On the Mat: See Yourself Dancing with Depth

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“We have two physical eyes, but every pore in the body is also an eye.” – BKS Iyengar

While this week’s On the Mat tip is meant for everyone, I am especially hoping to catch the attention of our dancer-yogi students. As we dancers trained in our art form, we were taught to measure our own progress by gazing in the mirror. The question of ‘How does this movement look?’ often outweighed the question, ‘How is the movement experienced?’. The mirror only offers us a frontal view, as our physical eyes are set in the front of our heads. Our audience sees us from all sorts of angles.

The truth is, much of what is working inside our bodies and minds that supports effective technique and performance can’t actually be seen. It is buried deep inside, like our spines, and can be as intangible as our thoughts and emotions. So I ask you, how useful is that mirror anyway? Have you ever noticed there is no mirror onstage? Why then would we use one on a daily basis if the ultimate destination – dancing for an audience – takes place in a three-dimensional setting devoid of our reflections to watch?

There have been numerous pedagogical studies with the support of cognitive learning methods that indicate that the early years in dance training should be shifted to a more kinesthetic learning experience. In this manner, dancers learn to move through a sensory experience of dancing in space before actually seeing themselves execute the chosen movements. This would remove the use of the mirror as a way to learn and imitate. It has been found that adding specific aesthetics and technical details later promotes a more complete body and unlocks more of the natural instincts we possess when dancing; such students still can develop into technically stunning performers.

This sounds just like a mind/body learning method to me.

I love the yoga practice as a complement to dance training for dancers and performers for this very reason. Through other ways of “seeing” ourselves, as Mr. Iyengar suggests, we can delve deeper. Without mirrors distracting us with their singular viewpoints, we cultivate other senses of our movement potential. The yoga practice can take you to new depths in your dancing.

Take, for example, the spine. We may be able to touch the surfaces of our vertebral bodies in the neck and lower back or even find our sacrum and tailbone, but we can’t touch our full spines. They are buried deep within, beneath deep layers of muscle and fascia. We can’t hold onto the spine and experience its incredible capacity for complex movement. We have to trust that the spine is moving when we move.

Here is a simple exercise you can do to “see” your spine next time you are On the Mat or warming up before barré:

Set yourself up on “all-fours” with wrists under shoulders and knees under hips. Imagine your spine curving from head to tailbone. The spine navigates curves (https://mindbodybrew.wordpress.com/2012/12/06/on-the-mat-navigating-spine-curves/) to the front of the body and to the back. When you send your front body to curve towards the mat, the spine inside integrates all curves into a cow spine (like a long boat) and when the back body curves towards the ceiling, the spine insides integrates all curves into a cat spine (like an up-turned long boat). Inhale to cow, exhale to cat. Continue the breath cycle and curving and then close your eyes as you work. Imagine your spine changing shape within. Deepening your awareness, you can envision its pathway on the inside and sense through the fuller movement the spatial changes you are creating with your torso on the outside. Of course, the breath will support you as it is always a three-dimensional shape change. “See” the movement through millions of sensory eyes!

What is always interesting to me after working with a student on a simple exercise of breathing and observing spine awakening like this is that their spinal movement potential increases dramatically. In a situation where they were viewing themselves, they may have met limitations learned by seeing similar movements. That first cambre/port de bras back at the barré takes on whole new potential, and the greater range of motion is further supported by the strength that the breath support brings to the abdominals.

Go ahead…open up your millions of eyes and watch yourself begin to dance with depth!

– TaraMarie Perri

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