Understanding a Centre Between Ground and Sky

Reflections on Aikido and Dance By Colleen Snell

Before my first Aikido class began, I sat in seiza, my lower legs bent beneath me. I felt vulnerable and uncertain. I felt vaguely as if I were trespassing, bearing witness to a powerful and enigmatic ritual. Dressed in a white practice keikogi, I was ready to fall, to stand, to focus. I was ready to look like a complete fool.

Clean calm blue, quiet. Clean, calm blue.
We were given white clothes told left over right, knotted them fumbling
Vulnerable, wide-eyed small among tall people with wide feet, deep roots.
Waiting for the class to happen to me, waiting for me to
Happen to it.
Fresh, un-skinned.
We clapped warmed up breathing moving together.
We took practice swords; I introduced my hands to mine, then together
Falling folding
Elbows knees and limbs.
Being wrapped in being.
Feeling warm and resonant, digesting
Deeply calm, clean, blue.

- September 22nd, 2010, written following my first Aikido lesson

Before my first Aikido class began, I sat in seiza, my lower legs bent beneath me. I felt vulnerable and uncertain. I felt vaguely as if I were trespassing, bearing witness to a powerful and enigmatic ritual. Dressed in a white practice keikogi, I was ready to fall, to stand, to focus. I was ready to look like a complete fool. It was a wonderful feeling, as it had been a long time since something completely unexpected happened to me in physical practice. Indeed, I have been dancing since the age of four. To say dance has influenced my life would be a considerable understatement. Over the years, my physical responses have become trained, even outside of the dance studio. I have been taught to see my body as a “dance” body: a flexing coil of neurons and muscle. Sometimes it is a mechanical device that can be objectively assessed for strengths and weaknesses; sometimes it is the song of Walt Whitman’s body electric, seen from within and illuminated by the vibrancy of kinaesthetic awareness. Even at rest, my body is a dance body. Paradoxically, I have been dancing for so long I sometimes forget how to think of it as anything else. As I continue to study dance, to embody dance, I have begun to see the limits of my perspective, and to respond by seeking physical training in new contexts.

My first class at the Tetsushinkan Dojo left me with enduring afterimages, both tangible and ineffable. Above all I felt possibility stirring … the possibility of moving to a primarily functional body, in contrast to my experience of an aesthetic body. In Aikido, an uke “attacks” by striking or holding a tori, the “defender”, although these roles can become quite fluid. The tori uses their technique in a “throw”, or to bring their partner safely to the ground. In practicing Aikido I have begun to understand how to manage my energetic state; consequently, my body can absorb a strike, or mutate and shift to find space around a hold. As I continued training, I began to challenge my identity, my concept of self and my understanding of my own capabilities. The learning process inspired me. I finally felt I was receiving the tools I needed to pragmatically respond to some of the “dance problems” I had been pondering. This in turn transformed my experience of technique class, contact improvisation and creative practice. It has dynamically influenced how I see myself as a dance artist, a martial artist, and indeed, a self in the world. In learning Aikido I have constructed a new, if ephemeral, Aikido “body”. More than a set of complementary trained physical responses, this is a holistic embodiment practice - a new way of being in the world.


Aikido embodiment is a state: a somatic sense of moving from the centre, or tanden. The tanden is the body’s centre of gravity, located below the navel. This is an area dancer and Aikidoist Sasha Roubicek calls a “focal point for breathing” in her article for the Journal of Dance and Somatic Science (2009). Exhalation provokes the reflex to inhale, and as we inhale, the diaphragm descends and compresses our organs, which move outwards. In Aikido, breathing is generative, linked closely with the will to survive. It is this force of spirit, anchored in the body, which is the root of movement. The tanden is an expression of ki energy. Kisshomaru Ueshiba, son of Aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba, describes the tanden as “inseparable from breath-power” in “The Spirit of Aikido”. This is Aikido embodiment at its most basic, and it is this understanding that has triggered a change in my physical awareness.

Unlike traditional dance training, Aikido practice has challenged my way of being - both within and outside of studio practice. While dancing I would struggle with technique and corrections - sometimes leaving the studio exalted by my achievement or discouraged by what I perceived to be a lack of progress. During my Aikido lessons I began to realize class was not only training my body. I was learning bushido, a way of being a non-violent warrior. In Aikido and the New Warrior (1985) Bob Aubrey states the purpose of Aikido training is to work towards the “victory of peace”. This peace is internal harmony, it is responding to stress and emergency with calm confidence. Thus my understanding of embodiment, although it began in Aikido practice, became obvious to me as I considered my sense of self between classes. This was a larger self - not a variation of how I held my self in esteem. It was a new way of considering my physical body and indeed a new way of being myself rather than a new way of looking at myself.

Clearly this way of being has relevance in the context of artistic performance and creation, particularly in situations of great stress where emotional resilience is required. After an evening Aikido class, I feel the “residue” of my practice when I dance the next day. In class I meet variations on the same corrections - corrections I have received so many times I have come to think of them as prosaic dilemmas of contemporary technique. These hackneyed phrases include “move from your pelvis”, “feel grounded” and “pay attention to your breathing”. There is a reason these phrases are repeated - but it is has been difficult to respond to them. Aikido has begun to give me the tools to take action, to build my tanden and understand how to move from it. I now understand my centre as a “physical” place, that is, how it relates to physics as a centre of gravity, not only how it relates to anatomy as a muscular area. In dance I have been distracted by abdominal contraction, seeking to engage the transverse abdominis and rectus abdominis and to fortify the internal and external obliques. Centering in Aikido builds the tanden as an organic place, heavy and powerful. It is a massive region to be expanded, not only contracted.

The tanden is also a poetic place; it frames the way I interface with space. In technique I now have the choice to contract or expand my centre; my body is available to mutate in the moment, to modulate energetically. This engagement of centre has opened me to the possibility of malleability, and to the importance of dynamism and nuance in movement. I have learned I can absorb with my centre, not only “contract and hold” my abdominals, or simply “drop” the weight of my pelvis. I can eat space as I press outward. This kind of engagement has enabled me to see a great depth of possibility. I can open or close my centre, throw it through space, lift it out of my hips, release it or rebound it through the balls of my feet into the floor. Thus, I have discovered I can intuitively engage with my centre. This sense of choice in movement has begun to build itself from a non-verbal place within me, layer upon layer. It animates codified movement phrases vibrantly in the moment as I navigate through them, dynamically choosing from a repertoire of available responses.

Aikido and Contact Improvisation

Being movement, rather than consciously trying to manipulate it, has also had a tremendous impact on my decision-making process in dance, especially within the context of contact improvisation. It is within this framework that Aikido first appeared manifestly applicable to dance, not only in terms of pragmatic technique, but also poetically. Perhaps this should have been evident given contact improvisation founder Steve Paxton developed aspects of his technique from Aikido training. Improvisation emphasizes the lived process rather than the achievement of a product. This phrase is wonderfully similar to my discovery of experiencing rather than manipulating, or working without looking at myself. It is the process - not the product - that dictates the outcome of any creative endeavour, indeed of any life-affirming activity. Thus my work in improvisation has shifted from improving my execution of future repertoire to a focus on my decision-making in the moment, much like responding to a situation in Aikido. Much of my understanding of centre was discovered in this context.

As I began to build my tanden, I became more capable of sensing my partners’ centres as well, and grew better at engaging with them while maintaining the integrity of my own intent. Many of my partners remarked I was “strong”, but this was not bristling muscular force, it was increased efficiency and focus. With my Aikido embodiment I could decide to use my centre to support or resist oncoming force, as in lifts, or to soften into someone and feel my centre of gravity abandon control as it left the floor. Increased choice and the power of centering has given me a heightened sense of self-assurance, which now enables me to take risks more confidently, trusting myself to respond safely if I hit the floor. There is new freshness to my dialogue with others. During improvisation I feel more in contact with the “essence” of others’ being; I am more capable of listening to their intentions. I predict my relationship with others - both dancers and non-dancers - will continue to evolve as I study Aikido. I have yet to fully comprehend how to assume responsibility for my own movement - versus trying to “make something happen” to another person. Although my short study of Aikido practice has enabled me to understand how to move more intuitively and to no longer look at myself in movement, I believe working to realize this same transition regarding a partner remains a rich area to explore.

On Being in the World

Aikido continues to fascinate me with its ability to transmit knowledge of being an integrated whole. Aikido techniques are at once functional and transformative. They have improved my efficiency while imbuing my movement with meaning. Aikido practice has been not only a gateway to embodiment, but also a way of relating to others as integrated beings, through eye contact, touch and focus. It is not surprising then to realize that by synthesizing improvisation, dance technique and Aikido practice, I have begun to develop a deeper understanding of the somatic possibilities inherent within my choreography. My practice now stresses how I experience embodiment and how I create a sense of myself to generate movement from within. Again, I am no longer looking at myself. Furthermore, I can now recognize this same shift of understanding is reflected in much larger paradigm shifts in contemporary dance making. I see my transition apparent in how I am drawn to CI, Fulkerson’s release technique and Ohad Naharin’s Gaga. All of these examples parallel the meeting of Aikido and dance, working from both literally and figuratively a “new centre” - the individual’s subjective experience of movement.

Focus, centring, breathing and dancing … Aikido is permeating everything I do. It has changed how I drink a class of water (dropping my elbow to increase efficiency) and how I stand in the subway (centre dropped low for stability). Small details like these are of great importance. More dramatically, in December I was attacked from behind as I arrived home late one night. A middle-aged man had seen me take money from a cash machine, and in desperation, grabbed my bag. We struggled and he prevailed, running away with my bag. Getting to my feet, I pursued him, and he stopped, emptying the contents of my purse on the pavement. He was quite threatening, and while the street was deserted, I nevertheless felt calm descend. I spoke to him quietly, telling him where to find my money. He took thirty-five pounds and left me my camera, my wallet and my notebooks. Excepting a scraped knee, I was unharmed. At first as I reflected on this experience, I felt disappointed and afraid. I was disappointed because I had not produced an Aikido technique; I did not use a method I had learned to bring my attacker to the ground. And yet, I have come to see I did use Aikido to defend myself. In a situation of urgency and stress I acted non-violently, simultaneously discovering an intense calm and a presence bristling with awareness. I did not stand outside myself; I acted intuitively from a centre I previously had not known.

Aikido is not something to be practiced and then hermetically divided from other experience. On the contrary, Aikido is a practice that cultivates the relationship of the self in the world. As an embodied individual, the only way to make sense of this new information is creatively. For several months now I have been working on choreographing as a whole, researching and exploring the somatic qualities of movement around the theme of survival. I have tried to understand the generative force of martial arts through my own story as a Canadian. I gravitate to the distinctiveness captured in Margaret Atwood’s quintessential book, Survival (1972). Describing Canadian identity, Atwood offers:
“Our stories are likely to be tales not of those who made it but of those who made it back, from the awful experience - the North, the snowstorm, the sinking ship - that killed everyone else. The survivor has no triumph or victory but the fact of his survival; he has little after his ordeal that he did not have before, except gratitude for having escaped with his life.” (para. 14).

This resonates within the context of Aikido practice, where there is no reward other than the continuation of training and there is no “winner”, there is only survival. To creatively reinforce my exploration of survival, I have employed imagery inspired by Aikido. With the support of four wonderful dancers, I have worked on filling and emptying the body with energy and breath, using this force to animate the dancers’ relationships and charge the space. I no longer see the dancers as mere physical entities, but integrated somas. Together we are attempting to create visual poetry through imaginative self-experience. Thus, my experience of Aikido has led me to understand the integrated self in a broader context while deepening my personal and cultural identity.

Since my first class at the Tetsushinkan Dojo in September 2010, much has changed. I have explored a functional body, energetic and integrated, both separate from and linked to my concept of myself as a dancer. I have enriched my identity and my understanding of my own capabilities. This in turn has transformed my experience of technique class, contact improvisation and creative choreographic practice. Aikido work has dynamically influenced how I see myself in the world at large, not just as a dance artist, but also as a martial artist. With the ephemeral embodiment of a “new warrior” I have seen Aikido’s potential to act as a gateway to the larger Gestalt, as a whole that is more than the sum of its teaching methods and training. I can now appreciate Aikido as a way of living with ritual, dignity and respect. While Aikido certainly has offered me solid strategies to “improve” my dance, I now understand “improvement” is not the intention. I am beginning to appreciate a new centeredness that validates my own experience of my movement - that my esteem must be holistic and internal not exteri
r to myself. Thus my introduction to Aikido practice has had a profound impact on my self, a resonance that has less to do with movement and more to do with a powerful understanding of not what I do, but how I am centered in the space between ground and sky.

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