Movement is Mental

The nervous system has been a common theme throughout much of what I am learning lately and it has been challenging the somewhat dualistic perspective I have unconsciously held for years.  The dualistic perspective fundamentally is “mind good, body bad.”  This is a disembodied perspective, as if somehow the intellect and mental processes are completely divorced from the physical experience.  Learning more about the complexity of the nervous system and the absolute integration of body and mind has me thinking about teaching and learning through dance.

Two authors have been particularly influential in shaping this integrative perspective: Katy Bowman and Anne Green Gilbert.  Katy Bowman is a bio-mechanist, whose original focus on how bodies move has expanded to look at movement from a holistic perspective, highlighting that movement is central to all life on earth.  Anne Green Gilbert has been a dance educator for fifty years and philosophy of teaching is that movement is the key to learning.

What struck me particularly with both of these authors is their emphasis on the problem of a sedentary life.  Bowman frames sedentarism as not just a body problem, but as a problem of thoughts; particularly the thoughts and expectations of a society and culture that immobilizes people. Bowman argues that in the course of “progress” we have eliminated many, if not most, of our movement activities for daily life.  We sit for breakfast.  We sit in the car.  We sit at a desk.  How many of us sit in the car in the drive through, waiting for someone else to prepare our food?  Bowman calls this outsourcing movement – creating solutions which don’t actually give us more time; they just take away more movement.  Have you ever had the experience of sitting for an extended period of time and finding your mind has turned to mush?  In a context that prioritizes mental agility, a mushy brain is problematic and I can recall some very clear instances when this happened to me.  Green Gilbert makes similar observations that those she has taught, particularly in the last twenty years, arrive in her classes with what she describes as “unhealthy brains”.  She argues that these unhealthy brains are the result of societal changes that have increasingly expected people, including and especially the very young, to be confined to their seats with eyes fixed in one place, predominantly to a screen.  Physiologically, the result of prolonged sitting is that blood and oxygen flow to the brain decreases, which slows down brain activity.  So, what do we do?  The answer is very simple – move more!

Green Gilbert emphasises the importance of brain-compatibility in dance education.  The key is to create spaces for deep learning that engage all aspects of the brain, at whatever developmental stage the dancer is.  One of her key tools to setting the stage for learning is the BrainDance.  I have recently started to use this during warm-ups with dancers.  This series of concepts and their accompanying movements is a way to prepare the brain and the body for learning.  It is designed to tap into the central nervous system and is part of the development of a healthy brain (see Green Gilbert Brain-Compatible Dance Education, chapter 5 for more details).  One aspect that’s really exciting is that over time, with consistent practice, dancers can improve their neural pathways, thus allowing for ongoing neurogenesis (creating new neurons).  Teaching from a neuro-centric perspective means that anyone, young or old, can learn new tricks!

When dancers come to class, my goal is to help them learn and grow.  The hope is always that they feel proud of their dancing and what they are learning.  More importantly, however, is that they learn how to use their minds and their bodies together to develop as human beings.  Dance is not necessarily about becoming a great dancer; dance is about developing receptivity, agility, and creativity in body and mind.  This is so important to our overall health and well-being as none of us is a disembodied brain, floating through the world in a skin-covered transport unit.  Our brains are part of our sensory-receptor filled bodies.  They work together in an information loop to interact with the world they encounter.  Framed in this light, movement is not bodily; it’s mental.

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