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by Danielle Hill
I think it can shortcut a lot of the learning process that we are doing in the studio. Instead of repeating an exercise a hundred times, we just have to stop and do it slowly, with awareness – and very soon, it’s there. So, it needs to be complementary. Somatic work is entering the schools more and more, but there is still a way to go in order to understand how important it is.
During our conversation, held midway through the fifth segment of the MBS Foundation training, Bar laughs when asked what she does “between segments.” Traveling to Bad Toelz three times each year has a way of marking time, bringing into focus what has happened since the last seminar. As she answers, Bar speaks with a simplicity and a spaciousness that recalls the language of a group MBS class. Her words seem to be chosen deliberately, but with a lightness. “I live close to Brussels, in the countryside. And right now I teach contact improvisation regularly and I follow the dharma, the Buddhist teaching. This is it: very simple, quiet.”
Bar Altshuler has known about Moshe Feldenkrais’ work since her childhood in Israel, where both her parents and an aunt work as Feldenkrais Practitioners. As a teenager, she would come home to find her family members lying on the floor, doing their “strange things.” In the early days, she recalls, “I tried, but always fell asleep.” It was only years later, during her professional dance training, that she first found relevance in the slow sequences of movements.
“This time it was a more intense meeting. It was beautiful, soft.” The softness and the self-directed approach stood in stark contrast to the rigors of formal dance training. Yet, Bar found something essential in the attentive exploration of simple movements.
“For dancers who are used to doing big movements, you have to do small movements. I remember standing up afterwards and feeling the body very light and long. I remember seeing the changed faces of everybody there. I liked the simplicity and the fast improvement in a very short time.”
Increasingly, dance academies are devoting time to the group lessons and the one-on-one sessions that Moshe Feldenkrais developed during the last century. For Bar, the lessons offered alongside her dance training eventually grew into a primary calling. While she continues to work with dance, Bar finds what she calls the values of MBS to be central to both her professional and personal interests.
In her Buddhist practice, Bar identifies many of the same principles that guide Moshe’s work. As a dancer, she considers her training in MBS an uncovering of fundamentals, the bedrock of conscious movement. Through the method, she goes beyond moving beautifully or “knowing how to move” and can begin to understand her movements more deeply; “with more nuance,” she explains; and in a way that is self-directed and fully experiential.
“A day of training is only four hours – it seems very little – but the nervous system is so extremely sensitive. Your system is learning already when you’ve done a movement just three times. It’s the degree of awareness that makes the difference in the process: not the quantity, but the quality.”
Upon completing her formal dance education, Bar decided to study to become a practitioner. “Actually, it was a very practical reason,” she explains. “I wanted a job teaching this. And I’m very glad (that I enrolled). I didn’t have such a certain, big passion for Mind Body Studies before. I knew it was good, but I didn’t know how good it was!
As a trained dancer, Bar found some elements of the MBS Foundation were familiar from the beginning. “There was already body awareness, knowing my own body and working with weight. The flexor movements, the spirals, and the connection between head and tail are always present in contemporary dance.” Bar was also accustomed to learning about movement through inquiry. “In dance, you are used to asking questions like, ‘If this movement doesn’t work, what will make it go?’ or ‘This is not very comfortable, what will I do?’”
Bar’s training in MBS has also exposed holes in a standard dance education program. When asked about current challenges, she reflects on the tendency to push past one’s limits. I think a lot of dancers are very used to a certain pain. But this time, I’m trying to take a lot of breaks. We spoke about it today in class. It takes a certain courage to stop, to rest. In our society and in a class. Of course, we don’t have to do a movement 20 times to learn. Maybe five is enough.”
The very nature of challenge or difficulty is seen differently within MBS training than in a traditional dance program. “The challenge now,” Bar reflects, “is how to be very vulnerable and to find the best conditions not to get hurt.” And the best conditions to learn.
“A day of training is only four hours – it seems very little – but the nervous system is so extremely sensitive. To smells, to sensations. It’s a very intense week. Your system is learning already when you’ve done a movement just three times. It’s the degree of awareness that makes the difference in the process: not the quantity, but the quality.”
From the beginning, this “softer” approach caught Bar’s attention. Within her dance training, she found Mind Body Studies “special because it was not very demanding, which is very rare in the dance world. You can do it at your own rhythm. Perhaps it was my first entrance into the world of softness and acceptance.”
Despite its marked difference to most approaches within a dance academy, Bar sees MBS and Feldenkrais as offering dancers a critical underpinning toward their success, albeit one that is usually overlooked. In the standard dance school, she explains:
“People can know how to move, but they may not deeply understand movement. They move beautifully, they express, but they may not understand the complexity of what is happening in their bodies. And this is why people get hurt and injured, because if you know about your own movement and body, you are able to make choices, and to decide in which way to use it. The very big expressive movement needs to go along with this very intimate somatic work.”
“I think it can shortcut a lot of the learning process that we are doing in the studio. Instead of repeating an exercise a hundred times, we just have to stop and do it slowly, with awareness – and very soon, it’s there. So, it needs to be complementary. Somatic work is entering the schools more and more, but there is still a way to go in order to understand how important it is.”
“There is the fundamental of constant change. We always observe, again and again, what is happening now, and now, and now. We never take something as fixed. Instead, let’s see how it is now, because it changes.”
To Bar, the MBS approach to learning also echoes the Buddhist principles of acceptance and compassion. “It’s full of compassion,” Bar says, “because we are not trying to change the other, we are just observing.”
Bar identifies common ground between the principles underlying MBS and Buddhist values. “Awareness is the basis of Buddhist practice and meditation, but it’s also accompanied by certain values. I am aware of something but, what do I do as I’m aware?” She points to one of the essential components of MBS: the art of seeing what is there instead of trying to change it or fix it. “When we are not judging a person, when we are seeing him as he his, containing all sides, that is compassion,” she offers. The principle is just as applicable on the individual level; “The same quality we apply to our own body and self.”
Bar also sees the Buddhist understanding of impermanence in her studies with MBS. “There is the fundamental of constant change. We always observe, again and again, what is happening now, and now, and now. We never take something as fixed. Instead, let’s see how it is now, because it changes.”
Whereas the performing arts can place focus on external judgment and appearance, Bar points to how MBS teaches students to turn within. “In Buddhism, also, we speak about knowing yourself, investigating yourself before going outward. There’s this inner process. And in an MBS group class, we often close our eyes and don’t look at what other people do. Nobody is correcting. The whole philosophy is to look at yourself.”
While one’s focus turns inward, Bar adds, “there is also the sangha,” the Buddhist term for a mutually supportive group or congregation of practitioners. “Everybody’s practicing for him or herself, but also practicing together. This is very similar to the MBS classes. Everyone is in a room, practicing their own thing, but the same thing. I think this gives a feeling of quite great support. There is a teacher leading when there is a problem. It is the same as in Buddhist practice – you practice together, you support each other, but it’s an individual practice.”
As we wrap up our talk, Bar reflects on MBS and Moshe Feldenkrais’ work, noting, “It’s very beautiful. It’s also very clear and simple and grounded.” She talks about the work as a kind of crucial but missing piece, whether for dancers or for meditators.
“I think certain spiritual practices are very hard to understand from reading or just sitting in meditation, at least in western society. The practices can also become very intellectual, but not integrated into one’s own system. In the body, though, it’s very evident. So I think this work can be a very good complement to meditation or reading texts.”
“From how we speak to each other to how we live in society to how we treat ourselves: it doesn’t start or end in the MBS class.”
In her work with contact improvisation and other forms of dance, Bar describes the lessons of MBS as a sort of tool that lets her explore more deeply. “It’s about the nuances. Finding the differences each time. The more experienced you become, the more the nuances become important and make sense to you.”
Whether she’s speaking of dance or of Buddhism, Bar emphasizes the importance of grounded understanding and real-life application. Too often, she says, the link goes missing. What concerns her is “the application into life – how the spiritual life can be taken into daily life.” By the same token, Bar sees the movements in an MBS lesson as a kind of practice space, which must also be applied into regular life. “From how we speak to each other to how we live in society to how we treat ourselves: it doesn’t start or end in the MBS class. This link is happening anyway, but I think it can also be done more consciously.”
As Bar involves herself with self-directed inquiry through MBS, her interest in dance is recently most focused on contact improvisation. More of a practice than a performance, contact improvisation usually takes place in meetings, jams, and workshops. Nobody knows in advance what will come out of the dance. As in MBS work, participants communicate with one another through touch and respond to the feedback they receive from the floor. “The floor is telling you something about yourself as well as about your partner. So it’s more like a quartet: there are two people, their point of contact, and their contact with the floor.”
In an MBS class, the floor is the teacher; we look to it for feedback during the scan and throughout our movements. Bar often describes MBS with metaphors that indicate this relationship with the floor: it is a ground, a starting place, a foundation for dancers. “I think it can be useful for dance education to start from this delicate deep work as a base,” Bar suggests. Certainly, the feedback that the floor “gives” us is only useful when we apply it to ourselves. Mind Body Studies, Bar suggests, could spare dancers much suffering and injury, but unlike physiotherapy, it also relies on personal initiative and self-directed learning:
“It is a form of preventative care, but also of self-education. If people are able to understand their bodies deeply, to see what the teacher is giving them, they may begin understanding even before the teacher explains something. This will definitely be useful. It can give wonderful results in performance, and in creativity. And most importantly, healthy people who can move freely, dance and explore until a late age.”
“I am a mover and young creator, currently living in Brussels. My main interest lies in the research of movement and its many connections to our personal life, both socially and individually. I am a current student in the MBS Foundation training in Bad Toelz, Germany. I am also now in the process of creating my own project, “Dancing Dharma”. My aim is to express and explore the Buddhist fundamentals through dance, while teaching contact improvisation and dance collaboration. I will continue to expand my own physical training through the Axis syllabus and the practice of contact improvisation abroad.”
Click Here to watch a Youtube of Bar's Contact Improvisation
Click Here to watch a Youtube of Bar's Solo dance