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  • Stefanie Cohen

Allowing Our Most Tender Parts to Lead

Threaded throughout my life as an artist, I have spent much of the past three decades as a dance/movement improviser.  Both in rehearsals and in performance, itself.  As someone who, within varying degrees of compositional structure, has allowed my body its real-time responses to the environment or site in which I perform or practice — to the in-the-moment offerings of those with whom I collaborate — I’ve found that the most important part of the creation is in the act of presenc-ing, itself.  

What we hone most often as performance improvisers is not (or not only) particular techniques or functions of our bodies.  Not the height of our leaps in the air nor the virtuosity of any other given mastered movements.  What we are called to warm up, to rehearse, rather, is our attention. We must train our capacity to listen and respond.   We refine our readiness — to serve and attend to images, gestures, space, sounds… as they arise, rather than to impose an agenda or hijack an improvisation with our will.  We must, to a degree, surrender to what unfolds, rather than to dictate or control.  

We must linger, for a time, in not-knowing.

Due to the fact that I have rarely needed or chosen to perform tight, specific choreography — to make my body conform to certain parameters — I have been all the more free to show up to the dancing with the body I’m in on that particular day. Indeed, that has been the imperative.  It's part of what honest improvisation entails. At times, therefore, when the capacities of my body have shifted dramatically due to its changes during pregnancies, to injuries, and/or to gradual shifts of aging, though I may experience frustration or even grief in things not working as I remember or wish,  I have also been able to bring curiosity to the ways that these perceived limitations inform the choices I must make to keep my body safe and well.  To the adjustments that mean that my body will be forced to move in different, less habitual, ways.  To find pathways or gestures of movement I might never have discovered or imagined without needing to slow down to follow them.

In this slowing down to listen, I can witness the choices before me. For instance: 

To not use those parts — refusing them participation in order to protect them.  Sometimes, therefore, this overtaxes other parts of me.

To override, hide, or bury the discomfort, awkwardness, or distress — pretending they don’t exist.

Or, (and this can take a special kind of listening), to allow those aspects of me to actually serve as the leaders.  To quiet myself enough and to offer enough patient attention, that these parts have the time and space in which to express themselves.

Recently, I’ve once again had the opportunity to engage in explorations such as these.  First, by virtue of having sprained my wrist — thanks to a small mishap with my not so small Shepard/Doberman, Vesper.  And secondly, and perhaps much more starkly, during this period in the Jewish calendar known as the Days of Awe.  In the ten day stretch between the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), and Yom Kippur, (the Day of Atonement).  During this suspended, holy time in which — to paraphrase the late Rabbi Alan Lew from his book This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared), the veil has thinned, the curtains of heaven are pulled back and we get to glimpse the celestial mechanics that govern the earth, we consider the ways in which over the course of the past year we may have “missed the mark” or fallen short in terms of our behavior.  The times in which we’ve acted out of alignment with our values.  

The ways in which we may, wittingly or unknowingly, have caused others harm.

And the idea as I understand it here, rather than burying our regrets with dirt-filled shovels full of shame — rather than denying, justifying or hiding them from view — we give voice to them.  We allow our remorse to move through us.  We allow it to move us.  To lead us.  In so doing, and in the witness of our higher power and one another, we may transform.

So, as I continue to slow down and sit this week with some of my many short-comings — when my well-meaning, (but wholly irritating), correcting of my partner’s versions of stories undermines him in front of our friends; when an inability, sometimes, to tolerate my kids’ perceived suffering has me try to fix rather than simply listen; when I don’t keep promises I’ve made to myself…and so on — I will try to listen quietly and deeply.  

I will entrust my tenderness to lead me towards new gestures and pathways.  Towards the re-alignment with my spirit, I hope, that ultimately brings me home.

This post was originally included in A Bright DrewTopian Future blog, 9/22/23

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