The Somatic Practice and Chronic Pain AHRC-funded network explores what somatic practices, such as Alexander technique and Feldenkrais, offer to people living with chronic pain. Somatic practices work with self-reflection on movement habits and opening up movement capacity, and have been integrated into many dance and theatre training programmes. In this network, we ask: how might the principles of these somatic movement practices be of value in supporting people living with pain? We also consider how the experience of working together can inform the practices of health professionals and dance artists, such as how they use touch and language.
In this series of two blog posts, we will firstly give an overview of some of the topics that we have explored to date in the hope that this may be of value to theatre and dance practitioners who work with health and/or live with pain. In the second blog post, we share our experiences of working across disciplines and reach out to readers to tell us about your experiences of 1) how you have worked across performing arts and health 2) how you have worked with pain through theatre and performing arts techniques. We aim to develop a larger project from the network in the longer term on somatic practices and pain, so your viewpoints, concerns and ideas will support this process. By posting on the TDPT blog, we want to interrogate arts-based perspectives on health topics, and also acknowledge that many performers suffer pain and injury throughout their career.
The network operates currently through a series of small and focused workshops to invite exchanges between researchers and practitioners in health, dance, and digital technologies. The first workshop focused on defining somatic practices through discussion and movement, thinking through how the practices might be understood by health professionals; and how they might support pain management. We also gathered opinions on somatics, chronic pain, assessment, and treatment. This was to gauge an initial understanding of members attitudes, for example on working across disciplines; or on observing/describing bodily movement as a form of pain assessment.
The second workshop theme was ‘dialogues across disciplines’, which included presentations and hands on sessions from dance, somatic practices, psychology, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, and nursing. Topics covered include the relationship between somatics and psychology; systematic reviews and arts based research methods; working with children in pain; qualities of touch in patient care; along with ideas of physical and social support in pain management.
The next workshop will focus on the role digital technologies could play in sharing somatic work with a wider number of people, such as those who cannot travel or have not yet accessed treatments. This is important since so much somatic work is currently only available in fee paying, one to one sessions, that exclude a large number of people. This workshop will also explore the different ways we could utilise technology, whether for patients to practice alone or to develop creative ways of expressing pain to family members and staff. In addition, there are impact and public engagement events such as an introductory session for pain management staff; and in future there will be a workshop for dance artists working with their own or other peoples pain.
Central to the network is the enquiry into how to work across disciplines. As dance and health professionals come together, it is clear that we come from epistemologically different starting points. The way we use language is embedded in distinct frames of being and, typically, approaches to research tend to arise from differently framed research questions. Touch, movement and physical interaction in our disciplines arise from belief systems informed by the contexts we work within. Core to our network is valuing each other’s knowledge and expertise, using the meetings as opportunities to expand our horizons, challenge assumptions and think in new ways about our practice and praxis. Ultimately this brings surprises, new ideas and questions.
In the next post, you will find the voices of the two people leading the network, dance researcher Emma Meehan and professor of children’s nursing Bernie Carter. We share personal experiences of working on the network, and at the end will turn the invitation back to you to share your own experiences of working with dance and theatre training techniques in health contexts; and in working with pain.
Emma Meehan: As a dance researcher, I have felt quite protective of somatic work and dance research methods. In health-led studies on somatics in chronic pain, often a practitioner has been brought in to deliver movement material rather than shape the research. This has left me wondering how to integrate dance and somatic researchers into the design of the study so it is collaboratively created. I have also queried why static measurements are taken of a complex movement process and what information is missing from this. However, being part of the network has made me see that health researchers face the same frustrations of wanting to do person-centred research, responding to traditional criteria and formats for credibility and ultimately to ensure that their findings get embedded in health institutions in the long term. I have learned the value of thinking through in a step by step manner some of the restrictions inherent within health settings and the need to make a clearer case for the work to be taken on board.
It has been much easier to engage dance artists and researchers in the network. Healthcare professionals can have last-minute work emergencies which means it can be difficult to commit. Somatic work can be hard to explain, so for those unfamiliar with it, it might seem like an unnecessary addition to an already full workload. At the same time, we have had a stable core group of health researchers and professionals, who are already curious or committed to the area. How do we bring in people who might be sceptical and challenge us? This has meant going into the healthcare setting, and adapting the material to time slots available, such as offering a pre-work morning session for staff at the Walton Centre Pain Management Programme in Liverpool. While there was interest, I realised that there is a need to match the somatic principles to the clinical needs in order for the approach to be better understood. The lived experience of people with pain is another important facet of the work but there are ethical issues when doing health research which need to be considered, such as the potential to do harm and expectations for recovery. We are developing ways to reach people living with pain for their viewpoints through a consultation process.
The main challenge of working across disciplines for me has been in describing and conveying the value of somatic practices to people who have not experienced it before. We have spent a lot of time with network members trying to define these practices, with some comments as follows:
An attempt to open up a conversation with a body (dancer)
Somatic Practices: Easy word + easy word = confusing phrase (writer)
Listening to and working with the whole person – being empathetic, giving time (dance artist)
A form of mindful movement that requires the person to focus on the movement and have an awareness of their body & the movement within the environment (nurse)
Allowing the body to move whilst experiencing the sensation of movement (physio)
Reinforcing the ‘wonderment’ of the body (physio)
Another concern for me is how this network can feed back to and support dance artists, whether they are working in health settings or supporting their own health. It became apparent during the course of the network workshops that chronic pain was a daily experience for many dance practitioners, and I hope the network has something to offer back to them.
Bernie Carter: Despite being published over 50 years ago, many healthcare professionals are familiar with McCaffery’s (1968) statement that “pain is whatever the experiencing person says it is, existing whenever the experiencing person says it does.” However, familiarity with this person-centred statement does not mean that people living with chronic pain are universally believed. Outside of specialist centres or teams with expertise in chronic pain, there also remains a tendency towards a focus on the physical aspects of pain (intensity, duration, sensation). This network tries to bring in physical, emotional and social aspects of pain through dance and health approaches.
My engagement with the network has been a real journey of discovery; it’s been liberating, exciting, confusing, challenging and wonderful. When Emma first spoke to me about being a co-applicant, I was gently sinking under the workload associated with existing research and I was tentative about committing to anything else but I’m so glad I did. Emma has been a good teacher, guiding my early and still developing understanding of somatic practice and laying the foundations for me to learn from the other somatic practitioners I’ve engaged with during the workshops.
My initial reserve about being a non-dancer undertaking movement activities with dancers was overcome by their warmth and absolutely non-judgemental response to how I moved within the activities. My concern about whether I would be doing something right, perhaps reflects a very health-oriented concern. The people I have ‘moved with’ have always been more interested in that ‘we were moving’ and that ‘we were being and experiencing movement together’. It’s a beautiful and liberating thing to experience, and learning about attending to your body has been intriguing. I’ve become more curious about somatic practice and dance and how it can help people with pain. Like Emma, I would love to have had more health professionals attending the workshops but those who have attended have reflected on their practice and have shared their aspirations for enhancing how they care for and support people living with pain.
The physical environment we are in and the props we use shape the way we think and act. Reflecting on this has led me to explore the way in which movement is approached within health and somatic practice/dance. Within health settings, movement activities for pain are often led by physiotherapists who wear uniform and whose environment is typically something like a gym – a place to work out – whereas the somatic practitioners wear looser, less formal clothing and the studios we have used for our activities have been made comfortable with mats, cushions, and blankets with instructions to be comfortable. The difference is palpable.
Although I perhaps expected that tensions in thinking might arise between the two main ‘tribes’ (dancers and health professionals) it’s been fascinating to see the differences in thinking within the tribes (say between nursing and physiotherapy) and between members of these tribes (different somatic practitioners). Some physiotherapists’ focus may be solely on improving mobility and function in a specific part of the body, using a validated, structured and objective intervention for that ‘part’ of the body. Nurses may take a wider more person-centred approach acknowledging the person’s aspirations, goals and the challenges of pain and consider a broader way of working with the person. In terms of somatic practices, people work with a range of distinct methods and individual styles and can describe their work differently.
We would like to ask blog readers to respond through the ‘Comments’ below, describing their work across disciplines of performing arts and health: What have you learned and what has been difficult? How do you describe your work with dance and performer training techniques in health contexts? Finally, as a performing arts professional, have you experienced persistent pain and if so, have you worked with your theatre and dance training techniques to manage it?
On the Practice Exchange Diaries, professor Mark Evans raised a questions for discussion which I hopefully have paraphrased accurately: does the history of a training method affect efficacy? Might the associated history be of benefit or a hindrance?
This question has caused me to reflect on my own practice and teaching of martial arts-related training methods to performing artists.
My basic argument: teaching and learning meihuaquan methods for performers is hampered by the perception of exercise and somatic methods as market products for consumption. The neo-liberal economic logic has transformed much of social and cultural environment into “profane” for-profit commodities that are devoid of notions of “the sacred”. Consumers of products purchase and discard training/somatic practices as they would with market commodities as they lack a deep or “sacred” sense of connection with the practice. To address this issue and increase the effectiveness of training of meihuaquan methods, it may be helpful to try to construct a sense of embeddedness for practitioners so they can understand the practice’s connection to the past and future through the socio-cultural context in which the practice arose.
I am a practitioner
of meihuaquan (plum flower boxing), a form of Chinese martial
arts, commonly found in villages across the North China Plain. After
training in meihuaquan for several years in major urban
centres in China, I began to shift my academic attention to study the
meihuaquan groups that are active in rural communities in
north China. MA and PhD ethnographic field research demonstrated how
participation in meihuaquan activities assist in the
construction of social trust, social cohesion, the creation of civil
society and public sphere. Interviews with village-based
practitioners demonstrate that the history of meihuaquan is
very important to practitioners: historical context inspires them to
train and infuses them with a sense of responsibility to pass the art
to the next generation.
organization and practice approaches of meihuaquan is
characterized by certain features. I will elaborate on this some
other time. Suffice to say that meihuaquan is comprised of two
primary aspects: a wu (武)
martial field/aspect concerned with martial arts training methods,
and a wen (文)
civil field/aspect that functions as a syncretic folk religious
system characterized by distinct initiation rites, cosmological
beliefs, and rituals that are drawn from Chinese philosophical and
religious approaches of Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism.
current Practice Diary Exchange question recently led me to insights
regarding the use of wen and wu as an
organizational structure in meihuaquan. Many
people, myself included, have trouble understanding the significance
of the use of wen and wu as
organizational components in Chinese cultural practices such as
martial arts, music, opera, and dance. What do these ancient concepts
entail and how are they relevant to practice in contemporary society?
In response to such questions, it appears that the implications of
this binary structure are broad reaching. The concepts reflect two
fundamental conditions of society- peace and its opposite condition
of disorder and their interrelationship. I argue that within
meihuaquan, wu (Martial) and wen
(Civil) as an organizational structure, serves to embed meihuaquan
practitioners within a system that connects the individual spatially
with the present, and temporally both back into the past and forward
into the future.
argument will require some explanation.
martial arts training, by nature of martial arts being a
body-based practice, it is situated in the temporal plane of the
present. meihuaquan training requires practitioners to first
learn a basic choreographed routine, known as the Frame which is
composed of alternating sets of static postures interspersed with
moving-footwork. The static postures are accompanied by specific
breathing methods to release the body, focus the mind, and forget the
self in order to approach a state wherein one’s body seemingly
merges into the environment.
shifts the individual through space so that they will practice along
the directional lines of the “Four Doors”, which includes all
four cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), and the “Eight
Directions”, which includes the inter-cardinal lines. By engaging
with directions and space in a meditative mind-body state,
practitioners develop a nuanced awareness of the body, its location
in space, and relationship to the surrounding environment.
sense of space and place thus allows the practitioner to have a
body-based realization of the Four Doors and Eight Directions as
cosmological precepts in traditional thought that serve as metaphors
for the expansive physical realm that we dwell within.
civil field practices, to a large degree, involve beliefs
and rituals that aim to connect practitioners with ancestral spirits
and protector deities. The worship of ancestral masters and prayers
for their intercession in contemporaneous and future events enables
practitioners to transcend the temporal limitations of the physical
world and to connect with the past, influence events in the present,
and future as well. Stories about past masters and their high moral
standards are commonly employed by meihuaquan teachers to
encourage the next generation. Storytelling is an effective method
for connecting past masters and events with both the present and the
future in order to present a vision of “how things should be”.
In short, this article attempts to show that meihuaquan practitioners are embedded in the present through wu martial training which connects them to space, and to a wide diaspora of meihuaquan practitioners in villages across the north. Simultaneously, practitioners are linked through story-telling back through time to prior generations of masters whose lives are made relevant to the present, and play a crucial role in the unfolding of future events. In these ways, wu and wen help construct deep connections between practitioners and their sense of belonging to a tradition that transcends place and time, that connects practitioners who lived centuries ago with present-day practitioners: these factors encourage dedication to meihuaquan cultural practices and greatly strengthen the practitioner’s raison d’être for training and transmitting the practices to the younger generations.
practice and training
Canada, I have taught meihuaquan
as a martial art and somatic training approach to
extend their bodymind beyond the physical extent of the body in order
to enhance stage presence, physicality, mental and spiritual focus,
dexterity and relaxed strength.
this goal has
been hampered by the lack of
the sociocultural background.
They have trouble immersing themselves
in the work and persevering because they
sense of historical and socio-cultural
connection to the
practice necessary to
to perceive the tradition as
“sacred” rather than as yet another market commodity that
can be put aside when one tires of it.
When training in
China, I experienced meihuaquan in various different
communities of practitioners. In urban areas where it was taught
strictly as a martial art, practitioners were able to relate to their
practice through a shared Chinese world view that incorporated
concepts from traditional philosophy and understandings of health and
fitness. Storytelling events revealed meihuaquan long history
and emphasis on ethical behaviour. In rural areas where I trained
during PhD fieldwork, meihuaquan took on even deeper
connections as the majority of people in a village belonged to
meihuaquan as a religious sect and saw it as a cornerstone of
their social and spiritual existence. It was quite obvious
practitioners are embedded in a social environment that connects them
to the past, and into the future.
While this can be
created to some degree in the practice and teaching of meihuaquan
in Canada, the practice will necessarily morph and change so that it
fits into the sociocultural context of modern life.
How will I help
practitioners perceive meihuaquan as a personal “sacred”
training regime rather than as a commodity? I’ve been pondering
this for quite some time. I will try emphasizing storytelling and
explanations of the sociocultural significance of the practice.
Stronger connections between students and imbuing them with a sense
of comradarie and connection to the past will also help. By
connecting students with space, embedding them in it, and then
showing the connections with the past and into the future will help
them see their training as a liminal ritual that transcends the
profane and moves into the sacred. Only by seeing one’s tradition
as transcending the neoliberal economic trend of encroaching
commodification will it acquire a self-sustaining life of its own.
This is an illustration of how Mike
Medaglia received my practice in the opening of The Somatic in Theatre and
Performance Research Gathering.
When I first saw my illustrated self, I felt
uncomfortable with how I seem ‘bigger’ and ‘higher’ than the group.
Hierarchy, I thought, the exact opposite
of what my work and this project aims at.
I sensed though that my physicality and
my expression (or, in one word, my soma) carry something completely different.
I felt my witnessing.
Now I see me and feel the warmth of
looking back at people and processes that still grow in me.
Now I see me growing and imagine the next steps.
Introducing the project
The above illustration-text dialogue, to which I will return in the second part of this post, is part of the dynamic interactions between modes of practice-research documentation and my reflections on a four-day gathering project that took place from the 23rd to the 26th of August 2018 in Kato Garouna village in Corfu, Greece. It opens this discussion as the intended nature of this post is to allow a form of a present re-enactment of the project through the additional contribution of your own input. It also aims at setting the ground and inform the shaping of a longer reflexive article that will focus on a theme that became mostly present for me during and after the gathering.
I would intentionally like not to name this theme here as I wish to test out if and how it may resonate with your own witnessing. To do so, I use the dynamic potentialities of this blog and more specifically the ‘Leave a Reply’ option in order to invite your witnessing on some visual documentation of the project. I explain how in the second part of this post. The chosen documentation does not aim at conveying the content of the explorations from which is drawn but some overall qualities that emerged from the nature of the project as a whole. Before moving forward to details on how you are invited to offer your input, I wish to go through some information on the context of the gathering.[i]
The Somatic in Theatre and Performance
Research Gathering was the
first of a series of practice-research meetings that I hold as part of my ongoing
research on somatically-inspired practices in the field of theatre and
performing arts, beyond the relatively established dialogues between somatics
and dance.[ii] My curiosity and
investigations are part of a current burgeoning interest in the dynamic
interrelations between somatic methodologies and contemporary research on
embodiment in multiple fields, within and outside scholarly environments (see
among others Shusterman 2012, Farnell 2012, Hockley 2014, Eddy 2016).
was simultaneously a series of workshops offered by nine contributors as well
as a Practice-as-Research (PaR) project developed around two main questions: what
can be somatic in arts praxis? What can be the difference between a body and a
soma? Subsequently, as the title suggests, I am looking at why somatically-informed
research in theatre-performance and beyond may be significant here and now.
these questions to the group in the welcome discussion. Without using any
definition, apart from acknowledging that the word soma in Greek is used to
identify primarily every living body, I invited contributors and participants to
allow the two main questions to be present in their explorations throughout the
activities. In this way, I wished to activate openness to what the practices
would evoke for each individual, beyond what may be already familiar in various
somatic discourses, within and beyond the so-called field of somatics.
I connected my
intentions with three main qualities identified in Performance as Research
(PaR) by Jonathan Heron and Baz Kershaw (2018), which I also find relevant to somatically-inspired
methodologies: 1. the openness to the not-yet-knowing, 2. the significance of un-learning
and 3. the importance of somatically-informed reflexivity (2018, pp. 46-47,
54-55). In resonance to these qualities I also explore various modes of
documenting practice research in order to most productively reflect and
disseminate the distinctive nature of each project.
specific gathering, I used video documentation (with simple means such as a
portable video camera and smart phones), stills, written reflections (by both
contributors and participants) and some sketches. Particularly in relation to sketching,
I invited an additional side documentation by the illustrator and contributor
Mike Medaglia, whose work is included in this post. I was very interested in
Mike’s perception of the activities as his comic arts and design evolve around
practising meditation and mindfulness through a combination of illustration and
writing (Medaglia 2015, 2017).
Apart from the opening image, which will reappear with a different focus later on, for the practice-oriented purposes of this post I also use a short video, two photos and one of my own sketches. Similarly to my intentions in the opening of the gathering, I wish to navigate your attention towards you own understandings of how the chosen documentation of the project might evoke for each one of you perceptions of somaticity and its possible significance within or even beyond artistic contexts. The only piece of information I would like to add here is that I explore the notion of somaticity, the literal translation of which is corporality (the state of being in or having a body), in order to expand upon perceptions of embodiment in the twenty-first century.
Based on the above, this post could primarily be of interest to practitioner-researchers, artists and advanced students in theatre arts and performance practices. The invitation, however, does not require any sort of expertise and it is open to every person that has access to the material of this blog and would be generous to offer their invaluable witnessing.
Introducing the invited witnessing
my work, as both notion and practice, is inspired by processes studied in
Authentic Movement as part of my training with Linda Hartley.[iii] Briefly, witnessing in
Authentic Movement and other somatic practices, suggests an individual’s
integrated perception that is not confined in one’s cognitive understanding or
interpretation. Instead, it aims at supporting an interrelational, multilayered
and experiential reception that draws from one’s intersubjective experience by combining
an individual’s senses, feelings and imagination. Therefore, it is usually
navigated through the following structure, which I will further explain in the
end of this section: I see…, I sense…, I feel…, I imagine….
As practice, witnessing could be applied in multiple dynamic situations and contexts that aim at shifting focus on one’s embodied perception. For instance, in Authentic Movement, somatically-inspired witnessing contains the verbal and/or physical interaction between movers and witnesses primarily towards therapeutic potentialities. In my work, it aims at heightening each actor-mover’s present perception during improvisations and mutual explorations as well as allowing a sensitive verbal interaction between actors while avoiding a possible sense of judgement.
During the gathering, the specific mode of witnessing was used by Fabiano Culora in the second workshop of the first day of the activities. Working on his Orientation Score as embodied and relational practice for interdisciplinary performers, Culora divided the room into performing and non-performing space. Based on this clarification the participants were also invited to become either performers or active spectators and they were offered the structure indicated above in order to navigate their verbal input. In the following video (39 seconds) you could observe the interaction between a moment in performers’ improvisation and an offered witnessing by an active spectator.
Returning to Figure I and the text in italics in the opening of this post, you could notice that I use the exact same practice but in a more flexible and free form. Through my direct experience of the project, I also combine my past and present witnessing of the same illustration. I would like now to invite each one of you to attune to your own present experiences while witnessing the images below.
If you wish to offer your witnessing, you could choose one of the following options or allow a more flexible combination between the suggested modes: a. write a theme that comes up for you as you receive the images b. offer your responses in any sort of mode you would like to. Feel free to play around with words and possibly your own audio-visual material c. use the following verbs in first person and present tense for the opening of your sentences and complete them drawing from your own experience. The questions below could be of help. You may also refer to my own witnessing on the first illustration or the active spectator’s feedback in the video.
I see…: could
you focus on what specifically draws your visual attention?
I sense…: could
you expand your attention to the rest of your senses and any possible physical responses?
I feel…: would
any feeling come up for you?
I imagine…: how
does this trigger your imagination?
You could offer your witnessing on the content of each picture, the ones or the one that draws most your attention using the blog’s ‘Leave a Reply’ feature at the bottom of this page. Feel free to combine your input with attention to practice-research documentation, if this is part of your interests.
Many thanks for
your time and invaluable contribution!
LIST OF WORKS
Eddy, M., 2009.
A Brief History of Somatic Practices and Dance: Historical Development of the
Field of Somatic Education and its Relationship to Dance. Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices, 1 (1), 5–27.
Eddy, M., 2016.
Mindful Movement: The Evolution of the
Somatic Arts and Conscious Action. Wilmington: Intellect.
2012. Dynamic Embodiment for Social
Theory: ‘I Move Therefore I Am’. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Heron, J., and
Kershaw, B., 2018. On PAR: a dialogue about performance-as-research. In: A. Arlander et al, eds. Performance as Research: knowledge, methods,
impact. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 43–61.
2016. Being an actor / becoming a trainer: the embodied logos of
intersubjective experience in a somatic acting process. Thesis (Ph.D). Royal Central School of
Speech and Drama, University of London.
Kapadocha, C., 2017.
The development of Somatic Acting Process in UK-based actor training. Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices,
9 (2), 213–21.
2018. Towards witnessed
thirdness in actor training and performance. Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, 9 (2), 203–216.
2015. One Year Wiser: 365 Illustrated
Meditations, London: SelfMadeHero.
2017. One Year Wiser: An Illustrated Guide
to Mindfulness, London: SelfMadeHero.
2012. Thinking through the Body: Essays
in Somaesthetics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.