About Racism

The classmate whose name I never asked

As I was reading an essay A Revolution of Values by bell hooks in the book Teaching to Transgress, I kept underlying passages where she recalled memories of segregation and de-segregation of white and black pupils in school. I was struck by nuanced details, which unveiled to me a whole new understanding of racism, making me aware of my own situatedness in the post soviet Georgia, where it was not skin color or race, but ethnicity and accompanied religious belonging which segregated us.

The following passage was so impressive that I stopped and read it out to my (white male) friend, who listened with the same effort that bell describes later as the effort of progressive white folks to understand and unlearn racism…

I still remember my rage that we had to awaken an hour early so that we could be bussed to school before the white students arrived. We were made to sit in the gymnasium and wait. It was believed that this practice would prevent outbreaks of conflict and hostility since it removed the possibility of social contact before classes began. Yet, once again, the burden of this transition was placed on us. The white school was desegregated, but in the classroom, in the cafeteria, and in most social spaces racial apartheid prevailed.

bell hooks Teaching to Transgress

I read the passage three times and wanted to feel alongside the rage that bell was describing, as well as the discomfort white pupils might have felt at the same time. The exercise made me catapult 33 years ago in the freshly collapsed Soviet Union in my home country Georgia and my experience of segregation in primary school.

Only after having immigrated to the affluent west, having spent time as an asylum seeker together with other refugees; only after being the only parent who did not speak Dutch fluently at the parents’ gatherings at my daughter’s school; only after having gone wary of joking and innumerable times pronouncing my “hard to pronounce” family name MOSEMGHVDLISHVILI – I came to become aware of my privilege of having belonged to the cultural majority in Georgia.

Yet, it was through bell hooks writing that I suddenly remembered an ephemeral image of a classmate from the second grade of primary school. A  classmate whose name, no matter how hard I tried to recall – I could not remember, perhaps because I never asked her.  her sitting in the first row, closest to the teacher, her long hair tied with a colorful ribbon (what we back then would call a sign of being a ‘goimi’  someone not fashionable, with a bad taste in all aspects of self-expression). She belonged to either Armenian or Kurdish descent, the rest of us were Kartvelians.  The very fact that I am not able to recall her ethnicity, speakers about the privilege of majority I have been raised with, where all others were simply the Others. 

As I sit and write this, I am puzzled to recall how we – seven years old pupils managed to internalize the ethnic and religious segregation so well that it was unspoken truth, hard, unmovable. 

My classmate, whose name I never knew, left after the first semester.  When we came back from the Christmas holidays, she was gone, and no one missed her, no one remembered her. Only now, after more than three decades, I wonder what her name was? How did she feel being alone in the class with other 7-years old, who sat behind her, never spoke to her, never asked for her name, never heard her voice? I wonder how her voice was… ?

* * * 

With my appearance being white (Caucasian) yet growing in a country that is considered poor (in transition) I sometimes felt a conflict between my positionalities. Having been raised as a privileged majority, but having moved during my early 20-ies into being a minority, left me with mixed feelings; On the one hand, the remnants of the pride and entitlement that the privileged majority emanates, and on the other hand, lived, embodied experience of racial prejudice, being excluded, feeling outside, weird from the group. 

On 5th November 2008, Omotola (adapted name) and I were standing (as often it would happen) aside from the rest of the colleagues. He had smuggled in a beer can, and I was having a big cup of coffee. We both had stayed up the night before, waiting for the outcomes of the elections, because it felt like a historic moment. 

As Omotola was sipping beer and we were giggling, I felt the moment of bonding with him, celebrating the election of the first black president, almost co-owing the celebration, when he told me with a smile of a tired mother, whose child keeps bothering her: “Ah Lela you are a nice girl, but you are white. You don’t understandYou can not understand. Even if you come from a poor country, you are white! When you walk on the street you do not stand out“. I laughed and agreed. Despite the fact that back then, I felt very much a minority and an outsider in all social groups (as an immigrant), Omotola’s words touched something in me and stuck with me for many years.   

After graduation, I lost touch with Ken even though he always had a warm place in my memory. I thought of him when meeting and interacting with liberal white folks who believed that having a black friend meant that they were not racist, who sincerely believed that they were doing us a favor by extending offers of friendly contact for which they felt they should be rewarded. I thought of him during years of watching white folks play at unlearning racism but walking away when they encountered obstacles, rejection, conflict, pain.

bell hooks Teaching to Transgress

Was I feeling what bell hooks was describing in the above quote, the urge to run away from the first sight of discomfort?…

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Whether on this side or on other, whether within burdened by guild majority or excluded by very efforts to include – minority the embodied feeling of racism (be it across race, ethnicity, sexuality, religious, or non-religious, epistemological and so forth differences) is what needs to be attended. The hardest is not the adjustment of laws and policies but staying with the feeling inside one’s body, witnessing racism in one’s being

Sarva Mangalam! 

 

Reflecting on the 5 Rhythms

“a radical form of surrender, a ritual of shattering”

Gabrielle Roth (Maps of Ecstasy)

The driving impulse behind this reflection is my ongoing exploration of the 5 Rhythms (a movement practice developed by Gabrielle Roth and today danced by thousands of individuals all over the globe).

As Gabrielle writes in the introduction of her first book, she always felt like an “obsessed cartographer surveying the geography of inner space” (p. xviii). Through her own work exploring the “uncharted interior” to observing the movements of her students, she came to see patterns that guided any dance. She came to believe that those guideposts (5 rhythms) were not individual but universal. They were an underlying structure of all experience and a “living language”. She called them maps.

Throughout my past years, I have experienced various dance forms and movement languages, starting with classical ballet to learning highly stylized and artful Georgian national dance, exploring folk dances, modern dance, Gaga People, Acogny technique, and Devotional (Sufi) whirling. I have also danced the ecstatic dance, which I could never truly connect to for the reasons I may explore on another occasion, and last but not least, years of raving with mind-revealing substances at psychedelic trance music gatherings with a large community of dancers.

My first experience with the 5 Rhythms was in 2019, in a dancing space on top of a pool club on Admiraal de Ruijterweg in Amsterdam. The lights were dimmed, walls dark, despite the efforts to clean the area, the walls still carried the smell of smoke and alcohol, but the floor was of rubber, perfect for barefoot dancing. Around the dancehall, a long rope of tiny Christmas lights was stretched, demarcating a space for dancing. Mirjam van Hasselt, my first teacher of 5 Rhythms, guided the session very subtly, with little verbal guidance but much grounded and supportive presence. 

As the music carried us, I found it extremely easy to dance; there was no pressure to stay in line, remember the steps, to count. I thought to myself: “yes, finally, I can dance the way I want, and this is the dance I have always been looking for”. From this vantage point (after having danced 5 Rhythms for three years), I realize how my first impression was – naive. Back then, during my first dance through 5 rhythms, I did not yet know the actual practice.

As I kept returning to the 5 Rhythms dance gatherings, exploring rhythms with different teachers in a format of classes, long dance quests, and weekend workshops – I was forced to admit that every time, the dance sessions unleashed something new, be it physical, psychosomatic, or emotional release.

After the dance, I always arrived at a (the same familiar) place of calm, expanded presence, feeling fully alive, entirely capable of experiencing and relieved. The state of satisfaction and inherent content with what is. However, the process which would lead me to this state of calm – turned out to vary greatly; stuckness, heaviness, pain in the lower back, inability to fall into dance, being seized by judgment, caught up in thoughts, struggling to release emotions, continuous laughter on the face, the raising joy of being alive, the relentless urge to explode, coming up memories, the pain of loss pressing in my throat as a cotton ball, tears rolling down on my ecstatic face. Regardless of the process I went through, and how the dance unfolded, I always arrived at that familiar state of being. The state of the expanse, openness, and presence. 

5 Rhythms fascinate me; I feel that there is something in the maps Gabrielle Roth developed which can truly help one to explore own inner landscape. As she wrote herself, it is “a body of work designed to show people how to turn their life experience into art. Survival art.” (p.2).

As I understand Gabrielle’s writing, the aim of the 5 Rhythms was to bring an individual into wholeness, what she calls an “egoless, timeless state of being” where there is total unity and alignment. 

As I keep dancing the 5 Rhythms, read Gabrielle’s books, and learn from the senior teachers of the method, I feel a connection is being forged, building a bridge between my limited understanding and practice of Dharma and the 5 Rhythms movement meditation. It comes to my mind that infusing the 5 Rhythms with four noble truths can be expanded from “the Survival Art” into the Art of Happiness and Liberation. 

My deep aspiration, supported by the experience of witnessing students whom I guided through dance, is to build the liminal space between dance and Dharma. Explore the (conceptual and practical) relationship between the ground of being and stillness as the last rhythm in the five rhythms maps, and endow this skillful means (dance) with the (non-dual) wisdom from the Buddhist middle path.

After the dance, I always arrived at a the same familiar place of calm, expanded presence; feeling fully alive, capable of experiencing and relieved, the state of satisfaction and inherent content with what is.

Contemplative movement practice for students

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.

More information: To learn more about Student Meditation and become a member, check their website https://studentmeditation.nl

Experiential Dance for students at the University of Amsterdam

Sharing my story

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/

A dance of remembrance

The sacred art of whirling dervishes

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.

Banafsheh giving workshop

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.

Banasheh perfoming

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

1 Rumi taught female members of his family how to whirl (Reinhartz, as quoted in Xavier, 2020, p. 169)

Work cited:

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

Steve Paxton’s inquiry into the dark side of the body

It is all to bring movement to consciousness.

Steve Paxton
Cover of the DVD and Web-APP

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”

Steve Paxton
A dance performed and narrated by Steve Paxton: “Small Dance”

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.

Inspiration from Gaga Dancers

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 (class in space)

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.

Gaga People during Pandemic (dance online)

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.

To see online classes visit Gaga People website.

Tribute to the living legend

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.

Embodied learning

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)[1]. 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[2]. 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. 

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

Works cited:

Lelwica, M. M. (2009). Embodying learning: Post‐Cartesian pedagogy and the academic study of religion. Teaching Theology & Religion12(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 Education40(4), 331-344.

Written by: Lela Mosemghvdlishvili