On the Ground

Swell Season

By Susan Lee

I was a wreck when I first arrived at Swell: a Contact Dance Intensive and Eco-Poetic Approach to Improvisation, a workshop presented by Mocean Dance this past June in Halifax. The four-day intensive was led by acclaimed teachers and dancers Chris Aiken and Angie Hauser, American improvisers and dancemakers who currently teach at Smith College in Massachusetts. In the two months preceding the workshop I had been mostly bedridden, unable to eat solid food and too weak to be on my feet for more than a few hours a day. I couldn’t speak because of the painful canker sores in my mouth. The rules of the game had somehow changed – recovery did not follow rest. I rested and rested and rested and still I couldn’t speak, falling down from dizziness and crawling to my bed because of fatigue. I was frustrated by the breakdown of my body, and angry and disheartened by my inability to heal. Three weeks before the workshop I was taken to emergency for IV rehydration and pain relief. And now I came to dance – or to observe, in case I could not dance.

But funnily enough I could dance. Somehow, over the course of the workshop my body and spirit began to heal. By the end of the workshop I could speak with less pain, eat solid food and dance more than I had thought possible. Two weeks after the workshop, I was still improving.

During those four days in Halifax the twelve of us worked on shaping attention, gestures of intention, the dialogue of the body in relationship to gravity, spinal integration, and researched the ecological relationships of our dancemaking with the world. We cultivated an awareness of how our connective tissues feed information to the interior architectures of our bodies. We danced many scores, watched each other, fed each other, carried each other and shared. We created a fluid intentional community for those four days. You know, the usual.

So how did attending this workshop help me to heal? I could simply posit that I love to dance and to do what I love is healing. I could say that a big part of improvisation is listening to one’s body and deepening one’s experience of “now”. “Beginner’s mind” is cultivated, and if one quiets one’s mind, one can find infinite space – space to create, to be and to heal. I could also say that letting my parents (who live in Halifax) take care of me like I was a child by feeding me soft foods and driving me to the workshop was a factor in the healing.

But in my fanciful mind, I feel that what really helped was dancing the idea of eco-poetics. Chris and Angie proposed that we approach improvisation by cultivating our ability to see ourselves as part of the web of nature and the human ecosystems of culture, history and socio-political forces. Our bodies are micro-systems that absorb and are in relationship to those influences over time. We dance in relationship to gravity and our histories, in an intricately reciprocal relationship between creating and responding.

I love the work because it connects me to the world and locates me in time and space. Somehow, by nudging my body towards those connections I became aware of the circles of communities I belong to – overlapping sets and subsets of people over time like a four-dimensional Venn diagram. I was in Halifax (my hometown), surrounded by family, dancing with old friends and new ones. The interweaving of kinship and history created a web of support I felt in my body that allowed me to surrender to healing.

Fanciful yes, but real nonetheless.

In the months since the workshop my health has improved slowly, but steadily. I don’t fall down anymore (except when I choose to), the cankers are less virulent and if I rest a lot I can more or less function. The reason for my illness continues to be a mystery to my doctors and naturopath and we are still working towards making me stronger and less fatigued. When struggling with a prolonged illness, it’s easy to feel isolated. I think the lasting benefit of this workshop is that it reminds me to connect with my friends and family, my garden or with my body in movement when I am depressed or ill. Acknowledging that – sometimes invisible – web of connection helps me realize that all I need to do right now is take a deep breath and be. The rest will take care of itself.


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