By Emily Stein, GCFP CM
I often joke with my students in Feldenkrais ATM® class: “This is the opposite of ballet class! In my ballet class, you have to do everything I say. In ATM class you don’t have to do anything I say, if you don’t want to!” This joke plays into the common stereotype of the rigor of ballet training. Push harder, jump higher, turn more, who cares if it hurts. Do it again, because the teacher said so! And of course, the Feldenkrais Method emphasizes comfort, ease and doing less. What could possibly be more opposite!?
During my first year of Feldenkrais® training, I discovered that it was not a good idea for me to take ballet class at all during training segments. It was too confusing. I recognized that taking class reinforced familiar patterns that the Method was helping me to soften. Those patterns were so ingrained, so bossy, that I couldn’t access new, subtly different options right beside them. If I wanted to grow, to expand the ways I could move and be in the world, I had to let the familiar habits recede, essentially by not practicing them.
It was the first time in 35 years that I had gone a whole month without taking ballet class. I cried! But I knew I had to allow that part of myself – the patterns I had worked diligently on for decades – to fade, in order to find more about myself.
What I did not realize as I grieved my “dancer” self-image, was that I wasn’t leaving her behind, I was simply making room for more of myself. My whole self could then include the dancer, and improve the dancer, along with a repertoire of new possibilities for supporting her, for making dancing feel good again.
Of course, when I came back to ballet class, I was thrilled with the new ease and flow I found in my technique. Suddenly, taking class wasn’t just a virtuous task I felt required to keep up – it was more joyful than it had been in years. I was an older dancer already, but I found movement possibilities I hadn’t used in a long time, with significantly less pain and more joy.
As I realized how much the Feldenkrais Method® was helping my dancing, I naturally began to think about how to integrate its principles into my ballet teaching. I wanted to help dancers to learn more easily, to avoid injury, and to simply enjoy it all more.
I have taught ballet to dancers at all levels – children, adults, amateurs, pre-professionals, and professionals. Regardless of level or age, they all aspire to be better ballet dancers. And often all that “aspiration,” – the desire to work hard and never make mistakes – can actually interfere with dancing better.
I remember being young and wanting to dance more than anything in the world. I just knew I had to try as hard as possible, all the time, ignoring the internal messages that could have pointed me toward a more effective, easier way. I had fully internalized a definition of hard work which implied that, for a movement to be “good,” it must require enormous muscular effort. This is a common sensibility among dancers in classical ballet.
I recognize now that many habits that I thought were helpful and correct, were actually obstructing my ability to do what I wanted, and contributed to chronic dysfunction and pain.
The intensity of classical ballet training brings dancers to amazing virtuosity, peak human performance. This peak of human potential can move an audience, conveying something deeply human. But it’s also true that the training model is often deeply dehumanizing, especially at a moment where extreme flexibility and athleticism are in vogue. The rigor and repetition in pre-professional training can guide the dancer to the highest heights of their potential, but can also destroy the very instrument of expression.
Taking the time for the kind of investigative learning we do in Feldenkrais® would have seemed impossible to me as a young dancer. It seems to go against everything I had been taught to believe about what it took to dance at my peak level.
But what if I was wrong? What if that internalized discipline – to constantly do more, to work through pain, to discount the messages I was getting from my body – was actually getting in the way of doing what I most wanted to do?
It isn’t the movement itself that’s the problem. It isn’t the turnout, or the jumping, or the alignment of ballet that is inherently damaging. It’s the method of transmission that frequently makes it so. Intentionally or not, dancers internalize the message that the ability to endure physical pain, constant critique, and sometimes full on abuse without complaint is the hallmark of professionalism. Dancers don’t learn how to recognize the difference between a healthy challenge that’s necessary for growth, and damaging pressure. We conflate rigor and discomfort with virtue, and mimicry with learning. These messages become our work habits.
I believe the principles of the Feldenkrais Method® can counteract this in the ballet studio, and can improve dancers’ health, physically and mentally. There are, of course, many movement principles learned through ATM® that can be translated into ballet technique, and that initially was where I focused on integrating Feldenkrais and ballet.
But the longer I teach, the more I recognize that it is the deeper pedagogical principles of the Feldenkrais Method® that could really transform ballet education. These are themes Moshe Feldenkrais comes back to repeatedly in his Awareness Through Movement® lessons. Three of these themes that recur often in my teaching are: finding gravity, practicing with self-observation rather than judgment, and exploring both sides of the body with respect for one’s natural asymmetry. Here is how I have come to think about these principles in my work:
Gravity is not the enemy: Ballet dancers are taught that they should ‘defy gravity.’ I say, great dancers don’t defy gravity, great dancers are geniuses of gravity! And to become a genius of gravity, you have to study it, – to study how it actually feels in your body to find the most efficient pathway for gravity to pass through you, and how to organize yourself to use gravity to help you get where you are going. That is what gives great dancers the appearance of ease – they have found the most effective way to use gravity. In order to discover this, you have to let go of your assumptions about what you should do, and find what is actually going on. For many dancers, this is a difficult thing, because it involves letting go of what they have worked so hard to learn. But, when they find their genius in gravity, everything they want is much closer than they thought!
It’s OK to dance badly: Sometimes I want students to completely let go of trying to do something well. Instead, I prompt them not to worry, to be OK with doing it poorly. This frees them from spending so much attention on what’s NOT going well, what is a deficit, and instead focus on what is actually happening in their dancing. Usually, the result is that their performance of the material is objectively better – because they stop interfering with what they do, and instead just do it.
There’s no “good” side or “bad” side: Again, this is about letting go, letting go of assumptions or beliefs, and of the idea that your two sides should work in exactly the same way. In ballet, we do value the symmetry of movement. The ideal is that you can do movement equally well on both sides or in both directions. But doing it equally well is not the same as doing the same exact thing from side to side. You don’t have “good” and “bad” sides, you simply have two different sides. Allowing dancers to explore and feel the true difference between standing on the right leg and standing on the left, and taking the time to develop a strategy for each, creates the conditions for better execution of movement on either side.
These are primary pillars in my teaching, the touchstones I come back to regularly in my ballet classes. They necessarily look different in a beginning class than in an advanced class. But the principles translate. The Feldenkrais Method has given me language and a framework for what I was already inclined to do: to help students investigate, observe, and trust their own bodies. The principles help dancers develop the rigor and discipline of attention, rather than willpower and force. Training attention in this way gives each dancer tools to maximize their own progress, in technique and expression.
In many institutions of ballet education, there are hard questions being asked about how we make training less damaging. There’s a lot of thought going into improving dancers’ health and well-being in the studio. At this moment, I’m inspired by Dr. Feldenkrais’ aim to “restore each person to their human dignity.” For me, dignity means trusting and valuing one’s whole self, and recognizing when we’re making choices. I re-learned that through the Feldenkrais Method. The best discovery of all was that ballet and the Feldenkrais Method® are not opposites.Excelling in ballet will always be physically and emotionally challenging, it will always require self-discipline. I believe a Feldenkrais approach can provide a path to discovering a more humane training model, that values both the bodies and the souls of dance artists.
“What I’m after isn’t flexible bodies, but flexible brains. What I’m after is to restore each person to their human dignity. “
– Moshe Feldenkrais
Emily Stein, GCFP, MFA, is a veteran of Chicago’s dance scene, dancing, choreographing, and teaching. She teaches ballet technique, anatomy, and Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement® at the Dance Center of Columbia College, and is on faculty in the Joffrey Academy’s Adult/Open Division. Emily also teaches public Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement® classes, and maintains a private practice working with individual clients, both dancers and “civilians.” For many years, she danced and choreographed with Zephyr Dance, performing and presenting work locally and nationally. Her website is: https://www.emilysteinfeldenkrais.com Her dance website is: emilysteindance.com