My journey to writing this post was far from straightforwards. I became a martial arts instructor in 1998, almost fifteen years before I became a dance lecturer in 2012 Naturally I found that much of my dance teaching approach was infused by my martial arts background. With the release of the TDPT special edition in September 2022 focusing on the influence of martial arts with theatre, dance and performance training I felt that it would be useful to share with my experiences with others. As an academic I wanted to delve into the fundamental underpinnings of movement practices to highlight the strong similarities and cross-influences these two movement forms have had on each other. This article may still come! As a practitioner on the other hand I wanted to share how this philosophy can be actualised in real world, studio-based work. It is a dilemma I often face with my students: action without understanding has as little value as understanding without application.
This blog gave me the opportunity to try and share my work in a tangible way, to highlight the practice but also to address where it came from. I have chosen to focus on an issue to which hopefully others can relate, and to show how my approach through martial arts helped address this issue. Of course everyone has their own unique movement history but hopefully this approach can be generalised to wherever you find yourself in your movement journey.
The issue I have chosen to consider is technical (technique) training. The role of this kind of training within Higher Education dance degrees is still an area of some debate. There is clearly a need to develop the students’ technical abilities so as to equip them with the skills they need to function within the industry. However universities (as opposed to conservatoires) have traditionally had wider goals than technical training, aiming to develop the ability to question, explore, discover and understand rather than simply acquire knowledge and skills.
A little about my background; I have been the course lead for Dance at the University of Worcester since the degree started in 2015. My own journey into dance was far from traditional. When growing up it was not considered acceptable for boys to learn dance (and least in my cultural background) so I was put in martial arts classes instead. I started judo at eight, ju jitsu from eighteen and then spent a lifetime dabbling in capoeira, tai ch’i, kung fu, kobudo and weapons work. When I eventually developed both the freedom and the courage to study dance full time I found that the change was actually fairly straight forward. Both training styles prioritised learning new skills through repeating fixed patterns (kata/routines) and both shared an interest in developing strength, speed, flexibility and anaerobic fitness.
As I progressed through my dance training I started to discover echoes or ‘resonances’ of qualities that I’d encountered before through martial arts. The idea of ‘qi’ or inner balance came out through many of the somatic practices, the outward projection of power from karate found in hip-hop, the improvisational elements of capoeira, and the nuanced and reactive understanding of balance and contact from judo. Of course there is so much shared heritage between dance and martial arts that these resonances are not surprising. What was surprising to me was how much it helped me find a way past simply learning routines or moves and into a deeper understanding of the fundamental movement characteristics of various dance approaches. I wondered whether this process could work both ways, whether a dancer who then trained in martial arts would equally find these resonances and whether that would help lead to a deeper understanding of the movement concepts behind their dancing.
This wasn’t just an intellectual exercise. As dancers we prioritise understanding the world around us through movement. All technique originated somewhere, whether from a philosophical approach such as release, Gaga or contact improvisation, or from a way to project something into the world. By understanding someone’s approach to movement, through movement, we can learn more about them at a soma-empathetic level. My hope was that this deeper understanding could lead the way to a holistic reflection on their own dance training and allow for exploration and development of their own technical style. Not choreographed work, but a fundamental reimagining of what dance technique can be, when viewed through their own personal lens.
It was obviously not practical to teach students martial arts from scratch. I had many years to develop both movement forms independently which was obviously not feasible within a three-year degree. Instead I chose to introduce ‘conversations’ between martial arts and their own movement practices that they had studied throughout the degree. These ‘conversations’ are common within the industry where differing movement styles (such as contemporary and Latin) are often explored in a sympathetic way.
We began with an understanding that the many martial arts share movement characteristics and we can categorise them into types (see Figure 1). Of course this is a simplification, individual martial arts can vary wildly between schools, but working from this generality it was easier to explain and demonstrate these qualities. Students learn several moves or phrases from each categorisation in order to embody these qualities for themselves. By focusing on movement qualities rather than, for example, geographic origin or combat application, the approach is already framed within the language of the dancer.
Once students have a movement sense of the four categories, we can begin to frame the conversations. Contemporary dance styles are identified that share movement or philosophical characteristics (Figure 2). These are styles that the students have encountered earlier and so have a pre-existing embodiment of their movement qualities. Students help identify qualities that these styles share and how these conversations could be initiated.
Routines are created that bring out these qualities and can form a natural point of exploration. Here I provide three examples of exercises that were created.
Contact work and yielding forms
In this duet we examine the resonances between contact work and principles behind yielding forms such as judo or ju jitsu. Forces are met and redirected. The emphasis throughout is on working with your partner to sense their balance and where the lines of force are experienced through the body. This responsiveness is a key element of contact improvisation, which is hardly surprising given the role Aikido played within contact improvisations development. There are elements of ‘atemi’ (striking) present but the emphasis is moving out of the way rather than meeting force with force. This requires the development of awareness and trust of your partner, again a key elements in contact improvisation
Prop work, Cunningham and weapons forms
For this exercise we explored the idea of the lines made by the jo (4ft stick) as a means of emphasising Cunningham shapes. An important element of jo work is maintaining the correct angle of the jo in relation to the floor and body. Control of the jo and control of the body work in synchronicity, allowing us to clarify our lines. Additionally the jo extends out from the body which led into a discussion around what shapes Cunningham and similar practitioners would have explored had we had an additional extended limb.
Muscle/strength focused work and opposing forms
In this exercise we reflected on the held force/tensions from “atemi” type martial arts and related them to Graham’s work (and similar). We framed these qualities around “muscle” type exercises from Body Mind Centering, which we study within our second year Somatics module. We then explored the counterpoint to this: release techniques in which individual limbs can sent freely into space (in this example usually arm throws).
This content is delivered within a third-year module and students have usually seen elements of this work throughout their first two years, though not explicitly labelled as ‘martial arts inspired’, for example our first year turns exercise is heavily influenced by capoeira. As a result they generally take to the material well. The jo work usually presents with the biggest learning curve (and therefore reluctance by the students) as prop work is not typically included in any dance training. However, in general the quality of reproduction of the exercises produced by the students is high.
Following the martial arts exploration we undertake a similar exercise using urban styles which has a stronger ‘marmite’ (love/hate) reaction in the students with many rejecting it simply as they do not see themselves as ‘urban’ dancers. The relative lack of preconceptions around martial arts makes it seemingly more palatable for the students to learn and, as such, works well as a means of introducing them to the concept of stylistic resonance.
Whilst it is easy to assess the embodiment of the stylistic qualities within these exercises, it felt much harder to assess whether the students discovered any fundamental truths about their own movement language. Following these explorations students were encouraged to develop their own work to discover these ‘resonances’ for themselves and several choose martial arts as the lens to do this through. Other styles that students have used include hula, pole dance, Japanese fan dance, yoga and aerial hoop. It is rewarding to note that much of the work that has come out of these individual approaches shows that students are able to find a skilful, nuanced and sympathetic connection between fundamental stylistic qualities. This would seem to imply that they are able to explore technique forms at a much deeper level and be creative with what they discover.
One of my starting points was to explore how technique classes at Higher Education can move beyond simple skill acquisition and I would hope that I have shown how this process can lead to a reflection on our own technique and allow a deeper exploration into the fundamental nature of what a technique is and where it comes from. Technique is introduced as a language of communication as much as performance is and one that it is heavily influenced by cultural background and experience. By exploring ‘resonances’ we can find, at a somatic level, commonalities between ourselves and other cultures and a better socio-cultural understanding of others. This feels like another fundamental goal of Higher Education: to produce graduates who are globally and socially responsible and culturally aware.
Of course not every HE dance lecturer will have an extensive background in martial arts, but I would encourage you to use this process with whatever style you wish to explore, whether one you know intimately, or one you are just discovering. For as our students have shown, resonances can be found everywhere and they are an ideal way to begin a conversation.