Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Embodied Education

I’m currently wrapping up teaching spring semester at Middlebury College.  As a freelance choreographer and dancer who is blessed right now to hold a temporary academic position, my mind frequently ricochets between the fortune of my temporary financial stability and the oppression of working for a private school that exemplifies the problematic American capitalist education system. 
Though I could easily dedicate this blog to the anger that arises in me from witnessing privilege, cloaked as education, I will instead focus it on what I learned this year from the subject matter I engaged in with my students.  For though the system is deeply flawed, individual students, conversations, and colleagues, continuously rose above the party line this spring and reminded me that education is on-going for all of us.

When the semester started I thought I was teaching 2 classes that would have little cross over; Anatomy/Kinesiology, and a course I designed called Ethics/Aesthetics/Body(I also taught advanced technique, choreographed a solo on a Sr  Dance Major, advised two Sr thesis projects, performed my own solo work locally and internationally, danced as a guest artist with Richard Move, and choreographed a few scenes for a film… but those experiences are for other blogs)

These two classes, one on how we feel, articulate, and move the gross matter of our bodies, and one on how we perceive, judge and value ourselves and each other, seemed highly oppositional when I made the syllabi.  The ethics course is deeply rooted in my graduate research into gender representation, which is a field that looks at everything one does as evidence of gender expression, but decidedly does not engage biology in the discussion.  Anatomy/Kinesiology is designed to explore the opposite, not what we do with our raced/gendered/(dis)abled bodies, but what we are; energy organized into mass, saturated with sensation, separated into muscles, bones, connective tissue, and systems with fancy names.

But as the semester wore on I noticed that while the readings and discussions may have been based in different disciplines, the point of the teaching was the same.  I kept coming back to one thing; what do you see or experience so regularly that it is invisible to you?  

In Anatomy/Kinesiology I found that many students had never considered their bodies except for on occasions when they were injured.  Most of them had no concept of the beauty and complexity of the physical systems they utilize everyday to get from bed to class.  All of us develop physical habits that simplify our mind/body connection. These habits can be extremely helpful or extremely detrimental to our well being, but unless we know what we are doing (from slouching, to always standing with our weight on our left leg, to grinding our teeth) and that there are other options, we cannot determine the number of choices we are denying ourselves.  It is impossible to see the value of our body’s intelligence when we are entirely attached to the way we have patterned our selves through repetition

Repetition is also what transforms our various gender performances into our sense of self.  Repetition of the practice of confidence or victimization creates our personality and our concept of our role in the world.  Culture’s repetitions in the form of mass-media-marketing-strategies, capitalist government systems that support a particular family structure, and the on-going struggle for equal wages for equal work among different classes, genders, nationalities and races of people, create assumptions for all of us within a system of, “the way things are.”  Unconsciously, we fit ourselves into these systems and pattern ourselves in line with, or against their standards.  In this value-laden conception of self, we again cannot determine the value of our heart’s intelligence, and/or our attachments to the way we have patterned our selves through both conscious and unconscious repetition, until we can see that our habits are actually choices. 

Frequently in my years of teaching dance related subjects, I have found that the best of what I have to offer the students I work with comes from my 18-year (and counting) study of vinyasa yoga.  This semester proved to be no exception, in fact Hinduism, Buddhism and Yoga even have a single word for this shockingly interdisciplinary habitual body/mind; Samskara. 

Samskara defines physical and mental patterning as not only the product of this lifetime, but a response to the accumulation of multiple lifetimes of habit building.  Whether or not you believe in reincarnation, the habits of multiple lifetimes are surely what create the cultural/social traditions that enmesh, condition and define us.  Samskara explains how the habits of consciousness we develop in this lifetime, which manifest as our physical posture, intertwine with cultural, raced, gendered, classed memory causing our bodies and minds to be subjected to infinitely more unconscious instructions than conscious ones.

Whether we are talking about tucking our pelvis under as a weakness in our lower back and strain on our hip flexors, or a conditioned response to being told that our butt is too big to be in a certain kind of dance class, we are talking about a detrimental physical/mental habit that the practitioner needs to become aware of, before they can respond to it in a healthy way.  If the realization of pelvic miss-alignment comes through a conversation about the relationship between the curved sacrum and pelvis or an articulation of the lingering Western European dominance in popular dance and marketing aesthetics, it doesn’t really matter.  What the student needs to do is to pause their habitual reactions to what they are experiencing long enough to actually feel their own pelvis.  Where is it right now?

Why am I doing what I am doing?” is an excellent question, but useless, unless one first knows what they are doing and that, more often than not, it is a choice.

One cannot make a change unless one knows where one is to begin with.  That requires listening, feeling, and not holding on so tightly to what you think you know that you cannot see that, "you are a victim of the rules you live by." (Jenny Holzer). 

Our embodied experience is contextual and always in motion.  The body's inescapability as our main sensory means of experiencing the world we live in, and its constant state of change, can teach us that mental constructs such as Right/Wrong, Good/Bad, Beautiful/Ugly are also contextual concepts. 

It is interesting to teach in a liberal arts institution.  There are a lot of ideas bouncing around.  But in terms of giving the students an opportunity to actually learn something, I am increasingly grateful that I teach an embodied discipline... mostly so that I don't need to justify teaching meditation.   All this liberal arts education is pretty useless with out enough space in it for students to occasionally pause and witness the journey they are on. It is through this understanding, that we are all changing constantly, and that all of life is a process, that students will be able to manifest their own power to contribute to/conduct that flow. 

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