This year, I will be offering a series of workshops in Experiential Dance to the members of Student Meditation, an association at the University of Amsterdam. Student-Meditation does an amazing job for peers (holds free meditation sessions by students for students, quiet co-working sessions, and even organizes a “death cafe!” where students can freely speak about death – a theme so ‘feared’ in our culture). The workshops are open to any member of the association.
What is Experiential Dance?
Experiential Dance is a contemplative movement practice that enables self-exploration through non-conceptual means. It combines modalities such as dance, guided meditation, and creative writing. Participants are invited to a safe space to connect with their own body’s different state(s), observe and learn through introspective movement. In essence, Experiential Dance is for an experience and not for a performance.
The typical session starts with meditation and ends in reflective silent writing. Between these two moments of stillness, movement happens. The practice leaves participants energized and elicits a genuine sense of mind-body integration.
Note about emotions Through introspective dancing, one may feel the release of long-seated emotions, be it feelings of joy and ecstasy to feelings of anger or sadness. We distance ourselves from “toxic positivity” and welcome all forms of emotion and their genuine expressions.
I feel sincerely grateful to my former student who invited me to speak and share my way of teaching (using mindfulness, embodiment, and contemplation in academic teaching) on TEDxUniversiteitvanAmsterdam.
The event is scheduled for November 15th, 2021 in a small and beautiful theater in Amsterdam. We have already prepared the text, it still needs little fine-tuning, but I hope my story will reach the audience and will resonate.
The theme is connecting through change, a wonderful segway into contemplative pedagogy. I will soon be sharing the full text and recording of the video. Read more on the event’s page https://www.tedxuniversiteitvanamsterdam.com/
The last period has been saturated for me; the death of my father and the completion of 10 years long Ph.D. project left me emotionally numb. On the one hand grief and the other hand excitement of completion – seemed as if the two opposites have canceled each other into a silent equilibrium.
The daily meditation practice has given my mind calmness and clarity. I genuinely feel capable of seeing the states of my emotional affairs without overreacting and full identification. However, only mind discipline is not enough. I could feel how all the tension and grief found its way through my body like mycelium under the forest.
One of the most intuitive and genuine ways for me to release pain, grief and express gratitude has been through dance. No matter how many practices I discover in my quest, dancing is as natural as breathing, crying, and laughing.
For the last two Saturdays, I had an amazing opportunity to participate in Banafsheh Sayyad’s workshop SAMA the holy ritual of whirling. Iranian-born dancer, teacher, and choreographer brings hitherto confined only to male dervishes sacred dance to a wider audience, to everyone.
The roots of whirling dance take us to infamous poet, scholar, and theologian Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī. Even though I cannot speak Persian, I adore his poems and have found refuge and inspiration in his beautiful verse. Whirling as a part of the spiritual and mystical practice has been a part of the Mewlewī Sufi order, which was founded after Rumi’s death in 13th centruy. Most likely you have seen pictures or performances of whirling dervishes, which are easily recognizable by their wide skirts, and incredible mastery to spin in flow for hours.
Needless to say that the practice has been confined to the members of the order and primarily to men1 . Banafsheh Sayyad has made it her lifework to bring the art of whirling to a wider public, to women and individuals of other (or no) religious affiliations. Her mastery of the dance is amazing; nonetheless, what moved me the most were her words: ‘in whirling we learn to persevere and surrender’. Indeed it is through the perseverance of not stopping, not getting scared, and surrendering – that the whirling happens.
By spirit you are deathless, imperishable, magnificent from within! You belong to the glorious, you are of divine radiance! What have you seen of your own beauty? You are still hidden, unmanifest One dawn, like the sun, you will arise From within yourself. You are like a hawk Whose feet are tethered, Weighed down by the body. It’s with your own claw That you must untie the knots
a section of a poem by Jalaleddin Rumi shared by Banafsheh Sayyad during the workshop
1Rumi taught female members of his family how to whirl (Reinhartz, as quoted in Xavier, 2020, p. 169)
Xavier, M. S. (2020). Gendering the divine: Women, femininity, queer identities on the Sufi path . In J. Howe (Ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Islam and Gender. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781351256568
The Material for Spine is an outcome of many years of curious movement exploration by Steve Paxton, skillfully compiled in a video presentation. It is a system with ideokinetic imagery and exercises that allows connection with one’s spine, the part of our body, which is the most unseen. These exercises, as he narrates in a wonderfully produced video presentation “bring the light of consciousness to the dark side of the body, that is the side not much self seen.”
Steven Paxton is an experimental dancer, choreographer, teacher and author. In 1972, while teaching Aikido, and specifically how to fall he developed a new dance movement. Later he named it Contact Improvisation (CI). Nowadays Contact Improvisation is established dance movement and even an integral part of many dance training trajectories. It is widely practiced by professional as well as lay dancers. CI a fusion of dance, martial arts, social interaction and a ‘child’s play’. Its basic movements imply connection between two (or more) individuals, who establish a point of contact through bodies (this can be through backs, hands, wrists, or any other body parts), they give and take weight of each others bodies, create and maintain movements that develop.
I came across his wonderful exercises during COVID-19 lockdown, when the most affected part of my body was my chained-to-chair-spine. These exercises can truly inspire a wide array of applications from traditional dance classes to movement awareness circles.
“As I reflect on the contents of this DVD I see that the exercises themselves are just means to stay focused on the spine, to sample our relation to that central sensorial mystery”
Lastly, a video demonstration of ‘Small Dance’ narrated and danced by Steve Paxton. During COVID-19 lock down, I shared this video performance with students in my class and instructed them to follow his voiceover and allow own bodies to engage in “Small dance”. The students were genuinely amazed by the power of stillness in their bodies.
As a dancer who is not a performer, I have felt both an incredible inspiration but also itching intimidation from looking at great dancers. I used to go to professional choreography performances, sit as close as my ticket would allow, and completely seize in kinesthetic empathy by looking at moving bodies in space. The exquisite movements, incredible control of the body, the speed, the expression, the mastery, the technique – it would simply be breathtaking to witness. As much as I felt catharsis from witnessing, I also felt the airy gap between the bodies in the audience and the bodies on the stage.
Ohad Naharin, a famous dancer and choreographer has skillfully built a bridge between dance – as an art form and dance as an experience, developing a new language not only for professional dancers but everybody.
Gaga People is a dance movement, where (often) without musical accompaniment, dancers are guided through what I call ‘movement-igniting‘ metaphors, and carefully led to discover new dance.
Last year I had an incredible joy and opportunity to dance Gaga People in Amsterdam. Due to pandemic, however, Gaga People can become even more accessible through online classes. I encourage you to give it a try and let the movement travel through you.
I write this in the times of COVID-19 pandemic, where the lock-downs and social distancing has affected almost the whole globe; resulting in closing down dance schools, courses, gatherings, retreats and festivals. However, for me personally the lock-down has been brightened up by generous initiative of German Acogny, and her school Ecole de Sables (in Senegal). Daily twice, in the mornings and evenings I have been following online classes in the Acogny Technique, which is today an established methodology in contemporary African dance. Watch the story of the founder, incredible teacher and dancer Germay Acogny, and if you like join the online classes through making donation https://www.gofundme.com/f/Technique-Acogny .
I am also grateful to the dancer Simone Hijloo from whom I heard about this technique. She is a teacher herself bringing the modern African dance in the Netherlands.
For me personally, the Acogny Technique is a virtuous mix of how Nature moves and how human joins through dance.
A teacher’s testimonial on integrating student-led discussions with dance improvisation
What is this testimonial about?
By integrating the student-led discussion of texts about the notion of Self with the Experiential Dance practice, I observed how students found it more workable to notice, become aware, and reflect on their deep-seated assumptions and improve critical-analytical thinking. I would like to bring forth my observation as an educator, that in times when students are immersed in a continuous stream of mediated experiences (be it through online teaching, or social media networking), they are hungry for corporeal, embodied experiences. More than before embodied learning shows promise to bring innovation to the traditional education system.
What is embodied pedagogy?
Embodied pedagogy departs from the Cartesian legacy of treating the mind as separate and superior to the body. Theoretically, it draws inspiration from the legacy of Dewey, and critical work of Freire. In modern scholarship, embodied pedagogy stands for fusing critical pedagogy with somatic, bodily and integrative learning (see for review: Nguyen, & Larson, 2015). Lelwica (2009:125) in an inspiring account on integrating Aikido practice with teaching religion studies, recognizes the following: “Conditioned to believe that analytical-critical thinking and knowledge acquisition are fundamentally non-corporeal affairs, it is not surprising that many of us feel uncomfortable integrating alternative pathways of knowledge in our pedagogical practices”. Through such presumption, we might be missing on the opportunity to diversify our epistemologies by bringing bodies in the leaning process.
A case of embodied pedagogy in interdisciplinary education
The elective course Bridging Ontologies through Mind and Dance was an elective interdisciplinary seminar at the PPLE college (University of Amsterdam). The learning goal of the course was defined as training students in transferable soft skills (such as empathy) and enabling critical reflection on individual biases and assumptions. The students were 2nd-year cohort from majors in politics, psychology, economy and law.
Through a combination of interdisciplinary readings from Philosophy, Buddhism, and Biology they were invited to engage with personal but complex ontological questions about own being (not only theoretical notions but experiences of self). Readings were first discussed in the traditional classroom by fully student-led Socratic Circle. Following day students met in a dance studio at the university campus and through guided visualization and dance improvisation engaged corporeally, somatically and spatially with the course readings. At the end of the week, they wrote reflections and engaged in self-reflexivity. As an observation, the average grade of written reflections was 1.5 points higher than in a parallel-group, which I taught at the same time, but without embodied learning. I speculate that through engaging the sensory experiences, students received better intellectual stimulation to engage in analytical thinking.
Concluding personal note
It took me years of over-preparation before classes, dozens of hours of late-night-grading, a burnout followed by depression and almost two years of recovery to realize, that the job I loved was in fact draining and impoverishing me. Being a teacher was not only a job but an essential part of my identity, a thread in the narrative that I told about myself. I went through waves of regret, anger, low self-esteem, guilt and shame because I reported sick and admit was not capable of teaching anymore. “If a teacher hasn’t faced herself, then the experience might be like looking in a mirror for the first time, only to be terrified. We are left with our own ignorance and a deep desire to change. It is in the stillness that we allow ourselves to face ourselves” (Irwin, 1999, p. 85). After facing my limitations and developing ways to cope I realized the unhealthy balance between cognitive-analytical work I was performing and my longing for wholesome experiences, was at the roots of my burnout. Looking back, now, I feel gentle compassion to my old self, just like I feel tender understanding to students and colleagues who struggle with the way traditional education is organized. Nonetheless, I genuinely feel there is ripe soil for changes, and many professionals around the world are bringing wholesome practices into academic education. Through sharing the short videos, which document in an informal manner tutorial projects over the past three years, I would like to contribute to the efforts of establishing new forms of learning alongside traditional education.
 For this opportunity I am grateful to Madeleine Moret former program coordinator of the PPLE college for trusting me to develop such experimental tutorial project.
 Socratic Circle is a format to organize a fully student-led discussion, which encourages participants to practice careful listening, probing into each other’s answers and assumption, and aiming to understand, as opposed to arguing and persuasion.
Lelwica, M. M. (2009). Embodying learning: Post‐Cartesian pedagogy and the academic study of religion. Teaching Theology & Religion, 12(2), 123-136.
Irwin, R. (1999). Facing oneself: An embodied pedagogy. Arts and learning Research, 16(1), 82-86.
Nguyen, D. J., & Larson, J. B. (2015). Don’t forget about the body: Exploring the curricular possibilities of embodied pedagogy. Innovative Higher Education, 40(4), 331-344.
Two year ago, a visiting teacher on a modern dance class introduced the 5 rhythms warm-up, moving through head to toes, dancing body parts on rhythmic percussions. Without saying its name or revealing its history, the teacher just guided us through the dance. It stood out for me, from many other warm-ups. It felt as a little pathway to the way I perceived dancing.
Some time passed, and I discovered the work of Gabrielle Roth, came across her legacy in the form of 5rhythm, which today counts hundreds of teachers, and much more dancers.
Through this short post, I want to express my gratitude to her work, and share a video of her explaining the concept of 5rhythms, which in the early stage, she called the Wave Dance.
If you want to experience 5rhythms yourself, listen and dance to the guided version, that I am sharing in a video below. What you need is space, where it is possible to dance, free 30 minutes, and desire to give it a try. Move aside the furniture pieces, and make sure the space is suitable to dance; better dance bare feet, it’s much safe and rewarding way. Put the guided track on, and embark in your first journey. It lasts thirty minutes. Enjoy your dance!
If you want to learn more and experience dancing waves with a group, search for worldwide classes on the website of 5rhythms.
In the context of contemporary education, be it at schools, colleges, universities or workshop gatherings, one of the most needed exercises are the group bonding and trust building activities. In the interdisciplinary education much can be adopted from music education. The nature of musical education, demans teaching group skills for performance, for co-creating music, or playing in a band or orchestra. I want to share as inspirational and a very valuable resource for educators Pass the Sound, which lists up to 30 exercises that can be used in the group context;
Some of my favorites are creative writing, names on pulse, body percussion, and the trust game. The trust game, I have been using in my teaching for past three years, and was very glad to see a comparable exercise included on the website.
“The source Pass The Sound is a shared learning resource, offering free warm-up, skills, creative, and workshop exercises for musicians to use whilst facilitating group music-making contexts.” However I believe these games can be used in other forms of education, e.g. in an interdisciplinary classroom.
The exercises listed on the website were developed by a number of institutions, such as Royal Conservatoire The Hague and Prince Claus Conservatoire Groningen, The Netherlands, Iceland Academy of the Arts, Reykjavik, Iceland Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London, United Kingdom.
These recordings and website have been made possible with the support of the Société Gavigniès & co-funded by the Erasmus+ programme of the European Union