Everyone is a Dancer
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
by: Louise Vesper, GCFP

Section: Performers

Learning is concerned with the unknown becoming known which is realized after its discovery. -Moshe Feldenkrais, The Elusive Obvious

Michelle is wearing a Jonas Brothers t-shirt, talking about the Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus concert movie that she saw recently. She is 13 years old, a dancer, and middle school student in a San Francisco Bay Area suburb. Michelle was born with spina bifida, developed scoliosis, and uses a wheelchair or crutches. When it’s time to dance, she radiantly skips across the floor of the large dance studio, her head turning left to right. She does wheelies in her wheelchair to embody skipping.

Annie also skips across the room using her eyes and her power wheelchair, coordinating her movement with the other teens in the class. Annie is a 20 year old community college student in Oakland, CA. She is a longtime fan of competitive figure skating, following Sasha Cohen and Michelle Kwan, her all-time favorite skaters. She watches skating events on TV and roots for new skating stars like Caroline Zhang. Although Annie is legally blind, she understands conversation and communicates through a communication board and by pulling a person’s pinky finger or thumb to answer yes and no.

Annie and Michelle attend a weekly creative dance class for teens with and without disabilities ages 12-21 sponsored by AXIS Dance Company in downtown Oakland. They also both participate in regular Functional Integration® lessons with their respective Feldenkrais® practitioners, resulting in positive effects in their dancing and daily movement. I know them both through my weekly volunteer activities as an Assistant Teaching Artist at AXIS for the past four (plus) years. I’m Annie’s dance partner in the class, guiding her through movement.

Examples of Dance Instruction in the Class

Dance instruction is given by suggestions such as:
Find the easiest, smoothest curving pathway to float through the room.

Move through the space and stop when you see someone else stop. Then, change one thing- your hand, your head, your eyes.

Skip across the floor, in your imagination, on your wheels, with your eyes or your breath.

Say your name and dance a movement with your head, your face, your feet, that shows your mood today.

Walk or roll, slowly milling around the room, making eye contact and smiling when you pass another dancer.

Michelle, Annie, and the other students have a wide range of abilities. Through dancing as a group and supporting each other, the students learn about acceptance of each other and self-acceptance. This has changed their self image and growth as dancers. Michelle and Annie experience additional change and growth through the Feldenkrais Method®.    

Annie and Michelle- Functional Integration

Naffie Fischbacher is Michelle’s Feldenkrais practitioner. They have been working together since Michelle was nine years old, with some breaks in between. Describing Michelle, Naffie says, “Michelle’s family surrounds her with positive influence. The Feldenkrais Method and dance reflect that. She first came to me, at a physical therapist’s recommendation, for scoliosis and limited range of motion in her shoulders due to using crutches. When Michelle was younger, we did a combination of Functional Integration and Awareness Through Movement through play. Now that she’s older, she’s much more engaged. I generally work with Michelle lying on the table so that she can have a sense of a length. I’m amazed at Michelle’s focus and motivation. She has done Awareness Through Movement tapes at home in the past.”  

Michelle says, “When I see Naffie, I come home happy and hungry. She makes me laugh. My shoulders feel better, my arms don’t hurt and my hip has less pain. I feel long! I dance better.”
As Annie’s dance partner, I have observed significant changes since she began receiving Functional Integration lessons with Jennifer Lee, her Feldenkrais practitioner. Jennifer works with Annie in many different positions, allowing Annie to take the lead while supporting her.  She has given Annie the experience of contacting her feet to the floor, a new sensation for Annie. I have been privileged to observe a session with Jennifer and Annie. My observation has greatly helped with the way Annie and I work together as dancers.  

In describing his work with a young girl with cerebral palsy, Moshe Feldenkrais wrote in The Elusive Obvious, “I therefore substitute myself for her early environment, both gravitational and human, by making movements of her head which are similar to one another so that even the erratic functioning will, in the end, reorganize an orderly possibility.” Jennifer Lee uses this approach with Annie and says, “I want to provide Annie an experience of sensing her body and herself, moving and interacting in her environment, and a sensation of connection of her feet to her environment. I am the environment during our Functional Integration sessions and Annie’s guide in the natural world of movement. Annie is then able to sense who she is within herself in relationship to her environment, and then the ‘I’ intention can come out and move.”

At the Dance Class

I observe that Annie’s quality of movement continues to expand; she is more present and focused with me and the other teens in her dancing. She is able to follow movement instructions in a quicker manner. Her mother, Deanna, has observed that these benefits have translated to her daily life.  

The teen class is taught by Annika Nonhebel, AXIS Dance Company Education Director, and Rodney Bell, Company dancer and avid wheelchair basketball player.

Annika says: I see people dancing with their elbows, their eyes, and their feet. I see people laying on the floor at a low level and dancing at a high level with their arms.

Rodney gives prompts, such as: Come together in a group shape, connecting with each other using one body part. Breathe!

At the end of each class, I teach a short Awareness Through Movement lesson to bring awareness and focus inward. The quality and focus is already present due to the level of attention from dancing together.

One of the goals of the dance class is to provide an opportunity for the teens to experience many options for movement, using curiosity and listening to themselves. They experience movement from the inside, finding individual creative ways to move, sensing themselves in relation to the room and the other dancers, and developing a curiosity about their own movement and sensation.  

Benefits of Feldenkrais lessons for Michelle & Annie

I have observed that Michelle’s movements have gotten bigger and more adventurous and she has become more self-confident through her Feldenkrais lessons. According to Linda, her mother, Michelle’s doctors have remarked that for the severity of her scoliosis, they are amazed with her range of motion and mobility, especially her ability to walk.

Annie’s continuing Feldenkrais Method experience is evident as she travels through the room as if flying with joy and abandon. When I asked Annie if she loves dancing, she answered Yes without hesitation.

As a lifelong ballet dancer and Awareness Through Movement teacher, assisting in teaching the teen class has dramatically changed my view of dance and movement. Each week, I have witnessed how small and subtle movement can have a profound effect on a person’s life. I recently taught a series of Awareness Through Movement classes for AXIS dance company members.  

The teens say: You can make dance from everyday movement. Create shapes. Be yourself. Dance alone or with the group. Showcase your dance without fears. Have fun!

Both photos from AXIS Dance Company, 2007. Photos taken during Creative Dance Class for teens with and without disabilities.

About AXIS

Since 1987, AXIS Dance Company has created an impressive body of work developed by dancers with and without disabilities. AXIS is known internationally for setting high artistic and educational standards in the field of physically integrated dance. For more information, go to:
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