Here is a beautiful video, "Body of a Dancer," a cinematic poem about Tim Persent, a South African dancer based in the Netherlands. While it is stunning to watch, there's so much wisdom in the words he shares, which I'll discuss through the lens of my experience as a Rolfer™ working daily with people and their bodies, their injuries, their pain, their posture, and their transformations.
I was struck by so many of the things Persent says about his relationship to his body. While I'm not a dancer, it parallels what I have learned from my own trajectory of embodiment, and from my work as a Rolfer with so many other bodies. Let's start with Persent's opening statement: "I am a dancer – my body is my instrument. I take good care of it. It has treated me well. I have been dancing for the past twenty-five years." There are so many key ideas here, I want to parse it out:
- "I am a dancer – my body is my instrument." For all of us, our bodies are instruments. Most basically, they are our vehicles through life, but more than that, they immediately express our presence, our energy, our emotions.
- "I take good care of it." How many people take good care of their bodies? And what does good care mean? To me, good care is more than just the right food, sleep, and exercise, good care is about a dialogue and relationship with your body. This is something that many people awake to only when their bodies fail them, when an injury or illness prevents "business as usual." But has the body failed them, or is it trying to say something? (More on the dialogue with the body coming below.)
- "It has treated me well." This is an expression of gratitude, not rejection. How many of our statements about our bodies reflect appreciation and gratitude, rather than rejection and complaint? From so many of my Rolfing® Structural Integration clients I hear negative statements, things like"I hate my legs," "I don't like how I look," or "Because of this injury I can't do xyz." What if we instead spoke of our bodies in a relationship of appreciation? If you are in relationship with a person and only complain, how good will that relationship be? A relationship benefits from scrutiny, but also from efforts to improve it and to enhance the appreciative elements.
- "I have been dancing for the past twenty-five years." I would venture that part of the reason Persent has been dancing so long is that he has treated his body so well, and that has allowed him a long career.
After this opening statement, Persent describes how he warms up, and how he "asks" his fingers to relax. This is so important! When we ask our body something, and listen for a reply, we are in dialogue. If the body says something hurts, we listen and attend to it. If it says it's tired, we find ways to rest. If it says it wants to move, we allow that. If we try a new form of exercise, we ask the body how it feels, and modify the activity accordingly.
This type of feedback loop is the antithesis of the Nike slogan "Just do it," which encourages us to force ourselves and our bodies to do things along a one-way circuit without feedback. I see many clients who have injured themselves through this attitude, and who delay their recovery by continuing to "just do it" even though the bodies is saying "I can't run ten miles right now." Thankfully I also see many clients who are working with their bodies and dialoguing and learning what is uniquely right for each of them. For one Seattle Rolfing client, the Nike attitude and her friend's encouragement got her to sign up for a Boot Camp exercise program. Through the pain and muscle tension that were aggravated, her body told her to find a different form of exercise, at least for now, while her body was releasing old patterns through Rolfing sessions and learning how to regain length and flexibility.
Persent says he imagines his fingers to reach out so they become longer. Thus, even in stretching there's a gentle touch and an invitation to the body, through the mind, to expand. This is very different from an ethos of stretching that sees the body as a series of mechanical levers (bones) and muscles to be pulled on as if objects. In asking the body, imagining, and listening for a response, he is working with the mind-body as a unity, an embodied, intelligent presence. As Persent states, "By thinking an idea, something will happen to the body." Yoga and tai chi are wonderful body disciplines because they invite you into an idea (an asana, a form) with a mindfulness that works this mind-body loop, but mindfulness can be present in any activity, whether eliptical at the gym or a charge down the basketball court.
Persent also says, "Dancing is spirit made flesh: it physicalizes ideas, emotions, thoughts. That's why it is beautiful, powerful, and freeing." As a bodyworker, I see daily how many of us use out bodies to either contain and restrain our energies and emotions. The fascia, or connective tissue, that I work with as a Rolfer is the shrinkwrap that locks the muscles and bodies in physical constraints, and often those physical constraints involve a history of emotions, or injuries, of old self images. We could call this the "personal history made flesh." In freeing the fascia, we free those energies and emotions and make space for a new self image. In doing a Rolfing series, or any transformative bodywork, there is potential for every body to be more "spirit made flesh." This is a renewal, so it's also spirit and body made fresh.
While the average body, not trained for years in dance, will never be able to do many of the things Persent can do, we all have the potential to evolve to experience our bodies with the presence, consciousness, and embodiment he exemplifies.