student to be able to cultivate a highly sensitive state of awareness in regards to both changes in their body weight and the variable effects this has on their movements as well as how movements effects the centre of their body weight.

Carol Press says, ‘To teach these experiences, I begin by balancing my drum mallet across the finger of a child. I ask the children why the stick does not fall. Eventually, they figure out that gravity is pulling down equally on both sides, both sides have equal weight. Therefore, the mallet is balanced. I ask them where the centre of gravity is on the human body. Eventually, one of them identifies the belly button or the stomach as the center of gravity. We place our hands on our stomach muscles right below our navels, and suddenly we have found our center of gravity’ (Press, 2002, p 196-197).

The ambiguity around the exact location of the centre that is evident in the two preceding quotations can pose large problems for some students. Frustration can be further magnified when they attempt to physically engage their centres but are still unable to pinpoint where, what or how to do it. Dancing with an awareness of the location one’s stomach muscles alone is surely not what the teacher wants when they say, ‘Engage!’ They want some sort of physical action. We live in a culture of quick fixes and of immediate responses. When do we want it? We want it now! ‘Engage that centre!’ This result driven culture compounded with the inadequacies of language is enough to discourage any dance student striving to succeed. Yes, it takes lots of work to be a successful dancer and yes, finding your centre doesn’t happen overnight but as teachers we can make it that much easier for our students by being clear about what exactly we expect from our constant verbiage about ‘centre’. It is nothing new to highlight that language creates problems in the act of teaching dance and there is no exception when it comes to giving a student verbal information on how to physically engage their ‘centre’, especially when there are so many variables at stake of where the location of the centre lies. Then there is the further complication of why we would want to dance ‘from our centre’ in the first place. Isn’t dance just about communication?

After several discussions with other contemporary dance teachers in both the UK and the USA there appears to be two general schools of thought used in the practical teaching of locating ‘centre’. The first stems from Laban’s principles of the kinesphere. It looks at the body through geometry, where similar to the study of anatomy, the body is divided into three planes: the vertical (door), the horizontal (table) and the saggital (wheel). At the intersection of these axes is the core of the body. Through the exploration of moving the limbs around the core within one’s own sphere of motion or one’s own kinesphere, the dancer begins to discover ‘centre’. Laban (as cited in Redfern, 1973, p 31) states, ‘The impulse given to our nerves and muscles which move the joints of our limbs originates in inner efforts.’

Not far removed from Laban’s theories, comes a second approach to locating centre. This approach is based on biology instead of geometry and looks at the body from the front, imagining a series of circles gradually increasing in circumference which connect the joints in the body. The smallest circle contains the core of the body, where the joints of the spine provide movement in all three planes. Each circle thereafter correlates with the other joints in the body – one accommodating the shoulder and hip joints, the next the elbow and knee joints, another circle taking in the wrist and ankle joints and the last and largest circle connecting the finger and toe joints. ‘In the somatic approach Body-Mind centering, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen speaks about navel radiation. Picture a starfish and imagine taking all food, all sustenance, through the belly button. As a six-pointed starfish, everything connects through center’ (Erkert, 2003, p 46). All the limbs can move three-dimensionally around the navel, enabling the dancer to discover their centre through moving in this primordial way.

A friend of mine who teaches all undergraduate levels of contemporary dance technique at University of Leeds said in an email discussion I had with her on the subject, 'I begin with a simple 'centering exercise' whereby I ask students to become aware of their posture, standing in parallel, go through a mental 'checklist' starting with the alignment of the feet and moving upwards through the body. In addition I often ask them to place their thumb on their navel and allow the hand to point downwards on the abdomen, effectively covering the lower abdominals and to gently engage the abdominal muscles, then release, repeat this a few times to acknowledge the impact this simple action has on the posture of the whole body, finally engage the muscles and keep them engaged whilst performing a roll down. Throughout the class I will remind students, verbally and through touch / corrections about the importance of engaging and employing the use of centre, both as a technical and expressive device.’ (Hunter, V. 03/05/2005)

I find the last statement of this quote of particular interest to my research as it stresses the importance of the symbiotic nature of technique and expression. It prompts the reinstatement of the question posed earlier about why we want to dance from the centre if dance is just about communication. Does dancing from the centre make our dancing better? Perhaps. Does dancing from the centre allow for more efficient communication of movement? Not necessarily. The muscle memory of a trained dancer, which is stored in their body as knowledge in the form of dance technique effects the way in which their movement is executed. However, the movement of an untrained dancer has the capacity to be just as expressive. So is dancing from the centre a technical desire? Is it only something pursued by a dancer who has already begun formal dance training? The physical demands placed on the contemporary dancer, the range of movements expected, the precarious balances attempted, demand a support system through the core of the body. The flexibility, the speed, the balance and the control needed to execute a movement vocabulary which is challenging and expressive needs a strong body and mind. Though my own experience of life and through my lifelong experience of dance, I know that my body and mind do not operate as two separate entities but instead as one ultimate unity. Dancing is not just a physical act, it emerges from the whole being. And to return to Laban’s quote, this time in support of body-mind integration, ‘The impulse given to our nerves and muscles which move the joints of our limbs originates in inner efforts’ (Redfern, 1973, p 31). In no circumstance does the experience of dance occur outside the body-mind complex. The concept of mind-body connection is evidenced in texts as old as the Upanishads (ancient yogic texts written 800-400 B.C.) and the term “the thinking body”, now integrated into the vocabulary of the dance world, has been used by movement practioners since the beginning of the 20th century. So this non-dualist approach concerning the indivisibility of body and mind in relationship to the act of dancing comes from an old strand of reference that aims to examine the amalgamation of being.

It is because of my strong belief in this non-dual perspective that I have looked to integrate the ancient somatic practice of yoga with contemporary dance as it applies to the search for ‘centre’. I have studied yoga for over ten years and lived four of these years in a yoga community, practicing yoga techniques daily. I have been a dancer my whole life and a teacher of dance since the age of sixteen. In the last year, I have been working with my students at Roehampton University on how to locate ‘centre’ through the use of two yogic bandhas (body locks). There are numerous bandhas (locks) in the body but the two bandhas I am focusing on are called, Uddiyana Bandha (Navel Lock) which is performed by gently pulling the navel back and upwards to the spine and Mula Bandha (Anal Lock) which is performed by lifting up on the anal sphincter muscle. Mula Bandha is often initially taught by telling the student to move their ‘sit bones’ closer together which, in the beginning stages, creates a gross action but later can be perfected into a very subtle movement. If both bandhas are activated simultaneously (i.e. the navel is pulled gently back towards the spine and the anus is lifted) then the pelvis falls into correct alignment in relationship to the ribcage, the lumbar region of the spine is supported by the muscular engagement through the front of the body and the ‘centre’ is not only engaged but also strengthened because the muscles of the pelvic floor link both bandhas. Through this engagement of both bandhas, students can experience a sensation of inner muscular contraction between the Mula and Uddiyana Bhandas. Moving with the support of these bhandas can be experienced with newfound strength and lightness in the body, complementary to contemporary dance movements. Furthermore, through practicing the bhandas, students will be physically ‘engage their centre’ through body knowledges as they will have precise knowledge of what muscles to engage, how to engage them and why they are engaging them. The use of yogic bhandas in contemporary dance training is something that I hope will catch on as teachers begin to continue to incorporate somatic practices into the technical vocabularies of our students. I am not advocating that this particular approach to locating centre is better for everyone and that other methods of finding centre should be negated. Personally, when I began to unite the bhanda work with contemporary dance techniques I discovered a successful solution to the problem of locating my own centre. Perhaps it will for you as well.


Calais-Germain, Blandine (1991) Anatomy of Movement, Seattle: Eastland Press

Coulter, D. (2002). Anatomy of Hatha Yoga. USA: Body and Breath Inc.

Erkert, J. (2003). Harnessing the Wind: The Art of Teaching Modern Dance. USA: Human Kinetics

Feuerstein, G. (1998). The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice. USA: Hohm Press

Fitt, Sally Sevey (1996) Dance Kinesiology, New York: Schirmer Books

Frankilin, E. (1996). Dance Imagery for Technique and Performance. USA: Human Kinetics

Grieg, V. (1994). Inside Ballet Technique: Separating Anatomical Fact from Fiction in the Ballet Class. London: Dance Books

Hari Dass, B. (1981). Ashtanga Yoga Primer. California: Sri Rama Publishing

Olsen, Andrea (1991) Body Stories: A Guide to Experiential Anatomy, Barrytown, New York: Station Hill Press

Press, C. (2002). The Dancing Self: Creativity, Modern Dance, Self-Psychology and Transformative Education. USA: Hampton Press

Preston-Dunlop, V. (compiled 1995). Dance Words. Switzerland: Harwood Academic Publishers

Redfern, H.B. (1973). Concepts in Modern Educational Dance. London: Henry Kimpton Publishers

Stiles, Mukunda (2000) Structural Yoga Therapy, Boston , MA, USA: Weiser Books


Anonymous Anonymous said...

what is the importance of finding the center of gravity of a body? and in the system??

12:36 PM  
Blogger chai said...

what is the importance of finding the center of gravity of a body?? and in a system??

12:40 PM  
Blogger chai said...

and what are the other examples where the center of gravity is found outside the mass of a body??

12:42 PM  
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