A Phenomenal Dance Together: Moving & Meaning
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
by: Pat Buchanan, PhD, ATC, PT, GCFT Chair, Esther Thelen Research Committee

Section: Performers

In 1976, Moshe Feldenkrais, DSc, presented a workshop at the Novato Institute in California. A young, independent scholar, dancer and philosopher named Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, PhD attended. At the time, Maxine was dissatisfied with the dominant perspective of kinesiology and movement science--it had a limited interpretation of how humans move through their world. She believed that there was something missing--respect for and curiosity about the felt experience of moving, the qualitative aspects of moving and being in the world.

At that workshop, I imagine Maxine was pleasantly surprised by Moshe’s perspective on how to improve the so-called “range of motion.” Instead of isolating joints and parts of the body, Moshe’s approach invited collaboration within oneself that resulted in seemingly magical gains in the quantity of movement through space and the accompanying quality of movement. 

Inspired by her experience, Maxine subsequently presented a paper entitled “The Work of Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais: A Radical Questioning of Dance Technique and a New Applied Kinesiology” at the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education and Recreation national conference in 1977 and published it two years later in Contact Quarterly. Maxine wrote, “Magic aside, Feldenkrais work is a living testimonial that the body always moves as a whole and that all parts are involved in any localization. If no one part moves in true isolation from any other part, then each part must either hinder or enhance the freedom of movement in all other parts” (1979, p. 24).

With her direct experience of one workshop added to her collective life experiences, Maxine was able to capture and integrate much of the depth of the Feldenkrais Method of somatic education. She wrote:

…[W]ith the Feldenkrais technique, one does not learn movements but learns how to move himself or herself. …[I]n any Feldenkrais class, one is not learning about the body, one is learning the body directly; one is in touch with the source itself, learning the ways of the body from the master teacher. What needs to be emphasized is that this learning is not done from the standpoint of the third person observer; one is not watching oneself, attending to the proceedings at a distance; what one is experiencing immediately and directly is oneself. One has the experience and it is only on the basis of having that experience that one is able to discriminate and notice change (p.28).

Twenty-five years after the publication of her Contact Quarterly article, Maxine and developmental psychologist and Feldenkrais teacher Esther Thelen were admirers of one another’s research and scholarship. Certified Feldenkrais Trainer Roger Russell was a fan of both of them. He established relationships with them that helped with the organization of the 2004 research symposium entitled Movement and the Sense of Self that preceded the Feldenkrais Method Annual Conference in Seattle, Washington. Maxine was a presenter at that symposium. Esther and Maxine never met, though. Esther, a lead organizer and scheduled presenter, was unable to attend due to declining health, and died at the end of the year.

Nearly ten years later, Roger remains a fan of Maxine, and Maxine remains a fan of Moshe Feldenkrais. Now in her 80s, Maxine continues to teach, offer workshops, and write for scholarly and general audiences. Roger and his partner Ulla Schlaefke, also a Certified Feldenkrais Trainer, dreamed up an opportunity to spend a weekend with Maxine in her hometown of Yachats, Oregon. With the help of another Certified Feldenkrais Trainer, Jeff Haller, they organized a workshop with Maxine and a small group of mostly Feldenkrais teachers that took place last January.

Saturday morning began with three direct experiences of improvisational movement guided by Maxine. Sunday morning opened with the direct experience of an Awareness Through Movement lesson led by Jeff. Throughout the weekend, we listened, talked, and learned from one another as we considered what phenomenology and it’s qualitative examination of movement could offer to our understanding of the Feldenkrais Method. In turn, Maxine pondered how the perspectives of Feldenkrais teachers, scholars and researchers with diverse backgrounds could inform her thinking as a dancer and philosopher.

As we wrapped up our weekend together, Maxine reflected on how that 1976 workshop with Moshe influenced her style of teaching dance:

That was just a marvelous eye opener to me. I should also mention that actually when I did resume teaching, and I remember doing this especially when I resumed teaching in the university, I started out my classes with variations on Feldenkrais movement lessons. Students were somewhat surprised at this, but also they really prospered from it in a lot of ways,  particularly in terms of the way in which the usual dance classes were carried out. …I ran into a student the following semester in the hallway who had been in my class the previous semester…. [He was] taking another dance class. …He said, “Your class was really different…. You made us think.” …I thought that was one of the nicest compliments I ever got from teaching.

With that anecdote, we circle back to the distinctive perspectives on the meaning of movement that Moshe and Maxine first shared and experienced together in 1976. What Moshe and Maxine offer the world is extraordinary. In 2014, desire for and curiosity about the extraordinary brought Maxine and sixteen others together to share space and experiences of sensing, feeling, thinking and moving. While we each had our unique direct experiences, we found common ground in our respect for the qualitative (e.g., qualia) as well as the quantitative (e.g., position, velocity) elements of human movement, and our dissatisfaction with long prominent reductionist views that assign special privilege to a favored body part (e.g., brain, muscle) or a component (e.g., flexibility, strength) of behavior. We found common ground in honoring the elegance, joy, and complexity that emerges from living as whole (e.g., gestalt), aware, moving humans.

Help Share This Extraordinary Workshop With Others

The Esther Thelen Research and Education Fund, under the auspices of the Feldenkrais Education Foundation of North America, recorded this event. Materials will be available in book, video and audio formats in 2015. All profits from the sales of these products will go to the Esther Thelen Research and Education Fund.

You can support this project in several ways:
• Take a brief survey by January 26, 2014 and share your preferences about the formats in which you would like these materials to be made available (e.g., physical products, downloadable formats, audio, print, video, etc). The quick survey is available at: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/FVQGBNT.
• Share this information with your friends and colleagues.
• Buy the workshop materials when they become available next year.
Make a contribution to the Esther Thelen Fund and designate your donation for "Events & Activities" or "General."

For more information about making a donation to the Esther Thelen Research and Education Fund, please contact FEFNA at 781.876.8935.

Checks may be sent to: FEFNA, 401 Edgewater Place, Suite #600, Wakefield, MA 01880.

To donate by credit card: call FEFNA at 781.876.8935.

Pat Buchanan, PhD, ATC, PT, GCFT helps female athletes create powerful performance. Her unique, holistic approach is based on expertise developed through over thirty years in movement science, education, and healthcare. Pat loves guiding girls and women to master their movement, get rid of pain, and play at the top of their game.
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Comments (1)
roger russell
12/26/2014 12:20:09 PM
Great Pat!


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