By: Jean Johnson for Body1
Tango might be sexy, but Everyday Dancing frees the soul. We tend to think of dancing in terms of particular styles – tango, salsa, swing, waltz, country two-step – along with the steps and form that accompany them.
|The following thoughts on meditative forms effective in reducing stress are adapted from the Mayo Clinic:|
Try a meditation technique that fits your lifestyle and belief system. Many people build meditation into their daily routine. For example, you can start your day with a prayer or take a 15-minute walking meditation break in the afternoon. At the end of your workday, you may find inner peace by attending a yoga, tai chi, or free form dance class.
Start with five-minute meditation sessions once or twice a day and work up to 20 minutes each time.
Keep trying. Be kind to yourself as you get started. If you are meditating to calm your mind and your attention wanders, slowly return to the object, sensation, or movement you’re focusing on.
But the movement that Susan Banyas, dance practitioner in Portland, Oregon, has been teaching for the past 15 years is about blowing the rules and rigidity right out of dance. It’s about freeing up movement, nurturing creativity, connecting with the body and letting go of stress.
“What I like to tell people is that Everyday Dancing will take 10 years off your attitude,” Banyas says. “We western people have a lot of performance anxiety in our day to day lives that people are often not aware of. There’s so much judgment. We tend to judge our experience and bodies as good or bad, and place ourselves in some hierarchy we’ve created. It creates a lot of stress.
“When you allow the body to be your imaginative ally instead of trying to be a good dancer, then you relax. It’s like being in a jazz ensemble where you get to riff with others and have movement conversations. It’s high play. It’s really fun,” says Banyas. “It’s a meditation.”
Links Between Stress and Meditative Forms
Banyas isn’t alone in her interest in exploring creative, meditative forms to diffuse stress. As the Mayo Clinic points out, meditation techniques that originally focused on helping people connect with spiritual and mystical forces have more recently been used for stress reduction. Among various ways to calm the mind, the Clinic lists: breathe deeply, scan your body, repeat a sacred name or phrase, and exercise your imagination.
The Mayo Clinic also devotes a section of its literature on meditation and stress reduction to “Meditation in motion: A conscious blend of body and mind.” Here along with yoga, tai chi, qi gong, and walking meditation, the list includes Sufi walking or dancing.
Also, Christy M. Wildhagen, PhD, Department of Psychology at Missouri Western State University, studied 44 psychology and art students at MWSU in an effort to examine the relationship between creativity and stress levels. She found that “subjects with an outlet for creativity had significantly lower stress levels.”
Neil Greenberg, PhD, of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville also addressed the topic, presenting a paper at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society at the University of California at Davis. The 1998 paper still enjoys circulation on the internet, perhaps because Greenberg’s conclusion is relevant to current explorations in the area. He found that “responses to creative problem solving suggest that arriving at a solution is stress-reducing.”
Keeping Stress Levels in Check with Everyday Dance
“Everyday Dancing is about the daily experience of being in your body with more awareness – and being expressive and imaginative with that experience,” says Banyas. “It is an improvisational dance form that integrates practices in mindfulness, embodiment, and performance techniques – even though what we do is pure practice rather than as a rehearsal for a performance.”
Banyas explains that the kind she teaches developed out of her formal dance training combined with an interest in engaging a wider audience. “I love to dance but didn’t like the competitive aspect. In Everyday Dancing you can nip that in the bud. Once you do, it doesn’t matter how someone looks. It’s just a person using movement as a form of expression.
“It’s a big deal,” Banyan says, laughing. “Our bodies and our sense of having the freedom to feel compassion toward our bodies – and our own expressive nature – is a big deal.
“I do see my students relax into this form over time. It’s transforming at least temporarily and sets you up for the week. I know that I’m more fearless when I practice this form and more uptight when I don’t.”
How Everyday Dancing Works
“I’ve always been interested in dance as a language. Since we all move, we’re all familiar with it. So dance is really not something you have to learn. Instead what you learn is how to focus your mind.”
“Typically in a class I do a warm-up and try to get the mind right into the body. In the last two classes we worked on bones and skin. For example, I might ask the class what movement arises if you just focus on what your skeleton is able to do: bend, rotate, support your body. So we’ll explore the bones as a kind of engineering aspect of the body and how this structure influences our ability to move in space.
“People in class just operate in their own solo experience during the warm up. It’s like the way a painter or artist goes into the studio. They usually start with sketching or playing with color. So what we do is very much like that, sketching with movement.
“What happens is that people start to create these movement sequences. They might rotate the arm out and put the weight on their arm. But then it might come under the body or the toes. It’s a moment to moment movement of the bony structure of the body, and what this does is to get the mind focused right into the physical experience. This diffuses self-consciousness and people don’t really have time to worry. Also since the assignment isn’t about how you look but rather what happens with movement, people will focus their attention more on that aspect. From there, people start to get their attention into the experience of movement rather than worrying about what they should do next or how they look or what that means.”
“One approach we took last week was to focus on the skin,” said Banyas. “The idea was to feel the skin against the floor. Feel your movement. What’s touching the floor? The skin is the largest sense organ in the body. It is both a barrier and a container, and permeable. It receives sensation from the outside world. We explored these qualities in solos and duets.
“Tonight we worked with initiating action from internal organs. I gave the group directions on exploring their physical reaction to the belly, a very vulnerable area for people. But instead of that aspect, I suggested that everyone see it as a source of their gutsy-ness. The intestine is 33 feet long. That’s a lot of guts stuffed in there, generating a lot of energy. Working from that powerful energy in the center of the body is grounding. That’s how it works. Once I get people focused in, they’re not so worried about how they look and instead are thinking about using movement to solve the creative problem I’ve posed. I add aspects of time, spatial arrangement, stillness, and energy, and we’re off and running, making improvisational dances that actually look choreographed.”
“Last night I also included some partner work in which people imagine that they are connected to their partner at the low belly. You don’t necessarily have to face your partner. Just move and feel this connection,” Banyas said. “It’s about your instinctual nature connected with another instinctual nature. In the process, people stay more independent with their movement experience and aren’t so dependent on each other. What happens is that they relax and the dance is more dynamic, more organic as a composition. It feels connected and is interesting to watch.”
Having a Conversation with Your Body
“The other night at class I also had people simply walk around and notice others in the space. The practice was noticing others and feeling warmth toward them, but nothing more. People didn’t need to feel like they had to engage. Rather the idea was to carry an easy sense of simply noticing others.
“When I checked in with every one, they said it was hard to do and that they had a tendency to be polite. So it was difficult, the class found, to be more neutral, even though when they did approach a more neutral state they found that it was relaxing because they didn’t have to worry so much.
“Everyday Dancing, then, is learning to attune to your own experience, have a conversation with your body and also feel the intellectual thrill of composing,” Banyas said. “Once you start to free the body up, people find that it has its own integrity. So this dance form balances all that heady stuff we’re all involved in all day. We think a lot in our culture, but when we finally start to let the body lead with its own natural language, it’s delightful, feels good to move, and goes a considerable distance in helping us calm down and open up. We start to see and feel the natural poetry in everyday life.”