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Andrea Juhan

On Meaning Making in Conscious Dance

Feb 26, 2019

I recently had a dance where in spite of the fact there was plenty of room, I felt that it was near impossible for me to take up any space on the floor. I remember feeling small. With open attention, I went towards these small feelings and found myself turning around in tight circles, slowly spiraling closer to the floor. As I allowed this, my body started to tremble. Soon I was entirely on the floor still turning in circles. I let this small low circling and trembling to continue, moving with the music, feeling the dance of it.

In my mind, I was curious, encouraging this unfolding, asking myself, asking my body — “What’s needed now?” I then became aware of a small place within me that felt like an animal child. This animal child’s dance was wary and was one of nesting; I did not recognize this place. I began to feel vulnerable in a very raw way — as if I was without skin.

Curling ever more inwards I found my eyes looking outwards at the other movers. As it happened, two dancers were on the floor near me by now. I wanted closeness, yet my movements were protective. In movements uncharacteristic to me: arms crossing and twisting, head bowed, eyes lifted, sensing and orienting through my side body, small steps. I danced what felt like lonely longing in very small ways. As the dance went on and on, as dances do, slowly I found this “animal child self’ tentatively moving towards contact, but I didn’t rush or push.

Allowing the unfamiliar feelings within and following the movements of my body, I was witnessing a part of myself became real in the dance. A piece of my being was allowed room for expression without the interpersonal story that may have arisen had this sequence of feelings happened off the dance floor. In this dance, I met a small but substantial part of my fundamental nature.

I felt unusually touched and renewed after this dance. I learned something new about my animal child self and how it shows up on and off the dance floor. I felt the shape of my need and my ever-present protective or hiding dances. Thru the dance, I developed a tender curiosity towards that part. The whole of the dance organically arose from my body. The meaning and the medicine blossomed simultaneously, and my sense of self expanded.

Many, many, students have shared similar experiences — the discovery of some new perspective or possibility suddenly making sense to them from participation in Open Floor movement practice.

Over time I have wondered if it is the unspoken inner meaning the mover makes of their dance that constitutes its beauty. That we as witness’ can relate even if we do not understand. Is it this meaning that facilitates the energy of a dance to become a powerful catalyst for the reinvention or recalibration of one’s Being?

When movers are fully present and drop into the movement as it unfolds, I see that our emotional body is receptive to the movement of the physical body as well as energies beyond our body. The experiences of within and beyond are also used to shape the dance. In other words, feeling states are touched and supported by dance and feeling states in turn shape and give meaning to the dance. In those moments, all four dimensions of embodiment: physical, emotional, cognitive and Soulfulness are alive.

For me, part of this practice includes listening to the curious questions in my mind — questions along the lines of (and not necessarily in words) “What does this mean to me, where am I being guided, or what am I surrendering to? These questions play in my head like music. I listen for the answers in my dance. in those moments there is magic, true possibility and unfolding.

Our thoughts, intuitions, relations, and images are important and relevant material for us to meet, express and unpack in a dance. Through this process, our imagination is given free rein, and in that vast creative expanse, we find meaning, maybe not in words but the felt-sense of our embodied landscape.

It seems that we might mistake the process of meaning-making for being in one’s head, telling stories, or as merely thinking. But I wonder if when what arises from the dance is witnessed and embraced with willingness, mindfulness, curiosity and a truly embodied movement vocabulary, our imagination and creative intelligence can engage in meaning-making and harvest what we are being shown or are following.

Douglas Brooks, a yogic religious philosopher says, “We are not handed meaning; we need to make meaning for ourselves for it to be real.” We hunger for meaning: the point of it all, the value, the essence of one’s own life, the purpose of one’s life. Meaning-making involves listening to what matters and following that, even if we do not know why or where. It calls us to trust in our imagination. Opening to the alchemy of imaginative play in the body is a deeply personal way of moving; it can be revealing. It shows the self to the self.

Our willingness to engage as a multi-dimensional dancer allows us to sniff out the meaning for us. Together with other movers, we can deeply listen and dwell in the creative collective nature of Consciousness. We can allow realms greater than ourselves to reveal answers or clues to fundamental Soul-searching questions such as: What is essential?? What has meaning? What’s my nature? What am I capable of? And what is truly right action?

When we hit those pockets in movement practice, there is such a vast expanse of possibility and energy. Dances that are saturated with meaning, choice, imagination, emotion, vulnerability, and personhood can be a way of receiving guidance, attuning with nature, others and setting one’s inner compass.

I suspect that the sheer vulnerability of these dances can scare us, or perhaps touch into shame that we have gathered about who we really are. In general, orienting towards the unknown puts us on shaky ground. In my teaching practice going towards the unknown, the shaky ground, is a bias I have. I am genuinely interested in the intricacies of a mover’s expression, of the communication, the meaning, the responses, the choices made, the stories old and new. For me, this is the beautiful bridge between the dance floor and life.

There are many movements we make each day on automatic pilot, shopping cooking, working, while our mind is elsewhere. I have marveled at the gym where people on various exercise equipment watch TV to distract themselves from the tedium of that kind of exercise. The advent of neuroscience research shows us that if we are not paying attention to what we are doing it is less likely we will derive the neural biochemical benefits of new pathways. “You need to be present to win,” says a sign from a county fair that hung forever in my father’s psychotherapy office.

As movers and teachers, we can lean towards embodied presence. We can focus on what is real, rather than what might be considered the right form, attractive, pleasing, etc. We can put the unknown at the center of our curiosity and encourage moving into it. It requires trust; it requires perhaps looking unimaginably goofy; it involves listening moment by moment.

We can teach ourselves to match movement to moods, impulse to inner voice, muscle to memory, breath to bone — Our body is the ultimate personal oracle.