Movement Is for Every Body
"'Movement' makes the class seem intimidating." Harry was a sixty-something computer programmer and an initially-unwitting participant in my most recent Movement for Beginners workshop. His wife, Laura, took my Improv 101 taught at the same theatre. She reserved a space for herself and Harry and only told him it was an improv workshop. To my surprise and Harry’s (extra) credit, he dove into the exercises head-first, unironically and whole-heartedly. He remarked the workshop was surprisingly accessible, counter to his fears that he would have trouble keeping up. We were chatting after the session about this idea that “movement” is only for specific types of people. If you are not of a certain age, level of fitness, skill, skin color, or body type, it is implied that movement spaces are not for you.
Looking through the development of movement practices in the 20th century, it is easy to see that they are overwhelmingly Eurocentric in origin. White European men (Jacques Lecoq, Rudolf Laban, Jerzy Grotowski, etc.) brought male Eurocentric standards to these spaces, and movement spaces are still overwhelmingly white, able-bodied, and moneyed. The conversation with Harry was enlightening, and it confirmed some thoughts and revelations that have been bubbling up for me in the past year or so. As we were walking out of the theatre, I remembered I’d left my cane inside. I am still getting used to this new accessory, its necessity arriving with the chill in the air. I excused myself to retrieve it, my brain abuzz.
Back outside the theatre, we finished our conversation, and I said my good-byes to Harry and Laura. As I ambled to the train, I turned over our exchange in my mind. I know that movement practice doesn’t have to be a scary or exclusionary thing. Movement, in some form or another, is essential to us. We use movement to tell stories, to execute tasks, to show affection and despair. We inherently understand gestures as language. We read each other’s bodies on a daily basis, picking up the subtleties and idiosyncrasies. Why, then, should it be that movement practice is only for a few?
Before disentangling that question, it's important to talk about movement practice as I understand and teach it. I recognize the term connotes a certain precision or ability, and in some cases—as in my Lecoq-based graduate training—that can be jarringly true. Lecoq’s “20 Movements” come to mind, each to be executed with faithful adherence to sequence and detail. I learned them all, every painstaking flick of the wrist, turn of the head, and swivel of the torso. While this granular study in movement has undeniably made me a stronger performer and educator, it is so antithetical to my goals as a facilitator in movement spaces. Movement practice, for my purposes, is a vehicle for ensemble play and discovery. Exercises like "Flocking," "Open Canvas," and "Sitting, Standing, Lying Down" require no real prerequisite skill. What they do require is an attuned awareness of self and space, an outward focus. It is in that space of physical play, stripped of verbal language and inner monologue, that we connect.
We inherently understand gestures as language. We read each other’s bodies on a daily basis, picking up the subtleties and idiosyncrasies. Why, then, should it be that movement practice is only for a few?
My favorite part of this work is how students are constantly surprised by the sheer profundity wrought from the simplest gestures. In that same Movement for Beginners workshop, one student arrived halfway through, having gotten the time wrong. I invited him to jump in as the other students continued their “Open Canvas” exploration, which is a loosely structured physical improv, but he sat back and observed. After the exercise concluded, we debriefed. The newcomer marveled at the fact that what he witnessed was unrehearsed, an ephemeral piece of physical exploration between complete strangers. He was sure we had been working on this in his absence and didn’t want to ruin it.
This idea of ephemerality, of uniqueness and kismet, can’t be overstated. Physical improvisation takes joy in the experience, in the doing. The feeling of creating something that no other group of humans could possibly create because they are not you is your reward for jumping into the abyss, counting on your ensemble to catch you. I take from the improv world when I say “each offer is a gift.” A gift to give, a gift to receive. In that context, it seems silly that anyone could be excluded.
Before my injury, these ideas were vague, unformed things because they didn’t have to be any clearer for me. For context, I am a college educated white woman who grew up with little adversity during my suburban childhood. It wasn’t until the fall of 2015, when I began my first theatre teaching position at a low-income high school outside Houston, Texas, that I really dove into physical theatre practices. Stanislavsky was not going to free these students from the emotional quagmire of being a poor kid of color in the South. I became deeply interested in physical storytelling as an alternative to having children access unresolved trauma as fodder. As I learned, I taught. As I taught, I learned. I loved teaching, and I was devoted to my students. But I was teaching from theory instead of practice. All the more reason, then, to return to school myself. In the fall of 2018, I began an intense, Lecoq-based training program at the Pig Iron School in Philadelphia. Before COVID forced the last semester and a half of my MFA education into the virtual realm, the majority of our time was spent running around barefoot on unsprung hardwood floors. The repeated shock constantly pounding my bare feet on those hard floors destroyed my body. I threw out my back every few months, so much so that it became routine. By my second year at Pig Iron, I had two herniated discs in my lower back. I saw a specialist who explained to me that, no, thirty-one is not too young to have these back problems, and there was nothing he would do about it. So I dealt with pain when it came up and tried to prevent flare-ups in the meantime, all the while continuing to ruin my body and paying for the privilege.
I freelanced as a teaching artist after graduation. After a solo road trip to Texas, my back was in pretty bad shape. Shortly after returning to Philly, on 22 October, it happened. I was puttering around the house. And just like that. A pop. Searing pain in my low back, a jolt down my leg. My right leg seized, electrified. I collapsed to the floor. Any movement was torture. In short, I was absolutely screwed. Five weeks later, I went under the knife.
Day-to-day life dissolved into a precarious dance. As I healed, I continued moving, measuring my progress by degrees. I had lost a decent amount of muscle since my injury, and my energy levels flagged constantly, but I could lay down on the floor and stretch. I explored the edges of my new range of motion, careful not to anger the mending muscles or the bruised nerve root. I cultivated a curiosity about my own body in a way that I hadn’t before. The hard edges of my resentment at my body’s failure began to soften. Movement became an anchor, a release. I didn’t move the same way I did before, but that was slowly becoming okay. As the weeks turned to months and my right leg decidedly did not return to “normal” (the nerve damage is likely permanent), I continued to move and teach, carrying new lessons into those spaces and a new lens through which to focus.
I use movement to heal myself. Not physically, though my physical body craves it, but as a way to practice patience with my new, differently abled body. To breed curiosity instead of bitterness. I use my personal practice to inform my teaching, honoring the changes in both. I don’t profess to have answers to the right way to practice movement, but to posit different ways, to redefine success in discovery rather than skill.
Through this lens, I’ve become a firm believer that movement practice belongs to everybody. So how do we set up these spaces to ensure inclusivity? Recalibrating goals as a facilitator takes time but is worth the investment. If you are reading this as an instructor, take a little time to examine your measures of success. What are you trying to get out of your students? This question should have a clear answer. I have a very simple phrase, likely a cliche, that I use as my barometer for success: “Get out of your head and into your body.” That’s it. If I can get someone who isn’t a professed “mover” (or even one who is) to surprise themselves with a genuine connection to themselves and/or another human through movement, I’ve achieved what I set out to do. But I work to cultivate that from the outset, to name it. As a believer in spreading the Gospel of Movement, I need to be able to reach far and wide. That comes down to accessibility.
There are many practical benefits to movement practice, from the obvious health benefits to the more subtle but often more profound benefits—the ones that result in a new perspective, an experience to carry into other corners of your life.
Movement spaces should join theatre’s recent dedication to bodily autonomy. Check-ins at the top of every class or workshop can’t be rushed or overlooked, especially if you don’t have a prior relationship with your students. Even if you do, keeping in touch with what your students are bringing into your session can only benefit you. One concept I always use is “Improv Fences,” which I learned while teaching at the Philly Improv Theater, but which is adapted from the intimacy choreography world. Improv Fences are your physical no-touch zones. The use of the word fence is handy because fences have gates, and gates can be opened or closed. Essentially, bodily autonomy does not end with the declaration of physical boundaries. Standard Improv Fences include the areas from shoulder to hip, front and back (your “bathing suit area”). Facilitators can invoke this fence as a blanket rule for the group, and fences can change throughout the session. I encourage students to make use of this concept, noting that an Improv Fence’s validity doesn’t have to be justified. No one has to explain their reasons for having a “hair fence” or a fence around their right arm. Establishing opportunities for students to own their bodies and abilities at the outset can empower them to dive into the work with more gusto.
I also begin all of my movement workshops with exercises that open up outward focus, especially with newcomers. I use this as another shorthand for “Get out of your head and into your body.” The goal is to get students to act on impulse, putting the thinking brain aside. I can teach anyone how to perform Lecoq’s “Stick” Movement, but without outward focus any movement gesture rings hollow and forced. Outward focus extends not only to the environment, but the ensemble. I like exercises such as “Balance the Space” and warming up a few of the Viewpoints to get students out of their thinking brain and make them curious about their environment and the other bodies in the room. Once students allow their impulses to drive them, the moments of magic start to occur. The curiosities leading to singular encounters, simple and moving. Sometimes silly, sometimes profound. Sometimes both. Outward focus melts away the mental blocks of precision and ability and replaces them with curiosity. In this mode of play, the students develop a physical language together that meets them where they are instead of asking them to clear a specific bar of physical ability. The profundity in physical language lies in the connections the gesture inspires in others. Without outward focus—this whole body listening—the meaning and the ability to receive it is lost. It has been my experience that physical exploration is not thwarted by perceived physical limitations, but the mental limitations students impose on themselves. If outward focus is all that's needed to set up a physical exploration, the physical ability of the players becomes part of the landscape of play, creating unique opportunities for discovery with every encounter and a singular language your ensemble builds together.
Touch, too, is optional and can be dictated by the facilitator. Many of the exercises I use don’t require any touch at all. Consider creating a “touchless space” and seeing how that changes and opens up possibilities. I love to incorporate music into my workshops, as it can provide an anchor for students in exercises, giving them something to play with or against if they can’t grab on to anything else. One exercise that works well with music in a touchless space is “Sitting, Standing, Lying Down.” During the exercise, these are the three actions you are allowed to perform (in addition to walking, but it doesn’t fit in the title). I often provide a few chairs in the space, for those who find sitting on the ground or getting back up cumbersome. The focus in this exercise is kinesthetic response (a connection to Viewpoints!), allowing any impulse to drive a change in position. Giving simple, clear actions doesn’t restrain students, but gives them a framework in which to play. The discovery in this exercise comes from spatial relationships and levels, not the need to physically touch one another. Facilitating this exercise with a beginner group in the fall, a woman wept in the debrief, caught off-guard at how held she felt by the ensemble, a group of strangers until an hour prior. Keeping things simple and adjusting for comfort and inclusivity has allowed for more breadth of experience simply because more folks can do it.
If you are reading this as someone uninitiated in the movement world, I’m here to tell you that you are welcome. There are many practical benefits to movement practice, from the obvious health benefits to the more subtle but often more profound benefits—the ones that result in a new perspective, an experience to carry into other corners of your life. The hardest part of beginning this work is invariably not the physical, but the mental. The voice that tells you this is not for you. Take refuge knowing that voice isn’t you, but a litany of untruths that have been fed to you by innumerable sources. Movement can be practiced by anyone with a body, the joy always found in the doing.
Our responsibility then, as teachers and theatremakers, is to ensure that our pedagogy and conventions reflect that. Let this piece serve as a catalyst for conversations about creating truly inclusive movement spaces. We need more voices challenging the assumptions of the movement world, offering fresh ways to approach the practice. Because movement is for Every Body.
The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here