Reframing thinking bodies in dance

Somatic practices as dance and choreographic research?
Somatic practices have been established as a Western dance discipline for almost a century, however, defining ‘how and what we do when we practice somatics’ is still cloaked in ambiguity. I dedicate my practice-based PhD-research in dance to reviewing this discipline. My goal is to better understand how to integrate somatics as a reliable resource for investigating improvised and choreographed dancing as research. I ground my current understanding of somatic practices on ten years of dance experience in different somatic practices and on literature studies (see Attachments 2 and 6). Since 2016, I reconsider somatic practices as a specific form of dance research through my self-developed somatic practice named Nervous Systems. To investigate somatic practices as a specific form of artistic dance research, I approach the practice as an epistemic activity. In other words, I question what methods in the practice allow for which kind of knowledge production to be produced and exchanged.

Somatics has been defined as a ‘field which studies the soma: namely, the body as perceived from within by first-person perception’ (Hanna, 1986: 1). More precisely, it is an analytical study in the sense of studying perception, experience, and action as a mental moral and social agency; a pragmatic study by its methodologies to improve mindfulness and embodiment; and a pragmatic study by applying and testing with our own experiences in practice (Shusterman, 2005: 423). Somatic practices, as a discipline for movement and dance learning, relies on a fixed structure (visualization, micro-movement, improvisation, verbalizing) and can have differing functions (movement therapy, dance therapy, formalist movement analysis, wellness and embodiment in dance, etc.).

‘Mindfulness in movement’ is one of the key concepts of somatic practices (Ginot, 2010). It refers to the self-inward directed awareness or introspection used in the practices in the form of visualization exercises and introspective dances. These exercises are considered pragmatic strategies to improve more careful, attentive, penetrating, and precise awareness of sensations and experiences in movement and dance. However, research on somatic epistemology has confirmed that these key concepts are too vague and are therefore unreliable references for constructing general claims about the nature of somatic dance practices as dance research (Parviainen, 2002; Eddy, 2009; Ginot, 2010). I have to be careful in my research and not overidentification somatic practices with essentialist terminology, in the sense of fundamental principles. First, because any terminology only reduces the wide range of embodied cognitive states, experiences, sensations and feelings that are the building blocks in the knowledge production of somatic practices. Second, because a semantic analysis of somatic practices too easily invites a Cartesian understanding of the practices coordinated by dichotomies such as experiencing and thinking, practicing and theorizing, dancing and not-dancing, etc.

Diving deeper into the classical science of introspection and mindfulness, studies repeatedly argue that observation of a conscious states is difficult, not to say fallible. Not only because of the loss of meaning due to transforming experiences into language, but also cause of a temporal divide (Shusterman, 2005: 424; Varela et al., 2016: 275). The epistemic problem of somatic practices is thus situated in the re-languaging or translation of experiences and the latency of this reflective process. In somatic practices, this means that a dancer always investigates his/her/their experiential dance knowledge in retrospect, because introspection is by definition retrospection. This also immediately implies somatic dancing as dance research presupposes that its practitioners can hold onto or grasp the dance. Am I then still investigating dance through the somatic method, when the practice structurally divides the dance improvisation from the experiential reflective narration and breaks with the traditional ontology of dancing as an ephemeral creative expression through movement?

Antithetical principles of somatic practices as dance research
Somatic informed dance is considered more effective in its knowledge production when it is practiced by a calm soloist, who focuses on oneself and follows the flow of movement with a continuous and slow dynamic. The rationale behind this principle says that slowing down movements equally slows down the experiencing during the execution of these movements. This is a problematic strategy for a series of reasons. First, it imposes a value system onto movement- and psychodynamics, politicizing movement qualities in a practice that is grounded by its founders, and often still by current practitioners, in a naturalist or holist philosophy (Ginot, 2010; Cvejic, 2019). Second, the strategy contradicts the principles, because the tempo, duration and intensity of our experiences have no parallel relation. If this would be the case, optimized conscious awareness of dance experiences would only be possible during not-dancing.

The second principle dear to somatic practices that I want to address is the production of first-person verbal narratives on dance (in often non-native English) while sitting in a circle. These monologues have value as therapeutic and artistic materials due to their largely self-referencing and non-verifiable nature. However, study on somatic introspection by Richard Shusterman explained the default of these reflective exercises: ‘such reflective reporting requires descriptive or classificatory language; our introspective observation can error not only in misremembering but also in misdescribing what it perceives’ (Shusterman, 2005: 424-5). In other words, verbal reflections are miscommunicating the tacit and often-oblique experiences in dancing: they ‘de-scribe’ or ‘sub-scribe’ what is instantaneous, spontaneous and foremost embed in the flow of dancing. This principle thus adds to the difficulty of legitimizing somatic dances as a form of artistic practice-based dance research.

It has become clear that some (if not all) of the principles of somatic practices produce an elusive or solipsist dance subject that dance theorist and dramaturge André Lepecki describes as, ‘a dancer who is usually associated with the Cartesian project of a self-motivated, self-referential production of truth that places the solitary subject of discourse at the center and limit of that truth’ (Lepecki, 2006: 38). In accordance with Lepecki’s description, somatic practitioners seem solitary researchers in group practices whose experiential knowledge in dance is limited by their language expressions. Thus far, my investigation of the structure and principles of somatic practices is not hopeful for considering these practices epistemic dance activities. Nevertheless, I reengage with my analysis and approach somatic practices with a different research strategy: a study of somatic practices in terms of a self-sustaining autopoietic system, a closed self-organizing system for the emergence of dance knowledge

Researching somatic practices as a closed system of cognition
I propose a study of somatic dance practices in terms of an autopoietic system as defined by Humberto Maturana (Maturana et al., 1979). Dance research by means of autopoietic analysis focuses on the internal relationships of the principles, and not on their value or output. This means that my research is no longer focusing on if and how somatic practicing produces dance knowledge but explores the experiences and processes in somatic practices as dance knowing in and of itself. There is thus no other outside goal to the practice because the practitioner and the practice both play an equal part in the self-sustaining cognitive system. The positive consequences are that somatic practices are no longer defined by preconceived ideas such as ‘mindfulness’ or ‘extended awareness’. Further, it allows me to reconsider the rather docile or passive agency of the practitioner/s in the practice, as in the autopoietic approach the dance research subject emerges from the system through interacting or ‘enacting’ the knowledge operations of the practice. In other words, the somatic dance subject enacts experiential dance knowledge through practicing.

Before further situating the enactivist paradigm, I make this autopoietic approach more concrete with an example. Dance scholar Thomas Kampe analyzed the systemic dynamic and decision-making processes in the Feldenkrais practice ‘Awareness through Movement’ (Kampe, 2016). Kampe opens his article describing Mosche Feldenkrais’ approach to his somatic practice: “[in the practice] we find an autopoietic model of a person as an environmental embedded and emergent social organism, and his non-corrective and anti-totalitarian stance towards embodied questioning as a ‘principle of non-principles” (Kampe, 2016: 4). In other words, an autopoietic approach to somatic practices could allow my research to avoid the hermetic nature of somatic dance knowledge.