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I Move; Therefore, I Am

By Carol A. Wiley

From Radiance Winter 1999

From a self-conscious teenager who restricted her body movement and tensed and pulled away from touch, I have become a woman of forty who joyously participates in a dance form involving extensive physical contact with my partner. In the process of learning to move myself, I learned the beauty of my 200-plus-pound body.

The idea of being in close contact with another person was foreign to me when I began my movement odyssey in 1979. Not that I knew I was beginning an odyssey: I just wanted to study the martial arts, my mind filled with images from the Bruce Lee movies I had watched as a junior high schooler. But my mind was also filled with the fear of looking ridiculous.

Why ridiculous? I grew up fat. The teasing from other kids and the disapproval from adults created a self-conscious Carol with a tense, constricted body. If I didn’t move, maybe people wouldn’t notice me too much. Still, I could not completely suppress the urge to move. I danced around the house as a child. As a teenager, I bicycled and walked extensively, which unfortunately went along with dieting and desperately wanting to lose weight. People approved of my "exercise" but did not appreciate the movement in and of itself. Neither did I, consciously.

As a senior in college, I finally took karate. After graduation, I began studying tae kwon do. For many years, I worked to learn the techniques of the art and finally earned a second-degree black belt.

Tae kwon do is primarily a linear striking art. This means that many of the techniques—kicks, hand strikes, and blocks—work in a straight line with little circular or curved motion. Much of tae kwon do is practiced solo—with many repetitions of techniques and technique combinations called forms. The time spent working with a partner is far less than time spent practicing alone. This practice helped me develop focus and strength, but did little to develop spontaneous movement or release the constriction in my body.

Move 1When I began studying aikido in 1989, I realized that I was on an odyssey: a journey of movement. In contrast with tae kwon do, almost all aikido techniques are practiced with a partner. Aikido emphasizes controlling your "attacker" by taking that person off balance, immobilizing his joints, or pinning him on the ground. Aikido also incorporates large, circular movement and a concept we call blending, learning to respond to and move with your partner. This circular, blending technique began to free and develop fluidity in my movement, helping to release some of my body’s constriction. (It’s difficult to be fluid and constricted at the same time.)

More self-limiting beliefs about my body’s capabilities disappeared when I managed my first aikido breakfall; something I had not thought possible just a year earlier. A breakfall is an escape technique employed when your partner (attacker) attempts to take you off balance or lock your position. It is similar to a half-flip. By moving your entire body and using the momentum created by your partner to propel yourself up and over, you move from a standing position, heels over head, and land on one side. For a second, you are completely airborne.

Next stop in my movement journey: an aikido friend introduced me to contact, improvisation dance. The two arts are similar in that they both involve blending and moving with a partner. In contact improvisation, one minute I might be moving fluidly across the floor with my partner. The next minute one of us might be supporting the other’s weight. Then perhaps we might find ourselves on the floor, rolling around and over each other. Unlike dance forms such as ballet and ballroom dance, contact improvisation has no set technique or steps. As its name suggests, contact improvisation dance is a dance form that is improvised while keeping physical contact with another person. It is the freedom of two (or more) people responding to each other’s movement.

I started contact improvisation by taking an introductory workshop and then several series of classes from a wonderful teacher. Contact improvisation is also done at "jams" (open times when people get together to dance). We have weekly jams in Seattle. Contact improvisers get together at annual jams (open dancing) and festivals (where classes are available) around the country for a few days to a week just to dance. I am a founding organizer of the annual Seattle Festival of Alternative Dance and Improvisation, which we started in 1994 to bolster the local dance improvisation community.

Contact improvisation provides an environment where you meet people through movement. You usually begin with solo movements to warm up. Partner dances often begin when two people spontaneously come together on the dance floor. Dance is an exciting way to meet people: you often learn more about someone through movement than you could through an introductory conversation. Dancing with friends is also exciting; the more you have danced with a person, the greater your level of trust when dancing with her.

By the time I started contact improvisation, I had worked through many issues about my body size and thought I had learned to accept my body. But being in such close contact with people and letting them support my weight opened up subtle issues on the road to self-acceptance. How would my dance partners react to my size, especially the fat I carried on my belly? How would people feel about supporting my weight? I was pleasantly surprised to find many people able and eager to support me. I have even had "flying" experiences, when I, with the support of my partner, completely leave the ground.

Sometimes I surprise myself. My reaction when 2move.jpg (23116 bytes)I did a back walkover in a contact improvisation class was, "Oh, my God, I did it." (This involves first standing back-to-back with another person, and then letting that person completely support me on his back, as I reach my arms over his shoulders and toward the floor. My partner then gives me upward support as I bring my legs up and over and land on my feet.)

Through contact improvisation, I became curious about somatic practices. The soma, in this case, refers to the body as perceived from the inside; this focus is quite distinct from our culture’s emphasis on the body as perceived from the outside. Somatic practices are not about the development of muscle or some specified body shape. They are about internal awareness, the flow of breath in the body, the release of muscular tension, and developing your own natural movement.

Two somatic practices I have experience with are Feldenkrais Awareness through Movement and Hanna Somatic Education. These systems of structured movement aim to create more bodily awareness. They affect the nervous system, reeducating the body about its abilities, and often releasing pain in the process. Hanna Somatic Education has been especially effective for me in relieving the lower back pain I’ve experienced since my teenage years.

The somatic practice I find most fascinating is Body–Mind Centering, which uses developmental movement and awareness of the body’s anatomical systems to expand movement possibilities. As infants, we go through a series of developmental movements as we grow, where each movement is a brick in the foundation on which other movements are built. Any missing bricks weaken that foundation, causing excess tension in the body and creating less effective or efficient movement. A child’s developmental movement sequence can be interrupted by injury or illness or by being pushed into activities before she is developmentally ready. As adults, we cannot use skipped developmental movements for everyday movement unless we go back and develop them, which is one goal of Body–Mind Centering practice.

The other part of the practice is the in-depth, experiential study of all the body’s anatomical systems (cells, skin, skeleton, muscles, ligaments, fascia, organs, endocrine, nerves, fluids, and fat). Usually we think of movement in terms of bones and muscles, but Body–Mind Centering looks at how all our anatomical systems can support movement. Body –Mind Centering teaches that fat is potential power that can either be denied—or accepted and embodied. Repressing fat leads to the tissue becoming hard and immobile, receiving less oxygen and less physical and psychic nourishment, and becoming less responsive and less healthy. But, then, fat acceptance is nothing new to Radiance readers.

Move 3Through another somatic practice, Continuum, I learned to explore breathing and unstructured movement. This work can be quite subtle. For example, in a Continuum workshop, I spent most of a weekend lying on the floor exploring "micromovements" (tiny pulsations that are felt but seldom seen) in various parts of my body and learned that moving my belly was more difficult than moving other parts of my body. Still more subtle self-acceptance to work on!

The beauty of Continuum practice is that it does not have a rigid program or set outcome. It’s not about moving or isolating a specific muscle. Rather, it is the process of letting movement happen. It’s an exploration that looks at movement at the most fundamental level, letting go of cultural conceptions of movement and nurturing an internal awareness of movement possibilities. Continuum starts with the movement of breath, movement available to any person of any size, shape, or fitness level. Emilie Conrad Da’oud, the founder of Continuum, says that movement is not something we do but something we are.

I cannot say that I am never self-conscious now. Moments of self-consciousness arise—especially when I want to impress someone or "look good." Nothing kills natural movement faster than focusing on outside judgment rather than on your own internal experience! But through movement, I have found awareness and comfort in my body and an appreciation of its abilities that I did not dream possible in 1979, when I self-consciously made my way through my first martial arts class.

Looking back, I see a progression. Bicycling and walking were safe, solo activities. Tae kwon do involved some interaction with people, but aikido brought me into really close contact with others through the technique of blending with another person’s movement. Contact improvisation and somatic practices continue to take that experience further and, most important, have brought me inside myself to find my own (internal) movement. My acceptance of my body has progressed with each new practice I’ve undertaken. I’ve finally come to realize that many of the limitations I thought existed because of my body size were limitations only in my mind. �


CAROL A. WILEY is a licensed massage therapist living near Seattle. She is the editor of two books of essays about the martial arts and of Journeys to Self-Acceptance: Fat Women Speak.



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