I fancy myself an amateur athlete. I love to move, to challenge myself, to constantly find facility over a physical skill. But there are modes of movement that I’ve shied away from because of a self-defeating belief that I cannot (or I am not made to) move that way.
These beliefs have influenced specific movement patterns in my body – they are often linear and (sometimes) rigid. I run, lift weights, and move through yoga classes where poses are performed within the confines of a 2x6 foot mat. Over time I have noticed that my propensity towards these kinds movements parallels how I tend to orient within the world: I can be rigid in my thinking; I often follow rules with little question; if not attentive, I can slide into being dogmatic– focusing on the expectation or goal, forgoing my intuition, and lead myself into danger, injury, or overload.
Knowing that I have a tendency toward being overly controlled (in mind and body), I began to wonder about ways I could still enjoy the endorphins released by exercise while moving outside my proverbial fitness box. This wondering led me back to my self-effacing beliefs, to all the ways I’ve thought I was not made move: flowing, fluid, emotionally evocative, somatically dynamic.
I have always envied dancers. These artists (using their bodies as an instrument) tell stories in ways that are nothing short of miraculous. The control and skill needed to move so freely is a paradox that intrigues me. And my awe of them has always kept me an observer. My inner critic has scared me from engaging with such freedom in my own movement.
As I mused on this month’s theme of freedom here at MHT, I thought about how my inner-critic keeps me a prisoner of my own false beliefs. I know my critic functions (albeit misguidedly) to keep me safe. By assuming I am terrible at something, I don’t try. And if I don’t try, there’s no chance of failure. The critic helps me stay “good” and safe within my pre-conceived/contrived limits.
But what if being good isn’t the point? I know that many of my athletic pursuits are motivated by wanting to gain speed, power, strength – some measurable unit of improvement. But there I go again thinking linearly. What if mastering movement isn’t the point? What if simply being movement is the point?
This reframe in intention brought me to The Sweat Spot - an unassuming dance studio tucked between a hip vintage clothing store and vinyl record shop (it’s in Silver Lake… so go figure). My heart was pounding. I hadn’t been in a dance studio since the screeching failure that was pre-k ballet lessons. I didn’t feel like I belonged here.
I’d paid and pre-registered for a class called Gaga People. If it was a Lady Gaga themed drag queen party, I actually might have been more comfortable.
Gaga People, developed by renowned dancer and choreographer Ohad Naharin, is described as a ‘movement language’. The class facilitates space for people to tune into a deep awareness with their present physical sensations and invites exploration and interpretation of those sensations with expressive movement (i.e.- movement language). The point of the class is to be the movement, to embody the sensations that are experienced.
I had no idea what to expect. I filled out a waiver and proceeded to a small staging area with benches, cubbies, and an in-wall window into the studio space. The preceding class was finishing up. I watched in awe as dozens of dancers performed some kind of primal modern choreography. The staging area began to fill with other Gaga attendees; they seemed un-phased by the talent on display.
“You’re in over your head. You could leave right now. Nobody would know”, I heard my inner critic say.
Before I knew it, flushed and exuberant faces began cascading from the studio into the staging area. I pressed myself up against the closest wall and waited for my turn to walk into the studio – feeling like a cow being corralled toward the slaughterhouse.
There were more than two dozen of us - various ages, genders, ethnicities, & bodies all taking up a small portion of dance floor real estate. The instructor came to the center of the room and invited us to look at our hands and begin to move our fingers.
“Imagine that each of your knuckles could move in all directions…” she said, “…like a ball & socket joint. Imagine and try to find as much movement in the joints of your fingers as you can find in your hips or shoulders.”
I knew (thanks to high school biology) that it was physically impossible but I was intrigued by what it felt like to try anyway. My mind was fully present in the sensations and efforts of my fingers, palms, and forearms. I had a fleeting feeling of expansiveness. I was trying to move in a way that I logically knew was impossible… and yet I acted into it anyway and felt more alive due to my effort. In that moment, I understood and embodied freedom.
Faulkner once wrote: “We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.” That Gaga class let me practice freedom. It helped me experience how I imprison myself, restrict my own freedoms, and how I can decide to let them go whenever I choose.
For anyone interested in finding some embodied freedom, The Sweat Spot offers their Gaga People class Thursdays at 1pm. They’re located at 3327 Sunset Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90026.
Lauren Ziel, MSW is a Registered Associate Clinical Social Worker, ASW #76483, working under the supervision of Saralyn Masselink, LCSW . Through the use of movement and mindfulness, Lauren develops specialized treatment for anxiety, depression, eating disorders, challenges in life-stage transitions, relational difficulties, and identity/intrapersonal development.