A friend gave me the greatest gift recently: an Alvin Ailey Dance Company DVD. Seriously, I could watch that thing for hours. I am mesmerized by it. The body control and the huge variety of the dancers’ movements simply boggles me. And while they do amazing things with their arms and legs, it’s how the Ailey dancers move from the core that blows me away.
In one piece, a male dancer stands behind a female dancer and hooks his arms under her shoulders. Lengthening out, she extends herself parallel with the floor, feet hovering in the air. In another, a woman ripples her spine in a fast wave that looks like each vertebra dances on its own. Ballet. Modern. Hip Hop. Fast. Slow. Extended. Contracted. They move their bodies with precision and mastery that is beyond stunning not just in its athleticism but also in its emotionality and expressiveness.
Watch any athlete while she’s in the flow of their sport, and you’ll see how their graceful, powerful movements start in the core. And the next time you get to see a lanky teenager who’s just had a growth spurt run across the yard, you might see the opposite: limbs akimbo, and core following behind.
One of the foundations of the practice of Nia is to cultivate movement variety to increase health, fitness and comfort in the body. In my experience, activating the core of the body (in Nia we refer to the core as the three body weights of pelvis, chest and head ~ click here for more on the form and function of the core) is essential for creating movement variety.
As I observe bodies in motion – whether on the dance floor or the grocery store – what I notice is that most people don’t move much at the waist or the neck. Take a look at the skeletal system
Notice that the pelvis, chest and head are each rather large, bony structures, and in between those structures, there are spaces at the waist and neck that have very little bone. At the waist and neck, the only bones are those of the lumbar and cervical spine, and here we have great opportunities for movement in the spaces of those small vertebral joints .
What tends to happen, though, as we live in our bodies is that we hold the waist and neck rigid as if they, too, were bony structures. We limit our movement and therefore the possibilities for creating strength and mobility in the core. And when I ask people where they have discomfort in their bodies, two of the most common places? No big shock: low back and neck.
I surmise that one of the reasons, especially in our American culture, that we tend to hold in the core is that most emotional energy is held here. (In fact, the energetic system of the chakras run along the spine. Click here for more information about the Chakra System.) Once we start moving the core of the physical body, we can start to release long-held physical tension and also, long-held emotional tension.
Sometimes, when doing a lot of core movement in class, someone will come up to me after class and shyly say something like, “You’re going to think I’m crazy, but I kept feeling like I was going to cry (or laugh or scream or…) for no reason during class.” I do my best to reassure people that this is not only common and normal, it’s also very very healthy.
Bodies are designed to move and emotions are designed to move. Any time we endeavor to still them, weakness and dis-ease will result.
In classes this week, I’ll be focusing on choreography that encourages movement through the core and particularly at the waist and neck. If you find yourself feeling stiff, weak or immobile in these places, slow down the movements, take your time, and gently get them going. Sometimes, it can help to lie on the back and let the body weights generate movement with the support of the floor. Experiment with lying on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat and move all three body weights on the floor. The feedback of the floor might allow movement that does happen naturally while you are standing. (This is a practice that comes from the movement form of Feldenkrais. Check out this great little video on the foundations of Feldenkrais.) As you do this, sense for both physical sensation and for any subtle (or not-so-subtle) emotional shifts that may come with the movement.
I’ll only be an Alvin Ailey dancer in my dreams. But watching them inspires me and reminds me to start moving from my core and radiate out from there. Moving from the core sets free the power, grace and energy in each of us.